Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Evangelical Alliance criticises "spiritual abuse" language

The Evangelical Alliance has issued a report Reviewing the discourse of ‘Spiritual Abuse’. There is a press release about this:

New report is critical of the term ‘Spiritual Abuse’ as well intended, but not fit for purpose.

A new report that highlights the risks associated with adopting the vague and incoherent terminology of ‘Spiritual Abuse’ has been released today by the Evangelical Alliance. The term ‘Spiritual Abuse’ may be well intended, but it is not fit for purpose.

Produced by the Evangelical Alliance Theology Advisory Group (TAG), the report outlines how ‘Spiritual Abuse’ is a seriously problematic term because of its own inherent ambiguity, and because attempts by some to embed it within statutory safeguarding discourse and secular law would be unworkable in practice, potentially discriminatory towards religious communities, and damaging to inter-faith relations…

There is also an Executive Summary available here.

The document references several other pieces of work, including:

All of this is significant in the context of the recently reported Church of England case in the Diocese of Oxford: Priest found guilty of spiritual abuse.

Christian Today has reported the Evangelical Alliance story thus:
Evangelical Alliance rubbishes ‘spiritual abuse’ language: It could ‘criminalise’ conservative teaching on sexuality.

Jayne Ozanne is quoted in that report, responding to the criticism of her paper (linked above). Her full quote in response to the EA criticism is as follows.

“I am deeply perplexed, as I’m sure others will be, as to why the Evangelical Alliance have seen fit to effectively dismiss the concept of Spiritual Abuse, rather than looking to work constructively with victims to create a safer and more caring Church. Their report contains various unfounded claims, which feed the notion that certain parts of the Church are under threat from secular society. Assertions such as “the use of Spiritual Abuse terminology has proliferated in such a way that its further use risks damage to fundamental freedoms of religious thought, expression and assembly” are at best defensive, and at worst scaremongering. In addition, I do not believe my paper has been fairly or accurately characterised and would urge people to read it for themselves.’

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Tuesday, 6 February 2018 at 3:40pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

I agree with the concerns of the EA here. I find the language of 'spiritual abuse' unhelpfully vague. What defines it? It could mean almost anything - including a strong opinion offered in a sermon that someone in the pew finds unsettling? The issue actually about the 'abuse of spiritual power'. This needs more carefully defining. And it is a serious abuse. I am not sure Jayne Ozanne and other have heard the concern here.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Tuesday, 6 February 2018 at 5:43pm GMT

I've had a good read through this and the posting by Anna Norman-Walker. It might be that what we, in the church, call spiritual abuse would be classes as emotional abuse in other walks of life. I say this having looked at what has been posted here and elsewhere, while looking at our schools safeguarding materials. Would the EA prefer this term? Emotional abuse, along with coercive behaviour is potentially actionable - and that really does open Pandora's box.

Posted by: Lavinia Nelder on Tuesday, 6 February 2018 at 5:46pm GMT

I think I'm with the Evangelical Alliance on this one (a rare occurrence). The priest from Abingdon who was recently found guilty of 'abuse of spiritual power' was clearly (on the basis of the reports) guilty of breaching safeguarding procedures, and of emotional and psychological abuse of a vulnerable teenager, and one would have thought these categories would have been adequate to ensure his dismissal. So it's not clear to me why it's helpful to categorise this as 'spiritual abuse'. If 'spiritual abuse' just means emotional and psychological abuse that occurs in a religious context or with a religious justification, do we need a category of 'educational abuse' (for example) to describe emotional and psychological abuse that happens within a boarding school? Or 'military abuse' to describe what goes on in the army? What does it add?

The way gay people are treated in some religious contexts or cultures is undoubtedly emotionally and psychologically abusive. But I'm struggling to think of instances of 'spiritual abuse' that would not be adequately described by talking about bullying, coercion, and intimidation; and appealing to safeguarding, or the categories of emotional or psychological abuse. 'Spiritual abuse' is just too ambiguous a term.

Posted by: Revd Dr Charles Clapham on Tuesday, 6 February 2018 at 7:29pm GMT

Further to previous comments, I suppose it seems to me more helpful to talk about emotional and psychological abuse because this ensures a focus on the emotional and psychological impact of abuse on the individual, in a way which is open to some kind of objective(-ish) therapeutic assessment. But the language of 'spiritual abuse' focuses on the motivation or justifications given by the abuser, and is far less quantifiable: what some see as 'spiritual abuse', others will see as normative religion. Richard Dawkins (no doubt) will think we are all 'spiritually abused'. It's rather like trying to determine what constitutes a 'cult', or the loose talk sometimes about religious groups involved in 'love-bombing' or 'brainwashing'. One understands the phenomena being described, but this sort of language isn't nuanced enough to help identify exactly what is going on. Better surely (and especially in a legal context) to place emphasis on assessing the emotional or psychological impact of abuse on individuals, which can (in at least some way) be evaluated or measured, rather than the religious motivation that lies behind it.

Posted by: Revd Dr Charles Clapham on Tuesday, 6 February 2018 at 8:28pm GMT

At present I think I would stay with the term 'spiritual abuse', but agree that we should work on defining it more carefully. It does include emotional and psychological abuse - and, in rare cases, physical abuse too. But it also includes abuse of someone's spiritual life.

20 years ago I completed my MPhil on 'Charismatic Healing Techniques and the Sexual Abuse Survivor', and I'm currently engaged in bringing this research up to date. I was rather surprised to find, when I looked again at my thesis, that I had used the term 'spiritual abuse' then. I didn't think I had encountered it until the recent case.

But looking at what is happening now, with Ellel, Sozo, and other 'ministries', 'spiritual abuse' does seem the appropriate term. (If anyone has more information and believes they are not abusive, please get in touch.) To take a person's spiritual longings and instincts and use them to exert power over that person is abusive. To offer someone a closer relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then say, 'God has told me x, y, z about you', or 'you have let demons into your life', is abusive. I think to term it emotional or psychological abuse is to imply that spirituality is the same as emotion or psychology. They are closely bound up together, of course, but spirituality is more than that.

This is going to be an interesting and valuable discussion and I look forward to it developing over the next few years.

Posted by: Janet Fife on Wednesday, 7 February 2018 at 9:45am GMT

It would seem to me that, at best, "spiritual abuse" could only be a subject of disciplinary action WITHIN a particular religious tradition. Otherwise, basic concept of what constitutes "spiritual" would be perennially up-for-grabs."Emotional abuse" would seem to be a far more universal term.

And, that said: using religious texts and doctrines to commit emotional abuse IS rampant. Just last night, I watched a documentary wherein a young (less than 18) Trans woman from a religious family was being forced to keep her hair short. Her friends had to hold a carwash to fund her Trans-appropriate medical care! It was abundantly evident how much she was suffering emotional abuse [I'm less concerned w/ this woman's family, however, than whomever was spiritually controlling *them*. IMO, they were committing the greater abuse.]

Posted by: JCF on Thursday, 8 February 2018 at 5:34am GMT
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