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Reflection: Spiritual Abuse and fresh expressions in the CofE

Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington is an ordinand at Westcott House and completing a PhD within the Cambridge Theological Federation.

I’m not sure what thoughts and feelings the terms ‘Spiritual Abuse’ or ‘fresh expressions’ trigger in your mind. Are you intrigued? Concerned? Cautious or guarded? Is your response already forming on your lips?

We hope that our churches are places where people can find refuge and can experience the love of Christ but sadly too often we fall short and power that should be shared is instead wielded for the benefit of some to the detriment of others. This is a reality we, as the Church, need to face up to.  Then we need to commit to doing and being better.

The first step is recognising that there is a problem and that involves listening to the stories of those with lived experience of spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is commonly defined as a form of emotional and psychological abuse, characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Encouragingly there are a growing number of resources available to allow us to listen and learn, however, I found that there was nothing aimed at fresh expressions of church or new ecclesial communities.

As a pioneer ordinand, I am excited for all God is doing in and through new ecclesial communities but am aware that sadly no corner of the Church is immune to abuses of power. And as a survivor of spiritual abuse myself, this gap troubled me.

As one experienced PCC member remarked to me some years ago on the topic of rotas, ‘if you spot a gap it’s your job to fix it.’ And so I have embarked on a PhD which seeks to explore the lived experience of survivors of Spiritual Abuse within fresh expressions (fx) in the Church of England and assess the theological and pastoral implications.

The first part of this project is working with survivors, asking the questions of what is the lived experience of SA within fx in the CofE? i.e., What does it look like? How is it experienced? And what is the impact of spiritual practices, behaviours, and theological convictions typical within the ecclesial community of an fx upon spiritual abuse?

I will then work with the reflections from survivors to explore a few key topics that emerge to explore in more depth how we can listen and learn from their stories, so kindly given.

I don’t know yet what will emerge from this project, in what ways it will challenge, sadden or anger me. Like so many other times in my life, I am living by faith.

If you are interested in taking part in the study the advert is attached below:

Participants needed

As part of a PhD on Spiritual Abuse and fresh expressions in the Church of England: An exploration of lived experience, I am looking for between 6 and 10 people who have experienced spiritual abuse within a fresh expression of church in the Church of England at least one year ago who may be interested in taking part in two interviews of between 45 and 60 minutes with myself. 

The purpose of this study is to learn more about the experience of spiritual abuse in fresh expressions of church in the Church of England. Participation is entirely voluntary.

For more information, you can contact me using the information below.

Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington

Dr Julian Gotobed, Cambridge Theological Federation
Dr Lisa Oakley, University of Chester