The oracle of Essex

The Guardian/November 15, 2000
By Sally Weale

The Peniel Pentecostal Church has faced allegations of exploitation, complaints about the advertising of 'miracles' and unease at the extreme views of its leader. Now claims that it is trying to take control of the local Tory party have resurfaced - and Martin Bell is considering standing as MP.

It is a quiet Sunday morning in rural Essex. There is little traffic on the roads and the sun shines weakly on the Peniel Pentecostal Church in Pilgrims Hatch, near Brentwood. At first sight there seems little out of the ordinary about the place - a plain, barn-like building that looks more like a village hall than a church. Then you notice the high metal fence and automated gates that surround the cluster of buildings. There is a large gun in the grounds fronting on to the road, pointing outwards. It was a gift, a piece of living history from the Ark Royal. And there's the car park. It's huge. Since when did churches need Tesco superstore-sized car parks?

By about 9.30am worshippers are beginning to arrive in force. An army of shiny saloons, people carriers and Jeeps, filled with well-heeled families in their Sunday best, pours into the car park, where it is directed with practised efficiency by a team of parking attendants.

Just before 10am, Michael Reid, a former policeman and insurance salesman who is the founder and leader of the Peniel, makes his way across the car park, keeping a close eye on me. I stick out like a sore thumb in my casual clothes amid the suits and matching separates. The service is about to begin.

Bishop Reid's Peniel Pentecostal Church has occupied this unremarkable corner of Essex for a quarter of a century, steadily growing from a tiny house church made up of a couple of families who used to meet in one another's living rooms to a church with 600 regular worshippers, a high-achieving school for 160 children based in a beautiful Georgian mansion purchased for £1.3m, and a college of higher education offering "accredited" American degree courses from Oral Roberts University (based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and set up by the controversial American evangelist Oral Roberts), with which Peniel has close links.

It has attracted worshippers from all over the country, many of whom have left jobs, sold up and moved down to Pilgrims Hatch to be part of the church. Some arrive in groups, bringing friends and family. Others have come from abroad - the Peniel prides itself on including people from 37 nations among its congregation - and the rest are local, middle-class residents: doctors, dentists, teachers, nurses. Many are tithed, giving 10% of their gross income to the church and making it a wealthy organization; its funds are also boosted by school and college fees.

But as the success and popularity of the Peniel has grown over the years, so has the controversy surrounding the church. Independent churches, particularly successful ones like Peniel, often attract suspicions from outsiders. These suspicions are usually unjustified, says the Evangelical Alliance.

In the Peniel's case there have been allegations - vehemently refuted by the church - that it has some of the characteristics of a cult. A small number of former members have described what in their view was excessive control exercised by the church over its congregation; they have told how they were frightened to leave, and how they were encouraged to cut off contact with family outside.

There is also disquiet about claims of "miracles" at the Peniel. The church's website features testimonials from people who claim to have been cured of everything from eczema and endometriosis to chronic fatigue syndrome and deafness. Last year the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint against the Peniel over an advertisement that claimed a man who had been bedridden and dependent on painkillers for chronic sciatica was able to walk out of church pain-free and had not taken a painkiller since.

After an investigation the ASA said it had found no evidence to back the claims and told the church it was in danger of raising the hopes of vulnerable people. The Peniel appealed, but the complaint was upheld.

Seven years ago the ASA upheld a complaint against a claim made on behalf of a visiting guest speaker, Archbishop Benson Idahosa, who was said to have raised eight people from the dead. Then there are Reid's far-right views - gays are "filthy perverts"; Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are variously described in videoed sermons as "vile" and "foul heathens".

Christians who do not work, Reid said in one recording, should be allowed to starve. He believes in capital punishment, and he would pull the trigger himself; lethal injection is too good for them, he says in one church video. His teachings on the family are not to everyone's taste. Writing in the latest issue of the Peniel's newspaper, Reid says: "Parents have a tremendous responsibility when they have children; fathers have the biggest responsibility, because God has placed them as 'head' of the household, to give leadership to the family by setting the standards." He continues: "In today's society, however, many women have usurped the place that God gave to their husbands." And there have been concerns expressed about the church's attitude toward disciplining children.

"How do you drive something far from a child?" Reid asks in one video of him preaching. "Well you have a stick, and they have a rear end which God caused to be cushioned." Two boys have been given legal aid to pursue claims for personal injuries received as a result of assaults that they allege they received while they were at the church school, Peniel Academy. They claim they were hit with a tennis shoe on several occasions in a procedure known as "paddling".

The Peniel strongly denies the allegations, which it describes as "foul lies". The school used to include corporal punishment as part of its discipline policy, in common with many independent schools at the time.

It was used rarely, under strict guidelines, and only with the consent of parents. But since it was outlawed in private schools last year, it has no longer been used at all.

