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.

An Abuse of Faith -Bishop Ball revisited

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I feel compelled to comment on the recent Gibb Report on the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball and the way the church responded. It is less easy for me to write this post as I am en route between home and the ICSA Conference in Bordeaux. This event begins next Wednesday and no doubt I will be reporting on some of what will take place there.

On Thursday when the report by Dame Moira Gibb appeared via the Thinking Anglicans website, I quickly read the entire document. It showed me once again how relevant is our continuing discussion on the issue of power within the church. From my perspective, the facts around Ball’s crimes are now so well known that they need not be further rehearsed. For 20 plus years Ball used his authority as a priest and bishop alongside his personal charisma to take advantage of young men, sexually and emotionally. This personal and institutional power allowed him to indulge in one of the worst types of abuse – sexual abuse.

The shocking parts of the report have been already rehearsed by others. The blindness of the wider Church to the seriousness of, firstly, the rumours, and later the admissions of serious crimes by the Bishop is extraordinary. The former Archbishop, George Carey, has come in for particular censure. He withheld from the police six letters from victims which were received after the Ball’s Caution in 1993. These letters were written either by victims or their parents and were independent of each other. If the police had received them they might have been able to establish a clearer pattern of behaviour by the Bishop. The Archbishop’s response reflected, as we have seen in the Catholic Church, an obsessive defensiveness on behalf of the institution at the expense of affected individuals. There were in 1993 people around who would have been able to advise the Archbishop as to how serious the offences were which Ball had admitted. From the perspective of this blog, George Carey also was showing a complete blindness to the way the dynamics of power were at work in the church. Sexual abuse by a person in authority in the church is likely to have devastating consequences. The power given to church officials, bishops and clergy, is considerable and sensitivity to ways it can be abused should be part of the awareness of everyone. Clearly it was not. Although sex is at the heart of this episode, almost as important is the way that power has been used or misused in the subsequent blanking out of victims. This has been going on since Ball’s Caution in 1993 and reminds us of Joe’s story told last year. It would be possible to write an annotated version of the Report by Dame Gibbs to highlight the numerous examples of power mismanagement revealed in the Report. Each represented an attempt by the church to control bad news. Clearly almost no one from the top down seems to have had an understanding of the different power dynamics that were in play in this tragic episode.

The second shocking part of the story is the way that Ball, assisted it seems by his brother Michael, had no insight into the appalling nature of his actions. It is also hard to believe that the former Diocesan Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, had no knowledge of the rumours about Bishop Ball’s behaviour when Bishop of Lewes. The late Bishop Eric has been previously criticised in an Archbishop’s Visitation to his diocese for the lax moral culture in parts of the Chichester diocese. Under his watch a number of clergy were to practise child abuse, and several of them are serving prison sentences for their crimes. Any level of collusion in the crime of another person is a serious matter. It would appear, according to the Gibb Report that a number of senior clergy stand accused of this failure. Michael Ball, a Bishop of Truro and twin brother to Peter, lobbied for several years to allow Ball to regain a Permission to Officiate. This lobbying was effective and Archbishop Carey is criticised by the Report for giving into the pressure. Ball continued to take confirmations and visit schools right up till 2011. In short no one at the top of the Church of England was prepared to state categorically that, after his Caution and admission of criminal acts, Ball was unfit to be with young people. In subtle ways power was used against the Archbishop himself to overturn a clear case for inhibiting one of his senior clergy. Also, the apparent failure of Bishop Peter to express any remorse, according to the report, is a remarkable fact within the whole sorry saga.

What do I take from reading this report? Apart from being reminded how the church seems to care more about its institutional reputation than individual people, I realise how little insight there is about power operating within the church institution. Power exists in many forms in the church. A danger which is potentially acute arises when charismatic power is combined with institutional power. This was the situation for Ball and there was in him enormous scope for destructive behaviour. This blog has at its aim to be sensitive to all expressions of power in the church. We have identified the power of an infallible Bible. There is also the power of charisma, the power of institutional authority and the power assumed by the male of the species over the female. Within a church all the strands can come together. They are at best untidy but sometimes they form a potentially abusive combination. The people who are best able to tell us how power is operating are not the holders of this power. We need to listen to those who feel bullied, controlled and generally manipulated by the people who use power in the ways we have named above. When we have this fuller insight into the way that church and power coexist, then we may be able to begin to rebuild the institution. We want a church which is life-affirming, encouraging and empowering for all. That sort of church is sadly still a long way off. Reports like the Gibb Report show relatively little insight into the power dynamics in our church on the part of leaders even in the year 2017.

Whither Holy Trinity Brompton? Letter to Church Times

Sir, — The letter from Judith and David Paston (26 May) about St Thomas’s, Norwich, (an HTB plant) raises numerous issues for those of us who are concerned about the weakening of traditional Anglicanism. Clearly, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), and its offshoots are here to stay as part of the Anglican scene. But there are various grounds for unease, and I want to look at one aspect.

The HTB phenomenon is in urgent need of some detailed research to establish its true effectiveness. While we know that there are numerous “successful” churches in university cities applying the HTB formula, we lack proper information about what happens to the individual members when they move beyond their twenties into career and family responsibilities.

Only one study exists, as far as I know, on the topic of post-student Charismatic religion. The research to accompany the study is New Zealand-based and was written up in the book, A Churchless Faith.

Alan Jamieson, the author, tracks a group of young people who moved beyond their experience of what we might describe as high-octane religious observance similar to HTB. It makes sombre reading. Though a small survey, it suggests that Charismatic worship and faith does not often translate well into the decade of the thirties.

We are told that the Church Commissioners are investing in the HTB brand on the grounds of the success of these congregations. Caution should be in order. Are we investing in a style of church life that appeals to one age-group but is of less relevance to the same individuals as they enter their middle years?

My suspicion is that the average length of membership of a church by members of HTB style congregations is far less than a decade. If this is true, and only proper research can refute my hunch, then we may be expending resources on something ephemeral. Meanwhile, this current effort to promote these plants may help to undermine and weaken the wider Anglican tradition in this country for ever.

