Church group sparks warning
Reading Evening Post, 20 March 2002.
A church which has been banned from university campuses in the United States is attracting young people in Reading, religious leaders have warned.
The International Churches of Christ (ICOC), which has faced a catalogue of complaints, is holding weekly meetings in Reading and is recruiting on campus and in the town.
The controversial ICOC, which started life in the US in the 1970s, is meeting in the Rising Sun Arts Centre and has set up a “Brother House” in King’s Road.
The Reverend Jonathan Wilmott, of Greyfriars Church in Friar Street, said: “Be very, very careful. If reports about this church are true it is dangerous, dangerous stuff.”
Bishop of Reading, the Right Reverend Dominic Walker said: People need to be careful when joining a religious group that is not widely known and ought to check out its credentials.
“If people are approached in the street they should not give their address or phone number.
“I think there are particular characteristics which are associated with some religious groups that are alarming.
“A good Christian church should give people the freedom to be themselves.”
Ian Howarth, of charity the Cult Information Centre, said new members of the ICOC are assigned a “discipler” or mentor to supervise their spiritual growth and other aspects of their lives.
Members are encouraged to confess their weaknesses and failings in front of their “discipler”, he said.
One website dedicated to the ICOC – www.reveal.org – gives first hand accounts of former members and details how people thinking of leaving the church can contact its crisis line.
But Adrian Hill, elder at the London branch of the ICOC said he belonged to a conservative church and that allegations on the Internet should be taken with a pinch of salt.
He said: “We do not do anything unusual. We talk about the Bible in small groups, which is a common approach. You don’t have to have a mentor if you don’t want to.
“All we give is advice. We do not exercise coercion or mind control, but Jesus teaches us it is important to take help.”
Mr Hill conceded former members had made a catalogue of complaints against the church.
He said: “Undoubtedly there have been some challenges. But we evangelise in public more than any other church and attract a lot of vulnerable people.
“When we can’t help them they look for someone to blame. It is a coincidence. More people are helped through mental and emotional problems in this church than anywhere else.”
Larry Watson, manager of the Rising Sun Arts Centre, confirmed the group had been meeting at the Silver Street venue for about two months. He said: “Until now we have been unaware of the concerns surrounding the church. I will be speaking to my manager about these concerns. But it is a difficult situation. We want to be fair to everyone. We have an equal opportunities policy which we have to adhere to, while ensuring everyone is in a safe environment.”
He added that he had witnessed parts of the group’s Sunday meetings and had been invited to share food with them after the meeting.
He said: “It seemed pretty innocuous. It’s a little bit difficult reconciling people’s concerns with my own experiences, but I recognise that my experiences may be misleading.”