All posts by Stephen Parsons

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.

Towards healing for Church Abuse Survivors

For a half hour last Saturday, I mingled with the group of spiritually and sexually abused survivors who were demonstrating their concerns to the Church of England General Synod. My presence there was not as a survivor but to express solidarity with them and their cause. I realise now that I was also saying something else. In an indirect way I was there to help represent the many other courageous survivors who were not present. In particular, I was there for the individuals whose abuse and pain have been shared with me personally over the past 25 years. The group at Westminster were all men but the people I have known have been mostly female. Something was missing in that demonstration, the survivor women.

I can of course think of many reasons why an abused individual would not want to appear in a demonstration at Church House. Part of the legacy of being abused in the context of a church is the way that you have in many cases taken on a mantle of shame. Abusers are very good at making their victims feel guilty. When the abuser is a church leader it is not difficult to use the power given to you to put the victim in the wrong. Even when the victim makes good progress in recovery to become a survivor, the shame placed there at the time of abuse lingers on. Women are especially prone to adopting this legacy of shame when they have suffered at the hands of a male leadership. Notions of male authority over women are easily found in Scripture. The man’s scriptural role is to dominate and control the woman in a variety of ways. This sense of victimhood is hard to shed.

A further question that I have been asking since the demonstration is to wonder where the small army of counsellors and psychotherapists needed to help survivors is going to come from. In Synod we were given the figure of 3000 people who have cases against the Church and have yet to be heard. If even half these complaints were to result in a payment of money to receive psychotherapy, are there in fact sufficient skilled people able to pick up this enormous task? One of the things that I have learned in my association with the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is that the care of spiritually damaged people is of a different order to those who have suffered trauma in other contexts. When people are betrayed and abused within the setting of their faith communities, something deeply precious has been damaged. The literature around helping people who have been members of cults is probably relevant here as it embraces spiritual issues. The problem is that very few psychotherapists specialise in this area so that they can help rebuild the spiritual as well as the emotional core. The little that I have heard about psychotherapy for spiritually abused people suggests that they receive help only up to a point. The conventionally trained counsellor or psychotherapist is much to be preferred to so-called unaccredited ‘Christian Counselling’ but they may not be equipped to help to rebuild the core self of the person who has been abused by a maverick Christian leader.

The problem that we have in Britain with spiritually abused survivors of churches is of course dwarfed by the situation in the United States. But, as we might expect, the counselling industry there has developed much further in the way that it cares for survivors of cults and extremist groups. Many of these individuals have been sexually and emotionally abused. Some American congregations make it their business to reach out to abused survivors to help them recover in an atmosphere of loving acceptance. There are also centres, a bit like rehab retreats, where an abused person can go to stay and receive support, therapy and acts of kindness. If the church is to do more than pay compensation to spiritually abused people, then it needs such centres and trained individuals who understand the spiritual dimension of church abuse.

I was recently in touch with someone who feels that he and his wife have a calling to set up a centre for people who have been through spiritual abuse. They know that they will have an enormously uphill task in getting the funding to equip and staff such as centre. The support of such an initiative by central Church authorities might be a helpful first step to show that the church is really serious in wanting to undo some the damage of tolerating abusive cultures in the past.

My second suggestion is that the Church sponsors in a conference for professionally trained people who are interested in supporting this group of survivors as part of their work. This would bring them into touch with the small number of psychotherapists in the UK who have made the treatment of spiritual abused their speciality. There could be a sharing of resources and information given out about the work being done elsewhere in the world in this area. I personally know several of these American specialists even though I have no expertise in their area of work.

I have one further idea to throw into the pond which may help a process of healing for some survivors. Although I have played a small part in supporting survivors over the years, I have not had any professional skill to offer in this area beyond basic pastoral competence. In the past 12 months however, my wife and I have been training to be EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) practitioners. We hope to complete our training sometime in the spring. The technique aims to relieve an individual of the emotion and pain which are often contained in traumatic memories. To simplify, I can explain that there are two key components in this treatment. One is to tap on certain meridian points which are connected to the brain. The other part is to allow the client, during the tapping, to make affirmations about the past trauma. I was drawn to the training because it is used to help army veterans affected by Post Traumatic stress. The case studies that I am offering in order to qualify as a practitioner have all been focused on spiritual abuse cases and the results are heart-warming. The treatment can be offered through Skype and some have even used it successfully over the telephone. Please contact me if you would like to hear more.

The Church of England, if it is to come through the present crisis of abuse allegations needs to come up with some proactive ideas. It cannot buy its way out of the problem. It has to be committed to the idea that the Church can indeed be a place of safety and healing. It needs to sponsor institutions and individuals who will help to heal the enormous hurt that has been created over past decades. Defensiveness and protectiveness of the institution will fail as policy aims. What is needed is something visionary which will show that the Church means business in wanting to promote the health and wholeness of all.

General Synod 2018 on Safeguarding: Despair and Hope?