We seem to be losing sight of the importance of ministry and pastoral effectiveness in favour of “mission”. People continue to need the help of the Church in the way in which they negotiate crisis, illness, and death. A preoccupation with financial and attendance statistics seems to shift attention away from the core Anglican business of pastoral care.
STEPHEN PARSONS

This letter appeared in the Church Times last Friday (16th June). I am reproducing the letter as it may interest my readers. They have hitherto been prepared to put up with my prejudices and rants on a variety of topics. One more will do no harm.

The issue that I raise is not whether Holy Trinity Brompton and its offshoots are a good thing. I feel that the jury are still assessing whether Alpha, the teaching course which is the tangible product of this significant church in London, is successfully helping people to find faith. My real grounds for questioning HTB are to do with the use of statistics to evaluate this church. Present methods of assessing church strength are to count how many people attend a church on a particular Sunday. A more important question that I feel should be asked is how many people stay the course as Christians over a significant length of time within an HTB environment. I am asking for a ‘longitudinal’ study. We should take a group of Christians and follow them through the years and see whether the enthusiasm of the twenties for HTB is carried into later adult life.

The book by Alan Jamieson, referred to in the letter, makes some interesting observations. Although he does not talk about the faithful who do remain in ‘high-octane’ churches into their thirties, the implication he makes is that these churches are in fact losing many of their more reflective and intelligent members. Among them are individuals who have served these church as leaders, group enablers and teachers. There is no question but that there was originally a high level of commitment in the first place among the people he studies. What seems to happen is that a highly gifted group of Christians mature beyond the charismatic/Pentecostal style in which they became Christian. Jamieson’s description of the process of maturing is taken largely from the writing of James Fowler. Fowler has written about six stages of faith that may occur in individuals between birth and old age. His model seems to have stood the test of time. At the beginning there is an innocent style of faith which then moves into a stage marked by literalism. This is followed by faith which is uncritical but tribal in nature. One writer compares this stage to the perspective of a fish in a tank. There is only the one perspective to be drawn on as the fish cannot leap out of the tank to view it from the outside.

The final three Fowler stages of faith represent a withdrawal from uncritical acceptance of what one has been taught. Many, if not most Christians, never reach these later stages. The ‘critic’ in the fourth stage is able to handle new perspectives and debates as well scrutinise leadership in their church for example. The later stages involve such things as the ability to cope with mystery and paradox in matters of faith. These sorts of insights will often make them highly disturbing to those who are holding on to a more child-type approach to their faith.

There is of course a lot more which could be said about Fowler and his ideas, but they are beyond this short comment. What can be said is that Fowler gives us a model through which to understand the longitudinal changes that will normally occur in our lives and in particular the way we appropriate the Christian faith. If some of us are exploring and travelling, who among the rest of us have the right to challenge the process or declare it invalid? I ask the reader to ask him or herself to look to see how attitudes of faith have changed over a lifetime. My question for HTB is whether they have built in to their system the ability to handle these later Fowler stages which may be adopted by the Christian members. Perhaps they secretly would prefer these searchers to jump overboard when the ship is perceived to be an uncomfortable or restrictive environment. Our blog is aware of one particular reason to jump overboard for many – namely the experience of abusive power!

Trump and thought reform

In the early 50s the American public was greatly disturbed by film of their own soldiers in Chinese captivity speaking anti-American rhetoric. These individuals had been somehow psychologically manipulated so that they had lost touch with their old identity. They were apparently fully under control of their Chinese captors. Much ink has been spilt since those days about the process by which an individual could be coerced to change beliefs and personality. The popular expression was ‘brainwashing’. This expression, however, proved so hard to define that it ceased to be used in academic or legal circles. More common now is the notion of mind control or thought reform. The latter term is the one used by the author Robert Lifton. Lifton wrote an important book in 1961 called, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. This showed how it was possible to manipulate an individual so that he would think and speak in a way that was out of character and contrary to a previous personality.

I was reminded of Lifton’s work on thought reform techniques when I watched the adulation being handed out to President Trump by each member of his Cabinet in a recent newscast -Trump’s ‘lovefest’. A further historical memory took me back to the Soviet show trials in Russia in the 1930s. The condemned individuals who were about to be executed for counter-revolutionary activity, were shown to be publicly venerating Stalin. As Trump’s Cabinet members spoke their words of flattery and obsequiousness, one felt almost nauseous at this Soviet-type manipulation. One hopes that at least some of the humiliated Cabinet members were aware of the historical parallels. Trump himself with his weak grasp of current affairs or history would have been totally unaware of the way that he is leading his country to become in certain respects to be more and more like North Korea.

I have already written a piece on Trump as a cult leader who is apparently firmly in the grip of a narcissistic disorder. I want to return to this theme because once more we see in the behaviour of his government certain aspects of the functioning of an extremist religious group. Robert Lifton described eight characteristics of a ‘totalist’ group, whether political or religious. One of these eight which we have looked at in the last blog, was the manipulation of language. When language only connects you with people who are in your group, you find yourself effectively in a social prison because you are cut off from the wider world. I do not propose to go through the other eight characteristics of a Lifton’s totalist group, but to summarise, there are two main features. Totalist groups, which we would describe as cult-like, involve the subservience of each member, emotionally and psychologically, to a leader. The exact nature of this relationship for both parties is complex but we can say that each side has something to gain from the relationship. In the second place the group possesses an ambiance or culture which simultaneously draws members together while isolating them from the world beyond. Both physical and psychological barriers are erected to stop the flow of information from the rest of the world. It is not hard to observe this cult-like environment in the appalling spectacle of the current Trump Cabinet.

