Category Archives: Stephen’s Blog

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we find forgiveness for abuse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian pilgrimage and the pursuit of joy

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

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

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

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

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

Church as a family

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

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

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

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

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

Mavis Arnold -advocate for spiritually and physically abused children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservative American Religion and a Post-truth society

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dark side of Charisma

In thinking about what we call charisma in the setting of history, it is hard not to notice two extremes. On the one hand, we can speak about the charisma of St Francis of Assisi. He changed the spiritual atmosphere of the entire Christian world during his lifetime. At the other extreme we see a dark charisma at work among the German people through the work of Hitler. Whether we like it or not, these two individuals are in some way linked. They both had the ability to change people’s thinking and imagination through the use of rhetoric and charisma.

In this post, I want to think about the way that this power we describe as charisma is simultaneously immensely creative as well as sometimes enormously destructive. Many years ago, I listened to a sermon given by Archbishop Michael Ramsey when he was preaching at a confirmation service. No doubt he was using an image which he had used many times before but it was no less powerful for his hearers. He spoke about the Holy Spirit as fire. Fire, he explains, has various properties. First, it has the capacity to give light in a dark place. Secondly it is a source of warmth for a place that is cold. Thirdly flame can transform water into energy, as we see in a steam engine. There may have been other facets of fire which he spoke about but I only remember these three. Each of these facets of flame are good examples of the way that the Holy Spirit can energise and empower a Christian individual who is open to receive this divine energy.

While remembering this simple Christian image from decades ago, I have also come to see that there is a further aspect of fire which Michael Ramsey did not speak of. Fire, of course, has the capacity to destroy and consume anything that gets too close to it. I am wondering whether this negative aspect of fire should be added to our likening of fire to the Holy Spirit and the so-called Charismatic Movement. When I review the history of spirit filled Christians over the last 50 years, I see a story not just of transformed spiritual individuals, but also of leaders who have been led astray by power. To use the metaphor that we have from Archbishop Ramsey, we might suggest that destructive aspects of fire also can be seen in the abusing of power by some charismatic Christian leaders. Both the leaders and the led are in some way scorched and damaged by being caught up in the primal dynamic of charisma when it shows us its dark side. Self-aggrandisement and self-serving behaviour by charismatic leaders can lead to a situation of terrible harm being perpetrated on the followers in a congregation.

In thinking about this way that Christian charisma has sometimes revealed its dark side, it is helpful to retain this image of a flame that burns. Every parent teaches their child to avoid an open flame. Flames are dangerous and we need to keep our distance at all times. The same lesson is true for an involvement with a charismatic event. An encounter with God the Holy Spirit is something to be treated with awe and a considerable amount of respect. Sometimes the charismatic experience can touch the individual in positive ways, allowing through that experience the discovery of new gifts. Even when charisma is linked to such things as gifts of healing, discernment or prophecy, these gifts do not create supermen or women. Still less should we assume that the acquisition of charismatic gifts gives an individual a right to an authority to take power over others, purely on the grounds that they feel important.

In my past writing about the abuse of power in the church, I have been very conscious of numerous examples where charismatic power in an individual has changed to become a tyrannical abusive power over others. Over recent weeks the blog which looks at the terrifying history of the Peniel Church in Brentwood has sprung back into life. https://victimsofbishopmichaelreid.blogspot.co.uk/?view=sidebar Once again, the readers of the blog are being reminded of the history of a church where hundreds of church members were abused or betrayed over 20 to 30 years. Michael Reid, the former leader and chief abuser, is probably now a spent force. Although he claims to run a congregation, he suffers from ill-health as well as isolation from his own family. While Reid has been publicly shamed for an extensive list of abuses, he still regards himself as a powerful Christian healer. Somehow the memory of his claimed miracles is supposed to mitigate or even excuse the abuses of which he is accused. It is clear to me that even genuine unexpected healings do not excuse evil abusive behaviour. Through a combination of hypnosis, crowd dynamics and the exercise of charisma, Reid was able to effect changes in individuals. Some episodes, even allowing for exaggeration, might be objectively claimed as genuine healings. This power of charisma has a strange way of being able to work even with those who abuse it or seek to use it for their own selfish ends.

I call this post the dark side of charisma as a way of exploring the fact that something normally good can quite easily slip into something evil or abusive. Power can be used to empower others, but equally it can be used to exploit. Words, as Jesus reminded us in last Sunday’s gospel, can be used to articulate the evil flowing from the heart of individuals. We also know how words can and do the opposite.

