After some encouragement from a friend, and after reading Jock’s remarks from Feb 2019, I felt the impetus to make my own contribution. I remember Jock for his warmth and his laughter – the salt of the earth – bless you, Jock! (and thank you, GlasgowGirl, for your supportive remarks too)
I could split this story into about 4 or 5 posts, but am deciding to do it all in one, so thank you in advance for your patience, if you care to keep scrolling on to share in my experience.
I was a member of SMC from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, a period of my life from age 16 to my mid-twenties.
Here are a few of the key positive take-aways for me:
1) The affirmation of the contemplative and mystical tradition of the church and the primacy of a lived experience of divine love and mutuality in all things
2) The synthesis of the power of music, silence, Scripture, spiritual experience, and gathered worship as the ground-beat of life.
3) An encouragement to express my gifts in preaching, teaching, and music
People marvel at me when I say I was part of Pentecostal church in the 70s where almost all the pastors were women (including the “bishop” figure, or chief pastor), and that the women generally modelled celibacy as a gift highly-suited or even most-suited for leadership. How could a community like that be possible, puzzled inquirers have asked me?
People find it even more mind-bending that one of the most powerful consistent memories I have is knowing that if I gathered with a group of 50 teenagers on a Friday night “youth” event, we would, as a culture and a normative experience, expect to sit in silence and contemplation for 30-40 minutes before we did anything else. (and then we would erupt into song for 45 minutes, and preaching for 45 minutes, and praying for another 20-30 minutes). We were high on the Spirit instead of being high on drugs – what else would be the explanation?
We were widely treated as being some form of a cult because of the intensity of our commitments and the things that looked like unusual phenomena that went along with them – the more obvious being the Pentecostal way of vocalizing in prayer and speaking in tongues. We took some pleasure in seeing ourselves as the persecuted faithful, and I am sure it only boosted our sense of our mission to know that “the world” did not understand us, and rejected us – whether that was parents, teachers, or other churches. It just looked to us like John’s gospel, or the Book of Acts. We could see ourselves there.
I appreciate what Jock says about how Jennifer Jack (JJ) perhaps saw the Song of Solomon as her favourite book.
The beauty of this was that it fitted both my experience of the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition, and some of my earlier experiences of life in church – namely that “love divine, all loves excelling”, was what life was and is all about. “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine”. I have tears of gratitude for the beauty of that, and I am so deeply appreciative of Jennifer for that. Christ as the lover of our soul. Thank you, Jennifer!
Elizabeth Taylor of Greenock (always “Miss Taylor”) was the inner power and guiding voice of the whole organization, and Hugh Black (always “Mr Black”) was the external ambassador and evangelist for the doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. That was our distinctive feature. (I notice that the current Archbishop of Canterbury says that he starts each day in prayer speaking in tongues - let us not forget this!)
I recently watched this 90-second clip from a Rabbi about the way that lobsters grow, and it seemed like an apt analogy for so much of my life, not only in SMC, but also since then.
The lobster shell is rigid and never changes, so as the lobster inside the shell grows, it has to periodically crawl under a rock, shed its shell, grow and new shell, and then return to its next instalment of life in the ocean, until its further growth requires a new shell.
Another of the ways that I in the past have looked back at my time in SMC as the trunk of a deciduous tree that is tethered to a stake, and starts out being trained to grow in a very straight line, and then only later starts to allow itself to grow and spread its branches to achieve its next stage of potential and become fruitful.
Whether I use the analogy of the lobster or the analogy of the staked sapling, I can certainly say that I experienced both the confidence and strength of feeling connected to authentic experience of Christ mediated through a biblically-based community, that sought to stand in continuity with self-sacrificial living, and did so in a highly committed and structured way.
Some weeks I would be in worship 12 times in a week. It was almost like being a monk-in-training!
“Wha’s like us? … They’re a’ deid!” The problem was that everyone held up to us as worthy of emulation was dead, and by implication and sometimes by outright remarks from the top, it seemed that in terms of other Christian community, no-one living was worth associating with, or pure enough for us to mix with.
One of the assumptions HB brought to the table from his upbringing, in his own words, was that “all clergymen were assumed to be unsaved until they could give evidence to the contrary”. In hearing JJ talk about her Pentecostal church upbringing, I remember no corresponding interest or comparative assumption that she spoke of. That’s the way I remember it – I am guessing she did not have the same rigidity in her start in life and in her basic initial religious community and spiritual experience as HB did.
Jennifer had a special role in my life as my pastor. She gave me the freedom and encouragement to develop my skills on the piano as a young accompanist for the congregation. Not that we needed accompaniment, because we could sing with full voice a cappella, and there was nothing quite like a Saturday night meeting at Jamaica Lane, Greenock – the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would have envied us for the voices of ordinary people raising the roof in praise like nothing else I have witnessed.