Each of the members of Trump’s Cabinet has obtained a level of influence, prestige and power by being given some responsibility for government. Most of them have been chosen for their ability to amass enormous sums of money in their working life. The Republican agenda is also offering them the opportunity to become even more wealthy. But the price they have paid for this elevation is to drink the Kool Aid of believing (or pretending to believe) the conspiracy theories, the fake news and the outright lies which have pushed their leader into his present position of power. Like cult followers they have become strangers to any real dialogue with the truth. They are certainly no longer thinking in a way that connects with wider reality. They do not (yet) realise that each of them has utterly humiliated themselves both professionally and personally by hitching their wagon to such a corrupt individual as President Trump. Like members of a cult they have been corrupted by the process which Lifton describes as thought reform. They probably for the moment really believed the nonsense that they uttered when the camera went round the cabinet room asking for their opinions about Trump’s presidency. The problem is that Trump also believes the false narrative that his government is putting out to the world.

A few years back we witnessed dramatic public scenes of grief when the North Korean leader died. We naturally asked ourselves whether this emotion was faked or not. I would suggest that the cult personality was so ingrained in the population that the weeping masses could be said genuinely feel their demonstrations of sorrow. The one main difference between North Korea and the United States today is that there are still many strong democratic institutions alive to challenge the narrative of alternative facts and fake news. These institutions particularly represent the educated and informed population. They will not disappear. Through newspapers and humour, the cult culture of Trump and his followers is constantly being challenged. While for the time being the Trump Cabinet members can offer their false and deluded perspective on what is going on to the world, in the longer term, truth must prevail.

There is a clear reason for this blog to be concerned about thought reform in political life. We see the devastating effect of such mind control within religious institutions. People are shown not only to be misled by such manipulation but they are often traumatised by it for a long time. Many of the influential people in America associated with Trump will take many years to recover from what is effectively cultic contamination. Others, including Trump himself, may never recover from the lies and falsifications that have absorbed into their personalities as the price of obtaining power. When power is obtained through a massive manipulation of truth, then that power becomes something corrupt and permanently damaging to the soul.

Words and the power to control

This post is not going to be about the recent general election in the UK. Although with my political interests I have been drawn into the recent saga of President Trump and James Comey, I find that I have little to say about the strange state of UK political life at present. No one can deny that UK politics have become intensely dramatic over the past two or three days. My blog theme today does however touch on politics. I want to talk about the way that words are sometimes manipulated by politicians and church leaders to trap people into distinct tramlines of thought. Words are here being used, not to describe something, but to draw people into a belief system through a technique we might describe as propaganda.

A week or two back I wrote about the way that English language does not always have a word to describe every idea or experience. Today I am speaking about words which have had their meanings subtly altered to suit a speaker’s agenda. This is part of a process through which an individual can be taught to think in a defined way, one that will play into the hands of an authoritarian or coercive group. This might be political or religious in nature.

To start with an example of what I am talking about. Christian groups sometimes want to describe their experience of being criticised. These criticisms may well be valid ones. But rather than address the fact of the criticism and what it might be telling them about the way that they appear to outsiders (or insiders), some Christians are quick to speak of ‘persecution’. Persecution is an emotive word and it can be used to push aside quite legitimate questioning directed at an authoritarian group or individual. The word in short may not describe what is in fact going on. The criticised group may then deploy another emotive word to describe the legitimate questioning; they may talk about the ‘enemy’. From what starts as a probing to find the truth relating to an organisation we move to something that is portrayed as the onslaught of a godless, even satanic enemy. The choice of words being used by the criticised group has ramped up the tension and completely transformed the way the members perceive what is going on. This deliberate misuse of English words and their normal meanings has changed the perceptions of those involved. It is very hard, if not impossible, to have normal communication with a group which distorts words in this way.

Another word that might be used against the enemies of a political party or closed religious group is the word ‘slander’. It is easy to use this word slander as a way of trying to fend off any sort of negative criticism. Slander is to tell information about an individual that is not true. What the defensive group is calling slander may simply be negative but true information about the group which the leaders do not want to face up to or examine.

Religious and political groups are very good at using words in a subtly different way from the rest of society. Once this in-house jargon has taken root, it is a short step from cutting members off from all communication with the wider society. A culture is developed where words have an in-house meaning which no one outside can share. Experiences that are local to the group also isolate group members. The way that words referring to Christian experience are given special local meanings also help this process of isolation from the rest of society.

Many churches and cults attract the young. The reason for this is not hard to find. Young people are entering the vulnerable and unknown experience of adulthood. This makes them open to the possibility of being sucked into family type relationships which help to heal the trauma of leaving home. At the same time the young person is probably also developing critical thinking which asks questions. These contrasting aspects of youth do not fit well together in cultic churches. Leaders have to do what it takes to dampen down any intellectual independence that is emerging. Questions and doubt are a recast as a form of resistance against God. The leader will quote Scripture where it speaks of insubordination and rebellion against God. The natural process of intellectual maturing will be presented in various ways as sinful or lacking in faith. This closed society of cultic churches has taken the process of growing up and made it through the manipulation of words something full of guilt and sin, requiring total obedience to a leader.

Another word which is often misused in closed Christian groups is the word ‘commitment’. The idea of commitment to God becomes subtly changed when used by a leader. It comes to mean abject obedience to the minister. The word ‘selfish’ is also altered so that it means doing anything that is not approved of by the rest of the group. Words in short can be used to control members by ensuring that all behaviour is tightly controlled. Any independent thinking is quietly quashed by an appeal to unity with a quote about being of the same mind and spirit.

The use of words through which to control church members is something that takes a long time to recover from. Even after an individual leaves a group, they will continue to translate words in their minds according to their old cultic meanings. ‘Humility’ means degradation. A word like ‘discipleship’ also may provoke a trigger effect, reminding the former member of a memory of subjection to a power-hungry leader. Whenever ‘submission’ or ‘submit’ are brought up, there may be an instant recollection of a cruel coercive control by another Christian.

Words are powerful things. When they are used as tools of subjection and control to suit an authoritarian culture, they can cause enormous damage. I have frequently written about the meanings of words. For myself I believe that words should be used to point to a variety of possible meanings. They should never over-define or limit themselves to a single interpretation. It will never be a pointless task to question how words are being used by ourselves and the people we talk to.

