Category Archives: Stephen’s Blog

The problem with miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Timothy Davis abuse case – some reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Bonetti
Alexandria VA
United States

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

CCPAS and Spiritual Abuse – a contribution to the debate

Over the weekend spiritual abuse has come into the news. A survey organised on behalf of the Church’s Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) by Bournemouth University has discovered that 72% of the Christians surveyed claim to have experienced it. Although the study uses this expression ‘spiritual abuse’, it does not provide a definition of what this is. It speaks about a ‘systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context’. Further on it mentions ‘manipulation and pressuring of individuals, coercion through the misuse of religious texts and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour’. All these ideas have challenged me to come up with my own definition of what I think spiritual abuse consists of. As someone who has been thinking about this subject for the past 20 years I thought it would be useful to offer my attempt at defining or at least describing it. These comments that follow are just as applicable to someone with a Christian background as they are in another religious context.

Spiritual abuse is an abuse of power within a religious context. It may involve one or more of the following.

The use of Scriptures or doctrinal statements to undermine or frighten an individual/group to create in them passivity or compliance.

The exercise of institutional or charismatic power to cause a person/group to submit to the will of a perpetrator for selfish ends.

The manipulation of another person by alternately withholding and dispensing favours within an institution.

Spiritual abuse takes place most typically where there is a leader who for complex reasons seeks the gratification of having subservient followers. Such followers also may have their own reasons for seeking the ‘safety’ of apparently strong decisive leadership.

My effort to set out the nature of spiritual abuse is one that would certainly cover not only churches but also most of the groups that we call cults. Each of the sentences above could be filled out extensively and, as readers of my blog will know, there is a great deal more to be said about the psychology of abusive leaders. Power and psychological neediness are dangerous partners and we see this at work in current American politics. The major question that my short definitions has not tackled is the question as to why spiritual abuse happens in the first place. What is in it for leaders or any members of a religious organisation to exercise abusive power over another? Power exercised over another person is apparently gratifying for the one who has it. This gratification is sometimes an urgent need for an individual whose life story has denied them significance or self-esteem. The power abusers among us who are the most dangerous are the ones who have been treated badly themselves.

My hope is that this conversation which CCPAS has begun will help to move the debate away from the narrow area of sexual abuse which is so much under public scrutiny at present. We need to understand this wider power abuse that exists in the church. As I have said many times before we need to have better insight as to how power operates in the church. It is important to create a church environment where it is possible for authority to be exercised without any trace of gratification or inappropriate abuse. There is simply too much of what we call bullying. This is another word for power abuse. The church has simply no mechanisms for adjudicating and checking when an individual misuses institutional power. Power abuse does not just happen between leaders and followers, but it also happens when any individual uses techniques which seek to manipulate or intimidate another person. This of course can happen in Anglican parishes where powerful laypeople gang up against their vicar. Mediators and people experience in power issues should be available both formally and informally, to come into situations before they escalate into terrible destructive confrontations.

My readers will have noticed that I began in a place which is somewhat unexpected. I began with the use of Scripture and the way that the text is used in many contexts as a weapon of power. I am thinking of course of coercive preaching and the use of terror techniques in sermons. Hell has become, not a point of doctrine, but an idea with which to pummel and control people you dislike or want power over. Many sermons constitute on their own examples of spiritual abuse. Sometimes a congregation is regaled with hearing about the fate of other people outside the building who differ in some way. Such people are thought to be destined for hell. This is spiritually abusive even if the targets of the abuse of not there to hear it. Those who do hear it are being seduced into a way of thinking which is hateful, spiteful and vindictive. To become hateful in this way and thus perpetrators of actions like shunning and exclusion is also to be the victim of a heinous indirect act of spiritual abuse.

