This is not the kind of subject I normally tackle, but this particular story has moved me more than most of the high-profile cases of sexual offenders that have hit the headlines in recent years, because of my (indirect) personal knowledge of the perpetrator:
“Retired bishop Peter Ball – who has been jailed for 32 months after admitting abusing 18 young men across 20 years – was a sadistic sexual predator who groomed, controlled and abused his victims, one of whom ended up taking his own life.” (BBC News)
I never met Peter Ball but, as a young, new Christian in the late 1980s, I was a little awed by the descriptions I heard of the then Bishop of Lewes. In 1987, after returning to England having found Christian faith while living on the road, I started attending a church in Lewes, where people spoke admiringly of the way Ball would take young men under his wing, to learn and benefit from the monastic community way of life. It was even suggested that it might be something I’d consider.
Also around this time, I heard Adrian Plass speak, I read some of his books, and to this day I remain a fan of his writing and humour. Adrian, who had had been somewhat disillusioned with superficial aspects of Christianity, spent some time working with Peter Ball on the late-night religious programme Company and found Ball to be a breath of fresh air with his joyful, profound and yet down-to-earth spirituality.
“Whatever [Peter] touches seems to sparkle. He even makes me fizz a bit,” wrote Plass (who is not someone to be easily impressed or taken in by Christian showmanship or fakery) in 1986, in the autobiographical The Growing Up Pains of Adrian Plass.
For me, living and church-ing in Lewes in the late ‘80s, the name Peter Ball was held with deep affection and respect among the Anglican church community.
Although I never met the man, I felt like I almost knew him and felt sure I would have liked him and enjoyed learning from him.
So the news emerging this year about the long catalogue of sexual abuse by Ball towards 18 young men over 20 years (including this period in the ‘80s) comes as a massive shock. In fact, I was somewhat in disbelief until Ball admitted the charges.
When asked whether he’d come to terms with his vow of celibacy, Plass recounts in The Growing Up Pains (1986) that Ball looked at him for a moment, his eyes twinkling, and replied, “Adrian, as I’ve already told you, God loves me extravagantly. I’m not just a celibate. I’m an extravagant celibate!”
Questions arise within my mind, like:
Could this apparently deeply spiritual man with such a love for God really have been simply “using religion as a cloak behind which to carry out his grooming activity in order to satisfy his sexual interest and desire for young men,” as claimed by Det Ch Insp Carwyn Hughes, from Sussex Police?
Or was he a genuinely spiritual man blighted by a dark, hidden addiction that plagued his conscience?
Some would say it matters little either way; that his behaviour, abusing the trust of these young men, preying on the vulnerable, is without excuse. And that the former inaction by the Church of England, as with other institutions over previous decades, is intolerable. I can’t argue with either of those sentiments.
What I’m left with, though, is a sense of incredulity; a need to understand.
And I’m left with questions and thoughts about how revelations like these impact on young people and others pursuing faith and spirituality today and in the future. Will they, and should they, treat all church leaders with suspicion and cynicism?
“Don’t follow leaders,” sang Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues. Is he right, perhaps?
My own conversion to Christ took place in isolation from church or institution. There were Christian people along the way, like the painter / decorator Ray Galloway in Portland, Oregon, who influenced me and played a part in my move from atheism to faith in God. But it was primarily a revolution that took place between me and God. My experiences out on the road and my inner thought processes left me convinced that there was a God who created the Universe and cared for me. I never attended church during that period, until after my conversion.
In fact, all the significant transformational moments in my life have taken place in solitude, rather than in church or through the means of leaders. I guess that’s the way my personality works. It doesn’t mean I’m any better or worse than someone else who tends to grow in their spiritual life through the influence of others, but it does have its advantages.
It means that my faith in Jesus doesn’t tend to be dampened by the inevitable disillusionment that comes to probably every Christian when it comes to churches, religious systems and leaders.
After all, there will always be fallen idols, disgraced leaders and disagreements.
My hope and prayer for others budding in faith in Christ is that, however we’re made – whether introverts like me who have our big moments alone, or others who gain strength and growth through interactions with others – we would hold our estimation for leaders lightly, and keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on Jesus, who alone is found to be fully trustworthy. In fact, the Bible itself often counsels not to trust ultimately in people but in God alone.
Ironically, Plass describes Ball himself as the initiator of his understanding that “Christianity is not about systems and God but about individual people, and the relationship they build through raw, prolonged contact with a creator who is genuinely and warmly interested in them. Peter is a man who has real discipline, a real prayer life and a real joy. He is one of the small group of people I know who has gained his experience of God from God” (italics mine).
Whatever the truth about Ball, it seems that the impression gained, the lesson learned, by Adrian Plass is perfectly pertinent to these tragic revelations:
That there is absolutely no substitute for our own individual journey with God, for spending time alone with him, and growing directly in our own consciousness of his compassion and wisdom.
Leaders, systems and even theologies rise and fall, and we need that deep, personal, inner walk with Jesus that ultimately nothing can take away.
And as my heart goes out to those who tragically suffered the abuse of this bishop, I’m somewhat relieved that I never took up that suggestion of living with and learning from Peter Ball.
(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger Nuttall)