Spiritual abuse and the Church

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There is a growing concern within the Church about spiritual abuse, but what exactly is it, how can you recognise it, and how can we create healthy church cultures to help ensure spiritual abuse is minimised?

Dr Lisa Oakley is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester and chair of the Church of England Task and Finish group for Spiritual Abuse which is developing policy and practice guidance around spiritual abuse.

She delivered a day’s training at Church House, Daresbury, to around 40 church leaders and explained what spiritual abuse is and the impact it has, and equipped delegates with the tools to recognise and respond to it.


Dr Lisa Oakley

According to Dr Lisa Oakley, the terminology is controversial. “I am not wedded to the term spiritual abuse - if someone comes up with better terminology why wouldn’t we want to use it? - but what it is, is a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context. It is a form of psychological and emotional abuse.”

Lisa says: “At its most extreme, spiritual abuse includes the use of scripture. For example, getting people to do things by quoting passages of the Bible. It might involve the idea that God is complicit or the suggestion that this is what God wants to happen, or threats of spiritual consequences: if you don’t do this, you won’t go to heaven. It might also include the notion of divine position, the idea that God put me here so, therefore, you can’t question me. It could include superiority and elitism; we’re the best church, we’ve got the ‘real truth’.”

She says in some of the cases she has come across, there have been some extreme behaviours including someone being pressured into revealing the details of their bank statements to prove they are tithing. Other examples include the use of scripture to control another person.
 


Have you been affected?

Have you been subjected to spiritual abuse? Have you witnessed it at church? If you have a concern, please speak to Pauline Butterfield, Diocesan Safeguarding Officer in the Diocese of Chester.

For further support, contact Replenished, a charity that aims to provide a safe place and space for survivors of spiritual abuse.



The Revd Elaine Chegwin Hall, Vicar at St George’s, Stockport, attended the training at Church House and in recent years has come across people and situations that have been a cause for concern.


The Revd Elaine Chegwin Hall

“I know a woman in her 40s, a passionate Christian and a mother of two children. She had terminal breast cancer. She agreed to go along to a meeting in church where people offered to pray with her. She was not unduly concerned by this. When I met her later, she was highly distressed as the group had made her lie on the floor and they all stood around her. They then proceeded to cast out various demons perceived to be in her body. She was in a vulnerable position physically with her cancer and emotionally as the people towered over her. She didn’t feel in a position to resist, especially as people seem to have good intentions by offering prayer which she consented to, but which escalated into something quite different. She was fearful of going back to that church.”

Elaine herself has been on the receiving end of unwanted advances from people offering healing ministry and prayer and says that often our polite attitude and reluctance to speak allows people to act towards us in a way that can be damaging.

The faith-based context is what makes spiritual abuse distinct from the psychological and emotional abuse of the type reported in other contexts.

However, Dr Lisa Oakley says that spiritual abuse is often found in sexual or physical abuse that happens within a faith-based context. She says: “It would be difficult, but not impossible, to experience sexual abuse in a faith-based context and for there not to be elements of the use of scripture or divine position and for those elements to be a part of that experience.”

It’s perhaps for this reason, more than others, that it is important churchgoers can recognise and respond well to spiritual abuse; the controlling behaviour might be part of the reason why sexual abuse is often not disclosed.

Much of the same principles learned in safeguarding training apply to disclosures of spiritual abuse.

Lisa says: “A good response to any type of disclosure should include a safe place for someone to speak, listening well, and validating the person disclosing the information. Though in addition, I would say it’s important to recognise that this person might be very fearful; they might be used to a situation in which there is a right and wrong answer. Giving people real choices about how they choose to proceed or respond is vital.”

Have you been subjected to spiritual abuse? Have you witnessed it at church? If you have a concern, please speak to Pauline Butterfield, Diocesan Safeguarding Officer in the Diocese of Chester.

For further support, contact Replenished, a charity that aims to provide a safe place and space for survivors of spiritual abuse.
 



About Dr Lisa Oakley

Dr Lisa Oakley completed her PhD in 2009 which looked at understanding the experience of spiritual abuse in the Christian faith in the UK. She has contributed to several books and in 2014 she conducted a ‘Church experience survey’, commissioned by thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS) in which less than a quarter of respondents stated that they had received training on spiritual abuse, and only a third stated their Church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse.

Her work has led to her being invited to Chair the Church of England’s work on spiritual abuse. They hope to develop policy and practice guidance this year and share this with the wider Church thereafter.