It was the Best of Times and… the Worst of Times. (Tales of an Ex Teenage Rebel)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” (Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities – 1859)

“You know there ain’t no street like home

To make you feel so all alone

Too many folks to tell you what to do

But they don’t speak the same language as you.

They want to have me here

Have me and hold me near

Hold me down, fastened and tied

I feel life passing me by…

Gotta Gotta Getaway!”

(Jake Burns – 1979)

If I was looking for two quotes to best sum up my time with the “Jesus People” as they were known at the time, I couldn’t find any better than these. For me the Jesus Fellowship is, was, and probably always will be a melting pot of friendship, support and unity mixed with anger, frustration, pain and control. It was a place of extremes way beyond anything I have experienced in the 30 some years since severing ties with the place. The problem with radical thought and extremes is there to be seen on the pages of any history book, and I believe this is a history that the JFC, possibly unwittingly, has written for itself and of which it is now to some extent set to reap the whirlwind.

The following summarises and expands on an official statement I made in 1996 in support of a fellow ex-member in their pursuit of the truth and a resolution. Re-reading the original statement over and again I recognise someone in myself who despite having a real story to tell was still very much in a state of “protect the kingdom” that in many ways sought to reduce the severity and justify the actions taken against me and subsequently some members of my immediate family. My language, views and rationale may have changed in the intervening years but the truth of my experience most certainly has not. I am grateful for a place to share it in the hope that someone, somewhere may understand that they are not alone.

My first involvement with the church was a result in no small part due to being raised in a loving christian family where other members of the family were seeking a fuller way to progress their christian and spiritual lives. After a visit to the church during one of the bank holiday weekends our family began a process of gradually becoming more involved through 1979 /80 and into the early 1980’s. During that time, we became increasingly regular weekend visitors to houses in Nether Heyford and to Bugbrooke Chapel plus a mid-week meeting in a town nearer to where we lived at the time.

By the age of 14/15 I was a regular visitor to the Farm in Nether Heyford. Both my parents and my brother became full members of the community when as a family, and having finished my schooling we permanently moved to Northamptonshire to take up residence – My brother remains a member of the church still. I lived with my parents in a church owned house for a short period until I moved into the Farm full time. During that time, I was attending college where I spent the week in halls of residence, spending time at the church as normal at the weekends. I was encouraged to drop out of college under the advice of an elder at the time and having done so returned to the Farm full time, from there to a couple of other community houses until eventually severing all ties with the institution in 1986. During the later stages of my involvement with the church I was moved from the Farm household to one in Warwickshire and from there to a further community house in Coventry. While at the Coventry house I was put under the covering of a particular elder with a reputation for having the right skills and “spirit” to break and control my behaviour.

After a short period at that house and under that covering, I was deemed to be beyond control and therefore was removed from the responsibility of the church and was summarily thrown out with no money of my own, no financial assistance and little more than the clothes I stood up in. All packed in a rucksack loaned to me in secret by a household member who didn’t agree with the way the church leaders were handling the situation. The extent of the callous dismissal of the humanity of the situation is, in my mind, best summed up, not by headline worthy extreme brutality, but rather; by my not even being allowed to take my duvet because it belonged to “Zion”. A duvet is neither here nor there in the general scheme of things, but to me at the time this act left me not only with nowhere to sleep but without even anything to sleep under. Does this not demonstrate a dehumanised mind-set of punishment and petty retribution in the name of God and his kingdom that beggar’s belief? The sense of nothing, no one and nowhere was at times excruciating in its loneliness.

Had it not been for the intervention of a senior elder at the house my parents were living in going directly against the ruling of the rest of the church seniors, I am in no doubt that as a result of my near immediate eviction I would have been forcibly rendered homeless. In direct opposition to the instructions from the senior leadership team, he drove me to Northampton and paid the first weeks rent on a room in a B&B “dosshouse” from his petrol allowance. The senior leader in question was subsequently ejected from the church a few years later, for among other things, specifically calling for external auditing and review of the teachings and practices of the JFC. I genuinely thank him then and now for his humanity.

