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Letters to the Editor

16 February 2018


Spiritual abuse and the supervision of Sunday schools

From the Revd Stephen Parsons

Sir, — The Evangelical Alliance says that the term “spiritual abuse” should not written into safeguarding policies or law because it is unworkable and potentially discriminatory towards religious communities (News, 9 February).

This position is arguable. But the Alliance is also attempting to place the term into a special area of discourse where, many of us would argue, it does not belong. I am a student of spiritual abuse, but it has never entered my mind that it could easily be defined by laws created by non-church bodies.

As the word implies, however, such abuse is harmful behaviour on the part of religious people who may believe that they are doing “God’s work”. Such abuse is normally associated with the people who possess power in their communities. That spiritual abuse does not exist in law does not make it disappear.

The category of spiritual abuse is necessary because it describes a range of behaviour by Christians towards others which is felt to be harmful or damaging. Through my blogging, I encounter a variety of people who have been abused in this way. Two areas of activity perhaps typify how Christians can harm each other even as they believe they are acting in accordance with scripture.

The first is in the area of badly performed deliverance ministries. As a former diocesan adviser on deliverance, I am, of course, aware of the Bishops’ regulations. But I also hear, even now, of unsupervised deliverance, in Anglican churches, and directed at mentally fragile people. The damage that can be done to individuals is appalling. “Spiritual abuse” at least begins to describe this.

Another area is the use of scriptural passages to drive people out of Christian communities through shunning or ostracism. Such behaviour towards the awkward or challenging voice would seem ethically questionable. Many people are, indeed, harmed.

Spiritual abuse is evidently a deeply uncomfortable concept for the Alliance to think about. This may explain the defensive tone of the entire document. But, rather than push the term to one side, the Alliance might consider how to help its members to become more aware of it. In particular, it could consider how some theologies, misused biblical texts, and dysfunctional leaders can create victims and do real harm.

Spiritual abuse is alive and flourishing in churches of every description. Any attempt to play down the term is, paradoxically, likely to make its prevalence and baneful effects far worse.

19 South Gables, Haydon Bridge
Hexham NE47 6EQ


From the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy

Sir, — Dr Brendan Devitt (Letters, 9 February) can be reassured that Jesus was no spiritual abuser. The New Testament words translated as “hell” do not refer to the eternal torture with which some preachers have been terrifying people since the Middle Ages.

But Dr Devitt is right that anyone who teaches such a thing really is being spiritually abusive. Jayne Ozanne’s report does a good job of describing how it works. Inevitably, her many observations have now elicited a response from the Evangelical Alliance, but it fails.

The Alliance insists on distinguishing between the motive for an abusive act and the act itself. Actions are provoked by motives. If you believe in an abusive God, you are likely to abuse people. Any preacher who teaches that God will make people suffer intense pain after death is being abusive. The fact that it has been happening for more than 500 years is no excuse. If, on the other hand, you believe in a God of love, you are more likely to behave in loving ways.

9 Westward View
Liverpool L17 7EE


From Jane Terry

Sir, — The Revd Nigel Genders is ignorant and naïve in implying that the Church knows what is happening in its Sunday schools (News, 9 February). I have established a Sunday school in all of my husband’s Church of England parishes over the past 40 years. At no point in either of the dioceses in which we worked has anyone ever asked me what we taught in our Sunday schools. I have raised this repeatedly with senior clergy, who have responded with the classically dismissive “Really? How interesting,” which they are all well practised in using with the laity.

Recently, the Church has been forced to come into line with good safeguarding practice on checking who is working with children in the church hall on a Sunday, but still no one has ever asked us for an outline curriculum or examples of children’s work. Without bringing down the full weight of Ofsted-style inspections on volunteer teachers, it can only be a good idea for all voluntary informal schools of all kinds to have at least to submit curricula for inspection by someone other than a local PCC.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I attended a “Sunday school” set up by an Eastern-religion-inspired cult in London where physical abuse was normal and the curriculum was misogynistic and xenophobic. Now in my sixties, I am still affected by the attitudes that I encountered then.

Abuse is found in all human communities, not all of them obviously “extremist”. The Church needs to acknowledge this and ensure that all their schools are safe. The IICSA comes not a moment too soon.

