While Shepherds Watch
London was a big and very impersonal place for Julie Yorke when she first started work there. She’d just got her degree at Oxford and moved in with her boyfriend Tony, whom she’d known for eight years – since they were at school together. Yet when Tony wasn’t around Julie missed the friendliness and companionship of student life, and coming from the north of England she missed the casual warmth which strangers show foir each other away from the capital. So when the couple living next door to their flat in Wimbledon started chatting across the garden fence, and invited them around for supper, she was delighted to go. They seemed a caring, Christian couple, ideal new friends for her and Tony.
Unfortunately the couple next door were leaders in the Central London Church of Christ, the fastest-growing cult in Britain today. And within a few months they and the Church separated Tony and Julie, tried to keep them apart, and attempted to take over their whole lives. It was a nightmare that Tony and Julie, now married, can look back on with some degree of equanimity, because they survived and so did their relationship with each other. But they know it was a close-run thing.
The Central London Church of Christ is a ‘daughter church’ of the Boston Church of Christ, which was founded in 1979 by a keen young evangelist called Kip McKean. McKean, the son of a US Navy admiral, had been converted by Charles ‘Chuck’ Lucas, who was the leader of the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida. Lucas had developed and refined a technique of converting and holding onto recruits for his Church, known as ‘discipling’. His influence on McKean and other evangelists was seminal – so much so that the words ‘Crossroads’, ‘Crossroadsism’, ‘Crossroads movement’ or ‘Crossroads philosophy’ have been used to describe the high-pressure, discipling-based, fast-growing Church of Christ movement. [Not all Churches of Christ are part of McKean’s movement – there are some traditional Baptist-inspired Churches of that name which have existed for centuries. These are not cultic or dangerous; McKean’s Church and its seventy-plus offspring congregations are.]
Discipling means that each new recruit is put under the one-to-one supervision of a discipler, an established member of the congregation who will guide his or her every movement. One of the most fundamental teachings is that obedience is Christ-like and of paramount importance; once the convert has submitted to this he or she becomes malleable in the hands of the leaders. Everyone has a discipler: new recruits are discipled by ordinary members; ordinary members are discipled by Bible study leaders, who are in turn discipled by elders; elders are discipled by evangelists and so on upwards, until eventually the small top group are discipled by Kip McKean. He is, perhaps, the only member of the organization who is answerable to nobody. The structure is very similar to a pyramid-selling operation.
By the simple expedient of keeping very close tabs on every member, the Church is able to pressure the interested into joining, ensuring their full commitment and preventing any backsliding among established members. The result is an authoritarian regime in which members are encouraged to model themselves closely on their disicplers, who in turn are modelled on *their* disicplers and so on. Behaviour, opinions and decisions are all closely monitored and regulated by the Church. The diary of events and study that a member undertakes is exhausting and leaves little time for association outside the congregation. Apart from Sunday meetings, members are expected to attend ‘house church’ meetings every Wednesday, worshipping in small groups in the homes of members. They have at least one social evening a week, Bible study time – on a daily basis – as well as recruiting new members on the streets.
McKean’s original motivation was altruistic and evangelistic: he believed he was helping those who followed him to Christ. He may still believe that, although he has had plenty of opportunity to evaluate the damage done to members of his congregations. He and his wife Elena and a group of other young, enthusiastic Christians left Chuck Lucas and joined a church in Lexington, a suburb of Boston. Half the existing congregation left, unhappy with the discipling approach, but their numbers were not missed because McKean quickly attracted a growing number of converts; in fact, the growth rate of the Church is staggering, with as many as a thousand converts being baptised per year. The congregation in Boston soon outgrew the building they had rented and established a pattern that would be followed in their ‘daughter’ churches throughout the world, of renting large public buildings (cinemas, theatres, sports arenas and so on) for Sunday morning worship.
As McKean’s success grew, so his techniques became more authoritarian and – typical of a cult – exclusive. He and his followers now believe that they are the only ‘Christians’ in the world, and this is used as a powerful lever against any members who show signs of wavering.
