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.

Megachurch -curse or blessing?

In recent weeks I have been reading accounts of large megachurches in Australia and east Asia. My special interest in Australia is because there has been a huge Pentecostal revival in that part of the world. The Sydney area is particularly interesting. It is the home of the non-Pentecostal Sydney Anglicans. It is also the headquarters of an international Pentecostal network of churches known as Hillsong. Sydney Anglicans represent a conservative Reformed group within the Anglican Communion. They have a strong emphasis on bible teaching and Calvinist orthodoxy. Their links include Oakhill Theological College in London and they organise the GAFCON network within the Anglican Communion. Hillsong on the other hand has a very different theological stance. It is the largest Pentecostal church in Australia and has numerous offshoots in the country. There are also branches of Hillsong in the States and in Britain. Some 30,000 people attend Hillsong centres in Australia every Sunday.

I have read through a great deal of internet comment on this particular network of churches. All are agreed that the music produced by Hillsong is of high quality and makes the church and its worship attractive to a large segment of young people. This attractiveness of Hillsong music does however create a problem for the church. If people flock to a church, attracted by the music on offer, what sort of demands, if any, should be made on the doctrinal and moral stance of these followers? In contrast to Sydney Anglicans who set fairly high demands for its membership, the Hillsong leaders seem more relaxed. The consensus is that Hillsong draws in crowds but has relatively few expectations of these followers. The main condition for membership is that all who come should dig deep into their pockets. Financial support, in the form of tithing and extra collections is a constant theme at their services. This is necessary to support a very expensive and wide-reaching ministry across the world.

There are other serious concerns about the integrity of the leadership of Hillsong. It has been suggested that Brian Houston, the leader, was reticent with the truth when speaking about his father Frank to the Royal Commission set up to investigate child abuse in Australia. This Commission has been sitting for several years and is due to be wound up in December 2017. No doubt we will be returning to examine its final conclusions. Brian’s father Frank admitted in 1999 to his church that he was guilty of paedophilia in the 70s and 80s while acting as a minister in the church that preceded Hillsong. Rumours of his misbehaviour were the reason for his departure from New Zealand in the 70s. Brian insisted to the Commission that he knew nothing of his father’s activities. He did however admit that his church had not dealt with the situation well when it became public in 1999. He claimed under oath that Frank was then suffering from dementia and had his licence to preach had been withdrawn immediately. Some claim that this was not true and that there is a recording of the father preaching three years later. He died in 2004.

Scandal has also hit other prominent Pentecostal churches in the region. The City Harvest Church in Singapore has recently (April 2017) had six of its senior leadership sent to prison for the misappropriation of church funds. The famous and much celebrated church in Seoul South Korea with 800,000 members, the Yoido Full Gospel Church has also been plagued by financial scandal. Huge sums of money found their way into the pockets of members of the family of the leader, Yong-gi Cho. His son has been sent to prison. The father, now retired, escaped with a suspended sentence.

One of the interesting things to note is that, in spite of scandal, these three churches continue their activities without interruption. When a large bill for legal fees was presented to the defendants in the City Harvest Church in Singapore, the money was quickly raised by a whip round of members of the congregation. Devotion to leaders, even when they fall, together with an enormous capacity to forgive their activities seems to be widespread. What is going on in these situations? The dynamic of the megachurch is that all the members are drawn together in a mutual admiration of the leader at the centre. But, because the leader is not personally known to any but the few at the centre, this relationship is a fantasy one. It is a bit like the relationship between a popstar and their fans. The individual fan feels that because they may possess a signed photograph that they are somehow linked to their idol. But this relationship does not really exist.

Chris has often spoken about churches becoming like theatres. I would go further and say that these prominent megachurches are now becoming like mini-entertainment industries. They promise and promote a mixture of fantasy, powerful music and the opportunity to be drawn into a pseudo-reality. Whether God is really to be found in this loud cacophony of music and light is an open question. I am rather concerned by the extent to which unreality and fantasy relationships are created in these churches. Pentecostal megachurches are, to put it mildly, extremely unhealthy places. It is hard to see how the fantasy relationships that are offered will have any relevance when the individual encounters difficulty or tragedy in their lives. The music that is churned out in these churches is also likely to be of little relevance or help in times of despair. How can praise music speak to loneliness, depression or poverty? What these churches are saying is that attendance demands an ability to be entertained and little more. Such titillation has little to say to the task of how we are to live our lives under God creatively and well.