In my past discussions of power, I have noted a variety of power techniques that can control others. I cannot now rehearse all these but quickly here I mention how much the Church of England uses social power to maintain order and control. The church is, perhaps unwittingly, encouraging status and ambition-seeking among its clergy. This is a way to reward and punish individuals according to whether they find favour with bishops and others high up in the organisation. This, arguably, is also a form of spiritual abuse. It can only be properly understood when, as I’ve said many times before, the dynamics of power are properly understood within the institution. That may be long way ahead.

This is a rapidly written piece but I want all my readers to read the story at CPPAS and consider what they think to be a good definition of spiritual abuse. Perhaps we can further this debate within this blog and help the wider church to see how important it is to have a proper understanding of the meaning of this term.

Christians obsessed with sex – a short history

There must be many people both inside and outside the church who wonder about the current obsession among some Christians over issues of sexuality. Why is it that Christians in some circles seem to define themselves by the position they take on abortion or same-sex marriage? A recent book entitled: Moral Combat: How Sex divided American Christians and fractured American Politics helps to answer this question. More importantly it shows how the issues around sex have divided Christians for at least the past 100 years. The actual topics that were under discussion in this period varied enormously.

The forces of conservative Christianity, particularly the Catholic variety, were rallied against new thinking about contraception during the 1920s. The battles fought by the pioneer Margaret Sanger in America to promote the cause of women beaten down by excessive childbearing were bitter at times. But in the 20 years between 1910 and 1930 public opinion shifted decisively in favour of planned parenthood. By the time of the Anglican Lambeth conference in 1930, it was regarded as acceptable to many liberal Christians that married women should have access to means of birth control. In noting this we pass over quickly the fact that some Christians then and now cannot imagine the sexual act being anything other than a means of procreation. It was not just the Catholic Church that took this line but also some other branches of conservative Protestant Christianity.

Another area of human life that caused division among Christians throughout the 20th century was the degree to which censorship was required to control the portrayal of sex in literature and in other entertainment. The writings of DH Lawrence especially were deemed to be morally dangerous. Some Christian leaders both Protestant and Catholic demanded that the strictest rules be applied to protect the public from displays of indecency. The problem for the censors was knowing where the boundary between art and gratuitous pornography should be drawn. Conservative Christians were normally on the side of complete suppression of any representation of the sexual act, whether in words or simulation. What these early 20th-century Christians seem to have found so difficult was the thought that the sexual act might enrich life and have a purpose beyond the creation of new life. Good living Christian people were never to be corrupted with the idea that sex could be something to be enjoyed.

A further issue, of more relevance to the American situation at the beginning of the 20th-century than our own, was that of race. The motivation for many of the lynchings committed by white males against black American men was a widespread belief that white women were always in danger of being raped by black males. Any idea that a black man should be allowed to have sexual relations with a white woman filled the conservative Christian imagination with horror. Passages from the Bible about the different races and the way they had been geographically separated were read. These suggested to white conservative churches that God approved of the races living apart, with one subservient to the other. These same Bible passages had been used to justify slavery in the previous century. Equally the offspring of any black/white union was treated with distaste and shunning. Much of the segregation that was practised right up to the middle of the 20th century and beyond was tied in with ideas connected with sexuality. The word ‘miscegenation’, or mixing of race, was a word which filled white Christian people with a particular frisson of horror. The white race of America was designed to be kept pure and not ‘polluted’ by black or Negro blood.

Bringing the story of sex obsessions more up-to-date, conservatives and liberals in the Churches clashed over their response to the issue of sex education. Christians of a conservative bent only wanted to hear a narrative of sexual behaviour strictly within a patriarchal model of family life. Sexual education threatened to give women ideas of autonomy and even independence from the wishes and demands of their menfolk. The publication of the Kinsey reports in the late 40s and early 50s showed to the reading public that the fantasy of a controlled ordered sexuality among women was in fact a myth. The model of subservience and obedience by women to men proved to be existing more in the male imagination than in fact. It is not surprising that the idea that women might have choices in their sexual lives was regarded as the result of the influence of Communism into American society. The demand for sex education was seen as a communist plot to subvert Western civilisation and its values.