That is in essence a very short timeline of my involvement with the church except to say that when I was involved, although not as a covenant member, I took part in all meetings, outreach work, free labour on the farm and as a full participating member of the common purse.

As you can probably tell it wasn’t all roses and confetti, but I have to say here that it truly did have its moments of fun, friendship and unity. I have friends to this day who were there with me as we all jointly went through the angst and wonder of being teens and into early adulthood. Friendships forged through the pain and pleasure of such a unique experience – when all the world looks at you slightly sideways when you try to explain – are beyond value.

I remember times such as carting straw from all over the county, cattle drives, learning to weld in the farm workshop, servicing tractors and the camaraderie of those things with a genuine fondness. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, for the most part, between the hours of 8am and 4.30pm weekdays it was one of the best boy’s clubs I had ever been to. If only that was all there is, to this, and other stories…. This would be a very different account.

My first real disillusionment with the church related directly to the level of control within and by the leadership and came about as a result of a conversation with a senior member of the farm household. Having been concerned by – ok, kicking against the thorns of – the control I felt people were gaining over nearly every aspect of my life I asked what I thought was a very straight question. “If I want to say no to something the church is “demanding”, “counselling” or “discipling” me to do but it’s against my better judgement, do I have the right to say no?”. Self-determination is surely one of the most basic freedoms and rights that everyone should enjoy, isn’t it?

The answer I received was equally straight and without room for misunderstanding.

“If someone is doing God’s will and moving in the spirit then they would not question the will or decisions of the leadership”.

My second area of “concern” – how insufficient a word that seems – was the level and nature of corporal and brutal punishment which seemed the accepted norm, certainly within community houses at the time. I did experience it myself, but maybe it was the nature of my character, my age, or the fact that I wasn’t born into community doctrine that prevented me being subject to quite the same amount and severity of beatings that I witnessed my friends and other much younger children experiencing, and that was certainly experienced by the next cohort of kids coming through. But witness it I did!

I witnessed children being thrashed by their parents and by people who weren’t their parent. In fact, it was considered the right thing to do at the farm where I lived to appoint someone to thrash children in loco parentis. I witnessed children being removed from a room to be thrashed purely because a leader had told the parent to do it. I witnessed the outcome of a close friend of mine having been severely beaten up a junior household leader at least 10 years his senior.

As to my own experience I was subject to instances such as being hit on the hand, the arm, the head, threatened with the rod and on one occasion being physically dragged from my bed and thrown to the floor in the middle of the night.

That experience of being dragged from my bed and thrown to the floor occurred on New Year’s Eve 1983/4 aged 17 when after a long day of working on the farm I declined the invitation to attend the midnight prayer session to “pray in the new year”. In short, I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. At my refusal, I was visited by various men and elders of the house exhorting me to get up. At one point, they all stood around my bed exhorting and praying that I would cease my ungodly defiance, and rebuking the devil in me. Being what could be best be called a bloody-minded character, this had pretty much entirely the opposite effect. Eventually I was set upon by an elder, dragged from the bed on to the floor and shoved around the room while he shouted at me to get dressed and go downstairs. I refused again and got back into bed, at which point I was hit repeatedly around the head before being dragged from the bed again. This physical assault only ceased when in fear and anger I lost all control and hit back in self-defence. I was only then after some 30 minutes of this severe bullying culminating in my hitting my attacker, that I was left in peace to consider the eternal damnation of my soul and that my next step was apostasy.

Finally, I would like to share some items of a far more personal nature, there were a number of occasions which caused me to feel uneasy about the intention, or let’s call it, obsessive curiosity of the other person involved. I make no apology for the necessary openness of language and description in this section. I trust that the reader will see it as being necessarily open rather than gratuitous.

