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.

‘Jo’, victim of church abuse, finds justice

Last June (2016) we covered in three sections the story of ‘Jo’ who had been sexually abused by a distinguished and senior churchman, Garth Moore. This took place when the victim was 16. The facts of the abuse were never in question as the offender admitted to the offence before he died. There was also a further incident of abuse by a Franciscan who later became a Bishop in the Church of England.

As the result of this blog covering Jo’s story which had been the subject of a special report, the Elliot Report, I was contacted directly by Jo. Jo wanted the bishops to address directly the numerous other issues which arose from the report, pastoral care, support and communication. He entrusted this blog with the task of printing an open letter from him to the House of Bishops. This was printed on the 21st June. Although he had been awarded a modest sum of money from the Church’s insurers, he felt that money alone would never make the situation in the future better for other survivors. In particular, he felt that the attitude of the Church’s insurers, Ecclesiastical Insurance, towards survivors like himself was making a bad situation worse. They were, apparently, forbidding communication between church officials and survivors, presumably as it was thought that this might complicate the legal aspects involved with financial pay-outs. (This may have come about as the result of a misunderstanding between insurers and church) Survivors like himself needed to be heard, not shut out of meaningful communication with church people who can make things better and offer proper spiritual and emotional care

Today we can reveal from a piece of Thinking Anglicans website that Gilo (Jo’s real name) has achieved a complete and proper response from the church. In a process of mediation that has been going on for 18 months, Gilo’s complaints or suspicions about Ecclesiastical are being addressed fully. A letter is being sent from the Bishop in charge of Safeguarding, Paul Butler and Tim Thornton, Bishop at Lambeth to Ecclesiastical asking them to make their policies in dealing with survivors clearer and pastorally appropriate. Also, the letter was signed by the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson who has acted as a supporter of Gilo during this process of dialogue. In addition, Justin Welby has expressed his deep regrets over the way that the Church failed Gilo, both in the abuse and subsequently.

What we are recording is the beginning of a real shift in attitude by the Church towards survivors of abuse. Gilo’s clear sense of the proper way that things should be has won through. He, in other words, is a pioneer in the cause of justice not only for himself but for other survivors who may come in the future. I would like to think that, even if the Bishops never saw Gilo’s letter that he wrote for this blog last June, we have been able to play a very small part in supporting him along this courageous journey of seeking justice for himself and for many others.

As the news of this important meeting only broke today, I have not had the chance to consider the implications. But important developments will take place, no doubt. The first thing is that the greater openness of church leaders to episodes that may have taken place decades ago but are still wreaking havoc in individual lives will take up an inordinate amount of time. Now that stones are being looked under, who knows what nasties will be found there? Quite apart from the financial implications of so many new horrors that may be revealed, where are the resources, psychological and pastoral, to deal with the flood that could emerge?

Gilo’s victory is to be applauded but there is still a need to have a far better understanding of how any kind of power abuse, spiritual or sexual, takes place in the church. Insight as to why some people choose to dominate and exploit others for reasons of personal gratification is not difficult to uncover. Examples of political coercion in the States are being extensively studied and these can provide important parallels to our own church power issues. Meanwhile our church seems pretty inept at spotting the dangerous situations and people that create the disasters which come upon us thick and fast. Today’s announcement is an important stage along the road of understanding power and abuse. But there are still too many humps ahead along this road for me, at any rate, to believe that we are yet getting it right.

On recovering from Trump addiction

Over recent days I have come to realise that my interest in American politics had become addictive. I have now decided that I will no longer read anything more about Donald Trump. The sheer awfulness of reading about his lying, his lack of empathy and his complete lack of at self-insight has become a distracting burden. Although it is not Lent, I find that I am giving him up anyway.

There is one thing that I take from my addictive reading about Trumpian American politics which will not be lost to me. That is a clear understanding of the way that certain individuals like Trump use power for utterly self-centred ends. The book I referred to when I last spoke about Trump, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, has now been published and I have downloaded a copy. It is a book that describes in layman’s terms the various psychological dynamics that the authors agree are at work in the President. The reason I can withdraw from my obsessional interests is that the book gives me all I need in my desire to understand the Trump phenomenon. The reason I had been reading all about Trump was because I recognised in him so many of the troubling and disastrous facets of certain charismatic leaders. It is not unfair to describe both Trump and the most notorious of these leaders as being both tyrants and controlling manipulators. The same dynamics are at work for these religious leaders as for power-obsessed American presidents. What has been written in this volume of essays gives me all I need to understand and describe such tyrannical and narcissistic religious leaders like Michael Reid of Peniel Brentwood.

Why the sudden determination to wean myself off American politics? A further answer also lies in this book that I have been reading. Psychotherapists describe the way that many of their clients have started to present a kind of a ‘post-election syndrome’ which has many similarities with post-traumatic stress. It would seem from what has been written that many people in the States are quite severely affected by the simple fact of having a president who is totally unpredictable and lacking either conscience or sensitivity towards anyone except himself. I decided that there was no reason for me to join these hundreds of thousands of Americans who show trauma caused by Trump’s behaviour. We have had him around for long enough to know the kind of man he is and the way he behaves. Events may move on but there is little more that is new to be learnt by being shocked and dismayed by following the detail of his antics.

