DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


search engine by freefind

hit counter
 
Paedophiles & Priests, Carnality & Clerics
Bryan Winters

S
hucks, this is a toughie. In actual fact it's the sort of topic I would normally veer away from. To me, it has nothing to do with the message of Jesus. It is one of the issues facing modern Christianity, that mainstream religion of the west. But this site [http://www.dechurched.com/] is meant to assist people cope with Christianity. So I better try.

I could launch an attack against the hypocrisy of the church. That would be an easy start, and would certainly ally me with the forces of good. Only thing is, it would also group me with those ambitious journalists, out cleaning up the world, making it a better place for us purchasers of their newspapers.

Faced with existing current pressure, we have recently seen predictable responses. Look at the decisions of several hastily convened powerful clerical councils around the world. Strong statements like "No paedophile will ever work in the church in America again" issue forth as they attempt a last minute clean up campaign. The major denominations treat the thing like a public relations or business exercise. A festering problem emerges - get in the PR consultants, get out a press release, institute some proceedings, pay off a complainant in Maine, set up a task force to clean out that monastery in Texas etc. This is called disaster recovery in today's wired, wavering, low attention span world. And lastly, in an act that finally bears some sort of relationship to their religious calling, pray for a war to break out somewhere to remove the heat of the cameras.

In the evangelical and charismatic sector, with its leaning towards spiritual root causes, a different interesting argument emerges. It goes like this;

  1. The church, their one in particular, is a real threat to Satan
  2. Therefore he tries to discredit it from the inside
  3. He tempts many pastors and clerics with sexual sin, and of course some fall
  4. Does this attack of the Devil not prove that Pastors are his special servants?

You better be careful with that line. Anyone could go out, spend a night in a bordello, and then say they were the subject of above average temptation - which proves they must be spiritually important.

Much has been said about compensation for the victims of abuse, who must spend the rest of their lives living with this background. I personally know of several scenarios like this, and they are devastating. I cannot in any way claim to fully understand their pain, or offer any solutions. I just know that lives, young lives, get blighted and families and beliefs are ruined because of it. It is heartbreaking.

So I am going to put a little word in here instead for the perpetrators. Many churches turn against them, send them hate mail, ensure their wives file for divorce, make them leave town, find out he was also embezzling funds, declare he was never a Christian in the first place etc. Again this falls into the camp of distancing our good souls from their evil ones.

I have heard of individuals who forgive however. Personally. And go see him, and keep in touch. I mean the poor guy loses everything, his credibility, his job, his purpose, his family. Do you think he doesn't end up with a few regrets? I know I risk a reader saying, oh you've avoided the sufferers. True, but it was a plug for mercy.

And now I want to get onto the global topic. Briefly, because I only have questions.

First point is, if it is just coming public now, is it a recent phenomena, or has it been going on for centuries? Twentieth century, or maybe ever since clerics have been around?

Second one is, what about Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism. Is this a Western world problem? In our Political Correctness, we have to say how wonderful other religions are these days, especially ones that breed terrorists and suicide bombers. I better not climb too far from that trail, but I do wonder why we don't hear about sexual abuse cases amongst the clergy of that faith.

There is undoubtedly a simple answer, if only I was to ask the guys who run Islam - there are no cases. Okay, I'm gone, I'm out of here.

Third point and back to the West. The church is getting caned, for sure. However, so are university lecturers, Presidents, executives and senior managers. Do you know why? I need a new paragraph here for emphasis.

When we mention the non-clerics, then it comes out it's a power problem. People in power abuse their authority, and power applied to sex = abuse. I reckon they're right. Not only for laymen straying, but for the clergy as well. It's a power problem. Oh! A power problem. Not an electric power problem, but a power and authority problem. Gee, I'm back on my favourite topic. Jesus had no power, but the Church seeks it. And what happens when you have power - you abuse it.

And you know what's coming now. As long as the institutional church supports it's power structures, problems like this one of sexual abuse will surface. Like weeds growing everywhere. As long as the Pastor up front asks people to submit to him, misuse of power will occur. As long as the Pastor insists on being called "Pastor Mike" he is supporting the use of power in a church setting.

Will the church drop it's hold on power and authority? No, in fact it is just using power and authority to try and clean up it's act. This little contradiction might not make sense at first, so I will reword it. If sexual sins are a power problem, then it says something about the wielding of power. But we always expect powerful men to clean up a power problem. In fact we, you and I, are ultimately the ones putting these guys in charge.

