Category: Stephen’s Blog

Beyond Iwerne -what do I believe?

After writing two pieces on the Iwerne issue in quick succession, I thought it would be appropriate to write something more reflective for this post. Many of the posts I write are about the ideas and teachings of people I do not agree with and this always makes me think of the sheer range of Christian belief systems that exist. I also come to realise how difficult it is to place exactly where I myself stand along the continuum of possible choices for a personal theology. Do I know exactly whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian? What is my theology of the death of Christ? Does the range of my individual beliefs and non-beliefs accord with any other individual on earth? I do not, like most other people I suspect, have precise answers to these questions. When I go on to think about the people in our local congregations, I need to ask whether it is realistic to expect any agreement about belief among the people who attend. Is it not more realistic to recognise that there is always going to be a jumble of beliefs and hopes in any group of Christians? Some of these beliefs will be rationally thought through but others may well reflect ignorance or even superstition.

There is an old observation which points out that a river never stays the same. However much we can describe reasonably consistently the scenery which we see on each bank, the actual water in the river is constantly changing. I wonder whether this image would describe my belief or faith. There are certain fixed features of a river’s setting which do not change and that might describe the overall structure of my belief system. While this framework remains the same, there are other aspects of my believing which are in constant flux. The things I feel about God are frequently changing, or perhaps one should say evolving. There are some advantages in being in a state of constant movement over one’s faith. I am always able to be receptive to new things, people, ideas or insights. Such newness will be like the water flowing along the river which is constantly refreshed, ever engaging and fascinating. For some others there is a temptation to dam up the river, to preserve all the water with the result that a large lake is formed. This is the choice that many Christians make. They have the notion that they are obliged to regard the Christian faith as something fixed, unchanging and above all to be preserved for ever. They also have an idea that there are somewhere legitimate and correct definitions of what they are required to believe. Such a belief system is the attempt to grasp on to certainty. Also by having the same lake as other people, their fellow believers, they are allowed to feel both solidarity and safety. But the costs of being in such a lake, which is inevitably stagnant, are very high. It is hard to move or grow if no new ideas and insights can ever come in. I always find myself reacting negatively when I hear these words from a devout Christian: ‘what I always say is….’ I remember a clergyman years ago telling a group of his fellow clergyman the things that he was taught at University in the 1940s. This teaching was his sole contribution to the discussion. Nothing apparently in the form of new ideas had come to him in the intervening years. A lady in my congregation also used to refer to her confirmation classes and the clergyman who led them. These took place during the war and they formed the sole content of her current thinking.

It is not easy to know where is the place of balance in-between the old and traditional and the new and changing. Such a place needs simultaneously to preserve stability and order while being open to the possibility of being refreshed and renewed. Probably I stray too far in the direction of wanting always to welcome new ideas and insights. At the same time, I probably also sit too lightly to some traditional teachings of the church. This is partly due to the way that I can, in retirement, read new things and pick up all kinds of ideas from a variety of sources. But there is another factor from my own background which means that I instinctively shrink from the sort of theology that loves its fixed definitions. Many years ago, I encountered the words of a Greek Orthodox theologian. He stated that the contribution of his church to Christianity was the idea that God is like beauty. Beauty is a concept that defies definitions. It remains maddeningly aloof from our attempts to capture it or put it in a box. We all claim that we know that beauty exists but we will argue incessantly about where it is to be found or indeed, what it is. The same thing I believe is true of God. Many people allow the possibility that God exists but they are reluctant to agree as to what or who he is. This discussion takes place not just among Christians but will happen in almost every culture in the world. When we encounter the concept of Christianity itself we also have a problem of deciding what the word is referring to. Christians may agree that what they believe is fundamentally affected by the life, teaching and death of Christ. But beyond this broad generalisation Christians find it almost impossible to come up with a statement where they are totally in agreement with one another. Some find this failure of Christians to agree a massive problem. But there is another possible approach. It might be true that God is calling us to discover him without expecting us to agree on the exact words to be used. If God is indeed like beauty, as my Greek friend suggested, then there will be a whole variety of approaches and insights. Part of the problem for such a discussion is that we have grown used to the idea that a defined Christian orthodox belief is the only way to qualify for eternal life. This approach has not been helpful. It has given far too much power to those who decide who is or who is not within the acceptable group of ‘sound’ believers. The power to include or exclude in the matter of something so fundamental has resulted in an undercurrent of fear. When this fear exists the free and joyful exploration of Christian pilgrimage becomes an impossible task.

In the stand that this blog takes against abuse perpetrated in the name of Christianity, there is also a resistance against any imposition of fear by the Church. The physical abuse perpetrated against some individuals connected with the Iwerne camps was made possible through a culture of fear. Opposing this fear is the teaching that God always welcomes us and is on our side. Being welcomed, being accepted and being allowed to explore and discover the full wonder and depth of God’s world is the kind of Christianity that I want to own. This is also what I want to share. When we talk about beauty in any of its numerous facets, we encounter not division and argument but a mutual and shared discovery of wonder and excitement. That is the kind of exploratory faith I want to identify with, even if God and the doctrines associated with him are sometimes left slightly woolly and undefined. I leave my reader with the image of the constantly flowing river. The river that is always new is the place where I want to be, rather than in the lake which has no outlet. I wonder which place God would prefer us to be.

Iwerne Camps – biblical justification?

It will be apparent that the last blog post was written in something of a hurry. I felt it was important to put down what I knew about Iwerne even before the Channel 4 programme was broadcast last Thursday night. Previously I had never heard of the name of John Smyth, so I was careful not to discuss the details of the allegations against him in the Channel 4 programme. Having now watched the report I want to comment on is the way that the testimony of the victims fully accord with certain narrow and questionable interpretations of Scripture. Violence against young people in the form of beatings has been practised for centuries in the name of Christianity. If John Smyth was acting, as he seems to have been doing, as a proxy father to his victims, we can find plenty of material in Scripture which appears to back up this abhorrent behaviour and make it seem somehow acceptable and even godly.