Communism was also seen to be undergirding the debate about abortion which took hold in America in the 1950s. Conservative Christians and Roman Catholics once again combined to challenge the demand of women to make decisions about their bodies. In America the debate reached some sort of conclusion in 1973 with the Supreme Court (Roe-Wade) coming down in favour of abortion in certain situations. That decision has been challenged ever since by conservative Christians. The debate is still strongly contested within political/religious circles in Trump’s America.

In the light of all these debates that have gone on over the past 100 years it is not surprising that many points of difference between liberals and conservatives should still centre on sexuality. It is of course an area of life that touches everyone deeply and can rouse enormous passion. When we look at the history of debates about sexuality in the churches, we see how many of these could be said to be about men controlling women’s sexuality. Thankfully conservative Christians have quietly abandoned their opposition to interracial marriage, birth control and the promotion of sex education in schools. Censorship is still an issue with the rapid spread of pornography on the Internet but few people would regard the writings of DH Lawrence as corrupting today.

The pattern of the past hundred years would suggest that there is a pattern in the way that Christians and society have approached questions relating to sexuality. On the one side there are liberal Christians whose approach to sexual topics is not largely different from the rest of society. In some cases, liberals take a forward prophetic view on sexual matters as they did with the gay issue in the 1960s. On the other side are conservative Christians who only learn to catch up with the overriding consensus long after the rest of society. The Catholic Church is still against contraception officially but it spends very little time in speaking on the topic. It knows it has decisively lost the argument in the court of public opinion and among its own followers. Public opinion has learnt to accept the existence of gay relationships and it would seem only a matter of time before the conservative churches discover that they do better not to keep speaking about the subject. A younger generation who think quite differently in matters of sexuality will eventually silence the aggressive Christian homophobic condemnations uttered by their elders.

The lesson of the past hundred years is that Christian ‘truth’ is the area of sexuality is fairly fragile and porous. It is especially weak when dictated by primal fears. How much better would Christians do if they focused their energy on promoting reconciliation, love and justice in the world?

‘Independent’ investigation of abuse – a word that gives us hope

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in beginning to hear evidence, is producing results. There is a definite sense that all the Churches who are going to be examined by this Inquiry are working to put their houses in order. No longer are letters on the topic of past abuses being ignored by those in authority. The Church of England at any rate is realising that all its actions relating to child abuse, past and present, are going to be examined in minute detail. Even if there are failings still to be uncovered from the past, the Church of England has to show that from now on it will always act responsibly and professionally. This applies both in the manner accusations from the past are responded to and in ensuring that proper care for survivors of abuse is offered. The letter sent to Gilo by the Archbishop of Canterbury (even if not totally satisfactory to Gilo!) is an example of this new attempt to put things right for the future.

The new reality that gives us hope that things are changing for the better is in the word ‘independent’ as applied to the Inquiry. A group of highly professional people who make up the Inquiry are looking dispassionately at institutions, religious and secular, that have hitherto proved incapable of managing to root out the evil of child sexual abuse. It is my understanding that public bodies, such as the police force or the Health Service will always go outside their body to seek help when a major issue arises that demands scrutiny. For too long the churches have persuaded themselves and society that they can police themselves. The advent of IICSA marks the end of this kind of arrogance, one that has tragically failed many people.

This past week an individual who had been a witness in one of the police investigations into child abuse within the church told me how pleased she was to receive a prompt answer from IICSA in answer to a letter. She felt she was dealing with a highly professional set-up which contrasted well with other dealings she had had with the church on other issues of abuse. No doubt she would agree with me when I say that the professionalism was bound up with the fact of IICSA’s complete independence from the bodies that are being examined.