Readers of this blog will know that I was present at a demonstration outside Church House Westminster as General Synod met for the final day of its February session. This was to show support for survivors of sexual abuse who had suffered within the church. It was a good experience to greet in person individuals whom I had never met beyond the virtual world of the Internet. With the survivors were other supporters like myself. Some were lawyers who had represented the survivor victims in their struggles to achieve justice.

After the demonstration was over, most of the demonstrators opted to sit in the public gallery to watch the Synod presentation on the topic of Safeguarding. I have never been a member of General Synod and it was of interest to be part of it for the hour and a half of the presentation. The speakers were keen to show that the church was doing a great deal to improve procedures for protecting the vulnerable and investigating past episodes of sexual abuse by its own employees. We were told in one statistic that the amount being spent on Safeguarding had increased five times in a few years. This money was being spent on ensuring that every member of the clergy or officeholder in the church was to attend training. No doubt this is a worthy effort but there was still something that I felt to be missing in this careful presentation.

Every member of Synod had received a short booklet entitled We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones. The booklet’s message, collated by Andrew Graystone, reveals the challenges of being a survivor and dealing with the procedures set up by the church. The common demand by those wounded is that the church needs an outside independent body to deal with complaints and the needs of victims. The complaint that is almost universal is that dealing with insurers and church lawyers is a worse ordeal than the original event. On paper things are progressing in the right direction but there is still something in the system that perpetuates and exacerbates the suffering of survivors. I have been struggling for the past 24 hours to articulate what might be wrong. What is it about the well-intentioned system that fails to engage the confidence of survivors so that they do not feel that things are genuinely getting better?

One of the slogans that permeates the discussion on survivors is that we need a ‘change of culture’ in the church. Evidently from Graystone’s booklet the legal and compensatory atmosphere of the current arrangements is failing to reach the survivors’ deep need for compassion and understanding. I have been reflecting as to what may be missing in the current ‘culture’ and how Church and victim could really meet in a place of healing. I am asking myself whether the traditional culture of the Church of England is similar to that of an old-fashioned English public school. Such schools are often an embodiment of a strong male attitude to life. In such places things like perceived weakness or vulnerability are typically ignored or despised. Such an all-male environment also does not value empathy and compassion. Success, especially physical prowess on the sports field, is celebrated. In contrast pain and failure are quietly pushed under the carpet. Thinking back to my own schooldays in a minor public school, I became aware of how important it was ‘not to let the school or house down’. Stories about individual pain, abuse or bullying did not fit the narrative of achievement as defined by this system. The culture wishes to make these stories go away or disappear. Looking at the church today, whatever may happen in the future, there has traditionally been a strong tendency to bury or avoid bad news. One of the complainants I met had spoken to a number of different bishops about his abuse. He was told later that there were no written records of these conversations. They had simply been forgotten. This is the kind of thing that perhaps is typical of a male-dominated institution where values of success and achievement are placed right at the top. Failure is forgotten or denied.

This suggested understanding of the church having the values of an all-male public school where weakness or pain is despised, leads me to point to a sign of hope. The group of survivors who welcomed me as one of their supporters were given a room in Church House to meet members of Synod who wanted to speak with them. I tagged along and found myself encountering several senior clergy. There were two senior women bishops in the room and I was impressed with their attitudes towards survivors. I discovered that Sarah Mullally, who is about to become Bishop of London, had read my blog post which came out at the time of her appointment. She is genuinely concerned that the Church puts right unhelpful structures and procedures for dealing with abuse. She also wants to see survivors and victims treated with the compassion and understanding they deserve. As she is yet to be enthroned as Bishop of London, she attended Synod as a visitor. In a powerful symbol of solidarity with the cause of survivors she sat in the gallery next to Gilo, one of those present at the demonstration. This was a powerful message to send to the members of Synod down below in the chamber. This speaks well for the future. If I am correct in seeing the reactionary attitudes of the Church of England embodying the masculine values of a public school, then a powerful woman is needed to call out and challenge this culture. The other senior female bishop present in the room was Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester. She with Sarah can do a lot to change the culture of the Church of England for the better, especially in this area of Safeguarding.

To summarise, the problem that I was hearing from lawyers and survivors alike is that the church needs to transform its procedures. It needs to lose the defensiveness and culture of denial with which it has worked so long. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is going to reveal massive failings from the past which will do harm to the reputation of the Church. It will need the help of a new kind of input which will enable it to move away from repression and secrecy to express and articulate both genuine remorse as well as proper compassion for the victims. Male cultures of bluster and denial do not serve the Church well. We need the insights of survivors such as Gilo to communicate the enormous seriousness of the issue of sexual abuse. We also need the intuitive, caring and compassionate qualities of senior women in the Church to neutralise the somewhat harsh controlling methods preferred by the male sex. I saw some of this new feminine approach yesterday. It gives me hope that the church may yet survive what may be one of the most profoundly threatening events to its existence.