In the Channel 4 programme it was mentioned that one text frequently quoted by John Smyth to his victims was the passage from Hebrews chapter 12.4: ‘In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood’. This is followed up by a quotation from Proverbs. ‘The Lord disciplines those whom he loves; he lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges’. The passage has of course been much quoted by those who want to use violence against the young as a way of making them more godly and protecting them from hell. When we look at the Old Testament we can find plenty of examples of God being understood to be like a violent father. The first is of course the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Although Isaac was spared, we need to remember that Abraham was willing to kill his son in a response to what he believed was a command from God. Deuteronomy chapter 8.5-6 also represents God ‘disciplining you as a father disciplines his son’. The same theme is picked in 2 Samuel 7.14-15 when Nathan tells David from God that ‘when he does wrong, I will punish him as any father might, and not spare the rod.’ Such quotations exist for a parent who believes that corporal punishment is the right treatment for their children. This is even before they start to read the main source of violence in childrearing, the book of Proverbs. I have known evangelical families who keep a wooden spoon in the house with which to punish their children. They will quote a passage such as: ’the rod and reproof give wisdom: the child left to himself brings his mother to shame.’ Proverbs 29:15. This quote, though less familiar than other classic texts from Proverbs on child rearing, is typical of the guidance given to parents. The basic message is that it is OK to use violence against children as a way of enforcing obedience.

Apart from the Hebrews passage mentioned above, I am not aware of any passages in the New Testament which support the idea of violence against individuals least of all children. Even the fact that Jesus urged gentleness and respect for children does not deter some Christians in freely promoting the rod. The comments that Jesus made about millstones make it obvious that he deplored any violence towards the young. This brings us to the question as to why violence in child-rearing has come to play a prominent part in the thinking of some Christians. The answer to this question may be quite a simple one. As my readers will know, the imaginations of certain strands of conservative Christian thinking are obsessed with a morbid fascination for the idea of eternal damnation. Preaching the gospel in this way of thinking is not about introducing an individual to a fuller way of life under God, but about snatching them from the jaws of hell. If you occupy such a world-view which is obsessed with rescuing people from the eternal flames of torture, then any method, even violence, may be justified. When violence and punishment are in this way at the forefront of the imagination, it is not surprising that in some places, the actions and theology of an individual like John Smyth will happen.

The survivor accounts of these boys formerly at Winchester College appear entirely plausible in the light of the teachings we have outlined above. Violence against children and young people to protect them from eternal damnation has always been part of the weaponry of a particular type of biblical Christianity. As recently as 1972 a Protestant writer, Jack Hyles, was able to write the following: ‘A child who is spanked will be taught that there is a holy God who punishes sin and wrong.… The parent has kept his child from hell by teaching him truths that can be learned only by discipline and the use of the rod.’

The accusations against John Smyth are of course criminal charges and will no doubt be examined from that perspective. But, as this post has tried to show, behind these terrible events of 30+ years ago lies a corrupt, damaging and destructive expression of theology. This ‘biblical’ teaching also needs to be brought to the court of public examination and condemnation. This is but one corruption that emerges out of an uncritical adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Such inerrancy beliefs have here allowed parents and others to use violence against their children over two centuries or more. The idea that somehow Jesus would ever approve of this kind of treatment against young people is a lie which needs to be constantly challenged. John Smyth stands accused of terrible crimes but guilt must also accrue to a system of thinking and biblical interpretation that made his behaviour possible.

Material for this post has been taken from the excellent book Spare the Child, The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse by Philip Greven. 1992

Iwerne camps. Some background notes

This morning (Thursday) in our newspapers was a story about the physical abuse of teenage boys from public schools who attended a so-called holiday camp at Iwerne in Dorset. I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this current report but I thought that it would be helpful to provide some background to the story. This is what I learned about the centre during some digging around that I did some 20 years ago.

My readers will be able to discover the various changes to the centre at Iwerne which have been made over the past 10 to 20 years. At the time I was making my enquiries about the centre, it had a reputation for being a place where selected public school boys were sent during the summer holidays for a period of intense religious formation. This was in accordance with a strict Calvinist evangelical agenda. I found it difficult to discover any written material about Iwerne but from what I could discover it was clear that these camps had considerable impact on those who passed through them. After admitting young people (originally only boys) from a very select group of public schools, the influence of the camps spilled over into university Christian Unions, especially Cambridge. Also, these same young men went on to occupy important positions in the church and other major institutions in British society. This was the original vision of the camps’ founder, Eric Nash (always referred to as Bash), to ‘capture British society for God’ by working with its young elite members. His entire ministry was spent leading this particular centre and he was still active up till the 1970s.

This reputation for creating sound evangelical Christians among the upper echelons of British society met with considerable success. Many of those who now occupy or have occupied senior positions within the Church of England have passed through this Sandhurst for a conservative Christians. Because we lack any proper appraisal on the place of Iwerne in the history of the Church of England, what I have to offer are a couple of published references to the centre which gives a flavour of the importance of these camps, especially in the early days.

Bash, as he was popularly known, was by all accounts a strongly convinced evangelical with no trace of any compromise with liberal theology. His use of Scripture was by the standards of this blog extremely uncompromising and hard-line. In Harriet Harris’ major work on evangelicalism, there is a footnote relating to Bash. He was said to only use one book in his teaching work. This is the 19th century volume entitled, What the Bible teaches by Reuben Torrey. It is interesting to reflect how this one book was a foundation work to begin the evangelical teaching careers of such leaders as John Stott, Michael Green, Dick Lucas and David Watson. Each of these men had important roles to play in the recovery of evangelical theology in Britain after the Second World War. There are many other names who were also graduates of these Iwerne camps, not least Justin Welby our current Archbishop.

