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victims have asked me to include the story of my spiritual
journey as well, and as a result this page is divided into two
sections. The first is the story of how I was abused. The second
is the story of what effect that has had on my faith and
The first part of this story contains descriptions of abuse.
Please don't read if you think it may trigger you, or at least
make sure you have some support available.
March 2003: My story has been updated, due to further action against the perpetrator, which has also allowed me to publish his name.
October 2021: My story has been further updated, reflecting the further journeying I've done in the last 18 years.
I grew up on Sydney's North Shore, the daughter of a churchgoing mother, and attended the local Anglican church from the time I was a baby. In 1979, the year I was able to get confirmed, I began attending confirmation preparation classes every Friday afternoon, and also Youth Group activities. In the Anglican Church, you can get confirmed the year you turn 14. With a birthday two weeks before the end of the year, I was the youngest in the group, and still 13 when I was actually confirmed. It was after class one afternoon that the minister said to me that I was his favourite kid in the class. This made me feel really special. It was also his custom to hug all the girls in the Youth Group. As a naive and sensitive fourteen year old, I felt loved and cared for when the minister, Vic Cole, showed me affection with hugs. The following year, I got more heavily involved in church activities. An instrumental group started up, which I played in, and I was a member of both the junior and the senior choir. I also kept on with Youth Group on Friday nights, and Bible Study on Sunday afternoons. Because of being involved in so many things, I went to both morning and evening services every Sunday. I began to hero-worship Vic. His assurance seemed to reassure my insecurities.
One Sunday, a little more than a year after I got confirmed, Vic wasn't leading the service in the evening. I had got used to his magnetic personality, and felt quite at a loss through not having felt his influence that evening. There seemed to be something lacking. So I asked the assistant leading the service where the minister was. He told me Vic was "on leave, but still at the rectory". So after chatting to other people, I went up to the rectory to talk to him, to feel that reassurance I had come to depend on each week. Vic was in the garage at the side of the house, and I went in there to talk to him. I sat and talked for a while, and felt very adult because this man, 30 years older than me, was interested in what I was saying. During the time that I was there, everyone left the church and the assistant locked up and waved as he left. I lingered, not wanting to leave that presence, until everyone else had gone home and I knew my parents would be waiting in the carpark.
When I got up to go, I went to hug Vic goodbye, as was the custom, and as I looked up to say goodbye he kissed me, and then squeezed my breast. Part of me was thinking that it was wrong because he was married, but I'd never had a boyfriend and I was curious. I also felt special because I thought he loved me enough to want me as his girlfriend. The kiss was a full open-mouth, tongue kiss, and must have gone on for about five or ten minutes.
I spent the next week wondering if it would happen again, and made up a list of Bible questions to ask him so I had an excuse to stay back until everyone else had gone. I thought if he did it again it would mean that he definitely wanted me as a girlfriend.
The next week it not only happened again, but he also showed me how to rub his penis through his trousers. From then on, I stayed back after church most weeks, using the excuse of needing to ask questions. Over the next few weeks, he showed me how to give him oral sex. I hated that, but I was afraid that if I showed it, he wouldn't want me any more.
I didn't realise it for many years, but the tears and depression that began soon afterward were a direct consequence of being tangled in a relationship that I couldn't talk about to anyone. I believed Vic intended to leave his wife and marry me, and I was waiting for that.
I didn't tell anyone for about a year. My sister Jaqi asked me one day what I was thinking about. I knew I shouldn't say anything, but I told her I had a boyfriend. She wanted to know who it was, but I told her I couldn't tell because he was married. She pressed me to tell her, but I compromised by describing him. When she guessed the wrong man, she was very angry because that person had only been married for a short while, and she wanted to go and confront him. To prevent her confronting the wrong person, I had to tell her it was Vic.
I knew she was concerned, but I thought it was just because he was married. She told me she was going to confront him, and she did. He told her it had stopped, which wasn't true. She tried to get him to admit it was wrong, but he said that I needed a lot of affection.
Jaqi and I talked about it on and off over the next year or so. It was about a year later that I decided he wasn't going to leave his wife and marry me, and I was finding it harder and harder to say nothing about it. I decided to break it off. I prepared myself for lots of tears and arguments, which was what all my friends had described when they broke up with someone.
