Sunday, 28 October 2007

Being free NOT to judge; especially not to judge other Christians

What does it feel like to be apostate? Well the most wonderful part of it, ironically, is that I am now free to accept and care about anyone. I don't have to judge people, pigeonhole them, look down on them, want to change them, want to control what they think and exclude them if they won't change. Judging people is a terrible burden, which weighs you down and makes you feel dirty.

Judging other Christians

I think probably for anyone who became a Christian in the JA judging other Christians came quite easily, but I came to the JA as a Christian already, so having to judge other Christians I already knew to be good people was horrible. The JA got much of its distinctiveness from being not only better than the unsaved world but better than all other Christians, who we referred to as "the form without the power", "worldly", backslidden, compromising, nominal, etc. People who had only experienced Christianity in the JA more naturally and comfortably subscribed to the received view that we were in fact the only true Christians.

If we met Christians we would be polite but would probe them to find out if they were the right kind of Christian. If they didn't claim to have had a Damascus road experience, we would assert that they were not Spirit filled, and if God's Spirit was not in them, their conversion was not sure. But even charismatics didn't pass muster with us. What we would say of them between ourselves was considerably less flattering than anything we'd say to their faces. Noel gave us licence to not be up-front with other Christians by saying that the devil used them and that we should not cast pearls before swine, lest they turn and rend us. We felt ourselves to be persecuted by the churches as much as by the world.

The main truth which became clear to all those of us who joined was that anyone who had come into contact with the JA was called to join, including other Christians. And that anyone who did not join was judged by God as refusing His call. Any Christians who had refused the call, therefore, must be under God's judgement.


Everyone who joined was baptised, including previously baptised Christians. Noel would invite the latter to accept that their baptisms had perhaps been ones at which God had not been present. Baptism was important because it separated us not only from our worldly sin but also from our powerless pre-JA Christianity. And more importantly, it formed part of the covenant process which joined us irrevocably to the Kingdom of God (not the universal church on Earth, but distinctly the JA/ Jesus Fellowship Church).

If challenged, the JA would grudgingly admit that there must be Christians elsewhere but would argue that if they were blessed at all it was because God was pleased with us. Noel had explained that we were like a cup into which God was pouring his blessings and that it was inevitable that this abundance would overflow...and others would be caught in the shower!

Live with those you disagree with; don't separate off from them

It has stayed with me that the over-riding feeling on leaving was that now I was free to accept everyone as they were. It does have to be said that I felt this even more so when I realised five years later that I wasn't a believer anymore, so this can apply to Christians fairly generally. A Christian at the fellowship I was part of in Bristol after the JA asked of the JA, "Do they believe what we believe?" and that made me instantly ask, "How do you know that I believe what you believe?" and it was then that I realised that as Christians we all worried far too much about categorising people rather than just loving them.

Another turning point was when I was a raving leftie and my step-father was a raving Tory. We would have those flaming arguments where you end up feeling murderous and this pulled me up short. I realised that I loved someone I had diametrically opposed beliefs to....but more importantly that it was possible to live with and love someone I disagreed with...and that this was far more powerful than shunning him, cutting him off etc. Effectively, I was "in community" with people I profoundly disagreed with; entirely the opposite of my Jesus Fellowship experience.

Love people without having to make them acceptable first...and don't discard them if they won't change

And more importantly, I loved my step-father without having to change him. Shouldn't that be what love is? It strikes me that Christians are far more inclined than non-Christians to criticise and judge other people. They are intensely uncomfortable with people they disapprove of and need to change them so that they can accept them. But surely the true test of love is being able to love people without making them acceptable first?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Taken into their confidence - a winning ploy

At a JA BBQ last year a newly joined member told me that what had initially impressed him about the person who had introduced him to Jesus was the way he had "bared his soul to me". The brother had shared some of his vulnerability and asked this new chap's advice.

It struck me that my elder friend (whose own house-church would later join the JA wholesale) told me a similar tale, that when he had met a brother from the JA he had been taken aside and told all about some troubles the brother was having, and that this disclosure had convinced him of their sincerity.

My elder friend, it then occured to me, had done the same with me. He had told me of some troubles they were having with a sister. This disclosure made me feel intensely uncomfortable. Firstly because it seemed to me that the sister's privacy was being betrayed, but also that it was perverse that it was being betrayed to an outsider. They should be supporting their sister, not bad-mouthing her to me. And I said so.

I wonder if this pattern is typical or just a coincidence? Does the JA make it a policy to win people's trust by letting people into their confidence? It is certainly an effective ploy. It is flattering to be trusted, to be asked advice. And you will more happily show vulnerability to someone who has apparently shown his vulnerability to you.

conditional friendships

I warmed to the JA over the last year or so when my friend David told me that he was happy with just being friends; that he respected the fact that I don't believe and have no intention of ever coming back. I have to admit to a little skepticism, because in our day we were not allowed any non-JA friends and there was an "either for us or against us" attitude to "worldly" people.

