Is joining a cult always wrong? Geraldine Bedell on the murky ethics of rescuing people from religious sects

Geraldine Bedell@geraldinebedell
Sunday 15 January 1995 01:02

On the noticeboard are a number of self-regarding and twee messages of the "Have a nice day before some JERK messes it up" variety. This is the Nottinghamshire office of Graham Baldwin, an evangelical minister who now concentrates less on bringin g people to religious ecstasy than weaning them off it. Though he could hardly have been trained in a more obscure Christian denomination himself - Assemblies of God - he now helps people to leave what he sees as lunatic-fringe religious cults.

The Branch Davidians at Waco and the Solar Temple in Switzerland demonstrated the destructiveness of cults; but the organisations that have sprung up to counter them are themselves scarcely immune to criticism. A four-part BBC drama, Signs and Wonders, starting tomorrow, about a young woman kidnapped by a cultbuster and "deprogrammed" against her will, raises questions about an individual's right to affiliate to a religion, and the ethics of forcible removal.

Graham Baldwin doesn't kidnap people, or use the term "deprogramme," and he's worried about the impression that will be given by the fictionalised Signs and Wonders. Yet anti-cult groups operate in an atmosphere of secrecy and mutual paranoia that sometimes resembles that of the organisations they challenge.

Alison, a 23-year-old music student, left the Birmingham Church of Christ a year ago, 12 months after members first approached her in the street. Today she describes the process of extricating herself as "like leaving a hundred boyfriends youlove and don't want to leave, all at once." She had found in the church not only faith, but intense relationships, and she is still on the verge of tears when she talks about leaving.

The Boston Church of Christ (founded in 1979) and its British offshoots specialise in recruiting among students, using pyramid selling techniques. Individuals are "discipled" by a member of longer standing, who helps them to make many decisions - dating,for example, takes place exclusively on Saturday nights, only between church members ("sisters" and "brothers") who go out in groups until the couple's disciplers agree they can be alone. Disciplers also sanction the holding of hands and the first kiss.Premarital sex is forbidden.

Alison was baptised (the Church of Christ teaches that only its members are saved from Hell), moved into a "sister house" with other female members, and devoted every evening to discussions, services, dating, or "kranking" (evangelising). Praise was meted out in proportion to her success in bringing in new members. "I remember sitting on buses wondering how to approach people."

Graham Baldwin claims the Church of Christ operates a system of mind control by means of food and sleep deprivation, the extension and withdrawal of friendship, and the denial of alternative views. And, like other forms of pyramid selling, that it exploits ambition and drive to benefit the people at the top from the efforts of those at the bottom. But it didn't seem like that to Alison. "I loved every minute. It seemed perfect."

She didn't think it was odd that the leaders occupied five-bedroomed houses in smart parts of the city, or that she didn't get paid when she baby-sat and cleaned. She didn't worry that after she'd trained the choir for the Christmas carol service the conducting job was given to a senior member of the church, a man, who knew nothing about music; nor that she was doing so little college work. (She failed her third year because she only composed one piece, though she has since caught up.) And she h a ppilyaccepted the dating rules: "The church gives the brothers money to go to the cinema and wine bars, and lays down how a brother should treat a sister, so you have a great time."

In July 1993, Alison's parents saw a Newsnight feature about the Church of Christ, which led them to Graham Baldwin. They suggested that Alison should meet him; troubled by rumours of financial irregularities and the insistence of some of her fellow students that the church practised mind control, she agreed.

Baldwin showed her accounts (which he claims reveal that members' information is inaccurate about, for example, leaders' salaries) and talked about doctrine for the best part of an afternoon and evening.

Ironically, though, the church itself made up her mind to leave. When the news leaked out that she'd seen Baldwin, she was summoned to a meeting at which she was warned she had committed a sin and had only one more chance before she became an outcast (was damned). "They said it was OK to doubt, but not to tell anyone else. After that the money ceased to be an issue. They had mishandled it. I moved out of the sister house."

She still believes that "90 per cent of what they teach is true," and has tried other churches since, not very successfully. When I ask how she's been since she left, she says, "as well as you could be. I've realised I can't be in the church I wanted to be in." Watching a trailer for Signs and Wonders, she was close to tears.

Graham Baldwin shows me his filing cabinets, which he says contain probably the largest collection of material on the Church of Christ in this country. Starting in the early 1980s, he has dealt with some 300 families involved with the church, and claims

that in 75 per cent of those cases, the person has left.

He shows me a paper on interrogation techniques, picked up on a course at the Joint Services Interrogation Wing in the 1970s, but grows mysterious when I ask what he was doing there: "Look, I'm not going to give you a full CV. There are some things I'm either not particularly proud of or I don't want to talk about. Anyway, my CV does work out, because I spent some time in computing."

He is also defensive about funding. His organisation, Catalyst (he employs three people), appears to rely mainly on charitable donations. "I don't think the people and bodies concerned would want you to know who they were," he says, "basically for a number of reasons."

Baldwin claims he doesn't work from any particular religious perspective and says a good outcome isn't necessarily extricating someone from a cult; it may be bringing about a family reconciliation. And there's little point in trying to get someone out ofa cult and back into a family if the family is actually the root of the problem.

But Nevil Lee, the UK administrator of the Church of Christ, can also sound plausible. "All our members live in the community and have regular jobs," he says.

"There's no form of coercion or mind control, though it can appear that way because we hold strong beliefs. And the Charities Commission, the Inland Revenue and Touche Ross have found no evidence of financial wrongdoing."

Cults find fertile soil for their certainties in the contemporary climate of shifting identities and values. And when faith matters more than proof or tradition, it is easy to feel lost in mists of assertion, as cultists and opponents trade insults and allegations.

I don't think for a moment that Graham Baldwin, evangelist in a patterned jumper, is other than what he claims to be. But you can't help thinking that an anti-cult group would be the perfect front for recruiting vulnerable people to your own set of beliefs, your own power-trip.

8`Signs and Wonders', a four-part drama, starts tomorrow on BBC2 at 9.30pm.

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