Wednesday 18 December 2019

On the abuses of the sincere

I was talking to a close friend last night about people she's seen doing literal simony, because that's the sort of thing we talk about, and it moved on to how sincerity is not a barrier to abuse.

So, the famous psychic I'm writing about who got caught cheating his phenomena (and kept getting caught cheating) is particularly interesting, for example, because he made a point of never earning a penny for his work (he made his actual living from owning a grocer's shop, what my American friends would call a general store), and the more interesting question becomes why? Why would you do that? Somehow it moves to a place where fraud comes from motivations we don't expect or assume.

When I was a student, I worked for six months in the office of a church. You have to understand that I was still essentially a kid, and having endured years of abuse in more than one sphere of my life, I was not good at standing up for myself, and I needed the money, and the job was... suboptimal.

Anyway, so the minister was hugely popular. Part of the evangelical circuit in the UK at the time, he namedropped Christian celebrities like you would not believe. He packed 'em in, filled out the hitherto dusty and unused balconies of the church, twice every Sunday. Every week was a big celebration. And he saw people come and like 100% genuine give their lives to Jesus.

He used to do this thing where he would get everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads, and he would say, if you want to make a commitment, if you feel God has moved you, raise your hand, and it's OK, no one else will see you, and you can come to talk to me or one of the people we have up front. And people did. You'd hear him say, “Yes, I see you, yes, thank you, come talk to me.”

One day, while working for him on another literally impossible task (sorting hundreds of OHP transparencies for sermons according to their relevance to Bible texts that weren't written on the slides), he freely volunteered that this was a sham, that at least the first two were there “to help give the Spirit a nudge”, to loosen up the people who weren't sure.

He couldn't see why I should be horrified at this.

I remember bumping into one of his acolytes while waiting for a bus outside the Rhyddings a few days after he told me this, who buzzed and bounced and told me how excited she was that six people had been saved that week, and how I knew with a grim sinking feeling that telling her it was probably two or three at best was not going to be kind or helpful.

He wasn't one for self reflection either. He exploited me, refusing to pay me more than half wage because I would not say that I was called to the role (literally, because I didn't say God had told me to do it, I was on £2.25 per hour, which was illegal in 1998, and still is at the time of writing, although I am sure the Tories will fix that soon). I was young, and still vulnerable, and still in the thrall of evangelicalism. I convinced myself that as part of the community, I would have done the job for free.

Other things he did are more comical — instructing me to Photoshop wrinkles out of the Deacons' faces on the church website for instance — and telling me to “keep my wits about me and my mind sharp” when he discovered I was going to the Greenbelt festival, which, although very white, very middle class and frankly just a bit Guardian, is what passes for progressive in British Christian circles.

I remember the time he told me, as I was leaving because my daily hours were over, to deliver letters to three other city churches. I said, “OK, how?”

“You've got a motorbike,” he said. I looked blank. “There's your bike, you're the motor.” And so I cycled eleven miles across the city that afternoon, outside of my paid time, because I had been acclimated into thinking that doing this was honouring God. 

He was a dreadful bully, and a manipulator. I gathered up the courage and asked, after three months, if I could be paid my full wage. I remember his flat refusal to do so when I still would not lie about office administration in a church being a divine calling. And I remember the sense of violation and actual unChristian hatred that coursed through every fibre of my being when at the end of the meeting he took me in an unasked bear hug, as if to say it was all right.

It was not. After that I stopped being a cheerful worker. I hung on for another three months, even though it ran my postgraduate work into the ground, because it was all the money I was going to get and you didn't quit these things when it was church, but I flatly refused to do the things he would ask me to do that I thought were wrong. He became as sick of me as I did of him, I think, and we were both relieved when I quit. He left the church shortly after that and the crowds left with him. And no, I don’t think that was down to me.

I was asked to pay tribute to him at his leaving event. I did. I gave an eloquent address, on behalf of the student congregation.

This man's main effect on me was that he decisively cured me of my evangelicalism, although, because I outlasted him at that church by 12 years, it took me a long time to admit that publicly. But it's important, vital even, to point out that this was because of his sincerity, not in spite of it. He was a bully and a manipulator and an abuser (edit: and since posting this, I have learned that I didn't know the half of it), but he believed that his actions were entirely correct, and that civil law only applied to him if he agreed with it. Which, to be fair, is not the preserve of bad people: remember that Anne Frank wasn't the one upholding the law, which, given how terrible things are about to get in this country for refugees, travelling people, disabled people, queer and trans people and poor people in general, is not a hyperbolic comparison.

This man knew he was right. He knew it with a burning certainty, and he wanted to save souls. He had to. And if some laws and moral guidelines needed to be flouted, if he had to ride roughshod over vulnerable and manipulable members of his congregation to bring them into the Kingdom, then it was necessary. This was more than a belief. In his mind, he knew it for a fact.

He was in no way a hypocrite: I am significantly more of a hypocrite than he ever was. He was worse. He was a believer. And he (largely, although rumours persist) lived up to his ideals. Of course he was going to cure me of my evangelicalism. Hypocrites I can deal with. But the believer who will throw you under the bus for their ideology, whatever their take on things, these people repel me, because they are dangerous (and this even includes people I might agree with – Internet progressives are some of the worst people I have ever met for this).

One of the biggest regrets of my adult life is that I never got to call him to account. I never wrote the letter I planned to, calling him to repent in exquisitely pious language, and of course then, in 2017 I heard that he died, and he was widely and sincerely missed, and I wrote about my feelings when it happened, and of course now it’s too late. What would be the point of naming him? What reparations could be exacted? I have no doubt that there are people reading this who will be able to work out who I am talking about and I have no doubt that I will not be believed by some of them.

But I think I need to put it out there, on the public record. It’s instructive. I think there are people who might understand how you wind up in a position like this, and how it affects you, and maybe some of those people need to be told that it’s not their fault.

That's all.