The Central London Church of Christ was spawned in 1982, and since then two more churches, in Birmingham and Manchester, have been opened as ‘daughters’ of the London one – so again the pyramid structure is in place. Further churches are planned for Edinburgh and Dublin.
The Central London one was established by Americans trained in Boston, some of whom are still working in Britain, alongside British leaders. Douglas Arthur, an American, lives in London and is responsible for the ‘Commonwealth Ministries’, which include the three British ones, Australia, Hong Kong, and Bangalore in India. He disciples Fred Scott, who is the leader of the London church. Although they and other Church leaders are not, on paper, paid more than a subsistence wage, they are provided with nice flats or houses, they run good cars, and they boost their earnings with ‘expenses’ payments. As long ago as 1986 Douglas Arthur was being paid 1240ukp per month in expenses, on top of his 500ukp a month salary. None the less, although they can achieve a good standard of living from the Church, making money is unlikely to be the primary motivation, as the sums involved are tiny compared to those available to the Rajneesh or Moon or Scientology organizations.
Power is a more likely motivation: the Church leaders are uniformly young men who acquire absolute power over the lives of the members under them. Women can never aspire to the hierarchy of the Church, although they can become powerful over other women: discipling is done on a same-sex basis. But women are not allowed to speak in church – they can’t preach or say prayers. Nor are they given as full a doctrinal teaching as men: husbands are expected to ‘lead’ their wives in the ways of the Church.
The Church’s money is raised from the members and from carefully disguised charity appeals. For instance, a record-breaking shoeshine in Covent Garden was billed as raising money for Africa, under the slogan ‘Christian Youth Shining for Africa’, but what the charitable people who offered their shoes for a polish did not know was that the money was to set up a new church in Lagos, Nigeria. No direct lies had been told, but the impression given was that the event was helping with famine and drought relief on the stricken continent.
Members are asked to pledge themselves to donating 10 per cent of their income, and they are constantly exhorted to contribute generously to other special appeals. But the profile of the membership – the Central London Church of Christ attracts many students and young people who have not had time to establish themselves in their careers – means that the coffers are not awash with vast sums. Enough, though: the Church has had to pay 150,000ukp in back taxes to the Inland Revenue. Among the young recruits are a significant handful of professional people – doctors, lawyers, vets – all being groomed for positions in the leadership.
Students have always been targeted by the church as potential recruits, and it has now been banned from canvassing on the campuses of several London colleges, as well as the universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Aston. But others have yet to wake up to the threat: Liverpool University was happy to take a large payment for allowing the Church to use its facilities during the 1989 summer vacation. The loneliness of students away from home, perhaps for the first time, makes them vulnerable; and the fact that the Central London Church of Christ is, doctrinally at least, not far removed from established and credible Christian teaching, makes it seem a safe ‘non-cultic’ organization – at least until the colleges wake up to the danger of its presence and started alerting students. But not all students hear or heed the warnings, and the Church offers a very appealing package to anyone insecure and unhappy. It takes all decision-making out of the hands of the individuals, gives them a programme by which to live, a full diary of engagements, and endless chivvying to keep them toeing the Church line.
Each of the colleges and universities where the Church has established its presence can provide examples of the detrimental effect membership has on students. There are instances of young people pulling out of their degree courses – one young man dropped out just two weeks before his finals, and three weeks after joining the Church. Others have ended up with lower degrees than they should have achieved, and yet others have had nervous breakdowns. The toll is high. And although experts have noticed that, unlike the situation in some cults, members of the Central Church of Christ often leave of their own volition after two or three years (‘burned out’ is one phrase used to describe it), their lives may be permanently blighted by the educational failure and the gap in their curriculum vitae when they present themselves to future employers. One young woman, with a medical degree, has been unable to do the hospital training needed to qualify her to practise as a doctor because of her involvement with the Church and the nervous breakdown it precipitated; she will find this difficult to explain when she is well enough to resume her ambition to work as a doctor.