36 Church Mead, Hassocks
East Sussex BN6 8BN


Concerns about Anglican-Methodist report

From Mr Adrian F. Sunman

Sir, — As a former Methodist who is now an Anglican, I have followed the debate on reconciliation of ministries with interest and, I have to say, a little amusement. Although it is well meant, I don’t think that the proposal currently on the table is the right one. A simple and workable solution would be supplementary ordination under which existing Methodist ministers were ordained as Anglican priests. At the same time, Anglican priests and bishops would be ordained as Methodist ministers.

Both Churches have deacons, although their functions are slightly different; so there would be no need for supplementary ordination at that stage. Such an arrangement would meet the needs of those Anglicans who regarded episcopal ordination as a sacramental necessity, while it would demonstrate good faith towards the Methodist Church by showing a willingness to accept its disciplines.

Once integration of ministries had been achieved, supplementary ordination on either side would cease to be necessary. Also, nobody would be required to relinquish orders that they already held, or repudiate the grace of a ministry previously exercised. They would merely gain something in addition to what they already had. Clergy in either Church who didn’t want to exercise their ministry interchangeably need be under no pressure to do so, and, if that were the case, would not need to seek supplementary ordination.

Changes would need to be made to both Church of England canon law and Methodist standing orders. If the will to make them existed, they could be effected fairly quickly.

I accept that this is not a perfect solution, but it is probably the best that we can hope for, this side of eternity. No doubt, myriad theological objections can be raised, but I believe that it offers a way forward that is just, even-handed, and fair to all parties. I would hope that, as such, it merited at least some consideration.

1 Lunn Lane, South Collingham
Newark, Notts NG23 7LP


From the Revd John Bloomfield

Sir, — A few years back, we had a national Lent course, Sticking Points. With all respect to your contributors the Bishop of Fulham and Canon Peter Sedgwick (Letters, 9 February), the ordained ministry remains one of those sticking-points where we differ from other Churches.

I, too, began life as a Methodist: a grandfather and uncle were local preachers. For at least the past three generations of our family, we have held dual membership of the Methodist Church and the Church of England through confirmation and “being made a member”.

What strikes me as irreconcilable for unity (as well as the ordained ministry) is our worship. Members of my village chapel who were entirely Methodist hated the very idea of any liturgical form of worship, and for them the quarterly Sacrament Sunday was quite enough. Even then, the celebration of communion took place after the regular Sunday worship, at which those who “loved the Lord Jesus” were invited to remain for the sacrament. Not many did.

As a priest firmly in the Catholic tradition, I try to worship outside my comfort zone when on holiday, which includes worshipping with my mother in her town’s Methodist church. While the worship is not as rigid as the hymn sandwich of my youth, it is still non-liturgical and non-sacramental. In my own parish, we have a good relationship with the other churches in the town, including two traditional Nonconformist churches, but there is a recognition that we are different in style, ministry, and worship. While we work together in projects for the Kingdom of God (Foodbank, CAP, etc.), we have very different outlooks in theology and ecclesiology. Our Methodist colleagues would not want to worship with us at our sung mass on a Sunday, and we would not want to worship with them at their non-liturgical and non-sacramental services.

The leadership at high levels in both Churches and in synods can agree among themselves as much as they like, but those of us who live at ground level with our Christian neighbours understand each other much better in terms of what works and why. We choose according to how we feel God in worship by experience, not by formulas or nicely thought-out theology or ecclesiology. And there is a gut instinct that acknowledges each other’s clergy, but that they are somehow different.

It is no good papering over the differences in worship or ministry. Those at ground level will not like what “those over us” have decided.

The Vicarage, 53 Northgate
Hunstanton PE36 6DS


From the Revd J. E. M. Barber

Sir, — The proposal for some Methodist ministers to be made bishops does not in any way change the present situation unless everyone accepts that they have the same authority in the Methodist Church as bishops have in the Anglican Church.

I am a retired Anglican priest, but nine years ago I was asked to help out in a local Methodist circuit, as there were not enough preachers to cover all services. I was, therefore, made an associate Methodist minister, and have served in five chapels.

Locally, the power structure is totally different from that in Anglican churches. I have heard of incidents where church or circuit stewards have ruled the roost. At one chapel, no essential remedial work could be done until the steward died. In another, the stewards, with no theological training or spiritual assessment, insisted on conducting the service, even though there was a minister available sitting in the congregation. In another, the stewards refused to let another Methodist minister officiate in their church.

Any change in relationship between the two denominations has to deal with local as well as hierarchical structures. Otherwise, it will only cause more problems.

Bumbles, 21A Westhill Road
Wyke Regis, Weymouth
Dorset DT4 9NB

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