Among the stories about Iwerne that I was able to extract from published sources was one about the influence of Bash over David Watson. David, the prominent evangelist of the 1970s had lost his father as a relatively young teenager. Bash seems to have stepped into the role of a proxy parent. Like Justin Welby, David continued to attend the camps during his student days as a helper. He served as a kind of non-commissioned officer, supervising the younger attendees from the various schools that supported these camps. In David Watson’s biography, we read of the breakdown of the relationship between Bash and his young protégé. The cause of the breakup was David Watson’s discovery of the charismatic movement in the early 60s in Cambridge. This went completely against Bash’s understanding of what the Christian faith involved. He was also mindful of the need to retain the confidence of the various headmasters whose boys were allowed to attend his camps. ‘What would the headmasters have to say,’ Bash is reported to have said. Bash and David Watson went their separate ways and the relationship was never restored. Watson’s biographer commented that this was a matter of great moment for him since he was forced to choose between Bash’s parental guidance and his recent discovery of the movement of the Spirit. A further detail recorded by the biographer, was that Watson from that day began to suffer from chronic asthma. This affliction was to stay with him for the rest of his life. There are no doubt possible psychological interpretations to be made, but clearly the parting of the ways between these two men was a bitter one.

The newspapers report that Iwerne camps were religious summer holiday camp for public school boys and girls. Clearly they were much more than that in the early days. Many who have looked at them have noted that these camps provided an essential support which almost singled-handedly allowed the survival and even the flourishing of a strong old-fashioned evangelical presence within British society. I can make no comment about the current allegations but this earlier history that I have been able to uncover will help the reader understand why these camps were so important in the past. It is part of an untold story of the church which has never been properly chronicled. Having read the first volume of John Stott’s biography it is quite clear that the leadership that he provided from the 1940s onwards for the somewhat weak presence of evangelicals in the Church of England was crucial to their recovery of influence. It is hard to see how Stott would have had the necessary stamina to provide that leadership without the encouragement and personal support of Bash as well as the formation he received during the summer camps at Iwerne in the late 30s.

As a final comment, I think it would be true to say that evangelicalism in Britain has a quite different flavour to its American counterpart in part because of the influence of Iwerne camps in their original form. By successfully being implanted into parts of the social elite of Britain, evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic has always had an ‘upper-class’ feel about it in certain of its manifestations. In contrast the evangelicalism of America is invariably populist and in many instances anti-intellectual. I would love to hear this particular episode in the history of the church in England told with more detail. What I have to reveal here is not a story of scandal but one which demonstrates the powerful influence of a single individual with a vision. Bash’s vision was to convert the movers and shakers of British society to hold onto an old-fashioned even reactionary expression of the Christian faith. In part Bash was successful in fulfilling his vision. Whether the church as a whole should be grateful for his efforts has to be another question.

Control through shame?

Shame is one of those words which is quite difficult to define. It describes an inner feeling of unease that we experience when we have done something wrong or inappropriate. And yet shame is not just something that arises from an inner dialogue within ourselves. It is also something placed upon us by families and communities. Sometimes the shame placed upon an individual by a community is completely at variance with what the internal conscience might be saying. A Muslim woman who falls in love with a non-Muslim is deemed in many cases to have shamed her community. That would not be what she herself feels about the situation. Such shame, sometimes described as ‘honour’ in traditional societies, acts as a strong form of social control operating in these groups. A feeling of shame may or may not have anything to do with morality. For many, shame is a kind of community control, believed to be essential for harmonious order.

It would be easy for us to say that in our modern Western society we are not controlled by any mores that employ shame. We have, it is thought, largely thrown off the customs and ideas of the Victorian era which did dictate and control many aspects of an individual’s life. No longer are we expected to marry the people chosen for us by our parents. Even when marriages fail, families and society generally allow us to make a new start. There are of course examples of behaviour which still bring shame on a family. Few people will be cheerful about having a close relative locked up in prison for a criminal offence. Suicide will affect all those who were close to the one who died. Parents will also be deeply affected when their children damage their own or other people’s lives through reckless behaviour. A feeling of shame caused by the actions of others can still affect all of us from time to time because our lives are linked up with those of other people. What others do and how they behave can still create a miasma of shame into which we may be caught up.

There is another articulation of shame in our society which is perpetrated by Christians. From time to time we pass a church which declares in some way or other on its notice-board that those who do not repent are destined for hell. We have talked about this message before which is summarised by the three words, ‘turn or burn’. I want to reflect for a moment on this message which appears so popular for many churches in this country and around the world. What is this message in fact saying? It is telling a reader that God is one who is only concerned for those who feel shame for their sins. There has to be an internal loathing for their old self so that ‘repentance’, in the way that the congregation defines it, can take place. The alternative is permanent alienation and separation from God as well as the tortures of hell. As most people will pass by without any response, the implied message is that God hates you. He cannot love you because you are ignoring this poster. In short, the poster is seeking to control the reader by telling him/her that the absence of felt shame is the pathway to eternal damnation. Is that really what we want a church to say to a passer-by in the name of the Christian faith?

A message of God’s hate will seldom, if ever, have the power to attract. Some invitation involving acceptance and love by God might possibly help an individual to review their lives and see them in a different perspective. It is hard to imagine that an encouragement to feel shame will ever lead anywhere fruitful. As I think back over my ministry, I cannot remember any occasion where someone became a Christian because they were prompted to feel a fresh sense of shame. The main reasons for someone taking Christianity seriously were because an individual had come to some kind of crossroads in their lives. It might have been a marriage, the arrival of children or because of a bereavement. During the subsequent process of Christian formation and teaching, it would be normal for each person to review their understanding of good and evil. A new Christian would be expected to see life’s priorities in a fresh way as well as undergo some re-education of conscience. Any attempt to control people through encouraging them to feel an enhanced sense of shame would be arguably an extremely unhelpful instruction. Each of us has the task of developing our individual conscience. The way our conscience operates will depend to some extent, on the individual personality. Not everyone will be moved to courageous and heroic good deeds. Some will be free if they wish to withdraw into themselves and no one should condemn the antisocial Christian individual for their shyness. We might in fact feel sorry for them in that they may be missing out on the richness of interpersonal contact.

A Christian in the West is supremely privileged in the way that his or her life is not normally circumscribed by any strong community dynamics involving shame. We do have true choices. As Christians, we also are encouraged to discover freedom. This freedom emerges from our sense of following a master who desires that we should live life in all its richness and fullness. Within this discipleship is a belief in a God who loves us unconditionally. We are called not to live a life controlled by the forces of shame or fear. Rather we seek to find a life which opens itself up to creativity, freedom and joy. God knows that we each struggle with weakness and sin. But the nature of his forgiving love means that we can constantly pick ourselves up and move forward in this glorious journey and pilgrimage towards a transformed and transfigured humanity. ‘It is no longer I but Christ who lives within me’. This is not a place of shame or fear, but rather it is one of liberated joy.