Some people believe that the creation of huge megachurches is a way to promote the Christian faith to a younger generation. This would seem a completely backward step for the Church. My reason for saying this is twofold. Quite apart from the issue of scandals and narcissistic behaviour among leaders that seems to beset these institutions, the glue that holds them together is artificial. The glue I refer to is the heavy emphasis on musical entertainment. Music seems to be the dominant feature of these churches. What would happen if there was a power-cut? The appeal they have is that of a night-club. A second objection to a church with huge numbers of people is that the leaders are remote. They have become superstars who travel the world business class on megachurch business. Such leaders quickly become inaccessible remote fantasy figures. They seldom speak to individuals within the congregation. This inaccessibility is bad for the congregation and it is bad for the leaders themselves.

All around the world there are churches trying to imitate the model of the apparently successful megachurch. Even when the numbers are not so vast the leaders have a fantasy of success if they can but follow the right technique. Music and charismatic preaching are thought to be the key to success. Success here sadly is not the glory of God but a wealthy life-style for the minister and international applause to feed his narcissistic craving.

Reflections on ‘Welcome’

welcome to the summer
I was recently having the conversation with Chris about the churches in his home town. Chris has visited virtually all the congregations in his town at some time or other. He was commenting on the fact that none of them seemed to understand the importance of welcoming strangers to their services.

This observation set me off in a reflection about the meaning of this word ‘welcome’. For me it is a powerful word. Its power comes partly from the way that it is a word with emotional resonance. We all know what it feels like to be welcomed and equally we know the opposite, the feeling of rejection. Being genuinely welcomed anywhere is always going to be a positive affirming experience. When a friend or stranger crosses the threshold of someone’s home after an invitation, the word declares that the host is pleased to see them. Using the word also implies acceptance, friendship, even love.

In the context of a welcome to a church congregation, the word takes on a slightly different meaning. The person who does the welcoming does not welcome them as the owner of the building. A church welcome is a way of saying that the individual entering is unconditionally invited to be part of the gathered worshipping community. The visitor has the status of an honoured guest of the community. They are invited to feel that they belong for as long as they choose to stay.

Behind the idea of welcome in a church context there are further nuances of meaning. There is, we hope, pleasure at seeing the new person, combined with a genuine interest in their well-being. There is also the hope that they will return in the future with a promise that all that belongs to the congregation can also belong to them. A Christian who welcomes another will be saying that he or she has already discovered something in his or her membership which this visitor is invited to share. The full content of church belonging will not become apparent on a single visit. Belonging and patient learning will be what gradually unlocks the inner content of church membership. Different words and phrases will be used to describe what this inner substance and knowing will consist of. The church’s varying traditions will express the meaning of the church’s core message in various ways. Some will emphasise the relationship with Christ and being ‘saved’. Others will point to a relationship of inner love and the experience of forgiveness in their lives. There are some words from one of the psalms, notably set to music by Vaughan Williams which express well what we are invited to discover of God. These indicate that the Christian journey is one of gradual discovery. The words ‘O taste and see, how gracious the Lord is. Blest is the man that trusteth in him.’ Welcoming someone into church is inviting them to come on a journey of ‘taste and seeing’, discovering what the congregation is about in journeying towards God. Perhaps they too will want what is there both for themselves and their family.

All of us know in how difficult it is to persuade new people to come and join our congregations. The words used and the messages heard by a first-time visitor may seem very strange and even alien to them. But the whole experience will be so much more accessible if there has been a warm smile and friendly welcome at the start. With such a welcome there is a reasonable chance that the individual may return. In its absence there is only the experience of sitting among people who are unknown and apparently uninterested in you. That must be appallingly off-putting. How many of our churches, as in Chris’ town, seem to fail in providing such basic courtesies which might encourage new members?

The word ‘welcome’ is not, as far as I can remember, a scriptural one. But there is one expression very close to the idea of welcome in a parable in Matthew 25. There the king speaks to those who have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger and visited those in prison. He says: ‘come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been made ready for you since the world was made’. These words, come, enter and possess, convey all that is meant by welcome and more. We sense in this parable something of God’s promise of joy, eternal joy, to all those who have lived out his purpose for their lives. Somehow the single word welcome in the context of an encounter with God in the life beyond the grave, would well sum up all that is promised to us. Here the word implies utter joy, bliss and radiant hope. If this promise is a reality for faithful Christians, should we not try to give at least some pale reflection of this experience of this hope in our demeanour? Should not some joy spill out of us in what we do on Sunday mornings as we mingle with other members of the congregation and welcome the occasional newcomers? ‘Come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made’. This is a promise of enormous moment. Should we not be able to welcome others and share something of the hope that we have been given, a promise of everlasting joy?

Gilo affair – unanswered questions

The post that I wrote with great speed last Sunday on the Gilo affair appeared at the same time as comments in the church press as well as the national press. I have, naturally, studied them with some attention but there are still things that do not make sense. Let me summarise what I think Gilo was saying in the summer of 2016 in his open letter to the House of Bishops and which was reproduced in this blog.

