Does the Church’s First Spiritual Abuse Verdict Give Critics a New Weapon?

We emulate Jesus when we expose abuse. But dividing it into categories may do more harm than good.

“Sadly, many historic institutions—the church included—have sought to silence the reporting of abuse for fear of tarnishing the reputation or public image of those institutions. There are too many instances where Christian leaders have mistakenly thought that it was in the best interests of the church, or maybe even of the gospel, for abuse to be unreported, swept under the carpet, and ignored.”


For the first time, the Church of England has formally found one of its leaders guilty of “spiritual abuse.” The bishop’s disciplinary tribunal decided this past week that Timothy Davis, vicar of a large evangelical parish church in the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon, was guilty of “conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk of holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority.”

The same weekend, the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) in the United Kingdom released a report on spiritual abuse which found that almost two-thirds of churchgoers who took an online survey (1,002 of 1,591) felt that they had personally experienced it.

The report’s findings suggested more training is needed to help people recognize spiritual abuse and to equip churches to deal with disclosures. The research project was led by Lisa Oakley from the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work (NCPQSW) at Bournemouth University, and assisted by Justin Humphreys, one of CCPAS’s executive directors.

I must admit to feeling conflicted by the increasing usage of the term spiritual abuse. As an NCPQSW research fellow, I have the utmost respect for my friends and colleagues Lisa and Justin. As a foster carer, I also know how vital it is to protect children and vulnerable adults from all types of abuse, and I greatly value the work of CCPAS in keeping safeguarding a high priority for churches.

But I also have sympathy with critics of the term spiritual abuse, as well as those who fear the negative impact it could have—both internally in the life of the church and externally in the public perception of the church.

Almost every public institution in the UK has had to face up to major problems when it comes to abuse. This is because wherever there is an asymmetry of power, there is potential for abuse. Flagship institutions such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, The Football Association, the Police, the British Army, and the film industry all have or are currently dealing with significant allegations of abuse. (Indeed, at the same time that the Oxfordshire diocese’s abuse scandal was made public, a football scout and coach for Manchester City football club, Barry Bennel, was put on trial at Liverpool Crown Court for offenses that took place between 1979 and 1991 that are reported to have involved hundreds of sexual abuse incidents with many different children.) Similarly, the film industry, following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, has recently illustrated how a power imbalance can be easily exploited by abusers.

The question for me is whether or not it is helpful to categorize abuse into subsections: sports abuse; film producer abuse; or spiritual abuse. Harassment, exploitation, and abuse of power are wrong in every context, whether it is a talent scout taking advantage of a young hopeful, or a church leader taking advantage of a vulnerable congregation member.

Interestingly, the film industry’s response to disclosed abuse has been the polar opposite to the line the church seems to be taking in identifying spiritual abuse as something different than abuse elsewhere. Instead of claiming a unique danger inherent in the actor/director relationship, the #metoo campaign recognized that sexual harassment anywhere was abusive. This has brought a great sense of solidarity between women and men from all walks of life.

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