Is Organised Religion Inherently Abusive?

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of the General Synod
Rosie Haarper

Time to think about General Synod. I always find it a very complex experience, and working through last week has been made even more challenging because of the Oxfam issue. The actress Minnie Driver resigned as an Oxfam Ambassador not because of the abuse that has been happening which she named as abhorrent, but because of the way the Oxfam failed to respond adequately. Their deputy chief executive Penny Laurence resigned saying that she was ashamed and took full responsibility.

So I have to face the scary question: Is it right to stay within the  institution of a church which treats its weakest with such disdain?

In his excellent booklet ‘We asked for Bread but you gave us Stones’  Andrew Graystone quotes our Archbishop: ‘The silencing of abuse victims is itself a form of abuse as bad if not worse than the first betrayal’. Yet, on Saturday morning we were given a presentation which began with edited quotes from survivors some of whom were sitting in the gallery and were more than capable of speaking for themselves and could quite easily have been invited to do so. We then heard how much more brown stuff was going to come our way in the next months, and how we now have upgraded process and resource to meet these challenges. It was admitted that the bit we hadn’t yet got right was the response to survivors. I sincerely believe Archbishop Justin when he says ‘The victims are the people we care about most. They really, really matter.’ The truth is that we are nowhere near making that the way we actually respond.

What if it is impossible? More than that. What if the whole idea of The Church of England as a spiritual rather than a cultural institution is smoke and mirrors?

When you walk round Church House during Synod its very quickly apparent that there is no such thing as ‘General Synod’. It’s a collection of different groups and individuals who form coalitions of convenience  on certain issues and will go back to their home churches and do pretty much what they want to do anyway. I sometimes sit next to people whose God is so radically different that I am not at all sure it’s the same God.

As part of national identity the Church of England still resonates, and we have Royal weddings and babies on the way, but I wonder how things will change with the death of the Queen. Our historic buildings of course and the glory of a special but niche form of Church music are culturally deep, but can you organize what goes on in people’s hearts?

The response from the Evangelical Alliance to the recent CDM judgement on Tim Davis which upheld allegations of spiritual abuse shines a light on this. There is a way of doing organized religion where the leaders feel entitled to tell people they don’t even know how God wants them to live their lives. Even if you thought God worked in that way, the potential for confusing your own opinions with those of God is vast and has often led to abuse.

It’s been nagging at me over the past few months. Is there something inherently abusive about organized, institutional religion?

Think of the philosophical illustration about the Prince and the peasant girl. He fell in love with her, but disguised himself as a peasant because he knew that the only love he wanted from her was that freely given. He could not and would not order her to love him. Once organized religion moves from the functional and cultural it steps into a space in  people’s life of faith where power and control have no right to be. Worse than that we start making judgments about the depth and validity of other people’s faith.

Jesus related to people through acts of love and through open questions. His tough words are mostly reserved for the professional guardians of the faith.

The antidote to General Synod  for me is to get back to the local. People pitch up for all sorts of reasons and I don’t judge any of them. People share their stories of faith if they choose to and help each other along the way. They are bound together by friendship and acts of kindness far more than by theology, and so they find God far more though love than through judgement.

That is how I answer the question about staying. Sit light to the institutional stuff but try to help, and hold the local and personal as most precious.

This entry was posted in Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is Organised Religion Inherently Abusive?

  1. jatclat says:

    Interesting post, Rosie. My father, a 1930s Anglo-Catholic priest and member of Forward in Faith, argued that all rural deans should be made bishops and all offices above that should be abolished. I have some sympathy with it.


  2. Mish says:

    People feeling abandoned by the church have themselves abandoned the church, and those that are left ask where everybody has gone. Ironic.

    If only we could deal with the state in the same way – at least we have the power to render the institutional church irrelevant & meaningless by leaving, but an abusive state cannot be abandoned in the same way.

    As long as the church is an instrument of power and authority, it will abuse. It is the nature of power, and as soon as you set one person above another, there is an imbalance in the relation of power, that in some instances will be abused, even unwittingly.

    What is needed is an ecclesiastic revolution, overthrowing bishops, declaring a religious republic, with allegiance to no monarch or state authority. But, the opportunity for doing so was lost around the 17th Century, and now the rebels are free to vote with their feet, thank goodness.


  3. Daniel Berry, NYC says:

    Agree with Mish: to the degree that the church is “organized,” i.e., has a power structure, it will be abusive, because it’s in the nature of power structures to do whatever they have to do, including sacrifice whomever they have to, in order, at the very least, to maintain their status quo. Doesn’t matter what kind of organization it is either: an oil company, an international relief agency, a university or a small evangelical sect will all behave in exactly the same way to preserve themselves. So while it’s no longer permissible (thanks to the birth of the ethos of the modern state) for churches to subject “heretics” to the rack, churches continue to strip dissenting clergy of position and of their legitimately earned retirement monies. And because the church bureaucratic here in hell believes itself to be, somehow, a divine agency, it still has an astonishing capacity for congratulating itself for its egregiously evil behavior.


  4. Pingback: Is Organised Religion Inherently Abusive? | Kiwianglo's Blog

  5. I do not think that organised religion is inherently abusive. Hierarchical religion is more open to question because different activities and seniority may include a certain isolation. In a canon law church there is conduct is beyond hierarchy and there are constraints. Related factors include the intuitive capacity and appropriately training to handle a pastoral relationship. I used to work in a very good Public School. Difference related to role and age was assumed but there was plenty of friendship as well. There were few specified rules plenty of intuition and humour that offered a safeguard to the intuitive who understood the unsaid. Organised religion needs imaginative teaching and pastoral relationships that involve being careful without obsession. Skills can be acquired, intuition is a kind of gift. It is an interesting question though a prescriptive answer is not easy. Perhaps it would be in the area of saying that law is probably better than rules alone, though intuition interprets both. It probably tempers emotion too.


  6. John Doez says:

    I would ask, what is the thing that makes abuse possible? It comes down to authority.
    Authority enables abuse in two ways. Firstly, by subordinating one person to another. Secondly, by preventing whistleblowing.
    Nicholas Berdyaev said God is power, not authority.
    But how can an organisation in this world operate without authority? It is impossible. It would collapse and anarchy prevail, as was the experience of the seventeenth century.
    Can the circle then be squared? Is safe-guarding enough? It should certainly help.
    But the church is the body of Jesus. And that body suffered on the cross.
    A church which does not suffer inevitably gets drawn into the power-politics of the world and develops the capacity for abuse.
    If you are looking for the true church, you will find it wherever Christians are living out their faith by suffering for it, in parts of Russia, China and the Middle-East. You will find no abuse among those Christians.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s