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In case you missed it: I, Lord post-show panel discussion exploring spiritual abuse

On 30th October 2023, I, Lord premiered at the Bloomsbury Theatre, followed by a panel discussion exploring spiritual abuse, how our multicultural society responds to it, and how cross-sector and community efforts can create a more hopeful future for its survivors. The experience was so rich that we couldn't possibly keep it to ourselves - so we have written up what was discussed, with thanks to Claire Hill for her live captioning on the night and sharing the transcript that made this possible.


The discussion was moderated by Dr Ayeshah Émon, a lecturer in Public Health at the UCL's Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care - who is also a poet, theatre-maker, and a cast member of the play. Nell Hardy, the writer and producer of the play and founder of Response Ability Theatre, was present to speak to the process of creating the play, where useful.


Our panel members were as follows:


Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington is currently working towards her doctorate in Theology. Her subject is Spiritual Abuse in the Church of England: Exploring Lived Experience. Part of Sarah's study involved exploring art that survivors created to express their stories. Sarah is based in Cambridge, where she is also training to be a priest - ironically, in the Church of England.

Chula J Goonewardene is a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist, and also a musician. He is the co-founder and clinical director of Attune, an organisation providing mental health and wellbeing support for creatives and influencers in music, entertainment and sport. Coming from a Buddhist family, Chula uses this philosophy to enhance both his personal and professional life.

Matt Mahmood-Ogston is the founder and executive director of the Naz and Matt Foundation: a multi-award winning charity that tackles homophobia triggered by religion and cultural norms defined by it, to help parents accept their LGBTQIA+ children.

Dr Aradhna Kaushal, Ayeshah’s colleague, is also a Lecturer in Public Health at the UCL's Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care. She has several research interests, including health promotion and communication, mental health and wellbeing, and the role of religion and spirituality in health.

Ayeshah started by posing a general question to the panel: as individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise, how do you perceive the intersection between faith-based abuse and cultural values, and in what ways have you encountered or addressed these dynamics within your respective fields?


Sarah had been thinking about this idea of “cultural values” a lot, and how the Church of England is perceived and represented in the popular culture of our country. TV shows such as the Vicar of Dibley and Rev present the Church of England as “out of touch perhaps, a little dusty, a little dated, but essentially harmless. That's that nice little vicar down the road, he has no idea what century he's in, but he's fine.” They present the Church of England and its activities as “part of the fabric, just this thing that happens”.


So when someone goes into a church, “they're often unguarded, they've no reason to be wary.” You’re “almost primed to trust them, and to think that they're safe” - whereas in any other unfamiliar space, one might be more boundaried, and require the people in charge of that space to earn your trust a bit more. As a result, Sarah said, “it's harder to keep yourself safe, that's certainly been my experience, and the experience of people I'm working with.”

She went on to list some of the phrases with which survivors of church-based abuse are often gaslighted: 'Are you certain?', 'They're just a bit funny…', 'Are you sure you didn't get the wrong end of the stick?'. “Trying to explain to the general population that this happens, that this goes on, is really, really hard.” She described the moral injury experienced by survivors of spiritual abuse in the Church of England as combining three components: what one expected to find; what one actually did find; and the public lack of awareness that so often leads to denial of that dissonance.


So the big questions Sarah finds herself asking in her work with survivors, are: “What is going on in the Church of England, where these things keep happening? And to what extent are the practices, behaviours, beliefs in the Church culpable, and to what extent is there complicit culpability as well?” Beyond her PhD, Sarah hopes to write a book about this: I can't wait to read it.

We then handed over to Chula, who described his job as to deal with the fall-out of spiritual and other types of abuse, and the cultural values that come to bear on those experiences. He finds that there is often a conflict in survivors between the religious or spiritual aspects that can help people’s healing journeys when they are part of a religion, or brought up in a religious family - and the need to honour the cultural norms therein that are not helpful: “where there's perhaps secrecy or a fear of shame, when things do go wrong or things are happening that shouldn't happen.


“It's the silence that really does a lot of the damage. And as we saw in the play, the questioning of people when they speak out about what may have happened to them. That can be almost more harmful than the abuse itself, and it prolongs the suffering that somebody has to endure.” He spoke with optimism about the changes he has seen being brought about by spiritual and multi-faith counsellors, and spiritual leaders who are also counsellors - who understand that abuse does take place in those settings, acknowledge it, and do not attempt to justify it.


Chula is an addiction specialist, and was particularly interested in the implied alcoholism that some of the play’s characters are experiencing. “That's all part of the cover-up,” he said, “and that can be something that people again don't want to talk about, because of cultural or spiritual beliefs. But when we do break through those barriers, then there's an opportunity for people to survive rather than be victims of abuse.”

