Peter Ball, Vicky Beeching, and Lizzy Lowe: lessons about abusive Christianity

This is a long blog, so I’m going to start with a brief synopsis.

Bishop Peter Ball is gay, closeted, repressed sexuality, secretive, spiritual, and sexually, emotionally, and relationally deeply damaged, damaged, I will argue, by his Christian environment, as the IICSA Hearings laid bare.

Vicky Beeching has been and is being damaged by Christians in her environment as recounted in Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame. Her body system and health have been acutely damaged, emotionally and physically. So were many of the victims of Peter Ball.

Lizzie Lowe committed suicide aged 14 in September 2014. She thought she may be a lesbian, was scared of telling her parents and had struggled to reconcile her feelings with the family's strong Christian faith.

What is the first cause of the damage which so deeply affected Peter Ball, Vicky Beeching, and Lizzie Lowe? It is misguided Christian teaching and practice; abusive use of the Bible, of authority, and a seriously inadequate understanding of Jesus and his teaching.

Bishop Peter Ball and the IICSA Hearings

I don’t think the Church of England has yet begun to learn the most basic lessons from the Gibbs Report and the IICSA hearings in to the Diocese of Chichester and Bishop Peter Ball. It’s not only about safeguarding, Safeguarding is not even primary. It’s about what creates a culture of abuse in the first place in the Christian Church.

What has the Church of England establishment learnt from the IICSA Peter Ball hearings?

Here is a list of what the Church of England establishment thinks it has learnt from the Gibb report and the ICSA hearings. It will be familiar to you and you can skip to the end. But this is where the Church of England’s level of understanding is, and as I hope to show in the second half of the blog, it reveals how much it still has to learn. This list is based on the Archbishops’ Council oral closing submission to IICSA for the Peter Ball case study on 27 July 2018.

  • The picture is even worse than it may previously have appeared.
  • Underlying attitudes, mentality and culture within the Church enabled the mistakes to be made.
  • The Church’s lack of consideration for those who were abused by Ball was shocking, even callous. The victims and survivors were not just disbelieved; it is as if they were not heard at all, as if what they had experienced did not much matter.
  • The victim’s needs consistently took second place to a focus on Ball’s situation, and how he could be rehabilitated and supported.
  • Decisions about Peter Ball’s return to ministry were driven by Ball’s own interests, without consideration or understanding of the gravity of what he had done, or that it amounted to a history and a pattern of abuse, and not to a mere "indiscretion".
  • The reputation of the Church and concern for the well-being and rehabilitation of Ball was prioritised.
  • Peter Ball was an exceptionally skilful manipulator of people and distorter of the truth.
  • An understanding of the way in which relationships of unequal power can be abused, and of the lasting harm caused by certain kinds of abuse, was very probably less developed and widespread then, than it is now.
  • There was an inability to comprehend that a clergyman, especially a senior and respected one, with undoubted gifts to inspire and persuade, could also be capable of wickedness.
  • There was unwillingness to face up to clear evidence of some of the things he had done, and its implications.
  • There was institutional moral cowardice.There was a lack of understanding of abuse and its consequences.
  • Culture and attitudes have to change and have changed in some respects, but not enough, and not to the same extent in all parts of the Church.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury admitted the report revealed “inexcusable and shocking behaviour”.
  • The Archbishops’ Council agreed that the Gibb report disclosed fundamental failings.
  • It is the leadership of the Archbishops and Bishops which will determine whether change is effective.
  • The General Synod has endorsed key priorities for action.
  • There are much better safeguarding policies and training now; there has been greater professionalisation and resourcing of safeguarding within the Church.

That seems to be a long list of practical and important lessons learned. I don’t think the establishment has yet begun to get to grips with the roots of abuse within Christianity. It has yet to learn the varieties of abuse present within the Church of England and hasn’t begun to search for the reason why the behaviour of some Christian leaders is capable of being so scandalously lacking in the most basic, humanitarian concern for the well-being of others.

What led to Peter Ball’s abusive behaviour?

I don’t see this question being addressed: What was it that led Peter Ball to satisfy his sexual desires by seducing, spiritually manipulating and sexually abusing young men? What had created this corruption in a man though to be deeply spiritual, renowned for his gifts and ministry? It is a deep sickness. Does it have something to do with his sexuality – with being gay? Does it have something to do with his childhood, with a personal experience of being abused, or with the inadequacy of his priestly and theological formation?

What is it, in the Church of England, in Christianity, that leads some to be so abusive? Not all are as sexually or physically abusive as Peter Ball, but a less serious but unacceptable level of abuse of people is common everywhere in the church.

Why is the teaching and culture of the church still so deeply, systemically homophobic? Might it have something to do with a still closeted House of Bishops at a time when gay people live openly in British society? I have written repeatedly in blogs that the Church of England is systemically abusive. The establishment seems remarkably lacking in curiosity as to what I mean when I write this.

It is essential that bishops understand

The hierarchy needs to understand what it was that had corrupted Peter Ball’s personality and what it is that infects the church at every level with abusive teachings and practices. You, bishops and archbishops, urgently need to give time to address these questions. You have got to understand what creates the abusive culture in the first place if you are to create a healthy Christian environment.