I have already mentioned that the psychiatrists who have studied Trump from a distance have remarkably similar descriptions to give of his personality. Words like sociopath and narcissistic personality are to be found everywhere. It is impossible to summarise their conclusions except to say that the consensus that is achieved is remarkable. Because I detect so many parallels with some religious leaders, these simplified summaries of contemporary psychoanalytic thinking are valuable for me if ever I need to do some writing or description of the problems inherent in certain areas of religious authority. Trump of course has massive powers over the free world which makes him uniquely dangerous in his mental instabilities. Religious leaders do not of course have anything like the same power but the territory they do control is firmly theirs. No one can challenge some leaders because they claim their authority is given them by God. Now that we have in Trump the most authoritarian political leader since General Franco of Spain, the press that covers this story has had to acquaint itself with the psychological profile of tyrants. The educated public are being taught to recognise words like sociopath and antisocial personality disorder. Because these words are explained, religious leaders who possess these traits are also able to be better understood. Where there is knowledge, there is an increased power not to be controlled. When an ordinary Christian has insight into the dynamics of the church they belong to, those in power will find it harder to abuse that power.

In the past few days I responded on the blog comments to a woman who was trying to escape from a fundamentalist environment. I suggested that education is one way to begin to free oneself from the tyranny of an ideology or a religious leader. The power that a leader possesses is often afforded him because of the ignorance and consequent vulnerability of the congregation. Education and new insight will always help to undermine the power of a leader who wishes to control others. The overthrow of Trump in America would be much easier if the ill-educated among the population could be persuaded to think for themselves rather than feed on biased information coming from social media. But both in a political and a religious context we also need people to have a greater understanding of the way that other people work. In both politics and religion there are cheap psychological tricks available through which to control people. One technique practised by some religious leaders is to cultivate an air of mystery about themselves. To do this they remain above ordinary interaction with their followers. They are only seen in carefully staged settings. The Michael Reids of this world could withdraw into a place of remoteness and privilege. The followers seem to have understood this to be a form of greatness. It was of course nothing of the sort.

The ability to think logically and have a common-sense insight into the way people function, will help enormously in defusing the dysfunctional power dynamics created by narcissistic and sociopathic leaders. The American public, after their experience of post-election trauma, will perhaps gain the necessary psychological strength to challenge the president. They will then show that they are not prepared to tolerate his volatility and his version of craziness. We might also hope that congregations and the individuals within them will get better at challenging their dysfunctional leaders when necessary. President Trump has, paradoxically, made it easier for more of us to see the way that dysfunctional leaders operate. We now have the vocabulary and categories to discuss these things. We can see the problems more clearly. We are far less likely to be tolerant of these kinds of antics whether in Church or in politics. But for the time being the struggle goes on.

Does the church really understand sexual abuse?

Back in February 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury made an important statement on the topic of child sexual abuse in the church. He said that in future victims of such crimes were to be the priority over the institution. Also around that time Bishop Sarah Mullaly spoke to the House of Bishops and suggested that it was high time that the Anglican church operated according to identical procedures when dealing with cases of sexual abuse committed by church people. It was not good enough to have different dioceses responding in different ways. The time for a standard professional protocol was essential in dealing with these cases.

Last Saturday the Archbishop made an extraordinary claim on the Today programme on Radio 4. He suggested that the BBC through the Savile affair had a worse record over dealing with child abuse cases than the churches. This was arguably an exaggerated claim in the light of all the scandals in the churches that have come to light, even in the period since February. The first thing that the church simply does not seem to understand is that child sexual abuse is just as serious whether it happened 40 years ago or last week. The effects of that abuse are felt for the rest of the victim’s life.

In August the press made public the existence of an alleged perpetrator when the suicide of Father Martyn Neale from the Guildford Diocese in August was reported. In the account one senses that there are many aspects of this story that are not being shared with the public. Neale had been suspended from his parish two weeks before his tragic death. At the time of his death we are told that there was ‘an ongoing investigation by the Hampshire police’ and he had also been scrutinised by the Metropolitan Police. One needs to ask certain questions. Were the diocesan safeguarding authorities that far behind the process that there were no sanctions available to them before July? The allegations of historic sexual abuse, true or not, must have been circulating for some time. Does the church have no means of investigating such accusations or is it dependent on the police to deal with this sort of crime? All these questions are suggestive of an institution that is powerless on its own to tackle a sexual abuse accusation. This is what makes the Archbishop’s comments about the BBC arguably out of order. Someone suggested to me that the Church of England is at present engaged in a process of putting out fires connected with abuse all over the country. Few of the allegations reach the public domain. If this impression given to me by my well-informed source are indeed even partly true, then there must be a cascade of new victims being discovered all the time. Who is caring for them? Is the Archbishop in fact satisfied with the performance of Safeguarding Officers across the country? The suggestion is that identified victims are numbered in the hundreds. Each one of these victims deserves professional care. If this is being provided by the Church or its insurers, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent in ‘putting the victims at the centre of the Church’s concern’. One suspects, from the evidence of survivors known to the media, that this is not in fact happening. Many feel let down, not only by the perpetrators, but also by the crass way by which their voices are being left unheard even now. Bishops, Archdeacons and other senior clergy are accused of pushing aside many victims. Even today the rule seems to be keep everything hushed up as much as possible so that the institution will not suffer.