Many of the witnesses to the John Langlois 2015 Report into Peniel Church at Brentwood expressed their sense of relief on being heard for the first time by an independent person. Previous attempts by that church to police itself over allegations of abuse broke down due to a complete lack of trust in the process. The 200,000 words of the final Report form a unique document in the history of spiritual abuse within a congregation. The witnesses were able to speak articulately about their sufferings, knowing that the independent listener, John Langlois, was there to establish the truth. We must be grateful to John Langlois for persevering even though the church tried to shut his enquiry down. As he says in the forward to his report, the fact of the church withdrawing their support enabled him to be independent and clear-eyed about what he was hearing from his 70+ witnesses. Independence is an essential aspect of any enquiry into an institution accused of perpetrating or tolerating abuse. I have great hopes that whatever the findings of the IICSA, procedures and safeguards will be far stronger in all the churches and institutions examined. The old pattern of institutions doing internal investigations into their own behaviour is simply not good enough. Independent scrutiny is essential.

Another letter received by an acquaintance throws possible light on a tightening up at another institution, this time the Charity Commission. Without going into too many details the individual had written numerous letters to the CC about an independent church where there was circumstantial evidence of financial wrong-doing. These letters had been written over a number of years without any reply being received. It was as if the Commissioner felt unable to challenge a religious institution even if charity rules were possibly being broken. I can report that in the past month a proper reply has finally been received. This invited him to send documentation to the Commission. Do I detect that the Charity Commission has suddenly woken up to the fact that IICSA may ask questions of its oversight of religious organisations? Now that criminal behaviour by religious organisations is no longer a far-fetched idea, overseeing bodies have to be seen to be doing their work. Any denominational structure or an overseeing organisation like the Evangelical Alliance has to wake up to possible questions about their role in supervision. Unanswered letters of complaint to these organisations can no longer be tolerated. The murky world of independent conservative fellowships also has allowed too much unsupervised authority. Maybe IICSA will shed some fresh light on the way that some church congregations have allowed unethical and sometimes criminal behaviour to exist inside their ranks.

I have the strong sense that the Church of England and the Charity Commission are waking up and potentially tightening up their oversight of congregations. The process of scrutiny that is coming to many institutions from IICSA may have other effects. It may improve conditions for other vulnerable people in those institutions. My hope is that public scrutiny will go eventually beyond the issue of child sexual abuse and look at all examples of the abuse of the vulnerable. Historically women and the disabled have suffered at the hands of exploiting leaders. Also we have become aware of the persecution of sexual minorities and the way they have sometimes been treated appallingly. That is perhaps something for the future. But it is important that independent voices, such as those who follow this blog, continue to make their own protest on behalf of the powerless, the weak and the defenceless when they suffer at the hands of the church. This independent scrutiny of child abuse has begun something. Let us together work for an end to bullying, exploitation or any kind of cruelty towards the vulnerable. May exposure to the church never be a negative disempowering fearful experience. May it rather be a path into fullness and joy.

Defeating Power Abuse in the Church -Hopes for 2018

Over the past three months there have been significant events in the Church that suggests that many more people are waking up to the reality of power abuse. Two Commissions are in the news. One, the Royal Commission on Child Abuse, has reported its findings in Australia. The other, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has begun to hold open hearings in the UK. Further, we have seen the publication of the Carlile Report over the events around Bishop George Bell. This has naturally reminded us of another Report produced by Dame Moira Gibb back in June. This had been commissioned by Archbishop Welby to investigate the events around the Caution and later imprisonment of Bishop Peter Ball. Back then we were able to read an account which showed a level of poor decision making at the highest levels of the Anglican Church.

Three further episodes remain to be mentioned. First we have seen the publication of Gilo’s correspondence with Archbishop Welby on the treatment of survivors like himself. Equally impressive and encouraging is the way that Gilo has obtained the support of all the important names professionally involved with safeguarding issues. Gilo’s campaign has become a significant part of a move towards real change in the mentality of the church towards the interests of the abused within the Church.

The second event, the topic of the last blog, is the appointment of Sarah Mullally to be Bishop of London. While she will be fully occupied with many cares in this challenging post, her responsibilities for the sexually and spiritually abused will not be allowed to disappear from the agenda of the House of Bishops.

