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Pioneer Trust censured for its founder’s fondness for a ‘holy kiss’

28 May 2024

Review of concerns raised about Gerald Coates published

Creative Commons

Gerald Coates in 2008

Gerald Coates in 2008

A REVIEW of concerns raised about Gerald Coates, the late founder of a Charismatic house-church movement, the Pioneer Trust, has recommended that the trust “carefully considers the implications of its theology and ministry practice for safeguarding; particularly when involved in ministry to children and young people”.

The review records a “pattern of behaviour” concerning Mr Coates’s actions towards young men, including the delivery of prophetic words, questions about their sexual behaviour, and greeting them with a “holy kiss”.

Pioneer began as a group of Christians from a Brethren assembly background, meeting in Mr Coates’s home in the late 1960s. By 1997, there was a 1000-strong congregation in Cobham, Surrey, and a network of 100 smaller churches across the country. The Pioneer Trust was established in 1986 to connect and equip member churches. Mr Coates died in 2022.

The review, conducted by Christian Safeguarding Services (CSS), was initiated by the trustees of the Pioneer Trust last year, after a complaint was raised about Mr Coates, who led the network until 2009. CSS was asked “to identify and address any failures or deficiencies in [Pioneer’s] past and present culture, policies, practices, and safeguarding arrangements”.

The evidence, given by more than 30 people, suggests a “consistent pattern of behaviour that falls significantly short of expected standards at the time”, the review says.

Mr Coates would approach a young man, often after a public meeting, and “share a prophetic word with them” that “identified in some way that God’s hand was upon them, that they were special and that they would be future leaders in the church. He would then seek to establish contact with them; usually by offering, or at least appearing to offer, some sort of mentoring or spiritual leadership development.”

Another pattern of behaviour was greeting these young men with “the ‘holy kiss’, sometimes accompanied by a reference to scripture as a justification. This was done without prior consent or explanation.”

Mr Coates also approached young men that he had never met in person, through social media. “Once contact had been established, he would start very quickly to question them about their use of pornography, masturbation etc. He would ask detailed questions about the type of pornography and about their accompanying sexual activity. This would happen without invitation in a conversation that the young man believed related to the prophetic word that they had previously been given. On some occasions, Gerald apparently approached people indicating that he could be a father figure to them and that he believed God had called him to this.”

The trust was aware of many of these behaviours. The review states that, by 2014, after Mr Coates had handed over leadership of the trust, there was a “growing concern” among its leaders. Over the course of a number of years, they sought to address concerns, including taking advice from Thirtyone:eight, their external independent safeguarding advisers.

The review records: “GC did modify his behaviour to some degree, however, overall, the interventions were not as effective as would have been hoped.” The Pioneer Trust “had reached a decision that if GC did not adhere to the expected standards, they would dissociate from him. This had not been deemed necessary prior to his death in 2022.”

The review states that the trust has “invested considerable time, energy, and finance in supporting its churches to ensure that safeguarding arrangements are in place. However, in doing so, they have not analysed with sufficient clarity, the safeguarding risks that they themselves need to manage.”

One of the young men approached was aged 12 to 13, and the review identifies this as “the single most significant missed opportunity reported to the reviewers” — one that should have been passed to the local-authority-designated officer.

Among the contributors to the review was “A”, who was 20 in 2013 when he co-authored with Mr Coates a book, Sexual Healing: Identity-sexuality-calling. He told CSS: “I wish I could buy every copy to take it out of circulation.”

Although at the time of his death Mr Coates had been married to his wife for more than 60 years, he had spoken during the earlier part of his ministry “about his own early experiences of same-sex attraction”. “Particular care must be taken given that GC’s voice could not be heard,” the review says, noting “a lack of documentary evidence to establish many facts”.

Mr Coates is described in the review as “a charismatic, if somewhat eccentric leader who significantly influenced the development of the ‘Charismatic’, ‘House Church’, or ‘Restorationist’ movement”, whose “principle spiritual gifting . . . was said to be in the realm of the ‘prophetic’”. It notes that “very rarely would he prophecy over or publicly pray for, young women or more mature people.”

While some of the young men who received prophetic words did go on to serve in public ministry, “others felt they were misled, manipulated, and were ultimately left disappointed and disillusioned”. Some “believed that any discrepancy between the prophecy and their actual experience indicated some fault in themselves”.

The review makes 14 recommendations, including the suggestion that the Pioneer Trust “carefully considers the implications of its theology and ministry practice for safeguarding; particularly when involved in ministry to children and young people”.

It observes: “One of the challenges that Pioneer Trust faces, which is an outworking of their particular theology, is how to ensure best practice standards, without hindering the movement of the Holy Spirit and stifling the expression of the Spiritual gifts. This is particularly important when engaging in ministry to children, young people, or adults who may have particular vulnerabilities.”

While some of those who contributed to the review had “very positive experiences of receiving a prophetic word within a Pioneer context”, the authors write that “it is important when those operating in the spiritual gifts, especially those in a position of leadership, are aware of the inherent position of power and authority they hold and the implications of that upon the individual being ministered to. An understanding of the power dynamics within that scenario and the risk of control and manipulation are an important factor for people within leadership to think through.”

The review does not name Soul Survivor, or Mike Pilavachi, but, in detailing the complaint that prompted it, brought by “C”, states that: “In 2023, allegations about another well-known Christian leader came to light in connection with his treatment of young men, which brought C’s experiences with Gerald back to the surface, in as much of the situation resonated with him.”

A statement by the Pioneer Trust said: “We acknowledge that our efforts and interventions as Pioneer to address and modify Gerald’s behaviour were not as effective as we hoped and were ultimately insufficient . . . we are committed to learning from and implementing the review’s recommendations.”

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