London Bridge & religious violence

Shocked by the events around London Bridge on Saturday night, I have been reflecting on the nature of violence. More precisely I have been thinking about violence inspired by a religious creed. What is violence? The World Health Organisation speaks about the ‘intentional use of physical force or power which has the result of injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation’. Clearly violence involves malevolence towards an individual, a desire that they should be deprived of one of the marks of what we describe as human flourishing. There is no doubt that the jihadists were attempting to destroy through violence in the name of their religion. Do Christians ever use violence for their religious purposes?

Two issues have been concerning me in the past few weeks. One is the investigation of the Cathar sect in mediaeval France for the talk I am giving in Bordeaux at the end of the month. The other is a correspondence with two readers of this blog concerning their experience of shunning by church authorities. I have had therefore reason to look back to see what I had said about shunning and ostracism in a church context. I was in particular struck by something I said in my talk in Stockholm preserved by You-tube. I described shunning as a kind of soul murder. Thus, by implication, it involves non-physical violence. I also there expressed the opinion that in some ways it is better to be punched on the nose than to be shut out by an individual or a group. The person who is punched at least has established the fact that he exists in the mind of the person who is assaulting him. An individual who is shut out or shunned by another person, is not even accorded the right to exist.

Eric Bonetti, and I hope sometime in the near future, Helen from Australia, are giving us two perspectives on their personal experiences of church shunning. I would like here to indicate my belief that church shunning is in fact an example of religiously inspired violence. It does not of course involve taking someone’s life. But along a notional spectrum of violent acts against the individual it should be rated worse than an assault involving the fists. When we speculate about the motivation for shunning we find something deeply evil at work. The person who initiates the shunning is always in a position of power. Officially a shunning is initiated to preserve order and discipline in the church. At another level there is fear, cruelty and vindictiveness which are the shadow opposites of Christian love.

The religious inspired violence shown in London on Saturday night was of course quite different from the violence that we have suggested is taking place in religious shunning. The three individuals shot dead by the police have yet to be identified. No doubt we will discover, in all probability, that they were seduced into the violence of ISIS to compensate for feelings of inadequacy or failure. For them violence perpetrated against total strangers was an outlet to vent a deep frustration and anger. Those who directed them knew how to manipulate them by the careful use of religious texts and slogans. Extremists of all kinds will always claim that violent conflict is endemic in society and we must play our part in overthrowing the status quo.

Although I have suggested that the violence portrayed in London last Saturday was quite different from the violence of church leaders who advocate shunning, I have hinted at a common factor. It seems that any act of violence is made possible by a perverse human enjoyment of cruelty. The normal healthy human response to another person who is weaker that we are, is to have feelings of empathy and pity. When such empathy is absent, it is most likely the result of an environment, particularly during childhood, where it was not taught or practised. The individual brought up in such a setting may grow to be incapable of this human feeling. They may instead enjoy only the shadow opposite of empathy and love, which is to gratify a lust for cruelty and a desire to inflict pain on others. The bully, the terrorist and the one who shuts out other people through shunning all share this tendency to enjoy cruelty. When empathy fails, the capacity to enjoy cruelty is likely swiftly to take its place.

Violence in this sense of acting cruelly towards others is sadly endemic in the human condition. Tragically it is also found everywhere in the great religions. From Catholic Inquisitors burning Cathar heretics in the 13th century to Muslims shooting total strangers in the 21st century, we have many examples of religiously inspired violence which involve actual murder. We also find religiously inspired violence in the casual cruelty of church leaders who seek to control their members by the threats of exclusion and shunning. We need to identify within our religious institutions every example of violence towards others, even when it is disguised as godly discipline. Once again, we come back to the fundamental nature of power as it operates in our churches. Even though the existence of power in all these institutions is a necessary component for their proper functioning, we need to become ever more sensitised to the way it is being exercised. Is this power wielded with sensitivity and care, or do we find in its exercise the signs of its shadow, gratification and cruelty? In registering our legitimate sense of horror at the activities of Muslim terrorists, let us also take the trouble to be alert to the violence and cruelty that lurks within our own religious institutions.

Shunning: A sad situation that produces no winners

Church shunning or ostracism is a topic that has appeared several times on this blog and an article I wrote three years ago http://survivingchurch.org/2014/09/15/ostracism-some-reflections/ still gets googled by individuals around the world who have experienced this. I include a guest article from Eric Bonetti in the States giving his perspective on the topic. A further Australian example will be forthcoming. It is important to understand the power of this aspect of church abuse.

Shunning, or the deliberate exclusion of a person or persons from a church by a member of the clergy, is both devastating and widespread. Unfortunately, those who engage in this despicable practice rarely recognise that it hurts them, and the larger church, in a powerful and lasting way.

Some time ago, I wrote a piece for another prominent faith-oriented blog describing my experience with shunning, doing so without attribution but my editor’s full knowledge of my identity. My hope was that this would allow for discussion of the larger issue, versus the facts of my particular case.

The response was overwhelming. Literally dozens of individuals commented, sharing their own experiences of being excluded from church, typically for petty issues, like disagreeing with the Rector in a vestry meeting, or for having varying views about a minor secondary doctrinal matter.

Means of shunning by clergy often were cunning, ranging from suddenly being removed from church mailings, to not learning of upcoming meetings, to instructing church staff to be uncooperative in ways large and small. In some cases, clergy came right out and informed persons that they were unwelcome.

An ancillary issue, often alluded to but rarely addressed in full, was the tremendous pain that those who are shunned experienced. Deprived of the joy and psychological support of friends, many commenters described resulting major depression, PTSD, and in many cases, leaving the Christian faith altogether.

Tellingly, the blog for which I wrote the article is visited primarily by active church members. Thus, one might conclude that a larger number of persons never saw my article, because they no longer have any connection to church.

Theologically, of course, shunning flies in the very face of the whole notion of church. If we indeed believe that the church is the body of Christ, then it follows that causing suffering to any part of the church causes suffering for all.

And so it is with my experience with shunning. While it serves no useful purpose in this post to identify the priest and church involved, recent documents show that the parish indeed has paid a heavy price for my rector’s campaign of shunning, having lost almost 1/3 of its pledging units since my situation erupted two years ago. Additionally, there have been major declines in attendance at divine worship.