Finally, (news only arrived of this today) there is the setting up of the Ozanne Foundation. Although Jane Ozanne is at the forefront of moves to bring justice for the LGTB community in the church, she is also personally aware of many of the issues to do with safeguarding. She herself is a survivor of sexual abuse in the church. She is also a prominent member of General Synod and on the Archbishop’s Council. The Bishop of Liverpool, in his address at the Foundation opening, appears to understand the way that conservative theological ideas can oppress vulnerable people. This has always been a key motif of this blog.

This blog has never meant to focus on sexual abuse, but all these episodes I have mentioned are of direct relevance to our concern for the general problem of power abuse in the church. Cover ups, secrecy pledges and non-disclosure agreements only happen in the context of the powerful protecting their interests against the victims and survivors. In other words, in all the child abuse cases we always find the strong using their power against the weak in the church.

These last three months have then witnessed some significant shifts in the old pattern favouring strong male leadership over the interests of women and children. Society and the church has started to become more aware of the way that male power has been used against the weak. It is no longer acceptable for vested interests and institutions to protect abusers. Traditional authorities, such as bishops and other powerful people, are being challenged effectively and devastatingly by victims.

What do I hope for in 2018? In summary I would hope that all the episodes mentioned above will gain traction. The Independent Inquiry in the UK will do its work and concentrate the minds of church leaders on the failings of the past. The Australian Royal Commission has been recommending mandatory disclosure for all who learn of abuse. This of course is being resisted by the Roman Catholic authorities. They fear that the sanctity of Confession may in some way be undermined. I am puzzled by this fear. I had understood that forgiveness was always withheld in the face of serious criminal activity. Surely both in Australia and in Britain the Sacrament of Confession would not preclude an insistence that the offender go to the authorities when serious crimes are confessed. The closed world of the Benedictine Brothers at Ampleforth, Downside and elsewhere has been shown to be hiding behind this excuse for a long time. Over half the Brothers at these institutions have been implicated in serious abuse allegations. The structures of authority made no move to discipline them or bring their crimes to light.

The Independent Inquiry which is soon to focus on the Anglican Diocese of Chichester will open-up many old wounds. Some of the crimes committed by clergy in the diocese go back decades. Once again, we are likely to see evidence of a floundering and failing regime of oversight. In the case of the Chichester Diocese we may see something worse than that, collusion and cover-up.

Although both Inquiries are focused on the sexual abuse of children, we can hope that in Australia and Britain there will be increased professional competence in general safeguarding. One thing that will be extremely important is that all the earlier reports that have appeared in the past few years will be read and studied carefully. I was somewhat alarmed to discover from a comment by Janet Fife that a safeguarding officer at Lambeth was simply unaware of some of these reports. Reports reveal two things. They expose the failings of management structures in the past. They also remind us of the ongoing suffering of people in the present. History does not go away once the events are over. It lives on in the painful memories of those who were part of that history. As I study the history of Peniel Church in Brentwood, I realise that many of the recorded memories of survivors of that church are still alive. It will never be good enough simply to say forget and move on. The past lives on in the present and must be faced by all concerned.

My hope for 2018 is that there will be better attempts to understand all that has happened in the past. At the same time my hope is that the structures of power may shift in such a way that the interests of the weak and the least powerful may be elevated and placed at the centre of concern. The safeguarding failures of the past have been failures of oversight leading to an incompetent and often abusive use of power. We must understand it and learn from it. Perhaps if we do then the structure, the institution we call the Church may be a healthier place for all its members. The grace of God will then be able to flow through it better to reach and transform all its members.

The new Bishop of London – some Concerns

On the face of it the appointment of Sarah Mullally as Bishop of London is excellent news for most of us. She is, first of all, a woman, and this bodes well for the participation of other women in the future within the Church. In second place, from the perspective of this blog, she is someone who has insight into the issues of power abuse in the church. She was asked by Archbishop Welby to oversee the implementation of the Elliott report which came out 18 months ago. The basic thrust of the Elliott report was to push for all Anglican dioceses to adopt a common safeguarding practice. How much has actually been done in fact to change the practice of Anglican Dioceses and their Bishops is unclear. The recent Carlile report does not give us an enormous amount of confidence that Bishops and their advisers always understand problems of implementing good safeguarding practice. Janet Fife’s contribution to the previous blog suggests that there is still considerable ignorance among those appointed to safeguarding posts about the history of abuse issues in the church.

