‘Coffee, a chat and I was caught’
Times Educational Supplement, October 10, 1997.
By Elaine Williams
The Central London Church of Christ goes under many names including the International Church of Christ, the Edinburgh Christian Church, the Manchester and Birmingham Churches of Christ. A movement that actively recruits from student halls of residence, bars and refectories, it has been banned from meeting on many campuses.
During freshers’ week in September, Manchester University was grappling with the fact that one of its tenants, the Manchester Deaf Centre, had hired out a room to the Manchester Church of Christ. However, there is little universities can do – apart from provide information – to prevent individual recruiters from approaching students wherever and whenever they please.
Sarah Cope-Faulkner was recruited when she was 22 into the Birmingham Church of Christ during her second year at Wolverhampton University. She left the group in her third year but like many other students who get involved with such groups, she never did finish her degree.
“During my first year there was this American girl at some of my lectures and we used to say hello. At the beginning of my second year I was standing by a noticeboard, working out my timetable, when she came up in a really friendly manner and we got chatting and went for coffee.
“I was feeling a bit vulnerable. I’d moved out of halls of residence and I was glad of the company. I was an evangelical Christian and during coffee she got on to the subject of my beliefs and asked me if I’d like to go to a bible study meeting.
“Once you’ve been to one meeting – or a party – they keep phoning you until you go to more, until your whole social life revolves around them. They’re always giving you lots of hugs. They aim to get you in really quickly. I was baptised (by total immersion) within three weeks. Baptism is the only way in this elite group that you are going to get to heaven. Anybody outside the church is damned.
“My parents began to realise that something was going on. I had moved into a house with other members of the church and I went home less frequently – and when I did, I would call them sinners and evil and all sorts, because I thought they needed to be part of the church to be saved.
“When you join the Church of Christ you are given a discipler whose advice you are encouraged to take. They always make out they know best for you and you have to give a tithe from your income. You discuss with them how much you will give. I took on a cleaning job from 5.30 in the morning, so with that, plus my university work and bible study for hours every evening, I was exhausted. I gave nearly Pounds 2,000 to the Church during the 18 months I was with it. I don’t really know where any of the money went to. You were not encouraged to ask questions, because it was seen as questioning God’s work.
“The main way you showed commitment to the church was by recruiting other members, but I was shy and not very good at it, and this was regarded as being a sin. Because God gives you the strength to do anything, they said I wasn’t open enough to God and I was required to fast for my sins. I began to feel ill.
“We were taught how to recruit, how to get in with the freshers, just to be there, a friendly familiar face. Once they knew you then you were encouraged to talk to them and start drawing them in, inviting them to a student party. That would be one ploy. It’s only at the party that you’d find an opportunity to talk to them about their religious experiences.
“One morning I slept in until 7 o’clock and missed my cleaning job and my discipler accused me of being a sinner, of being slothful. The goals you had to meet were always being pushed further and further back. I was really struggling. Then one day they wiped everybody off the church membership list and you had to recommit yourself, to prove yourself again. If you weren’t on that list you weren’t going to heaven so the pressure was enormous.
“I was meant to be going to my parents, but my discipler told me that I had to sort myself out and should not go home. It was at that point that I cracked. I walked out and got on a train. I cried and read the Bible all the way home. I was really, really frightened, convinced that I was going to hell, that I was totally worthless, that’s how they made you feel.
“I’d heard of the Cult Information Centre some weeks before. I went ahead and phoned them. They opened my eyes a bit to what had been happening to me. I just thought I was in a church that was a bit too enthusiastic. I then phoned up people in the church and they said I had been told a pack of lies. I really struggled in making a decision, though I didn’t go back. But my confidence was shot to pieces.”
Over the past four years Sarah has slowly pieced her life back together and now has a responsible position in a bank, but not before suffering a total breakdown and attempting suicide.
Her parents, John and Judith Cope-Faulkner, had watched their daughter’s transformation in horror. Her father, an FE lecturer said: “It has taken us all this time to get over it. We were shattered; it was like losing a daughter. She had always been a bright, friendly, giggly girl and she lost her ability to laugh. At one point we thought she might be on drugs, we knew the signs to look out for and you get similar symptoms when you are in a cult – high one minute and down the next.
“She came to see us less and less because she was being told that she had to break from us because we were condemned to hell. When she came out she was marked as damned by the church in a ceremony she herself had witnessed on previous occasions. She found that very hard to handle.”
Adrian Hall, an elder in the International Church of Christ, says that it is not part of the church’s policy to pressurise people and that it does not recruit “though we are enthusiastic about what we do”. He denies that the church targets students”because they are vulnerable”, but says it has an affinity with young people.
He acknowledges the church’s teaching, that it offers the only road to salvation, but denies that it encourages young people to break from their families – “we invite parents to come and a lot of them do.” He also denies that time spent recruiting and studying the Bible caused students to neglect their academic commitments. “If it is affecting their studies, that is not a good thing, but it’s like when you get any good book – you don’t want to put it down, you want to find out more.”
Funds, he says, pay church ministers, go to the poor and towards hiring accommodation – “schools and community centres” – for church meetings. “We don’t build because we are growing so fast we would soon outgrow anything we build,” he says.