Evangelical Alliance on Spiritual Abuse -Unhelpful and Confusing

The Evangelical Alliance published yesterday (5th February) a report on recent discussions about ‘spiritual abuse’. This Alliance, representing a large number of conservative churches and groups, appears to be extremely sensitive to the possibility that some of its members may be guilty of spiritually harmful behaviour. The Church of England General Synod recently asked the government to outlaw treatments that claim to be able to change sexual orientation. These are practised by some clinics but also by some EA linked church organisations. Strong Christian belief systems can undoubtedly sometimes create harm and it is this that is legitimately referred to by many as spiritual abuse. The EA Report on the other hand wants to suggest that spiritual abuse is a flawed idea and thus should not be used. The main argument to support this view is that, unlike sexual, physical and emotional abuse, spiritual abuse falls outside the definitions offered by our UK legal systems. Were it to obtain a legal definition, the Report believes that it might be used to persecute conservative churches which possess sincerely held beliefs and practices.

There is in the Report a fundamental confusion because it suggests that those who use the term are seeking to create a new category of abuse in criminal law. This would compare it to sexual abuse, physical abuse or the newly coined notion of ‘coercion and control’. This is an argument that does not stand. People like me who blog on the topic of spiritual abuse know perfectly well that most of the behaviour that we would describe in this way is not actually criminal. People may be damaged, hurt and spiritually destroyed but nothing that has been done to them is deemed to be contrary to the law of the country. Nothing that happens even in the most extreme cults is criminal unless it involves money, property or severe coercion. The harmful effects of ‘brainwashing’ are simply not reckoned in law to be important unless the individual is a minor. Harm, tangible harm, nevertheless happens in many of these groups as we all know. Much of such harm can and should be described as spiritual abuse. The individual has surrendered him/herself to the power of a charismatic leader to direct their life in accordance with a holy book or the whims of the guru.

Let me give an example of spiritual abuse which has been shared with me in recent days. A man with a history of childhood sexual abuse goes to a church seeking support and help. The church incidentally was a member of the Evangelical Alliance. Because his original trauma has resulted in him hearing voices, the leaders of that church assume that he has demons. He is thus suitable for exorcism. After several months of being prayed over by enthusiastic ministers, he finds that nothing has changed. He then suffers a complete breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit for several months. By my definition he has been spiritually abused but those in his church have done nothing which is of interest to the police or criminal prosecutors.

Another individual decides that she though longer trusts the leadership of her EA church. She decides to leave with her family. In doing this she finds that her entire social life is destroyed because people no longer speak to her. Her children were cut dead by their former friends and she becomes a social leper. The message at her church is that she has deliberately cut herself off from God; she is destined for hell and there is nothing more that can be done to help her. Spiritual abuse?

These two stories can be repeated many times and I attempt to reach out to such individuals. It is not good enough for the EA to put out a Report that appears to suggest that people who use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ are only interested in having this kind of behaviour criminalised. We are simply trying to describe a phenomenon which is all too common in our churches. The EA Report attacks Jayne Ozanne who is concerned about the savage treatment meted out to individuals who admit to same-sex attraction in some churches, including those attached to the EA. She uses the term ‘spiritual abuse’ while readily admitting that it is not yet a legally recognised category. One wants to shout out, so what! Why should we expect the law to pursue all bad behaviour? It does not punish other sins such as adultery even though Christian teaching and conscience consistently deem them as wrong. The law only intervenes when it is compelled to for reasons of public order. The attempt by the Report to suggest that liberal Christians are expecting to have all spiritually abusive behaviour criminalised is wrong. There may be some things, such as Conversion Therapy that are arguably potentially criminal. But there are countless other doubtful behaviours by church leaders which we know we will have to live with for a long time. Realistically they will not be easily criminalised. Meanwhile individuals like me will continue to draw attention to such things as inappropriate exorcisms and shunnings. We do not expect the law of the land to take any interest any time soon. In summary, the question whether the law should be interested in spiritual abuse is quite a separate consideration from whether it exists and can be defined. The Report could well spend its time, not on whether its constituent members obey the law, but whether they commit spiritual abuse. In November 2015 on this blog I wrote an open letter to the EA and its Director, Steve Clifford challenging him to take seriously and publicly the 200,000 word Report by John Langlois on Peniel Church. This contained dozens of examples of individuals being spiritually abused by Michael Reid and his subordinates. The fact that these were not criminal or subject to any existing law does not make them any the less brutal or painful for those who suffered.

Let me reiterate some conclusions from a previous blog about why the category of spiritual abuse is a useful one. In the first place it recognises that individuals who enter a religious institution to become members are often already vulnerable people. They may arrive with issues and problems connected with guilt, shame and earlier mistreatment by others. In other words, many Christians begin their Christian life seeking healing. Some, we hope, will find it with the help of pastorally sensitive treatment. The resources of prayer and patient listening will allow a bruised individual to find their way to wholeness. Sadly, the opposite is also true. The same outward resources of scripture, prayer and pastoral practice can batter a person into a place of despair and utter hopelessness. The law has nothing to say at present to distinguish between these two outcomes. Both are outside the scope or interest of the law. Both processes are exercised in a spiritual context and thus each can be described as ‘spiritual’. For the Evangelical Alliance not to recognise the difference between these two outcomes is profoundly and irresponsibly unhelpful.

