Category: Stephen’s Blog

The Way of Tears

Around 40 years ago I was having a conversation with one of the then leaders of the charismatic movement, John Richards. We were discussing the place of feelings and emotion in church and in particular the feelings experienced during worship. Somehow the conversation got on to the subject of tears and the way that worship sometimes evokes tears. I mentioned to him that there was a famous article (for me at any rate!) on the subject of tears in the early Greek Fathers. I sent him a reference to this article about tears and spirituality. For my effort, I found that our conversation was mentioned in a footnote for an article that was written by John shortly afterwards.

I mention this conversation because one of the positive features of the charismatic spirituality for me is that there is a place for expressing feelings. So often Christianity is seemingly presented as being about a dry adherence to a number of statements about God and what he has done. A mention of tears within Christian experience is able to take us well away from matters of intellect into the realm of feelings and the heart. The popularity of endless repetition of choruses (something we criticise in this blog), can be seen to perform the function of stirring feelings. But clearly the evocation of feeling and tears within an ancient spiritual tradition will undoubtedly be something deeper than this. All of us share having our human feelings aroused through participation in music or drama. This is a daily part of the way that life is enriched for most of us. How often these feelings rise above what we would call superficial sentiment is another question. In practice, we are all aware of the difference between a merely pleasant sensation and a profoundly moving experience which may change us at a deep level. In addressing the role played by tears for these early Christian writers, we are clearly moving to a place much more significant than anything we normally experience.

The tradition of a spirituality beginning with an experience of tears goes back to the early centuries of Greek spiritual writings. An author known as Isaac the Syrian, writing in the sixth century, believed that tears were the sign of a spiritual breakthrough. He said of the mystic way that when ‘grace begins to open your eyes so that they see things in their essence, it is then that your eyes begin to fill with tears’. St Simeon the New Theologian, an 11th century writer based in Constantinople, speaks of a vision that he had. Writing of himself in the third person Simeon says that when he came to following a vision, ‘he was prey to joy and amazement …he wept from the bottom of his heart and his tears were accompanied by sweetness.’

When these early Fathers speak of tears, they are not talking about sobbing or any contraction of the muscles. They are referring to an outpouring of deep feeling which they perceived as spiritual in nature. Most of us will have had experiences, perhaps spiritual in nature, which has brought us to the point of tears. Sometimes something takes place which is of great beauty, such as a moment of reconciliation between two people. Perhaps it is the climax or moment of triumph for someone after months or years of effort. It was hard not to feel a lump as we watched the athlete helping another runner over the finishing line at the London Marathon at the week-end. Such tears represent are being moved something profoundly beautiful. In the same way, the monastic tradition in the East recognised that tears might be experienced by a Christian as they come forward to receive the sacrament. Indeed, Simeon suggested that ‘no one should communicate without tears’.

Tears in the face of beauty or wonder are also to be placed alongside another cause for weeping as understood by the Fathers. These are tears of compunction. This last word is not a commonly used one in English. It refers to the way that we recognise how sin and evil doing have polluted our human identity. Compunction is the sorrow we feel as part of this sense of repentance. In a powerful metaphor, Simeon describes how the tears of repentance help to water the dry earth in which we try to grow our virtues. Such a moral reformation is accompanied by a successful warding off of demonic attack as well as developing the humility to live a good life. To quote from Simeon’s writing, ‘it is an inexpressible marvel that he whose eyes shed sensible tears washes his soul spiritually from the mud of faults; that that which falls to the ground burns and crushes the demons, and renders the soul free from the invisible bonds of sin.’

I realise in revisiting this long-forgotten tradition within Christian spirituality that it provides a strong antidote to a temptation to exercise manipulative power. Even if a tradition of tears as part of Christian spirituality seems strange to us, at least we can begin to see within it an utter humility and refusal to control. The one who weeps before God at the beauty of his presence or the one who feels deep sorrow for their sins is never the one who longs for power. In this rapid description of the way of tears. I would like to suggest that there is one further area for recognising the possibility of spiritual tears which Simeon does not speak about. In a world which is full of suffering, homelessness, slavery and sudden death, to name a few, it is hard not to be touched emotionally by the sheer volume of the world’s pain. I wonder if our intercessions might not, at least on some occasions, allow to feel deeply in our acts of identification with our objects of concern. In summary, is not truly felt intercession an occasion for tears, at least sometimes? Should not our caring for the world be an invitation to weep for that world? Because we know so much more about what is going on in the world our compassion should in theory be so much greater. Tears may have no value in themselves, but they do have the effect of opening up the heart to greater awareness and sensitivity as to what is going on in ourselves, other people and the wider world. This heightened sensitivity is surely needed in a world that shuts itself off from pain, fear and reality itself. The way of tears, as taught by the early Fathers, may be a path that Christians can learn to follow. This in turn may help to melt the hatreds, the power games and the exploitation that infect our churches and wider society. Compassion, the ability to suffer with others, both near and far, is something that Christians need to experience and then teach to all. Tears of compassion along with tears that lead to humility are important gifts to be offered to our world where such things are not apparent or easily understood.

Why do clergy sometimes abuse their power?

Specific Object
This blog post appeared over three years ago and received quite a lot of comments. I think it has stood the test of time and is worth reprinting (with some minor alterations). Hopefully it will now be accessible to many of my newer readers who have not engaged with this question before. More probably they have not wanted to ask what is, after all, a fairly uncomfortable question.

This blog is concerned with many examples of abuse that happen and have happened in churches up and down the land (not to mention across the world). I am concerned not only by the fact that it happens but also to offer some reflections as to why it happens.