The Central London Church of Christ has proved adept at concealing its identity to confound the critics: a Historical Literature Society at the London School of Economics turned out to be a Bible study class for the Church, and in north London there have been objections to it using the name ‘The North London Christian Fellowship’. In one London secondary school a Church leader, with a child at the school, offered to help run the Christian Union, but luckily the authorities made enquiries about the man and rejected his offer. He can only have been hoping to recruit: the Central London Church of Christ does not recognize anyone except its own members as Christians, and is particularly scornful of the teachings of the Church of England.
To become a member of the Central Church of Christ candidates have to repent their sins, recognize that the Church is the only route to salvation, accept the doctrine of obedience, and then be baptised by full immersion in a tank of water. The Church does not accept the baptism of children: members believe that all sin is man-made (no original sin) and that only someone mature enough to repent their sins can be baptised. They believe that baptism into their Church is the only way to God, and they teach that anyone who leaves will go to hell. In order to ‘repent’, candidates have to accept total obedience to their disciplers – even when they believe the person giving them orders is at best misguided or at worst vicious and vindictive.
‘When we are under authority we are to submit and obey those who are over us even when they are not very Christ-like,’ says the Boston Bulletin, a newsletter from the church in Boston which is distributed to members in Britain. It continues: ‘It is definitely true that there will be abuse of authority and we must learn to deal with it… Just as in the times of the New Testament, there will be people who are hurt and killed by abusive authorities, but God is still in control: if they were right with Him they will be ultimately rescrued to the supreme security – home with God. In questions of spiritual leaders abusing their authority… it is not an option to rebel against their authority.’
In other words, doing what you are told, however much you may disagree with it, is the way to God, and submission is a virtue in itself. They cite as an example that Jesus submitted to Pointious Pilate – this shows, they claim, that God uses abusive authority. Obedience becomes the sine qua non. With the pyramid structure of authority, this means that leaders of individual churches (and ultimately Kip McKean) have enormous power over the lives of members. They control whom members can date, whom they marry, how they live, where they live, how they spend their money. Their control is total.
During their Bible study classes members make their own notes. The notes of one young ex-member show just how ingrained the notion of obedience is: under the heading ‘OBEY’ he wrote ‘Salvation, Challenges, Hope’. Under ‘DISOBEY’ he wrote ‘Hell, Unhappiness, Despair, No hope, No self-confidence’. In fact, the reverse is true: by giving total obedience, all self-confidence and hope are sapped away. One secretary in America could not type a letter for her employer without a phone call to her discipler to get permission. Obviously, some disciplers are tougher than others: they cross-question their ‘sheep’ rigorously about whether he or she has studied the Bible that day (Bible study is a daily necessity); whether he or she has talked to any outsider about the route to salvation that day (members are supposed to proselytise at every available opportunity). And if they are ill, they are supposed to ‘rise above it’ and still attend Church meetings.
In some of the American churches, members fill in ‘accountabilty sheets’ detailing everything they have done, including how many times they have slept with their wives. So far these sheets have not been used in Britain, although members fill in charts of what they do with their time.
But the elaborate dating system used in America is enforced in the UK. Members are only allowed to go out with other members, and then only on Saturday evenings. They are not encouraged to go out as a couple, but on a double date. They are not allowed to date the same person in consecutive weeks because of the ‘four week rule’: if a boy or girl really like each other they are allowed to date every four weeks, each seeing other dates in between. When they have followed this system for a time they are allowed to ask permission to ‘go steady’. If they get permission they can see each other every Saturday evening, and they are allowed one fifteen-minute phone call during the week. After twelve months they can ask to be engaged, and three months later they may marry.
