My wife and I moved to Northampton in 1973, and were introduced to a Baptist Church in Bugbrooke. We attended as visitors at first, but were soon encouraged to become more fully involved.
From the early stages I was concerned about the level of pressure that was being placed upon people to commit themselves without reservation to this emerging group. I had misgivings about the style of discipleship being practiced.
Out of respect to my wife’s father and mother who were members and could see nothing but good in the church – plus the fact that we were living with them awaiting the purchase of our first home to be completed, I did not fully express any initial misgivings.
It was true that these were exciting days. Freedom in worship; the moving of God’s Spirit in ways I had never seen before. But the little reservations kept biting me.
We were desperate to be part of this emerging movement, which stated that they had something special that was not to be found anywhere else. We made a decision to become members of this Church, so bought and moved into a near the Community, and lived as an extended household for a couple of years. I was a boat builder, and as first time buyers had to work long hours (a usual week was at least 65 hours).
The Eldership was pushing me to attend several meetings each week, which was a constant pressure.
A Church retreat was arranged in a place in Sussex called Ashburnham. During the time away we were asked if we would be interested in living in Community. I expressed an interest in knowing more. I was told this would entail us selling our house. Again the still small voice began to trouble me.
Very quickly after we returned to Northampton, a senior leader came to chat. He said things like: “Community will cause you to grow in God”, and ‘”I feel that God is in this”, and “you will really find your calling”.
I’d been a wayward soul; my upbringing was complex: an alcoholic wife-beating angry father, a mother who was disturbed, and an uncle who was a child molester – I was one of his victims. I ran away at 16 and there followed a life of petty crime followed by incarceration.
I expressed concern about my readiness for such a leap. The senior leader assured me I would be fine, but if not we could always find refuge by returning to our previous position. I took this to mean that we would be returned to a house of similar size and location as we now owned, and that we would still be owners of our property. How wrong I was. My next three years drove me to the very edge of a deep chasm.
We’d agreed that nothing would happen immediately – but then events snowballed out of control at an alarming speed. I returned home one evening after work to discover a ‘For Sale’ sign outside our house. On phoning the estate agent, I learned that Noel Stanton had instructed them to put it on the market. At this point we had not yet signed any agreement with the Church (we would do so later). I expressed my misgivings to the senior leader. He said ‘BRO – faith and trust’. I thought, it’s ok for you. That evening I had a massive panic attack. It was to be the first of many. They would hound my days and nights for years to come.
After the house was sold we never saw any sign of the money; it was simply placed straight into a Church account. I was miffed because I wanted at least to have had the opportunity to present my house as a gift.
We moved into community and my world disintegrated. I began to feel insecure and had panic attacks nearly every day. My wife, two children and I were plunged into a life of monastic disciplines.
Before we moved into the Community House, we had to dispose of our furniture, all of it went to be given away to others, all of our children’s toys had to go (no dollies in community houses) only a select few educational items. Our beloved Jack Russell dog had to be rehoused; no pets either.
My wife cried as he was led away to a new life.
I often asked to visit my mother while we lived in this House, and was mostly refused. I saw her only three times in three years, we were not allowed to be away for more than one night. Any toys that my children were given by their grandmother had to be inspected for suitability when we returned. Most were rejected as not appropriate and put in the bin. My eldest daughter still remembers this and struggles with it.
Community for me was a nightmare: days of criticism, words spoken over my life without any explanation offered as to why I needed such corrections. I was assigned a young ‘Discipler’. He was a ‘Firebrand’ and his mission, his goal, was to break my stubbornness. He was single; a new convert who had little empathy for my struggles. He worked on me morning, noon and night, no time to pause and breathe. Every time I passed him in the house there was a correction. Minor misdemeanour was met with disapproval.
On one occasion in frustration I told him: “If I can still see you after I count ten, I will lay hands on you. And not in blessing.”
He fled… and returned with three others. I stood there, inviting them outside.
By now I had asked to return to my own home on a number of occasions, only to be told that it would not be good for me and a backward step. I was dying, my faith all but a distant memory. I was stressed to the point of breaking. I had colitis, water infections and I vomited after meals. But even though I asked for time and space, the bullying continued.
In those days our spiritual growth was checked yearly. It was called ‘Annual General Counselling’. The day drew near. Two other senior Elders were the designated overseers, and their opening gambit was straight in, all guns blazing.
“Well Bro…” [I wondered if they had forgotten my name] “This past year has been disappointing… your growth has not been sufficient… I think we need to place you on six month’s probation… if you don’t meet the required standard your membership will need to be considered and you will have to move out”.
I responded with: “And my wife and kids?”
“No” came the reply, “They can stay. Your wife is in a good place, she is a submissive Sister.”
I had given at least twelve years and all I had to this Church; my time, my will, my soul, my life – and for some unexplained reason I was to be found falling short of this high calling. I told them I would consider their comment by taking some time off from work to pray about their comments.
“Bro if you don’t work, you won’t eat” was the reply.
I retreated muttering words not suitable to share. I went to my bedroom and stayed there for several days, praying and considering.
Eventually the leaders came to me and suggested a fresh start at another Community House.
I love my wife and kids, and the thought of leaving them and being asked to leave them was horrendous. I felt that for their sake I needed to try again.
We packed up and moved. There was no welcoming party. The new Shepherd of that House greeted me with: “I don’t want you here. I know all about you, you’re a rebel.”
My heart sank further if that was still possible.
I lasted just the six months before walking out, leaving my wife and children. I remember being anxious that another Brother might discipline my children.
While we were at lunch at another House, I kissed my kids goodbye. I would not see them again for some months. I told my wife I had something to do, went back to the House we lived in, packed a bag and left a note for my wife apologising and explaining that I had come to the end.
I prayed a final prayer as I left, saying to God: if you love me, come and find me.
My wife and I were separated for six months. The Elders chased me for money for my children’s support. I refused increasing the pressure on them. Some went as far as to discuss the future of our marriage – only one was against a divorce.
After six months it was agreed that my wife and I could be reconciled if I were to agree to live in a house we purchased in Bugbrooke. So after three years, messed up, hurt, rejected, I was back at base camp. We received a payment equal to the sum we put into the house.
We got nothing for our furniture and chattels and nothing for the vehicle. We had just the basic.
It was such a struggle as first time buyers with three kids. I already had three jobs and struggled to support a family, but I was determined to be a provider.
My wife remained a member for three years but eventually came to me and asked if we could find a place to worship together as a family. My heart exploded with a joy not felt for many a year. I asked our Shepherd to release my wife from her membership and to bless us. He did, for which I am grateful. He got in trouble and was roasted for this. We left, and took some time out.
A few days later, the senior Elders visited my wife and told her she had made the wrong decision, and pressed her to change her mind and return. She was told her salvation was at stake, as breaking the Covenant was a mortal sin. I came home to find her a broken woman. This happened twice in my absence. I phoned Noel and instructed him to “remove his dogs”, or I would take out a court injunction against their ever setting foot on my property. It worked.
This week we celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary. I am a blessed man.