Behind the child abuse scandal in the church, there is another scandal to be explored. This is the seemingly complete ignorance about the way that power works in the church. I have been blogging on the topic of power and its abuse in the church for a full four years and I am amazed at how few people understand the problem. In a nutshell the issue for the church, as with any large institution, is to recognise how much power it possesses. Those in positions of responsibility whether bishops, clergy or ministers, have much influence at their disposal. They can use it, if they so wish, to bully or intimidate others. The spiritual power delegated to them by the institution is capable of being exercised in such a way that crushes others and renders them powerless. A bishop who simply rides roughshod over his clergy, in particular the ones that he does not like, is an example of authority abusing power. The minister who tells his people that they are going to hell unless they tithe their income is also abusing power. What the bishop and the minister choose not to understand is how their power is experienced by those below them. Simply having this power has, in far too many cases, created a narcissism which makes them insensitive to the feelings of those they are supposed to serve.

In my ideal theological college, there would be a course on power management in the church. By this I am not talking about leadership training. This would be a study of the issue of power, both in the way it is exercised and as it is experienced. Every student would be practised in the analysis of role play situations. They would be encouraged to identify and describe all the different ways that power was being exercised (or suffered) in these scenarios. If there was a general heightened sensitivity to power dynamics in the church, individuals within the structure would be better able to call out examples of the abusive use of power when it occurs. Bullying, abuse and coercion could be stopped in their tracks if we gave every member of the church permission to name and shame these abuses of power immediately when they occur. Every case of sexual abuse was possible because the victim or those around felt powerless to challenge authority. In other words, the structures of power in the church, because they were unchallengeable, facilitated bullying and in some cases sexual crime.

It was not good enough for the Archbishop to criticise the BBC when there is still so much wrong within the structures of power in the church. These often hold people back and sometimes crush them. There is a further narrative to be told by women clergy over the way that church structures have often oppressed them and demeaned them. Such appalling treatment has been made possible by the way that male clergy and others have sometimes applied their institutional authority. The Archbishop declares that the church has robust structures to protect the vulnerable without any apparent awareness of the way that criminal abuses take place alongside a multitude of other bullyings and abuse. These latter are little understood. Victims will hear the Archbishop’s statement as saying, we want everything to go on as before. Those in authority must be allowed to continue to use their power as they think fit. The right to enjoy power must continue because that is the way it has always been. If the weak, the children and women are abused in this system, then this is simply bad luck. The show must go on, the power that belongs to the powerful must continue to be exercised. If this is the message that is heard by church members or those outside the church, the rate of decline in membership will continue inexorably. One hope for the church is that it can rediscover the use of power as taught by Jesus. Then the church could be a place of liberation because those who have the institutional power have learnt how to serve others and wash their feet. That would be a church worth joining.

The Road to Hell

Last Sunday, along with many churches throughout the country, we celebrated Harvest Festival. In the Anglican church there are three or four harvest hymns which are only chosen for this particular Sunday. One of them is ‘Come ye thankful people come’. Although I have sung this hymn every year for the past 60+ years, I have never paused to consider the meaning of all the words in the verses. The first verse speaks of gathering in the harvest before the winter storms begin. But then the tone of the hymn shifts. Humanity is likened a massive planting of seeds in a world which is ‘God’s own field’. But the planting contains both wheat and tares. We are thus exploring the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 13. 24-30. Verse 3 of the hymn introduces us to the prospect of a final day when a large section of humanity (the tares) will be cast by angels into the fire. What began as a cheerful celebration of the harvest becomes a hymn that sets out the horror of eternal damnation for some.

The idea that even a part of humanity is to be purged and cast into an eternal fire is, when we think about it, a shocking thing to believe. Like most of my readers I have not really before dwelt on the meaning of this well-known hymn. Although the parable of the wheat and the tares is familiar to me, I had always read it as a story. As a story it seemed to be expressing a hope that in God’s Kingdom justice would prevail and his will be done. The binding of the tares and their burning was not the part of the parable that I dwelt on. Certainly, I did not read it, as the hymn writer has done, as a literal description of what God intends to do, either now or in the future.

The question of whether the New Testament is ever describing a real literal place called hell is a debate that continues to this day. A majority who wish to soften the harsh edges of this teaching point to one constant refrain in the teaching of Jesus, ‘do not be afraid’. If Jesus had in any way focussed on the possibility of hell, his disciples might well have reacted with terror to such teaching. It is a topic of teaching that can make anyone who hears it and believes it utterly demoralised and afraid. The best words to describe the likely state of fear is to speak of abject terror. Sometimes I suspect that some preachers want to produce this state of fear as a deliberate tool of control over their congregants. It was certainly a constant theme of teaching in the notorious ministry of Michael Reid at Peniel Church Brentwood.

Today even among evangelical writers there has been a tendency to soften the teaching about hell. One approach has been to suggest that those who do not reach the state of bliss we call heaven, enter a state of extinction. But equally there are writers like David Pawson who want to maintain the belief in a literal hell complete with flames and eternal torture. Back in the 90s he wrote a complete book, The Road to Hell, promoting the idea of everlasting torment as being part of God’s plan. This was to answer the teaching of other evangelicals who had gone, in his estimation, soft on the issue.

I am fully aware of all the passages in the New Testament that seem to speak of everlasting pain and damnation for the unsaved. As I have already indicated the fact that Jesus speaks of eternal torment in the context of a parable does not lead to a conclusion that he regards this as part of the nature of God. Reward and punishment in the context of a story may just be part of a metaphor about good and evil. This metaphor may be a way of struggling with the conundrum that we live in an imperfect world. Some things we have to leave in God’s keeping. Human sin as well as natural evil are allowed to exist in this world and perhaps it is futile to believe we can understand its meaning this side of the grave.

