Faithfully wrong – The problem of evil in the church.

I have been reading Charles Foster’s blog Smyth, Fletcher, Iwerne, and the theology of the divided self from Surviving Church.org. The article is available here.

It has set me thinking about the way people can be faithful to wrong theology and how this can be a source of evil in the church. Foster tells of his experiences and indoctrination into a particular theology for young men from elite backgrounds and how this was warped into abuse.

It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jephthah, told in Judges chapter 11. The way this is usually preached is that Jephthah was a great and faithful man of God. He made a promise to God that if God gave him victory in battle then Jephthah would sacrifice ‘whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’ NIV translation. When he returned the first person to greet him was his only child, his daughter. Jephthah was faithful to his promise to the Lord and he eventually sacrificed his daughter to the Lord. Therefore, we are told, we should be faithful, no matter how high the cost, just like Jephthah.

Very rarely have I heard that story preached for what it actually was – the cold-blooded murder of a child. Even though there are clear prohibitions against child sacrifice, for example in Deuteronomy chapter 12 or Leviticus 18.

God did not tell Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter, God did not ask him for any promise in return for victory against the Ammonites. God freely gave victory to his people. Jephthah may have sincerely believed that he was being faithful to God in sacrificing his daughter, but he was doing something that had no mandate from God. This was something that was forbidden in the ten commandments, given in Exodus 20.13.

Yet nobody in his society tried to stop him. Why? Was it because he was a powerful leader and was beyond challenge? Was it because she was a daughter, and after all women were the property of their father until they became the property of their husband?

Many times I have heard this story linked with the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, as told in Genesis chapter 22. Jephthah, like Abraham, is portrayed as a man of great faith, willing to sacrifice his only child for the Lord. But there are two very big differences in their stories. First, God told Abraham to do this, so he was being obedient to what God actually said, it was not a promise he had simply made himself. Secondly, the child did not die, God provided a ram to be the sacrifice instead. No child murder here, just faithful obedience and a willingness to give everything for God.

Evil can flourish where it is not challenged. How many powerful people of God are following their own agendas, believing themselves to be faithful? How can the people of God hold up a mirror to their activities and say ‘no, this is not being faithful to God, it is child murder’? Where there is power, there will be abuses of power, even if those are seen to be having a good reason.

This is the heart of the problem, where faithful Christians are trusting their leaders to do what is right but judge the intentions and reasons or even the faithful integrity of the person rather than holding those leaders to account for what they are actually doing.

Church for everyone (part 3)

The Church for Everyone conference took place at St James and Emmanuel Church in Didsbury Manchester, hosted by their vicar Rev Nick Bundock.  As part of the day Jayne Ozanne ran a workshop entitled ‘How to recognise and safeguard against spiritual abuse’.

She started with an overview of Church of England policy documents, starting with the 2006 report ‘Promoting a Safe Church’, which was the first official mention of spiritual abuse (on page 39 in appendix 2). In the 2011 ‘Responding well to those who have been sexually abused’, the Church of England used the government’s list of 4 types of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional and neglect.

In 2017, the ‘Responding well to Domestic Abuse’ report recognised additional categories including spiritual abuse. This report was about domestic violence, but appendix 3 was about theology and showed how theology could be misused to cause harm. This appendix is well worth reading and the report can be downloaded from here.

In 2018 there was the first case of a CDM (clergy discipline measure) for spiritual abuse.

The Methodists issued reports in 2010 and 2015 ‘Safeguarding adults’.   The Roman Catholics do not appear to have official policies on spiritual abuse.  Spiritual abuse is mentioned on the Baptists’ website, but it is not defined.

The ground-breaking academic textbook on the subject is Breaking the Silence of Spiritual Abuse by Lisa Oakley and Kathryn Kinmond
breaking the silence on spiritual abuse
Available to buy here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The latest book by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys is Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures.

escaping the maze of spiritual abuse
Available to buy here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently the organisation thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS) published their research paper entitled ‘Spiritual Abuse’, which can be downloaded here.
It defined spiritual abuse as:

‘Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it. However, holding a theological position is not in itself inherently spiritually abusive, but misuse of scripture, applied theology and doctrine is often a component of spiritually abusive behaviour.’

The presenting factors in spiritual abuse are fear (of not being good enough, being wrong, being excluded, afraid to speak out) and shame (who you are, what you have done). This can lead to self hate and for some to internalised homophobia.

There needs to be greater accountability in the church to whistle blow and to report abuse. There also needs to be greater training on how to respond to reports of abuse, For example, it is not a good idea to just go to the parent / church or have a chat over a cup of tea with someone accused of abuse, it must be reported to the safeguarding officer.
Effective safeguarding needs:
• Empowerment
• Supervision
• Support
• Training
• Awareness.
We also have to be aware of the current culture about a ‘clash of rights’, if we are to reduce and eliminate abuse. God’s love is not harmful.