Seduction of ‘alternative facts’

In recent months we have been learning about the way that half-truths and outright falsehoods can deceive many people. We are now all familiar with the expressions ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative fact’. What are these new terms telling us? They seem to suggest that many people are content to hear false information which is comforting, in preference to facts which may challenge or disturb. This certainly appears to be the case in the political realm but it is not my proposal to go further into this area in this blog post. Some words come to my mind which occur in a choir anthem for which Joseph Haydn wrote the music. ‘Madly they seek for comfort where it doth not abide’. Comfort and reassurance what people seek above all, especially when they experience challenges or stress in their daily lives.

Recently I have been revisiting the 200,000 word Langlois Report into the events of Peniel church in Brentwood. This is partly so that I can help an individual caught up in the past tyranny of that church. It is also because I believe that this corpus of material needs to be more fully absorbed and perhaps made the subject of a written analysis in the future. One of the striking facts about this report is that the people who gave evidence to John Langlois were highly articulate people. Socially they were all educated, insightful and able to think for themselves. Two things stand out as having made it relatively easy for Michael Reid to exercise undue influence over them. The first was that, in spite of their relatively secure social position, many of the new members were vulnerable in some way. Some suffered from illnesses which they believed could be healed at one of the Peniel’s services. Others were vulnerable through being divorced or widowed. A second group were people who believed that Peniel Academy was the place for their children. These children may have had bad experiences elsewhere; the small classes on offer would have seemed like a harbour after the experience of a storm. Whatever reason had drawn the individual into Reid’s spider’s web, the church proved very hard to leave. While it seemed initially to offer a great deal, it was also extremely demanding and it infiltrated into every corner of the members’ lives. But as in a forced marriage, Peniel would bind you tightly to itself. It would also prove to be extremely expensive in every sense either to belong to it or to break free. The same young people who had joined the church at the primary school stage might well find themselves perpetuating their membership by marrying another young person from the church. This situation of intermarriage was common and certainly was encouraged. It made good sense for the church leaders to hold on to members and their money in this way. After 10, 20 or 30 years many members knew absolutely nothing else.

Reading the accounts of individuals who did succeed in breaking away, one gets a very good sense of the nature of the pressures that were placed on individuals and their families by the church. Those who described the process of enmeshment were, as I have stated, extremely articulate individuals. One is left wondering about the experience of other members who wanted to escape but did not know how to articulate that they were experiencing disillusionment and unhappiness as well as a desire to break free. It was by no means easy for the articulate to leave and it would have been still harder for the less educated to manage this. An immigrant whose first language was not English (and the poor uneducated group which Chris reminds us of) would not have found it easy to distance themselves from the comforting miasma of lies and social pressures. There must still be many people in Peniel/Trinity who may know that there is something wrong but they do not have the discriminating and intellectual ability to know what it is and how to get away. From time to time I have a phone call from an individual who is concerned for a neighbour who has been completely taken over by a cultic church in another part of the country. This neighbour has become utterly dependent on this congregation socially and financially. Physically she is described as looking haunted and hollow eyed as though she is the victim of an abusive marriage from which she cannot escape.

The pursuit of comfort and the resolving of our stress is something that most of us desire. We must however be aware that there are many who offer false answers to such longings whether in politics or religion. In a world which now appears more tolerant of downright falsehood pretending to be an ‘alternative fact’, we need to be vigilant. Those of us who can scrutinise truth-claims must always scrupulously examine what is being put in front of us. I wonder if a commoner acceptance of ‘post-truth’ has been brought about by the way that many people prefer the fantasies of soap operas and so-called reality TV to actual events. The heroes of today for many are so-called celebrities rather than real people who struggle to make the world a better place. The dream world of fantasy and make-believe seems to be a preferable place in which to live than the one which contains the harsh realities of actual living. The way that many people in America have apparently bought into Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, makes one wonder whether fantasy is beginning to be preferred to real life. All of us who care for truth must fight for it even though it may prove disturbing. So far, the events of Trump’s America have taken on the appearance of a surreal television show. Let us hope that most of us can still retain a firm foot-hold in reality. None of us wish to wallow in a place where we do not know what is true and what is not.

Narcissism and self-destruction

As my readers know, I am fascinated by the issue of power and the way that it can corrupt many of those who possess it. The problem seems particularly acute among those who have plotted and schemed their way up from the bottom of an institution to wrest power from those at the top. We see examples of this right through history. The greatest tyrants have often been those who have worked the hardest to obtain power. This past week, I could not bring myself to watch the inauguration of President Trump. There was indeed something fairly nauseating in the sentiments expressed in his inaugural speech. Every indication was given that his grab for supreme power over the greatest country in the world was at one level an exercise in self-gratification. There was a total absence of any generosity towards others. This was no appreciation expressed towards those who had managed the government of the country over the past years. Also, the nations of the world which do not serve the narrow interests of the United States were apparently outside his interest or concern. He seemed like an individual who is unable to show any empathy or outreach towards people who are different from himself. Such a combination of traits suggests what we have discussed before, that he is probably someone with a full-blown narcissistic disorder.

It is not my intention to rehearse again all the characteristics of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the way that they seem to describe Trump. This we have done this already in a previous post. Here I want to remind my reader of two indicators of narcissism on display in the past few days. The typical sufferer of this disorder will have an inordinate appetite for flattery alongside an extreme sensitivity to criticism. Perhaps appetite is the wrong word because the need to hear affirming and comforting words from others is insatiable. When such flattery and affirmation is in any way challenged or queried, the sufferer will often react with what is called ‘narcissistic rage’. Even in the two days since the inauguration on Friday, we have seen the press attacked with vehemence. What was their crime? They had the temerity to publish estimates of the numbers of people in Washington supporting Trump. These estimates suggested that far fewer people were prepared to take the trouble to come to the capital to express their support than were present for the protests on the following day. The way that the Trump transition team felt the need to react so violently over this news suggest that they were gripped with a childish tantrum.