The belief that some individuals are destined for a place of eternal torment also can create an utterly repulsive attitude among ‘good’ Christians. As a writer, Carol Meyer, has said: ‘We can readily see the arrogant and callous self-righteousness that a belief in hell engenders. The “saved” proudly assert that they are going to heaven, with nary a care that everyone else will suffer for eternity. They might even glory in the damnation of others’. Any group of Christians that spends time or energy speculating about who is going to hell and who not may develop attitudes of smugness which can only be described as obscene.

What are the arguments that allow us to take a gentle, even liberal, attitude to the question of what happens to individuals when they die? In the face of the quotations that appear to promote eternal punishment for some, we have two New Testament principles that argue definitively against the idea of a God who is waiting to punish human souls. The first argument is one we have already mentioned. Jesus constantly calls on his disciples not to fear. We can go further than this and say that his call always seems to be one of encouragement and support. We get the feeling that Jesus wants his disciples to be men and women of adventure. We never get the sense that those who turned away were destined for eternal punishment. Rather we have the feeling that Jesus is focused on getting people to live life in a richer, deeper or fuller way than simply living according to selfish desires. Not to follow him is seen somehow as the missing of an opportunity. The Greek word for sin, as many of us know, has nothing to do with evil. It has the meaning of missing the mark. Those who do not follow the message of Jesus can be said to be missing out on something, the opportunity to live better lives.

A further argument which goes against the idea of a vengeful God bent on punishing those who do not turn to him is indicated by many of the parables. Many of them picture a God who is patient and loving. The character of the father in the story of the prodigal son is one who waits patiently. God as represented by this father has an infinite capacity, not only for patience but also for forgiveness. The same characteristics are seen in Jesus himself. He spent a great deal of time in the company of individuals who were being utterly rejected by the Jewish spiritual establishment.

The arguments about the existence of hell do not depend on particular quotations that can be extracted from the New Testament. They are answered far more clearly by our realisation that Jesus came to reveal a God of love, forgiveness and patience. God also wants to arm us against the paralysing fear that would make life in all its fullness so difficult to find or to live. It is for these reasons that I found myself unable to sing most of verse 3 of the harvest hymn last Sunday.

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

On the 3rd October, there will be an important event in American publishing. That is the day when a book entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump is published. It is the work of 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts who have cooperated to assess President Trump’s mental health. This book is thus not one individual sounding off with his pet theory about the president. It is the psychological community coming together to express a consensus about what they see in their president and why it is they are fearful for the future.

The full contents of the book have obviously yet to be revealed. But, one of the contributors is a distinguished academic who has been writing for 55 years on such things as brain-washing, cults and the behaviour of groups. His ideas have influenced many other writers and researchers who have come after him. His name is Robert Lifton and long-term readers of this blog will know that that I have discussed his ideas before. In describing something about the book, The Dangerous Case, Lifton gives us a statement of what appears to him to be the fundamental problem with the psychological functioning of the president. It is this short summing up of the problem of Trump’s mental health which I want to share with my readers. I do this, not least because it describes a pathology sometimes found in religious circles and among church leaders.

Lifton uses a word which I have to confess was unfamiliar to me until I looked it up on an on-line dictionary a month ago. The word is solipsistic. It means focusing only on things and people that protect and work for the interests of the self. This reality that is created by concentrating on the self and its needs is described by Lifton as the solipsistic reality. In every decision made there is the same question. ‘What is in this for me? How can I gain something from this?’ If the reality presented has nothing to offer to one’s advantage, then it is ignored or pushed aside. Solipsism is perhaps a normal part of being a business man when you make rapid calculations as to whether a deal will profit the company or firm. But, as Lifton points out, it is a disastrous position to hold when you are running a huge country and have responsibilities for the whole world.

I thought about the accusation against Trump and realised that a lot of people think in the same way. The ‘what’s in this for me?’ question is likely to dominate the awareness of many people, from small infants onwards. Nevertheless, the hope of Christian education is that when love comes to be internalised, the possibility of true altruism becomes actualised in the individual. Developing altruistic motives for our actions is a gradual process. All too often we find ourselves slipping back into making decisions that ultimately benefit only ourselves. But even if we fail the solipsism test from time to time, I think it is true for most of us that we have at least the imagination to know what an utterly unselfish action might look like. We can normally imagine what another person is thinking or feeling. Our response towards them, at least sometimes, is conducted in such a way that our own feelings or interests are put firmly to one side. In short, the solipsistic reality is not the only or even the dominant reality in our lives.

According to Lifton, every decision made by Donald Trump seems always to involve something calculated to benefit him. Sometimes the benefits are financial; on other occasions, the reward is emotional. A speech given in a political rally seems to be about making Trump feel loved by his supporters rather than serving any serious purpose. Even his recent consorting with Democratic politicians seems to have been effort to curry favour with his liberal critics. But the point of this post is not really to be talking about Trump. His name comes up once more because he reminds us of a type of leadership which we find among religious leaders who exploit power for selfish ends. Lifton’s category of people living in a ‘solipsistic reality’ seems to embrace this band of leaders as well.

