Tuesday, 21 March 2017

I confess! I was a cult member! I was part of the Jesus Army.

I confess.

I was a member of the Jesus Army.

They called it a cult.  I still joined.
I went in with my eyes open, knowing that I would not be there forever.
I was warned of heavy shepherding, warned that they would brainwash me and steal all my money.
I joined anyway.
This was in the mid-1990s.  Since that time the ways of the church have mellowed somewhat.  There are actually people there who believe in LGBT equality.  Perhaps they've moved on a little from what, to an outsider, would seem to be a very sexist structure.  I've heard that there is even a transgender member of the community.
It's been sixteen years since I attended one of their services, sixteen years since I stayed in a community house, prayed and slept with the brothers, sang those songs and rode around in a brightly painted Jesus Army minibus.
Looking back now in my post Christian days I can tell you this:
I had a great time there and if I had to live those years again I'd live them more devoted to the vision of that church, more enthusiastic about the community, and less likely to grumble at all the shortcomings I saw.
Would I be safe if I visited?  As an ex-Christian, non-theist, transgender woman.  I don't know.
Looking back on the Jesus Army I see perhaps the only church I miss.

A few things about the community:

I was part of a community household that no longer exists.  The head of the house says that he takes the blame for some of the reasons why it fell apart.  Perhaps with a little more of the heavy shepherding it would have thrived.  Or at least with a little more shepherding.  In effect most of us who visited that house could do pretty much as we pleased.  And we did.  The other reason why it fell apart was perhaps that of charity and compassion.  Vineyard Farmhouse took in a lot of waifs and strays, of whom I was one.  There were a lot of people to be helped and not enough people to be the helpers.  Eventually that balance gave way.

I was loved in that community.  I had friends.  And I laughed more than I ever laughed before or since.

I struggled in that community.  I wasn't prepared to submit to much at all and was critical far too often and charitable far too little.  While there was much to criticise that's only because the place was full of fallible humans.  They were all doing their best and all too often I was too quick to point my finger at the shortcomings of the church.

I sang lots.  I played the guitar lots.  I enjoyed worshiping my God through music immensely.  In the community the evening meal was preceded each day by "grace time" which wasn't just a five second mumbled prayer.  It was a half hour praise and teaching party.  Each evening the community was united in purpose before sharing the meal.  At least that was the theory.

I was a brother and so slept in the "brothers' bungalow" above the main farmhouse.  That's a building which no longer exists.  A good thing.  It was pretty rough and often smelled of oil.  It was cold too and if you ever wanted to live in a luxurious cult you wouldn't have chosen it.  But there was clean bedding and clean towels and a hot shower.  And there was generally conversation, laughter and the odd argument too.

The Vineyard community housed some "interesting" characters.  People of I kind I never would have met anywhere else in my sheltered existence.  On one occasion - in another community - I found that I was the only person in a sizable group of brothers who had never been to prison.  One person involved in the community, the guy who stole and wrote off a Jesus Army minibus, had a large collection of car badges from different makes of car.  Each badge was taken from a car he had stolen.  One person held a knife to the head of the house.  A young brother ran off with a much older sister who happened to be celibate.  One person had robbed a bank.  There were lots of people who were drug addicts, some of whom still took drugs.  The aroma of weed could often be smelled outside Sunday services.  The Ship of Fools mystery worshiper went to a service a few years ago and popped out to the loo half way through.  He found people snorting lines of coke there.

With all the interesting characters relationships were sometimes strained and everyone wore their issues close to the surface.  There wasn't time to be proud and hide everything and there wasn't a desire to put on an English stiff upper lip.

When I first arrived at Vineyard I refused point blank to go and sit with the brothers for meals - sex segregation at meals was the custom.  I was much more comfortable sitting with the sisters.  I wonder why!  Of course I submitted to that custom pretty quickly and found some great brothers.

I learned eventually never to lend anything to a community member.  Jesus said to lend not expecting to get it returned.  That was a key there.  You wouldn't get it back.  Ever.  It was as if people thought Jesus had said you should borrow not expecting to give it back.  Maybe I was just unlucky but I had a 100% success rate of losing everything I lent to someone.  Including a guitar.   He couldn't give that back.  Some high up drug dealers took it in order to cover some of his drug debt.

