A missing aristocrat who is on the run with her rapist partner and newborn baby may have been brainwashed at a Nigerian church where “disciples” were allegedly abused by the group’s self-proclaimed prophet.
Constance Marten, who has been missing with Mark Gordon since early January, is said to have been left confused and traumatised after spending six months at the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in Lagos, where she would have been forced to undergo “intense” work running the church while living in dormitories alongside some 100 other disciples, many of whom are thought to be British nationals.
On one occasion, the 35-year-old was apparently forced to eat the leftovers of the church’s “prophet” and controversial leader, TB Joshua. Another time, she was placed in social exile – the customary punishment for disciples who were not “focused enough” on the church leader, or who spoke about their former lives.
After leaving the church, Ms Marten spoke about experiencing paranormal activity after meditation, which became so out of control that she once collapsed on the floor laughing while queueing in Starbucks.
The 35-year-old runaway, whose family used to own the £100m Crichel House estate in Dorset and whose grandmother was a goddaughter of the late Queen Mother, has been estranged from her family since she met Mark Gordon, who was jailed in the late 1980s in Florida for raping and assaulting a woman when he was 14.
Her father Napier, a page to the late Queen, has called for police investigating the couple’s disappearance to investigate his daughter’s links to the church in light of The Independent’s investigations.
Ex-disciple and former British soldier Joe Hurst joined the group in Lagos in 2006. Although he left before Ms Marten joined later that year, he told The Independent that she got in touch with him some six years later because she wanted to do a documentary about the church.
Mr Hurst, who now lives in India, said Ms Marten had told him that white disciples would often be targeted and humiliated by TB Joshua.
“She said she played along but it was really weird. She said it was humiliating. Her take was that it was the white British people who were typically humiliated in this way,” Mr Hurst told The Independent.
Referring to the incident with the leftovers, he added: “It was taken as a big honour to eat his food.”
Mr Hurst said he advised Ms Marten, who he knows by her nickname Toots, against running the documentary on the cult, where disciples sleep in gender-separated dorms of around 50 bunkbeds, with lights left on at all hours of the day.
Recalling their conversations about the cult, Mr Hurst said Ms Marten’s experience had left her doubtful about the Christian faith, and that she would ask, “How could God allow this to happen to us?”
He added that, after he had dissuaded her from doing the investigation because of the risk of getting caught, they would talk about their wider thoughts on spirituality and faith.
“She would talk about paranormal activity in her life,” Mr Hurst said. “She said she would meditate and she would get a buzz and an aura would come over her. But after a while she said it got out of control and would become quite scary.
“She said it culminated when she was in the queue in Starbucks and she collapsed and was just laughing on the floor. She knew it was a problem, and she was really scared, so she told some church people to pray for her and it stopped after that.”
Mr Hurst said he lost contact with Ms Marten and was surprised when he heard she had gone missing.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Marten did pitch a documentary about the church while working with Al Jazeera.
Her profile reads: “Pitched an idea for a documentary about a religious cult in Nigeria. Wrote, researched and investigated the corruption charges and illegal activities of the group. Tracked down former members of the sect, in the UK, Nigeria, Ghana and S. Africa, in order to gather solid first-hand information.”
Matthew McNaught, the author of the book Immanuel, which details the secrets of the African megachurch and others like it, said Ms Marten had contacted him in 2011 seeking help in response to one of his blogs about the manipulative nature of the cult.
“She was confused and traumatised,” Mr McNaught said. “She had found testimonies of other disciples on the blog and was moved by it.
“She was trying to get her head around what happened to her. She got in touch, and I don’t know much of her personal story, but it was around 2006/07. It’s very intense emotionally.”
Mr McNaught revealed that in a method typical of cults, new disciples would initially be “love-bombed” – a term that describes extremely kind and friendly behaviour from a group or individual, which later becomes abusive and manipulative – by TB Joshua.
“Even though there was a large group of disciples, [TB Joshua] would have audiences with new disciples and make them feel special,” Mr McNaught said.
“You’d have a very close relationship with TB Joshua, even though there were over a hundred disciples living in dorms.”
Mr McNaught explained that, as members were inducted further into the church, they would join meetings known as “addaba”, where they would be exiled from the rest of the group to “correct” their apparent misbehaviour.
Mr McNaught said it was hard to predict what behaviour would be deemed as wrong.
“A lot of it was being familiar with other people and talking about your life back home. Talking about men of God other than TB Joshua,” he said. “Having relationships with other people with a horizontal bond, making friends, being emotionally open... that was absolutely punished.
“And not being dedicated enough to teaching. It was an atmosphere of being systematically deprived of those horizontal relationships. Each disciple was expected to only focus on being the best for TB Joshua.”
He added that the white disciples would be sent into a form of exile, where they would eat alone, were banned from participating in church activities, and were stopped from having contact with other disciples.
SCOAN has long faced claims of being a cult led by charismatic “prophet” TB Joshua, who died suddenly in 2021 aged 58. His church was considered a tourist attraction in Nigeria, and at one point drew 15,000 worshippers each Sunday, with many hoping to be healed from physical illnesses and disabilities.
Mr McNaught said that, in the noughties, there was a wave of white middle-class evangelicals in the UK and US who were eager to travel to Nigeria to see different miracles. Ms Marten is suspected to have found out about SCOAN through a Christian course.
SCOAN also had a London branch in Southwark, which closed in 2011.
Alexandra Stein, of the Family Survival Trust, which works with people who fall victim to abusive groups, said SCOAN is definitely a “cult”.
“I’ve had enquiries over the years about SCOAN,” Ms Stein said. “TB Joshua was recruiting in the UK at one point, and I know Constance Marten was involved. He’s charismatic, a bully, and goes after young women.
“I’m sure she would have been brainwashed in SCOAN, that’s what these guys do. People coming out of cults are traumatised, and there’s not a lot of support. It’s also very stigmatised. It’s a difficult thing for anyone to say ‘I’ve been in a cult.’”
The Metropolitan Police said it is looking into the background of both Ms Marten and her partner Mark Gordon.
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