"It's the silence that really does a lot of the damage ... That can be almost more harmful than the abuse itself" - Chula J Goonewardene


At this point, Ayeshah aptly digressed for a moment to identify the potential paradox inherent in the term ‘spiritual abuse’: “I don't know, can it be called spiritual if it's abuse?” Sarah reflected back that this continues to be a live debate in academic circles where the exact definition of the term is still somewhat contested. Some people prefer the term ‘religious trauma’, for example, and some even think that there is no place for the term ‘spiritual abuse' at all - but implied that in some cases that might reflect a wish to close down examination of the problem: “it has been described as opening Pandora's box and we'll never get control back, which is somewhat revealing.”


Sarah went on to explain the particular nuance she thinks the term captures so effectively: “for me, it's this form of coercive control but particularly what occurs is your abuser speaks with the voice of God. And that is just at the core of your being, and there's nothing in this world that protects you, when you believe that your abuser speaks with the voice of God, and not just your earthly existence but your eternal existence hangs in the balance. That's where that phrase, spiritual, religious, that's where it does some of the heavy lifting.”


"It's this form of coercive control ... your abuser speaks with the voice of God."

- Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington

With that whirring away in our minds, we went on to hear from Matt, who comes to this subject through the lens of the Naz and Matt Foundation’s ultimate goal, which he described as “suicide prevention and working with individuals' mental health. We work particularly in the areas of religious and cultural homophobia, we work in the areas of LGBTQ+ forced marriage, and conversion practices, more commonly known as conversion therapy. Many of those have a psychological element, and they were present in tonight's performance. Ultimately what we see that's coming across all of those areas is an element of fear.”


So if we see it as a response to fear, do we then stop seeing it as abuse? Absolutely not. “I think it's really important to call out that abuse is abuse, period. However somebody gets there, however somebody is experiencing it, it's abuse, there's no excuse for it, it needs to stop, period. Because when we can call it out as abuse, and we can break it down into the different psychological profiles of the perpetrators that are involved, then we can actually address it and combat it in many different ways.”


The main perpetrators in the cases that the Naz and Matt Foundation work with are the parents of LGBTQIA+ people. Like Chula, Matt has seen the impact of this on LGBTQIA+ people to include addictions, suicidal ideation and other extreme challenges to mental health. It can also have extreme impacts on the basic practicalities of how and where people live. In the play, we see several characters at risk of or experiencing homelessness as a result of faith-based conflict with their parents. In Matt’s work, at the most extreme end of the scale, he has seen some cases where LGBTQIA+ people even have to flee their country of birth, because their parents believe that God is calling them to kill their child. 


“I'm perhaps going to be a little bit blunt here,” he said, “that thing at its core, that people call or try and connect to spirituality - ultimately it's a fear of something that they don't understand. It's a fear of something being different to what they were brought up to believe is correct and true. And when somebody's values, when somebody's whole belief system is challenged by the presence of a child who is born differently to everyone else, quite often parents don't know where to go, where to look, where to get information. But before all of that, quite often the parents don't even believe that the feelings that they have are actually wrong. And that's why we all have to challenge it where we see it.”

"that thing at its core, that people call or try and connect to spirituality - ultimately it's a fear of something that they don't understand"

- Matt Mahmood-Ogston


Last but not least, we checked in with Aradhna - who, though she now identifies as an atheist, had a positive experience of being raised in a Hindu family, and found herself spurred in her PhD to understand the relationship between religious practices and beliefs and mental health and wellbeing. “The personal experience of having my mother tell me that she was praying for me, and that I got that job because she prayed for me, and seeing how much comfort it gave her in life - feeling that her praying meant that her children were looked after - it made me wonder, am I missing out on something?”


So, did she find a strong correlation between religious practice and belief, and good mental health and wellbeing? What she found more potently, was that it seems to be especially difficult for researchers to come at this topic without bias. “There's hardly any research in the UK about the relationship between religion and mental health, there's a lot in the United States. I've been to conferences where these researchers have presented their work, and it's very clear that they are devoutly religious themselves, and they're trying to come at it from a positive angle, so I'm not sure that we can completely trust the research that's out there.”


She herself didn't identify a strong relationship between religious belief and mental health - but she did find that people who already had symptoms of depression and anxiety were more likely to attend religious services later on in life. “The bottom line is that vulnerable people are going … looking for support. So one of the main conclusions of my work was that these places should be safe places for people to go, and the people that are there should be trained properly on how to treat people who are suffering from mental health problems. But still there's a lot of work to be done, I think.”

