On being assaulted in church

It has taken me over a year to decide whether or not to write this blog. However, considering the discussion at General Synod regarding the clergy well-being covenant I felt it time to write this. Indeed if one thing comes out of this for every clergy person then that is good, that one thing being a system for dealing with profoundly disturbed and challenging intruders in services then it is worth this moment of self revelation. I do not write this seeking any form of sympathy or out of any misguided form of self-pity. Those who know me know that I am not at all like that.

‘Where does it say in the Bible that priests can be gay. You are an abomination. You are gay. You know why I am here. I am here to destroy you. I have come to destroy you.’

These were the words shouted at me by a homeless man in full combat gear who had interrupted the early 8:00 service. He was threatening, aggressive, quoted scripture and very frightening.

My response was to say you know nothing about me as I stood in the church pulpit preaching about the love that exploded into the world on the cross

He shouted it all again even more aggressively.

I left the pulpit and moved towards him, his threats only getting worse and then as he stormed out of the church I followed him to see if there was anything I could do, anything a priest could offer. He only repeated his phrase ‘I am here to destroy you’ yet more aggressively, running at me with his fists held up high. I thought he was going to physically attack me, however he ran off.

Somehow and very deep down I had a profound knowing that he was going to reappear at the 10:00AM service. I had had a real sense that I needed to write some notes down and to say something to the congregation about what had happened only an hour earlier in case he returned.

The town is a small place, news travel fast. People at the 10.00AM service had already heard what had happened at the 08:00AM service.

We sang the first hymn, I welcomed people and was just about to say something when I heard the church door/handle (it is old and clunky) clunk. I knew who was coming in with every fibre of my body and in every part of my soul. The same man appeared, looking even angrier. He stood at the back of the church and started walking towards me. This time I was behind the altar. I moved straight to him quickly as I could. I stood directly between him and the congregation, between him and elderly folk and between him and children as he shouted ‘I am Jesus Christ I come in judgement. You know why I am here. I have come to destroy you.’ Again he was deeply threatening, highly abusive, very aggressive and very frightening.

I stood between him and the congregation in a face off. This may have been stupid but it was my instinctive reaction. I wouldn’t have stood a chance if he had hit me. I am really quite puny.

I said to him loudly and with as much confidence as possible: ‘You are welcome here, you either sit down or leave but you will not disturb this service as you did the earlier one’, staring him in the eyes, looking at the tragedy of someone profoundly disturbed.

He shouted ‘I come in judgement, you know why I am here.’ I repeated that he was welcome but that he will either sit down or leave and that he will not disturb the service.

He square on then challenged me ‘what will I do?’

I replied ‘I will call the police and have you removed.’ He continued to shout.

I then asked him to walk with me to the door, miraculously he came with me.

I do not remember walking to the door or even seeing several others come along behind me as this man and I left to go outside the church. Goodness knows what I though I was going to do.

Outside the church he continued shouting what he had shouted earlier describing me as an abomination and that he was here to destroy me.

A dear woman came and joined us. She said ‘let me tell you what this man is to us.’

He shouted ‘he is an abomination, he is gay.’

She said ‘I don’t care if he is, we love him.’

He turned to me quoting Revelation in my face, angry and threatening and then walked off.

The police were called and after having spoken to the police I left them outside.

As I walked into the church I have no recollection at all of returning or thinking that I had to say something to the church. I walked to the altar and said the following. Even today it is a clear as crystal.

‘Let me explain what that was about. This morning at the 8:00 AM service the same man appeared. He subjected me to some very aggressive and threatening homophobic abuse, shouting at me inside and then outside the church. I did think he may appear at this service so had decided to inform you what had happened and what I would do if he arrived, as he in fact did.

This man is a man who is a child of God who is very ill and we must pray for him. We must pray that he finds peace somewhere in the world and in his heart. 

Human sexuality is a private matter. The Church of England is an inclusive church and welcomes all. The Church of England ordains all sorts of people, men and women, black and white, gay and lesbian and transgender and so she ought. Whether you agree with me or not does not matter, you must recognise that my position is honourable and I must recognise that your position is honourable. What we must always do is kneel at the altar together in worship of Almighty God and live with good disagreement if we have to. 

The sexuality of any priest is a private matter for that priest, God and their Bishop. My sexuality is no one’s business, it is between me, God and my Bishop. In the same way your sexuality is a private matter to you.

