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Angela Tilby: Thoughts on spiritual abuse

02 March 2018


I AM trying to get my head round the notion of spiritual abuse (Comment, 16 February). The Revd Janet Fife’s helpful letter associated it with potentially risky practices involved in some “inner healing” (Letters, 23 February). She also suggested the need for agreed guidelines and protocols.

Her letter reminded me of a disturbing incident that I was involved in when I was in the sixth form. A schoolfriend and I were invited to supper by some Charismatic ordinands. During the meal, my friend had a coughing fit. This provoked a spontaneous outbreak of prayer, which included a loud and terrifying prayer for deliverance.

I was appalled. A spasm of coughing had suddenly become part of a world-view in which demons were hovering around trying to invade us over the dinner table. It was so awful that my companion and I were never quite able to talk about it, and I don’t know to this day whether the incident had a long-term effect on her. What I do know is that it made me very, very wary of Charismatic healing ministries.

I am not sure, though, that the incident could or should be described as spiritual abuse. It was certainly an abuse of hospitality, and I wish that it had not happened. But these were heady days for the Charismatic movement (late 1960s). Our hosts were young men, high on what they thought was the Holy Spirit. At least one of them later became a bishop.

Since then, there have been three occasions on which individuals have decided to launch into prayer for me in public. These incidents all occurred when, for one reason or another, I was struggling with illness or pain. Each time, I was secretly horrified and embarrassed. It was not that I did not want to be prayed for: I would just rather have been asked privately first. Again, I would not use the term “spiritual abuse”; rather, a lack of tact and pastoral sensitivity.

I recognise that the incidents that I have described are comparatively trivial. But the problem with providing guidelines and protocols over prayer interventions like this, and worse, is that they cannot easily be separated from theologies that are more widely held, and can justly claim to be scriptural. The Church could find itself under pressure to forbid certain teachings because of their potential to inspire damaging forms of prayer.

I worry, too, about vocabulary. Terms such as spiritual abuse and bullying heat the debate up when it urgently needs to be cooled down. They even give a touch of glamour to what often arises from stupidity, naïvety, and bad judgement. A more neutral and less emotive vocabulary would be useful, including phrases such as “inappropriate pressure”, “emotional manipulation”, and even “conduct unbecoming to a clergy person”.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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