"The bottom line is that vulnerable people are going ... looking for support. So ... the people that are there should be trained properly on how to treat people who are suffering from mental health problems."

- Dr Aradhna Kaushal


Having heard from all the panellists, Ayeshah opened the floor to questions from the audience. The first of these reflected on spiritual abuse from an autistic perspective. Very recent research has shown that autistic people experience more incidents of trauma in their lives than neurotypical people, and also more micro-aggressions in their day-to-day lives. But no work has yet been done specifically on how spiritual abuse impacts neurodivergent people, who already perceive their world differently to most, and are frequently brought up to believe that they are ‘wrong’. Did our panellists have any insights into such experiences?


Chula was the first to comment that, from a clinical perspective, neurodivergence adds another layer of vulnerability - and that this will especially come to bear in spiritual contexts, “where they have perceived or they have been led to perceive they can trust the people around them”. Neurodivergence can also often lead people to struggle to communicate distress - “so again, it's about us providing the opportunity and the spaces for that to happen, should there be spiritual abuse occurring in that community.” He knows therapists specialising in spotting the more implicit signs of distress and abuse in neurodivergent people, especially children in schools.


Sarah's relationship with the topic is more personal. She notes that, “quite often when you are the victim of spiritual abuse, it is easier to problematise you rather than the person or people who perpetrated the abuse. You are the problem and it's much easier to get rid of you than to admit what's going on. You're seen as the acceptable sacrifice. The view is that you can just leave the church - go quietly out the back door, and we can all just move on with our lives.”


Sarah acknowledged the different ways the church can respond to neurodiverse folks, and disabled folk in general. Sarah described that some people seem to be “the recipient of benevolent pity” from the church. These folk are “the type of person that the church want to champion that they have” to make it appear that they are inclusive. But if the way your brain is wired challenges neurotypical people, you are unlikely to be that golden boy or girl in your faith community’s eyes. Instead, you are that bit easier to discredit.

“quite often when you are the victim of spiritual abuse, it is easier to problematise you rather than the person or people who perpetrated the abuse."

- Sarah Molynaux-Hetherington


The next question came from someone else who identified herself to have found resonances in the play from a marginalised perspective, as a gay woman of colour. She reflected on having grown up in a religious family but as a young person experimenting with some other spiritual practices that some characters in the play also try (we won't say what those are - spoilers…!). This woman is now an atheist, but wondered if the play’s central character, Evie, had reached an epiphany by the end of the play, and if that was Nell’s intention as the playwright.

Now, many of you reading will be aware that many playwrights don't like enforcing right and wrong interpretations of their work, and Nell is no different - so of course, she opened it up to a show of hands, which itself was inconclusive. Again to avoid spoilers, we won't say too much about Nell’s opinion on Evie’s journey through the play - but it feels apt to share her stated intention for her audiences.


“It was a year and a half ago that we first did a rehearsed reading of this play,” she remembered, “and somebody who is in the audience right now afterwards said to me that the thing that she really appreciated about it was that it was a piece that spoke to anybody, wherever they were on their journey of healing, whatever decisions they had or hadn't made. That if you had happily gone back to your faith community, and planned to stay there forever, you weren't being condemned by this play; if you were now a sworn atheist and were never going to go near a religious institution or anything spiritual ever again, then this play has compassion for you; that if you're on the fence and you change your mind every single day, then this play has compassion for you.


“I really hope that we have kept that through the different revisions over the last year and a half, because I think that the most important thing that I want to be taken away from this is that there's no right answer. And unfortunately a lot of institutions, the way that they're operating right now, often enforce right answers, and that's never going to help anybody.”


A challenging question came next, and required responses from a number of panellists: do you think spiritual abuse has lent its hand to the ever-rising atheism in our world right now?


Matt was the first to be brave enough to have a go at answering, and did so from the perspective of the individuals he supports at his charity, who are all from religious or culturally conservative backgrounds. “Some of those individuals are on a path to leave the religion they were born into - but some of those individuals, who have a very similar experience, are on a path to reconcile their LGBT identity and their religious identity. Because for those individuals, they can't see why they should be forced to leave something which they want to continue following, because of somebody else's negativity and hostility and abuse.”


He went on to reflect on the experience of his own fiancé, Naz, who tragically took his own life two days after being confronted about being gay for the first time by his deeply religious parents. “He used to really dislike the fact that he would be called out because of how he looked, because society wanted to assign him to the religion that he was born into, even though he said that he couldn't support that religion he was born into, because the religion itself didn't support him.