I had hoped that this friendship - (David is a mechanic and I like cars, so we can talk about neutral stuff) - was evidence that things have changed in the JA, but recent texts suggest that it is still hard for JA folk to have unconditional friendships. In effect he said that it is difficult for them to be with people who do not want to join them. The unconditionality has become something of a test; a gauge for me of the extent to which things have really changed.

Helping a young chap leave, even though he'd made it clear to them that I'd had no part in persuading him, and even though they'd assured me they didn't hold my part against me, won't have helped. But there seems to have been a definite cooling of the friendship. I think I am being quietly dumped.

Multiply and the New Model Army

I thought about the JA when Bush was giving his infamous Axis of Evil speech. Anyone with half a brain could see that it was a puerile little speech intended for a simple minded audience. When he said something like, "Either you are for us or you are for the terrorists" I thought of Noel, because Noel has an equally simplistic view of the world.

When I went back to Bugbrooke and went to talk to Mick Temperate last year it was quite clear that he thought that my desire to draw a line under the past meant that I wanted to recant my opposition to them. There is no room within their perception of the world for me to seek to be -if not friends, certainly no longer at war with them.

I do not regret blowing the whistle on the JA. It is possible for me to want a ceasefire and yet to think that what I did back then was right. I feel that what Mick went on to say more than vindicated my position.

If the JA have changed for the better - if their webmaster, for instance feels it was inconceivable that they once taught that leavers would be damned, and if they do really have an openness to other Christians, where previously they dismissed all of them as worldly, nominal, backslidden compromisers, surely that is evidence that reflection on the past (following exclusion from the Evangelical Alliance etc) did the community good?

The JA have always, when some allusion has been made to their cultic image in the past, admitted in general terms that mistakes were made. But they are never willing or even able to identify any mistakes specifically. I remember we said it when I was there. It is just a way of brushing aside the past without actually accepting responsibility for it. And that is the trouble: they do not want to be accountable for mistakes (if they can even countenance them ever having really been made), but they do want the past forgotten. They are remodelling themselves.

Where in the past they wanted nothing to do with any Christians outside ZION, now they want to emphasise their evangelicalism and their being rooted in traditional Christianity (citing the Nicene creed etc in Wikipedia, for instance).

It will be interesting to see over time whether Multiply is a genuine sharing of brotherhood with other Christians (whether it serves other church's interests as well as the JA's), or whether it is still just a self-serving relationship, drawing affiliated churches into a the JFC (as it did with my friend David's house church). Or, more cynically, existing for no reason other than to give the impression of respectability and to justify their membership of the EA, which they spin out whenever accused of being a cult (para 3 of Criticism).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Brainwashing is bunk!

An issue which got me into hot water with the anti-cult movement was that of brainwashing and its equally dodgy counter, deprogramming. It is common for ex-cultists to blame their having been caught up in what they dismiss as a cult on something done to them, something which made them believe or commit against their will. Whatever the subtleties of manipulation employed by any group, the idea that anyone can be forced to do anything against their will in this way is complete nonsense.

I have always held that I am personally responsible for joining the JA and equally responsible for having left. Nobody forced me to join the JA; I was eager to join. Nobody stopped me leaving, though I had to summon up lots of courage and conviction to challenge the assertion of the elders that I would backslide into apostasy and that without God's covering, I might more easily get cancer etc. Yes, there was a hell of a lot of pressure and mental coercion, but at the end of the day, my leaving was still a personal decision.

In the early days of campaigning, I was invited, with another ex-JA, to join a Cult-awareness group; we were among their few token ex-"cultists". Many in this group were very much in favour of deprogramming, a concept premised on the notion that "brainwashing" is real. Since brainwashing was held to be an involuntary mind-altering process, deprogramming sought to reverse the process using similar methods - breaking down brainwashing's structure by imprisonment, sleep and food deprivation, intellectual haranguing and challenging etc.

I felt that my ex-JA friend was being dishonest in claiming that we had been brainwashed, and said so. I told the gathered meeting that what they had to come to terms with was that, yes, their kids HAD chosen to join their respective groups, however inconceivable it might be to them as parents to believe that their kids had rejected their parents' morals etc. I expressed the opinion that deprogramming, because it was based on a false premise, would be counter-productive and might be damaging to its victims. I was no more popular with ex-cultists than I was with the JFC, and in fact it does have to be said that I had some of my most cultic experiences amongst those who supposedly opposed cultism.

I chose to join the JA and so did everyone else. I was not brainwashed. Or, if I was, I did it to myself. I remember long walks where I argued, almost schizophrenically, with myself, trying to reason myself around from my own way of seeing things to the way that fellow JFC people saw things. Why? Because thinking differently from the group was torture. When I joined them I desperately wanted to believe what they believed, so began the tortuous process of converting myself. I am responsible for that; nobody made me.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Jesus Cult logo

John Campbell has launched a challenge (on Wikipedia) to my copyright of the Jesus Cult logo on the grounds that it infringes copyright owned by the JFC.