When I told him I wanted it to stop, he just said, "Okay". I was stunned that he'd accepted it so easily, and I didn't know what to say. I thought that would end it, but I found it impossible to walk away from something that had given me the only real sense of love and worth that I'd ever had. (I knew my parents loved me deeply, but I still felt empty deep down. Vic made me feel singled-out and special.) It took me six months to get to the point of being able to stay away from him.
The next year, I went to uni in Armidale, and pretty much fell to pieces emotionally. I still didn't realise that the relationship with Vic was the cause of most of my depression, but I told the assistant minister in Armidale about Vic. He told my parents about it, and also suggested I should return home and seek counselling. I did, but the psychiatrist (whom I later learned was Anglican, like Vic) told me there was nothing wrong with me, and sent me away after only three sessions.
Dad, who wasn't a Christian, was really angry, and went to complain to the bishop of the area. He saw the bishop and the archbishop, and when he told them what he was there for, they threatened him with a slander charge if he took the matter any further. He asked them if they could at least watch Vic, to prevent it happening again, and they said that doing that would look as if they didn't trust him.
I didn't know at the time about Dad having gone to see the bishop, but when he and Mum talked to me about the relationship, they both said they thought nothing could be done, and I thought they must know what they were talking about, so I agreed.
Over the years that followed, I tried to put the whole thing behind me, although when I got married I discovered that I had a lot of sexual problems as a result of what had happened. I still didn't think anything could be done about it, though, so I figured I just had to forget about it.
At the end of 1993, ten years afterwards, Jaqi rang me to tell me about a conviction for sexual assault in Queensland. The perpetrator was an MP, but apart from that the circumstances were quite similar to what had happened to me. The age of the victim at the time, the age of the perpetrator, what he'd done, and the number of years since it had happened. She pointed out that if the laws were similar in NSW, maybe some court action could be taken. By this time, I thought I'd dealt with all the issues and I just didn't want to rake it all up again.
I tried to put it to the back of my mind, but I kept seeing mentions of the Queensland case, and also there were a whole bunch of Catholic sexual abuse cases in the courts in early 1994. As I read about those, I began to see that a) the courts saw it as wrong, and b) the emotional damage described by the victims was similar to the things I had suffered. I still held back, though, and it was only when I discovered that thinking about it all had brought back the nightmares and sleeplessness that I realised I hadn't resolved the emotions, just repressed them.
I still hesitated, though. I didn't know whether I wanted to go through a court case, I was frightened of the pain it would cause, I was frightened of the media exposure that might arise, and I didn't want to hurt his family. I had to resolve all those issues in my mind before I could act. The point that decided me was the thought of Vic abusing some other girl in the future. If that happened, I would always feel guilty for not having done what I could to stop him and make others aware of his potential for abusiveness. When I seriously started to think of taking action, I found I had no idea what to do. Did I just walk into a police station and say "I want to charge Vic"? I called CrimeStoppers to ask. They told me that if I didn't want to go to court, I could at least report the matter to them, anonymously if I wished, which would go on file and could be used as evidence if he was ever charged by anyone else. They also advised me that I should see a sexual assault counsellor at my local hospital, who would assess whether I was able to handle the court process. I did so, and she referred me to a police officer experienced in dealing with sexual assault cases.
I made my report in June 1995. It took 8 hours to get my statement fully written, and four months for them to collect all the other statements they needed before interviewing him. When he was interviewed, his main response was "I don't recall". Even to such confronting questions as "Did you ever put your penis inside Ms Henderson's mouth?" his response was that he didn't remember! By this time, the police had indicated to me that they thought there was an extremely high likelihood of Vic being charged. They and I were shocked two months later when the DPP refused to press charges. The DPP argued that because I was over 14, my consent was valid at common law, in spite of the fact that I was a minor.
I sought legal advice to confirm this, but everyone I consulted disagreed with the DPP's ruling. Eventually, I was referred to Kingsford Legal Centre, who suggested I proceed with a civil suit. I was hesitant about this, and decided to see if I could obtain the action I wanted by another complaint to the church.
In February 1996, I met with the Registrar of the Diocese, who took my complaint and referred it to the Archbishop. The Archbishop met with Vic, who was still ministering in the same parish, and he admitted the misconduct, although he minimised its extent. The Archbishop asked for his resignation, and Vic submitted it. I received a letter advising me of the fact that Vic had resigned, and when that would take effect (six months in the future).
