spiritual abuse
Freedom of Religion

Recognising ‘spiritual abuse’ is a dangerous hostage to fortune

An Abingdon vicar has been banned from ministry for two years after being found guilty of the spiritual abuse of a 15/16-year-old boy. The Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the Diocese of Oxford met in January to consider the allegations the Rev’d Timothy Davis, namely that:

1. throughout the said period being engaged in a mentoring so intense that W1 (the teenage boy) was put under unacceptable pressure having regard to his age and maturity and was deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue with the same
2. on occasions too numerous to particularise during the said period was in breach of the safeguarding requirements by being alone with W1 whether in his house or in the vicarage or other places and on occasions deliberately touching him albeit not in a sexual manner
3. under the guise of his authority sought to control by the use of admonition, Scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy the life of W1 and /or his relationship with his girlfriend
4. under the guise of his authority procured and retained the consent of W1’s parents to this relationship
5. throughout the said period failed to have any regard to the propriety of the said conduct and/or its effect on others and in particular on W1.

The particular testimony of the boy is revealing:

In January 2012 W1 told us that he met TD at his home at first in the living room but TD told him that they could do without the formal mentoring book and instructions because he wanted to be more friends than mentor/mentee with W1. TD told W1 that the mentoring should increase to every other Tuesday. They met in the living room for a couple of times, but TD then suggested that the room was not suitable because it was too public and if they wanted to share things they ought to go to W1’s room. This is what happened. The meetings lasted 2 hours or so. During the meetings they studied the Bible and prayed for each other. During prayer they laid hands on each other’s head, shoulders , chest and back. They also played a ‘trust’ game whereby one of them would fall backwards to be caught by the other. W1 said that before TD moved in with them in March 2013 he spoke to W1 on the phone every Sunday evening after Youth Group and the contact grew further until it was daily contact studying the Bible, praying for each other for up to 1.5 hours per day.

W1 told us that he found this too intense but he found it impossible to tell TD that he wanted less contact. He told us that
TD became angry if W1 did not ring him or respond to his texts and he would say that this is not what friends did. At times TD was in tears in the presence of W1 who told us that TD was ill.

And further:

TD did not approve of W1’s relationship with his girlfriend and with her family: W1 states in his statement (para 21 p221) that TD was negative about his girlfriend seeking to limit the time they saw each other. He would pick W1 up from her house to take him back to the Vicarage for bible study and discussion. W1 told us that TD described the family of his W1’s girlfriend as ‘evil’ and his girlfriend as ‘bad seed’ quoting passages from Matthew’s Gospel about bad fruit. W2 (the boy’s mother) referred to a text she received from TD referring to the family as ‘evil poisoners’: this was at New Wine Festival in August 2014 which falls outside the period of the complaint. However we can take this evidence into account as capable of corroboration of the evidence of the tone and content of what TD was saying about the girlfriend’s family between January 2012 – September 2013.

There is much more in the full written determination; enough to conclude that there was undoubtedly something unhealthily psychologically or emotionally obsessive going on. The infatuation of Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice springs to mind:

Often, almost constantly, Aschenbach saw the boy Tadzio; a limited space, a different order to everyone’s life effected it that the arresting one was close to him most of the day, with short interruptions. He saw and met him everywhere: in the ground-floor rooms of the hotel, on the refreshing boat trips to the city and back, in the marvel of the square, and frequently in between on streets and paths if luck contributed. But mainly and with gratifying regularity the mornings at the beach gave him ample opportunity to study the beautiful figure devoutly. This predictability of happiness, these daily-recurring fortunate circumstances made the stay dearer to him and let every day seem like a Sunday.

But the problem with spiritual abuse is that it’s in the eye of the beholder: if a parishioner asks for prayer over a matter, and the vicar uses a ‘wrong’ word – such a one as could cause offence – might the parishioner not cry ‘spiritual abuse’? And what of vicars who refuse to officiate over blessings for same-sex couples (about to come before Synod yet again)? Isn’t such hate simply a manifestation of bigotry shrouded by religious conservatism? Doesn’t that constitute spiritual abuse? Is it spiritual abuse to preach about the evil of abortion, for fear that a woman in the congregation might have had one? Is it spiritual abuse to forbid divorce? Is it spiritual abuse to disciple believers along the narrow path that leads to heaven? When exactly does holy therapy become spiritual abuse?

Is it spiritual abuse of non-believers to preach that salvation is found through Christ alone?

According to the Telegraph, ‘More than 1,000 churchgoers complain of spiritual abuse’, which they say “usually involves members invoking God’s will or religious texts in order to punish or control and coerce a worshipper”.

Isn’t invoking Scripture to effect punishment supposed to induce repentance and so restoration to the community of Christ? Isn’t invoking God’s will by searching the scriptures supposed to control the conduct of believers and lead to the renewing of hearts and minds? Isn’t Christianity intrinsically coercive to the extent that certain actions, expressions and dispositions are demanded of believers?

The Evangelical Alliance Theology Advisory Group has issued a booklet warning of the dangers and unintended consequences, which have been summarised by the Rev’d Dr David Hilborn, the Group’s Chairman:

“We take the harm caused by Emotional, Psychological and other forms of abuse in religious contexts very seriously indeed. The Alliance has worked closely with its partner organisations and member churches in this area. However, we are deeply uneasy about increasing usage of the unhelpful and potentially misleading term ‘Spiritual Abuse’. We believe the existing legal frameworks of Emotional and Psychological abuse are sufficient and need to be enforced in religious contexts, as in other contexts. However, 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. As a diagnostic term, ‘Spiritual Abuse’ may be well-intended, but this report shows that it is not fit for purpose.”

This is absolutely right. The Church of England would be unwise to proliferate the widespread acceptance of spiritual abuse, lest it be elevated to the status of hate crime and so incorporated into safeguarding legislation. For those who love the Lord, Sunday School is not child abuse, youthwork is not brainwashing, preaching holiness is not psychological control, and pastoral care is not emotional manipulation. But all of them may be to those who are averse to theological conservatism and moral orthodoxy. Let’s not be lured into the further diminution of our freedom of religion.