We can detect in the way that President Trump has dealt with any form of criticism over the past few weeks that he is thin-skinned to say the least. This hypersensitivity may well prove to be an Achilles heel in his administration. It takes a great deal of energy to respond to every perceived slight, especially if these criticisms have the effect of provoking irrational rage every time. An individual who cannot ever rise above any criticism, especially the President of the United States, will soon begin to look ridiculous. Do they really need to try and respond to every perceived criticism? Although President Trump has been given a massive amount of power in his present post, his power does not include the right to supress every unfavourable comment. The cry ‘fake news’ will eventually become a completely meaningless slogan if it is used each time some story appears which does not have presidential approval. After only two days of the presidential reign we have already begun to disbelieve official denials, just as people ceased to believe in the boy that cried ‘wolf’. We all know what happened in that story.

The nature of the narcissistic disorder suggests that the presidential period of office by Donald Trump may not be very long. Presidential power to control opposition forces, whether political or from the media, will weaken over time if the narcissistic defensive behaviour is seen to be unreasonable. A democratic society will not tolerate unbridled power or the suppression of truth for a long period. There may well be popularity in the short term but eventually there has to be a reaction against the constant refrain of ‘fake news’. Quite apart from whether the stated policies of Trump are right or not, there is the glaring issue of his total inexperience in political life and in foreign affairs. Objectively one would like to see someone with so little experience showing a little humility when taking up an office of such massive responsibility. In fact, what we do see is bluster and grandiose confidence. I am reminded of the coming into power of the Emperor Caligula in 37 A.D. He arrived in power with the goodwill of the Roman mob and he held on to this for a time by buying their goodwill. It did not take him long to empty the Roman treasury in providing free food and extravagant games to retain their loyalty. Such popularity and adulation eventually went to his head and he demanded that he be treated as a God. In the end his enjoyment of absolute power and the satiation of every human appetite resulted in a coup. He was struck down by members of the Praetorian Guard whose job it had been to guard him. Caligula represents the ultimate exemplar in history of what power can do a human being, even to the point of driving someone mad.

Why do I speak about the political events of America in this blog? First of all, it is of great interest to observe the dynamics of power working themselves out in the context of a great nation. In the second place, there is the telling parallel with the role taken by many religious leaders within their congregations. We have claimed that an infallible Bible often allows a minister or pastor to exercise unlimited power within a congregation. The craving for ultimate authority, even if on a smaller scale, seems to possess some who lead Christian congregations. We must hope that every exercise of power, whether of a great nation or in a small Christian congregation, is always met with effective checks and balances. As we have seen narcissism, the self-inflation of an individual seeking to be important and beyond contradiction, affects individuals in both politics and religion. We can at least be grateful that recognising this particular personality disorder is far more prevalent now than even 20 years ago. This blog identifies President Trump as a sufferer alongside many Christian pastors. Narcissists exercise their power in a way that is oppressive and self-serving. Humility, the readiness to serve and learn from others, is far more the mark of a Christian approach to authority and power. Perhaps we can hope that this presidency will be of short duration and that American system will indeed frustrate the narcissistic tantrums of a man like Trump. From the evidence presented so far, Trump appears to have few of the qualities that we would associate with successful or lasting political leadership.

Bullying -the shadow side of community

It was a comment in a book that I was reading that suggested that the enjoyment of community sometimes has a shadow side. It was pointed out that some of the most intense community relationships are experienced by people who have deliberately cut themselves off from others. Tribal membership, racial identity and membership of a social class all flourish when the members have successfully identified the boundaries of their own group. In summary, much community life depends on having established a clear us-them distinction.

I began to reflect on this observation and saw how much this principle operates right across society. The gang member obtains his or her status from not being part of the other gang. Children in school try to be members of the ‘in-crowd’ as a means of obtaining status and acceptance. They also do not want to be despised as a ‘loser’. In this scenario, we see clearly the way that one person’s acceptance probably depends on someone else becoming a community reject. Even in church we find these dynamics at work. Clear distinctions with the world outside are tacitly encouraged. When it comes to the congregational level, some ministers put a lot of energy into telling the congregation how much better their church is than the one down the road. The creation of boundaries which exclude, among others, homosexuals, liberals and supporters of Obamacare, helps to keep the church group feeling smug, superior and safe.

This observation that much community life is tacitly supported by the erection of boundaries against the ‘other’ is a frightening one. And yet that is precisely what seems to be going on in the culture wars being fought in the States and to some extent in the UK. When a church becomes obsessed by the people that are considered enemies of the faith, like the Anglican attitude to the gay community in some parts of the world, there is something quite sinister and unhealthy going on. From a psychological perspective, the need to exclude and draw strict boundaries is indicative of a profound insecurity. Even when we are identified among those in the ‘correct’ position and feel in consequence a sense of strength and solidarity, this position does little to draw us to the way of Christ. His compassion was for all and we would expect to find him, not in fortress church, but among the despised and rejected outside. The problem is that so many groups receive much of their energy and affirmation precisely from this dynamic of excluding others. Christian community in other words is sometimes sustained by something thoroughly negative and un-Christ-like.

Moving from the way that communities exclude others to the lives of individuals, we can see how similar dynamics work in personal relationships. A tendency to bully whether on the part of a church minister or a works boss will normally be accounted for because they seek to compensate for some inadequacy within their lives. Bullying another gives the illusion of power and this feeling temporarily takes away any sense of weakness, insignificance or failure. When we look back at the bullies we have known, we will inevitably find some sadness or unhappiness in their lives. This does not of course immediately help the one who is being bullied. Nevertheless, I find that a clear view of what is going on helps one to endure the pain. In most cases a bullying situation is time limited. There normally comes a moment when it is possible simply to walk away from the bully and their attempts to sort out their own personal inadequacies in their attempts to obtain power over you.