At first, I was pleased with the speed of the church's reaction, but soon I began to think. Vic's resignation was to be as quiet as possible. Would that really answer my aims in making the complaint? No, it wouldn't. No-one would know what he was like, and the Registrar refused to guarantee that he wouldn't be re-employed by the church at some time in the future.
It was at this point that two people, quite separately, suggested to me that the Paedophile Enquiry of the Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service might be interested in my story. I couldn't believe, at first, that it was that significant, but eventually I rang the Commission office to ask. They requested copies of all the documentation I had - police statements, letters to and from the church, notes of interviews with church officials, etc - and eventually proceeded to a hearing.
During this time, I had still been in correspondence with the Archbishop (who refused to meet with me personally, despite publicly asserting his office gave him direct pastoral responsibility in clergy sexual abuse cases - it seemed he only saw his responsibility to his clergy, not their victims). I sought the church's help in paying for therapy, but they stalled on that issue too. It was only in the Royal Commission hearing itself that the Archbishop said they had agreed to pay for counselling for me. After nearly two days of testimony, that was the point at which I began to cry. Not out of relief, but out of hurt that they hadn't even had the courtesy to tell me that before they told the Commissioner. I really felt they'd only decided to pay for my therapy to make themselves look good, not because they felt they should. I felt that even more when I found out that all they'd agreed to pay for was 12 sessions, even when their own expert (Rev. Dr Michael Corbett-Jones, director of the Anglican Counselling Centre, later absorbed into Anglicare) told them I'd probably need weekly therapy for a couple of years.
Also in the hearing, the Archbishop said they would be putting a motion to Synod to request the abolition of the 12 month statute of limitations on complaints about clergy misconduct. (While this gave me some degree of hope that things would change for the better, at least for future complainants, my understanding for several years was that that motion was deferred each Synod until 2001, and that the 12-month limitation still applied. More on that later in the story...)
I spent a year in correspondence with the Archbishop, seeking what I believed the church's response should be. I was asking for the following things:
Although I knew they were all possible, and experts in the field of clergy sexual abuse agreed with the healing power of these actions being taken, the church refused each one. When the church finally refused to correspond with me any more, I laid the matter in the hands of a solicitor, and proceeded to a civil suit. It seemed like that was the only thing that would elicit some response from the church. I was both wrong, and right. The only response it elicited was to make the church fight harder against me. In fact, one barrister's opinion was that the only reason my civil claim was disallowed was because the church fought the case so hard. This was in spite of the judge confirming that misconduct had occurred. I still find it hard to believe they fought so hard when they knew it was true. If they had done what I asked, they would have spent far less money than they incurred on legal fees. And I walked away with costs awarded against me, although I knew that the $65,000 that the church specified must be considerably less than the actual cost of the several legal representatives they employed to fight the case. I had no assets bar a house joint-owned with my then husband, valued at approximately $130,000 but with a mortgage even greater than its value, and the costs judgement would remain in force for 18 years. (For a more detailed account of the legal processes, see my sister's account, written in 2001-2002.)
March 2003 update — After the court hearing in September 1999, nothing happened for 2 years. The church appeared content to let the matter rest, in spite of my declared dissatisfaction with their actions and their attitude. But in 2001, a new archbishop began tenure in the diocese. It appeared he was willing to be proactive in dealing with clergy abuse. In September of that year, I received a letter from the archbishop, advising me that he had negotiated with the church insurers to waive the court cost bill and that I had no further liability in that regard. In about March 2002, I appeared on a couple of TV programmes commenting on the church's attitude to complaints of clergy abuse, and especially (at that time) the public comments of the governor-general and ex-archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth. Just after that, I was approached by the church about the possibility of giving evidence at a church tribunal against Vic. I questioned that suggestion, since in my understanding there was still a 12-month statute of limitations on complaints of clergy misconduct. The church told me that the limitation had been removed in a motion to Synod in October 1996. I asked why I hadn't been told, and the answer was "it's up to you to find out". (But it shouldn't have been. I had requested a tribunal hearing in February 1996 and had been shown the church ordinance that made it impossible at the time. They knew that was my wish, yet they didn't follow it up with me after the change was made.)