I have been recently once more studying the Langlois report on Peniel Church and ministry of Michael Reid and I see solipsism as a key reality there too. Without laying out in detail all the crimes of which Reid and his henchmen stand accused, the naked examples of abuse of power in that church over a long period of time are classic examples of self-serving behaviour. Imaginative altruistic care of others became impossible when there was so much concentration on the amassing of wealth and gaining power. We might speculate that when the possession of a power which cannot be challenged is achieved, those who wield this power adopt a solipsistic personality disorder. It will always be highly dangerous for those around. Lifton’s conclusion is that Trump’s ‘solipsistic reality will be the source of his removal from the presidency.’

We will see whether the book due out on October 3rd will have any impact on the political scene in the States. Meanwhile I have acquired a new word to describe a temperament which has utter contempt for the true feelings or needs of another person. When such behaviour creeps into the church we find that we are in a dark place. Evoking the power of God to prop up human solipsistic tendencies is a hard thing to battle against. The person we face may well have lost his or her connection to any altruism they may once have possessed. In the place of human love, we may see the dark face of an utterly inflexible exercise of power. This is the power which seeks to do nothing more than to serve the emotional needs of the bully.

Can we find forgiveness for abuse?

Today, following the Joint Lectionary followed by many of our churches, we heard the parable of the man who was forgiven a huge debt by a king. He then went on to harass a fellow servant for a relatively modest sum of money. The story ends badly with the indebted man being sent off to be tortured in prison till the vast debt was paid back. Clearly this was never going to happen. A recent document has been published by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England which discusses another story in the Bible which ends without resolution. The paper, entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse, consists of some 80 pages and asks how whether forgiveness is ever possible in the context of child abuse. To make the point about how difficult forgiveness can be in such a situation, the reader is reminded of the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. The episode of her rape is clearly the beginning of a period in King David’s reign marked by violence, injustice and a general sense of moral disintegration. The story of Tamar has nothing in the way of a happy ending. Although the reflections on Tamar’s story are only part of the Commission’s report I want to look at this biblical passage because it raises issues which will be of concern to readers of this blog.

Tamar was one of the daughters of David who met the cruel fate of being raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is quite clear from the account of the story in 2 Samuel 13 that Tamar was tricked by her abuser. Amnon pretended to be ill and Tamar was forced to come to him in his bedchamber to bring food. This was the opportunity for the vicious sexual attack. The Faith and Order Commission Report helpfully discusses the episode beyond the actual rape event and shows how all the other characters in the story responded in a less than helpful way. David as the father of both victim and perpetrator might have been expected to demand justice for Tamar in this situation or at least offer some kind of emotional support. Even if the results of the sexual attack could never be undone, some reaction was called for. David would have known that the rape rendered Tamar unclean, unable to marry and without any future within his court. Her shame and disgrace were complete even though she played no part in creating this situation. After covering herself with ash to signify her state of dishonour, Tamar simply disappears from the biblical narrative. All that we hear of David’s reaction is that he was angry but he takes no action.

The reaction of Tamar’s other brother, Absalom, was somewhat different. He nursed a desire for revenge against Amnon for over two years. Eventually Amnon was invited to a feast and Absalom orders one of his slaves to kill him. This naturally set up a strained relationship with David his father. This was one of the causes of the eventual civil war between father and son.

The story of Tamar is still one that should be considered today. We need first of all to note that the story’s outcome as recorded in Scripture is somewhat bleak. As we have seen, there is no happy ending or any kind of moral resolution. Severe abuse happens and everyone skirts around the real problems that need to be resolved. Similar events happen in churches today but often cowardice, denial and even niceness take over. From our perspective of today we recognise that certain things should happen in this kind of situation. Tamar was clearly a victim but she failed to receive either support or any kind of access to justice. Even the anger that David is reported to have expressed seems to be more about his own failure to manage his family than any feeling for Tamar’s predicament. It reminds one of a bishop appearing to care more the reputation of his diocese than any compassion for a suffering victim. A daughter had been cruelly treated but the only concern of the father seems to have been that fact that he was being made to look bad. Absalom’s reaction was equally unhelpful. No support to his sister was offered. He went off to nurse his murderous rage. Such anger was not going to help Tamar or further the cause of justice. Thus both Tamar’s close relatives failed. She was condemned to a living hell of social and psychological shame.

The Commission Report explores how costly it is to resolve a situation of abuse. The Old Testament account of Tamar gives us no suggestion as to how we should move forward in this kind of situation. It is hard to know in the context of the time what should have happened to Amnon for his crime. Perhaps exile might have been appropriate. Anything would have been better than the disastrous fractricide that did take place at the command of Absalom. In a contemporary setting we also know that punishments and reparations really only make sense when the full impact of the original offence has been owned up to by the perpetrators. Our gospel reading this morning speaks about forgiveness as though it is always an option for us to choose. The sexual abuse of children or the act of rape are in fact difficult to forgive because the effects can be so long lasting. When are we right to suggest that a survivor or victim of such abuse should forgive the perpetrator when they are still suffering decades later? Clearly forgiveness is something to aimed at but any suggestion that the process should be in any way hurried is an insult to the needs of victims and survivors.

