Saints Run Mad Marjorie Harrison


BOB is a nice, open-faced boy in the early twenties. He takes his place before the microphone at the Central Hall and tells us about his sins. He has been introduced to the packed audience as a product of Winchester and a one-time University tough.

He does not tell us that he drank to excess, but we gather something of the sort from the “mechanised pub-crawls” that he and his friends enjoyed. He hints, rather proudly, at great “goings-on” that kept him out until the early hours of the morning.

Then he comes down to concrete examples of wrongdoing. He had defrauded an insurance company over a car claim and obtained a job—“a lucrative job, too”—on a forged testimonial. He does not look a deceitful sort of fellow, and we disobey a Buchman injunction in our expressions of shocked surprise.

He goes on to tell how he came in touch with the Group at his University: of how he went out and thought about it all: and then, sitting on the top of a ’bus, he decided to “experiment with Christ”. “I put Christ to the test, and Christ gave the victory.” We know what he means, but put like that it sounds rather more silly than a Third Form infant announcing that he had experimented with Sir James Jeans and “put him to the test”.

If such a little chap had got up and told the two or three thousand people present that he had proved the claims of modern science and the integrity of Sir James through his tests and experiments, they would, one and all, have felt a desire to spank him. I rather fancy that quite a number had a similar desire with regard to Master Bobbie. He was old enough, if not wise enough, to know that one should not talk of experimenting with Christ, or of putting Him to the test. But the youthful assurance of “the victory” at—what would it be, twenty-four or twenty-five years of age?—that was a remark that made one sorry. For him the fight has only just begun. There were older men on that same platform—among them Dr. Buchman, whose influence had brought this boy to his feet to face and talk to a packed audience: had none of these been sufficiently wise and experienced in life to tell him what he must expect?

But Bob has courage of his own, and he may be able to learn the lesson from experience and without shirking. He proved his courage when he explained that he had faced the insurance company in its office and acknowledged his dishonesty. He had offered to repay, “And they took the money, too!” he added, a little ruefully.

All this was recounted in the autumn of 1933, at a meeting at the Central Hall, Westminster, at which I was present and at which the Press was also represented. Bob’s story appears in For Sinners Only, and is dated 1930.

But there is a marked difference between the earlier and the later versions. According to the original story, the amount of restitution he was called upon to make to the insurance company came as a pleasant surprise. The manager asked him for £9 instead of the £20 that he thought would be demanded.

The lucrative job was not obtained on a forged testimonial, but on an out-of-date testimonial, and that is a very different thing. If one compares the two stories one finds that the sin had become exaggerated with repetition, and so had the restitution. Here is proof of the dangers of this public confession—or “sharing” that the Buchmanites encourage.

This young man had been telling the tale of his wrongdoing up and down the country for three years, and had recently returned from a Group tour of Canada and the United States, where he, and others, had reeled off their sins at meeting after meeting. It would be less than human if, in such circumstances, the story should not become exaggerated and embroidered. When I discovered the discrepancy in the two versions my heart warmed towards Bob. I felt sure his exaggerations were unconscious, and they proved him to be as human as the rest of the world, and the golfer and the fisherman in particular. Nevertheless, there should have been some wise discipline that would have checked such exaggerations. And in the circumstances the condemnation, in For Sinners Only, of “the boasting of achievement in business”, or in “beating the other fellow with a good story” is hardly suitable. These are not particularly harmful, but the system that leads a man or woman to boast and enlarge upon sin instead of being deeply ashamed and sorry, is open to grave suspicion.

To quote The Times leading article again:

“It would be astonishing if that hawking round of past sin which goes under the name of ‘sharing’ should not frequently produce spiritual pride in the sharer and besmirch the minds of those with whom it is shared.”

The public confessions tend to produce boastfulness, while the danger of the besmirching lies in the practice of private confession between members, especially when it is remembered that Buchman and his followers compute ninety per cent of sins to be those connected with sex. There is a manual of Soul Surgery which can be bought from the Group by any chuckle-headed youngster who wants to start in practice. It was written some time ago, and a comparison with a later book issued by the Group shows that the strong criticism encountered both here and in America has achieved a great deal. The later book, while still lacking in true wisdom, is comparatively harmless. Yet the other continues to be advertised and sold among the Group literature.

Dr. Buchman’s ideas on this matter of Sharing are to be found in the Soul Surgery manual. Throughout it there is an analogy with medicine and surgery, and to put such a book into the hands of a would-be “life-changer”—and every new convert becomes a “life-changer” immediately: that is one of the attractions of conversion—is just about as sensible as to hand over a manual on the technique of physical surgery and then tell the novice to go ahead and practise on the first person who complains of a tummy-ache. In fact, the victim does not need to complain of discomfort. The zealous Buchmanite will conjure up the symptoms for him.