The word abuse is one that is most often associated with sex and indeed sexual exploitation with members of the congregation or pastoral clients is unhappily fairly common in the church. I leave the abuse of children to one side because although it does happen, its occurrence is dwarfed by the incidence of so called ‘affairs’ in the church. Estimating from guesswork and some American research I would maintain that while one clergyman or minister in forty may have sexually abused a child, up to one in eight may have behaved inappropriately with an adult member under their pastoral care. A perusal on the Web will produce some confirmation of whether my figures are more or less accurate.

While abuse of power with a sexual dimension happens in the church (and I will return to this topic in another post), more common is the simple use of power techniques to bolster up the flagging ego of a Christian leader. My studies have suggested that power is abused in a church setting for one of three reasons. These are sex, money or the desire to make the abuser feel important. When we talk about power abuse in church, we are normally talking about the third one of these. It is a phenomenon which is similar to bullying by children. Why do children bully? The short answer is that often they have damaged self-esteem. The use physical threats or dominating behaviour is a means to obtain a sense of being important. This being important temporarily relieves their inner sense of insignificance and not mattering to others. Clergy also play the power game in their congregations in rather more subtle ways than children in the playground. The fundamental reasons for doing it are the same. For whatever reason, clergy sometimes have a crisis of confidence and experience threats to their well-being. The reason for this may be located in the individual’s remote past or it may be a consequence of demoralising conditions of their work in the present.

The abuse of power by the clergy can take many forms and readers of this blog will have their own stories to tell. The abuse of power is often accompanied by a constant reminding by the clergy-person of their ‘superior’ status or education. The clergy who have extra titles may insist of having these used on every occasion. Often clergy will only want to associate with the socially significant among their congregation and ignore others of less importance. This need constantly to be in a superior place to the people ‘below’ them can be seen on examination to be an expression of inadequacy verging on paranoia. If it were not hurtful to those affected by it, it could be almost seem as comic. But being subtly put down by a ‘superior’ person is never funny and congregations where this happens are unlikely to flourish. But just as the abuser may be a victim in some way of the past or present and finds it difficult to change, so the abused find it difficult to walk away because they do not know how to reclaim their power.

Cathedrals Working Group

Around 60 years ago in Canterbury Cathedral a notice greeted visitors as they entered the building. A request was made for them to make a generous contribution to Cathedral funds. The notice pointed out that Canterbury Cathedral needed £1500 annually to cover the shortfall in its income. This worked out at around five pounds a day. Even allowing for inflation this seems to us a tiny sum of money. Visitors were in fact fairly few in number in those days as continental tourists could not then afford to visit Canterbury. I have no doubt, nevertheless, that the generosity of the visitors easily able made up this modest deficit

Moving back to today it is quite clear that all cathedrals in England are currently encountering massive financial burdens. These, sometimes running into millions, are crippling for those who have responsibility for caring for these buildings. Some cathedrals, like Canterbury, have successfully implemented a visitors’ charge for all who come to see the building. Visitors to Canterbury Cathedral today number well in excess of a million in a single year. Thus, even the huge capital projects for restoration can be managed with a reasonable hope of success. Other cathedrals which lie well off the tourist circuit, like Peterborough and Exeter, struggle to raise necessary funds. In recent months, we have heard of the difficulties of governance in both these establishments. Both deans have had to resign. Financial problems have played a major part in the crises that these cathedrals were going through. Clearly there were also personality clashes. It is perhaps inevitable that people will fall out when difficult decisions have to be taken. Making individuals redundant or selling off assets are clearly paths to be taken only after a great deal of possibly acrimonious discussion.

In the past two weeks, the Archbishops have set up a Cathedrals Working Group (CWG) to look into all the issues around governance and organisation of cathedrals. In the background is the often criticised Cathedrals Measure (1999) which attempted to put onto a new footing the way cathedrals are run. The main change brought about through this Measure was to require all cathedrals to employ lay people to manage many aspects of cathedral life. In particular, it was recognised that expertise in financial matters was required. A Chief Executive figure had to be appointed for every cathedral. Cathedral Councils were also set up with the Bishop of the Diocese present in a non-voting role. The Cathedral Chapter, the Dean and the Canons, would be left to be responsible for the worship and the pastoral care of the congregation. Clearly the divisions of responsibility within cathedrals has not been without potential tension and friction. In a previous blog post I pointed out that requiring cathedrals to have these multiple foci of power would result in problems. I have only indirect knowledge of how the divisions of responsibility in cathedrals works out in practice; clearly human relationships will be a key issue and this will involve a need for constant diplomacy by all concerned.

The published reports on Exeter and Peterborough Cathedrals both raised many issues of governance and personal relationships in these institutions. In a set-up where there can be up to four competing centres of authority, I find myself asking why no one talks about this issue of power at a very early stage? Power is like many unspoken topics; it is there but no one wants to describe and analyse it. No one, as far as I know, has ever examined the way authority works in a cathedral from a psychodynamic point of view. When people accept positions of responsibility and power, they will inevitably bring to the table their own personal foibles. These may well become exaggerated by the exercise of the authority role. From my own reading, it seems that in many leaders there is a chance that some will go on over time to develop increasing narcissistic tendencies. Such characteristics will make life for those below them utterly miserable. It would appear that most commercial organisations are alert to this possibility of bullying and obnoxious behaviour and have procedures to deal with it. In the church and other voluntary organisations, the culture of niceness prevents many people calling bad behaviour by its proper name. When an individual with a frustrated ego accepts the role of a manager, it may be a recipe for disaster in that organisation. Why do not people talk about the psychological issues among leaders in places like the church and which commonly cause so much unhappiness?