Yet we all claim to follow one who didn't use worldly power.

I realise the topic comes from a well known phrase. The Media is the Message. Basically this means that it doesn't matter so much what is said, as to how it is said. Imagine the following scene; the white robed choir boys have finished their aria, and the candles have been lit, and two rousing hymns have been sung, and the notices read out about the celebration of Lent, and all done in the glorious echoes of a steepled church architecture. Then the white robed bespectacled middle aged, balding Minister steps up to the pulpit and preaches an absolute cracker of a sermon with spot on spiritual content.

Unfortunately everyone listening was lulled into the wrong frame of mind. And they don't hear what was said. Instead, they experience the ambience of the delivery. The media. They go home having felt good about being in church. By the next Sunday, 98% of them can't recall what was said a week previously.

It's true. Once this mate of mine asked me to go with him to church one Sunday morning when we were on this course together in another country. Turns out he was a Catholic. Now I had not been to that many Catholic churches in my life. So I said, "Sure, lets go". I sat at the back trying to merge in, and the service went through a bit of a routine. A family got up to do something together, the songs were great, then the priest gave a sermon. And I tell you, he had some good stuff to say. There was no party line delivered at all. What he had to say was straight down the line. I was impressed.

But I couldn't help noticing that most in the back rows were ignoring him. There was a guy near me reading the newspaper! Not just folded up either. He had both pages wide open, full stretch, and took no care on opening to the next section. Luckily for the priest the comic strips weren't too funny that particular day.

Now just here I had better try and cover my butt. You see it is tricky writing this because people usually come out with one of two immediate reactions; firstly some will say to me, "Oh you are just another Catholic hater"; or else some will shrug, "What else do you expect to find in a Catholic church?" Neither of these responses gets anywhere near the point of this exercise. Knocking the Roman Catholic church is a centuries old tradition of both Protestants and Atheists. Exactly the same conditions exist within all branches of Christendom, whether Roman, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Quaker etc. In fact the same issue can be just as true for an Electric church, or a Pentecostal church, or one of those architectural wonders found in California. The Media overwhelms the message.

Churches everywhere struggle with the sociology of this situation all the time. For example, we were in this traditional church once (many were cold, and some were frozen), but the Minister and the elders couldn't bring themselves to really change much in the flow of the service. The guy gave excellent messages. Absolutely. But little impact because nobody heard them. Nobody was challenged, nor did they want to be challenged. This was the problem. The elders were afraid that if they challenged the congregation, most would up and leave. The congregation was their capital base, to use a business term. And one does not squander ones capital. Instead they had a church full of committees. And everybody was happy. So happy.

Since all the above examples relate to traditional gatherings, and these are always the easiest to criticise, lets look at a modern situation. For a few weeks I went to this Super-church in a large auditorium. So large a church that 1500 people at a time filed in and out five times every Sunday.

The stage was littered with electric guitars, drums, digital pianos, and young men in business suits. The young Pastor (always a "Pastor" for some reason. Never a "Minister") is swarming around continually, grabbing the microphone now and then as the music drags on for at least an hour. Eventually when he judges the moment is correct, he either preaches an emotion packed message (never a "sermon"), or makes an "appeal". While he does this a very serious older man stands with him near the front lifting an obviously holy arm beckoning them down. Preferably he is grey-haired to add authority.

And people go home feeling good for being at church. Next Sunday 98% of them can't recall what was said the previous week. The Media overwhelms the Message.

Significantly, very significantly however, the media, or the ambience, or the environment, or whatever you call it in the above case is closer to the media of the modern world. So, in the opinion of those Pastors, it is not "boring". It is "relevant". You can go there and have your life changed. Every Sunday. Perhaps five times every Sunday if you attend all the services.

Since we have commented on the state of the modern world, let us explore another perspective on this. Namely, the problem of communication in the modern world. Go back a few centuries, and there were far fewer technical means of communicating than there are today. Rather obvious.

No TV, radio, computers, cell-phones, or even daily newspapers. Basically what this meant was that when somebody took the trouble to try and say something, people were so starved of information that they listened. Speaking was such a serious activity that words held value. And silence did too. In the Old Testament story of Job, his friends heard about his predicaments and all travelled to see and console him. When they arrived, they were so shocked they did not say a single word. For seven days!