I am no longer a Christian.  Yet a folder of songs is currently on the music stand on the piano.  It came from Vineyard Farmhouse and contains all the songs we used to sing.

Flapjack.  I can't speak of Vineyard without thinking of flapjack.  There was a lot of flapjack.  The best of it was made by a woman named Julie.  Lovely woman.  Sorry Felicity but yours wasn't quite as good as Julie's.  But the doughnuts you made once were absolutely gorgeous.

Flapjack.  It was part of the Jesus Army.  Early in its history, with the members pooling their resources and income into the community and the church, members formed several businesses and cooperatives.  They had solicitors, doctors, a hairdresser, a motor repair business and a farm.  They also started a bakery and a tiny wholefoods cooperative.  The latter developed and became a large health food company housed in what was the largest warehouse in Northamptonshire.  They had their own line of flapjacks.  Oh Chunky Jacks.  I miss you!

Critics pointed to the monetary worth of the Jesus Army and its turnover and accused it of being a very rich organisation.  They said that someone somewhere must be getting very wealthy out of it.  None of it was true.  That financial turnover was the result of the businesses and included the incomes and livelihood of each of those members who lived in the community.  Nobody was getting rich and the church used extra money to pay for the work of the church - all those events in the big marquee and the printing of thousands of copies of the magazine to be posted to subscribers for free and giving so much to waifs and strays like me who hardly contributed a thing financially to them.

All those nights stayed in community.  How much did they charge me?  Zero.  That's how much.  I'm sure that if I'd been able to give them something and had given it they would have been glad of the cash and would have put it to use.  But it wouldn't have changed the way anyone treated me.  Not one bit.

As for getting rich.  The head of Vineyard farmhouse lived in a shared bedroom in the brothers' bungalow.  The leader of the whole church lived in a bedroom in one of the other community houses - New Creation Farm.  He ate what everyone else ate and lived as they did.  He worked very hard and kept up his passion for Jesus and the church vision throughout his life.

I struggled under his teaching.  I found his sermons painful to listen to.  They just didn't seem very good.  I'd moan about them all the time.  And then he would say something and it would just hit me in the guts and I'd have to deal with it.  We used to laugh about Noel's preaching style and imitate him excellently.  The head of Vineyard pointed out the fallacy in our claim to not be listening to Noel while imitating him so perfectly.  Because we were listening.  Carefully.

Vineyard had comfy and very scruffy sofas.  It had a basement with washing machines and second grade apples from the farm.  It had no potato peeler but many potatoes to be peeled.  It had an outhouse containing a 24/7 prayer room with walls on which we could write prayers.

Vineyard had smiles and tears and struggling people and a bunch of misfits.  It had walks in the woods and in the countryside nearby.

I moaned about it while I was there.  There was much to moan about.  I could write another blog post about the moans.  But what would be the point?

But it was one of the happiest times of my life.  Sixteen years later, though I don't believe the gospel and don't believe in many of the practicalities of how they think that gospel should be lived, (Whatever they say, women weren't treated as well as men) I love that church more than I ever did.

One day I might return.  Give my testimony in that giant marquee again.  Tell them I don't believe in their God but I love them still.


  1. Good blog, and well written...I remember you from the vineyard days. I was just a teenager but remember a few guitar skils you taught me and visiting you in Aberystwyth. Great to hear you..much love.

  2. Hello Clare,
    I really enjoyed reading this. As you know I grew up at Vineyard and have very fond memories of the place, and especially the people.
    And boy do I remember Chunky Jacks! Flapjack, chocolate fudge cake etc etc.
    I think you've hit the nail on the head with many things you've mentioned and I appreciate your honesty. And I'll say this as I'm still a member that you'd be safe to visit any time you want to. Some things have changed but much has stayed the same. We've learnt many lessons and there's still more to learn.
    All the best,
    James Norden


Comments are welcome. But not spam and not obscenity. It's not all politeness though - religion and politics aren't banned.