Looking back over my career in the church, I would many times have welcomed an open discussion about personal and psychological issues connected with my work. In particular I would have welcomed a free exchange over the issue of relating to a Vicar when I was a curate. If the Vicar had said to me, for example, that there will be some issues where I have full authority because of my greater experience. There will be other matters where I welcome your opinions and insights. That will allow us to have an open and free discussion so that we can make a decision jointly. That would have been a path to liberation. If there had also been an open recognition of the fears and tensions that were unspoken and existed on both sides, that also would have been tremendously helpful. But neither thing happened. The Vicar curate relationship for me was very much the parent-child relationship with little recognition that I had anything to offer in spite of five years training. I suspect that many of the tensions which occur within cathedrals, whether between Bishop and Dean or within the Chapter are like this. Individual egos, some of them badly corrupted by over-rapid access to power and authority, are normally unprepared to examine the power dynamics that will always exist in institutions. Would that people could really speak freely about what they feel and think about personal interactions within an institution. Everyone should be able to speak openly when they are expected to work together in harmony.

The expression ‘speaking to power’ is one that is now being much discussed in the context of politics. What I would wish for the Cathedrals Working Group is that they began a serious discussion about the way that power dynamics operate within large and somewhat unwieldy institutions like cathedrals. I would also like the emphasis on training of senior figures in the church to include a much greater understanding of how power dynamics in institutions function. Relationships can so easily breakdown when power games are in operation. Many people do not know how to separate their sense of personal self-esteem from the responsibilities they hold. Defining the ‘self’ by the position of power that is held is neither healthy nor conducive to good relationships. On a slightly separate point, I cannot understand how the Archbishops in England can expect a working group to produce an adequate report with a time-limit set for the end of the year. The issues, the evidence and the stories that they will hear will take them considerable amount of time. I fail to see how they can digest so much material and bring it into a coherent form.

2018 will see the published report. It will be interesting to see whether the group is able to do justice to anything of this issue of power within institutions. They may of course leave it as the unacknowledged reality which no one wishes to unpack properly for full analysis and understanding.

Salvation and Starvation

From time to time a visual image comes to me which illustrates an issue in theology. Recently I was watching an episode of the historical drama The Last Kingdom which explores England in the 9th century. The Danish stronghold of Durham was being attacked by soldiers loyal to the Saxon King, Alfred of Wessex. I began to reflect on the physical issues connected with castles. Many, like Durham, stand on a hill. Those inside the fortress can look down on their enemies and have a tremendous sense of power and security. There are just too many difficulties for these opponents ever to be a threat. But, as we all know, a castle on a hill has one fundamental weakness. The strength that protects it is still very vulnerable. It needs to receive food, supplies and reinforcements from the outside. During a siege this is difficult or impossible. The salvation or safety of the castle walls may turn into a recipe for starvation if the enemy successfully surrounds you and cuts you off from contact with the rest of the world. Walls that keep you safe also cut you off from the wider world.

A comparable situation is to be found in some of the challenging cities in Britain and America where gang warfare is rampant. Members of a gang may take over an area of the city and have control over such things as drug distribution or protection rackets. They will feel extremely safe in their own territory. The problem is that the security they feel is matched by the inability for any member of their gang to leave the area. Outside the safe-zone they are in danger from a rival gang. Security in one geographical area changes into exposure to danger when one goes outside its boundaries. What safety gang members enjoy in their own territory is balanced by total insecurity in places outside their area of control.

Another area of life where security in one part of life is complemented by extreme vulnerability in another is in the possession of great wealth. Many people celebrate wealth, not for what they can buy, but for the security that they feel when they have it. Possession of wealth does however, seem to create many problems of its own. The rich are not exempt from illness, family breakdown or tragedy of various kinds. But there is one notable but avoidable misfortune that many rich people seem to encounter. Many wealthy people have the belief that their good fortune and money makes it necessary to be isolated away from average people. They and their families do not need to mix with ordinary people and do ordinary things. The social life of the very wealthy seems to centre around attending parties and gatherings where they will meet people like themselves. One of the great disadvantages of this kind of social whirl is that not infrequently the rich also find themselves caught up in a need to impress other rich people. Subtle pressure will be maintained to force them to drive a suitable make of car, go to fashionable resorts and generally wear openly the badges of ostentatious wealth. The brief exposure to this kind of life that most of us get through reading the colour supplements of Sunday newspapers, suggests that there is a great deal of effort in maintaining such a lifestyle. The vulnerability of such wealth seems to be twofold. First of all the very rich find themselves caught up in a round of expected behaviour which, on the face of it, appears exhausting and of little value to anyone. Secondly the rich, by opting for a narrow social circle may miss out on any exposure to the full range of people who live in our society. This may not appear to matter for much of their lives. Nevertheless, the inability to relate socially with people of every background is an enormous handicap for wealthy people as they enter old age. The education for mixing with people of all types which is encouraged among Christians, is borne out of a desire to help and serve people right the way through life. The security that wealth and position may have offered for so much of their lives (along with social distancing) has now become a social handicap. Instead of their old security and strength, the older wealthy person may find only unhappiness and loneliness. Like the soldier in a well defended castle, a former sense of safety and impregnable strength gives way to starvation for ordinary human contact and the lack of skills to achieve it.

The words safety and salvation come from a similar root. All of us want such security and safety but it is important to be aware how being safe may sometimes make us extremely vulnerable in another area of life. Some branches of Christianity spend a lot of time assuring their followers of their safety and salvation. The ‘saved’ individual is assured that he/she has done all that is required to be acceptable to God in this world and in the next. This kind of teaching for me is extremely dangerous and is likely to create a kind of religious smugness in the individual concerned. Anything that suggests that I have arrived at a place of safety in this life is almost certainly a false claim. I for one do not spend a lot of time thinking about my achievements, whether personal or professional. I am far more focused on the tasks that lie ahead of me. Do I have the energy, mental or physical, to accomplish these? I find it a much healthier outlook to think of what God wants me to do in the future rather than whether I have already achieved a particular status in God’s eyes.