Church for everyone (part 2)

The Church for Everyone conference took place at St James and Emmanuel Church in Didsbury Manchester, hosted by their vicar Rev Nick Bundock. This is part of this country’s only inclusive deanery.

For part 1, click the link here.

The next speaker was the National co-ordinator of Inclusive Church, Ruth Wilde.  The inclusive Church website can be accessed here.

Inclusive Church, as an organisation, started with a letter of protest. It was a letter of protest about the Jeffrey John affair, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asked him not to accept the position of bishop of Reading, because of its effect on the wider church.   A short summary of this can be found here.  The letter was signed by thousands of people. This led to a meeting held in a church in London. From this Inclusive Church was born.

Inclusive Church is a network of churches, groups and individuals uniting together around a shared vision:
“We believe in inclusive Church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate. We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

Inclusive Church may have been born out of LGBT exclusion, but rapidly grew to explicitly include working in other areas of exclusion. All exclusion comes from a similar sense of entitlement and power, so working for inclusion of anyone is working for the inclusion of others too.

Inclusive Church’s flagship event every year is the disability conference, held at St Martin in the Fields church in London. Information about the 2019 conference is here.

She then shared a reading from John Chapter 4, telling the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. This was a scripture that was very important for her and her work. Jesus had challenged the privileged and put the experience of the marginalised in the centre. The Samaritan woman who had been excluded from her society was saved by Jesus and then she was able to save and redeem the same people who had shunned and rejected her.

Andrea King from Affirming Baptists spoke next.

The foundational scripture she shared with us was 1 Corinthians 12 about all the different members of the body of Christ being equally important. That spoke directly to inclusion. All members of the body of Christ are equally important.

There are too many suicides happening. Mistreatment from faith communities can sink deeply into people and it is not eh sort of thig that you can just wash off. The pain that is caused can be very deep. It can be presented as ‘spiritual correction’ or ‘discipline’. Why should we have to carry that? This experience of faith communities can be harmful to Rainbow people.

Some experience shame when they see that sort of treatment of members of the Rainbow community. This is not what God commands us to do. In John 13 we are commanded to love one another. But we cannot reconcile that command with the mistreatment or exclusion of anyone.

Andrea launching a new resource at the conference. This was a resource aimed at developing reconciliation in faith groups.

Coming in part 3 Jayne Ozanne’s workshop on Spiritual Abuse.

Church for everyone (Part one)

The hashtag for this conference is #c4e19

church for everyone

 

 

 

(Photo from @Jonathan_Tallon)

 

The Church for Everyone conference took place at St James and Emmanuel Church in Didsbury Manchester, hosted by their vicar Rev Nick Bundock. St James and Emmanuel is part of the Withington deanery of Manchester and last year became the first inclusive deanery, with all the churches registering with Inclusive Church. It is also the church that Lizzie Lowe attended before her death in 2014. Her death has left a huge legacy for the church, both locally and nationally.  More of this later.

Nick introduced the day, with a powerful message about inclusion and the church. He spoke of the criticism and opposition that they have faced for their inclusive stand, but was of the opinion that ‘nobody will get chucked out of heaven for bringing more people in.’ This focus on God and the kingdom was a big vision that took us away from church politics and brought it all back to what church is really for.

He spoke of the joy of the journey into inclusion, a joy not often found in Church of England churches! For example, telling the story of someone in their congregation with learning difficulties who wrote a prayer and came to the front in a service to read out their prayer.

For him the journey was like the Biblical story of the people of God returning from exile in Babylon. The event that started that journey was Lizzie’s death.

two trees c4e

 

 

 

(Photo from @JayneOzanne)

 

He used an analogy of the state of the church at the moment, by comparing it to trees. The trees he referred to had branches and leaves and lots of healthy growth, but their branches were pointing in opposite directions. One may be growing towards inclusion and the other away from it. It was important to know where a church stood on issues before trying to engage with it because trying to force a church to move in a particular direction when it was not ready just leads to argument, violence or destruction because there is no clear vision to unite people to move in that direction.

He stresses how important clarity is and recommended the group https://www.churchclarity.org/ which can help to identify how clear a particular church is in its policies towards women or LGBT. He was worried about churches that put out the welcome mat and draw in the young and others, but where there is silence on where that church stands on the important issues.

Then he introduced Lizzie’s parents Kevin and Hilary Lowe.

They have set up a charity in Lizzie’s memory, called Lizzie’s Legacy. http://lizzielowe.org
For anyone who does not know the story of Lizzie’s tragic suicide, more information can be found at https://lizzielowe.org/about-lizzies-legacy/ There is also a video about Lizzie’s life on the charity’s homepage. If you do not know the story, stop and go there now.

The charity aims to create a safe place for young people where they can get support. They are funding a youth leader and a youth choir, formed after a spate of suicides among the young. They are offering mental health support and help to churches who want to be more visibly inclusive.