In the last few days my attention was drawn to a book called God’s Catalyst by Rosemary Green. This book proposes a model of pastoral counselling based on the nouthetic ideas of Jay Adams. I have discussed these ideas on the blog before. In summary I regard them as highly dangerous and potentially abusive. Anyone who experiences this counselling style is likely to feel battered and bruised by their exposure. One particular text that is used by Green are verses from Hebrews 12 where the Christian is encouraged to regard pain and suffering as the ‘chastisement of the Lord’. Can you imagine a sensitive downtrodden individual receiving such advice from their Christian counsellor? It is horrifying to consider. While it is ‘legal’ behaviour, without a doubt it falls into the category of spiritual abuse.

In summary the Evangelical Alliance’s attempt to discuss spiritual abuse only within a legal framework rather than an ethical one makes this Report of extremely limited value. Those who look to this organisation for advice on this topic will remain confused. The rest of us will continue our own search to identify and attempt to outlaw spiritual abusive practices wherever they occur. Tragically and regretfully they are found in churches of all traditions.

The Rachael Delhollander story -Abuse, forgiveness and church exclusion

Most of us will have heard the story of the sports doctor who abused scores of female athletes in the States over a number of years. This Dr Larry Nassar was recently sentenced to 175 years in prison. The story concerns this blog not only because it was a story of abuse. It was an abuse story with a theological dimension.

One of the unusual features of trial of Dr Nassar was the way that the lady judge allowed each of the victims who wished it to make a statement to the court. No doubt she felt that such a public statement might help them to heal after years of not being believed. It is the statement of Rachael Denhollander who was the final victim to make a speech to the court that is of special interest. Rachel is a committed Christian and she felt able to bring her faith into her court room statement. Her speech has been viewed countless times on Youtube. In an interview with the magazine Christianity Today, she added further to her statement. Two points stand out of great interest. In the first place she explains how she struggled to retain her Christian faith in the face of her deeply wounding abusive experience. She found herself studying the Bible in an effort to make sense of what she had been through. The normal clichés about needing to forgive and move on were not going to help overcome the effects of her abuse. Her understanding of forgiveness towards her attacker which she articulated in her statement was based on a renewed commitment to an understanding that she had to trust God’s justice. Believing in this was the only way to ‘release bitterness and anger and desire for personal vengeance’. She also coupled her public statement of forgiveness with a call on Nassar to repent. This word implied that there needed to be a ‘complete acknowledgement of the depravity of what he had done in comparison with God’s holy standard’. Her personal struggle and need to heal with the resources of her faith has now given her the strength to minister to other victims and survivors.

The second part of Rachael’s story which will concern us all are the comments she made about her own church. Through her experiences she found herself wanting to speak up for other victims of sexual abuse, some within the evangelical community itself. She soon came to realise that while the conservative churches are good at condemning sexual sin outside their boundaries, they are far less able to deal with crimes of sexual assault committed by their own members. Their instinct is to protect the institution at all costs. But there are other factors at work. Rachael believes that in many churches there is poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance. Behind a weak theology of forgiveness, sexual predators can go unchecked, often for decades. She has noticed how in her case Christian publications and speakers have focused on her readiness to forgive. At the same time, they have failed to notice her stress on the existence of God’s justice. A focus on cheap forgiveness allows a Christian to quietly sidesteps the costs that are involved. Also, easy forgiveness can be used effectively as a weapon against victims. Such victims can be made to feel guilty because they fail to forgive and let go as quickly as the leaders would wish them to.

Rachael and her husband have found themselves having to leave their congregation. The leadership of Rachael’s church had been involved in restoring a notorious sex offender from the Sovereign Grace Ministries, C J Mahaney. He had covered up abuse in his church for 30 years. Rachael also witnessed the way that in this process, the suffering of victims was downplayed and vilified. She and her husband were told by church elders that the church was not a place for her. She also had had to listen to lies and untruths being told about what had happened in the church abuse story. Rewriting history, she felt, was a typical reaction by many evangelicals when facing up to painful uncomfortable events. Sexual abuse within its communities in particular needed to be airbrushed out of a church’s story.

Rachael’s witness statement can be viewed on YouTube. It is an important witness to the way that a Christian woman can use the resources of the Christian faith to help deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. The speech also is also a confrontation with weak systems of oversight within institutional Christianity. These may want to put the institution before the needs and sufferings of individuals. How much have we heard this story in Britain recently?

