Ask them what they thought of Anneka

Faith & Reason: What does the future hold for the survivors of such religious communities as the Nine O'Clock Service? Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, offers his own candid counsel.
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After the Nine O'Clock Service, what? The Six-Thirty Evensong? The Eight O'Clock-in-the-Morning 1662 Communion?

Now that the first of the tortured meetings are over, survivors of the discredited cult/rave/sect have to decide what to do instead of attending the regular planetary mass (which incidentally began at eight o'clock). This Sunday, the best options are probably Challenge Anneka and You've Been Framed. It would be good to have a bit of a breather before imbibing any more religion.

A secular chill-out is the first step for anyone coming out of an intense religious community. The savage disillusionment which comes from realising that religious leaders can be little shits is softened by the discovery that lots of ordinary, non- religious people aren't. (I don't refer specifically to Anneka Rice and Jeremy Beadle here.) Jesus learnt this early, and spent his first 30 years enjoying the company of ordinary people - and maybe the next 1,965 regretting that so many of them turned into religious people.

One of the women whom Chris Brain is said to have abused admitted last week: "The only thing that has kept me going for the past few years has been the worship services." She won't find another thing like that to keep her going. She has to struggle on without a substitute, then discover that she does manage to keep going regardless. When there's something big in your life, like love, to suggest otherwise sounds like blasphemy, but we are actually kept going by innumerable little things, in my case marmalade, Caffreys and the odd trashy movie.

During this breathing space, as normal life reasserts its hold, it is important to let go of the community you've left. There's no going back. You're lying at the foot of this wall, eggshell all over the place, and nobody can put things back together again.

I'm afraid that this is why so many abusive communities exist for as long as they do. The people who question, criticise, then get ejected have no energy to fight back. You can't blow the whistle if you don't have any puff left.

My advice is always to clear out with as much dignity as possible and use whatever energy you retain to build something new for yourself. A sense of natural justice cries out against this course of action, walking away and leaving the abuses unchecked. But the simple fact that you joined somebody else's community means that you're already punching above your weight. The leader you are up against has been practising since infancy, and possibly before, and has more intellectual and psychical energy than you can hope to muster. He will fight harder, longer and dirtier than you possibly can.

The only exception to this rule is when you can find a capacious lap in which to dump the whole mess, belonging to somebody like the Bishop or the Archdeacon of Sheffield. Tell them everything, then leave it to them to discover whether they can do anything. Quite often they can't. Chris Brain's trick of resigning from the NOS leadership but then hanging on to power is a common one. If the real leader of the community holds no office and therefore has no legal responsibility for what goes on, who can you sue? Probably only the trustees, if there are any, and these are usually the good guys.

The next thing is to find out who your friends are. If the community is still going this is easy. It is anybody else who has been thrown out. Console yourself with the knowledge that at least you won't be lonely. If the whole place has collapsed, as in Sheffield, and you can't tell the heroes from the villains, look out for the people who are behaving as you do. Ask them what they thought of Anneka.

Next look out some boring, safe, old religion. It works for people who have been through worse experiences than yours. What can you lose?

Finally, when you're strong enough - and this may take several years - look at your own responsibility in the affair. What were you lacking which you hoped to find in the community? Were your expectations unreasonable? What can you learn about yourself so you don't make a similar mistake? The humiliation will begin to drop away, as you realise that you have made progress, more maybe than people who never took the risks you did, people whose Sunday nights have only ever been brightened by Anneka and Jeremy.