Anne Brown, the Peniel's spokesperson, denied that Reid encouraged members of his congregation to use corporal punishment. "He has gone on record in the past as saying that if a parent could number the smacks it has given a child on more than the fingers of one hand, they have failed. Michael's view is that parents must be consistent in their dealings with their children.

They must have the courage to say 'no'. There are rare occasions when a smack is necessary, and preferable to the forms of discipline advocated by others, such as locking a child in its room, which he thinks is wrong. He thinks beating a child is never acceptable." The video clip, the church claims, was taken out of context and was meant to be a joke.

The mother of the two boys suing the Peniel is also seeking to recover money she paid into the church in school fees and insurance policies she claims she was encouraged to take out by other members of the church. Reid, a former insurance salesman, has directorships with a number of insurance companies, including Baynes Roland and Macartney &Dowie, and the allegation - again denied by the church - is that worshippers at the Peniel are encouraged to take out insurance with Reid's firms. (One of the firms is advertised in the latest issue of the church newspaper.)

Responding to the allegation, Brown said neither Reid nor any other member of the church leadership had ever pressured people who attend Peniel to buy insurance. "In fact he would take a very dim view of anyone in the church trying to use the congregation as a marketplace for their business, whatever it may be." But perhaps the most intriguing allegation facing the Peniel is that of entryism. The claim, again denied by the church, is that it infiltrated the local Tory party in order to gain political influence in the area.

It is not a new story. It dates back almost three years to January 1998, when 119 members of the Peniel church joined the Pilgrims Hatch branch of the Conservative Association and were voted into key positions within the branch.

The allegation is that Reid, frustrated after a planning application for a school sports hall was turned down by the local council, called on members of his church to join the Tory party so that he might gain some influence within local government.

The church dismisses the claim as "absurd". Conservative Central Office was called in to investigate, but it found nothing amiss - key complainants, however, say that they were not even interviewed when Tory officials visited. The Evangelical Alliance, of which Peniel is a member, has also found that concerns that had been raised were "groundless".

Yes, a number of people from the congregation did join the Tory party, says Brown; not as a coordinated effort to infiltrate the local association, however, but to support a fellow Peniel member, Robin Maillard, who had been active in the party for a number of years in a different constituency before moving to Pilgrims Hatch and intended to stand as a Conservative candidate in the local elections.

"Mr Reid has never suggested that members of the congregation join the Conservative - or any other - party to gain influence in local politics, or for any other reason." The allegations surfaced again last month with the news that Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent who became the independent MP for Tatton, is considering standing as an independent for the safe Tory seat of Brentwood at the next general election. He has received 75 letters from Brentwood constituents, one of whom described it as "a distressed constituency", asking him to stand against the existing Tory 10,000 majority.

"There's obviously a lot of unhappiness in the area. I think that it might be a good opportunity to offer them a fresh start and take party politics out of the equation," said Bell.

The Peniel is likely to remain in the public eye due to a number of pending legal actions involving the church and the Tories. As well as the action for damages detailed above, Bishop Reid and five of his church colleagues are suing a local independent Tory councillor, Tony Galbraith, for alleged libel over a press release he put out; the independent Conservatives are suing the official Conservatives for alleged libel over an election leaflet; and the police are investigating an alleged breach of electoral practice by the independents.

One of the independent Tories expelled from the official party is its former treasurer, Tony Donnelly, who was among those who approached Bell. "The Peniel church is the single largest group in Brentwood and Ongar Conservative Association," says Donnelly. "They have the power to select and deselect the MP or any councillor. My fear is that the Peniel church is not just a church. It also has a political agenda. Their influence over the Conservative party is unhealthy and we've got to do something to stop it."

But according to the Peniel, only five of the 30 members of the executive committee of Brentwood and Ongar Conservative Association attend the church. "Hardly a ruling majority," says Brown.

On the Sunday I visit, Reid and his congregation appear utterly unperturbed by the renewed speculation surrounding their church. Political infiltration? It is so ludicrous that they find it funny. The church is almost full. Inside it is more like a television studio than a church: video cameras are trained from every corner; there are big screens and microphones suspended from the ceiling; there is a photographer on hand; and there is an impressive little band in a special two-tier studio within the church.

When I walk in, an elderly man welcomes me. He takes my hand and holds it for a long time. Then his other hand closes over the top of our two hands and he looks me directly in the eyes, asking me where I come from. Someone lends me a Bible so I can study the passages mentioned by the preachers. The 100-strong choir, resplendent in orange and pink, is awesome. Its members' faces are beatific; they even pogo with enthusiasm.

