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‘Spiritual abuse’ term ‘unworkable’ and ‘damaging’ to interfaith relations, say Evangelical Alliance

09 February 2018


THE term “spiritual abuse” should not be written into safeguarding policies or law because it is “unworkable” and “potentially discriminatory” towards religious communities, the Evangelical Alliance (EA) has said.

In a report, Reviewing the Discourse of “Spiritual Abuse”: logical problems and unintended consequences, published on Monday, the theology advisory group of the EA said that recent attempts to categorise “emotional and psychological abuse in religious contexts” as “spiritual” were also damaging to interfaith relations.

In the foreword, the chairman of the group, the Revd Dr David Hilborn, and the general director of Evangelical Alliance UK, Steve Clifford, wrote: “[Spiritual abuse] is a seriously problematic term partly because of its own inherent ambiguity, and also because attempts by some to embed it within statutory safeguarding discourse and secular law would be unworkable in practice, potentially discriminatory towards religious communities, and damaging to interfaith relations.”

While the report “in no way downplays” the harm that spiritual abuse caused, they said, more “precise, well-founded, workable definitions of abuse” were needed to help survivors.

The report comes after the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) conducted a survey last month of more than 1500 Christians, two-thirds of whom said that they had been victims of spiritual abuse (News, 12 January). The study acknowledges that definitions of spiritual abuse are not clear cut, and suggests that this lack of clarity may be a significant barrier to responding appropriately to its victims within the Church.

The EA report states that its members had met the CCPAS to discuss spiritual abuse, but concluded that the term was “not a legally recognised category of abuse”, and that they had become “increasingly uneasy” about its application.

The CCPAS also refers to “coercive and controlling behaviour” in its recent findings, which, the EA says, “is focused upon domestic abuse, and has not been read across to abuse that takes place distinctively in religious settings”.

Its report also says that the recurrence in recent years of the term “spiritual abuse” had “coincided with socio-political shifts which mean that, however well intended, its use now poses potential threats to religious liberty that were far less apparent when it first gained currency”.

It specifically criticises a report by a member of the General Synod, Jayne Ozanne, Spiritual Abuse: the next great scandal for the Church, from last year (News, 30 June 2017), in which, it says, she “accumulates heuristic references to it in certain denominations’ safeguarding literature, and then links these to existing legislation on homophobia.

“The implication is that [spiritual abuse] should be subject to the same prosecution and punishment as homophobic hate crimes, and/or that it should be circumscribed by statute on a par with other existing forms of criminal abuse. Unfortunately, the range of practices thus deemed potentially actionable by Ozanne includes preaching and teaching most mainline churches’ positions on same-sex relationships and gay marriage.”

Ms Ozanne said on Monday that she was “deeply perplexed” by the attempt to “effectively dismiss” the term. “Their report contains various unfounded claims, which feed the notion that certain parts of the Church are under threat from secular society. Assertions such as ‘the use of spiritual abuse terminology has proliferated in such a way that its further use risks damage to fundamental freedoms of religious thought, expression and assembly’ are at best defensive, and at worst scaremongering.”

She continued: “I do not believe my paper has been fairly or accurately characterised, and would urge people to read it for themselves.”

The report also says that the decision by a church tribunal to convict the Vicar of Christ Church, Abingdon, the Revd Timothy Davis, of spiritual abuse against a teenage boy (News, 8 January), “could be interpreted as lending particular proto-legal weight to the concept” of spiritual abuse, which could be “readily cited” by secular courts and lawyers.

It argues that emotional or psychological abuse was unlikely to be labelled in other contexts, “such as ‘show-business abuse’, ‘party-political abuse’, or ‘sporting abuse’” after recent scandals. “The problem with the current proliferation of [spiritual abuse] discourse is that it too readily conflates actions and effects with motivation, role, and setting. . .

“Such persistent application of it risks becoming a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’: whether intentionally or not, it will lend weight to the arguments of those who take its cumulative general usage as evidence of the need distinctively to criminalise it, and thus potentially to criminalise whole religious communities with whose theology they happen to disagree.”

Dr Hilborn said: “Creating a special category of ‘spiritual abuse’ just for religious people potentially singles them out for criminalisation. As such, it carries the risk of religious discrimination, and threatens social cohesion.”

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