The logo was used on a pamphlet about the JFC and parodied their badge. Legal advice was taken at the time (1985), when we were advised that as the badge was clearly a parody of the original it "constituted an original work".

I have responded by pointing out that the JFC made no legal challenge in 1985 and that the logo has been in the public domain and unchallenged for 22 years.

I regard the current challenge as nothing more than a desperate attempt to suppress something which makes it clear that they have long been regarded as a cult.

Wikipedia - someone please re-write the crit section

Would someone please re-write the section on Wikipedia which has to do with Criticism of the JA. I don't know who first started this section but it has had a frustrating history, with numerous efforts deleted by John Campbell and others.

He is challenging my right to edit it on the grounds of conflict of interest, which I think is fair comment. (I think his right to edit the JA article should also be challenged on the grounds of COI too, as he is their PR man, but ho hum).

As I think it is important that at least something appears in this section which has some punch and as JC will almost certainly get mine deleted, I would be delighted if someone would take up the challenge and rewrite it.

Here is what I wrote [revised Nov 07] (wrapped around what little was there, as editors should endeavour not to delete others work) - sorry about the formatting (no paragraphs):

In the past, local Northamptonshire newspapers and the late Archdeacon of Northampton, Bazil Marsh, among others ([2]) have accused the group of being a sect ([3]) or religious cult ([4]) but members of the group have denied this ([5], [6]). They state that the Jesus Fellowship is a member of the Evangelical Alliance ([7])
In 1985/6 an intercessory prayer group known as Prayerforce was formed by a former member of the Jesus Fellowship, Peter Eveleigh[8], with the intention of praying for change in the Jesus Fellowship. Together with another Christian and fellow ex-member he published a pamphlet under the auspices of Prayerforce, which highlighted their concerns about, among other things, the fellowship's exclusivity and isolationism, a matter which they then raised with the Evangelical Alliance (an umbrella group representing one million evangelical Christians in the UK). They were concerned that the Jesus Fellowship was benefiting from the respectability afforded by EA membership, while continuing to eschew contact with all other Christians of whom they were scathingly critical, referring to them as "the form without the power". They were concerned that undue pressure was placed on members to become life-long celibates and that the degree to which members were required to submit to Elders was unhealthy. They also highlighted the then prevalent teaching that leaving the fellowship must result in backsliding and apostasy, making some afraid to leave for fear that they would lose their salvation([9])([10]).
The EA invited the pamphlet's authors to meet with representatives of the JFC to discuss their concerns, but the latter refused to attend and subsequently the fellowship was asked to resign its membership. The JFC issued a threat of legal action against Eveleigh but after he stood his ground no further action was taken ([11]; indeed a further edition of the pamphlet had wide circulation. Subsequently efforts were made by the JFC to cultivate external contacts through the formation of Multiply Christian Network ([12]) with a view to re-joining the EA, which they did in 2000.
According to local and national newspaper articles from the 1980s and 1990s, members of the Jesus Army communal houses were encouraged to withdraw from the world and cut off their ties with outsiders[13][14], except for the purpose of evangelising. It was also stated in newspaper articles that it was a policy of the group that community members must gain the permission of the group's "elders" before they got married[15] citing the claims in the Prayerforce pamphlet[16].
Concern was also raised about the Jesus Fellowship's corporal punishment practices, involving the use of a rod for juniors and a wooden spoon on infants, which Noel Stanton defended on an Anglia TV documentary in June 1989([17]). Parents who objected to being required to use "the rod", which they described as being casually visible over the doorways of households, complained of the pressure applied to them to do so; and one child, now grown up, has expressed the humiliation of being beaten with a spoon, rather than being conventionally smacked.[18]. A member of the Jesus Army, who had a criminal record for rape and indecent assault, was convicted in 2004 for repeatedly beating two children on the hands and soles of feet with a weapon made from three bamboo canes tied together.[19]. The man's lawyer said that the defendant believed the boy "was going to the devil". The judge said, "You have a total lack of remorse and would do the same again.'
Several members (of a community in which celibacy is required of all single members, and which requires strict sexual segregation and tolerates no flirting) have been convicted, over the years, of indecency, indecent assault, one of incest and two of making indecent photographs[20][21] and the court was told in one case of child abuse which had spanned three years at a JA commune[22]. One member was also convicted of rape[23].
Throughout the history of the Jesus Fellowship, there have been a number of deaths of community members, fellowship members, associates of the group and visitors to the community, which have resulted in concerns being raised by parents of members about the circumstances in which they died[24]; and in at least one case the coroner returned an open verdict.[25] However statistically you would find the percentage of such events no higher than in any cross section of the general public over a number of years, though perhaps not in the average church.
As Professor Jeffrey K Hadden commented: "The Jesus Fellowship did not escape the muckraking of the tabloids." [26]
One of the houses was featured more recently in a Channel 4 television documentary, "Battlecentre", in 2001 (Production summary, Guardian Unlimited Reader Reviews, BBC interview with producer).