What Vicky Beeching can teach the bishops

Undivided, Vicky Beeching’s recently published memoir, subtitled Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame, provides some basic answers to the questions I raise. For a decade, Vicky was a renowned singer and songwriter in evangelical churches on both sides of the Atlantic. When she came out and talked publicly about being gay for the first time, all hell broke loose in her world and in her body, both emotionally and physically.

Vicky was aware of her attraction to girls when she was twelve or thirteen. She overheard conversations between Christians about gay people being sinful, centred around it being a wilful choice. She knew that what she felt was involuntary. She was thirty-five before she was able to confront the deep damage caused by her evangelical teachings and tell the world she was gay.

Vicky was fortunate in that she made choices and as a result met people and was introduced to ideas that she had the capacity to interrogate and integrate in ways that revised and challenged her evangelical norms. Peter Ball must have had similar opportunities in his life, he a gay man, she a lesbian. But his opportunities led to abuse whereas she was given the courage to confront what might be labelled ‘false teaching and doctrine’ and eventually liberated herself and came out.

At the age of eighteen she finished high school and gained a place at Oxford to read theology. She chose Wycliffe Hall as her hall of residence because it was evangelical. There, she was assaulted by an overseas priest who later assaulted another woman. Vicky heard of several incidents like this involving trainee male priests. Two other ordinands were asked to leave because they had (allegedly) been involved in sexual activity with other men. These are examples of the systemic abuse in the church I allude to.

Vicky went through the whole three-year degree course in Oxford without talking to or getting to know anyone who was openly LGBTQ+. She knew nothing of LGBTQ+ history, of changes in UK society, or that there were thousands like her.

Reading liberal theology

In her youth she imbibed an unmissable message; “The Bible clearly says . . .” The more she learned in Oxford lectures, the more she saw what a rich, complex, and vast journey the Bible had been on after its infancy as oral tradition. She met committed Christians who said the texts could be interpreted in different ways and that the context and culture in which they were written had to be taken into account. She was afraid to challenge the status quo of her own evangelical network. One snow-bound evening, finding the Wycliffe library empty, she plucked up the courage to find the section dealing with sexual ethics and homosexuality –read her book to discover how reading “liberal” theologians began to change her ideas about the Bible and sexuality radically.

Introduced to contemplative spirituality

Later that semester she took a new class, Contemplative Spirituality, tutored by Sister Benedicta Ward and Archbishop Kallistos Ware. Sister Benedicta helped her see how God could not be placed in a box or fully understood by limited human minds. She helped Vicky see a far richer way of approaching faith – one rooted not in anxiety and arrogance, but in wonder and mystery. Archbishop Kallistos explained to her how “Tradition is not merely a formal repetition of what was stated in the past, but is an active experiencing of the Christian message in the present. The only true tradition is living and creative, formed from the union of human freedom with the grace of the Spirit.”

Physical and emotional breakdown

A decade later, following her powerful ministry performing and writing in the USA, a white mark developed on Vicky’s forehead. It was diagnosed as localised scleroderma, an aggressive autoimmune condition for which chemotherapy would be required. She returned to the UK for treatment where a specialist advised her that the condition was often provoked by psychological and emotional triggers. Vicky knew that for her, the only possible cause was the vast emotional strain cause by knowing she was gay in an evangelical world. This had been wrecking her heart and mind. She had in the course of that decade prayed and fasted, submitted to an exorcism, confessed to a Catholic priest, and believed that conversion therapy could change a person’s orientation. The result was extreme stress and physical and emotional breakdown.

Coming out, being abused

Vicky’s first step was to announce her support for equal marriage on a TV show. She hadn’t expected the tsunami of negative reaction that greeted her announcement. Later, she came out as gay in an interview with Patrick Strudwick published in a national newspaper. Her evangelical community in the USA and UK slammed the door in her face. Some justified their anger and judgement towards her as a reflection of God’s own character. They referenced the crucifixion and penal substitution, saying that God “did violently punish to pay the debt of sin, even in the case of his own son.”

Following the breakup of her first relationship in American, Vicky describes how she couldn’t get rid of the “tapes” playing in her head telling her that she should feel shame any time she was affectionate with a woman. Whenever she was touched by a girl she suddenly felt as if she was outside of herself, watching from a distance, dissociated. She had always viewed her body as the enemy, battling against her sinful attractions, doing all she could to shut her body down and feel them less and less. Messages of shame filled her mind and left her feeling distracted and stressed out.

It wasn’t just the shame of being gay that was affecting her; it was fear and anxiety connected with sexual attraction in general. She identifies the purity movement, True Love Waits, as having been one of the sources of this deep damage that had been programmed into her. She writes of the effect evangelical teaching about sexual abstinence had on her friends.

On her wedding night Emma couldn’t switch off the guilt and shame she’d always associated with sex and found herself in floods of tears, on the verge of a panic attack and unable to consummate her marriage. She desperately wished the connection between sex and shame had never been woven into her mind and body by the church.