In writing this reflection I am inviting the reader to consider the communities of which they are part. Do we ever become part of a community dynamic which depends in part on drawing strong distinctions with those who are not members or part of the group? How far do we collude with other people who subtly enhance their status by making sure that everyone knows their position? I am in fact suggesting that all of us become far more sensitive to the dynamics of the groups and relationships around us so that we can challenge situations of exclusion, injustice or bullying. We live in a society which has arguably become less tolerant of bullies; the more we can be clear-eyed about what is involved in this kind of individual as well as corporate power abuse, the better we can see the situation and perhaps put a stop to it. It is of course more difficult to stand outside the setting when it is us who experience the bullying. But the overall struggle against this sort of behaviour would be more successful if we were all prepared to stick up for other people and groups who are suffering this treatment. I would like to think that in our present society the accusation of bullying is becoming a fairly powerful deterrent. Few people like to hear this accusation so for us to name it when it happens is an important weapon in the struggle against the strong mistreating the weak.

The abuse of power has always been the main topic of this blog, especially in the way that this dynamic appears in churches. The main challenge of this present blog is for us to examine our experience of fellowship in church. Is it ever rooted in an exclusive dynamic which seeks to keep other people outside? Does our belonging depend on our collusion in excluding? This is one of the conclusions I come to about Peniel church. That congregation, it seems, maintained its cohesion by allowing its minister, Michael Reid, to demonise the world beyond the church. The state schools in the area were a special target of his bile by being described as belonging to Satan. By creating numerous boundaries with the world beyond his church, Reid was able to enhance his own authority and power. How far this was a conscious ploy, I am unclear. The dynamic of a world seen to be the playground of Satanic forces and spiritual conflict creates its own crazy rhetoric. But clearly the effect and the damage to the individuals caught up in this paranoid universe of exclusion was enormous. All churches need to examine their rhetoric and the way that the world outside is portrayed. They have a responsibility to resist the kind of grotesque binary simplifications that are now being peddled in Trump’s America. Whatever values we experience within our church communities, they can never depend on a demonisation of what is outside the church walls. That is the beginning of bullying and abuse.

Putting excitement back into Christianity

Someone standing outside a church on the Sunday morning could be forgiven for thinking that Christian practice is extremely dull. Few of those who participate in worship appear to radiate any joy on their faces when leaving a church building. The Anglican prayer states that ’it is our duty and our joy at all times and in all places to give thanks to thee’. Much Christian behaviour seems to flow out of the first noun in the prayer rather than from the second. Worship, church attendance and Christian observance generally for many people seem to belong to the part of life that we associate with duty.

Going back to the early 70s there was a time when I thought that Christians had begun to catch a sense of the ‘joy’ part of the prayer. The early days of the charismatic revival seemed to promise a sense of excitement, enjoyment and even adventure in the Christian journey. There also seemed to be a new movement towards reconciliation among Christians. Members of quite different backgrounds were talking to one another. The Holy Spirit seemed to be making the Christian faith exciting as well as transcending some of the old divisions. This honeymoon period of the charismatic movement in fact barely lasted out the 70s. Somewhere around 1983 it could be seen that the old barriers between denominations and traditions had begun to be re-erected; old suspicions between conservatives and liberals were revived. Most of the charismatic action was now taking place in independent fellowships and house churches. Those denominational groups welcoming the Holy Spirit were almost inevitably conservative in their theology, and there was no encouragement for a non-conservative such as myself to be part of one of them. Even though in the mid-80s I had written a book on Christian healing in which I spoke positively about charismatic spirituality and healing, I completely failed to find any network of support for this distinctive non-conservative appreciation of the spirituality. Although I retained within me some of the positive aspects of my exposure to charismatic prayer and healing, I was no longer in any structural sense a part of what I had recognised to be a real movement of the Holy Spirit into the church.

What was it that I had valued in charismatic renewal which is now partly lost to me? The things that I valued were spontaneity and freedom in worship with a readiness to be open to a whole variety of new spiritual discoveries. Pastoral care also became an arena of the unexpected as insights were given and shared in quite extraordinary ways. My wife and I knew at first hand some of the experiences of prophecy, insight and healing spoken of in the literature. When a physical or spiritual transformation took place, there was a tangible sense of encouragement for this kind of work. But as the practitioners of charismatic renewal withdrew more and more into their tightly controlled conservative fellowships, these experiences for one now on the outside became rarer. Eventually my participation in such spiritual practices became only a memory.

At a meeting yesterday of a Christian group which I go to monthly, each of the members was asked to read a passage which had meaning for them. Some read poetry, some passages from the Bible and others extracts from a favourite novel. I found myself going to an anthology of Russian spirituality. There is a particular passage which I had not read recently, describing a conversation between a writer called Motovilov and St Seraphim, a 19th-century Russian mystic. Seraphim speaks about the goal of the Christian life. He says that it is simply to gain the Holy Spirit. We then have a description of the writer Motovilov gazing into the eyes of Seraphim and seeing an intense radiance of light. What is especially interesting following this transfiguration experience are the questions asked of Motovilov. He is asked three times the same question, ‘what do you feel?’ The first answer that he gives is: ‘I feel extraordinarily well’. Seraphim gives a commentary on this statement that this is the peace that is given to the one who fears God. ‘My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you…’

The question, ‘what do you feel?’ is repeated a second time. This time the answer is ‘a wonderful sweetness’. Once again Seraphim comments that this sweetness makes it seem that ’our hearts are melting from it. We are transported with such beatitude as no tongue can express’. Such sweetness is a foretaste of the joy that we shall experience in heaven when we will know the things God has prepared for them that love him. When the question is asked the third time the writer confesses that he feels a remarkable warmth. This is compared to the warmth of the steam in a bathhouse when water is thrown on to hot stones. Finally, Motovilov’s attention is drawn to the smell of an extraordinary fragrance which is given within this experience.

Seraphim explains that all these experiences of an encounter with the Holy Spirit will be retained for ever in the memory. Recollection of this memory will help Motovilov create a heart within filled with a love for God. This will sustain him in this life and help him to appreciate as well as anticipate the joys of the world to come.

