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Spiritual abuse: this way to the exit

16 August 2019

Hattie Williams speaks to the authors of a new book that tracks a path through the maze of spiritual abuse


Aerial view of hedge maze at Sauerland Hemer, Germany

Aerial view of hedge maze at Sauerland Hemer, Germany

SPIRITUAL abuse is a term that threatens to defy definition. It has been described by survivors, advocates, and researchers as subtle and hidden — the work of those adept at preying on the vulnerable.

In a new book, Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures (SPCK), Dr Lisa Oakley, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Chester, and Justin Humphreys, chief executive of the safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS), suggest that ignorance about the term is one of the greatest barriers to helping the Church of England both to recognise when people are being abused in this way, and to change the culture in the Church — deference, power imbalance, coercion, and lack of accountability — that allows it to take place undetected.

In the opening pages, a former president of Compassion International, Dr Wess Stafford, describes the trauma of spiritual abuse, which he suffered as a “vulnerable child”, as one that “breaks God’s heart like no other. . .

“The difficult reality is that spiritual abuse, often subtle and hidden, exists in the Church more widely than we want to believe. When it gains a foothold, people who are looking for love, acceptance, joy, and healing instead gradually become entrapped by a deeply damaging climate of control, coercion, and condemnation.”

It is compared in the book to a maze — one that the Church must navigate in order to change the culture surrounding safeguarding. “We can’t really explore what is healthy without an investigation of what is unhealthy,” the authors write. “We must enter the maze, look at the dead ends, investigate the loops, explore the multiple routes and ultimately find the exit. . . Then we will be in a better position to guide others through the maze and indeed to stop having to enter it in the first place.”

Despite their sensitive analysis of the testimonies of hundreds of survivors, they are remarkably positive that this can be achieved through listening, training, and a clear definition.


THE term “spiritual abuse” is not a new one. Its use is well-documented in the United States, and it has become more frequently discussed in the UK in recent years. Dr Oakley has co-written an academic text, Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), based on UK research; and, last year, for the first time, a Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) tribunal found a priest, the Revd Timothy Davis, guilty of “conduct unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority” (News, 12 January 2018).

Both Mr Humphreys and Dr Oakley agree that such outcomes are helpful and will become more common in future. “The challenge will be making sure that we are able to land and get consistent definitions . . . to produce practical guidance.”

Their book loosely defines spiritual abuse as “a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.”

But Dr Oakley and Mr Humphreys are the first to say that no definition is set in concrete, and, in particular, forms of abuse are constantly developed through experience and research.

“We are not saying that this is the done deal,” Dr Oakley says. “The book is part of the discussion about how we define this experience. . . The terminology is controversial. It is not universally agreed. It is not a statutory category of abuse. No one is denying that people have experiences of coercive control in Christian and other faith contexts. The difficulty is what to call it.”

Dr Oakley sought to define spiritual abuse in her doctoral research, which she completed in 2009. She has worked on several projects with Mr Humphreys, who, as the chief executive of Thirtyone:eight, has worked with survivors of abuse who identify with the characteristics of spiritual abuse.

“We are not necessarily wedded to this term ‘spiritual abuse’,” Mr Humphreys says. “We are quite open to appropriate alternatives’ being suggested or found: but, for us, in terms of the work that we have done, and the many survivors who we have spoken to, spiritual abuse is something that resonates with those people and has a level of understanding within the survivor community.”


THE book contains detailed case studies of survivors of spiritual abuse in the C of E and other Christian denominations, including Dr Oakley’s research, the Church Experience Survey of 525 people, and a second survey of more than 1500 people conducted by the authors in 2017, which inspired this volume (News, 12 January 2018). Two-thirds of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of spiritual abuse themselves.

In one case study, a church volunteer described being put under intense pressure by the priest-in-charge to run the youth group, even when ill. Over several months, the volunteer was repeatedly told, he said, that he would be “betraying” the church if he did not do certain “duties” that were “God’s will”. He was eventually forced out through isolation.

“After I left, I went through what I think was one of the darkest periods of my life,” he said. The authors reflect: “There are often long periods full of positive moments, and this makes you question yourself when negative things begin to happen. It is often subtle and not at all easy to spot.”

