Violence, Fear and Coercion in the Church of England? Stephen Parsons

‘Nothing justifies violence or coercion. Christian relationships are to be marked by love, gentleness and respect.’

Violence, Fear and Coercion in the Church of England?  Stephen Parsons

‘Nothing justifies violence or coercion. Christian relationships are to be marked by love, gentleness and respect.’ These are words uttered by the new Archbishop of Sydney in Australia, Kanishka Raffel, but they could be spoken by a Christian leader anywhere in the world. I begin this blog post with something completely unremarkable and obvious for a Christian. It is, however, quite hard to find to find these qualities in some sections of the Church. To illustrate my point, that violence stalks the Church in some places, I draw attention to some recent episodes that haunt our imaginations (or at least they do mine).

The first episode is the fear-laden culture that thirtyone-eight claimed to have found in its investigation of Jonathan Fletcher. This fear that the report drew attention to, was the generalised atmosphere that pervaded the entire constituency where Fletcher held influence. This inhibited people coming forward to say what they knew. I have it on good authority that something similar has been found in the John Smyth enquiry. Few of the witnesses have come forward with any degree of enthusiasm, even though they might have seen evil or worse still, suffered grievously at the hands of Smyth. It seems that a fear of what might happen if they came forward, was the overriding concern that still motivates their actions. This appears far stronger than any desire for truth and justice.

We need to pause here while we ponder the link between violence and fear. The word violence implies the potential threat, not only of having to endure physical mistreatment. There may also be the threat of receiving other debilitating experiences like shame, the destruction of self-esteem and total demoralisation. The sharp word, the put-down phrase and the outburst of anger are all potentially tools of violence, effective in different ways of controlling people and ensuring their silence. In a way I feel no anger for anyone, as in the Fletcher enquiry, who fails to come forward after being subjugated by such non-physical violence. It is also possible to be motivated by fear without realising that this fear exists. It is a fear that may have become normative in the environment you inhabit. It is only when you are asked questions about what you know that a sense of irrational fear and protectiveness towards your abusive mentors might kick in. It might also dawn upon you at the same time, that what you had always thought of as respect and reverence, was in fact simply fear. The Fletcher/Smyth culture seems to have been full of violence in this sense. Many people who held these two characters in awe were also afraid of them. The followers lived with a kind of dread about what one of those two, or their supporters, might do. For a long period, there was this threat of violence which could undermine the safety and well-being of any who had the temerity to challenge such leaders or even their memory.

When we extend the meaning of this word violence to include all these forms of threat and coercion, we can claim to see this widely in operation in the Oxford Percy case. When words like troll are used against supporters of Percy, the visible hand of stronger threatening and bullying behaviour is not far away. Who would ever have thought that anyone would find it necessary to block the gentle Angela Tilby for saying what everyone else is thinking about the car crash at Christ Church? The case against Percy seems entirely in the hands of individuals who have some interest in removing him from his post. Everyone else is appalled at the public display of injustice and violence against the Dean. I am still looking to find a single individual, without any personal stake in the confused nexus of cathedral and college, who supports the brutal campaign against Percy. In all the months of persecution, no one has come up with a solid accusation of moral failing, apart from the hair-touching allegation. The pattern for every other case of sexual abuse offender I have ever looked at, is that a perpetrator is almost never a one-off offender. There is a pattern of misbehaviour over months and years. No such pattern has emerged for Percy, and he is certainly not, as one of his accusers has suggested, a second Peter Ball.

Actions of actual violence towards the Dean can be seen in the absurd over the top inhibitions placed on him by unnamed lawyers. As Gilo has said these restrictions might be considered suitable for a notorious sex-offender like Worboys were he ever to be let out on bail. Applied to the Dean they are acts of violence, even torture. I have been reading up my notes for a lecture on shunning to be given, by me, to at an online conference in Chester in September. The literature on the topic suggests that the instigators aim to deprive an individual of normal human contact. This is a form of torture contributing, as in Percy’s case, to breakdown. In some cases, this kind of cruel inhumane treatment leads to suicide. The failure of Church leaders, the NST and the Diocese of Oxford to identify, or even notice, the utter barbarity that has been going on at Christ Church for over two years is extraordinary. Is there some corporate madness going on at Christ Church that has infected so many other clergy and church leaders to collude with utterly ruthless and cruel behaviour? From the outside these acts of violence are completely incomprehensible. No justifying explanation has been offered at any point to indicate what might really be going on. We on the outside are left to suspect that somewhere the Dean has threatened powerful vested interests. It will probably have something to do with endowments or professional jealousies. Dean Percy is the sort of person to question and challenge the status quo and the sense of entitlement that powerful people hold tightly to themselves. The longer the dispute goes on, the more one is suspicious of the motives of those who have put so much effort to get rid of him.

The words violence and torture are not words that we ever expect to use in the context of church life. But once we decouple their association with waterboarding and the rack, we see that they are proper words to use for any action which is designed solely to engender fear. Many Christians in fact live within environments where fear is a dominant fact of life. It may be found among followers of abusive charismatic leaders; it may be experienced by hard-pressed parish priests where the parish is failing to fit in with the vision of the diocese. Because of this, combined with financial shortfall, there is threat of redundancy, a scenario apparently encountered in the Diocese of Winchester. Continuing fear may exist among the victims of a sexual abuser, or those who are accused, often unjustly, of being an abuser. Fear, threat and coercion are sadly used as deliberate weapons to undermine and destroy others. Somehow the Church has failed to notice how much that this is going on today.

The Archbishop of Sydney will not see this post, but if he were to see it, I would plead with him to understand how much violence and torture already exists in our churches. It may not be the physical kind, but it appears as a violence engendering fear and utter demoralisation. It is just as deadly to whomever has to face and endure it. Perhaps one of the tasks of this blog is to help a few people to become more actively sensitised to the existence of the church violence that affects so many people. Some are the victims of exploitative behaviour by abusers. Others are the victims of persecution by institutions. All are victims of the abuse of power. Each one is precious in the sight of God and need his protection as well as ours as far as we can give it.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding how power works at every level in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

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