Years ago, I was introduced to one of the “new” Anglican churches in Wheaton, Illinois. I loved the liturgy and the seriousness with which they practiced the sacraments. I found a similar church in Raleigh and thought I might join it one day when I left the SBC. But, as I have said in my story, I was told I needed to *reconcile* with my SBC pastor over the child abuse mess. To top it off, I spotted another well-known pedophile the second week I attended the church. He had just been released from prison and I was concerned about the access he had as I observed him running around. But the pastor said he was “just fine and not a problem.” This was after 30 years of history.
I thought this Anglican church would understand abuse. After all, they left The Episcopal Church when that denomination made it impossible to stay. They were treated poorly. Surely, I thought, they will treat me well when I explain the abuse I experienced by exposing the issues surrounding a bunch of teens who were molested by a SEBTS seminary student. However, the institutional friendship between an SBC church and an Anglican church trumped the pain of a nobody. (I hadn’t begun blogging yet but it happened right after this happened.)
I left that church in tears and began my years of wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness. Thankfully, I found a Lutheran church that held similar values to the conservative Anglicans. I did see a difference almost immediately. I noticed that the Lutheran pastors made sure that we understood they were “one of us.” In other words, they sin and fail like the rest of us. They live that out in the humble and kind demeanor with which they relate members (and visitors) of the church.
I continued to follow the “goings-on” in the ACNA and other similar Anglican groups. I was surprised by the constant infighting of the various factions. I kept trying to figure out how such a new group of churches could get so mad at one another. At this time, there is disagreement as to whether or not women can serve as clergy. Some allow this, others do not. Some Anglican churches believe that this difference constitutes “impaired communion” (I so love religious jargon. It sounds spiritual, doesn’t it?)
According to Wikipedia:
Bishop Jack Iker, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth—one of the founding members of ACNA—on 4 November 2017 announced that his diocese was in impaired communion with the ACNA dioceses that ordained women. He said: “Most ACNA bishops and dioceses are opposed to women priests, but as it presently stands, the ACNA Constitution says each diocese can decide if it will ordain women priests or not. We now need to work with other dioceses to amend the Constitution to remove this provision”. He continued:
We are in a state of impaired communion because of this issue. The Task Force concluded that “both sides cannot be right.” At the conclave, I informed the College of Bishops that I will no longer give consent to the election of any bishop who intends to ordain female priests, nor will I attend the consecration of any such bishop-elect in the future. I have notified the Archbishop of my resignation from all the committees to which I had been assigned to signify that it is no longer possible to have “business as usual” in the College of Bishops due to the refusal of those who are in favor of women priests to at least adopt a moratorium on this divisive practice, for the sake of unity. Bishops who continue to ordain women priests in spite of the received tradition are signs of disunity and division.
What the ACNA is/believes.
Sexual abuse in the ACNA
For a review of the allegations of abuse in the ACNA, please refer to this page on the #ACNAtoo website. There are apparently a number of allegations of abuse in this newly minted denomination. I wrote about this in The Anglican Diocese of the Upper Midwest Was Outplayed by #ACNAtoo and Is Finally Forced to Deal With Abuse Victims in Their Midst.
Recently there have been further allegations: Former ACNA Lay Pastor Charged with Additional Sexual Assault Felonies
However, for this post, I want to explore spiritual abuse, which the ACNA types call spiritual hazing. It seems to be just one more, ho-hum denomination that has harmed its members in this manner.
It appears that the formation of this denomination as a “biblical” response to The Episcopal Church hasn’t turned out so well for its members. Back in 2019, I spied a problem that was occurring in the conservative wing of the Church of England in It’s Time for the Conservative, Evangelical Wing of the Church of England to Get Up to Speed in Dealing With Abuse #Istandwithfletchersvictims
In a video, you will hear one of those leaders in the evangelical branch of the COE, Gavin Ashenden, deny that spiritual abuse is a thing.
He is the man to the right in the video. He believes that there is no such thing as spiritual abuse although I think he would say that abuse has a spiritual component. He wrote a post on the matter There is no such thing as ‘spiritual abuse’ which was published in Virtue Online.
In the Virtue Online article, Ashenden claimed:
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.
I understand his point but…anything spiritual can be misused. To say that the following is not “spiritual abuse’ appears naive to me.
Here is an example. #ACNAtoo posted Judy Dabler, Matthew 18, and the Silencing of Survivors in the Church
On November 16th, 2021, Christianity Today broke an unexpected story on a largely unknown character: Judy Dabler. You’ve probably never heard of Dabler before (I certainly hadn’t). Yet Dabler has long been known in certain circles as a leading advocate and practitioner of “conciliation,” a process that claims to use Matthew 18 as a “biblical basis to pursue reconciliation.” She’s been brought in to prominent organizations such as Ravi Zacharias Ministries and Mars Hill Church, as well as dozens of other churches, and has offered training to over “10,000 people on how to pursue conciliation.” Yet unfortunately, the recent report by Christianity Today has unearthed an extensive array of condemning testimony. Rather than “biblical,” Christianity Today’s report concludes that Dabler was far more often wielding her model to be manipulative, coercive, and controlling in favor of those already in the position of greater power.
As Christianity Today reports: “In her conciliation work, though, Dabler consistently favored the person paying the bills, siding with the leader or big-name institution. Again and again, interviews and documents obtained by CT show, it was the less powerful party—the victim of sexual harassment, the beleaguered employee, the hurt congregant—who was pressured to make confessions they weren’t comfortable with and settle for agreements they thought were unfair.”