To return to Michael Ramsey sermon, it will always be important to recognise how something that is good can be easily distorted or damaged. The same flame that gives light, warmth and energy is the same as the one which can destroy. May all of us recognise the capacity of the good to be swiftly turned into something that can be evil and destructive. Our selfish hankering for self-importance, power and dominance can so easily overtakes our desire to love, serve and respect others.

Which side are you on?

One aspect of the political life of America has become a lot clearer in the past few days. Apologists for Donald Trump used to be able to pretend to detect a thin thread of rational thinking in his utterances and his tweets. Many of us were more doubtful that this was indeed the case. Now even his most ardent supporters are finding it impossible to stand by him when he has been revealed as a racist of the most obvious kind. More serious even than that is Trump’s inability to see that even a suggestion of holding such views flies in the face of all the traditions and values of the nation he claims to represent and serve. In the face of the ‘car-crash’ news conference of 15th August, there can hardly be a civilised individual in the Western world who sides with the values and thoughts of Donald J. Trump.

The answer to the question ‘whose side are you on’ is easy to answer when looking at the views of Trump. The free democratic world united to fight and defeat the forces of Nazi Germany in 1940s and no historian has ever risen up to challenge the correctness of that decision. Sadly, few moral decisions are ever as simple as taking a stand against racism and fascism. Now today Wednesday 16th August the newspapers have presented to Christians a new moral question. As far as this one is concerned there may be different answers and responses. But once again Christians are being asked ‘whose side are you on?’ There is acknowledgement that agreement is unlikely in this case.

The church of St Sepulchre’s in the city of London has for decades acted as a special place for the network of professional classical musicians in the capital. They have been permitted to practise in the church, hold concerts and generally treat the space as a friendly one for their task of producing professional music of the highest kind. In return, they have helped to keep the building open by the fees paid. As a former vicar outside London I was always on the look-out for musicians who wished to perform in any of my buildings. The most memorable of these occasions was when a prestigious organisation called Music in Country Churches descended on Lechlade. They arrived complete with their Patron, Prince Charles and laid on a fantastic concert featuring Sophie von Otter, the international soprano soloist. Many lesser occasions took place in that church and other churches for which I had responsibility. All the musicians were thrilled with the acoustics that a mediaeval building can create. Never once, even among my evangelical members, was there any hint that good music of all kinds did not have a place in a building whose primary function is for worship.

The problem at St Sepulchre’s is that the new Vicar has decreed that from 2018 the long link with professional musicians is to be broken. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/14/proms-conductor-row-musicians-church-bans-non-religious-concerts/ Although the official reason is that the church, an offshoot of HTB, needs the full use of the building and cannot share it with anyone else, there is clearly a theological agenda. There is, according to John Rutter, the distinguished composer, an implication that non-religious music has no place in the building. In other words a binary distinction is being made between ‘religious’ music and ‘secular’. The former is acceptable while the latter has no place in a house of prayer.

The theological justification that seems to lie behind this story obviously can be argued for. It implies a world view where the clean and the sacred must be kept physically separate from the secular and potentially unholy. We are in other words entering into the world occupied three hundred years ago by the Puritans. No one is suggesting that the Puritans had nothing on their side in terms of theological insight. It is sometimes important to draw boundaries between good and bad and wholesome and wicked. But the Christian perspective that is behind this particular judgement seems very narrow and designed to give the wider church an extraordinarily bad press with people beyond its influence. This negative publicity for the church in London and nationally will be felt for years to come. Is non-religious classical music in some way ever a threat to the gospel? For myself I feel shame that Christian leaders have made this decision. Although I am in no way party to it, I still belong to the organisation which has made this judgement about the role of classical music in our society.

The question of taking a side over the stance of Donald Trump seemed straightforward. Is the question of which side we are on between the Vicar of St Sepulchre’s and the musical world of London equally clear? Does a Christian ever have to decide to exclude what is not overtly designated as Christian? Until Wednesday I had not even realised that this issue of encouraging classical music in a church music in a church building could ever be an issue of faith. Which side, my reader, do you take in the matter?

What people believe -insights into St Michael-le-Belfry

One of the most difficult things to know is what other Christians believe. They may belong to churches which have very definite statements of belief and moral teaching. In order to belong to that church, each member is expected to agree to the doctrinal standards set out. It would, we believe, be normally unwise to assume that all the members of such a church always believe exactly what is expected of them.