The first such experience came for me when aged just 16, I was given into the care of what was then called a “caring brother”- a celibate man some 8 to 10 years older than me, to guide and coach me in my early christian life. This involved all manner of things but had a definite emphasis on matters of the flesh or in more general language: sex, sexuality and attraction to the opposite sex (or otherwise). The lengths and personal nature of these conversations was at best over curious. With experience and maturity, I now know them to be invasive, salacious and requiring levels of detail only to be found in the more suspect elements of the internet and newsagent shop. I was encouraged to confess all, from the things I liked about certain girls through to much more graphic confessions. Most of these conversations concerned the great teenage preoccupation, masturbation. Where, when, how, how often, does it feel better in the bath, who do you think about, what are they doing when you think about them, etc. were all regular elements of the interrogation/confession sessions. I became ever more uneasy about the increasingly personal levels of detail being asked during these conversations and as a result did all I could to avoid them. These experiences were further confirmed as being unwholesome when talking to another friend of my own age group, and he raised the subject of the same celibate caring brother asking him very much the same questions and level of detail.

The second experience of this nature involved the now deceased former Leader, pederast in chief and self-styled prophet of the JFC, Noel Stanton. On the occasion in question, aged and still only just 17, I was sent to his private bedroom for a talk. The first important thing to understand in this, is that entry to that room was extremely rare for all but a very select few. I most definitely wasn’t part of the select few at that time! On entering the room, we proceeded to have a conversation which was both flattering and full of praise. This in itself was a highly unusual conversation to be pointed at me, I was far from a glowing example of what a good disciple looks, sounds or acts like. Stanton had taken the decision to discuss how I could play an important role within the church as a guiding light and example to the youth. Utilising, as he put it my strong character, reputation, natural leadership and influence amongst the young to keep the youth involved and lead by the example of a “rebel for Jesus”. A role I most distinctly did not want, at any cost.

On the face of it this appears to be very innocent, and in many ways an affirming shepherding conversation but takes on a very different texture when taken in the context of the visit as a whole. The almost secret visit to his private room, the level of flattery of a spiritual, personal and physical nature – coupled with a hand on the knee and an arm around the shoulder from a man in his late 50’s who was fresh out of the bath and still wearing just his bath towel – all made me extremely uncomfortable. This discomfort was further endorsed when I was invited to kneel with him by the side of his bed. An invitation I hurriedly refused and on refusing left the room immediately. I believed at the time that I was in the early stages of a seduction or what would now be termed “grooming”. Other testimonies I have become aware of in recent times plus the statement in 2017 from Mick Haines, Stanton’s successor about the nature of Stanton’s “flawed character” leave me with little doubt whatsoever that this was the case and moreover that mine was by no means an isolated incident. Nothing more was ever said about the incident at the time and has largely remained my guilty secret for over 30 years, but my blood still creeps to remember it.

There is no question in my mind that genuine people with a genuine will for good inhabit both sides of the debate and discussion regarding the claims of historical multi layered abuse within the Jesus Fellowship Church. I am similarly in no doubt that the abuses range across the full spectrum in terms of type, impact and severity. I do not claim to a special case or have any special place within that spectrum, only to be a small part of the cohort of very real and very genuine people impacted negatively by their association with the Jesus Fellowship, a negative impact that continues to this day in myriad forms. I will be forever thankful that my experience of the JFC was only for the relatively short time of approximately 5 years.

My heart goes out to those impacted both inside and outside the church. To those who have toiled for years to make a place of worship who have realised that they were working for something that was in part built on inherent evil, falsehoods designed and systemised by men seeking an autocratic kingdom of their own. To those who have to live with the realisation that their actions or lack of action compounded the damage caused to those in their care. Most of all to those who are still in pain and working this through in the best way they can.

This is a small part of my story, I hope if nothing else, it shows that you are not alone and will no longer speak in isolation to a room that doesn’t hear. I will leave the final words to a far better man than I in the belief that it will explain the reason why I have chosen this point in time to speak…….

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. (Martin Luther King Jr)

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