POLEMIC; Priests who get high on power

Bores for Jesus can curb sexy vicars, says Peter Mullen
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The Independent Online
A religious leader in south Yorkshire who ran a "rave"- style church service is in hiding after he admitted sexual misconduct with 20 women in his congregation. The Rev Chris Brain is now undergoing counselling and may flee to a monastery. In 19 years as a Church of England vicar I came across similar outbreaks of misplaced enthusiasm - though nothing on quite the same scale.

It was a disaster waiting to happen. The charismatic, happy-clappy movement in the church encourages highly emotional responses among worshippers; and there is nothing more succulent to a minister who also happens to be a power junkie than the sight of a couple of hundred women in his congregation half-crazed with lubricious zeal.

Unfortunately, heightened emotional states are undiscriminating when it comes to their consequences. As Somerset Maugham told us in Rain - his wonderful story of the evangelist and the whore - it is but one step from kneeling together in ecstatic prayer to taking up an altogether more intimate posture.

The church has known this since the days of St Paul, who had to write to the Corinthian Christians and chastise them for having it off during the Holy Communion. George Eliot wrote of all evangelicals as either "bilious or ecstatic". In today's charismatic movement we have a resurgence of the ecstatic sort.

This is why wise tradition has created local institutions and bureaucracies such as the Parochial Church Council. These are as far removed from ecstasy as watching golf in the fog. The PCC does not concern itself with emotions on the Richter scale - with what I heard described by one worshipper coming out of a church in York as "getting high on the Lord". The proper Christian preoccupations of the PCC are the state of the hassocks and how the parish is being screwed, so to speak, by the financial demands of the Diocesan Quota - the increasingly exorbitant amounts that must be paid each year to central funds.

I sat for decades through these lugubrious ruminations in stuffy vicarages and damp church halls. And I was grateful for them - well, in retrospect anyhow. Committee meetings are tedious and soul-stiflingly dull. They are the very opposite of the spirit-filled fun and games of the libidinous charismatic house groups. But by God, they do wonders to dissipate any incipient power complex that might burgeon in the vicar's breast.

Of course religious experience should include transports of delight and ecstasies, but these must not be everyday expectations as if they were the hallmark and essence of the faith. It is a great temptation for the religious leader to whip up enthusiasm and to make his congregation feel excited. For this gives him power over them as a provider. I have seen too much of this kind of corruption, too many unctuous ecclesiastical demagogues with banana-split charismatic grins - and all in the name of the Holy Spirit.

The essence of religion is, by contrast, the sanctification of the everyday - not to want to escape into some emotional beyond but, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to learn to see the beyond in the midst of what is ordinary. We used to sit up late in the PCC debating such thrilling topics as the clapped-out central heating boiler and the shocking state of the graveyard. But this entirely unecstatic local democracy helped us to understand each other as a rational community with a common humanity.

When we see from that south Yorkshire parish the sort of disaster that can be brought about by enthusiasm, we should give humble and hearty thanks for the majority of churchfolk, unsung members of the local PCC who are ever ready to Bore for Jesus.