In an endeavour to justify confession as practised in Sharing by the Group, the author of Soul Surgery writes:

“The clinic of the soul surgeon is a, very different thing from the confessional of the Roman Catholic Church.”

It is indeed, and this naïve acknowledgment puts the case against the Buchmanites in a nutshell. I am not considering the doctrinal arguments for or against confession to a priest. These I will leave to wiser heads.

The Sharing of the Buchmanites, the confessional of the Roman and Anglo-Catholic Churches, and the consulting-room of the psycho-analyst have one thing in common, apart from great fundamental differences. Each acknowledges the need for openness instead of repression.

Nor should it be imagined that the Church of England as a whole does not teach the value of confession. In every Prayer-Book used in the Established Church there appears this Injunction in the Exhortation to the Holy Communion . . .  “if there be any among you, who by this means (confession to Almighty God with full purpose of amendment) cannot quiet his conscience here-in, but requireth further comfort and counsel, let him come to me or some other discreet and learned minister of God’s word and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with counsel and advice.”

The Church provides a sound means of getting rid of those difficulties, anxieties and perplexities of the spirit, mind and emotions that beset most people. Apart, too, from the assurance of God’s forgiveness to the true penitent, the troubled soul is wisely advised. Over-enthusiasm and harmful emotionalism are checked and discipline is imposed.

The psycho-analyst regards the matter from a more material standpoint, and finds the solution chiefly in terms of inhibitions and complexes. But there again, skilled advice is available. The priest and the medical man are both highly trained and experienced. If you wish to confess to or consult with a priest or minister, you may choose your man just as you would choose your doctor.

The churches are richer to-day than ever in wise, kindly and human-hearted men. Their work—like that of the medical profession, is of the utmost importance to the lives of countless people, and their sense of responsibility is correspondingly great. Dr. Buchman’s Soul Clinic is unwise and utterly irresponsible. The most ignorant novice is encouraged to dabble with the sensitive souls and minds of his fellows. He has only to become “changed” according to Buchmanite standards—a process sometimes connected with the development of an inordinate conceit and the shedding of every vestige of common sense—pay a shilling for the manual of Soul Surgery, and start to experiment at once.

A critic has described soul surgery as the process of tearing the confession from the suspect. “Life-changers” are urged to be “lovingly relentless”, insisting that confession is made, when and where it is needed. The so-called “guidance” will indicate the when and the where.

The “moral test” is to be made in order to arrive at a diagnosis, and this appears to mean delving into the sex life of the victim.

Dr. Buchman himself appears to be a specialist in the art of extracting confessions of this kind from the young.

One youth is reported as having confessed to him, and then burst into tears. “Boo-hoo,” he sobbed, “you’ll never like me again.” I suppose that, on occasions, young men do behave like hysterical schoolgirls, but measures that induce such a display are neither sound nor wise. I do not imagine that a priest or a doctor, listening to a similar admittance of wrongdoing, finds himself drenched in tears and lamentations that the sinner will never be liked again.

For here is one great difference between the clinic of the soul surgeon and the doctor’s consulting-room or the confessional of the priest. The soul surgeon is personal—he is “lovingly relentless”. The priest and the medical man are quite impersonal They are not “radiating love”, but kindness, common sense and wisdom. Most confessions need quite impersonal handling: otherwise they will become orgies of emotionalism.

Some of the confessions are lamentably amusing. An irreverent American writer says:

“In Buchmanite waves at Ashville, North Carolina and Louisville, Kentucky, half-hypnotised matrons to their own subsequent inconvenience, arraigned themselves for infractions of their marriage vows. One young Buchmanite crusaded so effectively in the home of relatives, that a seventy-year-old uncle, a fine, upright, aristocratic old gentleman, came clean as to the errors of his adolescence, to the great mortification of his wife and children, and, later, of himself.”

It speaks well for a returning sanity that when the Buchmanites re-visited Louisville in the Spring of 1933, two years after the first campaign, only eleven people were found who retained any interest in the Group. This was the experience of Mr. Martin Kiddle, who is attached to the Parish Church of Leeds. After six years as a close observer of the Group Movement at Oxford, and after a further intensive study of the Movement as one of Dr. Buchman’s team visiting Canada and America early in 1933, Mr. Kiddle has no hesitation in “supporting every statement and criticism made by the Bishop of Durham”. I am told that the Group has a letter from Mr. Kiddle in which he writes enthusiastically of his contact with them. But this has not been made public, although he strongly denounced the methods and practices in a letter to The Times.

The Buchmanites’ idea of the spiritual value of their public and private confession is not only over-estimated, but harmful. Sharing is explained in What is the Oxford Group? as “two people having a common interest—sin—and getting a healthy viewpoint on it”.

