Category Archives: Stephen’s Blog

Charisma and Evil

One of the new challenges for voters in America is to know what to think about a politician who has abused sexually in the past. The numbers of these appear to be increasing. Christian politicians also who have become heroes to their ultra-right constituency for solidly opposing gay marriage, abortion and other offences against family values seem to be as guilty as the rest. One reaction to this dilemma has become increasingly popular. This is to declare that the moral failings of a politician are of no importance as long as they support God’s work. When the supporter is talking about God’s work in this context, it nearly always has to do with issues of sexuality. If the politician says the right things about sex, then he can be voted for whatever seedy activities lie in his past. The political agenda of the Christian Right has little interest in such things as justice, racism and support for the poor. The God of the alt-right and Donald Trump has little in common with the God of the Bible; the alt-right God is one who looks after the successful and the rich.

This topic of leadership and past evil actions is also something to be negotiated in church circles. I have been recently reading a biography of Frank Houston. He is the father of Brian Houston of Hillsong fame in Australia. The Frank Houston story is written by his wife and like many Pentecostal/charismatic biographies it is full of stories of wonder, spontaneous insights and healings. I read this biography against the background of knowing that Frank would be eventually outed as a paedophile with acknowledged offences against young men and boys. Obviously, there was no mention of any such failing in his hagiography. We are given the impression that God was working through him and in him at every point in his ministry. When he approached somebody with a problem, God would often speak to him directly and give him the solution to whatever was the issue.

Alongside the story of the elder Houston, I have been re-reading the accounts of the many people who suffered at the hands of Michael Reid at Peniel. In contrast to these accounts of his staggering abuse of power, I have also been watching the videos on You Tube which talk about the divinely authorised ministry of this ‘man of God’. Once again there are stories of healings, wonderful events and acts of great power. Reid himself often used to say to people that these same happenings were an indication that God himself had handed over authority for him to rule the church as he saw fit.

Two apparently divinely blessed ministries and two examples of criminal abuses of power. How does one make sense of such a contrast and remain a Christian? Are we to say that God used these two leaders in spite of their flawed personalities? Would that not lead us to be saying that we can ignore the evil on account to the blessings that flowed apparently from these ministries? This would seem to be the argument which is being used currently in the States by conservative pastors when offering their support to the notorious Ray Moore. It is an argument that does not convince me. I am still left looking for another way of dealing with this conundrum.

I do not claim to be able to answer this question to my own satisfaction. But I would start by saying that it may be necessary to look afresh at the phenomena of Charismatic and Pentecostal renewal. Should we not be far more analytical about what is going on in these Spirit-filled events? Should we not find some new ways of characterising what some people wish to call Acts of God? Might they not be simply examples of crowd hysteria? The church seems to be in danger of wanting to see these moments of crowd excitement as being crucial to its future. Crowd froth and superficial emotion do not seem to be good foundations for a solid expression of church life. Frank Houston and Michael Reid, as well as many others, discovered that they were able to manipulate crowds and pack church buildings. Simultaneously they were learning techniques which would in another context be described as paranormal or psychic. My own understanding of the strange phenomena which take place when there is endless loud rhythmic music is fairly mundane. It is not difficult for leaders and led to enter trance states where strange things can happen. I personally try to keep abreast of what might be happening in these scenarios but I detect little or no interest elsewhere to have a discussion able to critique these large congregations. The powers that be applaud full churches and the sound of joyful exuberance in a church building. Nobody wants to ask any further questions.

Frank Houston and Michael Reid, now both disgraced in the eyes of their respective churches, flourished because what they did and what they said came apparently from God and thus was beyond contradiction. Evil was permitted to flourish because nobody at the time dared to ask any questions. ‘Success’ trumped all other criteria including truth. Thus, many suffered because the church was so bad at scrutinising what was done in its name. In this way evil was allowed to coexist with apparently successful ministries. If this same mistake continues to be made in future, then it will progressively undermine the integrity of many of our churches in a serious way. American politics has been weakened for ever because an increasing number of people refuse to question the immoral antics of those who stand in the places of power. Let us pray that this will not happen in the churches of our nation.