I had major doubts about going through the trauma of another legal hearing, especially in a context where I had no faith in the goodwill of the church or in the right morals of the panel. However, I stipulated that I'd be prepared to do it if they could convince me of their goodwill first. They assured me that the tribunal would go ahead, with or without my evidence, but that the case would (for obvious reasons) be a lot stronger if I gave evidence. Letters and emails, with me specifying what I felt the church should provide in the way of support, and no promises from them with regard to any of it, continued through most of that year. Towards the end of the year, it became clear they were leaning towards seeking a relinquishment of orders (that is, that Vic would "request" that he be removed from Holy Orders, and they would accept that), and they sought my opinion on what the wording of a public announcement should be. This would bypass the need to have a tribunal hearing. Early in 2003, I was told that through the Christmas break, while the relinquishment had been agreed to in principle, Vic's solicitor had been objecting to the wording of the announcement - specifically the mention of sexual misconduct and who it was with. At the beginning of February, the church gave Vic a 7-day deadline within which to sign the letter of relinquishment, but compromised on the announcement wording in order to enable the relinquishment to be agreed to. (They gave me no say in that decision). As a result, Vic ceased to be a minister from 12th February 2003 - 7 years almost to the day after my complaint to the church. The relinquishment was announced in the March edition of Southern Cross (the diocesan newspaper) in the following terms: "Victor Roland Cole has relinquished his Holy Orders. This is at the request of the Archbishop as a result of Mr Cole's misconduct. The Archbishop has acceded to the relinquishment with effect from 12.2.2003". However, the letter of relinquishment, of which I was given a copy, also states that it was because of misconduct with me. A scanned copy is on file here.
October 2021 update — In the three years subsequent to Vic's relinquishment of Holy Orders, the battle continued. The diocese was working on a framework for non-litigated settlements, and asked me to a) provide recommendations based on my experience, and b) be a test case as they worked through the process. I agreed, because there were many other victims who had contacted me and for whom I felt an obligation to use the knowledge I'd gained, but it was by no means an easy process. I was still badly triggered by the ongoing interactions with the church, and they didn't make it easy! Small things like weeks of silence followed by an email demanding action right at the time of a church festival (already a trigger-point) seemed deliberately calculated to increase the burden, especially when other abuse victims around the world voiced the same experiences. When it came to the settlement contract, I was fortunate to have a good working knowledge of the law and the persistence (some might call it pigheadedness, lol) to carefully read and understand every clause. It mattered; not just for me, but for every victim who came after me, whose experience of the process and terms of their contract might be better because I had insisted they should be. The initial clauses I objected to were (one would think) blindingly, obviously, glaringly wrong. The "gag order" (more politely called a confidentiality clause) specified that not only should I not talk about the circumstances of my case, but that I should ensure that none of my family or friends did, either! I couldn't believe it! They expected me to forbid my father, my mother, my sister, my ex-husband, etc. etc., and all of the friends who'd supported me, to ever speak of the events. Not only that, but they expected me to sign on behalf of everyone I knew. I pointed out that not only did I not have control over all those people, but I certainly couldn't sign a legal contract on their behalf, and if I did, it would have no legal standing anyway. Plus, if I signed it, they'd be able to order me to close down this website, which I was never going to do. Oh yes, of course they told me they wouldn't, but I was long past believing that, or trusting they wouldn't find a way to silence me somehow!
I fought the terms of the contract, inch by inch. I'd object to one clause, send it back with explanations and a suggested improvement, and receive the amended version. But when I read through the whole of the new version, I'd find they'd quietly changed another clause to better suit themselves. So I'd object to that clause, send it off, receive the amended version, read it closely, and discover another quietly-changed clause. That happened over and over again, for more than a year; back and forth, battle by bloody battle, scar upon painful scar. I never knew who was the prime force behind that merciless battering—clergy, administrative boffins, lawyers or insurers—but I couldn't leave it for someone else to weather. I had family, friends, an awesome GP and a brilliant therapist behind me; plenty of other victims have none of that.
While I fought, other cases were politically more pressing. Survivors of Anglican orphanages had mobilised and were demanding recompense. The church asked me if I minded if their claims were processed ahead of mine. I knew some of the survivors, and they were in far more dire straits than I was. I didn't mind, though of course I wondered what terms they might be subjected to, given that I, the guinea pig, hadn't achieved a resolution yet.