At the time that Gilo wrote his open letter to bishops he had already received a financial settlement from the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG). The sum of money that he received was not large and, arguably, could be said not to be adequate to compensate him for the suffering and grief that the abuse caused him. Nevertheless, at no point has Gilo been appearing to complain about the level of his financial compensation. His complaint to the church and to the bishops of the Church of England was the way that the entire compensation process had operated. Although EIG has claimed that there was a misunderstanding over what they advised the bishops to do in dealing with Gilo, he at any rate seems at that point to have encountered obstruction and what he felt to be a silencing process. It was this failure to communicate and an absence of care that was at the heart of Gilo’s concern and this was articulated in his letter to the bishops.

The story as it has been reported in today’s Church Times and the secular press still seems to imply that the EIG and its ability to pay compensation is the key player in the reconciliation process. This does not seem to be the narrative that Gilo was offering us. He was pointing to the complete failure of the church in responding to abused victims like himself when they try to be heard. Gilo needed a great deal of perseverance in achieving the result that he has achieved. But we are left with the feeling that most of the bishops still do not ‘get it’. At best abuse survivors are perceived to be a nuisance; at worst they are treated as the enemy to be defeated because they appear to be a threat to the wider institution. Although Gilo has received for the first time a proper hearing for his complaint against the church, hardly anyone else seems to have really picked up on the real message. His primary concern was for better pastoral care and understanding by the church for survivors like himself.

When a clergyman or any church official commits an act of abuse against an individual, there needs to be a proper response. First there will be a process of enquiry to see that the perpetrator, if guilty, is dealt with through due process. Also, the context of the abuse needs to be looked at to see if other failings on the part of church leadership can be identified. Secondly the resources of pastoral care need to be offered to the victim without delay. Such pastoral care may be extremely costly but the church must recognise that lives have been damaged, if not ruined, through the failings of church leaders. Thirdly, there should be recognition that financial compensation may be appropriate. The experience of hospitals has suggested that levels of compensation do not need always to be high. What damaged patients apparently wish to receive above anything else is an explanation, proper communication and a heart-felt apology. The church could certainly learn from the NHS in the way that compensation claims are handled by our Health Service. Gilo has had to fight for quite a long time to receive full recognition for what he has been through. It is the delay in receiving that recognition together with the fact that the insurance company appeared to be obstructing the process that has been at the heart of his complaint. My question to the church is why they now seem to be addressing Gino’s abuse as though it was just a matter of finding the right level of financial compensation. No, Gilo wanted to be heard and to shift the attitudes within the institution that aggravated the original act of abuse. Part of this has happened and, no doubt, Gilo is pleased that he has been at the centre of what may be a revolutionary shift on the part of church leaders to situations of this kind.

My final question to the church is perhaps not one that has been so far raised but is at the heart of the concerns of this blog. Why does the church appear to be so inept at understanding power issues within its structure? Why is the church so bad at identifying bullying and other forms of coercive behaviour? As the editor of this blog I hear about many stories about power abuse in churches and these take many forms. Of course, sexual abuse is one particularly acute form of power abuse, when a victim becomes objectified and used by a powerful perpetrator. But power abuse comes in many guises. I long for the day when these can be easily and readily identified before they become institutionally entrenched. It should be possible for a clergyman to say to his bishop that his behaviour is unacceptable because he is using his authority to bully and intimidate. The hierarchical system does not of course allow this to happen. Clergy do not speak like this to their bishops. Curates seldom answer back to their Vicars even though they are often subject to unnecessary humiliations.

What is it that needs to be understood? What has to be shown clearly is that every person alive is tempted from time to time in misuse whatever power is available to them. We would suggest that normally power abuse happens to compensate for some deep-seated inadequacy. Many people carry damage from a childhood where they endured bullying and put-downs. The wounds from that treatment can result in a constant need to be top dog in every situation. Now that we are seeing the almost daily immature examples of power abuse by an American president, it may help us to recognise this kind of behaviour in our churches. The church with its discourse of self-knowledge and repentance should be a place which is quick to identify such abuse. Sadly, as the discussion around Gilo this past week has shown, most church leaders simply do not yet understand the abuse and misuse of power within the institution where they operate.

My two suggestions to the Church when seeking to respond to the Gilo affair are as follows. First think carefully about the kind of environment that you want a survivor of clerical abuse to encounter. It is an accepting, caring and understanding safe-place that these survivors want rather than large sums of money. Secondly, I ask that leaders begin to study and understand far better how power works in an institution like the church. It is power and its misuse that creates the sex abuse, the bullying and a great deal of unhappiness in the institution that they serve. To grasp a new understanding would be a fine and godly achievement for the future.

‘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. http://survivingchurch.org/2016/06/21/jos-letter-to-the-anglican-house-of-bishops/ 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.’