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Artillery Row

Pastorship and power

Church leaders should be vigilant against the abuse of authority

When Christ came into the temple, He drove out all who were selling and buying. He turned over the money-changers’ tables and the dove-sellers’ chairs. The blind and the lame were all healed, and the children shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David.” By that time, presumably, His disciples had returned the borrowed donkey and her colt. “I don’t know why we’re reading about Palm Sunday in January,” said the vicar as we gathered in the chancel for Morning Prayer, “but it’s strange to read, considering the news today.”

The news today was a preacher who held out the promise of healing and perpetrated torture. A two-year investigation by the BBC had uncovered multiple allegations against the late Nigerian megachurch leader and televangelist TB Joshua, including physical and sexual violence, forced abortions, and child abuse, over almost twenty years. Many women said that they were raped repeatedly by Joshua, starting in their teens. A woman named Jessica survived five forced terminations on Joshua’s compound. A woman named Rae faced sexual assault and solitary confinement. Sleep deprivation, whippings and beatings occurred routinely. The healings and miracles were stage-managed lies. When TB Joshua died in 2021, without being held to account, Lagos was filled with mourners from around the world. And at Morning Prayer on January 8th, 2024, the vicar, the operations manager, the parish safeguarding officer and I thought of the victims of the church’s crimes, and Jesus who was said to be a healer, and the children shouting in the temple.

Human evil never stops being horrifying

Human evil never stops being horrifying. Initially, I said: “oh, another one?” — even briefly speculated which murky Big Name Ministries International might be emerging into sunlight’s disinfectant. And yet I still gawped at the BBC’s coverage: so much suffering, so much cruelty. How deep the trauma must be. How depraved a man who lusts for power can be; how extensively organised a sociopathic cult can be. How courageous and hard to escape it.

I’d spent the early morning trawling through allegations that Mike Bickle, so-called prophet and intercessor at IHOPKC, habitually grabbed young women by the throat. I’d been thinking about the casually hands-on culture of the charismatic church I grew up in. In my church, a visiting preacher, practising the laying on of hands in prayer ministry, might lay a large hand on a woman’s face as she waited in line, then turn to continue his remarks to the rest of the congregation, one hand grasping the microphone, one hand squeezing her face. No-one ever jumped to stand between the woman and the man. Still, if that was the worst it got in my church, it seemed comparatively tame. Pure evil made me second-guess: perhaps they were more or less well-intentioned, the tall men who strode around my church pushing over anyone slight enough or dizzy enough or hungry enough for the Spirit’s touch to fall to the ground.

But pure evil, however horrifying, shouldn’t be surprising. Not if you have taken a good look around at the world. Not if you are at all signed up to Christianity, even a little bit, even just enough to have been in church once and grow sceptical. That the rulers need to be brought down from their thrones, and the humble lifted up, is the least astonishing of all discoveries.

The sad thing is that evil continues. It is hard to read the Bible when the Bible says that Jesus healed everyone who came to Him: in the real world, I don’t trust faith healers any further than I could spit. But it might be hard to read the Bible, too, when the Bible says that Nebuchadnezzar was driven from the city and lost his royal authority. It might be hard to read the Bible when the Bible says that King Herod was struck down and eaten by worms. Because in the real world, it seems, there is no justice when the cruel and powerful control others, insisting on fealty, like human gods. No justice until it is too late.

I think pure evil should make us more vigilant

I think pure evil should make us more vigilant. Perhaps a visiting preacher who happened to lay hands on a young woman’s face was otherwise a decent enough chap. He believed his own spiel about the healing anointing; he was just a bit dim in the general area of basic courtesy. Even so, he should have noticed that he was taller, broader and stronger than the young woman, that he carried the invisible authority conferred on him by an international speaking gig, shiny posters, a gushing introduction from the senior elder, several hundred dutiful listeners, boxes of his books on sale in the Lower Foyer, and a microphone. He was more powerful than she was, and he lost his right to pastor anyone the second he stretched out his hand. 

Do male clergy ever wonder, when they distribute bread and wine, how many of the women kneeling at the communion rail have experienced men’s violence in their lives; how many women or indeed men receive Christ’s body and blood from a priest who is taller, stronger and more powerful than they are, standing over them like a threat? We should notice what power some churchgoers have, and what church costs others; that people have been sinned against, and that people have sinned. 

The question is whether the children are safe when they shout Hosanna in the temple courts. Whether the men and women who come looking for healing are being exploited by the money-changers and those who sell doves. Whether houses that bear God’s name have become dens of robbers. Whether we just always thought the chief robber seemed like such a good egg. In the amber-coloured peace of the chancel, all wood and warm East Anglia red brick and a brass cross standing on the altar, the liturgy for Morning Prayer continued into: let the whole earth tremble before Him, let the whole earth tremble before Him, let the whole earth tremble before Him.

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