And it wasn't only the settlement process, either; I desperately wanted to hold a restorative healing rite in the primary locations where I'd been abused: St David's Forestville, Deer Park and Chaldercot, and Gilbulla. But there were stipulations: my choice of celebrant was a trusted Uniting Church minister (on Anglican turf, shock horror!), I wanted church representatives to speak an apology as part of it, and I wanted to make the rituals meaningful to me and my spirituality. The archbishop and Professional Standards Officer were willing, and did much of the legwork of negotiating with people onsite. There was a problem with Gilbulla, which was no longer owned by the Anglican Church but Ellel Ministries, an apparently ultra-conservative Christian organisation which began in England. Ironically, although they claim to be a non-denominational healing ministry, they weren't willing to allow us to do the healing rite "because it might open up the site to evil spirits". However, we did proceed with the rite at both St David's and Deer Park/Chaldercot, which was as healing as I'd hoped it would be. The complete rite can be found here.
A week short of ten years from the day I'd first met with the church to disclose my abuse and request they take action, I signed a settlement agreement, whose only confidentiality clause related to the dollar amount of the settlement. It was very small in comparison with what barristers had estimated a court would have awarded me, but there were so many other victories that had come along the way. The diocese had changed laws, protocols, contracts and policies because of my fight. They'd defrocked Vic, publicly acknowledged the reason, and apologised to me. They'd offered me some restitution, and negotiated with Medicare to ensure that only a nominal sum was deducted in repayment of earlier Medicare claims I'd made in relation to the abuse. (Yep, that's a little surprise packet—Medicare reserves the right to reclaim, out of any compensation settlement, rebates they've paid someone for abuse-related treatment.) And they'd indicated they'd do their best to ensure Vic was never again allowed to hold a position of moral authority, even as a bible study leader, in the church. They'd done almost everything I asked for right at the beginning. It's a great pity they weren't ethical enough to do it without the ten-year battle!
~ o ~ o ~
I am painfully aware that my victory was only achieved through continual fight, the significant contribution of media allies and personal supporters, and at great cost to me. In addition to the trauma of the abuse itself, the long fight against the church caused me significant further trauma, the near-loss of my faith, the breakdown of my marriage and some considerable financial cost.
There are some areas in which the church still fails victims miserably. Perhaps one of the most difficult for me to deal with was both archbishops' refusal to meet with me "so that they didn't prejudice their position as ex-officio chairperson of the tribunal". That despite the fact that at the time I was asking the previous archbishop, he had already ruled out the possibility of a tribunal hearing, and I knew that the current archbishop was a family friend of the perpetrator, so it was anything but just and fair to refuse to meet with me even once. (Archbishop Jensen only met with me once a Tribunal hearing had been ruled out for a second time. But of the various senior churchmen I've encountered during this battle, he was certainly the most approachable. He was also kind enough to say I'd taught him a lot.) I have come to the inevitable conclusion that the church's stand is about political power and protection of the system and its own members, rather than healing the broken and providing solace for the hurting. The loss of trust in the church's willingness to do the right thing for victims leaves me wondering how much of the changes I fought for will remain in use. Will they, for example, use the eventual terms of my settlement contract as the blueprint for others, or will they present other complainants with the same appalling terms they first presented me with? I'll never know.
From both my own experience and that of other victims, not only in Australia but around the world and across denominational barriers, it appears that the church seeks to isolate victims from each other, lying where necessary to give each victim the impression that they are an isolated case, a rarity. Many victims are told they are the only complainant against that minister, only to discover later that he was previously transferred because of similar complaints. (The internet has been a godsend in tracing such transfers and demolishing those lies.) The disillusionment that comes when the church acts so immorally only adds to the pain of the abuse. There were times when all I wanted to do was curl up and die, and times when I seriously thought of suicide. There were times when I was sure that the church hoped I would suicide and stop confronting them. But there were people who gave of their time—way beyond reasonable giving—and pulled me through. Those of them who read this will know who they are; many of them spent hours on the phone with me, night after night.