Let me provide a recent-day analogy. I was with this guy in Africa once who drove around in a truck selling Christian books. He could pull into a village (a village without TV, radio, computers, cell-phones, or even daily newspapers), open up the side of his truck and start talking into his loudspeaker. People would appear from everywhere. The novelty of hearing something, anything in fact, was still strong.

But in the modern telecommunication-oriented world, people have the opposite problem. They have information overload. We send each other data all the time. Whole economies are based on industries just trying to get this data through to people more efficiently. Computer networks are terrible in this regard. You get on a computer-based Office system, and you will find out what I mean. People type up a message and send it around the world, or across the office floor. But with about two extra keystrokes, they can copy ten, twenty, a hundred extra people on the same message. If one hundred people read that thirty-second message, nearly one man hour in total of work time is consumed.

So people stop reading all this stuff that flows over their desk or past their computer screens. Rather they attempt to sort out what is important, and what is not. If you are marketing million dollar deals to Chief Executives, you only have one page to get their attention. And it better have a colour chart. Education courses are run on how to get this message across to these guys. As the marketers get more effective, the same trainers turn around and teach the recipients how to discern quickly between valuable and worthless information.

It's getting out of hand. Pretty soon it won't be acceptable to just send someone a written message. Do you know what the new wave of communication might be? Multimedia. A combination of video, still photos, music, and computer power. The way things are going with Multimedia, you will need to deliver a personal video message with musical sound effects, and background still shots in order to simply tell someone that the budget reports are due in tomorrow. Otherwise you won't get your point across. Nobody will have heard your attempt to communicate over the incessant chatter of data in its multitude of modern forms.

What am I getting at? Simply this. No longer is it adequate to just say something, and expect that it is heard. Modern media wants excitement delivered with the message. It wants an environment. The father of media studies, Marshall McLuhan, pointed out the difference between hot and cool media. Newspapers are a "hot" media because you have to get involved in the newspaper to get anything out of it. You have to read it. But television is a "cool" media. You don't have to do anything. It's message comes out at you. You don't have to go get it. You just sit there. And guess what? Predictably, human beings prefer cool media. Just plain laziness I reckon.

I realise this particular topic throws open the whole question of why today's youth can't read and write but this is not my point. My point is still back with the sermon being delivered using time honoured methods. Standing at the front, and lecturing. Amidst disciplined quiet. This message is delivered to a people increasingly accustomed to a zappy media, to excitement, to stimulation. They expect wall surround videos, quadraphonic sound, colour graphs. Instead they just get words. Sometimes not even impassioned words. The preacher might be like Paul in the New Testament. A great writer, but not that challenging a speaker. How could such a sermon compete with Multimedia? Unlikely baby, as the man would say.

So what do you do? Well, shucks, take on Multimedia. Get into "Christian Television" or "Christian Radio" or, heaven forbid, "Christian Multimedia". Make your message relevant to the society we live in. Give it to them how they want it, how they expect other messages to get delivered to them. Make it an experience. Turn the preaching of the gospel into a disco. The crowds will pour in. You will be a great success. You could then write a book on church growth in the modern world. (This could be a facetious paragraph by the way.)

You know something? After pondering this through I am starting to think that the best way to communicate with people is sit and listen to them, person to person, friend to friend. That is one media that has the potential for love to be involved. Funny thing is, Pastors talk about this method of communication all the time. But they return to their main job of preaching from the front - with multimedia.

If you want a sociology lesson in power, one easy method is to sit in a church pew on Sunday mornings. We all know that historically the Church has an awful lot to answer for in the wrongful use of authority, and many write off the cumbersome older institutions. But if you look at the modern clerics, I don't know that anything much has changed. Like many things in western society it looks smoother and friendlier, but the underpinnings of being told what to do are all still there.

The electric churches, full of rock bands and signs and wonders every Sunday, have a mixture of social and spiritual techniques. The professional pastor gets up and lays a message of his choosing on everyone. Naturally he invokes God on his side to buttress his advice, and, being a follower of the motivation school, he is certain to smile his way round the flock at coffee afterwards.

Even so, what's the problem? Initially, nothing at all. These people provide good community services. They advise and counsel and fix up many personal and family issues. Drug addicts are turned into youth leaders. The church occupies an extremely useful social function that outshines any government committee on social welfare. But it can't seem to get beyond the fix-up issue with its people. It has trouble with the maturity stakes, and can't recognise that it unwittingly has a power and dependency syndrome permeating it. This factor causes even the most modern church to lose people. Doesn't matter which denomination. And being a bit of a local and international church junkie, I have covered quite a few denominations.