Jennifer gave me the freedom to run my own outreach program, and so consequently to develop the opportunity to preach. We gathered kids in an old industrial wasteland by the canal where we had room to be unhindered in our singing and preaching. After feeding kids barbecued sausages, and generally making friends and having our own kids invite their friends, we sang songs, preached, prayed, and saw a difference in people’s lives. I remember laying hands (prayerfully, that is) on one young girl and this special light came into the van with us as she accepted Christ. She saw it and I saw it and felt it too – it was a tangible and visible light – a rare vision (1 Samuel 3). We expected to see miraculous things around us.
Our vision was to be youth evangelists, in the manner of a John Wesley, or a William Booth. We went from 5 kids on a Friday night to up to a group of 65 kids. We would drive around in our vans and cars to pick up youth and cram them into the back of the van to get them there – it was a massive logistical undertaking and would never meet any of today’s standards for safety. We were wonderfully naïve about that.
Our parents did not have to worry about their boys being into “cigarettes, women, and booze” – as all of these items, by verbal expectation, modelling, and cultural silent agreement, were simply off limits. Instead, our parents worried about religious addiction. Were we putting our own Pharisaic purity in judgment over the pathway of compassion towards the sufferings of others? Were we just interested in “saving souls”, while unable to articulate any kind of “social holiness” (John Wesley) or being able to see people wholistically, and not just “spiritually”? I am sure we needed to do that spiritualization at some level, before we could see the world differently at a later stage.
It was a strange experience, and no doubt good for me in the longer run, to be in a church environment where what if felt like was that to be male was to be a second-class citizen, and to be desirous of marriage was just proof of masculine weakness and inadequacy in spiritual matters – we were just not up to the task!
There were no written rules, no creed, and no membership tickets. Everything was by attendance and apparent consent (or heavily stated expectation).
Some of the odd ways this showed itself was almost like a Close(d) Brethren version of traditional Roman Catholic religious orders – ie, there was a model of proclivity towards celibacy combined with an expectation of obedience (except that it was an unwritten law)
The trouble was that unlike RC orders where you have a structured novitiate, followed by a public process of making a first vow and then later making a deeper vow, I was unable to discern any real public accountability or public process for how this worked out.
This had the virtue of living the oral tradition, rather than written tradition, and seemed very much in line with the idea of being “led by the Spirit”, rather than by the letter of any law.
At the same time, it really was based on the influence and the personality of the leadership. And that, for me, was the danger line in terms of differentiating activities that are “church-like”, and activities that are “cult-like”.
I could not sustain it, and I did not know what to do about it, or how to talk it about it, or with whom. Alongside mystical joy and mystical divine love, there was inner pain. The pain was in the silence of my own room and my own heart. I knew there were other ways to be Christian that I could admire and follow. It was one thing to be “distinctive”, it was another to act as though we were above everyone else.
As an opinion from a distance, I cannot say other than that HB brought the innovation of woman’s preaching voice and community leadership to a closed-door Brethren vision of the world, without in any way making a significant dent in the exclusiveness of the tradition from which he came.
In that regard, SMC was aligned with the 20th Century Pentecostal and charismatic movements in terms of its experience, but entirely separatist in terms of its ethos and culture.
There is a saying in business leadership that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and translating that to my experience of SMC, I would say that the lobster-shell that confined me, and the stake that tethered me, were simply that culture of exclusivism and authoritarianism which in the end of the day prevented my further growth.
There was simply no more room for me, and I had to crawl under my rock to grow a new shell that was safe for me to find a different level of my own growth. I think a lot of this happened subconsciously first, and I wanted to deny and avoid the dissonance. If you see someone report that they are being healed as you pray for them, it’s easy to feel that you are so much on the right track, and also difficult to imagine (perhaps like Peter in Act 11) that you have only just begun, and that there are kinds of hidden prejudices that you have inherited in your culture which are causing pain to others (also like Peter in Acts 11!).
I felt confined, distressed, and was living a compartmentalized life. I remember once saying to a group of people who were later assessing my own gifts in ministry: “I lived in the Book of Acts on weekends, and then in the Book of Job from Monday to Friday”.
I went on to study theology, and to start to connect the dots of church history. I learned about the Donatist/Augustinian controversy of the 4th century. Was our vision a vision of a “pure” church, where we do not mix with the outside world of sinners, or was the church I am called to be part of actually like the parabolic field of Jesus in which I would accept that, even there, not just in the “world”, that the “wheat and tares” grew together until the end of the age?
I learned about the 3rd century Montanists in Turkey who were essentially led by woman, spoke in tongues, and relied on prophetic visions for their ministry. SMC was not unique. I learned that the high middle ages produced more than 1200 commentaries on the Song of Solomon as an expression of love between Christ and the church, or the soul - and that the rabbis and Jewish tradition often does the same in expressing mystical love between God and Israel or God and the soul.