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Wikipedia - the JA Point of View

The thing with encyclopedias, or so we are accustomed to expect, is that they are written by disinterested parties whose only motivation is to distill the facts into an easily understood and accessible document. There is some considerable debate about the issue of points of view and bias when encyclopedia entries can be written by just anybody. So it was wise of the Jesus Army's PR man, John Campbell to write their own entry himself and subsequently to edit out anything which might put them in a bad light.

John Cambell (and other members of the fellowship) keep a close eye on the entry and edit it, applying Wikipedia's rules about evidence and citation scrupulously, forcing critics to provide back-up for any contentious claims. However, the concessions Campbell allows his critics are disingenuous, leaving the impression that credible opposition has been minimal, that at worst all the church has ever suffered has been a little inevitable "muck-raking" by the tabloid press. No mention is made of concerns expressed by a judge, a coroner, MPs, a House of Commons Select Committee, by the EA, Baptist Union, FAIR, CIC, the Christian media, numerous TV programmes including Newsnight, etc.

My understanding from having read the discussion tab on the JA's Wikipedia entry is that several claims about their history of being regarded as a cult and the very great deal of concern felt by many about their activities have been removed on the grounds that this is mere opinion, despite there being considerable evidence for this. You have to wonder if it is worth amassing the evidence if it is only going to get wiped the following morning.

Campbell has also removed from the external links list any which were to anybody too obviously critical of the Jesus Army. It will be interesting to see how long my own link survives. Amusingly, there is a short bit at the bottom of the discussion page suggesting that blogs should be deleted from the entry on the grounds that they push a "Point of View"; while, by implication, the Jesus Army's own entry itself is neutral! I have put my POV across in a blog because I am not terribly IT savvy and I find it easy to use. But if the JA block my "blog" I shall just have to learn to use another format.

But fundamentally, should it be acceptible for any organisation with a strong Public Relations remit to control the supposedly neutral medium which it uses to sell its point of view, to the exclusion of other points of view? Should it be allowed to present its point of view as fact and delete any counter-claims or alternative positions on the grounds that they are just contentious opinion? Isn't all writing socially constructed, at the end of the day?

It strikes me that Cambell's insistence on proof and his dismissal of opinion is disingenuous, as the JA are not required to prove, for instance, that what they claim to believe is the same as what is actively taught; their claims are documented, the latter is not; but it is the latter which is, among many other things, cause for so much concern. Furthermore, their inclusion of a pdf link documenting their beliefs would ordinarily be disallowed by Wikipedia as "self-serving". And their only included source is a book which they published themselves!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

God's hand in a backslider's apostasy

Some Christians might argue that my life is evidence of what Noel warned us against when he preached at Nene in 1983 that anyone who broke covenant with the community would inevitably backslide into apostasy. Then, as now, I was very proud, and when I left the community, I was utterly determined that whatever I was told, I would keep my faith; but I lost it all the same in the same year that I decided to let the campaign to expose the JA drop. That coincidence has only just occurred to me, funnily enough, and I don't know if it has any significance at all.

I remember the story that Noel told back then. He was a terrific story teller. Its powerful message was certaily not lost on me. He was a voracious reader and told us that he had just been moved by an account he had read about a man who, at the turn of the century was known for taking his family to chapel every single Sunday, without fail, but did not go into the chapel himself, though he was there at the door to collect the family when their services were over.

(You will have to forgive this brief paraphrase. I am rubbish at telling stories)

The Pastor of the church had observed this pattern for some considerable time and was puzzled by it. Eventually the Pastor approched the man and asked why he was so determined to see that his family were always in church but he did not seem to share their conviction. The man (let's call him Paul) answered him by taking the Pastor to the top of a hill, where he said, "This is the very spot where I denied the Lord and now I am paying the price for my disobedience."

Paul explained that twenty years before God had called him to serve Him, but he had wanted to do his own thing: get into drinking, build a self-serving business, become rich, womanise - to lead a "worldly life". The Holy Spirit had layed it on Paul's heart that this was his moment of truth, that in this instant (an instant that Noel told us we might not even recognise if it happened to us) he must choose to follow God, or deny the Holy Spirit.

Paul hadn't understood then, as he did now, that in that instant he had set in motion a course of consequences which could never be undone. For, it would not be the devil who would harden Paul's heart against God, but God himself. Paul told the pastor that God had seared his conscience, not because He wanted to, but in fulfilment of his part of the covenant. Paul backslid not because he chose to but because he chose not to follow God's calling. Paul backslid not only because God withdrew His covering but because God had an active part in making Paul's apostasy complete.

