spiritual abuse power
Church of England

There is no such thing as ‘spiritual abuse’

Another abuse scandal has broken out in the the Church of England, and it is once again facing the responsibility as to how best to respond.

Most sexual abuse is of course not confined to sex: it extends also to improper acts of power and destructive psychological manipulation and consequent wounding. One of the victims of Jonathan Fletcher has in recent days been phoned six times by a member of the Fletcher inner circle, ‘just to enquire if he’s alright’!

There is no sex involved in this recent manipulation, but an abuse of power there certainly is, and an unwelcome degree of psychological pressure to accompany it. One would have to be very naive not to see persistent texting of a victim as a form of continued abuse by somebody who holds a senior position in the same closed group and who may themselves have been a victim of similar abuse. At the very least this ‘caring person’ must be considered somebody who may have condoned the widespread abuse of Jonathan Fletcher by knowing about in the past it and having done nothing to contain it or help him become accountable.

I hope very much that some of the victims are courageous enough to speak out about it. Only by doing so will they experience some level of what is often unhelpfully called ‘closure’, but in this case may provide exactly that.

Whilst I was thinking through some of these difficult issues, I found myself remembering some difficult occasions in my own past. I wondered if I, too, perhaps had a responsibility to tell something of the story, if only to encourage others in the realisation that the there are moments when it is particularly important for the truth to be told.

This may attempt both, because it helps an organisation one cares for to come to terms with its responsibilities, and also facilitates the possibility of some personal progress. Curiously, the main stimulus to do this came from my discomfort with the phrase the Bishop Andy Lines had used in his own much too partial disclosure.

I’m very sorry for his discomfort and any suffering he has had endure, but I feel he has not made it any easier for other people by the opaqueness of his own disclosure.

I find that I strongly disapprove of the term ‘spiritual abuse’. It is a euphemism and one that is going to be used oppressively by the progressive culture against the Church. It should neither be endorsed or adopted by us.

Abuse is usually psychological, sexual or physical. There is no such thing as ‘spiritual abuse’. Abuse may have spiritual implications but that is not the same thing.

Bishop Andy Lines either suffered psychological, physical or sexual abuse, or a combination of all three at the hands of Jonathan Fletcher, and it helps nobody to cover it with euphemisms. Indeed, I think he owes the other victims a duty of care to be clear and candid about which of those three forms of abuse were inflicted on him in order to help them find the confidence to overcome what feels like the shame of disclosure.

But how shall we respond to the criticism: “Of course there is such a phenomenon and as spiritual abuse. Consider for example classic situation of would-be a exorcism on an unwilling participant..”?

The first thing we might say is that the term ‘abuse’ has its roots in the world of you which sees the driving human dynamic as one exercising power. This is not a Christian perspective, but it just certainly a current secular one. It has roots in both Nietzsche and Marx.

The classic Christian worldview up-ends the relations of power and talks instead of kenosis and self-emptying. So anything authentically Christian can never involve an abuse of power.

But what if it is in incompetently or inauthentically Christian? In that case it may be more a question of inexpert discernment, mistaken diagnosis relating to the locus of disturbance.

But of course the people who are complaining about spiritual abuse are more usually secularists who don’t believe in the realm of the spirit.

If there are no such things as demons, then prayers to relieve people from oppression (possession is extraordinarily rare) are imaginative exercises flowing from a worldview that has no purchase in reality. Clearly, by definition, this cannot be spiritual abuse. From a secularist’s point to view it might be psychological abuse, but by epistemological definition, not spiritual.

But don’t we need to do more than just bandy arguments about definition of terms, and ask instead what the strategy of the whole exercise is really about? If the charge of spiritual abuse is based on a confusion of categories, what lies behind it?

The real issue is that progressive culture wants to designate any element of theological engagement they disapprove of as the performance of abuse. We are back into placing all human behaviour into the restrictive and rather two-dimensional dynamic of power relations. And in order to disguise what they’re actually doing, the progressives have invented the category of spiritual abuse.

The intention is to lure the Church into thinking that there are some aspects of spiritual behaviour that we are allowed to engage in. There are areas which secular society has no concern over, which it then ignores and deems as non-abusive. They are harmless and we can get on with them without any secular oversight or monitoring.

We should not see this as an act of generosity, but rather as a lapse of interest in an increasingly oppressive secular desire to monitor all social activity.

And of course it is merely a sop.

The effect of it is to allow the surrounding culture to decide what is spiritual abuse and what is not; as if it had the credentials or skills for so doing!

Rather than engage in this nonsensical engagement which is in fact an expression of political ‘Will to Power’, we should knock the whole thing on the head and describe things for what they really are.

Let us by all means answer for behaviour that is sexual, psychological or the exercise of ‘will to power’ that is abusive, but let us not give secular society the rights of arbitration over a spiritual dynamic that it neither understands nor wants to understand.

We should not be naive or unaware that the epistemological categories of language determine the philosophical framework of the conflict we are engaged in. Let us not fight on our opponents’ turf, but insist on engaging in the task of establishing the integrity of metaphysical decision-making within the world view that gave birth to our insight and understanding. In a kenotic, loving and vulnerable Christian dynamic, there cannot be spiritual ‘abuse’; there can only be diagnostic mistakes, or abusive behaviour that has destructive spiritual implications.

It is not very different from talking about loving abuse: if it is abusive it is not loving; if it is loving it is not abusive.

My own circumstances we are relatively minor. At a sexual level they were more to do with embarrassment, but since it is true that most sexual abuse has the effect of creating anxiety and the threat of an improper misuse of power, embarrassment is not the only consequence.