I could see and appreciate patterns. I celebrate what I learned and experienced. I grieve what I lost and how I hurt.
One of my long-term mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (a prodigious author and speaker, as well as someone who has been shaped by a 1970s “baptism in the Spirit” experience), says “whatever pain you do not transform, you will transmit”.
I live with gratitude for what I have learned through SMC, and with a full expectation that wherever I am now in my life and my faith, I am sure that there is some other level of growth and “pain-transformation” waiting for me and longing for the ending of my present structure so that some vision and experience of Christ even more expansive and all-encompassing than my present one can take a hold of me. Without that ongoing transformation, I will probably just inflict pain on someone else too, no matter how unknowingly, instead of advancing “from glory to glory”.
For me now, there is a different sense to the phrase “outside of the church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus – Augustine, and many others). SMC had its own silent or implicit version of this, it seemed. For me now, wherever there is recognition of community, there is a process of healing happening. Wherever grace goes, salvation goes. If we can recognize Christ in the leper (ie – the excluded - St Francis), if we can recognize Christ in the evolution of every atom and subatomic process in the universe, then we can see Christ everywhere, not just in my denominational version of “church”. It’s actually even more mind-blowing than my old version of this – and without the guilt and confusion parts! I may have needed the first version at some level for security, and now my deepest security comes from mystically seeing it everywhere. And that mystical seeing was actually and even unwittingly perhaps supported by my experience of SMC, even if was theologized in pre-inclusive language.
I can resonate with people who say they were so hurt from their time in SMC they need or needed individual therapy - or some other deep path of healing and alternative form of safe community.
And I can also imagine, that without some form of transformative pathway of inclusion and acceptance, many of us will continue to live in pain and transmit pain.
Perhaps a forum such as this can help heal, rather than simply confirm our woundedness and leave us stuck in it.
My own recovery and healing may have come through telling my stories and having someone else witness them. At another level, I think it also occurred through finding different kinds of spiritual communities and teachers that successively opened me up to more, through the “expulsive power of a greater affection/attraction” as we used to hear it expressed in SMC (Oswald Chambers)
I can only from a later point see some of the assumptions, blinkers, and harmful attitudes of exclusion or indifference I myself have had to whole groups of people – and that has no necessary or particular link to, or origins in, SMC.
I will leave you with an article I first published for the local paper in 2011 entitled “time to grow up” ~ in my official capacity as the minister/pastor//priest of an Anglican community in Canada. (After the last US election, I posted it in a little different form – I’ll leave you to guess how!).
“It was Thomas Merton who said that we spend our lives climbing to the top of the ladder only to discover two things: first of all, there is nothing at the top anyway, and even more ominously, we had the ladder against the wrong wall the whole time!
It takes courage to hesitate and to question ourselves in order to act contrary to inherited conventions. Of course, one of the best and most deceptively ironical ways to stifle this spiritual growth is by means of religion.
Rather like the Samaritan woman at the well in our Gospel reading last Sunday, we avoid the issues of our life by diverting attention to the red herring of correct religious practice — should we worship in this temple or the other one down south? (John 4.20)
I remember my family relocating from the midlands of England to the west coast of Scotland when I was turning 11. On arrival at school, my misfit accent gave me away, so I was encircled by a gang of boys at a convenient opportunity and pinned up against the playground wall with only one question: “Catholic or Protestant?” It’s a tad dramatic to say my little life depended on it, but it felt that way at the time, and the wrong answer would have led to ostracism and a physical beating. My gasping and important inspiration in the moment was “I think I’m a Methodist ….” Apparently I may as well have said I was Zoroastrian or Hindu — I was OK since I did not belong to that other crowd along the road that wore a different-coloured uniform.
The psychological category of mythic membership is a necessary stage for an 8- to 12-year old’s spiritual evolution, whose tribalistic limitations we can only see from a more adult perspective. Tragically we sometimes get stuck there. Case in point, how much of the suffering of the Libyan people in 2011 can be attributed to this level of maturity in the political leadership?
Jim Marion surmises in EnlightenNext magazine (Putting on the Mind of Christ — the Inner Work of Christian Spirituality), that many adults, including Christian leaders, have not heeded St. Paul on putting away the things of a child (1 Cor. 13:11), and are “still predominantly stuck in the rigidities and separatism of mythic consciousness.”
Our planet can ill afford leadership and social participation that comes from a pre-adolescent mindset.
For our consciousness to develop from the particulars of our originating tribe to what Jesus refers to as the universal “weightier matters” (Matt.23.23) of justice and compassion, we all need to climb down the ladder of our previous fear-based certainties and move into global and cosmic citizenship. No-one is exempt. We either grow, or we stop growing. We either pray ‘thy kingdom come,’ or we inherently limit ourselves to the juvenile intention ‘my kingdom stay.’ Come on down, and start over!