Years later Paul, a broken man, returned to the hilltop and begged God's forgiveness, but God would not hear him. He did not blame God for this; he knew that God was being true to his promise to fulfill his own covenat and let Paul deny His Holy Spirit. Every Sunday for years, he said, he had taken his family to church and while they had been about their devotions, he had been on this hilltop spot begging God to let him come back under His covering, but a just God would not hear him. "I am determined that my family will not make my mistake but will live lives in the fear of God".

Noel's meaning was clear to me. I might never know the time when God put me on the spot but if I grieved him, He would, himself, harden my heart, not out of any sense of malice but simply because He is a just God ("not a woolly, wishy-washy, namby-pamby God").

Monday, 8 October 2007

Leave the JA and you are leaving God

I am not one for regrets. I have almost too few to mention but one bugged me throughout the 1980s, which was that I hadn't been able to get across through the media my main concern about the Jesus Fellowship: the fact that members were taught that if they left they would be damned. It just wasn't sexy enough for a secular audience, which lapped up stories about banned relationships, banned TV, arranged marriages, children beaten with rods, babies smacked with wooden spoons, celibacy, etc etc. Certainly, these had been concerns of ours but they were not the be all and end all.

I rang Mick (Temperate) Haines in the late 1980s in an attempt to explain this, to make him understand that my concern had not been put across clearly enough, even by the Christian media. I think he imagined I regretted talking to the media at all and was apologising, but this was not the case. I just regretted not being able to control the stories the media told....and as my main audience was the JA themselves, I attempted to make Mick understand that their lost salvation doctrine was wrong and kept people in membership under duress.

I talked to David (my local JA House Elder friend) about this last year and though he is keen to emphasise that things have changed and that lost salvation is not taught at the JA, if it ever was, he does concede that whoever leaves the JA must backslide, since he cannot conceive of any situation in which God would call anyone away from them. I asked where they would stand on someone's belief that he was being called to missionary work abroad, perhaps, or to join another church, and there was simply is no room within his perception of the JA covenant to accommodate such a notion. Essentially, he says, God just wouldn't. The call to covenant in the JA is irrevocable.

I suppose that whatever the JA now teach about the loss of salvation, there is still no room in their understanding of Jesus fellowship membership for a breaking of the covenant made at their baptisms. This understanding is rooted in the fellowship's historical concept of being THE church. In my time it was explicit that all other churches were nominal; that we were the church that God was blessing, the late 20th century continuation of the work done by the Salvation Army, who had lost their edge, being now the "form without the power". Within our concept of church, there was nowhere else to go, nowhere that would not be a compromise, the beginnings of backsliding. Leaving the JA was then to leave God.

I wrote a posting for the JA's own forum about this but their moderator, Tschaka Roussell intercepted it and wouldn't let it through, insisting that it was a perversion of Christian belief and simply never would have been taught at Bugbrooke. To his credit Tschaka (a very sincere and earnest young man) later emailed to say that a senior elder who has been in the fellowship since before my time, [name removed], had told him that lost salvation for those who broke covenant was spoken of far more freely in earlier times. Nb. I have received an email from Tschaka asking me to check our correspondence for the name of the senior elder he had said confirmed this. It seems I misremembered it. I will amend this in due course. I apologise for any offense caused. (11 Oct. 07)

After I left, a fellow ex-member referred, tongue-in-cheek, to "Bug-speak" (Bugbroooke's own Newspeak, as in Orwell's 1984) as being a means by which the truth could be disguised from non-members. It wasn't a term which had ever been used, but I knew what he meant right away. At that time the JA was not in good fellowship with other Christians and had to try less hard than it does today to present its sense of being THE church in a good light. Noel Stanton actively taught us not to cast pearls before swine, effectively using the Bible to sanction lies or sleights of hand if they protected the church from unpalatable truths being seen by either unbelievers or nominal Christians (Christians from other churches).

Nowadays, the JA's PR activities are considerably more sophisticated. In contrast to the 1980s, when their exclusion from the Evangelical Alliance came about precisely because they were careless of the views of other churches, their image now among other evangelicals is of paramount importance to them. To eschew claims that they are a cult they emphasise their Christian orthodoxy, playing down theological distinctness. Teaching of lost salvation for leavers is no longer made explicit, but implicit in the suggestion that God would never call away from the JA anyone called into covenant with them, is the implication that nobody can ever leave and remain under grace. The differences are subtle, but ultimately the pressures on members to stay must be similar; and this was precisely the sort of danger of JA membership which John Everett and I had campaigned to expose.

And a man's foes shall be they of his own household

Matthew 10:36 came to mind today. Now, don't get me wrong, I am useless on the Bible. I remember this verse because I am good at remembering scenes and dialogue from films and this was supposedly chosen by Breaker Morant to be his epitaph, when he was executed after being court martialled for shooting prisoners in the Boer War, despite it being clear that orders to this effect had been given by Lord Kitchener.