Alongside our congratulations and delight in this appointment there are some concerns. The Diocese of London is well-known as the centre for a variety of fundamentalisms, both the high church and the evangelical varieties. I was remembering last night a joke connected with fundamentalism. The question is asked. What is the difference between terrorist and a fundamentalist? The answer is that a terrorist may be willing to negotiate. Whether I remember the joke accurately or not, this version makes a point quite well. There are in the Church many people for whom changing their minds or their grasp on facts is completely impossible. In some situations when dealing with fundamentalists, there is the sense that one is facing an immovable object and an irresistible force at the same time!

When I was last a vicar in an English parish there was a group in the church who had learnt the faith in such conservative places as St Helens Bishopsgate in London and St Aldate’s in Oxford. The common feature of this group of conservative parishioners was that they never changed their minds about anything. Nor were they prepared to learn anything new, at least not from me, an Oxford educated liberal. Truth for them was fixed and unchangeable, a version of which they had learned decades before. It is a style of Christianity which I found very off-putting. I cannot imagine that, for all their talk of evangelism, they were able to draw any new people into this way of thinking. There was something barren, dry and totally unattractive about this style of message. In some ways the Diocese of London is like my old parish in Gloucestershire. Of course, the scale is massively different. Considerable numbers of Christians in London nevertheless hold conservative views on issues like the ordination of women and sexuality. For many of these Christians the test of one’s orthodoxy and thus salvation is whether you hold correct opinions on these issues

We have pondered many times on this blog about how and why the issues around sexuality have become so important in the minds of many conservative Christians. Such Christians will make life fairly difficult for a bishop who is both liberal and tolerant of the same sex community, even while she does not promote formal marriage for them.

The placing of Bishop Mullally into a profoundly conservative diocese is a high-risk strategy. She may have many qualities both personal and professional. But there is however, no doubt that she will face enormous pressures from a large body of Christians who think that anyone who does not agree with them must be shut out. Has she the stamina to put up with such relentless opposition?

A few years ago there was a television programme about St Paul’s Cathedral when Lucy Winkett was first appointed to be a Canon Residentary. Who can forget the way the television cameras showed us rows and rows of empty seats in the Cathedral which had been reserved for Diocesan clergy? It was said that a full 50 % of the clergy in the Diocese signalled their disapproval by simply not turning up. This kind of intransigence is still alive and well in the diocese as far as I know. Bishop Chartres has preserved a level of peace by refusing to ordain women. He has worked with them but delegated their actual ordination to his suffragan bishops. This was never a satisfactory solution. By not resolving this and other anomalies in the diocese the somewhat provocative appointment of a woman is even more of a shock in this profoundly reactionary institution. It remains to be seen how things will pan out.

Bishop Mullally is only 55 and she may be in post for another 15 years. She needs a great deal of prayer to stand up against strong reactionary forces which seem so thickly concentrated in our nation’s capital. She also needs our prayers to further her work of safeguarding. She is still needed to challenge the power structures Gilo has identified which work against openness and justice. Let us hope that she can hang on in there, buoyed up by the thought that her presence in London is an important symbol for the whole church. As a woman in an institution which has been a bastion for patriarchy and male privilege for so long as well standing up for survivors, she is helping us all. It matters a great deal that Bishop Sarah will have the grace and the strength to persevere and defeat all the obstacles that no doubt will be put in her way.

