Recently I attended a training day on ‘Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults’ run by the Diocese of Southwark. During the course of a discussion on abuse I commented on the fact that the hierarchy seems to give little attention to abusive theology. I noticed a general sharp intake of breath as I spoke and wondered what buttons I had pressed. Later on I raised the matter with the facilitator who mentioned that this was beginning to be addressed by the bishops and pointed out that one person’s abusive theology is another person’s strongly held understanding of Christianity. What follows are some personal reflections on the issue.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY ABUSIVE THEOLOGY?
The matter first came to my attention many years ago when listening to the story of a woman who had begun attending a charismatic evangelical church. She suffered from depression and had been told that God would heal her if she had enough faith. Although she sought to "have more faith" healing did not come and she became more depressed to the point she contemplated suicide. Thankfully, before reaching that point she left the church. Subsequently I have been aware of the way in which particular theological understandings are abusive, and can be used in an abusive way, towards various groups of people. Women and LGBT people are other obvious examples of those who suffer from such a theology, but the list is far wider.
What I understand ’abusive theology’ to be is an expression of the nature of God determined by certain concepts of Purity that, consequently, judge people by a set of values rooted in exclusivity. Purity Laws or Codes are present throughout history, cultures and religions. At present in religious terms they appear to affect Islam as well as many evangelical and charismatic churches. Purity laws seek to safeguard the deity or society from ‘contamination’ and require the ability to exclude those who might taint or infect that which is regarded as fundamental. Exclusive theology draws on this and is based in knowing who’s in and who’s out; who’s saved and who’s not. It is a theology of fundamentalism which, whilst being more apparent in evangelical movements is also to be found in Roman Catholicism. However, in the latter such exclusivity is mitigated by developments in theology over the course of the history of the Church. It also appeals to a certain branch of Anglo-Catholicism which looks to ‘traditional’ Roman Catholic teaching and tradition in order to define its identity. (to be continued)