It was with a multitude of mixed feelings that I read today about the Royal Commission investigating former Assemblies of God Pastor Frank Houston for alleged child sex abuse, and the response of the church – including mega-church Hillsong – to the allegations.
I am no stranger to this scandal. For many years – perhaps 12 all up – I went to a Hillsong “sister” church and I remember sitting in the congregation when it was announced that Frank had had a “moral failing” and would no longer be an AOG pastor. “Moral failing.” It kind of says everything and nothing all at once. A very dear friend was actually in the Hillsong congregation when the “moral failing” was announced by Brian Houston (Frank’s son) himself. It was a judiciously worded announcement, constructed with care. In fact, my friend walked away believing it was about financial mismanagement, and was later shocked to learn it was actually about child sex abuse.
I could have written a blog post about the appalling way churches of all flavours – Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal – handle child sex abuse. But after reading this article: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/abuse-boz-tchividjian – I don’t have anything more to add on that score. Churches are crap at calling out abuse when the culture of that church prioritizes the institution over its people. And that’s what I want to write about – because I know what it’s like to be damaged by a church culture whose primary goal is self-protection.
As I mentioned before, I was part of a Pentecostal church for my formative teenage years and half my twenties. Sometimes, I think I’m still recovering. There were many things I enjoyed about being part of such a powerfully inclusive subculture. The sense of belonging is unlike anything else; you feel as though your life has a grand and meaningful purpose, you are swept along in something that is dynamic and wonderful and at times transcendent. Any nagging doubts you have are swept under the rug because something that feels this good must be right.
Until you realise that it’s not anymore. Until the doubts get too loud and you begin to verbalize them. This threatens the institution – then you are quickly reminded that belonging to this subculture comes with a hefty price of obedience and conformity.
And when a culture is built around obedience and conformity, dissent is silenced in increasingly destructive ways. At first it’s quite low-key. Virtually non-existent. Like something you catch out of the corner of your eye, and when you turn to look at it directly, it’s gone. “Things will go best for you if you obey authority,” you are told kindly when you question something one of the leaders has said. “She really has a rebellious spirit,” you hear one pastor say in a worried tone about a member of the congregation who has dared to query the status quo. Then it becomes more malignant. You’re called into a leader’s office and told that you are the problem, your faith is in jeopardy because you are not conforming. Or someone has the misfortune to witness clearly inappropriate behaviour in one of the leaders – and they’re the one whisked into an office and threatened that they’d better keep their mouth shut. When the thing you’re creating is more important than the people who sustain it, this kind of behaviour gets easier and easier to justify.
I experienced the full force of this when I spoke up against the relationship between the AOG and the Family First political party in the 2004 election. My issues were not just ideological – there were things happening in the volatile church/politics mix that were blatantly wrong. I spoke up – and I paid the price. I was ostracized and ignored. I lost friendships that I’d had for years – decades even. I had committed the ultimate sin – I didn’t protect the institution. I ended up leaving the church and moving suburbs, the only way I felt could actually move on from the whole ordeal.
Now, ten years on, I’m done with anger and hurt. When I think about my experiences, I mostly just feel – sorry. Sorry that I spent many years subjugating myself to an institution that was so morally lacking.
I‘m sorry that so many young people I saw coming to faith left jaded and burned out and psychologically damaged. Some were really, terribly damaged. And I’m sorry that for many years I was a blind but willing participant in all of this; incredibly sorry for my part in it. I’ve since tried to apologise to many of the young people in my sphere of influence who I failed by being part of an institution that did not have their welfare as its primary concern.
I think this particular church has changed a lot since then; I hope so. I go to a different church now, although I doubt I’ll ever be a member of another church ever again. After many years I have reconciled myself to the fact that the messy, difficult, ever-changing faith that I have is OK. And I see clearly that no church – no institution – is truly representative of faith anyway. After all, prioritising the institution over its people was exactly what Jesus railed against when He saw what Israel had become.
And, despite the media reports, I do hope – I really do hope – that the AOG church leaders did not attempt to bribe Houston’s alleged victim in an attempt to hush up the child abuse allegations. However, as I’ve seen, a church that must protect itself at all costs is capable of justifying some pretty terrible behaviour. I do have faith though that there is power in truth, that truth really does set people free. Because this really is a chance for the church to show that people do matter more than anything else.