The Smallest Twine

At the central crisis in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is not only jilted at the altar but disgraced by means of deception. While the Friar advises a counter-deception, to right the wrong, Hero’s father is bewildered. When advised to accept the Friar’s plan, he responds: ‘Being that I flow in grief,
The smallest twine may lead me’.

Clergy and pastors are often with people at a time of bewilderment. We meet people who are in the midst of grief, or turning to a minister as a source of trusted advice. Of course this is not only a situation faced by clergy. However, for some people the legacy of respect for clergy, perhaps instilled in childhood, may assume that any advice is divinely guided and lacks any other kind of motivation. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Manipulation by appeal to divine authority is nothing new. In the York Mystery play of The Flood, Noah struggles to persuade Mrs Noah to get onboard. Finally he tells her: ‘It was God’s will without a doubt’. Understandably, Mrs Noah is unimpressed with this approach:

What, thinks thou that will let thee quit?
Nay, by my troth, thou gets a clout.

An unimpressed Mrs Noah, played by Helen Wilson, in The Flood, York Mystery Plays 2022

Recognition of distinctive dynamics in pastoral care is an essential step in recognising that the nature and form of abuse may be nuanced. Religions typically mirror forms of kinship, and at its best church can be a family of chosen association – with a strong sense of communal love, support and care. While this is commendable we also need to remember that most abuse takes place in families, and it might be that the prevalence of abuse in church communities reflects similar vulnerabilities of trust, inter-generational contact, authority and power.

I have quoted in a previous blog the caustic observation of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:

“One of the most insidious of the many shapes of domination (pastoral power), as it blackmails its objects into obedience and lulls its agents into self-righteousness by representing itself as self-sacrifice in the name of ‘the life and salvation of the flock'”

Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

Certainly this is a powerful summary of the consequences that emerge when pastoral or spiritual power is abused and goes unchecked. Virtue is an excellent facade for many kinds of vice. If a leader claims that what they are doing is directed by God, when an individual has been shaped to believe that God must be obeyed, the opportunities for malfeasance become almost limitless. It is the kind of thing that has persuaded elderly people to leave all their estate to the church (or the vicar); for people to be induced into forming inappropriate relationships; or engineered the acceptance of unreasonable expectations about the use of time.

There is a growing literature about the significance and operation of pastoral abuse. This field is in its early development and there is considerable scope for deepening both the scholarship, and the practical advice that flows from it. For example, in her consideration of abuse through an examination of Ezekiel 34, Amy White notes that ‘self-sacrificial leadership for the sake of the lost was clearly lacking’. However, I have known many self-sacrificial clergy who have been perfectly capable of spiritual manipulation.

The very discomforting question which needs to be addressed in any examination of spiritual abuse is whether God is ever capable of it? In the stories of both The Flood and Job, God is described as causing or permitting apocalyptic suffering. If church leadership is invested in literal understandings of Scripture this question needs to be addressed. Alternatively, if the Bible is understood as a collection of books describing an evolving discernment about the nature of God, then we arrive at a very different place, and one in which pastoral power in the person of Jesus is open to both questioning and accountability: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Given the weight and significance of religious ideas, the need to handle pastoral relationships with care is essential. Only in recent years, and largely when compelled to do so, have churches acknowledged the need for greater accountability. Ironically, it could be argued that this failure to take prompt action to prevent abuses arises from a limited understanding of sin. While happy to wag the moral finger at various minority groups, many Christians appear to have lacked a willingness to be curious about wrongdoings much closer to home. Although no system is a perfect solution to the misuse of pastoral relationships, a greater expectation and resourcing of professional supervision would go a long way to excavating and naming pastoral risks. This would both help people understand the bewilderment in which they often minister, and recognise the temptation to pull the twine to places where people should not be led.

One thought on “The Smallest Twine

  1. What an excellent piece, Chris. It is essential that everyone across the churches is helped to understand the severe dangers of spiritual abuse. For those of us who have the “privileged” status of minister, it is without doubt an area of concern if we do not hold ourselves accountable to others.

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