Stephen Kuhrt writes: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis was first published in February 1942. The book is made up of thirty one letters from a senior demon called Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood is a junior tempter assigned to lead a man who has recently become a Christian away from God. By viewing the Christian life from the perspective of evil, C.S. Lewis invited his readers to reflect on the various subtle ways in which the demonic was influencing them. The genre enabled Lewis to make hard hitting points about the human capacity for self-deception and the way in which Christians continue to be as prone to this as anyone.
What follows is an additional ‘Screwtape Letter’ inviting leaders within the Church of England to reflect on the spiritual factors involved in just one aspect of the deeply problematic culture that has developed within it.
My dear Wormwood,
Today I want to talk to you about bullying in the Church of England. Of all the things that we can do to discredit the Enemy, perhaps the most effective is leading those who claim to be his followers into becoming instruments of our oppression instead. Especially those in positions of leadership whom the Enemy intends to oversee the spread of that disgusting power called love. Our task is to make these ‘shepherds’ do the very opposite. If we can achieve this, the benefits for our cause will be incalculable. This is because nothing is more dispiriting to those who follow the Enemy, or more effective in dismantling the threat of his love, than when people experience the opposite of this within the church. Work effectively here and we can bring about the most tremendous outcome – ordinary Christians, so dangerous to us when they worship and act together, giving up on the church and retreating into hurt and confusion about why those with responsibility to care for them, have become channels of our power instead.
Our task in this regard, however, is a subtle one. If those with oversight in the church – bishops, archdeacons and that panoply of officers who occupy diocesan structures – become outright bullies, this will be too obvious. Consensus about the inconsistency of this with the message of the Enemy will too easily build, leading to that genuine reform of the church we dread. What will serve us best, most of the time, is helping such officers to become adept at enabling and facilitating bullying in the church whilst ensuring that they remain largely blind to this reality. Most of them started off their careers with a spirit of vague benevolence and, as we guide their path to becoming instruments of institutional oppression, it is vital that they continue to see themselves as good.
In working towards this outcome, we have several advantages which must be exploited to the full. The most valuable of these and the key ingredient in establishing the culture that we seek is that potent combination of insecurity and vanity that so easily flourishes amongst church leaders. Status symbols play a vital role here and we must work hard to encourage their corrosive power. Do everything you can, for instance, to keep their bishops from realising how incongruous it is for supposed ‘shepherds’ and ‘servants’ to wear elaborate robes, rings and mitres that mark them out so obviously from those for whom they are meant to care. Keep these same bishops from recognising how damaging it is for their Christian faith to be fawned over wherever they go and help them to ignore the fairly obvious signs that those doing this, most commonly Churchwardens and anxious clergy, are seeking to bolster their own status. Use the insecurity that all of this falseness generates to lead these leaders into further vanity as its ‘answer’. Keep these wonderful characteristics of insecurity and vanity feeding off each other and the result will be a spirit of highhanded petulance that is perfect for creating a culture of bullying.
Central to this is encouraging church leaders to make the transition from seeing the church as a community committed to the Enemy’s ministry and mission to a status providing institution needing to be preserved at all costs. The vital thing is that this transition should be largely undetected by others and invisible to such leaders themselves. It’s amazing what can be achieved once an energetic and committed vicar is domesticated through promotion and starts to play what they hilariously call ‘the long game’ whilst gradually surrendering to us more and more control. This process can be disguised through encouraging the liberal use of clichés and cant. You can have some truly diabolical fun here! Encourage bishops and archdeacons to sign off every letter with overly spiritualised language (‘be assured of my continued prayers’ etc), lead them into invoking the language of ‘mission’ for every area of church life, however blandly institutional and keep them using meaningless talk about ‘the very real opportunities facing the church in our twenty-first century context’, ‘the very real desire for reconciliation’ and so on. Above all, encourage these leaders to adopt an attitude towards church discipline that is entirely related to the levels of support or threat being presented to the status quo.
The latter point is vital. Nothing will serve our cause better than encouraging those in church leadership to show massive latitude and leniency to those exploiting the existing power structures within it whilst simultaneously allowing the most harsh and vindictive things to happen to those challenging these structures.
I will write to you on another occasion regarding safeguarding and the enormous damage that we can bring to the Enemy’s cause by ensuring that genuine safeguarding in the Church of England remains as ineffective and incompetent as possible. I mention it here, however, because it is the most telling example of just how much church leaders are prepared to tolerate if it poses no threat to existing power structures – or indeed supports them. Those who abuse vulnerable people within the church are always invested in the status quo facilitating their activity. It is vital that most Christians never make the connection with why those equally committed to the status quo are, as a result, so reluctant to deal with them. Much the same applies to the church’s response to other forms of misbehaviour or the most extreme forms of clerical laziness or incompetence. The crucial thing is to preserve the illusion that toleration of these things is, at worst, a misapplication of ‘Christian love’ rather than the instinctive support of existing power structures that serves our cause so well.
Make sure, however, that the very opposite approach is taken to anyone challenging the status quo. Particularly when clergy speak out against things that are wrong in the church or make any effort to deal with its problems. The response to this should be as vicious and vindictive as possible, although preferably in an indirect form that continues to facilitate its lack of acknowledgement. You’ll find that insecure bishops and archdeacons only need the slightest nudge from you to see anyone raising difficult questions about any aspect of church life as an appalling nuisance. The same will often apply to diocesan secretaries, directors of ordinands, safeguarding officers and, of course, many parish clergy as well. In a similar manner, their vanity and petulance will mean that only the smallest amount of encouragement is usually needed for them to view any challenge to their leadership or management as the most dreadful impertinence. Once these factors are present, it is a relatively easy step to lead these leaders into the practice of bullying.
