Clergy and Violence

The cost and cautions of ministering in urban settings.

Victor Cooper is a retired minister living in Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

Three clergy persons became victims of violence within a 24-hour period in different parts of the United Kingdom.

Christopher Gray, 32-year-old minister of St. Margaret's Church, Anfield, Liverpool, was stabbed to death outside his house at about 1:00 in the morning. The assailant, Terence Storey, a known drug addict re leased from jail eight months earlier, had been visiting Mr. Gray (by appointment) for advice and counseling.

With a promising future in the Church of England, Gray was described as "one of the ablest priests of his generation." A brilliant scholar, he had achieved the rare distinction of a double first-class degree "with congratulations" at University College, Oxford. He spoke nine or ten languages. Gray was known by his parishioners as a harmless, innocent, and good man. Detective Chief Inspector Elmore Davies said he was the victim of a merciless and unprovoked attack. 1

The same day, August 13,1996, Anthony Couchman, vicar of St. Barnabas's, Walthamstow, was assaulted when he answered the door. After forcing an entry, the attacker, Ahmed el Gammal, left the minister with a broken nose and further facial injuries.

A third priest, Nduna Mpunzi, minister of St. Mary's, Walsall, was struck after midnight with an axe-like weapon as he gave marriage counseling to his 57-year-old assailant. He suffered a fractured skull and has been operated on in Birmingham. Reactions to violence Britain is considered one of the safest countries in Europe. But these three assaults highlighted clergy vulnerability and drew swift reaction in the press from church leaders and religious correspondents.

Some believed there was a danger the church would have to pull out of rough inner-city areas unless security improved. How ever, the bishop of Liverpool pointed out that Gray represented a center of resistance to violence and despair. "All clergy have people come to talk. It is part of our tradition. We try to help in any way we can." The church, said the bishop of Barking, would not be put off by incidents of violence and would "stay in the city."2

Adrian Hastings speculated about Gray: "Perhaps his image of the priesthood was almost too medieval to exist in our time, medieval in the absoluteness of self-surrender he called for."3 But The Times, which devoted its lead editorial to the tragedy, observed that Gray was motivated by the Anglo-Catholic tradition of ministry to the poor: "His sacrifice should inspire his countrymen as he was inspired by the priests who went before him, never to turn in despair from those who reject what is right." 4

Clifford Longley commented in The Daily Telegraph: "Good city priests... want the Church to make God visibly present in the lives of the urban English poor. What use God makes of this is not up to them, nor will they ever know. The imperative is to be there, regardless of the consequences, and when called upon, even to die there. It is not something the modern world finds easy to understand. That too is part of the point of it." 5

In The Independent Margaret Atkins also valued obedience in the tradition of the martyrs: "Christian love is shaped by obedience, and fortified by courage. These are unfashionable virtues... . For most of us, heroic obedience will remain an ideal to challenge us rather than an example for us to follow. But in another sense men and women like Christopher Gray can comfort us. For they point to the places that seem most desolate, most dangerous, most God-forsaken; and they show us that Christ himself is there."6

The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, found little to amuse him when he visited one of his vicars who had been burglarized 80 times during the past seven years, in spite of the fact that his church played a major part in a crime-prevention initiative.

The archbishop reminded listeners to his Prison Reform Trust address that crime in Britain is on the increase. The prison population is 54,000 and rising, and so are the charges to society, each inmate costing tax payers between $25,000 and $61,000.

The archbishop admitted he was not hopeful about many young offenders he met at a remand center but added, "As a Christian I cannot accept that people are irredeemable." He called for society to address the fundamental relational issue: "How may all those involved with the young parents, schools, and churches combine in creating conditions that will reduce crime?"

Threat to clergy

Crime, drugs, schizophrenia, mental dis orders, and societal conditions are a threat to clergy of all denominations. Seventh-day Adventist ministers in Britain have been at tacked, received death threats, and suffered abuse and aberrant behavior. At the church's headquarters building in Watford, Hertford shire, significant security measures control entry by visitors, restrictions that were expanded after an attack on the property by an allegedly aggrieved party. Now, during the week as I write this, thieves have broken in and stolen office equipment on three occasions.

In numerous countries Christian ministers have been mugged, wounded, or killed. Some clergy employ a security bodyguard. Lack of religious liberty on the one hand and antisocial behavior on the other leave clerics exposed.