The Roy Moore scandal -evangelical misogyny

One of the more horrifying examples of American evangelical culture has, thankfully, not yet reached our shores. I am referring to habit of some evangelical parents to release their daughters for marriage in their mid-teens to a groom who may be twice their age. This apparently is one of the ideas put out by Christian lecturers on the home-schooling network in the southern states of the USA. This institutionalised child abuse is part of the background which we need to understand when hearing about the accusations being made against the Senate nominee, Judge Roy Moore. He is accused by three women of molestation when they were underage. Many Republicans both Christian and not, are horrified at these allegations and want him removed from the ballot paper. Others, who are accustomed to the existence of very early marriage by girls of godly evangelical families, see nothing unusual in his behaviour. This is the way that things are done in the American Christian bible-believing South. The argument goes that if a girl is chosen young, she will be amenable to being more easily trained up to be a good obedient Christian wife. She will other words fulfil her task of complete subservience and conformity and this is in accordance to an ideal of Christian womanhood.

This blog post is in many ways an overlap and continuation with the last one. But the topic raised helps us further to emphasise the appalling mindset which some biblical Christians absorb as part of their formation. Most of my readers will have already anticipated my objections to this way of thinking. In the name of Christianity half of humanity is considered somehow more godlike if the maturing process is terminated halfway through the teens. They are not expected to develop any further. Things like skills, interests, academic training and maturity of character are all supressed. All that they are good for is to bear children, worship a man and try to please him in every way possible.

I have been trying to imagine how these ‘godly’ marriages develop over the years. In the first place the wife, totally dedicated to the needs of her husband, will have a very limited understanding of her own needs and desires. She will not, for example, have developed any outside interests beyond that of caring for the home. Her children will grow up without experiencing much from her in the area of life experience. Even when the children leave home the mother may still be in her forties and the marriage could then settle into a state of extreme apathy. What will such a couple find to talk about? I would expect that in some cases a wife trapped in such a situation would try to escape such a marriage. The obscenity of the original marriage arrangement was so appalling that it is hard not to applaud a woman who chooses to walk away. A woman trapped in this kind of patriarchal relationship is like a member of a cult, unable to think or feel for herself. The cultic mind-set that has been absorbed over the years may in fact make a breaking away very hard to achieve.

A further reason for encouraging these very young women to marry is that they fulfil another ideal of evangelical thinking – that of sexual purity. It is difficult to know what is the ideal in a Christian context for sexual behaviour before marriage, but enslavement to an older man at the age of 15 or 16 cannot be a proper answer. Whatever we think about sex before marriage the case for equality between men and women must be made loudly and vocally. The institutions in the church which seem to encourage a state of inequality must be scrutinised and exposed for their hidden misogyny. As a long-time supporter of the ordination of women I am becoming increasingly impatient at the way that such misogyny is being buried under apparently sophisticated theological argument. One hopes that the court of public opinion will eventually completely outlaw areas of inequality that still exist in parts of the church. While we do not tolerate Alabama Christian traditions towards women, we still have our own cultural battles to fight against forces which discriminate against women in the church.

Child marriages for religious reasons do not exist in this country, but we must continue to resist the kind of thinking that makes such an institution possible. In the meantime, let us hope that the liberal backlash in the States against Judge Moore continues. These ugly forms of child abuse supported by fundamentalist readings of Scripture must be defeated. Women of every age and background deserve better. Nothing in the words of Jesus supports the idea of women being subordinate to men. The enforced subservience of women over the centuries seems to have been a way to flatter men and help them to retain their sense of importance and power. Let us strive to preserve equality and mutuality between the sexes. This will require us to challenge the misogyny of past centuries especially in societies and places where it has become deeply entrenched.

Women, violence and the Church

The recent appalling massacre in a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas conforms to a tragically familiar pattern. A man goes on the rampage with a powerful weapon and kills 26 innocents including an unborn child. The individual concerned, like many before him guilty of similar atrocities, had been a woman batterer. Mass killers have nearly always previously practised their violence on those around them at home. This common thread of domestic violence seems to link most of the recent mass killers we have seen recently. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice killer and Dylann Roof the Charleston killer had both been involved with violence at home. Whatever ideological tag is placed on these and other killings, a history of irrational and blind rage against women seems to be a common thread behind most, if not all, of these appalling acts of violence.