Anyone who knows of my time in the JA might very well imagine that I remember the verse in that connection. But not so. Funnily enough, I have found that while the JA have been able to present a consistently unified front, its detractors have been a disparate bunch, all speaking from different positions, and sometimes undermining each other.

I envy the JA its sense of being right, its moral certainties and its absolutism. But the simple fact is that until you meet an ex-member outside the church, you do not really know him or her. He or she can then be seen as an individual, and the trouble with individuals is that they cannot be controlled, coralled, etc. They will have their own say, so it isn't hard to see why the JA so anxiously discourage "MINDiness", "opinionation" and "independence".

As well as there being many individuals out here who were once members, each with their own stand to make, there are others with their own interests: anti-cult groups of various types, Christian groups with different emphases and crackpots of various shades and others with an interest in the JA but no direct connection to it. And the simple fact is that while it might simplistically be imagined on some forums that we all share a common goal in expressing concerns about the JA, this simply is not the case.

Within this "household" of critics of the JA is one who has spent the last few years as a very disruptive element, so much so that I have chosen not to post on the forum he lurks on for a good 10 months, because when I do so, it almost invariably leads to skirmishing which detracts from the purpose of the forum. It is counter-productive and reinforces JA prejudices about us.

I feel I should add that at times I have behaved quite badly in these scraps: goading this particular "Troll" (as he calls himself) and allowing myself to be goaded. I don't think forums are good for me (are they good for anyone?) because their inhuman anonymity brings out people's worst instincts. I decided about 11months ago not to go on them anymore.

I have always maintained that we must be scrupulously honest when we tell people what it was like for us in the JA. I do not share the view expressed by many that a lie about the JA is fair game as long as it harms them. So when the Troll broadcast the claim that Noel Stanton was a paedophile, I immediately jumped in and insisted that such a scurrilous and unfounded assertion was more damaging to us than it would be to Stanton. Troll resented this very much and made a point of insisting that my position therefore made me a defender of paedophilia. I am not particularly comfortable publishing this here, but at least this way, the truth of it can be seen.

The paradox of Troll's unpleasant claims about me is that they coincided with his concession that he had no evidence for his claims about Stanton, but had "just flung some shit around to see if any stuck". He resented me not being willing, as a leading critic of the JA, to let the lie stand, whether or not it was false. He resented me not giving him my endorsement. Perversely, though he has dropped his claims about Stanton, he keeps up his claims about me.

Yes, I have mellowed over the JA, and yes, I have shaken hands with Noel and Mick and sought to put the past behind me, but that does not make me any less concerned about some of the less palatable aspects of life in the community. Nor does that make me an apologist for them.

Shaking Noel's hand

This time last year I went back to Bugrooke. I arranged to go up to a Men's Weekend with David's household and stayed at Servant Hearts in Northampton, sharing a brothers' room with four others; my first taste of community since 1984. The door was covered with a blanket as a modesty screen, as we were on a floor which accomodated a married couple, and therefore a sister. The accomodation was sparsely decorated, the air stale and the brethren a little put out when I asked to open a window, but it felt good to be there, not least of all because I knew I was free to leave.

The funny thing is that, just as I felt no need to sabbotage evangelistic efforts the day that I left the community, I now felt no wish to break the rules of the household or to be argumentative. I was a guest in someone else's world and I was determined to respect its mores and expectations. So, when I walked into a room full of sisters, I knew better than to do more than briefly greet them and go into the next room and when "someone coming round" hung around the sisters a little too long, I steared him away, as much for his sake as for theirs.

I don't think I knew any of the current members of Servant Hearts when I was in community, though I got into conversation with one brother, Bill, who I recall having been around back then, a lanky American, modest and very appealing, and someone I'd like to know as his own man, rather than someone speaking very much the Bugbrooke line.

The following day I was rather nervous because I knew that all the men of the community would be gathered at The Deco, a large ex-cinema. Very many of my old friends, I knew, had since left the church, but there would be many still left who would know me and I didn't know what reception to expect, even though David had cleared a path for me....clearing it with the eldership and especially the Prophet, Noel Stanton.

I know David won't mind me saying, but in his mind there was very much the hope that my desire to clear the air with the fellowship is evidence that the Lord is doing a work in me - and the young man who stayed with me this summer tells me that the household took great pride in being party to the reconciliation, seeing it as the beginnings of my return to Bugbrooke for good. It's something that I had anticipated and David was gracious when I insisted that this was, to my mind, nothing more than friends catching up and shaking hands.

I was particularly delighted to meet and spend much of the morning with Trevor Saxby, who I'd liked very much in the old days, when he had been my Elder, briefly, when I had been his "Timothy" (a young brother training to lead) in the last months before I left the community. We had kept up a brief correspondence after I left, a luxury which I wasn't allowed with other, more junior members (non-elders) in the community. He told me he still has one of the letters, which he treasured, and had wondered over the years how I'd got on.