Kate was diagnosed with vaginismus, an involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles that disallows penetration. Her doctor concluded that it was because she had such a deep-seated fear of sex before marriage. Her church had taught her that sex outside marriage was a grievous sin so she had disconnected herself as much as possible from sexual feelings.

Daniel had grown up in a charismatic Anglican church. Every time he had sex it left him with strong feelings of shame afterwards, as if he’d disappointed God and committed a sin. No amount of therapy had been able to de-programme the association forged in his Christian youth when he’d been told at conferences that masturbation was a sin and that his sex drive was something to fight against and repress.

Alicia had been raised in a British church youth group that taught sex outside marriage left you as “damaged goods” that no godly husband or wife would want. This is how she saw herself when she was sexually abused by an older man. Her self-esteem plummeted. She ended up in a string of abusive relationships.

Vicky visited several of the big evangelical churches in London after coming out but each time exited quietly in tears half-way through the service. She was afraid to trust the church community again, wary of putting herself in the care of priests and pastors when so many of them in her past had been responsible for causing so much damage.

New physical symptoms manifested themselves, exhaustion, dizziness, loss of strength, aches, every muscle in her body hurting. Following tests she was given two diagnoses; fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Her symptoms got worse, not better. Another doctor added anxiety and depression to the diagnosis. She was prescribed antidepressants.

Chronic illness and disability are things the church rarely speaks about. When Vicky mentioned her health issues online, some Christians told her the diagnoses were God’s judgement on her for pursuing a life of sin. She even received messages saying people had prayed that God would bring a crippling disability into her life when she came out, as proof to everyone that she was promoting a shameful lifestyle.

Vicky heard from an unusually large number of LGBTQ+ people who had autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia, or ME. She couldn’t help thinking that, since many of them had experienced difficult journeys with discrimination, shame, and rejection, perhaps stress had led to a disproportionate level of these illnesses in the LGBTQI+ community.

Vicky’s answer

What is crucial is to make peace with ourselves. It’s about finally feeling comfortable in our own skin, not allowing others to make us ashamed or embarrassed of things that are part of our beauty, our diversity and uniqueness. When we dare to be ourselves we find healing and can become whole and “undivided.” We can only love others well when we live from a place of wholeness. We must learn to love ourselves first, in order to love others from a place of health and well-being. When we make peace with ourselves and are no longer fearful or defensive, is changes how we engage with the world. If enough of us do this, the ripple effect will go far and wide, from neighbourhoods to nations. If enough of us try to live in an authentic and vulnerable way, the world would become a very different place.

Lizzie Lowe’s suicide

Lizzie Lowe was 14 when she hanged herself in a park near her home in Didsbury, Manchester in September 2014. She thought she may be a lesbian and had struggled to reconcile her feelings with the family's strong Christian faith. She had spoken to friends about her struggles with her sexuality and told them that she had self-harmed as a coping mechanism.

The family were members of the congregation at St James and Emmanuel Church. The church saw itself as diverse church, with members in long-term committed same-sex relationships as well as those who are gay but choose to be celibate. According to Nick, the Vicar, the subject of homosexuality had been rarely raised within the congregation. He preferred not to raise the issue on the grounds that it was too divisive. Thus, there was an environment of secrecy around the topic and on the issues of sexuality in general. Lizzie’s death forced the church to confront these attitudes very forcibly and it is now a transformed congregation.

Abusive Christianity

The Christian teaching and practice that creates abusive Christianity has its roots in teaching and theology that characterises God as abusive based on Biblical teaching and a distorted version of the teaching and ministry of Jesus. The Christian church faces a fundamental challenge to its core teachings. The church will never free itself from abusive practice or the formation of abusive pastors, leaders, priests and bishops until it re-learns the teaching of Jesus and understands why, if God is unconditional, infinite, intimate love, many ingredients of current teaching have to be questioned and abandoned.

Ingredients of catholic and evangelical theology and the GAFCON mindset are based on a use of scripture used to justify “Christian” prejudice. Over the two millennia of Christian life the church has been reluctantly forced to confront it’s prejudiced attitudes, based always on scriptural teaching – the justification of slavery, racial prejudice, prejudice against women, against LGBTI+ people, those with disabilities, divorce, contraception, masturbation, indigenous people – there will always be systemic prejudice in the church and the church must train itself to be alert to prejudice.

Improved safeguarding policies will achieve a marginal effect but they will not solve the root cause. The Living in Love and Faith process leading to the publication of a new Teaching Document in 2020 replicates the abuse of LGBTI+ people. Those friends of mine trying to engage with the process are being abused by the bishops and officers involved.

The archbishops and bishops are the last group of people we should entrust with producing a teaching document about sexuality and gender. They fail to understand how Jesus’ teaching impacts on bringing reality to bear on human experience and identity. They prioritise prejudiced Biblical constructs over the essence of every human being’s awareness and truth. The truth resides within the subtle mystery of the Biblical narrative and within the mystery of being human and searching for our truth.