That stands to reason. In a day and age where bullying is illegal in American schools, and often legally actionable in other settings, few are likely to conclude that a church where shunning is acceptable is a safe, inclusive place, or somewhere to grow in faith.

At the same time, churchgoers are notoriously adverse to conflict, and will often quietly slip away to more tranquil environs when they encounter a church in which shunning, or bullying in any other form, is acceptable. In such cases, even two or three bullies can cause tremendous damage, both near- and long-term, and real leaders may be few in number or non-existent.

My experience with shunning also suggests that bystanders often rush to judgement, which in turn leads to widening circles of tension and conflict within the church. “He must have done something to deserve it,” people speculate, in my case sometimes even suggesting that sexual or financial misconduct must have occurred. So, while some bystanders are quick to defriend the victim of shunning on Facebook and other social media, those who remain friends are thrust into the unenviable position of having to decide whether, for example, the person shunned should be invited to holiday parties and other social events. Or as one long-time friend said to me, “Sorry you weren’t invited. It just would have been awkward.”

Given the disparate perceived power between clergy and laity, in my experience I also noted many otherwise honourable people who, without question, honoured my priest’s instructions to shun me and my family. This unwillingness to question authority indeed is troubling, for it is the same blind trust that all too often allows clergy to engage in sexual abuse without any accountability.

Some go even further. For example, one young member of my church, posting to social media under a pseudonym that was sexually explicit, urged me to “go kill yourself.”Still others may attempt to discredit the victim of shunning by lying and claiming that the victim harassed the perpetrator, or otherwise engaged in behaviour warranting shunning. Yet shunning is never warranted as response, even if such allegations were true. And in my parish, the continuing presence of laypersons who have engaged in criminal acts or other misconduct illustrates the arbitrary and capricious nature of shunning.

Of course, the notion that this sort of behaviour is appropriate derives from seeing the example of an clergy member who abuses his or her power by engaging in shunning. If a priest can engage in behaviour that has rightly been described on this blog as “psychological murder,” why not invite the victim of shunning to murder himself? The one logically follows from the other.

Ironically, while shunning is an abuse of power perpetrated by clergy who are seen as occupying the more powerful position in the church, if called onto the carpet clergy who shun will attempt to treat the person shunned as a peer. Specifically, in my case, I started a “name and shame,” blog to let as many people as possible know that my church is not a safe place. Yet, when we later met to discuss the matter, my priest angrily denounced my blog as defamatory, despite the fact that it is not. Indeed, at one point he objected loudly to a meme I had developed that said, “Jesus. Welcomes Outcasts,” along with an image of Jesus. Alongside was my priest’s name and image, with the subtitle, “Creates Outcasts.” Yet what better way is there to illustrate that shunning is the antithesis of the Christian faith? And having engaged in shunning, why would he object to anyone illustrating this dichotomy in clear terms such as this?

My further observation in this space is that clergy always are responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries with those entrusted to their care. Thus, when those boundaries are violated, the victim is under no obligation to be nice. Victims of abuse must do what they need to do to recover, and there is no shame in doing so. In other words, it is never the disclosure of clergy misconduct that causes harm. It is the misconduct that causes harm. And no one argued that I should refrain from commenting when a drunk driver killed several members of my family. So why should my priest be any different?

Once a member of the clergy or other person in a position of power engages in shunning – truly a barbaric practice – one of the few things victims can do is to tell their story far and wide. Doing so can be quite painful, as I know, and one will lose friends for doing so. But the hard reality is that the clergyperson’s actions will already have cost the victim many of his or her friends, and by sharing their story, victims can take back control. This is in contrast to many who are shunned, who often slip into deep depression when they conclude they are powerless to stop the abuse.

Ironically enough, in telling their stories, victims of shunning may discover that another group deeply hurt by clergy who shun are his or her family members and other close associates. Because clergy who engage in shunning often are serial bullies who are adept at making themselves seem kind and caring, family members and professional acquaintances alike may be shocked and appalled by public criticism of the clergyperson, feeling that the victims are overreacting, “unbalanced,” or should, “move on.” In that vein, one of the things I deeply regret is the pain that my actions, taken in resistance to my priest’s shunning, caused for his family members. While I was not prepared to stop telling my story until such time as my priest lifted his edict of shunning, knowing that I was causing distress to others was troubling indeed.

Of course, for the victim, the results of shunning are often lasting. While my priest eventually complained that we were discussing matters that had occurred two years earlier, the reality is that some members of my family affected by his shunning will never fully recover from their distress. Shunning is a traumatic experience that causes suffering for years to come, and in many ways can never be undone.

Similarly, experts note that shunning and other forms of clergy misconduct my affect churches for many years to come. In her excellent book, “Restoring Trust. Wholeness After Betrayal”, Episcopal author and Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Connecticut Robin Hammeal-Urban shares her experience that parishes sometimes act in unhealthy ways 25 years after clergy misconduct if there is not a deliberate effort to disclose the misconduct and work towards healing and health. Yet all too often, church judicatories are loathe to address the elephant in the living room when clergy have engaged in shunning, labelling the matter a “personality conflict,” or as something best resolved within the parish.

If the church is to live into its mission as a safe and welcoming home for all persons, we need to move to an understanding that shunning, or bullying in any other form, is utterly unacceptable.

Eric Bonetti Eric is a member of The Episcopal Church and lives just outside Washington D.C.

The Paterson saga -medicine and abuse of power

From time to time a story in the newspaper sounds as if it has something in common with an abusive church of the kind that we often meet in this blog. Today’s newspaper account is not about violence in the home or even the coercive control which people are beginning to recognise as being part of some relationships. It is rather about the devastating effect of a trusted surgeon who physically maimed and wounded women unnecessarily over several years. His behaviour and apparent motivations appear to be worse than any cultic or religious leader. This cancer surgeon, Dr Ian Paterson, has just been sentenced to 15 years for carrying out operations on women without medical justification. The press reports speculate that these unnecessary operations to private and NHS patients were a means of boosting his income. Money may have been a factor but, by noting parallels with the behaviour of cult leaders, I would surmise that Dr Paterson’s motivation was as much about the gratification and enjoyment of power over other human beings.