At this time of year, we contemplate the Passion of Christ. There is one particular phrase in the Passion narrative which suggests that a desire to dwell on an ‘achieved salvation’ is unhelpful for a Christian. It is said of Jesus in John’s gospel that he loved his disciples ‘until the end’. There was no pause in Jesus working his Father’s will. We cannot imagine him sitting back to enjoy the status of ‘being saved’ No, Jesus saw his life right up to the end as being one of service and love for his followers and disciples. For him there was no place of rest or safety; there was no security or a place to hide. There was only the continuous path of obedience to his father, fuelled by his trust and perfect confidence that God would care for him in life and in death. Perhaps the Passion story has this to teach us as well. We cannot ever expect to find complete safety or security; all we can seek is to know and follow the path that God calls us to walk in this life.

Towards an understanding of Healing

Over the past few weeks I have been putting together my thoughts on the topic of healing. It is now 31 years since the first book of mine on this topic was published. In the intervening years since 1986 I have had plenty of opportunity to think and read further on this topic.

The fact that I am trying to produce some fresh ideas on the subject now is connected to the fact that I am due to give a paper on healing to the International Cultic Studies Association conference at Bordeaux in twelve weeks. I have chosen the topic because there seems to be among many students of the cult scene a great deal of scepticism about whether non-medical healings ever occur. Many, if not the majority, of cults and charismatic groups practise some form of healing ritual. To write them all off as trickery or placebo does not do justice to this widespread phenomenon. The problem for many commentators is to reconcile two facts. One is that you may have an utterly unscrupulous cult leader who causes a great deal of harm to his/her followers. This same leader also appears to have a potentially valuable skill. This is to enable on some occasions dramatic reversals in mental or physical disease. Long-term readers of this blog will know that part of the appeal of Michael Reid at Peniel in Brentwood was the fact that he claimed to be able to heal people. Acceptance of these claims had a great deal to do with the way that many stayed loyal to the church when the utter dysfunction of the leadership that Reid offered was clear to all. It is also apparent from the investigations of journalists that at least some of these miracles were faked. I have, however, no reason to doubt that at some point genuine miracles may have taken place. Healings and miracles seem to happen whether or not the agent of such events is holy and morally honourable.

In the paper I am writing I am trying to explore what I believe to be the mechanics of healing. To do this I am looking beyond the boundaries of might be described as religious or indeed medical healings. When we look at what is being accomplished by medical science, we see one enormously important dynamic at work. This is the natural tendency of the body to try to repair itself and return to an equilibrium of health. When I talk about healing I am referring to any of the settings created by religious, medical or psychological means that may enhance the self-healing potential of the human body. Some of these healing environments can in some circumstances lead to something dramatic and even miraculous.

The most basic form of healing is that which takes place naturally in a baby bonded properly with his/her mother. In this interaction, we see all the essential ingredients of a setting which will promote healing of a kind that owes nothing to medicine. In the first place, we have touch. Then we have an almost psychic communication between mother and child. Although we talk about love to describe this bond, there is in fact a virtual fusion of two personalities. The one appears to sense and anticipate the moods and pain of the other. When the toddler experiences a fall and rushes back to the mother for comfort, we see how there is an almost miraculous relief of pain as the mother embraces the child. The mother through her touch and bonding is providing all that is needed to relieve and soothe the child’s pain.

My paper is going to explore the theories of one Heinz Kohut who was active in the 60s and 70s in the States. He was a proponent of what has come to be described as Self Psychology. This is a theory that describes how some people miss out through a failure of bonding with the mother. What comes to be lacking in the affected adult is a secure sense of self. Psychoanalytical treatment is needed to give back to the individual something of what they are lacking through these failures in parenting. This deficit in maternal care especially has left the child, and later the adult, fiercely hungry for affirmation. Such people are described by Kohut as narcissistic, people who crave the attention of others. In describing the way such people should be treated, Kohut speaks of the role of the psychoanalyst as being like a parent for the deprived individual. Therapy in short is a kind of re-mothering process.

How does this help us to have a model for healing? Kohut has described a kind of merging of personalities as being crucial to the repair of a faulty upbringing. A similar merging of personalities appears to occur in many healing encounters, especially in those which involve charismatic and high octane healing events. People fall to the ground and engage in what may only be described as primal behaviour. There seems to be, at least sometimes, a kind of speeded up version of a resetting or recalibrating of relationships that had been lacking or faulty in the past. Kohut had described in his books the way that a narcissistic individual may, as a child, have failed to make a normal identification relationship with an adult. The charismatic encounter seems to allow such a powerful identification with the leader to take place. Regardless of whether that leader is a person of integrity, the sick person may, in making the act of identification or merging with him/her, activate powerful mechanisms of healing within themselves. When something mysterious happens in the depth of the psyche, it can be immensely powerful and at the same time hard to understand. We do know that the body does have a remarkable capacity to heal itself. Sometimes, in an almost random way, that capacity is activated by external events and able to work effectively.

Cult leaders and charismatic ministers are seldom the most reliable of people. They will be very quick to claim credit when a miraculous healing takes place. A lack of wisdom or insight in understanding what has been happening may go on to damage the individual. Thus, the newly healed will perhaps be prevented from experiencing this healing properly. A leader may also claim inappropriate spiritual authority over the one who has experienced a measure of healing. This may enhance the self-conceit or narcissistic tendencies in a self-proclaimed ‘healer’. To become bound unhealthily in this way to a cult leader will prevent the healed individual being released to live their life as a free individual.

There is of course further detail which I shall be exploring in my paper at Bordeaux. I wanted here to convey a flavour of what I want to present. To summarise, two essential ingredients for healing to occur will be in place every time someone recovers health. The first is the power and the potential of the body to regulate itself and secondly, we need an optimal setting for this to take place. There is, as we have suggested, a wide range of these. Christians with their insight into such things as forgiveness, reconciliation and love, possess a whole range of tools which can foster the possibility for healing to take place. The contribution of charismatic Christianity is to reach what I call the more primal aspects of the personality. These sometimes can be activated in a way that reaches much deeper and more powerfully into the areas of ill-health. There is so much more to be said. Perhaps in what I have conveyed is sufficient to show that healing is never a matter of one person doing something to another. It is rather, providing a setting in which the inherent healing power of the body can be allowed to be given expression. Sadly, this is not always allowed to happen benignly. The act of healing can sometimes provide the setting for the worst expressions of power abuse.

