The Church’s response to survivors: From stumbling block to stepping stone

The title slide from the Methodist Church webinar. You can watch the webinar here. My interview is from 01:13 for around ten minutes.

LAST WEEK I shared some of my story in a webinar on safeguarding in the Methodist Church.

The second of two thought-provoking webinars looked into the damage caused by Church structures and traditions, as well as exploring the powerful stories of survivors of abuse, and looks ahead to how the Church can evolve to help survivors and prevent further abuse. 

The webinar considered:

  • a theology of safeguarding
  • how erroneous interpretations of the Bible have been used to justify suffering or to force survivors to forgive
  • how abuse affects future faith and the survivor’s understanding of God and church
  • aspects of traditional church, including language, which can be harmful to survivors.
  • survivors’ experiences, including alternative modes of church which they have found helpful
  • the Methodist Church’s work to make our churches safer spaces and to respond better to survivors of abuse within our congregations.
Me age 22, around the time of the first experience I described in the webinar interview

My input was a ten-minute pre-recorded interview. In preparation for this interview, I wrote notes in response to question prompts provided in advance. I am sharing these below – they include responses which didn’t make the final edit.

When I was struggling with my sexuality as a young adult, I sought support from trusted elders in the church, but experienced sexual and spiritual abuse, and attempts to use so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to change my sexual orientation, which made it harder for me to talk about my experience with people in church, and kept me in silence, depression and shame.

The focus of these webinars was rightly on the experience of childhood survivors – this is NOT my experience. I was not a child at the time when the abuse occurred, but it is important to be aware that abuse can still take place if the victim is over 18. It can be hard to consent when there is an imbalance of power, such as when one person is a respected elder or someone the victim and others looks up to. There is also a particular stigma felt by some male survivors of abuse, which means some are unwilling to speak publicly about these difficult experiences. In the video interview, I shared my experience of abuse and how I found reconciliation within myself and with God thanks to non-judgmental spiritual accompaniment:

My experience

My name’s Kieran, I’m 51, and I run a charity which supports LGBT+ people in Christian communities across England and Wales.

When I was in my early 20s, developmentally I was more like a teenager whose adolescence had been suppressed or delayed because I was struggling with my sexual orientation – I thought I might be gay but I didn’t know how to talk to about it.

In my final year of university, when I was 21, I applied to train as a priest, but deferred my place to train as a teacher and get more life experience.

While I was applying to train for ministry, I met another man who was asked to take more time to reflect on his vocation. We ended up in a similar position – not yet ready to begin our training for ministry – so we kept in touch.

He was 20 or more years older than me – I began to look up to him and trust him. One weekend I went to stay at his house. I felt I couldn’t talk to a priest about my sexuality, so I confided in him. He told me he wasn’t gay, but that he was glad I told him. I was upset and distressed. He suggested we sleep in the same room so he could comfort me. I took him at his word, but he took advantage of me. I was traumatised, ashamed and mortified, and I left early the next day.

I couldn’t talk to anyone else about it, but I thought I had to be a ‘good Christian’ and forgive him. I thought that meant I needed to mend the breakdown of the relationship between us, so I got back in touch. I went to his house again, and it happened again.

Still I didn’t cease contact with him until a couple of years later when we each began training for ministry at different colleges, and I began to get support to understand what I was feeling and what had gone wrong between us.

Attempts to talk to others in the church

I wasn’t able to speak to anyone at the time – that was partly why I felt I had to go back and speak to him, to see if I could resolve my feelings and forgive him.

After university I became a primary school teacher, and taught in a couple of church schools. I confided in a priest who was governor of a school where I worked, that I thought I might be attracted to men. At first, he didn’t say anything, but a few days later he summoned me to see him. I didn’t know why – I thought it was to discuss volunteering with the youth group. He told me that, if what I had told him were true, I should reconsider my future in education because if I got to a certain age and wasn’t married, people might think I was unsafe with their children. I was shocked, but I felt unable to tell anyone else in case they thought he was right. It confirmed the internalised prejudice I had received that to be gay meant to be predatory, abusive, and shameful. It also led me to believe that if my abusive experience was what it meant to be gay, then I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I had good spiritual accompaniment at college that I began to trust that there might be a better way. I also had psychotherapy for several years to come to terms with my experience.