Various words were used to describe the behaviour of Dr Paterson by the judge who sentenced him. The surgeon was described as possessing arrogance which left him feeling untouchable. He was also able to exercise power by playing on the deepest fears of the women that he operated on. The numbers of his victims are not known precisely but they may add up to nearly a thousand. Ten of his patients had victim statements read out in court. The words they used sounded very much like we might expect as coming from cult survivors. ‘Loss of trust in medical professionals’, ‘feeling violated and vulnerable’, ‘loss of confidence’ are some of the words used by these women. Another spoke of the operations as being ‘truly chilling, cruel behaviour… beyond dark’. All this suffering was endured over a decade to allow one man to gratify an evil need for self-importance through abusing his power.
In the attempts to explain why the crimes went unchecked for so long, we also had a glimpse of the dynamics of collusion that exists within the medical profession. Doctors at consultant level do not seem to be answerable to anyone except their internal professional conscience. Also, a fierce independence among senior doctors allows the abusive minority to misuse their position. People want to trust themselves to experts but, on these rare occasions, they are badly let down. One word that was used to describe Dr Patterson was his charm. Charm is one of those words that implies an outward appearance which may or may not be genuine. Is it a sign of altruistic, benevolent and caring behaviour? Or is it by contrast, the socially acquired polish of an utter scoundrel?

How many of the words used to describe Dr Patterson’s behaviour and the experience of his victims have we heard in the context of religious and spiritual abuse? Fear and vulnerability are felt not just by individuals who may have cancer, but also by any who enter church for the first time. The vulnerable look to people of authority and expertise to ease their fears. If the person in charge is a charlatan then it is not difficult for unequal power dynamic within the relationship to be exploited. A religious leader is often in the same role as a doctor caring for vulnerable patients. He or she may use their skills to relieve fears; alternatively, the presenting vulnerability may be exploited to serve some dark purpose. Gratification through misusing power is a temptation faced by all Christian leaders. The possibility of giving way to such a temptation is especially acute among those who run independent (and unaccountable) institutions.

The victims of Dr Patterson’s malign attentions were also openly critical of the way that he was not challenged by his fellow professionals. It seems that many colleagues knew what was going on but they said nothing. This is the claim of Diane Greene one of his victims. She said: ‘These co-conspirators in the medical profession also need to face justice. They let this happen – they saw it happen – we need to find out why they said nothing.’ The same collusive and protective behaviour seems to happen also in the church. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Peniel Church saga is the way that the neighbouring churches did little to challenge the abusive tyranny of Michael Reid. Every one of them had direct knowledge of what was going on as Peniel members were leaving in quite large numbers and joining other congregations in the area. The Brentwood and District Evangelical Fellowship did eventually suspend Reid’s church from membership. But it was permitted to re-join the group with great alacrity after Reid was sacked. None of the local ministers wanted to do anything on behalf of those who had been abused and treated badly. None of them suggested that the history of the church needed to be re-visited and apology made to Reid’s victims. All the abuses were swept under the carpet and the single individual, Reid, was conveniently blamed for everything that had gone wrong.

When an individual in the church or the medical profession is permitted to run amok, to damage and hurt individuals by gratifying their lust for power, there is always an institution which has colluded in this terrible evil. The imprisonment of this doctor in this case may well help the institution to engage in some self-examination. We would hope that the profession will take seriously the way that narcissism, excessive privilege and hubristic attitudes grow and flourish within their ranks. When those lessons are learned then perhaps other institutions, even the church, may come out clearly always to condemn power abuse and the exploitation of the fears and vulnerabilities of the weak. Let us hope so.

When words crack and break

The events in Manchester last Monday made us realise, if we did not already know it, that words to express our current feelings sometimes do not exist. We also recognise that when somebody commits a heinous action, which is a kind of blasphemy against the whole of humanity, there are no words adequate to describe what is going on. It is somewhat limp to use the word ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ when the desired aim, to destroy the lives of innocent children, is so utterly deplorable. The English language breaks down in its ability to describe accurately the combination of utter ruthlessness and an appalling devotion to a nihilistic ideology. We need several sentences to bring together all the elements of fanaticism and hate which undergird the Manchester event.

One of the disturbing elements about the horror from last Monday, is the way that it was somewhere associated in the mind of the attacker with the principles of religion. For him, Allah demanded that cruelty and death should be shown to the most innocent in our society. There was also the fact that through the action, he was going to cause his own death. Thus we have a twisted understanding of religious martyrdom. Does any religion ever put us in the situation where we could contemplate killing others as well as ourselves for some higher cause?

Sadly, the history of Christianity gives us several examples where Christians have killed others in the name of their faith. Although my main presentation at the conference on cults in Bordeaux in a month’s time is on the topic of healing, I am also speaking about the Cathar sect for an historical thread. This heretical group flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in an area of southern France known as the Languedoc. The group was destroyed by the ruthless work of the Inquisition by around 1320. They completed the work of Crusaders who had captured citadels and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. The Inquisitors themselves did not hesitate to use the punishment of burning against those who would not recant their beliefs. Hundreds of men and women, called Perfects, perished in this way. Once more we are faced with something utterly appalling. A religion of love expresses its beliefs in dreadful acts of cruelty. The minds of the early Inquisitors had similar sentiments to the Manchester suicide bomber. Can religious truth ever demand such behaviour from its followers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked the question whether words exist to describe the horror of fanatical hatred which seeks to destroy innocent lives. I found myself also wondering if there is a word to describe what I believe to be the attitude needed to counter such appalling extremism. We speak about liberal attitudes to respond to fanaticism and ruthless conservatism. We need a new word to convey the moderate, peace-loving and rational approach which many of us believe to be at the heart of Jesus’ message. Such an approach is required, not only to offer moderates of all religions a better understanding of the alternatives to extremism, but also an effective weapon against these forces. Religious extremism comes in many forms, from the desire to kill in the name of truth to a hubristic defiance of a complete denomination and its leaders, such as we have seen in the recent Jesmond consecration.