"they can't see why they should be forced to leave something which they want to continue following, because of somebody else's negativity and hostility and abuse"

- Matt Mahmood-Ogston


“He had to live two lives: where he was with his parents, he had to go to the religious building, he had to be the good religious son, but when he was out of that environment, he could be the true person that he was. I think it's very difficult to continue practising something if that very something is actually abusing you, either physically or emotionally, or psychologically, so I think it definitely is contributing to the rise of atheism.”


As for the church, he thought its public face was turning people away from belief in God whether or not they themselves had faced abuse within it: “the fact that there are more horror stories coming out time and time again, and not enough to address it in a way that actually puts a stop to it, and I think that definitely is contributing to it from a church perspective.”


Sarah, on the other hand, wasn't so sure: “interestingly, the people I have worked with generally have not disavowed faith. Those who have returned to church have never returned to the same type of church that they came from - they have maybe gone to something very different. Or some have found that any sort of church is too much, it's too triggering, it's too unsafe, fairly, I might add. But they have kept a faith.


“One of the really powerful things I found in the play is when it addresses this narrative around atheism being the obvious conclusion. This narrative means that some people, when they experience spiritual abuse, worry that when they go to the wider world, the world is going to say, 'Well it's your fault for being part of that religion!’ And that they will then have to defend why they want to stay in that religion rather than get support or solidarity. So personally in my work, I haven't seen a lot of people go towards atheism, what I do see is their friends and family telling them they should.”


Next, we heard from someone who is also making some theatre about their experience of religious trauma, which was in an evangelical low church setting. They wondered if anyone in the panel had noticed strong similarities and differences between abuse in different church traditions, or different faith traditions.


Sarah was best placed to comment from a church perspective: she has observed that each church tradition seems tempted to claim that all church abuse happens in other types of church, but not theirs: “'Well that's just the Anglo-Catholics and their thing’; ‘That's the guitar-wielding evangelical problem, that wouldn't happen here'”. While acknowledging that abuse is always contextualised, so the subtle nuances will vary wherever you go, she identified this as a significant cross-church abuse problem: by insisting all the problems are outside of our own church, “we stop looking for the problem, we stop acknowledging it, and we stop being a safe place, receptive to hear when things go wrong.” Because the risk of things going wrong doesn't apply solely to one church, or any church, or any faith or spiritual tradition at all: it applies “wherever there are humans.”

“we stop looking for the problem, we stop acknowledging it, and we stop being a safe place, receptive to hear when things go wrong.”

- Sarah Molyneux-Hetherington


Matt added to that with the insights from his work that he often shares in “very difficult conversations that we have with parents, with schools, with police forces, with NGOs, with the Home Office: what's really, really important is clearly to state that religion and culture is not the problem, it's the interpretation of religion and culture that's the problem. And when we focus on the individual's interpretation, if we can start to understand and unpeel the layers as to why they have that particular interpretation: what newspapers do they read, what do they consume in terms of their daily news, the radio, do they watch the prayer channels, for example?


“The moment we can move away from blaming it on the scripture or a book or a traditional value and just focus on that human - because that human has a choice to be abusive or not - and when we can focus on that, then it's the human at fault, not an outside force. That's when we can start to drive change, because that person can change, if they want to.” This, unsurprisingly, elicited an appreciative round of applause.


Ayeshah was keen to pick up on Matt's distinction between religion and culture: is religion outside of culture?


“They're very closely interrelated. When we started our charity, our mission was never to let any religion come in between the unconditional love of a parent and their child. Often families, particularly parents, will cite their religion as the reason why they can’t accept their child. But we've heard on many, many other occasions where a family from a very similar religious or cultural background will blame their traditional values, or blame their culture. And quite often, even those individuals don't know how to separate the two. But what's important to understand is that if you practise a religion in a particular part of the world, individuals who practise the same religion in another part of the world will have a different interpretation of that, and that's where cultural influences and traditional values from that particular locality start to influence their interpretation of the religion.” 

"we can move away from blaming it on the scripture or a book or a traditional value and just focus on that human - because that human has a choice to be abusive or not"

- Matt Mahmood-Ogston


Much as we could have talked all night, we were now onto our very last question. This audience member brought us back to Aradhna’s earlier point about assumptions and biases in the minds of researchers setting up limiting ‘acccepted truths’ within academic thought on links between religion and mental health. He raised the fascinating example of prayer: some American-led academic research has ‘proven’ that prayer helps to lessen anxiety, but this doesn't address the different types and contexts of prayer and the power processes at play within them. The question: how do those paradigms change?