Christianity Today is a fairly conservative Christian journal and it is interesting that it has carried this interview inside its covers. Perhaps the journal wants us all to hear this message of the importance of the right kind of forgiveness and the importance of proper support being offered by churches to victims of sexual violence. Here in Britain we especially need to hear this message of putting victims and survivors ahead of the institution. Saturday 10th February is a day when General Synod of the Church of England hears a presentation on Safeguarding. This will be an important occasion. We will see whether the Church of England is finally learning to reach out to embrace the needs of abused individuals. Alternatively, is it going to, according to the advice of lawyers, do everything in its power to protect itself and its reputation?

The Church of England needs better lawyers

Next week the General Synod of the Church of England meets in London. I happen to be in London on the Saturday so I intend to join the group of survivors who are protesting outside the Synod as members arrive. There will also be present their lawyers and other supporters. This protest is not against the ordinary members of Synod but to draw attention to the ham-fisted way that the leaders of the Church of England have dealt with the survivors’ concerns. As Gilo‘s and the other survivors’ concerns are central to the concerns of this blog I shall of course be reporting on this event for my readers in due course.

Meanwhile I have noticed that in the past month my Twitter followers have increased from around 40 to 70. This may be something to do with the fact that I have been blogging much more on topical issues that have come to the fore in recent months. Among my new followers are a small group of lawyers involved with abuse cases. Some of them have represented survivors in cases against the church. Legal issues have recently come to dominate the discussions connected with abuse survivors and it is these that I want to draw attention to in this post. While I am no lawyer, it would seem that serious legal mistakes have been made by Church authorities recently. The consequences of following bad legal advice have been far-reaching.

There is a long piece referenced by Thinking Anglicans by a retired Child Protection expert called Martin Sewell. He sets out how the procedures of the Core Group which originally named Bishop George Bell as a probable paedophile were legally severely flawed. This was also the contention of the very thorough 70 page Carlile Report. Martin Sewell has written his piece after the highly questionable claim by Archbishop Welby that ‘a cloud’ still hangs over the memory of George Bell. It would seem that the original Core Group had only the advice of a solicitor who represents the interests of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. This means that her expertise is in indemnity law rather than the more relevant areas of criminal law and the issues around child protection. In short, the Core Group was operating in a way that would best protect the church from possible future litigation. Archbishop Welby’s recent claims have also, according to Sewell, suffered from the same poor legal advice. Not only was the case against Bell weak and uncorroborated but it also failed to protect the rights of the accused. This is an important point of English law that both sides are entitled to confidentiality. Questions that might have established the truth, i.e. corroborating evidence, were not asked. It is the lack of sound legal advice that caused the chaos of the original Core Group findings and latterly the statements by Archbishop Welby.

A further disturbing feature of the Churches’ apparent incompetence in dealing with Safeguarding matters is the content of a confidential document of guidance given to Anglican bishops in 2007. The Daily Telegraph obtained a copy of this in mid-2016. This document instructed bishops, when meeting survivors of sexual abuse, only to use words approved by lawyers, PR advisers and insurers. They were instructed effectively to avoid inadvertently conceding any kind of guilt on behalf of the Church. This official advice might explain why Gilo met a blank from Church authorities right up till last year. The Elliott report which examined his case in particular drew attention to the way that Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham and i/c Safeguarding, had cut off all contact with Gilo. He was merely following the advice from lawyers and the church insurers. In summary the Church was saying that it is impossible for us to engage with you pastorally or compassionately because our hands are tied by lawyers and insurance companies.

A new advice document was published in 2015 which tried to promote the priority of pastoral response to survivors by Bishops and other senior churchmen. Bishop Sarah Mullally was given the task of putting this new policy into practice. It remains to be seen whether her new responsibilities as Bishop of London will allow her to continue this work. But as an earlier blog has stated, all this blanking of Gilo and failure to respond pastorally to him and other survivors is once again based on a misreading of the law. There is an article in the New Law Journal by Professor Dominic Regan that states quite clearly that an apology to a victim is not equivalent to an admission of liability. His actual word in the article to describe this misunderstanding is ‘tosh’. There is a passage in the Compensation Act of 2006 (a year before the guidance to Bishops!) which makes the following statement. An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.

What could be clearer? If the lawyers who helped to draft the guidelines for the Bishops had been half competent they should have known about the Compensation Act of 2006. Here again the Church of England has been let down by poor legal advice which verges, as far as I can see, on the negligent. The Church has lost a great deal in being unable, for these dubious legal reasons, to offer pastoral care for survivors and victims. Even now this principle seems unknown to the regulations of the church. It takes a lonely blogger to point that there is a law that allows the Church to exercise all its resources of pastoral care towards survivors and victims without bankrupting the church. Will somebody in the legal profession who may read this confirm my understanding of Professor Regan’s words? They are too important to remain hidden for ever. The survivors that will gather on February 10 also deserve to know that the Church can support and help them and all the blanking of the past was unjustified and unnecessary. Let us hope that common sense will now prevail. Above all I will repeat the title of this piece. THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND NEEDS BETTER LAWYERS!