I found this short passage describing the word and works of Seraphim very helpful in reminding myself that there are ways of being caught up in an experience of the Holy Spirit which have nothing to do with conservative theology and any of the over-dramatised events that came to the fore with the Toronto Blessing. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is a doctrine that invites us to explore the depths and mystery of God and we are all invited to know this for ourselves. Seraphim seems to have recognised that his disciple would not be experiencing such things every day but the recollection of the event would be of enormous help in maintaining a God-orientated perspective in his Christian life. I realised that my own encounters with charismatic spirituality are not wasted in any way but even the memory of them can allow me as an individual to go on exploring the depths and mystery of God in many other ways. These four gifts that Seraphim identified in the religious experience are therefore for all of us. Even a slight acquaintance with Seraphim’s peace, sweetness, warmth or smell can reposition us again and again with a sense of the presence of God. A slight touch by one of these gifts will ensure one thing above all others. God and our knowledge of him is never meant to be dull. It is indeed our duty and our joy to come into his presence and have a sense of his guidance and reassuring presence for ever.

As I read the passage from Seraphim yesterday at the meeting, I realised that the passage was giving me back a sense of excitement in the Christian way. I also began to see more clearly how such experiences, however dim, are also helping us to glimpse the riches of the life beyond. The Holy Spirit whether taught in the charismatic context or as here in an Orthodox setting, is a doctrine that tells us quite simply that to be a Christian is to be constantly exposed to depth, joy and profound excitement in living as well as close to God. Being a Christian should mean glimpsing this depth all the time and perhaps allowing us to be the sort of Christian that does on occasion have a smile on our faces!

Nonsense beliefs

It is a given that in a modern society we should always respect the beliefs of other people whether political or religious. We may debate these ideas or strongly disagree with them but we must never suggest that such beliefs are nonsensical. This attempt at tolerance towards other people has paradoxically created a situation which allows many totally irrational ideas to flourish in people’s minds. By irrational or nonsensical I am suggesting that some people believe things which, even after a moment’s reflection, do not stand up in any kind of rational support. While going for a walk yesterday, it occurred to me that I could think of three ideas commonly held by Christians that seem to fall into this nonsensical/irrational category. For reasons of politeness or political correctness we normally do not point out to someone that they are holding on to an idea that is devoid of any rational support. But in the context of this blog, we allow ourselves the indulgence of calling nonsense by its proper name.

The first area of nonsense which is held onto by many Christian individuals and groups is the idea that one congregation or network of churches has somehow alone received the most perfect revelation of the Christian gospel in the world. The preaching and the fellowship at that church is eminently superior to that in any other church anywhere. Often the claim of perfection extends to a promise that it is only by being a member of the church that the individual is acceptable to God both in this life and in the life to come. This message of superiority and perfection is frequently used by the cults but it is also used by Christian leaders to hold on to congregants who might be tempted to change church. In different ways, the message is given that the church down the road is poorly led or what is being taught is not the ‘true gospel’. Teaching Christians to expect to find a perfect church makes sense as some sort of power game played between congregations or Christian leaders. Where it makes no sense at all is when we try and look at congregations from a wider perspective. Can we imagine that there is any perspective that could exist which could distinguish which Protestant congregations are the purest and the possessors of absolute truth? Looking at these churches from the outside, whether with sociological or theological perspectives, we see that the differences between them are of the smallest kind. We might note a difference in the social make-up of the congregations or perhaps the personalities of the leaders. Nothing we see gives any grounds for confirming objectively that one individual congregation is, as it would like to claim, the best or truest church on the planet. It is still harder to imagine how God, in whatever way we understand him, would want to make such distinctions between these congregations. Is he really going to declare that one church or group of churches is superior to all the others? Is not the idea claimed by some church leaders that they alone offer the path to salvation palpable absurdity? With no biblical or rational basis for such a claim we must list this idea as our first example of an irrational Christian belief.

The second belief idea which we want to describe as ‘Christian nonsense’ and which is preached in many churches across the world is that God shows his favour on us by making us rich. This is the core teaching of the so-called Health and Wealth churches and is particularly found among Tele-evangelists. The path to this wealth is to give extravagantly and God will use these ‘seed offerings’ to make us as wealthy as the evangelist on the stage. Their wealth, expressed in the extravagant dress and lifestyle of the evangelist is presented as God’s reward and blessing for faithful service. Faith and generous giving will unlock the same wealth for everyone else. It is his will that such abundance is for all. This message is the staple diet of the television religious broadcasts and you will hear the same message repeated again and again. There are various grounds which allow me to suggest that such belief and teaching is utter nonsense. Not only is it a distortion of biblical teaching, where Jesus appeared to be far more interested in being identified with the poor, it also makes little sense to suggest that everyone should become wealthy in a world of finite resources. I have pointed out before that wealthy people drive large cars, live in large houses and travel around the world with normally little thought for their ecological footprint. If every Christian in Africa, for example, who attends a Health and Health church were to become wealthy like their Christian leaders, the world that we know would be literally destroyed. Whatever our attitude to wealth, it is impossible to understand God colluding in large numbers of people acquiring wealth and gobbling up an even greater share of the world’s resources. Fighting poverty seems far on the agenda of a rational faith than promising fantasy extravagance to all. The Health and Wealth teaching has to be declared a further example of largely nonsensical teaching, even if some parts of it can be shown to root themselves into the ideas of Jesus.

The third idea which is presented as Christian orthodoxy but which makes no sense is the idea that God’s will is only to be found in the written text of Scripture. Part of this teaching is of course eminently respectable but the nonsense part begins to wriggle out in the word ‘only’. This is not here an argument with those who wish to use the Bible as an inerrant source of teaching, even if I would want to argue a far more nuanced approach. The problem that I have is the way that many Christians want to restrict and even control the will of God and keep the whole of it in one place – the written text of Scripture. Over the centuries of culture and civilisation, the human spirit has developed in many ways. Many of the values and ideals discovered by humanity owe nothing to the written word. Human beings have discovered the spirit of beauty in music, artistic form and poetry. Some of these creative impulses have developed within religious contexts, while others have found their expression outside such a context. Those of us who lay claim to a Christian cultural inheritance find that our faith is enhanced, not just by reading Scripture but by exposure to architecture and music which was nurtured by Christian faith. There is no right or wrong answer as to which composer or architect expresses the Christian impulse better. Each of us have our preferences in this matter. The important thing is that Christians recognise how every cultural expression can be integrated into our spiritual journey. Truth may be found in the soaring arches of a mediaeval cathedral or in a Bach cantata. If one or any of these other encounters with the divine was said to be invalid for any reason, we would find our access to Christian reality impoverished. The words and meanings of Scripture need the context of a rich cultural and spiritual imagination to come alive. Words on their own, particularly when presented in a legalistic controlling manner, somehow dampen down the spirit rather than raise it up. To summarise the third example of ‘Christian nonsense’ is the belief that says that words alone can communicate the truth and reality of God. That is seems to be what is being said very often when Scripture and the words within it are exalted to a place where they can suppress and deny all other experiences of the divine mediated to us as Christians.