I have frequently observed people come into a new spiritual experience in Christianity. Suddenly that previously monolithic thing called Christendom is no longer a decrepit old bureaucracy. In an instant, like Paul on the Damascus road, the light breaks through and a life is changed. At this point the new convert can't get enough of church, of prayer, of singing, and if he is lucky, studying the Bible.

After some time he moves to stage two, which is incorporation into the hierarchy. He gets involved in committees. He immediately sees these groups are run worse than company board meetings, and he is exposed to power blocs within the congregation. But most people don't have a problem with this for some reason. They reconcile this parody of human behaviour quite happily, even though it is supposed to be guided by higher ways. At this stage, and I repeatedly see it, any final guidance or word on anything, has to be approved by the pastor. Even an interpretation on a tricky passage in the Bible. If there is a dispute, phone him. He is in closer touch with God, after all.

Many don't reach stage three. This is the awkward phase when you understand a little of the marvellous freedom of Christianity, but also see that the church is just another institution run along exactly the same sociological lines. Stage three is the dangerous one because of your options.

Firstly you can live in two worlds. Plenty of Christians do this. They can't let go of their faith, so they compartmentalise their lives. They are frustrated with the fact that the sociologically analysable church is the major expression of Christianity in the world. But they see it as the best available option for introducing their kids to the gospel. So they keep going, and check their brains in at the door.

A second option is to simply drop out. I am told there are more people leaving evangelical churches than joining. I certainly know some in this category, people whose lives were changed, and then after some time looked up and saw the same old marionette strings of power and authority influencing their lives. Out went the baby with the bath water.

Or thirdly, there are some who are convinced that their calling is to work in Christianity "full-time" and become a man of ... sorry, a person of the cloth. They join the system.

And finally, some reject the power syndrome and run what are called "house churches". No clergy present. In these house churches, people really get to know their Bibles, because they don't have an expert to tell them what it says. It's true. House church people know the basic book of Christianity far better than those in any outfit led by a professional.

Now here's the interesting thing. Many pastors would agree with all the above. They know the dependency syndrome is there, but they don't know what to do about it. They want their people to be independent thinkers. At least they tell me they do. But they won't go public with this knowledge. They fear their congregations couldn't handle it. They can't see their church surviving without a professional leader. And the congregation, mostly in stage two above, cannot conceive of it either. Therefore the structure perpetuates itself.

Of course there are also plenty of modern clerics who don't agree with the above, and get people to prefix their own name with the word 'Pastor'. Exactly the same as the crusty clerics we are meant to call 'Father' or 'Reverend'. Give me strength!

This is intriguing because Jesus repeatedly got stuck into the church leaders of his day, and always went public with repeated condemnations of authority. St Paul started churches and then left them after a year or two. Even though those churches had many problems, he went anyway, so they could discover their maturity. In most cases, he wrote just a single letter back to each of them.

But not today. Pastors can't seem to do it. Their people are still dependent on them. A growing spiritual freedom leads to frustration, capitulation, or dropping out, and each census year, the statistics show a decline in attendance.

Traditional authority in the west is declining, something long overdue since the wars of this century woke us to the folly of those in power. Unfortunately the churches cannot handle this decline, even despite its predicted demise in the Bible. In fact they blame society's ills on a lack of authority, pointing back to some golden mythical age, another thing the Bible warns against.

In the third world the church is on the grow, understandably because the message of Christianity has obvious answers in that context. Corruption, blatant injustice and warfare are things you can stand up against and be counted. I personally knew two missionaries who worked for more than twenty years in a corrupt African country, and who died in a hail of bullets. The lines of good and evil are at least simpler to see. The gospel thrives there and brings change to lives. Our Western clerics understandably try and find answers in the successful church growth models of those nations, and end up bringing people here like Yonggi Cho from Korea, who runs a church of 700,000. Undoubtedly the guy is great, but the East is not yet at the point of dealing with the questioning of authority. Their issues are different from ours. After living five years in Asia, I think I can safely say that generally they accept power structures. They are fascinated by our parliamentarians antics, and cannot figure out why Pauline Hanson wasn't thrown into prison.

Our western response is either to rely on the antiquated centrally-driven churches, including the big global one where they speak Latin. Or to develop modern versions using the same sociological principles, only they speak Oprah. And both are in trouble.

You see, here in the West, nobody quite knows what to do. Because it can't be done. Institutions do not dismantle themselves.

[Home] [Back]