The Bishop Bell Saga -worrying questions

The Archbishop of Canterbury has placed on record his refusal to reconsider his verdict on Bishop Bell. I do not have to rehearse for my readers all the aspects of this story. This contained the accusation that the eminent and saintly Anglican Bishop of Chichester abused a young girl in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story has now moved firmly into 2018. It seems that our Archbishop is refusing to consider the opinion of a variety of eminent historians and legal experts who have examined the details of the case against the Bishop who died in 1958. (I was present at his funeral!) The legal opinion is that no court would or could convict Bishop Bell on the evidence set out by the original internal church enquiry.

This post does not want to rehash all the arguments which were used by Lord Carlile in his Report to show that the original church enquiry was badly handled. One suspects that a readiness to place a cloud of guilt over the saintly Bishop may have been in reaction to the fact that another former Bishop in the Diocese of Chichester had then been recently imprisoned for his betrayal of the church. I am speaking about Bishop Peter Ball. For the Archbishop even to have mentioned the Ball case in the same statement as the one talking about Bishop Bell is unwarranted. Bishop Ball was not guilty of just one single lapse into sexual crime. The police investigation uncovered a pattern of sociopathic behaviour over many years. Rumour and speculation also had followed him around. At least one diocese refused to consider his nomination as its bishop. Bishop Bell on the other hand, even if he had been guilty of an offence against a small girl, and massive doubts remain, did not leave any trace of gossip or scandal behind him. Among the new contributors to the debate are a group of men who were choristers at Chichester Cathedral in the relevant years. Some of them had experienced sexual abuse and thus could be said to be sensitised to the proclivities of any wayward adults around them. They detected nothing in Bishop Bell – indeed they had the highest respect and affection for him. This testimony must be added to all the other evidence that is suggestive of his innocence of the charges. Leaving a cloud of suspicion over Bishop Bell, as the Archbishop is doing, is unjust and goes against the facts as we have them.

What is going on when an Archbishop accuses a respected deceased churchman of a terrible crime? Here I am moving into the realm of speculation. One suggestion that has been made is that the Archbishop is privy to as yet unpublicised information on the case. This, on the face of it, seems unlikely. What is more probable is that a group of senior churchmen within the Church of England are beginning to recognise the vast scale of the problem of sexual abuse by church leaders and much of this information is yet to come out. Being open and transparent about this single case may be thought to show a new flexibility in dealing with this kind of problem. In his statement the Archbishop also refers to people that he respected who turned out to be paedophiles. As he puts it ‘the experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic’. One of these ‘respected’ individuals may of course be the well-known John Smyth who beat boys connected with the Iwerne camps. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I have a source that suggests that the church is in the process of trying to dampen down sex scandals all over the country. After ignoring these scandals for a long time, perhaps the church, by demonstrating an openness and transparency, wants to be seen to admit historic failure in this area. This tactic is misconceived. The Archbishop’s position and that of his advisors would appear to be one of panic. What I fear is that the current situation is of such magnitude that the powers that be feel that they no longer have control over it. I also surmise that the church is dreading the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse when it hears evidence about the Diocese of Chichester in March. Independence is a necessary ingredient for keeping large institutions to account. The Church has historically never had to face such scrutiny. Now it is facing such examination by the Inquiry it is in danger of being shattered by an iceberg of past scandal and coverups.

Whatever the truth of the current situation, the Archbishop’s statement, which refused to lift the cloud of suspicion from Bishop Bell, is highly worrying. It indirectly points to an institution in a severe state of crisis. It also suggests a level of stress in an individual, the Archbishop, that has rendered him unable to produce the kind of calm reflective leadership that is required. The statement written by the Archbishop was evidently not the product of his thinking alone. It represents the considered wisdom of a group of advisers and consultants. Only time will tell what he and they sought to gain by besmirching the memory of a hallowed Bishop who did so much for the church in his day.

The Bishop Bell story is not over. His supporters will continue to protest his innocence. Their motivation will not be reasons of partisanship. They will continue to appeal to solid historical and legal arguments. The claim that continues to cast a shadow over Bishop Bell’s reputation seems to reflect the position of senior members of an institution in a state of profound corporate panic. What they are panicking about has nothing to do with what may have happened nearly 70 years ago in Chichester. It may simply be an attempt to ward off a tsunami of allegations that keep erupting today and these have the power to damage and weaken our national church.

The problem with miracles

One of the great claims of the Pentecostal/charismatic movements is that miracles, especially miraculous healings, actually happen. The claim for the reality of such events sits uncomfortably alongside the understanding of many other Christians who do not belong to these traditions. Many liberal Christians have problems with the exuberance and what they see as irrationality in the large healing gatherings where miracles are supposed to occur. The critics of Christian charisma also hear stories of sick people who go along with great hopes to healing meetings. Many, perhaps the majority, fail to receive anything. The betrayal of their hopes is a serious matter. The faith of these ‘failures’ may be badly affected. Many other Christians instinctively draw back from wanting to have anything to do with healing ministries. They just sense that this whole area is one better kept at arm’s length.