Is it possible to hold on to truth without being marked by hubris and conceit? All Christians claim to follow truth but they do this in very different ways. The extremist claim to truth will brook no alternatives. It will express its utter hostility to other truth claims, whether liberal approaches to Scripture or the emancipation of women in Muslim societies. The moderate approach to truth claims comes in a different garb. This seems to have three facets. To summarise these, the moderate will first temper his/her understanding of truth with a sense of its provisional quality. Secondly the moderate will accept that whatever s/he claims to be true may possibly be mistaken. Third and finally, moderate truth claims will be made in an attitude of humility rather than one of arrogance or aggression.

The first of these moderate ways of approaching religious truth is made inevitable by the provisional nature of words. Words have changed their meaning even in a generation, so why should we entrust all religious truth to the fickle unstable medium of words? To say that truth remains the same while the ways of articulating it will change is not a retreat from conviction. It is merely a common-sense way of recognising that we and our language are in a constant state of flux. Religious truth must open itself to possible verbal changes in the future.

The second principle is that we hold on to our truth while being aware that we could in fact be wrong in our claims. I think it was Oliver Cromwell who made the plea to a Puritan fellow member of the English Parliament. ‘ I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken.’ Being open to the possibility of error is never going to considered a strong position to be in. Even though it may be considered a wishy-washy kind of faith, the opposite, claiming infallibility for our truth, is potentially dangerous and may involve violence towards those who disagree with us.

The third principle, which binds the first two together, is that we hold on to our truth and our beliefs with the quality we call humility. Humility never seeks to destroy, pressurise or in any way bully another person. In other words, we hold on to our truth without any desire to impose it on another person. We certainly do not use methods of force or powerful persuasion. So much evangelism comes over as an exercise in hard sell. A recipient is made to feel that they are the target of professional sales techniques. They are invited to receive a product – not to share a new vision to help them live to the full and make the most of the rest of their lives.

There is no word in the English language at present available to describe this approach to the Christian faith. The moderate approach to truth, the humble sharing of the good news of God does not have its own word. Some of the words we would want to use, like love, have been partly devalued by overuse. Moderate evangelism, the path that seeks to share depth, silence and beauty is seldom discussed or articulated. Still less is evangelism as a new way of caring for other people given words. A moderate way, one that which gives individuals space to think about and explore the meaning of life and death within the context of the Christian faith, is needed. The words liberal, inclusive and broad church fail to describe this approach. I am left to ponder what words I could use. Perhaps my readers could help me?

Holiness -approach with silence and trembling

One of the problems of using words frequently is that they all too easily lose their meanings. Because of overuse, they often no longer have the same power to evoke anything new in our minds. This is as true of religious words as it is true of ordinary words. Yesterday I was caught up short in church when I heard the words of the Sanctus – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’. In the Anglican Common Worship the celebrant picks up this word ‘holy’ by addressing the Almighty with the words ‘you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness’. I realised to my shame that I had not thought about this word and its meaning for a long time.

As I reflected on this word later, I slipped back in my mind to my confirmation classes which began almost exactly 60 years ago. The clergyman who taught us gave us a single word explanation of this word ‘holy’. He said it meant ’separate’. I discovered later that this is not a bad translation of the Hebrew word for holy – ‘qodesh’. When Isaiah has his vision in chapter 6, the word ‘holy’ is repeated three times to emphasise a sense of distance between God and humanity. This word ‘qodesh’ was also able to convey his profound sense of awe and wonder felt because of the unexpected vision. These words of Isaiah have inspired much liturgical writing. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy is far more explicit in presenting God as a transcendent, even terrifying reality. The words of the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh’ convey this Orthodox emphasis. The hymn, a translation of words from the 5th century St James’s liturgy, tells us to ‘keep silent and in fear and trembling stand’. These words convey something of the way that worship for early Christians was an experience which evoked, if not terror, certainly profound humility and respect.

This understanding of the meaning of holiness has affected my appreciation and understanding worship ever since childhood. It never seemed strange to me as a child that the clergy, dressed in their fine robes, were a long way away from the congregation. Still less did I find it strange that the Orthodox clergy were not only at some distance from the people, but even behind a physical barrier, the iconostasis. I remember being rebuked by an Orthodox priest for disrespect because I sat with my legs crossed in the altar area, even when a service was not taking place. The sense of separateness or holiness pertained to that area of the church even when there was no liturgical action taking place.

In many ways, this reflection on the meaning of holiness might seem archaic and belonging to another era. Now, in the place of clergy dressed in gold at one end of a large building, we have worship leaders dressed in casual clothing communicating a chatty informal approach to the Deity. The sacred, the mysterious and the holy in church have in many places been rendered commonplace and no longer special. The question I raise today is whether removing mystery and holiness from worship is what people really want. Do we always wish to have everything taken apart and explained? Would we not rather enter a place and enjoy an experience where words simply fail? I am reminded of the hymn which states that we are to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. As I explained in previous posts, beauty, however we understand or experience it, has a tantalising quality. It will always defy our attempts to grasp it and define it. It will slip out of our grip as we try to use words to hold on to it.

If describing a beautiful object defies our ability to use words precisely, then the same thing should be true of our understanding of God. Should we not at the very least always be rediscovering the separateness, the holiness of God in what we say about him? Should we not make every encounter with God, not an exercise in over-familiarity but a meeting with mystery? As words do not hold on to mystery, so we should approach it with respectful silence and stillness. In Christian history, there has always been an attempt to use art to evoke the reality of God for worshippers. Should we not be discovering new forms of art which can hint at the unknowability and the transcendence of the God we seek to worship? The Protestant emphasis has always been on the written word for 500 years. Thus, access to the divine through seeing has decreased in importance. Our imaginations have also been impoverished by an absence of good art in church. Also, there is no attempt to create a common language among Christians for understanding God through what is visible. Some Christians do in fact find God through visual beauty. Access to him in this way is nevertheless something of a personal individual journey rather than one that unites them to their fellow Christians.