I have been to a lot of conferences, but this is the first time I have ever known a talk get a standing ovation. They are turning their grief into a powerful force to help other people. Their work and the lives they will save will be a remarkable legacy for their daughter.

The charity’s hashtag is #Lizzieslegacy

 

Gathering Voices 2019

GV Conference 2019 flyer
The latest Gathering Voices conference took place at De Montfort University on Saturday. This was another excellent conference and it was heartening to see that the number of people attending continues to increase.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘extending the table’. It had a strong emphasis on being multi denominational and on the experience of being an LGBT asylum seeker in the UK as well as highlighting the invisibility of bisexuals.

The start of the conference was a video from the dean of Leicester, introducing these themes and welcoming people to Leicester.

Next was the first of the keynote speakers – Luke Dowding, the executive director of OneBodyOneFaith. He explained that he had trained for ordained ministry, but he had been denied ordination because he chose to marry his husband. In doing so they became the first couple to get married in a Baptist church in this country.

He discussed matters of intersectionality and diversity, suggesting that representation is a better concept that diversity. He explained that welcoming LGBT+ people to churches is only the start of a journey that should lead to inclusion and then to affirmation.

He gave an overview of the situation for LGBT+ people in several countries, starting with Albania, which he had gone to during his gap year. He showed through his discussions of India, Uganda and Brunei the oppressive legacy of British colonialism. Countries like Uganda did not criminalise homosexual acts until the arrival of the British. Of the 53 sovereign states which used to be British territories, 35 of them have made homosexuality illegal. It was also the influence of the British legacy that linked homosexuality with religion, for example seeing HIV as ‘God’s punishment’. Anti-sodomy Acts, section 377, are still on the statute books in many countries of the Commonwealth.

He commended the report published last month by MCC North London, the LGBT African asylum seeker research project. This shows the way that Christianity is being used as a tool against asylum seekers.
The report is available to download as a pdf here.

The other keynote speaker was Dr Carol A Shepherd of Winchester University, @bispacemission

IMG_3073

The title of her talk was ‘We need to talk about Bi: The subject the church and LGBT+ groups keep ignoring’. It is easy to get knowledgeable speakers to talk about lesbian / gay or about trans, but well informed and articulate speakers about Bi and Christian are very hard to find, it was an area that the conference organisers were keen to address. As her talk was about Bi invisibility, she explicitly limited herself to discussions of sexuality and not gender.

Bisexuality is defined as ‘a romantic and / or sexual attraction to more than one gender’. This definition is taken from the Bisexual index.

She started by introducing herself and the books she has written. She wrote the book 119, under the pseudonym Jamie Sommers (the Bionic Woman). She also has a more academic book Bisexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.

119     bisexuality and the western christian tradition
These books are available to buy here and here.

She took us through a selection of important LGBT books and reports that say a lot about L, G and T but say little or nothing about Bi. These included the welcome message at Bradford Cathedral (@BradfordCathedral) and the Outcome report from the Methodists. The Church of England report Issues in Human Sexuality devoted only one paragraph to bisexuality – these were the 119 words that gave her the title of her first book. The expectation from this one paragraph was that those who were bisexual were expected to live their life as a heterosexual and not give in to their ‘disordered personality’.

She also showed that this was not limited to Christianity, the same erasure was present in other faiths as well. Her point was well made.

Bi erasure can happen even in LGBT+ affirming churches. Among those who identify as LGB, the percentages break down as follows:
Gay 31%, Lesbian 17%, Bisexual 52%. Of the 52% who are bisexual, the breakdown is 33% women and 19% men. This means that the majority of people who identify as LGB are actually Bi. However, the majority of those who identify as Bi are women. This has implications in areas where women are marginalised from power and influence.

Homophobia and biphobia exist among the clergy. Some clergy use this to hide their own same sex experiences and attractions.

Intersectionality needs to be addressed. Intersectionality is a concept first developed by Kimberle Crenshaw, in the context of being black and being a woman.   Her paper can be accessed here.  It can encompass those who are male/ female / opposite sex attracted / same sex attracted and any overlap of these. Intersectionality can come in many contexts, such as disability, nationality, gender, racial identity and sexuality but is not limited to these.

Mental health is another intersectional identity that disproportionately affects bisexuals. There is no specific data on the mental health of bisexual Christians. However, in the general population bisexuals are twice as likely to commit suicide as those who are lesbian or gay. In the general population the number of people who do not identify as straight is increasing, especially in the younger generations. When so many of the general population does not identify as straight, then the worst thing is not to talk about things, it makes you feel isolated and different.

Instead of focusing on ‘Jesus as Lord of men and women’ and ‘Jesus as Lord of lesbians and gays’, we should try to focus on ‘Jesus as Lord of all’.

Carol Shepherd was the breakout success of this conference and I would thoroughly recommend any conference or group that wants to know more about bisexuality and Christianity should invite her to come and talk.

If I have misrepresented what the key speakers said, the mistakes are mine.  This report is what I understood from the talks.