Horizons and curiosity

Many years ago, I was Vicar of a group of small villages in Herefordshire. Next door to our Vicarage were two small cottages belonging to a nearby farm. In one of them there was a young couple who were local to the area. The young mother in the family had been brought up in another village nearby and her parents were still living in one of the local authority homes in that community. This next-door cottage where the couple lived was in a state of disrepair and the young mother would often complain about it. Her solution to the problem was to be allocated one of the houses in the road where she had been brought up and where her parents lived. This ambition to move three miles, back to the place where she was born, seemed to us a very restricted kind of ambition. The possibility of an alternative future to this hope was simply outside the boundaries of her imagination. This limited sense of what was possible was also characterised by her inability to be curious about her general surroundings. Both our Vicarage and her cottage had a glorious view of the Black Mountains on the edge of Wales. In a conversation with my wife, this young mother revealed that she had barely noticed that these mountains were there. Still less was she interested to know what they were called. It was sad that this young woman was completely lacking in curiosity and imagination about the world beyond her front door. She did not seem to want to find anything new. Rather she was content to remain in the familiar and known.

Many people live within constricted boundaries, whether geographical or psychological. They may never have moved far from familiar surroundings whether home or family. As a result, their imaginations may not have been stirred to seek or discover what is new or unfamiliar. Clearly, a limited education may contribute to a narrowness of worldview. Equally there may be some psychological factors which may inhibit a person moving out of the familiar to face the new and unknown. It is hard to imagine our former neighbour ever providing a challenging environment for her children to grow up in. It is also hard to see how this restricting cycle of narrowed expectation might be broken so that a new generation would learn the things that are possible when imagination and curiosity are given full rein.

I mention our former Herefordshire neighbour as a way of introducing the thought that many Christians are kept trapped within extremely narrow boundaries on understanding and belief. Their membership of the church has done absolutely nothing to inspire learning or curiosity. They have been encouraged to believe that the important thing is to seek safety in this world and in the next. This will involve not questioning anything they are taught and certainly not straying into areas of discussion where they might be challenged to think for themselves. When I speak about fundamentalist attitudes among Christians, I detect a kind of fearful conservativism and obedience to a trusted authority. Christians are encouraged to feel fearful of a world that might involve imagination and the discovery of what is new. The result is that curiosity is completely suppressed. Without this curiosity and a longing for newness, there will only be, to my mind, something stale, repetitive and ultimately boring. In the last blog post I spoke about churches which entertain by the singing of familiar choruses and songs. The predictability of this kind of worship is reassuring but in another way, it may be responsible for mental stagnation. For me the thought of Christian experience consisting of a formulaic repetition of a particular style of music feels me with dread. I am reminded of the sight of wild animals in a zoo, pacing endlessly around the confines of their cage. Most people recognise that while these animals are safe and fed, they are completely unable to fulfil anything of their potential to be free and fulfilled. I repeat, my objection to much conservative religion is in this fact that it so often fails to encourage any sense of exploration and discovery.

In this blog post I leave my readers with this question. Is it right to destroy a sense of curiosity in a Christian in favour of giving them something safe, predictable and ‘sound’? Should we not rather encourage him/her to see the Christian journey as something exciting, unpredictable or even dangerous? By limiting the spiritual horizons of a new Christian for the sake of safety there seems to be an act of betrayal being perpetrated. So often safe conventional teaching seems to lead to a place which the faith is made something banal and even boring. Can we really expect a Christian to remain engaged with this faith, when all he/she is being offered is an endless round of bland choruses and banal cliché-ridden preaching? The choice that a Christian is being given is perhaps between a path of challenge and a path of safety. Those who only follow the path of safety in the Christian life, by never deviating from a strict adherence to authority and doctrinal orthodoxy, do not seem to find ‘life in all its fullness’. Those who follow the path of challenge do discover something far more adventurous and risky. They have the adventure of moving out of the well-trodden paths of safety and conservative thinking. In making this contrast I am reminded of what Jesus said about losing life in order to find it. Perhaps losing life at one level is to a readiness to risk all in allowing the Christian faith to challenge each of us to follow the path where curiosity, imagination and our sense of adventure may lead us.

The changing face of Christianity

Recently I have read about the decline of institutional and denominational churches in favour of independent Pentecostal gatherings. When one Anglican Church is closed, it is reported that six Pentecostal congregations emerge to take its place. If one does the maths, and this pattern continues, within 20 or 30 years Pentecostal styles of religion will be the dominant face of the Christian faith in this and many other countries.

When I look at the Church press, dominated for me by the Church Times, there seems to be a complete ignorance of this changing face of Christianity in Britain. This current massive popularity of what is commonly called ‘happy clappy’ independent churches seems to have been ignored by many commentators. The fact that these churches are also so far invisible to the media also means that many people are able to pretend that they are of little importance.

There are a variety of reasons why I am anxious about this explosion of Pentecostal theology and worship in the UK. If such churches were always going to be in a minority, then we could regard them as a healthy balance to the more traditional liturgical churches in the UK. Something changes when this exuberant expression of the faith becomes a dominant one. The perception of the outside world towards the church changes. The word ‘Christian’ comes to mean for the ‘man in the street’ something strange and even outlandish. The old notion of Britain being considered a Christian country becomes less viable. The outsider is no longer prepared to regard him/herself as even nominally Christian when the word has taken on a meaning of weirdness. I have often referred to the way that the word Christian has frequently been highjacked by groups with a strong conservative agenda. The whole church has a problem when the dominant expression of Christianity in this country puts forward a style of worship and theology that is fundamentalist and strongly experiential.