It is only human to avoid or limit such peril. Fear may even cause pastors and church members to withdraw from the possibility of inner-city conflict. But Christian ministry necessitates involvement, sacrifice, and renunciation. The situation of the disadvantaged in our great cities constitutes a potent challenge to all Christians.

Members of one suburban church elected to spend a weekend in Bermondsey, London, to sample life in the city. They talked with people in betting shops, a hostel for the home less, and local housing estates. They took lunch in a cockney "pie and mash" cafe and returned home with a surfeit of information for discussion and prayer back at their own church hall. One reported, "Until you immerse yourself in an inner-city area, the is sues which local people have to live with, day in, day out, go completely unnoticed."

Precautions ministers can take

Measures suggested in Britain include: fixing spy-holes in the front door; installing video-entry phones, security mirrors, panic buttons, an alarm system; having a dog; keeping a record of visits; avoiding isolated or unfamiliar places for counseling and late-night appointments; working out es cape routes and a strategy for getting assistance; meeting callers known to be violent in a police station; always staying closer to the door than the visitor; making sure you are not alone when counseling and that your counselee knows you are not alone in the house; carefully noting body language and tone of voice.

But many clergy consider the notion of having somebody in the parsonage every time a person calls to talk impractical and impossible. And the police say they do not always respond to ringing alarm bells.

Some ministers learn techniques for diverting immoderate emotions, pacifying tempers, and giving reassurance. They learn to detect the physical and psychological factors that tilt the scales from anger to violence; they realize it may not be wise to intervene in a row or prevent the theft of church property.

Trained and skilled counselors avoid telling people what to do. They abstain from offering solutions, preferring to act as catalysts, guiding and enabling their counselees to explore viable alternatives. They often help a person take a small step so that confidence is gained to make larger decisions later.

Inexperienced or untrained mentors, weak in interpersonal relationships, often present people with decisions they are unable or unwilling to make. This tactic, some times indulged in by overzealous ministers and evangelists, inevitably creates animosity, which may lead to violence. Clergy are wise to recognize their limitations and refer complex problems to other specialists and agencies.

Christian ministry is costly

The church's representatives have always been a magnet for itinerant troublemakers. Prophets from Jeremiah to Paul ministered amid tears and terror (Jer. 20:7-11; Acts 20:17-35). Jesus was a target for attack on several occasions. Many of His followers persons of conscience have been butchered because their beliefs or activities caused anger. Christians have been shot, axed in cold blood, crucified, burned, smoked to death in caves, put into a sack and thrown into a river, tied to a stake in front of the incoming tide, gassed, tortured, poisoned, left to die without food and water, and in a thousand heinous ways treated worse than animals. People of faith have been massacred singly and in groups, regardless of age, sex, or culture, often only because they held slight differences of belief from their persecutors. The failure of Christians to love other Christians who hold variant views has often turned to shocking hatred and violence over two millennia. We all have a lot to learn here.

Devoted clergy will always be at risk. Fe male clergy are additionally vulnerable, and a family forms a further area of concern. As the good Samaritan helped the robber's victim on the Jericho road regardless of the risk of further attack from the bandits, so with comparable courage today's dedicated clergy accept the hazards associated with their calling.

Christopher Gray once said of his work as minister and evangelism adviser, "There are risks, but we're not in it for a good pension and a safe life.... If you want to keep your life, you will lose it." In a recent published essay Gray wrote that clergy must "be like Christ in the faithful service of their flocks, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives."7

Lord Runcie, former archbishop of Canterbury, gave a similar description of candidates needed for clergy-in-training: "Increasingly we look for people of character to undertake such a vocation. We look first for faith, for evidence of a life of prayer, be cause prayer is required of a pastor both to sustain the loneliness of the job and as a sign of the way he is pointing out to others. We look for commitment to people, to console the strong and the weak, the gifted and the deprived. We look for a willingness to live sacrificially: to choose the less attractive job ... to work long hours without obvious re ward. We look for those who inspire with out being domineering, whose model is that of the Good Shepherd, rather than the successful graduate of the management training school."8

1 The [London] Times, Aug. 8,1996.

2 Church Times, Aug. 16,1996.

3 The Guardian, Aug. 15,1996.

4 The Times, Aug. 15,1996.

5 Quoted in Church Times, Aug. 23,1996.

6 Ibid.

7 The Guardian, Aug. 8, 1996; also Guiver,
"Who Is the Priest?" The Fire and the Clay (1993).

8 The Times, Aug. 15,1996.


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Victor Cooper is a retired minister living in Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

October 1997

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