I left training for ministry half way through, as I had become very depressed and had a breakdown. I moved to a new city and began making a life for myself as an openly gay man. But I still struggled with depression, so I went to a retreat centre I knew, for what was advertised as a ‘healing retreat’. I trusted the community there, and I thought members of the community would be leading it, but they weren’t. The leaders were two people from the charismatic tradition of the church, who prayed and spoke with us about what needed healing in our lives. The retreat leader, an older woman, prayed for me on the first night. I hadn’t said anything about my sexuality or abusive experience. She said Jesus would come to me that evening, ‘but not in a sexual way’. I was troubled by that and wondered how she could have sensed that this was an issue for me. I spoke to her co-facilitator, a younger man, the next day. He heard what I had to say, then told me that he considered himself to be ‘ex-gay’ – that he experienced unwanted same-sex attraction following a childhood trauma, and was on a journey towards healing. He lent me books about what I now know to be ‘conversion therapy’, and I met with him after the retreat once or twice. I wanted to recover from my experience, but I realised that suppressing my sexual orientation further was not the way to do that, so I ceased contact. For a time I ceased all involvement with church too.

It wasn’t until I moved to Liverpool, and began building a new life for myself as a gay man, that I felt able to return to church, and to seek support from others with similar experiences in LGBT+ Christian groups, like the one which met at Somewhere Else, the Methodist ministry also known as the Bread Church, in the city centre. Here I also met the minister Barbara Glasson, with whom I had spiritual accompaniment, and was able to find a deeper integration of my sense of self, spirituality and sexuality, with God’s help.

I also contributed to Barbara Glasson‘s book, The Exuberant Church: Listening to the prophetic people of God. In it, she invites us to share an understanding of the process of ‘coming out’ (usually spoken of about sexual orientation and gender identity) and its relevance to others who also undergo major transformations in life (including survivors of abuse, and people living with disabilities and addictions). In doing so Barbara reflects on the ‘coming out’ process as a spiritual experience with profound lessons for the Church. I also began to write regularly on this blog to share my story and reflections.

The impact on my sense of identity and image of God

Because of my Christian upbringing, I thought it wasn’t OK to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. So to seek support and experience such unhealthy responses only confirmed my worst fears and kept me stuck in silence and depression for much longer.

I didn’t think I was, or could ever be, good enough. I felt I had to do something ‘good’ with my life, but I didn’t realise I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I didn’t have a very healthy image of myself. I was very driven, but I wasn’t valuing myself for who I was, but rather what I was doing, I felt if I wasn’t able to do something worthwhile with my life I wasn’t a worthy person. It wasn’t healthy motivation.

I began to discover through spiritual accompaniment that I had a negative, unhealthy image of God too. When I’d had a breakdown I was told I was lucky to survive. I heard that as a responsibility to ‘repay’ that debt to God, to whom I owed my life. But that felt hugely burdensome and conditional, and impossible to live up to without further distress. The negative experiences I had in trying to integrate my spirituality and sexuality reinforced and deepened that.

Since then I’ve begun to be able to glimpse the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God, which accepts me as I am, and calls me to live life more fully, to be the best that I can be, with God’s help.

How could people have church have helped?

I think some churches have made an idol of marriage and the perception of ‘normal’ family life, so much so that those whose life experience is different, often through no fault of their own, can be left feeling like they are on the edge of things, less ‘blessed’, or ‘less than God’s best’.

If our churches were better at naming, representing, and advocating for the diversity of humanity in our communities, seen and unseen, then more people might feel able to turn to us as people who are safe enough to trust, and allow them to be vulnerable, to share their whole selves, even and especially those parts that are held in pain and darkness for fear of rejection or further harm.

Surely that can’t happen in my church?

To church members who think abuse can’t happen in their church, I would say: Never say never. We can’t assume that anyone, or any place, is completely safe all the time. We can work together to build communities that are safe enough for everyone to be vulnerable, if they need to be. We are all vulnerable sometimes – the word vulnerable simply means ‘open to wounding’. If we allow ourselves to be open, we take the risk of being wounded. We need to minimise those risks as best as we can.

But we also need to create spaces that are brave enough for people to speak their truth with integrity and courage, even and especially when that is hard for us to hear. We need to avoid the danger of thinking that abusive behaviour is something that can only happen to ‘other people’ in ‘other churches’. That language of ‘othering’ avoids our need to look at our own relationships and practices, and reflect on how they might not only do no harm, but actively enable people to feel safer, braver, and more able to be their whole selves.

You can watch the webinar here. My interview is from 01:13 for around ten minutes.

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