CCPAS and Spiritual Abuse – a contribution to the debate

Over the weekend spiritual abuse has come into the news. A survey organised on behalf of the Church’s Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) by Bournemouth University has discovered that 72% of the Christians surveyed claim to have experienced it. Although the study uses this expression ‘spiritual abuse’, it does not provide a definition of what this is. It speaks about a ‘systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context’. Further on it mentions ‘manipulation and pressuring of individuals, coercion through the misuse of religious texts and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour’. All these ideas have challenged me to come up with my own definition of what I think spiritual abuse consists of. As someone who has been thinking about this subject for the past 20 years I thought it would be useful to offer my attempt at defining or at least describing it. These comments that follow are just as applicable to someone with a Christian background as they are in another religious context.

Spiritual abuse is an abuse of power within a religious context. It may involve one or more of the following.

The use of Scriptures or doctrinal statements to undermine or frighten an individual/group to create in them passivity or compliance.

The exercise of institutional or charismatic power to cause a person/group to submit to the will of a perpetrator for selfish ends.

The manipulation of another person by alternately withholding and dispensing favours within an institution.

Spiritual abuse takes place most typically where there is a leader who for complex reasons seeks the gratification of having subservient followers. Such followers also may have their own reasons for seeking the ‘safety’ of apparently strong decisive leadership.

My effort to set out the nature of spiritual abuse is one that would certainly cover not only churches but also most of the groups that we call cults. Each of the sentences above could be filled out extensively and, as readers of my blog will know, there is a great deal more to be said about the psychology of abusive leaders. Power and psychological neediness are dangerous partners and we see this at work in current American politics. The major question that my short definitions has not tackled is the question as to why spiritual abuse happens in the first place. What is in it for leaders or any members of a religious organisation to exercise abusive power over another? Power exercised over another person is apparently gratifying for the one who has it. This gratification is sometimes an urgent need for an individual whose life story has denied them significance or self-esteem. The power abusers among us who are the most dangerous are the ones who have been treated badly themselves.

My hope is that this conversation which CCPAS has begun will help to move the debate away from the narrow area of sexual abuse which is so much under public scrutiny at present. We need to understand this wider power abuse that exists in the church. As I have said many times before we need to have better insight as to how power operates in the church. It is important to create a church environment where it is possible for authority to be exercised without any trace of gratification or inappropriate abuse. There is simply too much of what we call bullying. This is another word for power abuse. The church has simply no mechanisms for adjudicating and checking when an individual misuses institutional power. Power abuse does not just happen between leaders and followers, but it also happens when any individual uses techniques which seek to manipulate or intimidate another person. This of course can happen in Anglican parishes where powerful laypeople gang up against their vicar. Mediators and people experience in power issues should be available both formally and informally, to come into situations before they escalate into terrible destructive confrontations.

My readers will have noticed that I began in a place which is somewhat unexpected. I began with the use of Scripture and the way that the text is used in many contexts as a weapon of power. I am thinking of course of coercive preaching and the use of terror techniques in sermons. Hell has become, not a point of doctrine, but an idea with which to pummel and control people you dislike or want power over. Many sermons constitute on their own examples of spiritual abuse. Sometimes a congregation is regaled with hearing about the fate of other people outside the building who differ in some way. Such people are thought to be destined for hell. This is spiritually abusive even if the targets of the abuse of not there to hear it. Those who do hear it are being seduced into a way of thinking which is hateful, spiteful and vindictive. To become hateful in this way and thus perpetrators of actions like shunning and exclusion is also to be the victim of a heinous indirect act of spiritual abuse.

In my past discussions of power, I have noted a variety of power techniques that can control others. I cannot now rehearse all these but quickly here I mention how much the Church of England uses social power to maintain order and control. The church is, perhaps unwittingly, encouraging status and ambition-seeking among its clergy. This is a way to reward and punish individuals according to whether they find favour with bishops and others high up in the organisation. This, arguably, is also a form of spiritual abuse. It can only be properly understood when, as I’ve said many times before, the dynamics of power are properly understood within the institution. That may be long way ahead.

This is a rapidly written piece but I want all my readers to read the story at CPPAS and consider what they think to be a good definition of spiritual abuse. Perhaps we can further this debate within this blog and help the wider church to see how important it is to have a proper understanding of the meaning of this term.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

11 thoughts on “CCPAS and Spiritual Abuse – a contribution to the debate

  1. Thank you haiku. I did spot it a moment after posting. The situation that is reported is fairly extreme but it may help the church to start debating the idea of spiritual abuse and how it may be defined and avoided. This is the point of this post and indeed the whole blog. It is an extraordinary story and I would love to know more background.

  2. Thank you for highlighting this issue. I am a social psychologist in Oxford and did a study with Michael Argyle, (probably the most famous social psychologist in Europe, who sadly died in 2002) in the late 1980’s early 1990’s on exactly this issue. Our pilot study had a phenomenal response rate in the 90%. We used the term ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘harmful religion’ and asked people for how they understood the terms and whether they had any personal experience or people they knew had experience. It was very clear that both terms were understood by our respondents from the ‘definitions’ they gave and from the stories they provided. I am very glad that the issues are now being addressed more seriously than they were when we highlighted them.

  3. So, are we saying that ‘spiritual abuse’ is a generic category which includes bullying, intimidation, coercion, control, manipulation, deceit, and fraud, if they take place in a religious context or using religious practices or language? That sounds reasonable. Can we differentiate spiritual abuse from emotional or psychological abuse? Do we need to, if the emotional or psychological abuse occur in a religious or spiritual context?

    The case of the Rev. Tim Davis is extreme, as Stephen says. It’s good that Oxford Diocese have taken the action they have – and that the panel was a mixture of gender, clergy. and laity. However, Mr. Davis had been at that church for some years. He had had mental health problems; the lad’s mother worked for the church and was so much in awe of him she couldn’t question his behaviour; and the curate was too frightened to blow the whistle until Mr. Davis was on sabbatical. Why hadn’t any of this been picked up by diocesan authorities sooner?

    The whole question of spiritual abuse, especially in the Davis case, makes me wonder if prospective clergy ought to be psychologically screened as part of their training. I’ve know clergy who shouldn’t have got through a selection conference, let alone training and ordination. How do these people also get through a curacy and become incumbents?


    David Pennant who regularly contributes to this blog, is seriously ill, he has acute Pancreatitis. I have assured his wife of our prayers.

    Thank you
    Chris Pitts

  5. Society and the media mostly devoid of any spiritual approach to life and the disbelief in anything except the physical ‘reality’ – this could be seen as perpetual spiritual abuse perhaps and could put what is happening through religion in perspective.

  6. I think I defined spiritual abuse as “normal” bullying but in the context of a church, it affects your spirituality. Which it would. I’m grateful for a fuller description/definition to think about. Janet, believe me, I’ve asked many times how so and so ever got through a selection conference! And I have had much cause to ponder on Article 26. Part of the answer is, in a sense, corruption. Once the Church has committed itself to someone, it won’t let them go. Now that’s sweet, but I’m sure everyone can see the potential problems. People are often selected by a Bishop, or someone else with influence, on the basis of what (s)he believes to be a bolt from the blue, and therefore not really subject to question or analysis. The person concerned then gives overly positive references, and in some cases, what happens is effectively grooming. I have seen this. I’m not guessing. So all too often people are put forward on the basis of having caught someone’s eye, and that’s it!

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