For the reasons already covered, however, it is vital that most of this bullying takes the character of what is sometimes called ‘passive aggression’ ie. indirect and highly disguised forms of hostility. Fortunately, this approach to any difficulty is already foundational to the culture of the Church of England. It has several advantages. The hidden nature of passive aggression means that it is much less accountable than outright aggression and also much more flexible, allowing for ‘smoke screens’, ‘tactical withdrawals’ and ‘surprise attacks’. Crucially, it also allows those using it to continue their use of religious cant, increasing the demoralising effect upon those receiving this treatment. Most importantly, passive aggression, being founded on its users’ essential dishonesty to themselves, is perfect for creating what is called ‘plausible deniability’ resulting in a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the truth of what is happening. Encourage the persistent use of passive aggression by those in power and it will, in many cases, wear down its recipients until they hopefully give up on their cause – and perhaps even their Christian faith – in despair at the treatment that they are receiving.
It is time that I was more practical, nephew, and spelt out some of the techniques of passive aggression that you should encourage amongst those who facilitate, enable and practice bullying within the Church of England.
- Encouragement of other grievances to build a negative narrative. Anyone who has upset senior clergy and officials by challenging the status quo will have caused a similar upset by challenging established power structures more locally. Lead diocesan officers into subtle ways of emboldening those who have been offended in the expression of their grievances so that a consistently negative narrative is allowed to develop around the person being targeted. The perfect outcome is for that person him- or herself to be presented as a bully. Given that most within the Church of England see bullying as a protagonist not backing down at the first sign of discomfort within those they are challenging, this outcome is easily achieved. Use the hubris of those bishops and archdeacons involved to tell themselves that ‘pastoral concern’ is their motivating force for all of this. Play on the genuine sense of threat felt by the target’s adversaries to see this approach as entirely justified, however tenuous the evidence for their actual wrongdoing.
- Deliberately poor communication. This is a crucial tool. Once a number of grievances have been assembled, ensure that these are only partially revealed to the target. Lead those in charge of the process to present ‘confidentiality’ as the reason for this and away from acknowledging that, in reality, it is all about avoiding transparency. Encourage the officials involved to make the process as slow and tortuous as possible and keep them citing the ‘very real complexities involved’ as a way of evading the fairly obvious ethical problems with this.
- An unprincipled approach to process. This is another effective tool. Use the vanity of those in authority to make them feel that both their position and their wisdom justify their making up procedure as they go along. One example of this is encouraging bishops to present informal action (eg ‘asking someone to step back from ministry’) as ‘preferable’ to formal process. This can be a very effective way of prolonging matters, reducing accountability and making those targeted believe that, unless they cooperate, worse will come their way. If the process is kept informal, this will facilitate a constant ‘moving of the goalposts’ which will further wear down the person being targeted. When formal process cannot be avoided, another effective approach is to encourage those in authority to exploit loopholes within it. An example of this is the use of suspension by a bishop to punish the person being targeted, whilst officially maintaining that ‘suspension is a neutral act and not to be interpreted as a recognition of guilt’. Once again your aim should be to make those using such tactics completely indifferent to the lack of truth involved in this whilst making those being targeted only too aware of this. Hopefully, the recipients of this treatment will become exhausted and depressed and give up long before the baselessness of the case against them and its process becomes apparent.
- Constant use of religious cant. You’ll have already seen the ‘very real’ role that cant (‘the voluntary prolongation of genuine sentiment’) has in our endeavours. Work hard to encourage its constant use and use the churchy ‘bubble’ in which bishops and archdeacons exist to prevent them from recognising the scale of its insincerity. Ensure, on the other hand, that its true nature is very obvious to the person being targeted. Nothing will drive an earnest Christian into despair more swiftly than receiving a nasty letter from their bishop or archdeacon full of threats and passive aggression but signed off with sentiments such as ‘be assured, as ever, of my continued prayers’.
A final point, dear nephew. We won’t be able to convince all members of churches or their leaders to do these things. What we can do, however, is convince the majority to collude with such bullying. Our great advantage here is the same one that enables us to create such havoc with safeguarding within the church – that most Christians will, quite literally, prefer any outcome over one that will make their life more uncomfortable. Once again, cant is a vital weapon here. Encourage Christians who observe bullying within the church to spiritualise their inactivity away with statements such as ‘well of course, we don’t know the fully story’, ‘it’s important we don’t speculate’ and, best of all, ‘we must remember that God is in control’. Care is need here, however. Make sure that the Christians who evade action in this way are uncomfortably aware that they are doing this and steadily more conscious of the lack of reality involved in their ‘faith’.
The same must be encouraged at an institutional level. Particularly at those moments when the General Synod of the Church of England revisits this whole area. The danger here is the awareness of most of its members that the present nature of the Clergy Discipline Measure facilitates all of the factors mentioned above. An even bigger threat is the faltering courage of some of their number who wish to see this change. Our task to make sure their courage fails them and this is done by reminding these members of the Synod of how much they receive from the church’s status quo. Especially those with power to change things in this regard. The nervousness that this will create should then result in a few cosmetic tweaks but nothing that stops the Church of England continuing along that perfect path we wish for it – allowing the most dreadful things to be done by those who support its institutional status quo and the most dreadful things to be done to those who dare to challenge this.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden in Southwark Diocese