I believe that the Gospel is a Gospel for all, no one is excluded. I spent twenty three years working in schools on the toughest estates in the country. I took in any child who came through the school doors, no matter what race, gender, special need or how many exclusions they had had from previous schools because I have lived my life believing and knowing that the Gospel is for all and is a Gospel of inclusion. I now carry that into my priesthood and I carry that into this church today. I will fight for the inclusion of all. I believe whole heartedly that all are welcome regardless of age, economic status, special need, mental health, gender or sexual orientation. The Gospel is a call to us all to be included, and I, like you, need to feel included. It is a call to all the lost, the broken, the forgotten and the invisible. There is a lost, broken, forgotten and invisible child in all of us. I will always fight for anyone and defend anyone who is discriminated against for being lesbian or gay or transgender who suffers any other form of discrimination until my dying breath.’

The congregation applauded. The letters and cards of support deeply affirming and most moving.

The Diocese were amazing. They had the vicarage checked for security and installed some external lighting. This Diocese has a confidential counselling service for clergy. I was allocated three months of weekly psychotherapy to begin to understand the event and what had happened. They allowed me to go to my former psychotherapist who knows my life and its traumas inside out making the job of unpicking how this attack/assault touched earlier memories and experiences as well as the reality of it being an attack/assault in the present moment also.

The question of my sexuality was not in fact, a question, far from it. In discussions with a GP friend and my psychotherapist it became clear that his apparent ‘knowing’ was not ‘knowing’ at all. It may have been that this is what he does and locates this apparent hatred for gay people on priests. He may have had a terrible experience of a gay man in authority, or a priest, or a teacher, or a doctor. He may just have been very very ill and threatened by the entire world. But, in the end in the therapy the ‘why’ this happened became irrelevant.

The impact however is not irrelevant.

I now live with a sense of vulnerability that wasn’t there before. Even now there are times when I wonder what would have happened if he had had a gun or a knife. This scenario runs through my mind like a take from a film. It doesn’t bear thinking about. But this vulnerability is not imagined it is real.

As a confident clergy person, with years worth of experience of dealing with profoundly challenging people in schools and on playgrounds, I had very naively thought that I was safe in the pulpit and safe behind the altar. This is not the case.

Clergy are public figures who can easily become the object of fantasy and the target of madness. Any clergy person and any PCC that does not engage with this reality is being naive. It is not all rose tinted glasses and sugar craft cake decorations. To many the church and its clergy represent hope, love, safety, welcome and hospitality. But this is not the case for everyone. For many the church is a place of deep pain and trauma, somewhere that is far from hospitable and welcoming.

For some, a small minority, the church can be a place to locate fantasy. In this Parish I have been visited three times by people claiming to be from heaven with messages for me folk, beloved children of God who are very ill indeed. In this case the man claiming to be Jesus was also violent, violent emotionally and probably physically too if pushed. The fact he was wearing full combat gear made this threat even more frightening.

This is not the first time someone with such fantasises and psychological disturbances has disturbed church services, it will not be the last. I am not the only priest to experience this, I know of two others who have had equally disturbing experiences last year also. These priests like me have been open about it. This openness to the truthfulness of our vulnerability is important. It is the same for headteachers, teachers, doctors anyone with a public role. The first headteacher I worked for was attacked in her office and left bleeding.

Clergy need to accept and admit that they are not invincible, far from it. We like everyone else are flesh and blood and emotion. We bleed internally in our hearts when assaulted by people and we bleed eternally with real blood when cut.

What has come out of this procedurally however is important and is the real reason for sharing this story. We now have a simple procedure for dealing with such incidents agreed by the PCC with folk ready to act in such events. God willing we will not need to enact this but if we do we are clear about what we will (at least attempt to) do to diffuse such an incident. Even if we did I suspect I would still do the same, only more prepared and with others who know what to do and how to handle such a challenging situation.

How many churches have this sort of procedure? I suspect not many.

How many churches should have this? All of them.

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9 thoughts on “On being assaulted in church

  1. Thank you so much for this.I pray that any disturbance caused by this incident be healed.Very early in my curacy some 31 years ago now a similar thing happened to me and only one person stood with me as I too escorted the man from the worship.We pray for such disturbed folk .

  2. A salutary tale for all of us. Thank you for having the courage to deal with what happened so forgivingly at the time, and so openly and honestly now.

  3. I am so grateful for your honesty and bravery, but deeply sad that you had to go through this. Blessings on you and all your work.

  4. Reblogged this on Ginge in Germany and commented:
    Thought-provoking.

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