The Carlile Report on George Bell – some reflections

The Report from Lord Carlile about the George Bell case is due out today. It is expected to say that the process through which George Bell, the distinguished former Bishop of Chichester, was deemed guilty of child abuse was deeply flawed. One does not know whether to be pleased or sad from this outcome. On the plus side it is probable that the reputation of George Bell will be eventually salvaged from this hasty and, by all accounts, incompetent investigation. The George Bell Group has provided a great deal of information in their work of defending Bell. They spoke to witnesses alive at the time and it has been suggested that the main witness, being then a child, could well have been confused as to who her abuser was. There was also the testimony of George Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler. He was never consulted but he had definitive evidence to show that George Bell was abroad at the time when one of the episodes of abuse was said to have taken place. The review of all this evidence is for the future. Meanwhile we can celebrate this probability that George Bell’s name will be eventually vindicated. I have a personal memory of the man himself. Contrary to what some reports have indicated, Bell spent the last few months of his life in Canterbury. He had been Dean of Canterbury in the 1930s and he returned there to die. Every day he would walk from his home in in Burgate in Canterbury and we would watch him with his distinctive walk. We knew him, not as a retired Bishop, but as a former Dean.

The Lord Carlile report will confirm for the Press as well as for its well-wishers that we cannot trust the Church of England to manage this task of child protection without help. In what appears to have been an attempt at transparency and openness, the Church seems to have poured its venom on the wrong man. In contrast to this, the Church has often defended living perpetrators in their attempt to defend the institution. Someone made the calculation (perhaps the Report will make it clear who it was) that if money was paid out to Bell’s alleged victim and an apology made, then the church would enhance its reputation for good practice. In fact, this decision had appalling implications. Not only was it, as we will see today, an appalling abuse of process but also the besmirching of one of the very few 20th-century heroes of the Anglican Church. When an individual, like George Bell attains the status of having their own day in the Church of England calendar, you question their posthumous reputation only with very strong evidence. History does have to rewritten from time to time but one does not destroy an Anglican ‘saint’ without very good cause. Here the evidence of wrong doing was apparently extremely weak.

Gilo’s case against the Archbishops and their advisers will be strengthened by Lord Carlile’s report. It is quite clear that a decision to pay money to the alleged victim of George Bell was a solution thought up by legal minds. An action that speaks about liability and compensation comes out of the world of legal thinking backed up by insurance interests. Clearheaded pastoral care for individuals who may have suffered should surely be a first priority. When the current Bishop of Chichester apologised to the woman victim, ‘Carol’, for what his predecessor had allegedly done, we were supposed to see pastoral sensitivity at work. What we in fact saw was a planned calculated gesture. The cynics among us might suggest this was planned and controlled by mysterious people in the background who were trying to ‘manage’ the public face of the church. These were no doubt the same people that Gilo was up against when his own complaint against the Church was being determined. It would be interesting to know about all the meetings the Bishop of Chichester had with lawyers, insurance companies and his fellow bishops prior to this apology. Whether the Carlile report will unpack the process when it comes out today I have no idea. Clearly things went wrong at many stages.

It is ironic that the one diocese that is to be examined by the Independent Inquiry on Child Abuse is the Diocese of Chichester. The irony lies in the fact that one probably innocent Bishop of Chichester has had to suffer damage to his reputation through a flawed investigation. Other more recent bishops in that diocese have been allowed to abuse children or at any cast a blind eye to such abuse. Chichester is thus already a byword for how the church can get it so wrong in this area of safeguarding. Let us hope and pray that the mistakes and tragedies of that part of the country are not replicated elsewhere. May it provoke a determination in other dioceses throughout the UK to get things right. One day we hope that the young and the weak in our society may always find in our churches a place of safety and care.