It has not gone unnoticed that conservative churches are places which appear to tolerate, if not encourage, an attitude that places men in a place of power over women. While we would hope that most church going men would internalise the prior command to love and respect the women and children of their family, there are others who hear a different message. Particularly on the edges of the church there are men who hear and act out biblical texts which seem to allow them to overawe and dominate their womenfolk. Two passages from the New Testament stand out. These both appear to justify potentially oppressive behaviour on the part of a man towards his wife. The first is the passage from Ephesians 5. It states that wives should submit to their husbands. The fact that the passage goes on to speak about the importance of mutuality with in the marriage relationship is often ignored. The other classic text which has caused much grief to Christian women over the centuries is from 1 Timothy 2. 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man;’

These two texts, however we interpret them, look back to a commonly accepted notion in the ancient world that a women’s nature was inferior to that of men. Aristotle thought that women were natural slaves. Like slaves, it was their nature to be obedient. The traditions of scholastic theology followed these ideas of Aristotle rather than Jesus when it came to assessing the role and status of women in mediaeval society. Thomas Aquinas typically believed that women were in some way defective. So, the order of nature as created by God decreed that she should be subjugated. Also, a woman can never represent Christ or be ordained.

The Reformation in the 16th century did little to improve the lot of women in the church. Both Luther and Calvin repeated the traditions of the previous centuries which saw women firmly bound to the home and subject to the law of their husband’s will. Any woman in who challenged this status quo was sinful and was possibly a witch. Violence against women at the hands of their husbands came to be a normalised part of family life. The town law of the city of Villlefranche decreed all the inhabitants of the town had the right to beat their wives so long as death does not ensue. Even Thomas Moore in his Utopia represented a society where husbands regularly chastised their wives. The wives were to minister to their husband in everything. On holy days they were to prostrate themselves before their husbands asking for their forgiveness if they have offended them in any way. It is not hard to see the campaigns against witchcraft as being an attempt to suppress and control women. Society then was not tolerant towards those women who tried to survive outside the role of wife and mother. A single woman, who was outside the control of a man, may perhaps have been continuing ancient traditions of healing and herbalism. She was obviously from a patriarchal perspective someone to be targeted and persecuted.

The Ephesians and I Timothy texts continue to exercise a strong influence in conservative Christian circles today. They are used in some places as a justification to deny women any part in Christian leadership. They also become part of a generalised Christian patriarchy which puts women in a disadvantaged place whether in the home or in the church. Some recent research in Australia found that evangelical men who sporadically attend church more likely than secular men to assault their wives. It is not hard to see how a man with a tendency towards violence might be attracted to a church with a culture of male domination. The traditional approach to a ‘biblical’ view of women might also make conservative churches dangerous places when the battered wife seeks help. Domestic violence will not be tackled if the there is a ‘biblical’ answer that the wife should always submit and apply the rule of godly obedience to the man who is abusing her.

The recent events at Sutherland Springs cannot not of course be laid at the feet of the Baptist church where the massacre took place. But in a broad sense a culture of violence within the family which preceded the terrible events of last Sunday had been subtly normalised for Devin Kelley, the perpetrator. Many upright Christians who believe that they are following Scripture also tolerate coercive behaviour towards women. This will of course normally stop far short of acts of rage and murder. Somewhere along the line, Devin learnt the path of violence. It may have been a small step for him to tip over from ‘acceptable’ coercion and control of women in his family to actual violence. It may seem to be ‘biblical’ to apply coercion to wives but surely it has no place whatever in a modern society. The words of Paul, Luther and Thomas Aquinas need to be explored and explained in their historical context. They cannot be allowed to smoulder in a dark place where they can infect and corrupt the thinking of contemporary Christians. We need a revolution that will deny any oxygen to the thinking of contemporary Christians and those they influence who want to high-jack the faith to further their nefarious desires for power.