The Tamar story with its failure to reach any kind of ‘happy’ ending is a salutary lesson for us as we grapple with the horror of abuse wherever it occurs. When abuse happens in the context of a church, there should be a recognition that there are no magic short cuts provided by the fact of Christian discipleship. There is the same need for justice to be served; the need of support for the victims is paramount. Also, the Christian may need to recognise that real evil is being encountered in many of these situations. It needs to be named and confronted squarely. Forgiveness of sin can never be divorced from the hard struggle to tackle the reality of evil and power abuse that exists in the psyche of so many, even Christians. That will always be a tough challenge.

The Christian pilgrimage and the pursuit of joy

People who attend authoritarian churches do not necessarily get abused in ways we have described in this blog. But the fact remains that when there is an authoritarian dynamic where spiritual power is used to emphasise constantly sin, salvation and eternal punishment, there will likely be an oppressive and heavy atmosphere. It is difficult to draw the dividing line between an oppressive atmosphere and one that should be named as abusive. That is something that needs to be debated. Nevertheless, there is one generalisation that is safe to make. In most, if not all, authoritarian churches there is an absence of joy.

In a conversation, someone once spoke to me about the facial expression that he most associated with a conservative Christian. He described what he called the ‘evangelical grin’. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was an individual making a deliberate effort to indicate to the world that his opinions, beliefs and way of life were perfect. Given this perfection of his church, his minister and the teaching that is promoted there, the conservative Christian has a duty to give expression to his happiness, hence the evangelical grin. Those of us looking into the eyes of a Christian with this expression can see that this grin does not necessarily denote any real joy. Although this Christian has been given a promise of eternal salvation, uncertainties and real fears still abound. All the safety acquired through conversion can be lost if the relationship with his/her church is in any way changed. Any kind of disagreement or falling out with the minister could also place in jeopardy a hard-won salvation. Likewise doubts or uncertainties on doctrine would have potentially drastic consequences. Although I personally have never been in this situation, the experience of many Christians in this authoritarian tradition must be a bit like walking along a tight-rope. Unless one is tremendously careful, it is easy to fall off the rope and plummet to a place of abandonment and utter despair.

The gift that should be on offer within every Christian church should be the gift of joy. When I speak about joy I am of course not thinking about what lies behind the evangelical grin. Joy comes, not as a result of having the right beliefs and belonging to a church which is thought to be near perfect; it emerges from a sense that one is on a journey which is in some way within the will of God. The Christian pilgrim, if I may describe him/her as such, is not defined because they are Catholic, Protestant or conservative evangelical. A pilgrim may be any of these but the journey he/she is travelling will be marked by an inner freedom to follow the path which is believed to be given to them by God. In that journey is the gift of joy. Joy represents a complete opposite of the kind of coercive control that marks the life of many Christians who belong to authoritarian communities. So much teaching in these churches is based on terror. If you do not believe what we teach or conduct your lives as you are told, you are destined for hell. How can joy ever come into that environment? How can a Christian grow spiritually or emotionally when the whole setting of their Christian life is rooted in this fear?

Every Christian has a right to experience joy. If such joy is absent in a particular Christian community then that Christian has every right to move on elsewhere in order to find it. The gift of joy is providing every Christian pilgrim with a sense of direction, freedom and independence. A leader who provides these gifts is a bit like a parent who strives to provide the children with the means to live independent lives. Such a parent is constantly finding ways to surrender the power that he/she had been given at the beginning when the children first arrived in the world. Parental power to protect and guide was then a necessity for the flourishing of the children in those early years. Now the same power has to be surrendered so that emerging adult/mature Christian may claim for him/herself the freedom and joy of the individual who wants to make their own way in the world.

Readers of this blog will recognise this much-repeated theme. Spiritual abuse is possible when church leaders retain the authority and power of parents who cannot let go. In contrast, the freedom loving parent will be anxious to lead children into a way of joy. I would like to suggest that every church should take a test to see if they are promoting joy. Over the door might be an invisible slogan. ‘In this church we teach joy’. Underneath the slogan there could be further words. ‘In this church there is no cause for us to teach fear, control or power games. If you enter here we shall try to bring you to an experience of Life in all its fullness; you will be doing this with fellow pilgrims who are also making this journey. Come and join us. In the name of Christ, you are truly welcome.’

Church as a family

When I began my study of the phenomenon of abusive churches some 20 years ago, there was no conceptual model around to help me see what might be going on in these communities. Two questions loomed large. One was why anyone would want to attend a church where they might come to harm. The second question was why there should be Christian leaders prepared to exploit their followers. My reading over the years has helped me towards answers to both these questions. While I obviously cannot rehearse all these answers in a short blog, I wanted today to share a very helpful model that I came across as I struggled to begin to understand the mystery of church abuse. One very helpful book that I came across early in my studies was entitled Righteous Religion. This book likened and compared the church to a human family. Just as the good healthy family allows the children to flourish and grow to maturity in a safe, secure environment, so a dysfunctional family cramps and restricts the personalities of the children through a regime of fear, control and coercion. The same contrast can be found in churches. Some allow their members to grow to spiritual maturity while others control the development of their members so that there is little in the way of spiritual flourishing or joy.

In describing two models of family, church or human, Righteous Religion describes the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love is the kind that is only offered when a child (parishioner) pleases the parent by a rigid conformity to the parent’s wishes and desires. Unconditional love on the other hand, is one that allows a child to grow through mistakes as well as pursue his or her own interests. There is never too much in the way of control over these emerging events. The love that is expressed for the child will never be destroyed however much the child may appear to rebel and chafe against the discipline of living in a family.

