John Lilburne's journal about the book "When a Church Becomes a Cult" by Steven Wookey.



About John Lilburne






2204 L Fri 22 Feb 2002

I borrowed a book from the Ringwood Library today: When a Church Becomes a Cult by Reverend Stephen Wookey, an Anglican minister. The message of the title is also expressed in the blurb on the back: ".... He highlights common examples of abuse and shows how even mainstream churches can have cult-like tendencies. ...". In the introduction he writes:

As I have thought over the whole subject I have become aware that there is no really clear distinction between a church and a cult. There is only a continuum, a line that at some stage gets crossed. It is to the abiding shame of many who call themselves Christians that the line has so often been crossed. ...(page 8).

So in writing about the extreme problems he is also giving a message to other religious people. He speaks of five characteristics which might be seen as marking out a cult:

The end justifies the means
Financial dishonesty
Psychological manipulation

Chapter 2 begins:

If we want to understand the phenomenon of the cult movement, we must have a grasp of their understanding and abuse of power. All cults revolve around a leader, to whom has been entrusted the secret of truth, and to whom everyone must be submissive.

A situation in North Korea is presented:

The tourist party of which Daniels was a member was taken on a tour of the store. It was loaded with goods, and full of people milling about. Daniels took a few minutes to watch. He realized after a short time that although there were many people there nobody was actually buying anything. He tried an experiment. He approached a counter and asked to buy a pen. Chaos ensued since it seems nobody was expected to buy anything. However they eventually acceded to his request although when he got home he found the pen was totally useless!

But he carried on watching. As he did so people became nervous. Suddenly one of the people behind the counters panicked and started handing out gifts willy-nilly to the shoppers. They in turn panicked - what on earth were they to do with these gifts, all incidentally, the same? Daniels walked around the corner to find these same shoppers handing back the goods at another counter.

It was a gigantic hoax. These were not shoppers at all, but government employees, paid, at the end of the day, to play the part of shoppers, purely for the benefit of guilible Westerners. As Daniels thought about it he realised that therein lay one of the secrets of totalitarianism. If a government could persuade or bribe people into playing a game as ridiculous and humiliating as that, their control over them would be absolute. He comments:

But this is no joke, and the humiliation it visits upon the people who take part in it, far from being a drawback, is an essential benefit to the power; for slaves who must participate in their own enslavement by signalling to others the happiness of their condition are so humiliated that they are unlikely to rebel. {Anthony Daniels, The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World (Hutchinson, 1991), pp. 53-6.}

How terrifyingly true. (pages 31 - 32)

So perhaps this is part of the problem with liturgical abuses, people not following the liturgical laws. According to the Roman Missal everyone should stand for the Gloria. But if people sit for it, and you follow the crowd, then it is difficult to complain or do the right thing. Ignorance of it becomes less humiliating than knowing the laws but not having the courage to follow them.

Before ordination, seminarians must be instituted as lectors (Canon 1035). As instituted lectors they must wear a vestment to do the reading (according to the Lectionary for Mass n. 54). So if this does not happen there is a special humiliation. One has to admit to not knowing the law, pretending not to know the law, allowing a practice contrary to the law or perhaps even enforcing a practice contrary to the law.

I think these problems of power were alluded to in the 14 December 1998 "Statement of Conclusions":

42. Weaknesses and Correctives. A weakness in parish liturgical celebrations in Australia is the tendency on the part of some priests and parishes to make their own changes to liturgical texts and structures, whether by omissions, by additions or by substitutions, occasionally even in central texts such as the Eucharistic Prayer. Practices foreign to the tradition of the Roman Rite are not to be introduced on the private initiative of priests, who are ministers and servants, rather than masters of the sacred Rites (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22 § 3; Instruction Inaestimabile Donum 5).

Copyright J.R. Lilburne 22 February 2002.