What are the further reasons that I am concerned about the dominance of Pentecostal worship in Britain today? A strong reason for my concern is that whatever I think about the theology and ideas of this branch of Christianity, I see an emphasis on experience above everything else. We can, with reservations, applaud exuberance, free worship and expansive music. The problems start when this style becomes the dominant one. Those who are repelled by this cultural expression of the Christian tradition have nowhere they can call home.

50 or 60 years ago, when I was a young person, the Church was institution which had a strong sense of social and economic issues. Through the parish system the church was present in every community throughout the land. Even when only a few people attended the local Anglican parish, there was always an attempt to be regarded as a body committed to serve the area. This outward perspective is no longer a dominant one even in many Anglican parishes. The independent churches are even less involved in the communities where they are found. Their priority is to provide an experience of intensity and passion through their music and styles of worship. It is not unfair to describe most modern independent churches as being far more focused on their interior life than any involvement with the community beyond the church doors. Such Pentecostal-style churches are cocoons of intense experience. This is encouraged for its own sake and is seldom seen as equipping members for involvement with surrounding neighbourhood. The word evangelism, which is highly prized, is all about increasing numbers of members particularly to fund the financial commitments which are needed to pay for the ministry. Converts are, to use an old-fashioned image, those who are like burning embers snatched out of a fire. There is no understanding of the call in the Bible for Christians to become salt and light to the world. In contrast the Anglican Church of the 1950s and 60s had a sense that it was a church for everyone, even though it realised that not everyone would attend its services.

The independent Pentecostal style of worship in the new churches is never going to be palatable for the vast bulk of our population. Not only do many people find the music jarring and alien, but the strong flavour of anti-intellectual rant found in many sermons, is decidedly off-putting for people of education. However much a preacher may quote the passage about the gospel being hidden from the wise, there is nothing attractive about faith which simply avoids the world of thinking and reason. If this form of Christianity becomes dominant in our society, then it will be very hard for other expressions of the faith to survive. The tradition of university study, reflective reasoned argument and academic rigour might simply cease to exist.

I have to say that I become somewhat depressed at the way that non-rational and experiential expressions of faith are taking over in Britain today. I need to repeat that they are valid forms of faith within a mixed economy of styles and theology. If, however, they become dominant then the Church in England has a real problem. We all know that it is healthy for a political democracy to have at least two parties which are reasonably matched in numbers and influence. This way an opposition party can keep a check on the party of government preventing it from becoming too powerful. The political situation in Britain at the moment is suffering because of the weakness of the opposition. When opposition is weak the governing party becomes too powerful. We can be grateful that some of the excesses of the Trump regime in the States have become neutralised by the existence of a reasonably united Democratic party. Such checks and balances are healthy and they also apply to church life. The church needs the life of the mind and intellect as well as the experiential and exuberant aspects of human experience. Academic theology can kill the Christian faith dead for many people in this country. Equally a dominating culture of anti-intellectual expressions of the faith is also lethal. Let us hope that, in the future, the life of the mind can be allowed to coexist with the energy involved in the primal experience of Pentecostal worship. These two expressions of Christian faith may find it difficult to exist at the same time in the same place. Nevertheless, it is possible for the exponents of each to have respect and some insight into the value of the other. In this way, the richness of the mind and the heart can be allowed to co-exist. Together the full depth of all that is involved in Christian faith can be celebrated and enjoyed.

Mixing the good and the bad – McGuiness & Yonggi Cho

The death of Martin McGuinness on Monday has raised predictable passions among people of all persuasions. Some remember him merely as a fanatical murderer, having a nihilistic contempt for his victims. Others remember him as a key player in the promotion of peace and reconciliation within Northern Ireland. It is hard to know which side is telling the deeper truth about this man. It would be tidy from a Christian point of view to be able to tell a story about how McGuinness had had some conversion experience which led him to participate in the peace-making process. By contrast some have suggested that he had a greater interest in keeping out of prison than in making a fundamental personality change. To survive as free man, he had to make himself indispensable in the Good Friday peace process. I for one do not offer a judgement or opinion on these matters. I merely observe how difficult it is to know the truth about a man’s inner soul based on an observation of the actions of his life.

Another figure from the other side of the world attracting both praise and blame is the leader of the largest church congregation in the world. This congregation is found in Seoul in South Korea and the leader’s name is David Yonggi Cho. I have recently been reading about the success of this church and the remarkable state of Pentecostal religion generally in that country. Cho’s genius was to discover how much a church can grow when it adopts a cell-like structure. Joining a cell of around a dozen people enables the individual to belong in a way that is impossible if the main Sunday gatherings consist of thousands of people. The small cell keeps membership intimate and personal and thus it fulfils the social as well as spiritual needs of the members. The cell structure is of course a brilliant solution to the problem of the mega-church, but it has at least one severe weakness. It will only work when the cell structures operate in precisely the same way. There is no room for innovation or development. Everyone, both leaders and led, have to conform to the teaching, the beliefs and the vision of the leader. That overriding ethos will normally conform to an ultra-conservative fundamentalist form of Christianity. It is hard to see how this pattern would fit in with the more creative and fluid structures we associate with denominational patterns. Here development and creativity keep everything somewhat untidy and messy. There is normally little attempt to exercise too much in the way of authority and power. A cell structure would, for instance, never work successfully in the majority of Anglican congregations in Britain.