My experience—and that of many other victims who have shared their experiences with me—has been that the enormity of the fight against the church leaves very little energy for anything else, and is an incredibly exhausting and long-drawn-out process. You can fight—and you can win—but you need (i) good support networks, (ii) willingness to make your fight public, and (iii) willingness to keep demanding a fair and just outcome, even at the risk of receiving nothing. Many victims are already so damaged by the abuse that their support networks are fragile or non-existent and their emotional and financial resources to build new networks are limited. This website grew out of a wish that I had had access to something like this myself, at the beginning of the process. An information clearinghouse, first and foremost, and an avenue for making the kind of connections that sustain us through the fight. The site has grown far beyond my original concept and rapidly reached the point where it took more time and energy to maintain than I had available, but the ready availability of other internet resources has helped to address the need. Since 2005, personal circumstances have led me to step back from that early intense involvement and effort, but the website remains online for the benefit of all those who may need it. And every time I get an email from someone that shows they've found it helpful, even if all it says is "thank you", I know it's worth it.
My Spiritual Journey
Let me start by saying that I am not, and never was, a literalist. I had clear understanding that parts of the bible were poetic, parts were to be understood in the light of cultural differences, and parts were allegorical. However, I had been taught to believe in the authority of the bible, and its overall inerrancy. Perhaps one of my early revelations came when I attended a seminar on the ordination of women. It was a contentious issue in the Presbyterian Church at the time, and one parish decided to put on an evening consisting of two speakers, one for and one against, followed by an open question time. Although I was more impressed by the arguments of the minister in favour of the ordination of women, the real revelation for me that night came in the biblical evidence. Both protagonists used the same passage of scripture to back up their diametrically opposing viewpoints!
This opened me to wondering how one establishes a right interpretation of the bible. I'd been happy to accept that right interpretation was the key, but now I was faced with the question of who is right? Logic told me that if no-one was perfect, then there was no authoritative interpretation. No one person's interpretation that we could point to and say "that's it". That cast into question lots of the things I'd assumed through years of church attendance. I realised that most of what I believed had been taught to me by my perpetrator. I stopped going to church, because I felt I needed to think it all through without the influence of being continually fed certain teachings.
At the same time, there were other things influencing my decision to leave. I'd had no problems staying in the church after my abuse until I pressed a formal complaint. Until then, I believed the teaching that said that when all else fails, god and the church are still there. Sometimes people said to me "I don't know why you're still going to church after all that's happened to you". My answer was that that was where I found god, so of course I still went. That was my reassurance when things seemed pretty terrible, as they did at times. But when I pressed a complaint, I found that the church wasn't there for me - in fact, they were prepared to ignore me in spite of the fact that a friend warned them I was acutely suicidal, so I could only assume that they hoped I'd suicide and relieve them of the problem. Other church members saw me as the problem and accused me of lying, without having bothered to ask whether I had any evidence to back up my disclosure. The church and its people became a place of danger and attack for me, instead of a refuge and a place of safety.
I began my journey. But before I could proceed, I needed to establish how authoritative I saw the bible. The ordination of women issue had brought up an interesting point - an oft-quoted verse says "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man". However, in reading just a couple of verses further, I came across the verse "but women will be saved through childbirth". What??? Salvation comes through childbirth?? I was sure that one would be interpreted as cultural. So why not the earlier verse? This wasn't a different section of the bible, this was 2 verses apart. More questions arose. Paul makes a distinction between his words and god's (I Cor. 7:10 and 12). Sometimes he uses one, sometimes the other, yet both are included in scripture. If Paul makes a distinction, shouldn't we? If there is a distinction, what is the difference in terms of authoritativeness? And what about good Christian books? Paul's (personal, non-authoritative) words are included in scripture, but were they so very different to the authority of the words of other men and women of god throughout the ages?
I had no answer to those questions at the time, but it seemed to me I had a possible way out, which was to approach the question from another angle and perhaps find an answer in that. So I started with the basic question: what is god really like? I began with the one thing I knew to be fact - I was abused. What kind of god must god be to allow that to happen? Here I came up against the doctrine of "fatherliness". If god was a loving father, who had the power to stop what happened, would he? My own father would have, I knew. Was god less than my human father? Less powerful, or less loving? I realised that it wasn't possible for god to be all-powerful and all-loving, and for me to be abused. The abuse had happened - no denying that. So god must be loving, or powerful, but not both. Power without love is abusive, so I settled for love without power. I believed that god was ultimate good, and therefore love made more sense than power. I wasn't really happy with that, but I accepted that some of my unhappiness may have stemmed from the significant shift in understanding that was necessary in order to accommodate this new belief.
