TWO excellent and worrying stories this week in the website HuffPost UK about a black prosperity-theology church in London that has been selling itself to politicians as the answer to knife crime.
“SPAC Nation”, which appears to be a gathering of congregations rather than one church, on the loose and entrepreneurial model favoured both by criminal gangs and Charismatic church groupings, was first denounced for pressuring congregants to take out loans, or, worse, to act as guarantors for loans taken out by the pastors. Now, it is for running a network of “trap houses” — supposedly safe houses — in which vulnerable young people are exploited.
“In one appalling apparent failure of care, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by a member of SPAC Nation at a trap house,” HuffPost UK reported. “The church put out a public statement last year saying it had encouraged the young woman to report the incident to police but she declined.
“In another recent incident, video footage shows a SPAC Nation pastor whipping a vulnerable young man with a belt in a safe house while reciting a biblical verse. The incident was later dismissed as a joke. The pastor was named as one of the capital’s rising stars at the Evening Standard’s 1,000 most influential Londoners this year due to his work with SPAC Nation.
“We have also found a prominent pastor within the church has convictions for 27 offences of fraud and dishonesty and has been labelled a ‘career con-artist’ but runs one SPAC Nation trap house for young women.
“SPAC Nation distanced itself from the trap houses. The church’s spokesman Daniel Ogoloma told HuffPost UK: ‘These houses are rented by individuals and the church encourages individuals to take in people and help them. That is at the will of the individual. The church does not refer people to houses, it only encourages members to help others.’”
Three points are worth making about this. The first and perhaps most obvious is that it shows a side of London life completely invisible to almost all the journalists who live there. Absolutely no one in the mainstream media writes about black-led Christianity in London. A friend on The Guardian, whose father was a minister of Jamaican extraction, pointed out that liberal papers lose interest as soon sexual morality comes into the conversation. This is an unusually damaging instance of the general rule that, for the British media, “sin” means no more than an outmoded attitude to what people get up to in bed. Related to this is the hope of some politicians that these churches will provide a magical means of solving social problems. The leaders of the SPAC church attended Conservative Party conferences and have been proud of it.
The story also illustrates, I think, two sorts of liberal blindness. The first is a disinclination to attack some forms of black-on-black crime, for fear that this will encourage the wrong sort of white people. I suspect that these allegations would have come out much earlier and louder had Roman Catholic churches been involved.
The second is a failure of the imagination when it comes to prosperity-gospel churches generally. Surely it is worth asking what it is it that makes them seem not just more attractive but more plausible than the gospel of St Francis. The answer, it seems to me, is that they take hierarchy for granted, and this is attractively realistic in societies that are simultaneously very unequal in practice and thoroughly meritocratic in their public rhetoric. And, if there is to be a hierarchy, surely it is better to find yourself somewhere near the top. That is how the stairway to heaven becomes a ladder to the Lamborghini.
With that said, few things could be more grotesque than people comfortably off praising the poor for their humility. The Church of England had a bad record for that sort of thing in the 19th century. I can’t see anything wrong at all with forms of Christianity which encourage people to grow richer honestly and sympathise with that desire. But there is a huge difference between that attitude and the sort of sympathetic magic implied by the doctrine of “seed money”; between the background assumptions of a society in which it appears that hard work and modest ambition will be rewarded, and one where fortune strikes like a lottery win.
I seem to have argued myself into calling for a revival of Methodism.
OVER at The New York Times, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat had both an interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke and a meditation on the future of the wing of the Church to which he belongs.
The outlook, for Douthat, is thoroughly bleak: “As conservative resistance to Francis has grown more intense, it has also grown more marginal, defined by symbolic gestures rather than practical strategies, burning ever-hotter on the internet even as resistance within the hierarchy has faded with retirements, firings, deaths.”
The conclusion he reaches is that RC conservatives “need to see their relative powerlessness through their own religion’s lens. That means treating it as a possible purgation.” The Pope as the Scourge of God — and there I was worrying that there would never be any new religious stories.