Returning to South Korea where all this cell idea began. Yonggi Cho began his church with five members but later, thanks to the cell structure idea he later had charge of a congregation numbering no less than a million members. There are I believe some cultural reasons for this kind of church growth being possible in this area of East Asia, but that is for another discussion. What we have to draw attention to here is the way that something as successful as Cho’s church became recently a victim of corruption and financial abuse. The sums of money which were misappropriated by Cho and his son were simply vast. Cho’s son has gone to prison for four years and Cho himself was given a suspended sentence of three years for his part in an enormous financial scandal. What are we to make of this fall from grace, which incidentally has only made a small dent in the numbers attending the church in Seoul? Are we to see the Holy Spirit at work here in spite of greed, financial skulduggery and power abuse? Or do we see a human failure which may have been there right from the beginning which disqualifies the integrity of the whole of this ministry? The question is similar to those we asked about McGuiness but in Cho’s case the fall has come at the end rather than at the beginning of his life. I do not know the answer to these questions. I can only suggest that how we answer the questions will reveal something of our theological perspectives. What is important is that we should never fail to carry on a debate about human frailty, even though we want to believe that some people embody a sanctity and holiness which can never be compromised. There is a tendency among some to put charismatic leaders on pedestals of infallible goodness. This is extremely unhealthy. As I have suggested in other blog posts, leader worship will often have the effect of increasing the narcissism of those so affected and weakening their grasp on reality. Whatever anyone appears to achieve in political or religious life, we must never allow that individual to lose their sense of fallibility. Everyone needs to deal with questions and uncertainties. I have already questioned a church system, such as the cell idea, that can ‘guarantee’ church growth for those who follow a detailed formula. This formula will almost certainly include some highly questionable assumptions about, for example, the status of leadership and nature of the Bible. My experience of struggling for truth in church matters is to see that it will never be tidy. Messiness and uncertainty in church structures will have the benefit of allowing people to grow within an atmosphere of freedom. By contrast formulaic and legalistic church teachings and systems of authority can easily enslave people.

In South Korea, the legacy of Cho will be a mixed one. Alongside an apparent genius who could organise vast numbers of people into a church structure, there is a greedy human being. A capacity to exploit and a genius for organisation seem to have existed side by side. That is one reading of the situation and I am sure others will have a different judgment. I am still reserving my opinion on the life of Martin McGuinness. His legacy is at very best ambiguous and I shall leave it at that. History will also tell whether the legacy of Cho and his attempts to revolutionise the church with his cell structures is a good one or whether it will prove to be flawed. This may be either from his personal failures over money or from his readiness to promote what I regard as an inflexible and harshly fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Conversion and Sin

Every clergyman or minister will know the problem of dealing with an individual in the congregation who, for whatever reason, does not fit in. The church is meant to be a place that gives a welcome to all. But when an awkward or difficult person presents him/herself in one of the pews, a conscious effort has to be made to assimilate that individual into the order of things. There are any number of reasons for a failure to fit in easily. It may be a matter of personal hygiene or social background that creates a problem; it may be for reasons of theology that they are somehow out of place. If the effort at integration fails and the person leaves, everyone may be secretly relieved that the problem has resolved itself. The fact that the departure is a defeat for the church’s stated desire to welcome and love, is quietly overlooked.

Beyond the problem of absorbing the difficult outsider, there is another problem that churches may have encountered which is equally problematic. This is the problem of a well-connected member of the congregation who turns out to have a dark secret. The individual concerned may be a wife-beater or long term scam artist. Because the congregation has treated this individual as one of its own, no one wants to believe bad things about him. The situation is worse when the malefactor is the minister or clergyman themselves. Everyone has projected onto him a standard of goodness which has helped each member feel good about themselves. The revelation of evil deeds has the effect of dragging everyone down. The former idealisation of their leader has, after his fall, left them all feeling involved and thus contaminated by his actions.

In both these situations we have potentially unhealthy responses in the way the church may behave. In the first there is an attempt to avoid handling the unconventional or awkward personality. In the second case, there is a strong reluctance to face up to the fact that church people are as capable of dishonest, evil or perverse behaviour as anyone else. What might be going on in the theology of both these situations? In the first situation, we can say that there is a failure of love. The unconventional behaviour and opinions of the misfit are too challenging to cope with. In a variety of ways which may not always be conscious, church members are maybe failing in the duties and obligations of love and welcome.

The second scenario is a still more challenging one. Most people have as a given that that anyone who gives their life to God and goes through some conversion experience is incapable of real wrongdoing. When this turns out not to be true, it creates considerable dissonance in the minds of church members. The instinct is first to attempt to excuse the behaviour or pretend it has not happened. This attempt at denial may be as much about protecting the reputation of the congregation as it is about an inappropriate gesture of support for the erring individual. Everyone feels something of the shame of the action. The cover-ups that may be attempted are efforts to push away that shared sense of guilt. When this assumed link between church attendance and goodness is broken, everyone feels less secure in their sense of righteousness. The problem of a failing minister is even more acute. As I mentioned above, the individual members of the congregation may have engaged in a process of idealisation. The goodness of the minister has percolated down to give status to everyone who attends. This has been compromised.

At the heart of the problem of a church finding it difficult to deal with the blatant sinfulness of one of its members, is the theology of conversion. What actually happens when someone gives the loyalty to Christ? Is the work of the Holy Spirit involved? When an individual falls from grace after that experience, what does that say about the Holy Spirit himself? Was the person deceiving everyone in the claim to conversion or should we say that the Holy Spirit does not necessarily override human frailty and weakness?

I am unable to give concrete answers to these questions. I would just comment that when people cling to some doctrine of automatic goodness following Christian conversion, they become blind to the possible failings of human nature. A tendency for a congregation to closes rank against victims of abuse to support a perpetrator is not neutral behaviour. When there is overwhelming evidence against an individual who has violated trust in some way, supporting that person will enhance the victim’s suffering. People seem very good at finding a theology that seems to support the interests of their own immediate group. Blindness and deafness often seem to follow when unpalatable facts are presented to people. The supporters of President Trump seem to be unaware of the fact that his proposed taxes will cause suffering and even death for many poor people in his country.

