CALL me a clergy cliché, but, after I had not wanted to force my children to go to church because “Mum is a vicar” (after being ordained in my late forties), their interest in church appeared on the spiritual thermometer somewhere between “Cold” and “Tepid”. They were brought up in a strong Evangelical church, and had attended Christian summer camps, but somehow had not caught the flame for themselves.
So, imagine my quiet delight when one of my daughters, a returning graduate of the boomerang generation, started to attend a large church in central London. Yes, I bristled at the reinforced reality that our suburban church had little to offer someone in her early twenties — but then I only had the Vicar to blame for that. I confess that I found it hard to hear about the technical resources and the production values that the church was able to sustain; but, overall, I was pleased that she was choosing faith for herself.
Some months later, my daughter was introduced to a someone who was a friend of a friend and who turned out to be a recruiter for a weekly Bible-study course. She soon started attending twice-weekly sessions. After only a few meetings, she seemed on fire with the knowledge that she was gaining: it seemed that what she had heard in Sunday school was now falling into place, translating itself into a living faith.
We planned to discuss what she was learning each week, but soon she explained that she couldn’t do justice to the course content, and so she preferred not to talk about it. I began to wonder whether this Bible study was all that it seemed. Little things made me question the group; I remember making the only-half-joking comment that it sounded a bit like a cult.
I DISLIKED hearing, fairly regularly, that she was going to meet one of the leaders for a “catch-up”. The initial five-session course turned into a three-month course, with no sign of an end date. The sessions themselves were also getting longer: sometimes she would not get home until after midnight.
I was concerned, but she assured me that everything she was learning was from the Bible, and there was no money changing hands. From the little I heard, I felt that there was perhaps too much emphasis on Satan, but she explained that this was just an attempt to redress an imbalance in current church teaching.
Gradually, it became even harder to talk to her about the course and her involvement. I tried to do some internet research into the course, but found nothing suspicious. My gut feeling was to be mistrustful; but then I would put my scepticism down to a defensiveness about my own faith and ministry. Perhaps I had to admit to envying her apparent development of the sort of faith which I only preach about.
My concerns were, to some extent, allayed when I met a delightful girl from the course who was becoming good friends with my daughter, and who seemed very balanced. We even invited the course leader to lunch at the vicarage, to find out more. He came over as a committed and compelling Christian who was very open to discussion and being questioned, and who seemed unfazed by my suggestions that there were potentially cultish tendencies about the course.
Some of his explanations did seem particularly unusual and counter-cultural, but isn’t that what we are called to be as Christians?
BUT then our daughter, completely unbeknown to us, started to do some internet research for herself. Motivated by a strong intuition — which she now believes to have been God-given — she began to piece information together, and came to the conclusion that the “Parachristo” course was not all that it seemed to be. Using social media and her knowledge of the group and its members, she discovered that it was related to the Shincheonji cult from South Korea (News, 16 December 2016).
Solicitors for the directors of Parachristo, questioned by journalists for The Daily Telegraph last year, were reported as replying: “Our client does not advocate or encourage deception, secrets or lies. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about our client.” But one of my daughter’s most disturbing discoveries was that fellow course-members, who had represented themselves as being new, like herself, were actually long-standing members, acting as “maintainers”. Others were deceiving family members and friends, inventing careers and home lives that did not exist. It was clear that she ought to take no one at face value, and that many of her new “friendships” were based on complete untruths.
Parachristo’s lawyers, pressed on two specific cases involving people telling family elaborate lies to cover up their involvement, told the Telegraph: “Our client’s members’ personal choices are personal to them and our client will not comment upon personal matters regarding members’ private lives.”
Our daughter, however, quickly came to the decision that her involvement in the group had to stop. She also warned a couple of friends whom she herself had innocently invited to the course. A couple of days later, instead of going to the next session, she sent a message to the other members just an hour before its start, to minimise the possibility that her findings would be explained away. She then ceased all communication with them.
Worried that others like her might have become involved, she also told her own church leaders. After some reluctance to engage with her (perhaps fearing for their reputation, or merely because of poor communication), they took action, speaking about the issue in services and going through diocesan channels. As a result, many people came forward who were involved, or who knew others who were.
MY DAUGHTER is pleased to have spoken out and made a difference. Yet she still has occasional nightmares, and finds it difficult to trust people. It was only later that we found out about the group leaders’ approach.
She was told that they should always be thinking in God’s terms, remembering that God would prefer her to be learning his word rather than socialising, and that absence from the group would be disrespecting God. She was told that if work got in the way of attending the sessions, she was wrongfully pursuing ambition, and that if a promotion at work meant missing class, the promotion was a temptation from the devil. And all the time she was becoming socially isolated from her family, friends, and church community, but she could not see it because, at the time, she was being constantly told that “the group had the truth, and God was in it all.”
Films were made of some social events, which, we now know, would have been relayed back to South Korea, but no permission was ever sought from her or the others there. She thought it odd at the time, but no one else complained; so she didn’t, either.
IT FEELS as if being a member of the clergy put me at a disadvantage in all this. I felt that I should be supporting a group that offered entirely Bible-based teaching, and not be so ready to think ill of those who were exercising a different approach from mine. Looking back, I realise that my gut instinct was right all along, and I am grateful to a good friend who told me to trust it.
That said, I am not sure what I could have done differently. I was already afraid that my continued scepticism would drive a wedge between us — although the growing distance between us turned out not to be of our making. I realised how bad the situation had become when I felt the need to delete my web history in case my daughter discovered that I was acting on my suspicions. But the reality was that, day by day, she was still our fun-loving, affectionate, intelligent daughter; a more sinister narrative seemed improbable.
I still think about how we might have lost her, as I understand many have — including clergy parents. A challenge was and still is to tell ourselves that those who persuaded our daughter into the group were as much victims as she was.
Our grateful thanks go to the Cult Information Centre, who gave us timely advice when we needed it, and we would recommend their website to anyone who may have an interest or cause for concern (www.cultinformation.org.uk). They also reassured us (and particularly my daughter) that it is not those who are particularly gullible who are at risk from cults. Instead, cults apparently prey on intelligent, enthusiastic, and idealistic young people who have a true desire to learn more about faith.
This may describe some of the young people in your church, youth group, or parish — perhaps even your vicarage — and I give this account to encourage you to be vigilant in looking after them. We hear much about the radicalisation of young people today; let us not overlook the variety of other groups which may be seeking to capture their hearts and minds.