KTF REWIND: Addressing the issue of spiritual abuse in the Church

A new book addressing the issue of spiritual abuse in the Church and Christian organisations has been released today.

‘Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures’ has been written by Dr Lisa Oakley, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester, and Justin Humphreys, CEO of Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight.

Drawing on research, testimonies and years of experience, the book describes clearly the nature of spiritual abuse and the best ways to respond.

The book was officially launched at a reception at the House of Lords on Thursday 13th June, hosted by the Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham. It included speeches from both the authors, as well as Mark Stibbe, who wrote the foreword to the book, and a representative from the publishers SPCK.

The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham

The purpose of the book is a combination of response and prevention and contains discussions of the difficult realities of spiritual abuse and an opportunity for those who have experienced it to have a voice.

Its authors have aimed to develop a healthy and helpful response and to look towards a time when the issue is carefully and widely addressed with the result of a future better than the present.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Oakley said:

“It’s important to recognise that spiritual abuse as a term, is in some ways the elephant in the room. In some ways it is controversial, it is not unproblematic, and it has been challenged. However, this discussion about terminology cannot be at the expense of responding to those who have experienced harm and pain.

“When I first encountered spiritual abuse, I knew that something needed to change. It needed to be talked about, people needed to be listened to and supported and ultimately cultures needed to change. For me, I am not wedded to the term, but I am determined to address the issues. I see ‘Escaping the Maze’ as another part of an ongoing conversation towards a deeper understanding and better intervention.”

Justin Humphreys, who co-authored the book, said:

“I often describe the book as a book of two halves. The first half opens-up discussion about a previously well-hidden and little-understood experience. But we were equally keen to not only develop understanding of this form of abuse, but also to explore what kind of practices, cultures and environments would need to exist to counter this type of harm. The second half of the book does just that.

“We all know that at the heart of any form of abuse is first an abuse of power and trust. Learning to use the power that we all hold well and in a way that doesn’t harm others is key to understanding where so many might have gone wrong. Once we have committed to not shying away from what is certainly a very difficult, challenging and complex issue, we must be prepared to stand together and take action to both prevent it and learn how to be better at responding where it is found to have caused harm. Both Lisa and I love the Church, we are for the Church and we hope that what we have written will be of practical benefit.”

Dr Oakley said:

“There are many challenges in this area– when does guidance become control, when does speaking with passion become coercion, when does behaviour cross a threshold into something that can be deemed abuse? Are there threats to religious freedom in addressing this issue? It’s naïve to think these are easy to answer questions. It is really important to us that we address all these, but also look at how we prevent it – how do we build healthy cultures in which spiritual abuse is less likely to happen? What is our role in the cultures we create? That is what I hope we have done with this book.”

Both authors are keen to express their sincere thanks to all those that have contributed to the writing of this book, especially the many survivors whose testimonies feature throughout. Dr Oakley said: “It’s important for us to thank everyone who has shared stories, filled out surveys and given time and energy to help us understand this whole area better. We are so mindful of the cost to so many of sharing their stories and we are so grateful that they were and are willing to do this.”

In his address at the launch, Rt Revd Paul Butler said:

“The whole issue of spiritual abuse has caused all kinds of debates as we have known. I think this is the best contribution that we have yet had from any quarter, not just the Christian quarter, but from any quarter. They are courageous enough to admit they know this is not the final word, there’s debate to go on, there are discussions to go on, but they’ve had the courage to put it in writing and to get us all talking for which I am enormously grateful.”

‘Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures’ is published by SPCK and costs £10.99. More information about the book and where to order can be found here: thirtyoneeight.org/escaping-the-maze

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