The positive experience of church for many people is much like the experience of growing up in a family. Some things that a family offers are also offered by a church. A human family offers (or should offer) protection, love, food, shelter, and education. Although these needs are not precisely the same as those offered by a church, a growing child might well understand a church as being like a second home. The church will be an important part of the way that a child comes to be socialised and educated in learning to be part of the wider community beyond the home. The church community in turn is a prelude to recognising we are part of a worldwide community. It does not need to be emphasised how important church belonging can play in the rearing of a child.

An abusive church is likely to have much in common with a family where love is conditional. Some styles of Christian teaching seem to imply that God’s love is somehow conditional to our believing and behaving in a defined way. Although most of us find in Scripture the central proclamation that God loves us unconditionally, there are many churches where the message received is that God is preoccupied in punishing eternally those who do not turn to him. It is of course possible to read certain passages in this way but this is not the teaching of the Prodigal Son or the central thrust of Scripture. The model for human families that we applaud is one where love is offered unconditionally. Can we really believe that God is like an angry parent who withholds his love except for those children who successfully negotiate a long narrow list of commands?

The family model that seems to be followed in certain conservative Christian communities is similar to one known in Victorian times. Then the ideal father was one who maintained strict authority through the exercise of fear. This whole process of comparing the church to styles of family life and parenting models is one I have found helpful. Just as we rightly shrink from a model of child-rearing which emphasises terror, fear and threats, so we should also purge church communities of the message that God’s love is withheld from individuals and groups that a minister does not approve of. Exclusion of despised minorities was never something that Jesus did. We also should uphold at every point the message that God includes all and that it is never for us to declare that his love is anything other than unconditional.

Mavis Arnold -advocate for spiritually and physically abused children

The name of Mavis Arnold, who died in July, will not be known to many people. Her obituary in The Times last Tuesday, however, brought to memory one of the most appalling child abuse scandals in the Church during the 20th-century. It was Arnold and her fellow journalist Heather Lasky who spent 10 years uncovering the scale of child abuse and neglect in church run schools in Ireland for many decades up till the 60s.

In 1943 35 girls were burnt to death in St Joseph’s industrial school in Co Cavan Ireland. The enquiry held at the time blamed the slow response of the emergency services for this tragedy. The full story that Arnold uncovered 30 years later was that many of the girls had been locked in their dormitories by the sisters so that they would not be seen by the public in their nightclothes.

This discovery led Arnold and her fellow researcher to look in more detail at the record of church run schools and orphanages in Ireland at that time. Although officialdom put many obstructions in her way, Arnold was able to listen to the testimonies of many former inmates of these institutions. They had experienced appalling neglect, starvation and emotional and physical abuse. Her book, The Children of the Poor Clares, was published in 1985. The reviews at the times were disbelieving and no doubt many wanted to ignore her research. It took another 14 years for the Irish government to apologise to the victims and only in 2009 did the Ryan Report chronicle lay bare the full horror of the abuse suffered at many church-run institutions by thousands of children.

This blog has not focused hitherto on the many examples of religious abuse in the Catholic Church. It would be easy to catalogue examples of Catholic priests around the world who have failed, especially in the abusing of children. This Irish saga raises a dimension of abuse which is way beyond individual failure. It is a story of abuse by religious institutions that no one wanted to see. For decades this was also ignored by the people of power in Ireland. The full story of how the church found itself looking after so many vulnerable children on behalf of the state is a complex one. When the Irish Free State came into being in the 1920s, it afforded the Catholic Church immense privileges and guaranteed these in the newly written Constitution. The Church took over many of the responsibilities of the State so that much education together with the care of orphaned children and unmarried mothers came under its control. All these were state-funded. Supervision by the State of how the money was spent was lacking. Also there does not seem to have any oversight of the care provision for countless vulnerable people in the church-run institutions.

To return to the awful events of 1943 in Co Cavan. St Joseph’s must have been a place of appalling suffering but not only for the unfortunate girls who died that night in their smoke-filled dormitories. Every one of the sisters who had responsibility for their welfare had, in different ways, bought into an appalling regime of repression, lies and abuse. Any individual who could dream up the thought that desperate children in their nightclothes were potential objects of sexual fantasy was herself corrupted in mind and imagination. The theology and formation these sisters had received from the Catholic Church had somehow sucked away the fundamental humanity which should have allowed them to succour their fellow human beings. Here we have an unholy mixture of obsessive and unhealthy attitude to sexuality mixed up with some religious teaching focussed on evil and depravity. It is a similar combination of unhealthy attitudes to sex with extremist teaching that we sometimes meet in Protestant settings. It has to be acknowledged that rarely do such ideas allow children to die. But we do regularly find in conservative Protestant thinking the same desire to control the sexuality of the people under their authority. Sometimes leaders will decide who will marry whom in the group, even if this involves breaking up existing relationships. It goes almost without saying that same-sex partnerships are completely outlawed. In many of these high-demand groups, sexual issues seem constantly to loom large. As a general observation I would hazard the guess that the more sexuality is discussed (and condemned) the more we find fundamentally unhealthy dynamics in a Christian community. An attempt to control the sexuality of other people whether in Catholic Ireland or Protestant America is all too frequently the accompaniment to some of the worst examples of spiritual abuses within these churches.