Church faces pressure on abuse issues – the tempo increases

In recent weeks we have seen an increased tempo in the press coverage of church abuse stories. As I wrote last week there have been some revelatory scenes at the Independent Inquiry on child sexual abuse. It appears now that even after the Nolan report, which was a response to earlier Catholic sex scandals and came out in 2001, some Roman Catholic bishops and religious orders in Britain have done very little to improve safeguarding within their Communion. It is as though many Catholic clergy are completely unaware of all the scandals that have occurred in America and Ireland. These well publicised stories have done much to diminish the Catholic Church and especially its leadership in these countries. Apart from suffering enormous reputational damage, the Catholic Church in the States has had to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors. This has virtually bankrupted some Catholic dioceses in that country. Equally, similar scandals in Ireland have seriously lessened the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society. One by-product of this social change is that it is now very hard to persuade young Irish Catholic men to join the priesthood.

Up till this moment, one would have liked to think that the problems of the Church of England are nowhere near equivalent to those experienced by the Catholic Church in Ireland and America. What is being presented to us now, in great part thanks to Gilo, is a glimpse of the lack of readiness on the part of the C of E to face up to its own scandals. In other words, there is no sense that the Church is putting in place the necessary procedures to deal with any fresh allegations of past misdemeanours by its clergy. There has been some decisive action to deal with the criminal perpetrators of child abuse in the church, but this has been more at the instigation of the police and the courts. The impression given to us by Gilo is that the church’s part in the process of dealing with past felonies is to huddle together with lawyers and insurance company representatives and discuss the amount of money that should be paid to victims to avoid legal liability. There is no sense in the correspondence received (or not received!) by survivors that the church understands or grasps the enormous damage and devastation caused to these survivors. Financial settlements may be part of an answer. Far more needed is the offering of healing. This could involve acts of open penitence by leaders, a readiness to go the extra mile in admitting the failures of an institution that has allowed these things to happen. As I said in a published letter to the Church Times two weeks ago, there needs to be a fresh understanding how every example of sexual abuse is made possible by a church culture that for too long has tolerated bullying and power abuse. Also, a conservative theology that makes leaders or a book ‘infallible’ is also one that tolerates destructive power games. These can do so much damage.

The energy of Gilo over the past few weeks, as articulated in his open correspondence with Archbishop Welby, has brought up several important issues. Some of these he shared with our blog several months ago. Gilo has identified, over and over again, the way that safeguarding in the Church of England has been unhelpfully confused with the concerns of lawyers and insurance companies. In other words when a claim of abuse is made, the first response of the Church is to go into a defensive mode. They seem then to have no concern for the welfare of the survivor; they rather worry about a potential financial liability. When a survivor is met by this kind of legally defensive response, they may find themselves totally discouraged. Many of the survivors may be among the least powerful members of our society. They may also be carrying the burden of emotional damage from their abuse. They will simply not have the stamina to endure this kind of adversarial confrontation. Neither should they. Their memories, their account of events may be challenged and disbelieved. Gilo through his articulacy and stamina has rightly challenged the church to see how inappropriate this kind of adversarial approach is to a group of hurting vulnerable people. His vigorous challenge to the Church authorities to improve the process of helping and supporting survivors has been supported by a powerful group of 20 church people and theologians who are concerned with these issues. Each of them in different ways calls on the Archbishop and General Synod to put in place a new system for dealing with the victims of sexual abuse which is open and built on care and respect. All of them agree that the task of dealing with cases of past sexual abuse must be backed up with mandatory reporting to the police. The days of dealing with erring clergy can no longer be left to ‘in-house’ methods of discipline. Mandatory reporting will help create a new climate and culture of integrity and transparency.

Last week I published an extract from a legal opinion about compensation and apologies. I am still hoping that this sentence will be relayed to the church leaders who appear to believe that defensive denial is preferable to pastoral care and support. I am hoping that once this piece of legislation is recognised as being of relevance to the whole practice of safeguarding in the church, that it may help to create a new spirit of openness, love and care.

Two survivors known to me personally have recently made formal complaints of sexual abuse against church leaders. It will be interesting to see whether their complaints receive a better hearing because of Gilo’s efforts. I certainly hope so. I finish with some of Gilo’s words. ‘There doesn’t seem any ownership of the crisis … these need the clear call of leadership required to shift the church into structural and cultural change and towards authentic justice.’ Amen to that.