I have recently been reading a study of a church in York which attempts to tackle this important question. It is a detailed snapshot of the famous St Michael-le-Belfry Church in York and it is based on field studies carried out in 1999 and 2000. Two things interested me. The first was a frank account of the history of this church since its effective foundation in 1965 by the well-known clergyman, David Watson. He inherited a church building in York which was ripe for closure. Under his leadership St Cuthbert’s, and later St Michael’s, became showcases for the charismatic/ evangelical impulse which was sweeping through the church at the time. The second point of interest is the way that the author, Matthew Guest, now a lecturer in sociology at Durham University, has used extensive questionnaires to probe deeply into the beliefs of the congregation. This section is for me, by far the most revealing part of the book. What it seems to show, in summary, is that while the church possesses a clearly defined charismatic/evangelical identity, the beliefs of many of the congregation often veer towards a liberalism that is not officially appropriate to a church in this tradition.

Two classic Protestant doctrines exist which tower over all others in their importance for the conservative evangelical identity. Both are problematic for many Christians outside the conservative networks such as myself. The first of these is a belief, which we have met many times before, a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The other belief that is normative for classical evangelicalism is a belief in the efficacy of the death of Christ. This is a divinely given means to allow the followers of Christ to obtain salvation. The implication of this belief is that no one will be saved if they have not shared in the distinctive experience of evangelical conversion.

According to Guest’s survey, only 24% of the St Michael’s congregation followed a strictly literalist understanding of the Bible. The majority position, 51%, declared that the Bible was true but not always to be taken literally. It is interesting to note that in 1994, in another survey, 28% of churchgoers of all denominations believed the Bible to be literally true. We might have expected that St Michael’s, a beacon of evangelical belief and practice, might have had a higher score. Guest’s research suggests that many in the congregation were actively involved in an attempt to relate what they knew of secular learning to biblical insights. To put it another way, independent reading and reflection was a normative part of the individual forging of a spiritual identity. There was little sense that preaching provided a definitive statement of what had to be believed. Sermons were only one part of the journey towards faith.

The classic view of salvation which states that only those who have made a personal decision to follow Christ will enter heaven was also problematic for many St Michael’s members. This evangelical soteriology was firmly held by David Watson and I heard this teaching from his lips in 1974. It is this teaching which lies behind the (to my mind) intrusive question: ‘Are you saved?’ The strict version of the evangelical message sees any watering down of this model of salvation as being ‘patently false and the result of delusion or satanic machinations’. The idea that family members are destined for hell because they have not made a decision for Christ sat uncomfortably with many of the St Michael’s folk that Guest spoke to. In many of the interviews that he conducted individuals wanted to soften the harsh version of the doctrine. 86% of those interviewed preferred to reject the idea of hell being a place of punishment. Like Christians elsewhere they found it difficult to conceive of a God of love who ‘lets people trip off down into eternal misery’.

Hard-line views about other religions also failed to find favour with the majority of the St Michael’s congregation. Many wanted to find positive aspects in these non-Christian religions. While maintaining that other religions were deficient in some way, most respondents were unwilling to condemn them. In short it could be said that at a personal individual level, the majority of St Michael’s members opted for a tolerant and inclusive view in relation to other religious.

The one area where the St Michael’s congregation revealed a classic conservative approach was in the area of sexual morality. Guest found that 81% of respondents believed that sexual relations between same sex adults are always wrong. This compares with 39% for the population at large. This latter figure will have decreased further since the survey was made. Attitudes about the role of women in church and family were far closer to the views held by the wider society. Some members did identify with traditionalist patriarchal view of women and their role within the home. Nevertheless 57% disagreed with the statement that the primary role of the Christian woman is to support her husband as provider by caring for the children and tending to the household duties. The same percentage was also found in a public opinion survey.

Guest concludes that wider cultural norms in our society have made considerable impact on the beliefs and practices of the members of St Michael’s. The official position of the church is to be exclusive and set-apart from the secular world. This is the stance taken by preachers, whether visitors or resident. In practice, this sense of separateness has been eroded for many St Michael’s individuals. We can even call it a significant liberalisation of parts of the congregation. Strict conservative views on issues connected with the Bible, the meaning of salvation and the role of women continue to be held. But, Guest would claim there is no consensus on these topics. Can we by any chance extrapolate these findings to other bastions of evangelical identity and suggest that any unanimity that is claimed is not real? The ‘myth’ of evangelical agreement is certainly one that has intimidated those of us who positively applaud diversity and untidiness of belief in church life.

