Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Fallout of Fallen Leaders

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.

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger Nuttall)

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Life, The Universe and Roses

“The Universe provided for me” said a friend to me the other day. “Hmm”, I thought, “how do I respond to this?” Because of course, being a budding writer and left-brain dominant (not that there is such a thing, really), I think in coherent phrases rather than just abstract concepts, but that’s not important….

What may or may not be important is that ‘The Universe’ has become a popular substitute for ‘God’ amongst those who have a spiritual sense of a greater power but have been turned off by religion’s portrayal of ‘God’. From the glimpses I’ve had of my kids’ TV viewing, the term is used a lot in US sitcoms, to the point where it may become as irritating as that most hated of expressions, ‘lol’ – and may one day be used with the same level of irony!

Does it matter what we call this higher power? When my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, does she mean the same thing as me when I talk about ‘God’?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, as is oft quoted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to illustrate that a name doesn’t change the nature of a thing.

But is the nature of ‘The Universe’ the same thing as the nature of the ‘God’ that I believe in?

The answer is, of course, yes…and no.

But while I leave that vague, ambiguous response hanging in the air for you to ponder, here’s a thing….

How ‘God’ is viewed varies even amongst my fellow Christians (let alone wider monotheists such as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc). My understanding of him will inevitably vary from that of another Christian, because of differences in personality, life experiences and spiritual encounters.

No wonder many Christians find it important to keep coming back to, and meditate on, the key ways and names by which we believe God has revealed himself. After all, ‘God’ is not really a name but a generic word for a higher power, and for some people it might conjure up images of a distant, dictatorial deity or something worse.

You may know I hate the triteness of 3-point sermons, so sue me or forgive me as I offer 3 popular revelations of God, because I think they just stand out above all others….

Here’s the first. I’ve blogged before (in Mindfulness: More Than Fringe Benefits) about the sheer wonder of the name YHWH (or ‘Yahweh’, meaning ‘I Am’) – the mind-blowing name by which God identifies himself to Moses in that uber-iconic moment at the burning bush. From the start of Judeo-Christian history, I believe God reveals himself to be outside of time, not dependent on anything or anyone, the source of all things, unchanging, transcendent, mysterious, beyond human labels and religions.

‘I Am’, he whispers to the world.

And I guess that many have a similar view of ‘The Universe’.

I find it curious, disheartening even, that most English Bibles translate YHWH as ‘The LORD’ (in capitals like that), rather than as the profound ‘Yahweh’ or ‘I Am’. Perhaps Bible translators are trying to emphasise his authority, despite the fact that YHWH implies source and giver of life, rather than boss.

As life-giver rather than despot, the Jewish prophets unswervingly unveil YHWH as the true God who is ever keen to distinguish himself from the surrounding pagan gods known as ‘Baals’, meaning ‘masters’, instead expressing his passion to be something far better than boss – not to lord it over us, but to be husband, father, mother, friend, provider, source of life, longing to sweep us into his arms, into a relationship too unique and sublime to be adequately defined by human analogy.…’more intimate than lovers’, as the song What A Friend I’ve Found by Delirious? poignantly puts it.

Fast forwarding to one of the last letters of the New Testament, we come across Jesus’ closest friend, John, mentioning, almost in passing:

God is love…

Three simple words.

One of the Bible’s most amazing sweeping statements. It was almost a throwaway comment. As if we were meant to know. As if it’s been obvious all the time.

According to Jesus’ best friend, the source of all things, Yahweh, is Love.

Love brought this universe and you and me into being.

There was a brief time in my life when I believed the universe was a dream of itself. It was an idea I’d picked up somewhere. Now I believe that God (Yahweh) fills every subatomic particle of – but cannot be confined to – the universe.

But what might really distinguish me from those who see The Universe as their deity is the third and final astounding assertion about God that I believe: the claim that ultimately we understand the nature of God by looking at the person of Jesus.

The Jesus who sat with sex workers, stood with the street people, moved with the marginalised, and who hated hypocrisy or religious play-acting. The Jesus who was willing to give up everything in love for those in spiritual poverty like you and me.

Jesus – the name which means ‘rescuer’, because he rescues us (who are both victims and perpetrators) from both our sins and our hurts.

‘I Am’, ‘Love’, ‘Jesus’: three names that, for me at least, go a long way to understanding the nature of the God who is beyond human definition.

Despite these confident claims held in common by all Christians, we still have somewhat different perceptions of God at times, so it’s little wonder that there are also times when I find my understanding of the love and compassion and inclusiveness of God bears more similarity to the beliefs of those who speak not of God but of ‘The Universe’ or some other spirituality.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But there’s another famous saying about roses: “A rose is a rose is a rose”.

It’s based on the line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”

– from Gertrude Stein’s poem Sacred Emily, written in 1913.

Despite this often being taken to mean the same thing as the Bard’s “A rose by any other name…”, when asked what she meant by the line, Stein said that in the time of Homer, or of Chaucer, “the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there.” As memory took it over, the thing lost its identity, and she was trying to recover that – “I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

So there’s a poetic, philosophical and even prophetic significance to names. I guess that’s why we Christians love to speak the name of Jesus when we talk about God. “There is power in the name of Jesus”, as the song goes.

And, by Stein’s reasoning, I think we Christians seriously need to re-discover the breath-taking significance of the name YHWH.

But to return to the question, does that mean that when my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, she means something different from me when I speak about ‘God’? Only further conversation with her, which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have, might elucidate that answer. Even then, I suspect (in fact, I know) that God, the Universe or YHWH, is far too big and transcendent to be defined by her or me.

I’m hoping that I’ve left you with more questions than answers. Because questions have a way of leading us into an awareness and awe of the mystery and love that is truth, which I understand as God.

What I’m sure of is that my friend and I will both continue to stop and smell the roses that have been given life by YHWH (or The Universe), and will agree on their sweetness.

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger)

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