The effect of all this control on the personality of members is staggering. It is, if nothing else, proof of the sincerity, and perhaps naivety, of the Church leaders that in 1985 the Boston mother church invited an independent expert to produce a study of their work. He did personality tests on nine hundred members of the congregation, at the same time running parallel ‘control’ tests on members of other non-discipling evangelical Churches, as well as members of mainstream denominations. The test used, a standard one accepted by psychologists worldwide and based on work originally done by Jung, showed that there was a massive swing in personality type among members of the Boston congregation, with less than 5 per cent showing no change at all.
In normal, well-balanced people personality type does not change. Although the people themselves may change, their basic type (of which the introvert-extrovert axis is one of four standard measures) should remain constant throughout life. With the control group from the other Churches there were very few variations. But with the Boston Church of Christ members the changes were enormous, with the percentage of extroverts rising from 33 per cent to 94 per cent among the males, and from 38 per cent to 95 per cent among the females. There were similar changes in the other personality categories. Although no category is ‘wrong’ or less worthy than another, the worrying factor is the change, which psychologists regard as unhealthy, and the fact that all members of the church ultimately cluster in one or two of the sixteen basic types (in the general population they would be spread evenly among all sixteen). The only other guinea pigs who exhibited a similar amount of change were members of other cults: Scientology, Hare Krishna, Maranatha, Children of God and the Unification Church. As with the Boston church members, these all changed to become one or two uniform types. The strain of this unnatural personality change is what leads to breakdowns, and explains why so many ex-cult members (not just ex-Central Church of Christ) have severe problems with fragmented personalities.
Luckily for Tony and Julie Yorke, they were not in the movement long enough to suffer severe damage. But even after a year out, Julie admits she has not completely adjusted to her old life.
It was Julie who first became involved with the Church, and by her own admission it was she who dragged Tony along. Although he, too, became committed and they were both baptised, neither of them quite absorbed all the strictures imposed on them, and they retained enough independence to be able to question when things started to go wrong. Living next door to two members of the Church made it inevitable that the Yorkes would be approached: all members of the Church are supposed to evangelise every day.
‘We couldn’t avoid meeting them – in the garden we could see them, and as our two front doors abut each other’s we met on the doorstep. They were a friendly Canadian couple who were staying in the flat that is now occupied by the South Zone leaders for the Central London Church of Christ. We had supper with them, met some of their friends, and I was invited to a bible discussion. I didn’t go, and they rang to say they had missed me. I thought it was just an open invitation, so I was surprised my absence had been noticed, but because of the call I felt that I had been rude to my new friends. To make amends I went to a mid-week house church meeting.
‘Everyone was very friendly: they hug you, want to know all about you, ask what you do for a living. They were very keen that I should get Tony along to join in, and to please me he came. After a meeting they would take us into a room to study the Bible, seperately. There was always two of them to each of us, one of them doing an agressive hard sell and the other being nice and friendly. I’d had a vaguely Christian upbringing, but I didn’t know the Bible and they were able to blind me with quotations from it. It is only now, in retrospect, that I realise they twisted the quotations and took them out of context, to suit their own ends. ‘But at first it felt marvellous. I thought it was the answer to everything. I felt that they all loved me, and would support me. They use fear and guilt to make you want to get baptised: fear of the consequences, guilt about missing the opportunity to serve God.’
Tony, a journalist, and Julie, a speechwriter for a large organization, are neither gullible nor impressionable. But they were both sucked into the Church – and accepted it when they were told that they had to live apart. They were not married at the time, but living together in a flat they were jointly buying.
‘We were told that we could not live together. Tony had to move out before we were baptised. The Church moved a girl, my discipler, in with me to help me with the mortgage, and Tony moved into a three-bedroomed flat in Putney sharing with between eight and fifteen “brothers”.
‘I found it difficult living with the girl who moved in. She had been in the Church for five years and was very committed to it. It was not an easy relationship – we clashed over trivial things like the cleaning and the shopping. She even made me feel guilty about “excluding” her from the household chores.