Christianity and Class

The Church Times on Friday 4th August had an article about the issue of social class in the Church of England. Class is one of those topics that probably everyone secretly has feelings about but finds difficult to discuss. The authors were brave to raise this issue in the new book, A Church for the Poor. It raises dilemmas that seem insoluble. A central starting point for the authors of the book, Natalie Williams and Martin Charlesworth, is that the Church of England is at present culturally very middle-class. People brought up in a different background often find themselves out of place in many of its typical activities, including the acts of worship. The book also faces up to the practical problems that arise when a middle-class congregation tries to be more accessible to people of a different social background. Many individuals from a humble background lack the education and a facility with words which is the norm among most church attenders. There are other topics in the book about working class representation in the structures of church government and leadership. Also, what might a successful church operating in a working-class environment look like?

I want to take the book’s discussion as a starting point for some reflections of my own rather than comment further on the topics raised by the authors. On this blog Chris is frequently reminding us how the Church fails to connect with members of the ‘lower’ classes. There is also the problem that culturally, middle and working-class populations occupy different worlds. Young people are perhaps the exception in this statement. The mass youth culture has a greater homogeneity today than in the past. Older people on the other hand are likely to follow the cultural norms set by their own backgrounds and education. Loud rhythmic music is seldom heard in middle class neighbourhoods. Because of the huge range of cultural manifestations in today’s society, it is not surprising that the church finds it so difficult to find a cultural style to suit all its members.

While the different classes follow quite different trajectories in choosing their cultural preferences, there are some places where all classes meet. Popular television and certain forms of popular music attract people from every social tier. The plot line of East Enders and Coronation Street may be a conversation piece among people of widely differing educational backgrounds and class. At the same time, the members of the semi-literate groups in society, those who have been unable to climb the social and economic ladders, may find it hard to connect with better educated people in other areas. The task of sheer survival takes priority over any kind of social and cultural aspiration. These people in particular, will find little meaning in what the church is saying. What little they do know will be filtered through the columns of popular newspapers. Many people will conclude that the Church is obsessed with the topic of gay sex. This is what they think they hear when the Archbishops are speaking to the general public. It is hard to know how the deeper aspects of the church’s message can be shared in the face of such massive misunderstandings.

This past week I took a funeral service to help a local vicar who is on retreat. I had an opportunity to meet the bereaved family before the service so was able to gain a good impression of what they were expecting of me at the crematorium. None of them had any background in the church and I was faced with the task of saying something that would avoid cliché but also reflect something of the Christian hope. There was a balance to be observed – one which gave due attention to the Christian context of the service without alienating the congregation with the use of too much Christian jargon. I spoke briefly about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Such an event helps us to envisage that death is not a final statement. From my perspective death was an entry into a place of dazzling brightness, a place where there was to be found peace, joy and the fulfilment of all our longings. Any attempt to speak about salvation or other aspects of Christian dogma would have been in this setting a complete waste of time. Instead we celebrated and gave thanks for all the positive aspects of the life of the deceased man. I hope it was done in a way that was helpful and able to bring comfort.

I mention this funeral because it was an example of a meeting between two cultures. The cultures represented were here not strictly speaking defined by social class. The barriers of incomprehension that I observed were the result of one group being totally unversed in the words and ideas of the Christian faith. I know that some clergy would have taken a different line from my attempted sensitivity to the situation. They would have ploughed on with a presentation of the gospel as they understood it, without any regard to the incomprehension of their audience. Others might have veered in the opposite direction, making the event much closer to a humanist celebration of a person’s life. Whichever is the right approach I have no means of knowing.

Christians who wish to speak of their faith to those who share nothing of their language or culture do have one strong tool at their disposal. That is the teaching of Good News through music of all kinds. Music sometimes reaches the inner parts of human beings in ways that no words can. Some find themselves awakened by melody while others can be invigorated by a strong rhythmic style. The problem for many of us is that the most popular Christian music repels some on taste grounds as much as it attracts others. I also fear a worship style which leans heavily on the use of culturally popular music. Is it the music which attracts the audience or God? Are we attracting people to Hillsong or Vineyard services to listen to contemporary musical entertainment or are we drawing them towards God? I simply do not know the answer to this question. If it is really possible to draw in people to meet God who use less verbal communication in their cultural lives, then we need to be able to demonstrate how this takes place.

My reflections are full of unanswered questions. My dilemma is that the very things that help me articulate my faith, a facility with words and education, are repugnant or off-putting to those who do not share them. Culturally I am cut off from large numbers of the British population. I do not understand their cultural assumptions and neither do they understand mine. One of the authors of the book about class, Natalie Williams, was facing another issue. She had begun her life as a member of working class community. Her conversion to Christianity and the education that followed it had taken her to a middle-class identity. Now she was no longer able to claim solidarity with the people she had known as a child. Where does she now belong? Her dilemma and indeed mine suggest that easy solutions are a long way off.