Any doctrine that seems to suggest that a converted Christian cannot sin is potentially an extremely dangerous one. It has the effect that people put their guard down when mixing in Christian circles. Thus, they do not see what may be going on around them. The capacity of human beings to fail does not cease when they become Christians. We still need alertness and even a little cynicism when faced with the phenomenon of human nature. Naïveté is all too common among Christians. There is something particularly ugly about the sight of Christians protecting their own when they know full well that an individual or group of individuals have harmed others. Nigel Davies, the protester outside Trinity Church Brentwood, has experienced the full anger of those who simply do not want to face up to the evils of the past in that church. As we have seen over the months, there is, apart from anger, a great deal of hatred and denial. Such sentiments do little to promote health either for the individuals expressing it or for the wider church. Someone needs to point out to those who berate Nigel that however many miracles were supposed to happen at Peniel/Trinity Church in the past, we still need accountability for terrible human failures. These, as we would claim in this blog, typically centre around the abuse and misuse of power. If my blog has done nothing else I hope it has sensitised my readers to the way that this failing is very common around every walk of life. A proper awareness of this failing as it touches our churches, is the first stage of being able to stop it. As Adrian Plass said in one of his books, we need to be able to ‘spot it and stop it’.

Updates on Exeter and comment on Sheffield

Some months ago, I tried to make sense of the published account of the Bishop of Exeter’s Visitation to his Cathedral. The report contained a great deal of detail about the various clergy overseeing that institution. In the past, some of the details placed in the published report would not have seen the light of day. We may imagine that there were further issues that were not spelt out. Nevertheless, it was still a revealing account of life at Exeter Cathedral. My observations and comments were given in the blog post below.

After writing my post I was pleased to get a communication from someone in Exeter quite close to the action. He was able to confirm that I had been reasonably accurate in my speculations about the dysfunction of power at the Cathedral. Now today after six months we have received the dramatic news of the resignation of the Dean and the Precentor. The only new information is the suggestion that financial issues were also part of the problem at Exeter alongside the personality problems. When a cathedral cannot pay its way, then existing management will find it extremely hard to cope. Outside bodies, such as the Church Commissioners, may well have a voice in determining what should happen for the future. The departure of the Precentor is interesting. Was she by any chance involved in an overspending? This remains pure speculation but the departure of two members of the Chapter at one moment is significant.

There will always be problems at Exeter and at other cathedrals when lines of power become tangled up and confused. This, we suggested, was likely to happen as the result of the Cathedral Measure of 1999. I do not want to repeat what I said before on that topic. When you add a need for financial retrenchment to a possibly muddled division of responsibilities, you have a recipe for chaos. As I mentioned before, the role of the Dean of an English cathedral is a prestigious one and should attract men or women of the highest calibre. But, increasingly as these unfortunate incidents occur, the job of Dean at one of our cathedrals is going to be regarded as a poisoned chalice.

The other major drama is going on in Sheffield. Most of my readers will know the broad outlines of the story which has led Bishop Philip North to withdraw from accepting the nomination to be Bishop of Sheffield. A lot of unpleasant words have been said and those who criticised the appointment have been accused of vindictive personal attacks. Looking into the various components of the drama, I came across an account of the consecration of Philip to the Bishop of Burnley which took place a couple of years ago. In keeping with his Anglo-Catholic theological convictions, Philip was consecrated by three bishops who had retained their separation from any involvement with the ordination of women. These three bishops were thus ‘untainted’, having neither taken part at the ordination of women nor received the sacrament at the hands of a female priest. The Archbishop of York himself was present at the service but, having ordained women, he took no part in the actual consecration. Without going into any of the other arguments about the suitability of Bishop Philip to the see of Sheffield, I found this story very revealing. The way his original consecration was performed speaks volumes about his understanding of priesthood. These views are shared by a band of clergy who belong to a group called The Society. This position, to put a negative interpretation on it, seems to carry an unmistakable aroma of misogyny and fear of the female sex. Whatever pastoral gifts the Bishop might possess, it is hard to see how he could ever regard the numerous ordained women in his diocese as true colleagues. The Church of England does not seem to know how to react to the problem of reconciling opinions of people who take inflexible views. In this situation, we are dealing with a form of fundamentalism. In its conservative protestant variation, I have described fundamentalism as an opinion which cannot and does not enter into dialogue. The nature of Bishop Phillip’s consecration also seems to point to a similar intransigence. The inability to tolerate the touch of an Archbishop who had ordained women suggests an inability to tolerate possible sacramental and thus doctrinal contamination. This does not create a good environment for the Anglican desire for a state of ‘mutual flourishing’.

Fundamentalism whether catholic or protestant seems to have a deep problem with the status of women. We are not just talking about the theological and biblical arguments about their status. We are also describing what women actually feel when they enter some churches. In many conservative protestant circles women are forbidden to take positions of leadership. This is also true in the stance of many Anglo-Catholics. Something is going on here which is deeper than theology and the quoting of biblical texts. It is an encounter with prejudice which is rooted in the dark place of misogyny. When the experience of women is to feel second rate and second-best then this is an issue of power abuse. It thus comes into the purview of this blog. These posts will always name and resist such naked abuses of power in a church context.

In conclusion, I find myself siding with those who have opposed Bishop Philip for the see of Sheffield. We are not just describing not just the impossibility of a mutual flourishing of ideas, which is what the Church says it wants. We are talking effectively about a potential institutional disempowering of the female sex in the context of the religious life of our country. From the perspective of this blog that is not right. We continue to plead for a vision that God’s will that furthers the complete flourishing of all. Even though this is difficult to achieve in practice we should not be pretending that God shows any preference for half the human race. Let us be grateful for the variety we see in humankind – male and female, gay and straight, black and white and all the varieties of personality. God wishes all to prosper; woe betide any of us if we put obstructions in the way of full flourishing for all.