The recent Nashville statement by a group of American evangelicals on the topic of sexuality, is the latest example of Christian people seemingly obsessed with this area of human life. So often do we hear Christian conservatives speaking about sex that we could be forgiven for thinking that ‘correct’ Christian views on sexual behaviour comes before any other belief. Thankfully we do not find obsessive fretting about sexual activity to be a feature of the New Testament. Jesus was of course concerned about the quality of relationships. But we never get the impression that he was constantly talking about this aspect of life to his disciples or making it part of the ‘good news’.

The tragic story of St Joseph’s industrial school in 1943 is a reminder to us that it is essential never to let sexuality become a dominant theme of teaching in a Christian community. When we hear the inhibitions about sex that come to us from strict versions of Catholicism or the teachings of conservative Protestant groups, we need to be on our guard. The Church’s standing in society is being steadily undermined because it cannot speak clearly and healthily about sex. The lonely suffering of the 35 St Joseph girls should help us to realise how important it is to get better communication about sex to the world than we do at present. Within the Anglican church the squabbling about sex is unhelpful and undignified. Still worse are stories of individuals whose faith seems to depend on the opinion they have on the ‘gay issue’. May the church successfully preach and live her real priorities. Unless what it teaches is truly good (and healthy) news, the world will rightly turn away.

Conservative American Religion and a Post-truth society

As President Trump moves into a state of political and social isolation, it is worth reflecting on how many from the established institutions in America have abandoned him. It seems that entire groups set up to advise him, representing the heads of industry, the intellectual and artistic elite and many Republican political figures, have got off the Trump train. But there is one group that continues to support him. This is the group of evangelical leaders who gathered to make up a so-called Evangelical Advisory Board. No doubt they believed that being close to Trump they could further their right-wing Christian agenda. There is only one Christian leader who has left this group for reasons of conscience. His name is A.R. Bernard and he runs a mega-church in New York. All the other members including Jerry Falwell of Liberty University, Paula White, Robert Jeffress and Kenneth Copeland remain at the side of the President. They still feel able to link their Christian beliefs and consciences with Trump’s confused and dysfunctional values and aims.

This metaphorical presidential train, to judge from its paucity of passengers, is likely to end up in a siding. Those still on board will, in all likelihood, find their professional reputations completely destroyed. It is hard to respect those who have aided and abetted a leader as unstable and malign as President Trump. The question remains as to why there are still so many conservative religious leaders backing the president. He is not known for his Christian commitment. It is widely held that his embrace of a variety of religious ideas has been a shabby political ploy. Now that the train is beginning to leave the tracks, why do these leaders still want to be aboard the Trump train?

There has of course always been a traditional alliance between the Republican Party and American conservative religion. This goes back to the dawn of the American Republic. I do not propose to go into this traditional link. Rather I want to examine why so many conservative Christians in America today want to support the lies, the unpredictability and the sheer bombast of their President.

According to political watchers, the number of lies and half-truths told by the President in public statements over the past six months exceeds a thousand. Detailed fact-checking takes place and I have no reason to suppose that this claim is incorrect. The most recent lie is the one which was told to the rally in Arizona. It involved the President leaving out the three crucial words ‘on both sides’ when repeating verbatim an earlier speech about the events at Charlottesville. By omitting these three words he completely changed the meaning of what he had said in the earlier speech. Everyone had seen the original pronouncement so his accusation against the media of making ‘fake news’ was extraordinary but also insulting to the intelligence of his hearers.

Americans are perhaps going to have to get used to living in a post-truth society where ‘alternative facts’ are common. The degradation and destruction of truth in such a short space of time nevertheless needs some explanation. In an article in the New York Times Molly Worthen has traced the roots of the way that parts of traditional America have always harboured a deep distrust of factual and scientific truth. This preference for a truth that feels right rather being factually correct stems from a preference for a so-called ‘biblical worldview’. Ordinary people have been routinely taught by their churches to distrust the ideas of scientists and the mainstream media when these come into conflict with the Bible. It is because of this that ‘climate change is not real; evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God and capitalism is God’s ideal society’. The expression ‘biblical worldview’ sounds innocuous but it can also be seen to be a full-frontal attack on reason, fact and free enquiry. For an unhealthily large proportion of Americans science and learning are treated with at best suspicion and at worst downright opposition.

When we say that the inerrant Bible shapes the entire worldview of conservative America, we are saying something distinctive about American society. The politics of Britain and indeed of every other western country has not been impacted by religious ideas as thoroughly it has in some parts of the States. The word ‘evangelical’ when used in America carries a distinct political nuance and association with extreme right wing social attitudes. Conservative ideas about the Bible, its inerrancy and complete authority are held by individuals and congregations in this country, but these do not seep as deeply into the minds of Christians as in America. It is hard to see Trumpism, ‘alternative facts’ or a tolerance for rampant falsehoods ever gaining traction on this side of the Atlantic. But when up to 40% of the American population believes that the world is only 6000 years old, it is not so difficult to see that there will be considerable tolerance for all kinds of irrational ideas in the area of politics. The problem for the rest of us is that irrationality and hostility to reason is not just something that is a harmless eccentricity. It is something that is potentially dangerous and a threat to the whole world. The Bible reader who believes that history may be shaped by reading the Book of Revelation is a potential threat to all humankind. One longs for sanity and reason to return to the conduct of the world’s affairs. May that respect for reason and truth soon return to the counsels of all in authority. As the Prayer Book puts it in the Litany, may those set over to rule us have ‘grace wisdom and understanding’.