I enjoyed singing choruses, some of which I remembered, and even singing in tongues, which I admit I did tongue in cheek, because it just went to show that we had indeed learned to fake it. Anyone can do it. In fact I remember my first elder, Mick, encouraging me not to be self-conscious about making it up, with the assurance that God would take over and use it. Mine always had smatterings of school Latin and Arabic remembered from Lawrence of Arabia. Knowing it is faked doesn't make it less attractive when everyone is singing in tongues. Like Morgan Freeman's character in Shawshank Redemption talking about opera broadcast over the tannoy, "I don't know what those two ladies were singing about. I don't want to know. It is better that way. All we knew was, when they sang, every one of us felt like free men" (well, something like that).

Near the end of a meeting ,which was led in the main by Mick Temperate, my old elder, who seems now destined to replace Noel, I received a message that Mick wanted to speak to me. David and Trevor escorted me to the stage, where Mick and miscellaneous other elders were talking and a rather serious Mick took my hand, while Trevor softened the atmosphere with a pleasantry.

What follows makes it clear that precisely why I had chosen to go to "Bugbrooke" had not been made clear to the Eldership. I don't know if David's wishful thinking had coloured perceptions, but Mick seems to have expected me to beg his forgiveness and will have been a bit stunned by my response. I'd hoped to avoid raking up the past, but Mick set about telling me that what I had done in the 1980s had been very damaging: they had been ousted from the EA and Baptist Union, been shunned by leading Christian leaders, been unable to find rentable venues for several years and many doubters had "wobbled" and left and even some senior figures had wavered. Perhaps my response was not tactful, but I just said "Good". We stood there in silence for a moment.

There was a slightly anxious atmosphere and I said, "Mick, what I said had to be said. What was there in my pamphlet that wasn't true?" and he conceded that none of it was untrue, "But it wasn't helpful".

"It wasn't meant to help you", I said.

I don't think much more was said. Mick brought the meeting to an end. I had genuinely tried to come to the get-together with the campaigning stuff behind me, but leaving the stage, I realised that I felt incredibly proud of what our campaigns had achieved. It had taken twenty years for me to hear it from the horse's mouth that we had been far more successful than I'd ever dared dream at the time. And if the church had changed as much as it wanted the world to believe, perhaps John and I had had a part in that. I felt vindicated.

The meeting with Noel was more brief. I was standing enjoying talking to Steve whom I'd liked very much and who told me that he remembered almost verbatim a conversation we'd shared the week before I'd left the community, which had left him hurt because I had given no hint that I was going to "split", when a message came that Noel was ready to see me. I respect the fact that Noel is their leader and that I was his guest, but I didn't want to cut Steve short, so I let things run on just a bit, until the rather anxious messenger returned to insist that I must not keep Noel waiting. I was sorry I'd hurt Steve and I apologised and we shook hands warmly.

Noel stood on the stage, flanked by what we always used to call "strong young brothers". Trevor's warm pleasantries opened things and Noel took my hand and told me he knew God had me on his heart and had plans for me in Zion. I had no wish to offend Noel, but I did say, jokingly, that I hoped God had got that wrong. I told him how I was not a believer but how much of a pleasure it was to be among them again and how grateful I was to be received by them. There were a number of light-hearted exchanges, which David feared might lead me to going too far and carrying out my threat to challenging Noel to get a haircut, so that he abruptly cut things short and I was ushered away.

I enjoyed my time back in "Zion". I think I achieved some measure of "closure". Very few brothers had been at all unpleasant, and being in the company of old friends, Steve and Trevor, talking briefly with Ed, John C. and various other familiar faces, and spending time with the folk at Servant Hearts and with David and his household was good fun. I am grateful to all the people who were open to me for making this visit a success.

Why I wanted to go back after 22 years

Twenty-two years after I left the Jesus People I made arrangements to go back to "Bugbrooke" (as the fellowship was more commonly known in evangelical circles in the early days) to attempt to draw a line under my experiences. You can't stay angry for ever and with time I'd found that my most dominant memories of life in community were happy ones. Noel had always said that there would be a God shaped hole in my heart, but he was wrong; the hole in my heart is shaped like the brethren I was close to. And though I know people say of any important event in your life, that you should never go back, and though I knew that many would regard me with suspicion and even animosity, part of me wanted to try to see if I couldn't fill the hole.

One particular handicap to this plan is the fact that relationships back then were formed on the basis of our shared faith, and more importantly on our over-riding sense of being called to Zion; not merely the universal church, but uniquely THE church blessed by God. Would it be possible to be friends after all these years with these people, when not only am I not a member of the elect at Bugbrooke, but not even a believer any more?

Further, could I possibly be accepted by people who, if they remembered me at all, had regarded me for the last two decades as "Judas"? In speaking out about the JFC (Jesus Fellowship Church/ JA) I'd never made it personal. I had never openly criticised any individual, except for members of the leadership. In many respects I'd felt I was speaking for the brethren who had no voice. So, while I'd changed in their eyes - becoming a persecutor - they remained people I'd loved and always missed.