Accessing the holiness of God is like approaching beauty. It is done not through words but through the power of human imagination. Sadly, the dominance of words in Christian culture has made it far more difficult to encounter God’s mystery and holiness. Perhaps this reflection is an invitation to my reader to ponder for him or herself the meaning of this word ’holy’. Perhaps we all need to be recalled to another richer and less verbal understanding of the Divine which this word points to. May we all better encounter him in mystery and in the beauty of holiness.

Trumpism, cults and the destruction of truth

For me, and probably for most of my readers,the political events unfolding in America have been gripping. Watching how individuals respond to the irrationalities of the current American president never ceases to provide a drama of quite extraordinary fascination. At the time of writing there seems to be the promise of some rationality and sanity being injected into this maelstrom of political chaos. The appointment of a highly respected former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, offers the chance that an analytical brain, politically independent, will successfully establish truth amid the swirling and confusing facts over possible collusion with the Russian state. All of us have come to recognise that ‘truth’ in the White House is less about actual facts but more about what makes President Trump feel good.

Alongside the extraordinary mental processes at work in the President and in others in charge of the American State, we have glimpsed a further widespread fanaticism. Quite substantial swathes of the American population seem unable to see anything amiss in the current political situation even though the processes of government in some areas have almost ceased to function. A full 80% of those who voted for Donald Trump still believe that he is on track with his stated aims of ‘draining the swamp’ and destroying the political legacy of Obama. For this group any obstructions in completing his programme have been caused by an unholy alliance between the old political elite and a ‘lying’ media. Trump himself is caught up in this extraordinary widespread corruption of thought. Such an immersion in an Alice in Wonderland world of ‘alternative fact’ and ‘fake news’ is simultaneously alarming and intriguing.

One of the current ways for understanding the way that members of cults think is to use what is known as the Lifton model. I do not have the space here to explore fully this particular analysis of cult thinking, but the theory stems from the work of one Robert Lifton. He sought, in the 1950s, to understand the victims of Chinese ‘brainwashing’. His analysis provides for eight characteristics of mind control as used against American prisoners of war. Many see these techniques being applicable to members of harmful religious groups. I would further add that many Trump followers are behaving in the same ways that we associate with cult victims. There are two of these criteria creating ‘mind-control’ that I want to mention here. The first of these Lifton principles is the insight that to create a controlled group, one must cut them off from all reasoning and discourse except that being peddled by the group leadership. In the case of Trump followers there is one source of information which is being endlessly presented 24 hours a day in the form of Fox News. I have tried to watch small segments of this propaganda outlet but find it quite hard to stomach. It is a combination of lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories. Those who try to get a handle on what is really going in American politics through the mainstream media also find it quite hard to cope with. Fox News is not just presenting another point of view but is attacking rationality and even the sanity of people who want to think for themselves. I can see that prolonged exposure to this kind of broadcasting would either create mindless compliance or a nervous breakdown in the one watching. President Trump himself would count himself as among the passive consumers of this outlet. Fox News does precious little to enhance his rational understanding of what is going on in America or in the wider world. Every time Trump utters his accusation of ‘fake news’ or ‘lying media’, it is because has heard it on Fox News first.

There is a second Lifton principle which applies to both political propaganda and religious language known as ‘loading the language’. When Lifton was studying his American survivors of Chinese prison camps after the Korean War, he noticed how easy it is possible to corrupt the thinking of an individual by subtly changing the meaning of words. After words have had their meaning changed within a closed community like a cult or a prison camp, it becomes difficult to communicate with the old pre-cult world. We in the church are sometimes guilty are using words which have coded meanings for an ‘in-crowd’. To be able to use such words in this way is an expression of power over those outside or otherwise uninitiated. The consumers of Fox News and Trumpist slogans have also learnt to think and speak in a way which has little meaning or currency outside the group. People outside the group neither can, nor indeed want to, speak with them because of the difficulty of establishing a common meaning. Trumpists have developed an infuriating way of bombarding their political opponents with words and slogans which have acquired meanings which seldom connect with normal discourse.

The situation in the United States is a very serious one because the divisions in society between Republicans and Democrats represent a huge gulf of culture and communication. One side, fed by lies and propaganda has removed itself from many of the rules of language and meaning. Communication with such a group who refuse to speak about truth in a coherent way makes it hardly possible to develop mutual lines of comprehension. Similarly, former members of cultic or extremist religious groups have comparable difficulties. Some cult experts speak about a cult personality. By that they mean that the individual has come to develop a new personality outside the norms of society. In thinking, culture or language, he/she is virtually identical to the cult leader.

I think in a previous blog I discussed the role of Donald Trump in terms of his fulfilling some of the roles of a charismatic leader. By this I was referring to the way that Trump attracts to himself the hopes, the expectations and even the dreams of many unhappy or desperate people. He appears to speak for such people. Thus he evokes a mindless devotion to himself similar to that exercised by some religious leaders. Such a projection is of course unable to be fulfilled or satisfied. The narcissism of President Trump knows how to receive adulation but is unable to give anything in return. It was instructive to notice how, when speaking to a graduation ceremony of coastguards, Trump could only speak about himself. He had nothing to offer these young people. They looked for words of encouragement or wisdom but all they received were the rantings of a petulant child.

This reflection, which links the dynamics of President Trump and his followers with the dynamics of some religious groups, may help us to understand the dangers in both scenarios. The dangerous lack of rationality and clear thinking in large parts of American society has some eerie religious echoes. In both political and religious contexts, we sometimes see rational and clear thinking melt away to be replaced by primal human activities such as hate. When language and reason are corrupted in this way by unscrupulous leaders, whether political or religious, we should be alarmed. We should also be prepared to speak clearly about what we see is going on. There may be enormous problems of communication with the victims of such irrationality. We should never cease to try to express what is clear and rational as well as infused with the spirit of love and acceptance.