Jayne Ozanne on ‘spiritual abuse’

As well as seeking to persuade the Church of England to ban conversion therapy for those with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria Jayne Ozanne is now highlighting the issue of spiritual abuse as the next big issue which she thinks the Church will need to tackle.

Her paper on this issue, entitled ‘Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church,’[1] which was written for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, starts with a general definition of spiritual abuse, then narrows down to focus on abuse by charismatic groups and then narrows down still further to consider the spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.

No one with a proper belief in the way in which sin continues to indwell believers (see Articles IX and XV), or any experience of the life of the Church, will need any convincing about the possibility of those in the Church, including church leaders, misusing their position in the Church in a way that results in harm to others.

There cannot therefore be any objection in principle to the concept of ‘spiritual abuse.’ However, the first difficulty with Ozanne’s paper comes when she attempts to define precisely what is meant by ‘spiritual abuse.’

Ozanne adopts the definition of spiritual abuse offered by Dr. Liza Oakely in her book Breaking the silence on spiritual abuse.’ This defines the term as follows:

‘Spiritual abuse is coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.’[2]

The problem with this definition is that it requires an awful lot of unpacking if it is going to be useful in practice. For example, what exactly is meant by coercion and control? What degree of influence by one person over another qualifies? What is meant by ‘pressure to conform’ and how does this differ from the normal expectation that someone will follow the beliefs and practices of the church to which they have chosen to belong? What is meant by ‘misuse of the scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour’ and how does this differ from any other exposition of the Bible’s teaching about Christian behaviour?

These questions may seem like nit picking, but if spiritual abuse is to become an accepted category in the life of the Church with disciplinary implications similar to those in force for other forms of abuse then the definition of abuse needs to be as tight as possible and what it means needs to be very clearly explained. Dr Oakely may offer such explanation in her book. Unfortunately it is absent from Ozanne’s paper.

Ozanne goes on to link abuse, and particularly what she calls ‘group abuse’ (when it is the whole community rather than a particular individual that inflicts the abuse), to charismatic Evangelical churches and networks.

What she does not do is justify singling out these churches and networks as more likely to abuse people than churches in other traditions. She offers no evidence that this is the case or indeed that abuse is taking place in the churches and networks she describes (some of which she names).

She also offers no explanation of the practices of these churches and networks she cites as forms of abuse nor any evidence that people are being harmed by them.

For example, she contends that their ‘unquestioned teaching on the Holy Spirit’ [3] is linked to abuse, but she does not explain what this teaching is, how she thinks it is linked to abuse, or what the evidence to support this claim is.

For another example, she lists as an abusive practice ‘Misusing ‘words of knowledge’ and/or ‘prophecy’ to control and subjugate people.’[4] What she doesn’t say is what is involved in misusing ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’ in this way or what the evidence is that people are being harmed by this practice in the churches and networks which she names.

Without such explanation or evidence her argument necessarily fails to carry conviction. Anyone can allege that abuse is taking place. That is easy. The difficult part is substantiating that allegation and that Ozanne fails to do.

The problem of lack of evidence continues when she goes on to consider what she calls ‘The Spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.’ In this part of her paper Ozanne looks at the teaching given about homosexuality in an unspecified number of the churches and networks she has named, the forms of ministry given in these bodies to those with same-sex attraction and the sort of church discipline advocated by the Evangelical Alliance for those who persistently and unrepentantly engage in same-sex sexual activity.

Ozanne’s allegation is that these practices cause ‘significant long term harm’ to LGBTI Christians up to and including suicide.[5] This is an extremely serious allegation, but if we ask what evidence she gives to substantiate it the only thing we find is a reference to a 2017 paper from the Oasis Foundation[6] which links mental health issues among LGB people to discrimination against them by the churches and the way the churches contribute ‘negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media.’

However, as Peter Ould points out in a response to the Oasis paper ‘…. the problem with the Oasis paper is that it provides not one shred of research evidence that demonstrates a link between conservative Christian teaching and mental health outcomes for LGB people.’ [7]

Ould goes on to point out that the Oasis paper relied on ‘generalised research on minority stress and then tried to blame this on conservative churches’ and that it failed to engage with the 2012 research paper by Barnes and Meyer which showed that:

… contrary to the claims that Oasis make with no evidence to support them, LGB people do not have worse mental health outcomes when in ‘non-affirming’ church environments and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that attending a conservative church actually improves mental health for LGB people, even when they have significant internalized homophobia.[8]

To put it into plainer English, the research evidence does not show that LGB people suffer from worse mental health issues because they attend conservative churches and indeed may have improved mental health because they do so.

What all this means is that Ozanne gives us only one source to substantiate her allegation and this one source turns out itself to provide no evidence to back up its claims, claims which are contradicted by a substantial academically rigorous research study on the issue.

In response to this criticism, supporters of Ozanne’s position might well say that there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from those who have suffered mental distress because of their involvement with churches that take a conservative stance on same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships. However, if they make this move they would have to address the fact that there is equally a growing body of anecdotal evidence from people who are same-sex attracted, but feel that they have benefited from the ministry of churches that take a conservative stance on these matters.[9]

The existence of such people and the testimonies they offer (both of which are completely ignored by Ozanne’s paper) means that the issue that needs to be explored is not simply why some people report being harmed by churches that take a conservative stance, but why is it that some people report being harmed whereas others report being helped. If the Church is going to address seriously the question of how to minister in a helpful way to people with same-sex attraction this is the issue that needs to be researched.

Conclusion

The point of Ozanne’s paper is to urge bodies external to the Church, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to call for action to be taken against spiritual abuse:

‘It is imperative that professional organisations external to the religious institutions call for better safeguarding measures against spiritual abuse. Indeed, they should look to recognise it as a key form of abuse at a national level so as to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the same protection as those facing other forms of abuse.’[10]

If put into practice what this would mean is that pressure would be put on churches to ban practices considered spiritual abuse in the same way that churches now take action to safeguard against abuse of children and adults when they are vulnerable. If Ozanne’s paper were to be followed, this would include a ban on teaching that the Bible opposes same-sex sexual activity and a ban on any form of church discipline for those engaging in such activity.

The problem with Ozanne’s paper, however, is that it frequently fails to describe the abuse it alleges sufficiently precisely to make it clear what she is talking about and it consistently fails to provide evidence that the practices she refers to actually cause harm. It also ignores the testimonies of those with same-sex attraction who report having been helped by the ministry of conservative churches.

It therefore fails to provide a clear or persuasive basis for either bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, or the churches, to move in the direction she advocates. If safeguarding measures are to be put in place then we need to know precisely what is being safeguarded against and why. Ozanne’s paper fails to provide clarity on either point.

M B Davie 26.6.17

 

[1] Jayne Ozanne, Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church, Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2017.

Text at: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/jayneozannespiritualabusethenextgreatscandalforthechurch.pdf

[2] Ibid, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.6.

[5] Ibid, p.8.

[6] The Oasis Foundation, In the Name of Love – the Church, Exclusion and LGB Mental Health Issues, London:

Oasis Foundation, 2017.

[7] Peter Ould, Church Teaching and LGB mental health,’ Psephizo, 13 February 2017, at https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/church-teaching-and-lgb-mental-health/

[8] Ibid referring to David M Barnes and Illan H Meyer, ‘Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and

Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 82(4), Oct

2012, pp. 505-515.

[9] For statements of this position see the testimonies on the Living out website at http://www.livingout.org/

[10] Ozanne, op.cit. p.9.