In Praise of Integrity

We as a nation are in a crisis of trust with respect to our institutions. Parliament is being scrutinised over the behaviour of its members in the way they sometimes mistreat the young people who work for them. Show business has brought up numerous examples of sexual harassment and abuse which have taken place over the years. Even the church seems not to be immune from examples of exploitative behaviour. It is as if all our national institutions are falling like dominoes one by one, plagued by the accusation that they are morally rotten. The individuals who work within them seem apparently not to have what we would call integrity.

I wrote a post with the word ‘integrity’ in its title two years ago when first reviewing the report about Peniel. It was then quite apparent that abusive behaviour of all kinds had been experienced in that church over many years. The accusations that were made seemed to far more to do with finance and emotional abuse than the issues in our current scandals. Peniel did of course have stories of sexual exploitation. In this post I want us to think more about the word ’integrity’. I took the trouble to check the word and once again it is a word which does not appear in traditional translations of the New Testament. Our English word comes from the Latin ‘integer’ which means whole or complete. The Latin word is used in English to describe a whole number as opposed to a fraction. There is one biblical passage which carries an idea close to the notion of integrity. Jesus says: ‘be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect’. It is suggested by one commentary I have read that a good translation for perfect is contained in the idea of having integrity. While perfection is a hard target for us to aim at, we can aim to be men and women of integrity.

In thinking about integrity, I find myself, first of all, describing it by a series of negatives. Integrity implies that an individual does not lie. It is hard to see integrity in politicians who are found to have lied for their own personal or political advantage. It is also difficult to see integrity in a behaviour that uses another person as an object. People are never objects to be used and exploited. They are always subjects and the way we treat fellow human being is to honour that subjectivity and treat them with respect. Hierarchical systems such as we find in the church or in political life make it more likely that people can become pawns in complicated power games. In this respect the church fails its members because it does not seem to understand how people within its structure are being disempowered for the advantage of the influential and powerful.

A further indication that a person lacks integrity is when they betray trust. Another word for trustworthiness is reliability. We want other human beings, particularly our leaders, to be reliable and trustworthy. When they fail in this standard we find ourselves floundering, not knowing how to proceed. The recent open letter from Gino to the Archbishop of Canterbury was a cry for help in a situation where trust had been betrayed and confidence in the integrity of others could no longer be depended on.

Having dwelt on the negatives, the ways that integrity is undermined and destroyed, we can begin to see what a man or woman of integrity might look like. The problem is that this integrity in individuals is hard to retain when the individual has become part of the hierarchy of a powerful institution. Institutions easily corrupt people. What begins as a compromise to protect an institutional reputation can easily end up by destroying and individual’s integrity. A bishop who protects one of his clergy from an accusation of sexual misbehaviour has become a colluder in an evil act. In the process his integrity has become compromised and destroyed. This sort of behaviour was endemic in the Roman Catholic Church. Over the last 20 years we have learnt of massive cover-ups and suppression of the truth. The one responsible for the collusion is not the erring priest but we have to lay the blame at the feet of the institution the bishop serves. President Trump has successfully morally compromised every single official and subordinate that he works with. The corruption of his own integrity and of the office of president has also had a massive effect on the whole of American society. The people of integrity that still remain are those not under his control. We especially remember Robert Mueller the special investigator. We must hope that his integrity and that of the whole justice system are preserved and protected for the future of the United States.

When Jesus told us to be ‘perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect’, I believe he wants us to be people of integrity. While we can never claim to be people without sin, we can aspire to honesty in speech, possessing respect and honour towards other people and being the kind of people that others can rely on. In writing this I can see how I personally have never been placed in a situation where I might have been strongly tempted to abuse power. A parish priest does have some power. Some do manage to become corrupted by it. Nevertheless, most can resist the modest temptations that the role produces and thus they preserve their integrity. All I can say is that it is extremely important to pray for leaders in the church and the nation. We must ask that they do not become seduced by the temptations of power. Institutions of any kind are dangerous places. The positions of leadership not infrequently damage their holders. I hope that anyone reading this blog becomes fully aware of these dangers.

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. 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.