The Timothy Davis abuse case – some reflections

It is exactly one week ago since we heard from a Church Tribunal that the Reverend Timothy Davis had acted in a spiritually abusive way against a 16-year-old boy. This case was remarkable in that for the first time a clergyman of the Church of England, perhaps of any church, was being disciplined for such an offence. It is likely that the penalty imposed by the Tribunal will include his departue from his post. It is hard to see how it would be possible for him to return to his vicarage after so much detail of his behaviour has been released into the public domain.

In some of the comments on other blogs there was speculation as to whether there might been a sexual element in Mr Davis’s behaviour. The tribunal decided that this was not the case. Indeed, the survivor in this instance never brought this up as an issue. Touch in the form of embraces may have been given to the 16-year-old and this was arguably inappropriate behaviour. The story as it is told still makes perfect sense without a sexual motive being inserted into the narrative. The church is consequently being compelled to recognise that there are cases of power being abused without any sexual dimension. From the detailed evidence we have been given in the 19-page report, we can see that Mr Davis is a rather sad man who craved attention and needed the affection of others. He went about this in ways that were felt to be claustrophobic and overpowering in those whose love he craved.

This blog has spent a lot of time in the past identifying the motives for abusing power in the church. Clearly sexual gratification is one possible motive. But it is by no means the only one and here the Tribunal ruled it out. As a shorthand I have always claimed that power is abused in one of three ways. A second motive is for reasons of financial advantage. This is clearly not applicable in this case. What we are left with is the third – the enjoyment of or need to exercise power over another person. Some people seek to control or bully others and this springs out of a simple desire for gratification. We say that this is the way they ‘get their kicks’. Sometimes abusive actions happen to compensate for an unmet psychological need in the one who enjoys exercising power. As an example of this, we might imagine a mother who gives birth to a child so that she feels needed and will receive love from the dependent infant. The child is thus being used by the mother as an object for her own personal gratification. The ‘using’ the child in this way is not conscious abuse, but the consequences for the child may be similar. A further example of ‘need’ is the one set out in the descriptions of the narcissistic personality disorder. An adult may have grown up without healthy family relationships. The grown-up adult still retains a state of hunger for the kind of approval that a parent should have given them when he/she was an infant. The narcissistic personality can be like a toddler in a tantrum, searching desperately for attention and soothing. Some clergy seem to take this need for attention and soothing into their pastoral behaviour. Parishioners are there to gratify these infantile narcissistic needs. There need be nothing sexual in this desire for gratification. Nevertheless, it can still be experienced as overwhelming by the one who receives this kind of attention.

As a contribution to a discussion about Timothy Davis on the blog Thinking Anglicans, I suggested that his story hinted at a style of pastoral care known as Shepherding. This was a movement in the 70s and 80s in charismatic circles. It put a strong emphasis on every Christian having a ‘shepherd’ who was to be a kind of spiritual mentor. Such a figure would organise the disciple’s life. In some cases, this organising and control became totally excessive. Shepherds, often immature Christians, began to enjoy the gratification of power over others. The founders of this movement, known as the Fort Lauderdale Five, soon found it necessary to backpedal on this teaching because of its frequent misuse. It nevertheless has remained popular in some charismatic circles up till today. Although it is not often found in Anglican settings, Shepherding teaching was apparently passed on in the network known as New Wine. This was founded by Bishop David Pytches. He had encountered Shepherding ideas in South America where he was a missionary bishop. It is impossible to know exactly how much Shepherding ideas formed part of the thinking of Timothy Davis. It is however a possible hypothesis which might help to explain his extraordinary behaviour.

Now that the Church through this recent Tribunal has identified spiritual abuse as an issue, it will be forced to spend time on defining what it means. It will also be important to think deeply about the psychological motivations in those who spiritually abuse. Further it will be important to tease out the theological ideas which encourage this kind of abuse in some traditions. As I have said often on this blog, an infallible Bible can be used as an abusive and coercive weapon. I could fill out from my reading and study much more material on this subject. I am always happy to share the results of my study in this area. One thing remains clear to me. Spiritual abuse exists and must be tackled and understood quite distinctly from sexual abuse in the Church. Sometimes they are found together but more often they are found to be quite different. All too often spiritual abuse happens because of unmet needs in the abuser which can go back to the time of infancy. The Church has to do so much more work on studying and understanding this. But a start has been made in this single case by the recognition that spiritual abuse does exist. The next thing that is needed is to see why such a destructive phenomenon is to be found sometimes within our churches.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Timothy Davis abuse case – some reflections

  1. Very well put, Stephen. It’s heartening to see spiritual abuse at long last being recognised by the Church as an evil in its own right. It doesn’t help when some people insist on conflating it with sexual abuse, and will almost certainly damage the victims.

  2. The power that this kind of abuser wields is actually more damaging than physical. For me it has lasts longer than physical abuse (And I experienced both).

    Anyone who attended a certain bible school in Birmingham during the 1970’s knows what I’m talking about, (Although only spiritual abuse can be claimed there), also the many personality disorders that accompany Pentecostal / Charismatic involvement have the same result, broken people for abusers to play power games with.

    The lower working class will always fall pray to this kind of person.

    I feel compelled to mention the many people I know, (Knew) who were promised healing that never took place, and took the failure upon themselves in death and personal blame.

    At the bible school mentioned above people from working backgrounds were compelled to do DIY jobs, one fell off the roof of a large complex owned by the school and broke his back. Of course the usual praise and healing meetings took place to no avail. No investigation has ever taken place!
    Anywhere that has any connection to the Shepherding movement, and the desolation it left behind needs to be held to account.

    There is no tongue that can tell of what these kind of memories do to you.

    “Safeguarding” What does it really mean? I still say that silence speaks louder than bombs.
    I encourage you all to listen to Phil Ochs singing, “The Cannons of Christianity”
    (You tube)

  3. Chris, I am really sad to hear of the appalling spiritual and physical abuse you have suffered. I hope you have found, or are finding, some measure of peace and maybe even of healing.

    I am currently researching for a piece on charismatic healing ministries and the sexual abuse survivor. Would you be willing for me to quote some of what you have said above? If you have more you would like to say do contact me on jhfife@icloud.com

    Thanks, and God bless

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