The gulf that exists between miracle believing Christians and the rest can be very wide. Those who do not claim to see healings in their churches will have little understanding about what might occur in events such as healing crusades. If they do get around to thinking about healings and miracles they might mention words like psychosomatic illness or hypnosis to account for what may be happening. From the inside there is also little interest in interpreting miraculous events to meet the queries of a questioning church. The power of God to bless and heal is taken as a given and, in being part of healing events, charismatic Christians believe they are following the example of Jesus’s own ministry and that of his apostles. There are also many among the conservative Christian body who do not practice a healing ministry. Although they read the Bible in a conservative way and take the healing stories in the New Testament seriously, they do not believe that miracles are for today. This apparent rejection of the contemporary healing movement by many evangelicals is known as ‘cessationist’. Miracles were given for the first century but have now ceased.

A strong argument that I would bring forward for taking at least some of the contemporary healing claims seriously is that I believe in the integrity of many who claim to have such a ministry. I interviewed twenty or thirty ‘healers’ thirty years ago in preparation for my first book. Even though I found some of their thinking somewhat strange or even alien, none of them was a power-seeking charlatan. It is also true from my observation that when you gather a group of people together who are motivated by the emotions of hope, expectation and longing, extraordinary things can happen. To say that a crowd of people generates power is an understatement. Power, as I have said before, is in itself a neutral phenomenon. When it is directed or harnessed in a positive direction it can be something of great moment. Crowd energy can also be something thoroughly evil and debased. In crowd situations there is an abundance of power and with it comes the potential to change people whether for good or for evil.

The fact that people sometimes recover from illness or from long-standing disabilities in a large crowd environment should not be surprising. The person upfront, the charismatic leader has learnt or stumbled across techniques for healing which seem to tap the energy and the power of the large crowd for these ends. Healing like the crowds themselves is not necessarily spiritual in nature. Healing becomes spiritual and ‘gospel’ when the New Testament realities of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace with God through Christ are brought into the process. To receive Christian healing (I am focusing only on one type in this blog), one partakes of a transforming spiritual crowd energy which simultaneously ties one into a new relationship with God. Non-Christian healing may also happen, but the long term spiritually transformative aspect of the event will be absent.

I find myself concluding that what passes for charismatic healing is at one level a learned skill or technique. One learns to manipulate, even control, a crowd through a variety of methods. These may include hypnosis, suggestion and using the voice in special ways. The potential for the abuses we have all heard about come through a charismatic leader using these techniques for selfish ends. No longer is the aim to bring people to God but to bring them to a state of vulnerability where there can be controlled to be exploited in some way. Here we can speak about technique without love and without spirit. This is something potentially extremely dangerous. When I speak about the dangers of miracle ministries I am thinking about the situations where people have travelled a long way to see a famous miracle worker. In spite of his reputation he may just be interested in gratifying a desire for significance and money. The consequent let-down for his hearers can be truly appalling. Many people have had their Christian faith shipwrecked by meeting some huckster in the less salubrious parts of the charismatic world. They may have been told that their failure to receive healing is the result of their lack of faith. Something as devastating as being told that your faith is insufficient to receive healing is enough to turn you away from all contact with church in the future.

Individuals like John Wimber and Oral Roberts (particularly in his early days) seem to have understood the way that crowds could be worked to release enormous power in the form of healing energy. People were transformed and sometimes healed. At its best the charismatic movement helped people to find transformation; it certainly never laid great burdens on those who failed to receive healing. When the teaching was sound everyone was enabled to experience something of an intimacy with God through worship.

What I find lacking in the literature is a deep wisdom which can discern all sides of what is going on in these ministries, whether good or bad. Miracles seem to happen alongside trickery and outright exploitation. We could be swayed by the claims of trickery to believe that healing never happens today. That would be to undermine the integrity of the entire Pentecostal/charismatic healing impulse. If this were to be the case that all the writers and pastors within these traditions would be totally lacking in honesty. Without these traditions the church as a whole would be incredibly impoverished. We need the expectation, the faith and the primal openness to God that we see in these congregations. Some of us on the outside value the energy of these movements even if at the same time people like myself want to question, critique and analyse what is really going on. Of course, there is incredible naïveté and other examples of human failing within these movements. Human beings who try to manage the levels of power that you find in large groups are extremely vulnerable to many temptations. Power is seductive and addictive. Anyone who follows my blog will know numerous examples of the evil that occurs when human beings are sucked in to an enjoyment of power. So, I remain a critical friend of healing, miracles and the entire charismatic impulse that exist in our churches. The important word for me is ‘critical’ because I never simply swallow the explanations and interpretations of others. All need to be scrutinised and examined with the application of reason but also with wisdom and humility.