In my case I had as a senior colleague a man (hereafter ‘XY’) whom I deeply respected and was very fond of. I had read all his books, and I had followed enthusiastically the enormous impact he had had upon the renewal of the Church internationally over the years. He had an astonishing intellect and a great depth of spirituality. I looked up to him with considerable enthusiasm and was very glad to be in his company and to be able to work alongside him.

I was a bit surprised at our occasional lunchtime swims and saunas, but my public-school upbringing in the 1960s had left me fairly relaxed about masculine nakedness.

One day, in the middle of exchanging a manly hug, I discovered he was not letting go at what might have been thought to be the appropriate moment. There is no elegant way to describe what happened next except to say that I felt my buttock being energetically tweaked. I was astonished and for a moment paralysed. My first thought was ‘so this is what it feels like to be a secretary’.

He told me he loved me.

I broke the hold but left my hands on his shoulders and did my best to look him affectionately if firmly in the eyes. I told him that I loved him too. But I was unable to express it in a reciprocal fashion. It was a moment of considerable embarrassment and discomfort for us both.

I think the reality is that the relationship never recovered. I was prepared to continue my respect and affection for him and see this as a brief ‘stepping over the line’ that had simply been a mistake, born perhaps of affection and loneliness. He, on the other hand, no longer appeared to trust me and perhaps not surprisingly withdrew in a number of ways.

As I think will be obvious to readers, this does not constitute high-level sexual trauma, though it was certainly uncomfortable.

But the Church of England works on patronage. If you offend or repulse people, the consequences can be very serious for future positions. And so there is a very close link between inappropriate sex, and the abuse of power.

I was sorry for the discomfort my colleague appeared to feel in all the subsequent years. For my part, I could never entirely free myself from the anxiety that his references might be coloured by that moment of rejection. Rejection can, after all, have serious consequences in an institution where patronage has such profound effects.

A lady who held a very senior position in the Church of England subsequently had become professionally friendly with XY. I was very surprised when during a late night conversation she expressed a view on my impending marriage which, as far as I could tell, was none of her business. Very oddly, she warned me that if I proceeded with my plans to get married it could seriously and irreparably damage my ‘career’ in the Church of England. All I could think to reply was that I did not have a career in the Church of England, only a vocation.

I thought this was an excessively odd thing for her to say, and I didn’t really understand it.

Sometime later I told my fiancée what had been said to me, and asked her what on earth she thought it meant. “You are an idiot,” she cheerfully replied, “You’ve just been propositioned.”

Some years later I was asked by a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff to offer a character reference in a criminal matter he had become embroiled in. Although I neither knew nor cared, he was gay and was being prosecuted for a misdemeanour. He thought that a character reference from me would go some way to set the misdemeanour in a more limited context, and I might be of some help to him. I was, and it did.

A week later he phoned me and said, “What have you done to upset XY?”

“Nothing that I know of,” I replied.

“Well,” he said, “I wondered if there was any way I could return your favour, so I went to have a look at your private file in Lambeth Palace, and I discovered an A4 sheet making some unpleasant allegations against you, authored by XY. It was obviously malicious and I knew it couldn’t be true so I put it into the shredder. One favour deserves another.”

The abuse of power and patronage in the Church of England is not, of course, confined to matters with sexual overtones.

Following another interview at Lambeth Palace for a senior position, I was contacted by a member of the committee I have known for some time. “Gavin, I want to apologise,” he said. “I’ve only just discovered what happened after the interview. As you know the practice is that the first two names from the interviewing committee are taken to the Archbishop and he chooses the successful candidate from between them. Yours was one of the first two names, but on the way over to the Archbishop’s office the secretary to the committee removed your name from the top of the pile, and, worried that the Archbishop might prefer you to the other candidate, placed it on the bottom. I’ve only just discovered what happened and it’s too late to do anything about it.”

I thanked him for reassuring me that it was not my incompetence that was the problem.

It is a tenet of Christianity that human beings are flawed by sin, and we know only too well that there are three major areas of corruption which usually involve sex, money and power.

Of these three incidents of abuse, I felt the one with a mild sexual content was the least damaging in my own experience of the Church of England. It was dealt with with honesty and directness, and although it spoiled a relationship that I treasured, it didn’t totally ruin it. Something good in the mercy of God remained.

The Church should never be surprised when people go wrong, but it has a responsibility to invite all of us to repentance and to a recognition of what has been done badly that should have been done well. This will always involve telling the truth either privately or publicly, depending on the context.

In the case of Jonathan Fletcher, he has sadly been unable to acknowledge what has been done badly. Worse than that, the whole circle of influence that he presided over involves considerable powers of patronage, and it is hard to think that this influence has not been abused as a price of silence. The great danger in this case is that many of the people who owe their office to Jonathan Fletcher must now be under suspicion of having condoned his activities with the silence for which they are still paying for their positions and the exercise of his considerable and far-reaching patronage.

The fact that behind the scenes at the moment there is emerging some evidence that members of Jonathan Fletcher’s sphere of influence, who may have been victims themselves of course, are pressuring into silence those who have come forward for help, is deeply worrying. More than worrying it is, of course, deeply disturbing and greatly offensive. It can only deepen the psychological wounds and compound the abuse.

Abuse that stretches from sex to power and the manipulation of minds can only be confronted by telling the truth. I offer my own narrative as having little interest except for the fact that it might act as an additional warning of the dangers that exist where an institution is unable to hold those who act abusively to account.

As Christians, we are committed to a belief that Jesus entrusted to us, which is that by telling the truth we are all potentially set free. We must hope that some of Jonathan Fletcher’s victims will find the courage to tell something more of the truth and so find greater freedom for themselves and each other; and that the Church of God might do what it humanly can to put things right.