In other words, Dabler misused Matthew 18 in order to silence those whose views were an *inconvenience.” Instead, according to #ACNAtoo:
Second, congregants need to stop using Matthew 18 as a means to silence those who are making accusations against those in authority. Matthew 18 is not intended as a “one size fits all” model for handling disputes. It cannot be a Procrustean bed into which we force all our ministry and organizational disputes, let alone accusations of sexual or spiritual abuse. Instead, as report after report detail: pastors, particularly those at the head of larger organizations, have vested interest and organizational means to protect themselves from any allegation of misconduct. Even worse, in most instances of sexual or spiritual abuse in particular, the survivor of abuse has already walked some version of the “Matthew 18 model” where they first privately, and then in meditation sought to address their grievances, only to discover a system of self-protection surrounding their abuser.
When they then “go public” by sharing their story through social or traditional media, and frustrated congregants condemn them as “not following Matthew 18,” it is not the survivor’s lack of biblical commitment, but the congregation’s lack of willingness to consider the grievances that have been charged to their pastor. This does not mean that a pastor once accused should automatically be assumed guilty. But it does suggest that congregations need to become more “biblical” in seeing conflict, allegations, and abuse more broadly outside of a Matthew 18 lens.
For those of us involved in dealing with abuse in the church, spiritual abuse is all too common. In my discussion with Gavin Ashenden and friends, I firmly defended the presence of spiritual abuse. They were pleasant.
Religion News wrote In troubled ACNA church, alleged ‘spiritual hazing’ pressured members to conform
Hence this article was no surprise to me. I was glad that RNS revealed what appears to be spiritual abuse or spiritual hazing as they called it. I really like the term. This article involves incidents at the Church of the Resurrection, aka “The Rez.”
It was Rez’s combination of charismatic preaching and dramatic liturgy with priests wearing traditional robes and reading from the Book of Common Prayer that attracted the Perrines. But they found that the evangelical-Episcopal culture came with severe requirements to conform.
“The more you become involved in leadership, the more you’re encouraged to distrust anything outside of Rez’s orbit,” said former Rez parishioner Whitney Harrison. “There is a kind of blind submission to authority present at Rez that, in my understanding of the broader Anglican world, is not standard.”
According to Harrison, only those willing to submit to authority were invited into church leadership.
An anonymous former parishioner said, “I remember thinking, this is starting to feel a little bit more like a, I don’t want to say personality cult, but more of a rallying around a particular leader, in this case (Bishop) Stewart’s charisma.”
Former members also said church leaders pressured them to stay in abusive relationships, subjected them to conversion therapy and denied them leadership positions for voicing criticism. They describe a culture of censorship and controlling behavior, all packaged in overtly spiritual language.
It appears Bishop Ruch Stewart, a key figure in this mess, speaks for The Holy Spirit.
Former church members say the allegations are an indictment of an authoritarian culture that originated with Ruch.
“There’s this emphasis on the supernatural that enforces specifically the authority of Bishop Stewart in his position of speaking for the Holy Spirit,” said Harrison. “Whether deliberately or not, it is set up to support the idea that Bishop Stewart is the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit to this church.”
One couple tried to understand a decision in which they were not chosen for a position. It appears to me that they were attacked instead of supported and understood.
In a follow-up meeting at the Ruchs’ house, Stewart Ruch allegedly instructed John to apologize to Damiani for questioning his decision, suggested John was idolizing church planting and said he and Jenna were too dependent on one another in their marriage. Ruch did not address the Perrine’s concerns about the hiring decision.
Does the bishop have unlimited authority? Does this lead naturally to abuse?
RNS posted With abuse allegations, conservative Anglican diocese faces questions about structure subtitled: ACNA’s Upper Midwest Diocese, where the abuse allegations have taken place, places few checks and balances on the bishop’s authority.
Complicating matters, ACNA has both geographic dioceses — such as the Diocese of the Upper Midwest — and dioceses formed according to churches’ theological stances, such as on the affirmation of women’s ordination.
As a result, dioceses sometimes overlap. Wheaton, Illinois, a Chicago suburb where the formation of ACNA was first announced in 2008, is home to ACNA churches from three ACNA dioceses — the Upper Midwest Diocese, Pittsburgh and Churches for the Sake of Others.
Each diocese has its own set of governance rules. In the Pittsburgh and Churches for the Sake of Others dioceses, there is more shared leadership. The Upper Midwest Diocese, where the abuse allegations have taken place, places few checks and balances on the bishop’s authority.
“On paper, no matter what personalities are filling these roles, there are significant structural flaws that could lead to conflicts of interest. The person with the most spiritual gravity might dominate,” said Aaron Harrison, an ACNA priest in the Wheaton area who is affiliated with the #ACNAtoo advocacy group. “The bishop, per the Constitutions and Canons, enjoys an enormous amount of unitary power.”
Part of the denomination’s response to the accusations in the Upper Midwest Diocese will be to name a group of ACNA representatives to examine the diocese’s overall structure, which has been criticized in the wake of Ruch’s leave of absence.
The final question: Is it merely about the rules and regulations of a diocese or the personality of one bishop or is it somewhat darker and deeper?
I think far too many enter the pastorate in order to get authority over their church members. the love being admirals in rowboats. They believe that they hear directly from God and therefore it’s their way or the highway. They run roughshod over the members. They lack the humility to see that they are “one of us.” They are not one of us. They believe that they are wiser and more spiritual than the riff-raff. They hear from God. We nobodies can’t understand such gifting.It really involves hubris, doesn’t it/
Jeremiah 6:14 says that men like this:
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
They look really good in their robes and fancy headgear but they may be taking themselves far too seriously. The robes merely help cover the ugliness of those who are bringing pain to those who seek to follow Him.
“What if the bishop was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?”
(Fractured lyrics from What if God was one of us.)