One would hardly describe Sin as a “healthy common interest”. Elsewhere the same writer speaks of people as being “sin-obsessed”. Fortunately there is very little “sin-obsession”, which would be as morbid as any other obsession. There might well be a greater consciousness of sin, although most thoughtful people are fully aware of their shortcomings and failures. The Buchmanites, assuming that their converts have been “sin-obsessed”, transform this morbidity into another—religious obsession. The opinion of the Oxford don whom I have already quoted should be remembered: “These young men only want to talk and talk and talk of religion.” An observer at a House Party speaks of “one-track conversation”. I can endorse this observation from my own experience.

In many instances the confessions are as trivial and grotesque as the examples of Guidance. There arose at the Central Hall a young girl, who told us that at eighteen she had made a broad survey of religion and decided that it was not for her.

Now, apparently, she had made a similar broad survey of Buchmanism, and as a result she told us all about her sins. The chief among these was a tendency to criticise her friends behind their backs and to exaggerate a story to raise a laugh.

I felt that anyone who could raise a laugh in these days by so harmless a measure should be entitled to count it as a virtue rather than a sin.

Once again I found myself wondering whether there was no wisdom among the shepherds of this flock of lambs who would tease her out of the nonsense. And then it dawned on me that as a member of the Group Team whose business it is to “change” Londoners, she was herself a little shepherdess of sheep!

Mr. H. R. S. Phillpott, who attended the International House Party at Oxford and wrote a series of articles for the Daily Herald, speaks of an enthusiastic young woman who confessed that at Holy Communion she noticed a friend there, and thought to herself, “Fancy Mavis coming to Communion in an orange blouse!” Since she had been at the House Party she had “felt a worm”, and now she was going to write to Mavis and tell her all about it.

In a later article, Mr. Phillpott says that he has had a few quiet times himself, pondering over some of the rather remarkable things he has seen and heard. He lays no claim to Guidance, but among the thoughts that came to him was this: “I thought that Mavis would have a right to be extremely angry when told by another young woman that she had hated Mavis’s orange blouse.”

Two Group members told me that their great sins were resentment, and that they had not been able to get rid of this feeling until they had confessed to the person against whom it was harboured. But would the person to whom the confession was made be very pleased and happy to hear about it?

The big idea seems to be for the Grouper himself to be happy, regardless of the cost to anyone else.

The Sharing of the Buchmanites comprises Confession and Witness. Sins are confessed to another member, or to a Group, as a start: they are then brought up as “dead specimens” to be a witness to a changed life.

The Group says: “When Christians confess—pagans believe” and “Through confession we may win another soul for Christ.”

This is a negative doctrine, like so much put forward by the Movement. The primary witness of Christianity is life, not talk. It is in the sane, vigorous, healthy life of mind and body that the true witness of the power of Christ is to be seen.

“Sharing”, as the word implies, involves a conversational exchange of sins. This is justified by the remarkable statement that most people consider their sins to be very original and exclusive, and that when they are “shared” the surprising discovery is made that all these sins are the sins of others!

The realisation that there is so much bad in the best of us is one that most people make early in life. It is a discovery that is one of the disillusions of extreme youth. It is not always very comforting, except in the case of morbidly anxious young people whose belief in their own peculiar wickedness would be set at rest immediately if they consulted any sensible man or woman.

The Buchmanites seem to labour under the delusion that every man and woman and boy and girl is morbidly obsessed and entirely friendless. Such unfortunates are few indeed, and for them the desperate remedy of Buchmanism may be a temporary salvation—but one that is likely to leave them eventually more stranded than ever before. For highly conscientious people the method tends to produce the morbid introspection and concentration on sin and self that are the stepping-stones to derangement.

Restitution is taught as the natural corollary of confession. In theory, and usually in practice, this is one of the few sound precepts of the Movement. It is a proper course of action to acknowledge a wrongdoing and to make good the harm as far as possible. But once again this excellent principle is often practised in such a way that it is warped out of recognition. Converts indulge in an orgy of apologies, forgetting that an apology for some long-forgotten annoyance is less embarrassing to give than to receive. They seem unable to discriminate between a genuine need for restitution and a spate of apologetic letters.

Dr. Buchman sets an example in this direction, for it is reported that when he was “changed” he sat down and wrote what appeared to be a round-robin letter of apology to the members of his late Committee in Philadelphia. He received no reply from any of them. Probably they felt a natural resentment at being so circularised.

Circulars appear to be popular among the Buchmanites and have their dangers. When I was last in New York I stayed in an hotel that was in the parish of Calvary Church. The Rector—the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker—is an ardent Buchmanite. Within a few days of my arrival I received a letter signed by him. It began, “Dear Miss Harrison,” and continued with a request that if I had any children I should send them to the Parish Sunday School! Very broadminded, I thought.