At the same time, I was going through agonies of doubt as to whether I was still Christian. My fundamentalist background had taught me that if you question basic doctrines, that's the first sign of "falling away from the faith". In other words, questioning puts your eternal salvation into jeopardy. That's a pretty powerful disincentive. I had friends telling me that in 5 years time I wouldn't be Christian, if I kept this up. But I knew that I still wanted to be Christian, so if questioning basic doctrines was enough to change me, against my will, to unbelief, then it wasn't much of a religion. After all, truth questioned can only result in the same answer every time.
But this whole business of whether it was ok to question was a difficult one to get through. When I was growing up (in the parish where I was abused) there was a lot of emphasis on "you shall love the lord your god with all your heart and soul AND MIND and strength". They emphasised the need for an intelligent faith, but when I started using my mind and simple logic, it took me a long way away from the doctrines those people espoused, and they were the ones who were most critical of my journey. I began to see that fear of losing out on heaven was keeping many people in a narrower set of beliefs than I was discovering. Yet I was still wondering where that left me - was that fear a good thing? was I a Christian or not? It was about this time that I discovered the works of contemporary liberal theologians who were saying exactly the kind of things I was coming to believe, and I realised that what I had been taught was aberrant was actually a whole different, well-accepted school of thought. I finally reasoned that god understood where I was coming from, and why I was questioning, and if god wasn't big enough to be able to cope with that, s/he wasn't a god I wanted to spend eternity with! So I put the fear aside and kept thinking.
At this time another logical thought process helped. I was reminded of the bible quote that says "god wills that all should be saved". Did I believe that god's will would ultimately prevail? Yes, I did. That's the whole point of the good vs evil battle; that good will eventually win. Then all will indeed be saved, and I had no need to fear losing my salvation. This is where I see universalism as having a practical and logical application - anyone whose beliefs result in doing good has valid beliefs, and will be far more likely to "get into heaven" than a hypocrite who claims all the "right" beliefs but causes damage and harm. If you go back to the story Jesus told (leaving aside the likelihood of those being his actual words) about the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25 - as Keith Green (1980s Christian singer) put it: "the only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did, and didn't, do". NOTHING about belief! I could see that would affect another premise - that of where non-Christians stood - but I refrained from such a tempting side issue just then. I still had my hands full with basic questions; I could return to that later...
I also come from a long line of family with psychic ability. None of them have used it in any kind of professional way, and most of them are committed Christians, but when you live with the effects, you can't deny its existence. When the people are Christian as well, that makes it impossible to see it as only arising out of ungodliness. So that's also had an effect on where my beliefs have headed. The more I questioned, the more I found myself forced by sheer reasoning away from fundamentalist views, until now I'm pretty liberal. For preference, I express my spirituality in "earth-religion" modes - I have major problems with church expressions and language, and I've found greater comfort in the spiritual expressions of Indigenous peoples than in Christianity. Along the way, I've done a degree majoring in Gender Studies and Religious Studies, which taught me a lot about how religions develop and grow. I learned that the word "pagan" simply means "of the country" in Latin. We would say "rural". And that is, in fact, how Christianity began—Jesus told simple rural stories about sheep, and crops, and harvests. But when Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the 4th Century CE, it moved to the cities. It became the trendy, up-to-the-minute faith to practise, and only the rural people, with a close connection to the earth, the seasons and the weather retained their old beliefs in nature gods and goddesses. So "pagan" morphed into a pejorative term, referring to those who were reactionary, uneducated to the new beliefs—no longer just "rural", but now "bucolic", or "peasants", or "country hicks"—and eventually came to be synonymous with "non-Christian".
I'm probably fairly close to being an animist (god is in everything), and I am a universalist (everyone will "go to heaven"). And if I had to express my beliefs briefly, it would be something like "god is ultimate goodness (Love), religion is about striving for good, and the purpose of people is to work towards making the world a better place and benefiting others". I'd still call myself Christian in the most elemental sense, because I see Jesus as the embodiment of those ideals, but I am pagan as well, in the truest and most fundamental sense of the word. I find my faith community online and in diverse places. I practise my own faith ceremonies at my own altar. And I find the sacred in the natural world, in the love of others, and in the universal Divine.
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