‘We were all supposed to get up early and read the Bible for three-quarters of an hour: she was watching me to make sure I did it. She also kept me up late every night: she stayed up until about 2am, and the telephone was constantly ringing for her, day and night. It took a while for me to realise that everything I told her was passed on upwards through the Church, even things I said in confidence. There is no such thing as “in confidence”.
‘There was very little free time in my week: on Sunday mornings we went to church, in a rented hall or cinema, and it was an emotional affair, with song leaders on stage whipping up the crowd, clapping, shouting, near-hysteria. There would be usually four preachers, and each would build up the next one to come on by telling us what a great guy he was. The atmosphere was really charged. On Sunday evening we had a family discussion group; Monday evening there was nothing laid on, but I was expected to go out evangelising; on Tuesday evenings after work I had a Bible study class; on Wednesday a house church meeting; on Thursday I was teaching the gospel to others; on Friday the single girls in the Church went out together to the pictures. We were each expected to do fifteen hours of evangelising in a week.
‘I hated going door-to-door or stopping people in the street, and I was always trying to put it off. I was made to feel guilty about it. I was told I was selfish, my faith wasn’t strong enough, there were poor sinners out there who I should be trying to save from hell, and I would be going to hell with them if I didn’t do it.
‘On Saturday I was allowed to see Tony. They tried to insist that we only see each other every four weeks, and in the meantime that we date other people. We refused. And we were also in trouble for getting a video and staying at the flat together: we were supposed to go out with other couples. Sometimes Tony would sneak over in the week, too, and we used to talk on the phone from our offices. Couples are not allowed to kiss unless they are going steady, and sex outside marriage is absolutely banned.’
Even thinking about members of the opposite sex has to be confessed as ‘impure thoughts’, and in the flat where Tony lived in Putney one of the other young men there had some photographs of a girl he liked confiscated. ‘He was told it was unfair to the other sisters to just think about one girl,‘ said Tony. ‘They boast about splitting couples up – I know of one man who was separated from his common-law wife and three children. They were perfectly happy until the Church broke them up, and the members have a very ambivalent attitude about the necessity to support children. Unless the wife or girlfriend also joins the Church, they say that member has no duty to support her and her children, because all ties have ceased.‘
Tony and Julie refused to be parted. ‘The restrictions made us determined to marry straightaway, as soon as we could. But we were told that we should not make decisions like that ourselves; we should have asked permission. The Church did not recognize our past life at all – it was as though the years we had been together did not count. They said we had to grow spiritually, and to do that we had to live apart and learn to love God first.‘
For over a month the Church refused to recognize that Tony and Julie had become engaged. The leader of the London church, Fred Scott, told Tony to take his engagement ring back from Julie and ask her to marry him again in a couple of months’ time. Tony did not refuse point-blank, but after thinking about it and talking to Julie decided not to do as he was told. The Church, concerned that they were going to lose two able new recruits, appointed a couple to counsel them, and after two or three weeks of discussions aceepted that they were engaged. ‘We were told not to make rash moves or decisions in the future – that every step in our lives needed to be discussed and permissions given.‘
The Church was prepared to bend the rules again for Tony and Julie, and allowed them longer than usual to arrange their wedding – probably because they are the sort of young professionals who lend a very credible image to the Church. ‘The rule is that you get married three months after engagement, but my parents wanted to organize the whole thing properly, and we needed six months. The Church agreed. The normal practice is for members to have a civil ceremony followed by a service in a church that is hired from another denomination.‘
The Yorkes also bent the rule on pledging their income to the Church. They refused to make any agreement about how much they would give. ‘Everyone was always urged to be “sacrificial”. We gave between 20 and 30 pounds a week normally, although there were always extra appeals.‘ Tony, who was obviously singled out as potential leadership material, became friendly with Fred Scott, the leader of the London church, to whom he found himself regularly lending money at the rate of 5 or 10 pounds as time.
Tony and Julie were studying with the Church for four months before they were baptised, by total immersion, wearing old clothes and curled into a foetal position, in a bathtub in a shed in the garden next door.