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.

Guest post -Troubling Allegations of Additional Abuse Emerge from Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA

From time to time your editor is offered pieces to be placed on this blog. Eric has written on the topic of his experience of shunning before. His present piece illustrates various aspects of dysfunctional power dynamics in the church. When problems escalate it can be seen that the competence to resolve them is not easily found in church circles. Although this is not in any way about sexual abuse, the same difficulty as for UK church authorities to have in place robust procedures to sort out problems is becoming increasingly apparent. A gloomy thought suggests that this sort of failure by the church to sort out its power issues may in the future overwhelm it financially and in other ways.

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Readers of this blog may recall that, some time ago, I authored a post about shunning. It was based on my first-hand experiences at Grace Episcopal Church, which is located just outside the US capitol in a suburb of Virginia. In that article, I attempted to focus on the larger issue of shunning, rather than the specifics of my situation, as I wanted to avoid making the article too personal. However, some recent, very troubling developments have occurred, and I wanted to share those with you.

By way of background, in spring 2017, my diocese finally agreed to get involved, bringing an end to more than 15 months of shunning, which had started at the direction of the rector, the Rev. Robert H. Malm. The genesis of his campaign was a complaint I had filed with the diocese over what I perceived to be bullying behavior by the rector, as well as gross mismanagement of parish business affairs. Unfortunately, the diocese declined to get involved, and ignored my objections to the rector’s retaliatory conduct.

As part of the deal that was struck that spring via the good graces of the diocese, the Rev. Malm agreed to stop shunning and bullying within the parish. I also agreed to take down my “name-and-shame” blog, which I had developed after the diocese declined to intervene. At the same time, all involved agreed that only the persons in the room were covered by the agreement, that other family members already were blogging about their experiences, and that they both could and likely would continue to do so, despite our efforts at a ceasefire.

By September 2017, I had become aware that family members remained embroiled in the conflict, and contacted both the diocese and the rector with the suggestion that we publicly make peace, so that all involved would see that there were no longer sides to take in the matter. While diocesan officials were encouraging, the rector seemingly brushed off my suggestion, and I heard nothing more about it.

In November, the bishop tried to get in touch with me, seeking my assistance in muting the continuing controversy. Tired of this conflict, facing inordinate pressures at work, and dealing with two family members at end of life, I had to respectfully decline, but offered a series of written observations and suggestions that I hoped would be helpful, possibly even tamping down the conflict.

That seemed to be the last of it, when a few days before Christmas, I got a call on a non-public number at work from a local police officer, claiming that the rector feared for his safety, as did many parishioners. Questioned about the matter, he falsely suggested that there were terroristic threats on family members’s blogs, and he attempted to cajole and wheedle me into getting involved, which I declined to do. He also stated that, until the matter is resolved, I would immediately be arrested if I set foot on church property. That is troubling, as it expressly violates one key component of the deal arranged with the diocese, which is that I would be welcome in the unlikely event that I wanted to visit Grace Church. Even more troubling, the police officer in question left his jurisdiction, entered onto private property marked with no trespassing signs, and entered a locked condo building to leave a note on my door. Thus, between that and the phone call at work, the seeming message is, “We know where you are, and we’re watching you.”

Of course, there is a larger issue, and that is the potential misuse of the rector’s role in the community and the inherent imbalance of power. Indeed, claims that parishioners fear for their safety seem improbable, as the rector himself said in an email to me from September 2017 that he had not heard anything about our conflict in several months. Yet, by December people are in fear for their safety? If so, what changed? Did the police attempt to verify for themselves the rector’s claims?

Subsequently, I have filed an internal affairs complaint with the relevant police department, and notified the diocese of my experience. More than two weeks later, however, I have seen no sign that the diocese of Virginia is going to address this issue in any meaningful way, nor have I received any sort of response. This sort of passive-aggressive behavior is very troubling to those who face possible clergy misconduct, for it does nothing to reassure us that we will be heard, believed, cared for, and treated with respect and compassion.

On a larger scale, blogs such as this (or even the caustic but still appropriate blog operated by my family members) will struggle to fulfill their important role as guardians of the greater good if writing about potentially abusive behavior results in police investigations and threats. It is my hope that both church and law enforcement officials will be sensitive to the imbalance of power when conflicts such as this arise between clergy and laity, and not automatically assume that information provided by clergy is accurate. Further, if potential abuse is to be addressed in a meaningful manner, there must be prompt assurances when a complaint is filed that the matter will be taken seriously, addressed as promptly as possible, and with care and respect for all concerned, including the clergy.

Truly, the church has a long way to go before it fully understands and addresses the issues that arise due to misuse of power in the church, and in the larger community.

Eric Bonetti
Alexandria VA
United States

Author’s note: The views expressed in this article are mine, and mine alone. It should also be noted that no court of competent jurisdiction has issued a ruling that states that abuse has occurred,

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.