The book uses survivor experiences to break down spiritual abuse into 12 characteristics. The first eight come under coercion and control, including manipulation, enforced accountability, censorship, obedience, fear, and isolation. The remaining four characterise the spiritual aspect: use of divine position or calling to coerce; exercising control through the misuse of the scriptures; using God’s name or suggested will; and the threat of spiritual consequences.

In the foreword, the Revd Dr Mark Stibbe, a survivor of the abuse by the late John Smyth whose disclosures sparked a Channel 4 investigation (News, 10 February 2017), questions how “20 supposedly intelligent ordinands” could be taken in by Smyth when he was involved with a Christian camp run by the Iwerne Trust (now the Titus Trust).

“Yes, there was a physical component to his abuse in the beatings themselves,” Dr Stibbe writes. “Yes, there was a psychological and emotional component. But what John Smyth did to us was first and foremost spiritual abuse. Without a spiritual dimension to his behaviour, there would have been no abuse at all.” He goes on to describe it as “a very real and widespread phenomenon”.

Spiritual abuse is not limited to one denomination or faith, however, the book suggests — nor is it bound by theology. Church leaders can be abused, too. As another survivor summarises it: “Spiritual abuse also happens the other way around, where leaders of churches are abused by the people they are leading and are manipulated by them and at the receiving end of verbal abuse and gossip.”

The authors also describe the delicacy of addressing the “elephant in the room”, which some fear may lead to a string of “spurious accusations” by congregation members that waste time, expense, and energy.


ONLY by training both clergy and laity, the authors say, as well as by encouraging conversation about the dangers of abusive behaviour and how people respond, will everyone within the Church be equally protected, respected, and able to ask questions and disagree.

Dr Oakley, who chairs the Task and Finish Group on Spiritual Abuse in the C of E, as well as the National Working Group for Child Abuse Linked to Faith and Belief, says: “We need to move away from a culture that sees leaders as having to be all things to all people, because nobody can be that.”

Promoting self-reflection and self-regulation in training will also avoid people slipping into abusive behaviour themselves. “The majority of cases that we come across, particularly for those who are leaders, it is not that they have intentionally behaved that way,” Mr Humphrey explains. “They have not gone out to exploit, coerce, and control this group of believers; it is patterns of behaviour they have fallen into unwittingly that have consequences for others.”

It comes back to changing the culture: “Where there is a culture of deference, the risk of spiritual abuse is higher, because there is not the same level of challenge and accountability.”

Not everyone agrees with their research in this area, however. The Evangelical Alliance has described the term “spiritual abuse” as “unworkable” and “damaging” to interfaith relations (News, 9 February 2018). And, in the book, the authors recall one Christian who described their investigations as “the Devil’s work”, and another who said that it could “implode the Church”.

But this, they say, is not their intention, which is much more constructive. “If somebody — EA [Evangelical Alliance], or whoever they are — don’t like the term, that is OK,” Mr Humphrey says.

“We are not the owners of this as a term or a subject. We are simply wanting to encourage necessary helpful discussion and, hopefully, action on the issue. . . We have to do this respectfully and carefully in a way that, hopefully, doesn’t do damage to the Kingdom, to the perception of how Churches and other organisations want to deal with any experience of harm within their walls.”


IN HIS evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse last month, Mr Humphreys said that he had been encouraged by the “passion, understanding, and insight” shown by young ordinands who had undergone safeguarding training on spiritual abuse.

Dr Oakley, who also conducts training, concurs: “One of the things is not to minimise what people are saying, or seek to defend the Church at the expense of individuals. Some of those messages are coming through the Inquiry as well.”

The Inquiry, she said, has given the Church an opportunity to acknowledge where it has gone wrong and to apologise to the people who have been harmed — which, in turn, allows it to celebrate a future of good practice.

“[Spiritual abuse] is controversial, but the focus that people want to have across churches is ‘What do we do?’, and ‘How do we respond well?’”

Survivors want the Church to be healthier, too. “Survivors, even if they are not part of the Church any more, want things to be better for the future. Without survivors, we would not have written this book; we would not know what a healthy culture looks like.”

Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures, by Dr Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys, is published by SPCK at £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.89).

You can read a review of this book and other books about safeguarding in our books pages


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