But only three months after they joined, disillusionment set in. Tony, as a journalist, offered his services to do promotional work on a sponsored swim the Church was organizing, with half the proceeds due to go to a cancer charity and the other half to the Church. He was specifically told not to allow national newspapers to have the press release he prepared, but copies did find their way into the hands of Fleet Street journalists. The swim was due to take place at Charing Cross Hospital, but when the hospital authorities were alerted by a reporter from the Mail on Sunday to the fact that the London Church of Christ was a dangerous cult, permission to use the hospital pool was withdrawn. Several star names who had promised their support also pulled out. A follow-up article about the group in the Mail on Sunday was the first time that either Julie or Tony had seen the Church described as a cult.
At this time Tony was having problems at work, because he was spending too much of his time working for the Church. Julie’s close colleagues knew she was involved with a Church, but did not know too many details and assumed it was a mainstream denomination. A friend of Tony’s made some enquiries for him, and came back with the information that the Central London Church of Christ was regarded not just as a cult, but as a dangerous cult. The friend had consulted Graham Baldwin, Chaplain to London University, who has been campaigning for some time against the group, after first encountering it among students, and is an expert in its structure and methods.
‘We decided to go and see Graham‘, said Tony, ‘but only to refute his arguments. We were convinced it was all lies, that Satan was working through the newspapers. I wanted to take the matter to the Press Council, but the Church leaders refused, which sowed the seed of doubts and persuaded us to see Graham Baldwin.‘
When the negative side of the Church was presented to them, Tony and Julie tried to discuss it with the leaders. But instead of a constructive exchange of information, they were badgered and bullied for having gone outside the Church for advice. They continued to meet Graham Baldwin, and eventually, while Julie was away at a business conference, Tony moved back into the Wimbledon flat and told Julie’s discipler to get out. Their time as members of the London Church of Christ was over – only three months after their baptism.
There were still problems to resolve. The discipler refused to collect her belongings, and threatened to call the police when Tony said he would dump them on the street. Members of the Church called round to see them, and the leaders who lived next door continued to be friendly. ‘I think they thought we would come back in after we were married – that we had “fallen into sin” by living together again and once that was sorted out we would return‘, says Julie.
Julie still gets upset when she sees members of the Church on the street, and when they hold baptisms in the garden next door. ‘At first I was uncontrollably angry and bitter that I had been sucked in by them, and when I met them I felt worse. I was very critical of myself. Even now, although I know rationally they are wrong, I get panicky about it at times. They hold baptisms in the garden next door, the singing is noisy and Tony has to tell them to be quiet.
‘Their teachings dwell on death a lot, and now I find that it preys on my mind. They are quite callous: when the “Marchioness” riverboat sank and a lot of young people were drowned, one of the them said that it happened because those who died had been asked to come into the Church and had refused, and God was taking his revenge. They teach that God directs every minute of your life, so if any small thing goes wrong it is because God is punishing you for your sins.
‘Even now that we have been out for over a year, it seems strange making my own decisions about things. I know that if they had managed to split Tony and me up, I would still be in, and he probably would, too. They believe that a man is the dominant part of a relationship, so Tony would have been able to lay down the law to me.’
The Yorkes believe that their experience has in many ways been positive. They married earlier than they were otherwise intending to, but it has worked out well. ‘And we care more about other people than we did when we went in,‘ says Tony. ‘Julie and I are now helping other people to leave. Not all the Church teachings are bad. They teach you that you should always have a sober estimation of yourself, and I think we both now know more fully what flaws there are in our characters.
‘I feel that if we could get involved, anyone could. Looking back, I’m astonished that it happened to me. Our strength was that we had each other: they would tell us for talking together about Church matters, because we were only supposed to talk to our disciplers.’
The Yorkes believe that the seven months that they were involved with the Central London Church of Christ will never be completely erased from their lives. ‘But if we can stop just one more person getting involved, or persuade one to leave, it will not have been wasted.’