Praying dangerously

Content note: spiritual abuse, child abuse.

In case you’ve managed to miss it this week, prominent theologian and musician Vicky Beeching has announced this week that she is gay, coming out in a beautifully moving interview in the Independent by Patrick Strudwick:

This is big news, particularly in Evangelical Christian circles, where I imagine the shock-waves will go on being felt for some time. I’m in awe of Vicky’s courage and integrity in speaking out, and also of her graciousness in responding to her critics. I’m encouraged by the positive effects already making themselves seen – and particularly the number of young (and not so young) LGBT Christians feeling they can be themselves for the first time. I’m excited to see what comes next in the church’s painfully slow journey towards recognising that, in the words of a tweet I saw this week, “in human diversity lies the creativity of God.”

Others have written more eloquently than I could on these and other related subjects in the last few days. But I want to focus on one implication of Vicky’s story which I haven’t yet seen covered.

As I read the interview with Vicky in the Independent, I wept to read of the isolation and anguish she experienced as a teenager, and even more at her description of being subject to attempts to change her sexuality through prayer. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider her account of what that felt like as a young person:

“I remember sitting in my seat at this big conference, with about 4,000 people. Someone had preached about how God could set you free from anything, and I was desperate, I thought, ‘I have to deal with this, it’s breaking me.’ They invited us to the front.” The shy teenager got up.

“The walk felt like 10 years. The music was very loud. At the altar one of the prayer team said, ‘What would you like us to pray for you about?’ I said, ‘It’s really hard for me to say this but I am attracted to people of the same sex and I’ve been told God hates that and I’m so ashamed and I need Him to take it away because I can’t keep living like this. I’m so sad and depressed, I can’t carry on.'”

Beeching stood with her arms outstretched as the leaders brought in extra people to perform the deliverance. “I remember lots of people placing their hands on my shoulders and back and front, praying in tongues really loudly and then shouting things: ‘We command Satan to let you go! Cast these devils out of you! We speak to you demon of homosexuality: let her go!’ People around me were wailing and screaming. It was really frightening. I was already feeling so vulnerable, it was horrible to think, ‘Am I controlled by demons?'”

How did it feel? “Degrading,” she says. “Very humiliating – it made me so embarrassed.”

The language used here – “frightening”, “vulnerable”, “horrible”, “degrading”, “humiliating” – is the sort of language used by the survivors of child abuse. I don’t know whether Vicky would describe this experience as abusive, but that’s how it sounds to me. Adults in a position of authority telling a young person that who they are is not just wrong, but wrong in the sight of God, the work of the devil: that is spiritual abuse.

We have a problem in almost every part of the church with naming spiritual abuse, with even admiting the possibility that our churches, our spiritual practices, even our prayers, may be harming vulnerable children, young people or adults. At a safeguarding conference I attended last year organised by CCPAS there was an excellent paper presented on spiritual abuse, but it’s still not even on the radar of most church leaders as a concern.

And let’s not kid ourselves that this is a problem confined to certain events, to particular denominations, or to the past. It is a sad and shameful reality that there are young people across the church today who are seeing, hearing and experiencing things which will be seriously detrimental to their life and faith. And we, all of us who count ourselves as memebers of the body of Christ, have a responsibility to do something about it, starting by talking openly about it, naming abuse for what it is, and stating clearly that it has no place in God’s church.

The point where safeguarding meets faith has always been an awkward one. Most faith leaders have an inadequate knowledge of safeguarding issues. Most safeguarding experts have an inadequate understanding of faith practices. It can feel like we’re continually talking past each other. But we who are church leaders have a responsibility, which goes far beyond that imposed by law, to ensure that the churches we lead are safe places for everyone, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Protecting people from abusive behaviour is part of how we value people as children of God.

It is especially difficult to countenance the idea that our very prayer itself may be harmful. But we who pray publicly, or who offer prayer ministry to individuals, need to examine our consciences long and hard, and regularly, as to how our own prejudices are coming through to those for and with whom we pray. To pray publicly, and to pray from a position of authority, is an awesome responsibility. We must be aware of the damage, as well as the great good, that can be done. A while back, I was involved in a conversation about “spiritual risk assessment”. A clumsy phrase, perhaps, but we do need to develop an awareness of the spiritual and emotional impact of what we do and say and pray.

And this responsibility is, if possible, even greater when it comes to children and young people. As anyone who has responsibility for children or young people in a church setting will tell you, there are moments when you are (or should be) hyper-aware of the potential impact of the next words that come out of your mouth on the life of a child or young person. I think of these as “precipice moments” – risky, liminal, and with the potential to go spectacularly wrong. When a child discloses abuse is one such moment. When a young person encounters death for the first time is another, or when a child begins to ask how God can be good when there is so much evil in the world. I would argue that a young person coming out as lesbian, gay or bisexual is another such moment.

In these moments, words mean more than they do in the ordinary course of things. Prayers mean more. And how an adult in authority reacts, how an adult in authority prays for or with that young person, will likely colour their perception of themselves and of God, sometimes for life. A response which puts the adult’s need to assert their own beliefs before the child’s need to be heard and loved is always wrong. Privileging adult desires over children’s basic needs features in pretty much every model of understanding and identifying child abuse.

The church needs to get better at naming abuse, and particularly spiritual abuse. And then we need to act. Put in place rigorous safeguarding procedures, and follow them at all times. Stop viewing safeguarding as a burocratic burden, and start viewing it as the foundations of the Kingdom. Start putting the needs and voices of the most vulnerable members of the body of Christ first, however uncomfortable it makes us feel when we really listen to them.

I think of the teenage Vicky Beeching, twenty years ago, vulnerable and frightened. I think of the thousands of children who feel like that today. I think of the adults who, knowingly or otherwise, pass up the opportunity to help them, to let them know how much they are loved. And I weep. Lord have mercy.

If you are concerned about the wellbeing of a child or young person, or if you are a child or young person who needs help, the NSPCC can be contacted 24 hrs a day.

If you are a child or young person who needs help, call Childline on 0800 1111

If you are an adult concerned about a child or young person, call the helpline on 0808 800 5000

3 thoughts on “Praying dangerously

  1. Thank you very much for writing this article. I think you have highlighted and described a very real problem in many Christian circles. I also think spiritual abuse is a very good term for it. I recognise what Vicky is talking about from an experience of being on the receiving end of abusive prayer many years ago, not as a child, but as an adult who was very vulnerable at that time. The episode was extremely destructive and took many years of healing. Since then I have witnessed, or heard of what you describe as spiritual abuse, many many times. Spiritual abuse is extremely widespread, and all the more insidious because it’s done in the name of God and love. The power that a person has over a vulnerable person while praying for them—whether that person is a child or vulnerable adult—is akin to the power a doctor has over an ill patient. Doctors go through years of training to learn how to handle that power properly. Many people involved in prayer ministry have little or no training whatsoever. It’s no surprise then that abuse happens frequently.

    Thank you again for you very thoughtful article.

  2. thank you. thank you for acknowledging that sometimes people who have been authorised by the church as priests and pastors can behave in an appallingly abusive way. and not just to children or young people and not just in prayer… “You shouldn’t be crying” was said to me by a priest counselling me just 2 weeks or so after my mother’s funeral. The reason he gave after that and his subsequent manipulation doesn’t bear repeating publically. The damage done still has repercussions.

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