Why would I still miss these people, after all these years? Well, that one is simple. I am middle aged now and acutely conscious of my mortality, so that, like many my age, I am going through that stage of looking back to my childhood, youth, etc...and trying to track school-friends, talking to aged relatives, contacting old girlfriends etc. It is what you do. It is what has made Friends Reunited so much of a success.

It was simply that - a desire to be catch up with old friends. If the community had changed as much as David said they had and if they regretted the mistakes of a more intense age and had indeed opened up to the wider church, as they claimed, then many of my criticisms had been addressed and this was a different church to the one I'd left. And if that was the case, little need stand in the way of a reconciliation.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Surviving the Jesus Army; Even after all these years.

Speculation about me on a forum on which I used to post frequently made me feel that I should start my own blog on the subject of the JA. I have contributed in the past both to the JA's own forum, which is heavily moderated and where what I am permitted to say is severely limited, and to a largely unmoderated, largely anti-JA site, where freedom to speak has been as much a curse as a blessing, as it has attracted the attentions of one malevolent individual in particular who was liberal in his expressions of malice. Here, at least, I can speak my mind without being moderated or attacked; the medium is under my control

Ironically, my malevolent detractor was neither JA nor a former member, and more ironically still, he decided to try to destroy me because he saw me as an apologist for the Jesus Army.

What is so ironic about this is that my name has been associated within Jesus Army circles for the last two decades with my having blown the whistle on the Jesus Army when I left it in 1984, by publishing a pamphlet with another former member, John Everett, who had left a year or two before me. Together, we made a determined effort to draw attention to aspects of the Jesus People (as they were then known) which we felt were severely damaging to members. This involved several years' involvement in TV, radio and newspaper articles, talks to churches and involvement with Christian and secular cult concern organisations, which organised talks to the Police, Samaritans etc. Other activities at the time included a telephone hotline to help people leaving - and I am confident that we helped as many to leave as I helped to join the fellowship.

Eventually in 1989 after a very good, very balanced article by William Dalrymple in the Independent, and after several years of quite intensive activity raising public and church awareness of the Jesus People/ Jesus Army/ Jesus Fellowship Church / New Creation Christian Community (and resulting in their expulsion from the Evangelical Alliance and the Baptist Union), it was time for me to move on, get a degree, etc. And though I still thought about my experiences often over the years, I no longer felt any need to campaign about the issues.

However, around the time I left the scene (or a little after that) Mike Aldrich, who actually I know very little about, but who I respect as someone who deals dispassionately with quite emotive material, and who I therefore came to have a lot of time for, was setting up a website to keep a watching brief on the Jesus Army, and asked if he could make liberal use of my campaign material, which I was happy to agree, and subsequently I contributed to a nascent forum, which has since moved and changed a good deal. Some years later I would contribute remeniscences to the forum, many of which were happy. Over the years my feelings had mellowed and I'd come to remember many of the more positive aspects of community life. It was this mellowing which would put me in the cross-hairs of my malevolent detractor.

About 5 years ago, quite by accident, I learned that the mechanic who serviced my car, David, was not only a member of a house church associated with the JA, but was actually its Elder/ Pastor and was in the process of transferring his household, lock stock and barrel, under the authority of the leadership of the Jesus Army. And of course we got talking. Our contact was sporadic (annual MOTs etc), and to be fair to him, he did not attempt to evangelise me. If anything, further contact was initiated by me.

There came a time about two years ago when I felt that I wanted to draw a line under my JA experiences by trying to attempt some kind of reconciliation with the eldership of the fellowship, and in particular with its Prophet, Noel Stanton. David was instrumental in making this possible this time last year. I want to write about this in a separate posting.

Earlier this year one member of David's household contacted me to ask my advice about leaving the JA; he was aware that I'd done so myself during the fellowship's more intense years, so knew it was possible. He later asked if I would help him leave and he came to stay with me for a few months over the summer. I put him in touch with someone who gave him a job and he moved into his own place and is doing well. His experiences have convinced me that though many of the people have changed and though there have been organisational changes and massive use of the internet as a PR tool, the JA is in essence very much as it was when I left it in 1984.

However, it will have to be someone else's "cause" now. What I want to write here in however long it takes, is an attempt to clarify the events of the last twenty years. This is my story. The JA have published theirs, making reference to my "Judas" activities and to my having persecuted them. And there have been numerous anti-cult books, written in the years since I moved on (and which I haven't read), which cite the Eveleigh/Everett campaigns and quote/paraphrase our material quite freely (like this example -see appendix - reviewed online) In turn, others have published speculation about my having sold my soul back to Noel Stanton, when I went to clear the air.

I am neither an apologist for the Jesus Army nor an embittered anti-JA watcher. I have made my peace with my past. It has made me who I am and, despite everything, I am comfortable with myself.