The cocoon of Christian inerrancy

I have recently been reading a book which is an attack on Peter Wagner and his ideas about Satanic warfare. These ideas, popular in the so-called New Apostolic Reformation, suppose that Christians need prayerfully to resist Satan’s attack on institutions and places. Although I agreed with the book’s basic distaste for what is technically known as Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare, I found most of the approach in the book completely alien to my thinking. The reason for my failure to engage with the way the book is argued, is that the author declares that his whole thesis is built on an initial assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

This assumption that all truth is subservient to that found in Scripture is common and widely shared across the Protestant world. Thus, if the Bible appears to make a factual or historical claim, this statement will always trump any other version of truth put forward by mainstream scholars or scientists. Those who do not use the Bible in this conservative way will be written off by those who do as being faithless or having surrendered to the demon of secular liberalism. This is a given approach for virtually all those who write the popular literature within the non-denominational Protestant orbit. Tens of thousands of books appear each year to satisfy this vast market. I began to consider the implications of this assumption and whether it is even possible to write adequate theology when strapped into this straight-jacket. I was realising how much it would distort my writing and thinking if I assumed that there was always somewhere a correct biblical approach for every topic that I might wish to reflect upon. In the case of the book I was reading the constant tedious trawling for suitable Bible quotes to forward his particular thesis made it extremely dull. No doubt within his own mind the author had proved to his satisfaction (and the doctoral examiners of the Oral Roberts University!) that demons do not take over people and places. To summarise, the way the arguments were presented was neither convincing nor scholarly. Nevertheless, a review of a vast swathe of obscure American literature in the work on the topic had some value.

We have noted in previous blogs the popularity of ideas which circulate in the conservative Christian world about the need for people of faith to stand up to satanic opposition. Much of this thinking is set in the context of a belief in an imminent Second Coming of Christ. These ideas have been successfully popularised in the novels by Tim LaHaye and are collectively known as the Left Behind series. These fictional accounts set out the events of the End Times when born-again Christians are snatched up from a suffering world. The rest of humanity is left to suffer from many afflictions which are set out in the Book of Revelation. Even though the novels are fiction they have become part of the belief system for many conservative Christians. Fiction has effectively turned into fact as far as many of them are concerned.

The book on spiritual warfare, with which I began this post, does not tolerate the wild vagaries of apocalyptic fantasy. But the author nevertheless uses similar methods of argument to those he is opposing. It is assumed by both parties that Scripture, if interpreted ‘correctly’ will provide the right answers to the questions under discussion. The author seeks a kind of objectivity through his grounding his arguments in suitable biblical quotations. This method is of course flawed, as we know that, from the countless methods of interpreting Scripture, there are almost as many ways of reading the Bible as there are readers. Within the vast swathes of popular conservative Christian literature, there is never an attempt to appeal to alternative source of truth, such as philosophy, science or logic. Conservative theology is a thus tied into a closed and circular system of discussion. It will never usually admit the relevance of the contemporary insights of such topics as post-modernism or Darwinism. All such have been judged and found wanting measured against the truths that are believed to be found in Holy Scripture.

It is in fact very hard to read most of this conservative Christian literature. It is not just that these Christian writers normally fail to engage with the wider corpus of Western knowledge, science, history, psychology and all the humanities. It is, to repeat, that their version of truth is defined incredibly narrowly. While the conservative Christian scholar may recognise the value of modern technology, a topic like the philosophy of science will be a closed book. Science itself is normally a highly self-critical discipline. It is much more about testing hypotheses than about establishing eternal truths. It will always be difficult or impossible for practitioners of these other disciplines to establish enough common ground for a productive discussion with a conservative Christian. Having rejected all forms of truth when they appear to contradict the text of Scripture, the Christian has created a cocoon where dialogue with the outside is neither sought nor welcomed.

A further problem that I have is that I believe that there are many moral issues where no perfect black/white position exists. Moral decision-making is for me an inexact science. Not only are there contextual factors which affect our judgements about each moral situation, but I also shrink from believing that moral teaching can ever fit into a propositional straitjacket. Like everyone else I would love it if there were simple clear answers being given us for the task for living but the reality is quite different. One of my tasks as a clergyman was to help people to engage with something I call moral reasoning. This is not the same as moral teaching. Such reasoning may help the individual find the answer for him/herself in facing a moral dilemma. This approach would not of course make a conservative Christian happy. For him/her all moral issues are clearly laid out unambiguously in the words of Scripture. I happen to believe that any assumption that the Bible is always clear in its moral teaching is in fact doing violence to the text of Scripture. Very often I also detect a political motivation when certain forms of behaviour are declared to be always wrong. The task of developing an active reliable conscience/moral reasoning will require various skills. It will demand the exercise of reason, the guidance of others and a dialogue with our inner self. A conscience which operates merely by obeying another person in authority is hardly conscience at all.

The discovery of truth is never going to be an easy one. Truth certainly does not fall out of heaven in a few carefully selected passages of Scripture. Such an assumption does not do justice to the nature of Scripture nor does it engage with the modern world in which we live. I cannot believe that we are called to choose between Scripture and the exercise of our education and our cultural reasoning. Closing down this reasoning as well as our participation in our 21st century world is not an option for my understanding of Christianity. My Bible may contain truth but to find it I needed all the resources of my culture and my education. God can be found and is found in and through the world in which we live. The fact that he is not always constantly in focus does not make our search for him any the less valuable.