Aradhna’s answer: perseverance. “Keep pursuing, doing your research in the most robust way, being critical of what's already existing and just really advocating for good science. I found, as I went through my research, there was quite a lot of tension wherever I went to present my work from the academic community. There was a lot of scepticism. 'Oh, religion? That doesn't really mean much here, we're mostly a secular society anyway, why are you bothering to research this? Obviously you're not going to find any effect. This is not important', is an attitude that I encountered a lot. And then on the other hand I attended a conference which was all about religion, spirituality and health, and there it was completely the opposite. There were prayer circles in the breaks in between the sessions, and it was very clear to me that people who were attending that conference were religious themselves.


“There were a few presentations about spiritual abuse [at that conference], and I remember being completely shocked about the rates of spiritual abuse among nuns. And part of the coping mechanism was that as a nun, they felt like they should be forgiving, and if they didn't do that, then they were not good nuns.


“But I think it is quite challenging, because you need to have funding to do good research, and I don't think this is very adequately funded in the UK. I was very lucky, I got a PhD studentship and I could choose the topic of my research, so there was a little bit of freedom for me. But I wasn't able to pursue this research further because it's not really within the scope of what research councils are looking to fund, in terms of mental health and wellbeing.”


This raised further reflections from the audience on how divorced academic priorities and scopes can be from what is really going on in our world, and wondering how we can go about reporting on that in a way that can influence our thinking.

For Matt and the Naz and Matt Foundation, this is an ongoing frustration. “We're a very small charity, we only have a small number of part-time staff, and we get a large volume of researchers contacting us each year. We do our best to help, or we used to do our very best to help, because we have answers to so many questions that researchers want to find out. If we were able to, rather than just participate by submitting people who we have supported into their research, if we could actually help direct that research. Because we're on the ground, we're the ones that speak to individuals in states of suicide ideation, where they're having to flee their country of birth because of the challenges, the spiritual abuse, as we're calling it tonight.


“What we find is that the researchers, when they come to us, they ask us for access to our community. But we then have to provide support sessions before the meetings with researchers, we have to be on the call with the researchers to make sure that trauma isn't too triggering, and then we have to provide support after those sessions as well. We ask for financial assistance to support our time in essentially helping them achieve what they need to achieve, and every single time, we hear that there's no funding available to pay for our time. So if we do contribute, we're basically paying for that research to take place, and as a small charity, we don't have that funding available. So what would be really helpful is if there was funding available for charities like ours to be able to support research activities.”


Sarah, from a researcher’s point of view, solidly agrees that wellbeing is critically underfunded in research processes. “We have it on all sides. We have communities of people who are over-researched, under-supported and under-resourced, and I'm so aware that so many charities are working with people and are fielding off researchers' requests. One thing I'm really mindful about, as a researcher, is how I'm making my name on the back of other people's stories. And how do I deal with that, and how do I address the power imbalance as well?


“While also being aware that I work in an academic setting where humanities funding doesn’t cover any sort of mental health support for researchers with these stories either, so I have to pay for my own therapy and my own professional supervision. I'm not saying 'poor me, poor me', but actually we’re often also traumatising researchers who are trying to research this, and we're exhausting charities working in the sector, and all the rest of it. There's something really wrong about this picture. I guess cynically it's because some people don't want to hear these stories and this research, it would cause too much change.”

"I wasn't able to pursue this research further because it's not really within the scope of what research councils are looking to fund, in terms of mental health and wellbeing.”

- Dr Aradhna Kaushal


So the reflection we were left with is that, somewhat perversely, across so many of our sectors, listening is ‘dangerous’ and care is ‘radical’. So, where's the hope? Well - we put this show on and had this discussion in a major central London venue, attached to an internationally outstanding academic institution, didn't we? It’s a small gain in the grand scheme of things and has taken a disproportionate amount of work to get here, but it shows in micro that the efforts of survivors and allies to be heard over the years has not been in vain, and neither will what we are doing now.

With a huge thanks to our funders, the institutions supporting us, the speakers who volunteered their time, the artists behind the show, without whom this wouldn’t have happened - and to our audience, without whom this would have been futile.


Remember that I, Lord is coming back for 5 performances at the Space on 13-17th February - a more intimate venue, where each show will be followed by some time for open reflection between audience members and the team, with a welfare lead on hand if needed. On 14-16th February, the parallel children’s show will also be running - so parents, no need to worry about childcare.


To book for the main show, please go to the Space website. To book for the children’s show, e-mail to say how many children you will be bringing, what ages they are, and any access needs of which you would like us to be aware.


Fancy continuing this conversation? Feel free to comment below - there is so much more to be said!


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