Everyone is friendly, smiley, keen to strike up conversation. The children are impeccably behaved. They sit quietly throughout the two-hour service, like mini-students in a lecture hall, making careful notes of what Reid says throughout. A little girl with gaps between her teeth and hair escaping from her slides writes down dutifully: "We should stand up for God. Christians should be involved in every area of life." The only child to make any noise - a little boy of about 18 months, dressed in a waistcoat and bow tie - is carried out by his dad, his hand over his son's mouth. Reid pauses as the boy is removed; a little while later he is carried back in, perfectly happy and perfectly quiet.

Reid, once a Young Conservative and a member of the Tory party for many years, is very proud of an interview he has given to Radio 4 on the subject of his church and local politics, which he plays to his flock. In it he denies that his church has taken over the local Tory group. His church, he says, has no political agenda. "I encourage every member to be fully involved in the community. If some of them have political persuasions I encourage them to join any party. I would not encourage one affiliation."

He laughs off the interviewer's suggestion that the Peniel's newspaper, Trumpet Call, which has a print run of 90,000 and is distributed free among MPs, is anti-Blair - despite the latest issue which features a picture of the prime minister on its cover and the headline underneath: "There IS a Better Way!" (In one of his videoed sermons, he describes Blair and socialism as "evil".) "We merely wanted to warn people to the fact that Blair has not kept his word or his promises," Reid explains in his interview. "Any church member should do that. He has not helped the people who live in the country. Many farmers are under terrible financial pressures; some have committed suicide because of the policies of this government. I think we as churchmen should stand up for the people who are oppressed by the government."

The interview is greeted with loud applause. Then Reid says: "Praise God. Amen. God is good - all the time. I don't like the smears and that. But thank God we've got a decent MP." The MP Reid refers to is Eric Pickles, who holds the safe Tory seat of Brentwood and Ongar. He is not a member of the Peniel; he occasionally attends carol services, but denies any link between Reid's church and the Tory party. His press agent, Keith Brown, does, however, worship at the church; he also acts as the Peniel's press agent. "Keith is very good at keeping things separate," says the church's Anne Brown.

Pickles, likewise, rejects any suggestion that there is a link. "Has at any time any member of that church sought to change my views on any thing? The answer is no. Does Keith come and talk to me about the church? The answer is definitely no." His view is that the objections of the independent Tories are nothing to do with a church taking over, but merely an extension of the political infighting that had been going on for some time in the constituency.

There had been a move by Conservative Central Office to galvanise local associations such as Brentwood and Ongar into gaining new members and boosting funds; some long-serving members inevitably felt squeezed out. As for the Peniel and Reid: yes, Reid is a member of the Quota Club, an exclusive Tory dining club for which members pay £1,000 a year (Reid as an individual, not on behalf of the Peniel, Anne Brown points out).

Pickles says he last saw Reid at a civic function in March. He does not share Reid's extreme rightwing views. "All I can do is judge by what the other local churches are saying. The other churches in Brentwood are quite happy to cooperate with him. If they were not happy to cooperate then I think I would be concerned."

Whatever the truth about local politics in Brentwood and Ongar, there are clearly people who believe they have been traumatised by their experience at Peniel, such as Ann Barker, now 33, who went to stay at the church for help with health problems but ran away after four months, fleeing under cover of darkness at five in the morning.

"The reason I ran away was because they would not let me go home. I told them I was unhappy and wanted to go home. They said, 'You are here to stay.' They knew I had no means of going home - no money and no contact with anyone. I had nobody to talk to, to ask, 'How do you get away?' They were all of the same mind. Once somebody comes you stay."

Ten years on she says: "It was a horrendous experience. I can't say they helped me. They would speak to you and say things that are very condemning. They would say, 'You are rebelling. Carry on like this and you will go to hell.' When I ran away, the feeling of relief was absolutely amazing." Or Bill and Jackie Jones (not their real names), who were planning to leave the church. They say they were grilled by senior church members for two hours to encourage them to stay. "People took it too far," says Bill. "They were puppets. They could not think for themselves."

Max Carter, who has known Reid for more than 30 years, moved his family down from Lancashire to join the church, which he left 12 years ago after five years' involvement. "My concerns began to grow because Michael seemed to be influencing people's lives more and more. It's very difficult to see when you are in it. He would say things like, 'You are free to come, you are free to go; the door opens both ways. If you want to go to hell, go.'

"Michael wanted me to get more and more involved, but I did not. We got into repentance. It became a repenting church, hours of repenting, screaming out your sins to God in the church. It really became awful."

The church responds in detail to each of these allegations. "Over a period of 24 years in the life of a church, many people come seeking help for a variety of reasons," says Brown. "Unfortunately there will of course be one or two who we are unable to help, or who do not want the help we can offer." Barker, the church claims, stayed for a short period, seemed to be happier and making progress, but decided Peniel was not for her and left. "It is ludicrous to suggest that we make it difficult for people to leave the church - plenty of people have come and gone in the time since the church was founded.

" Yes, they went through a period of public repentance - but that was over 10 years ago and has not taken place since. There are no miracles on the Sunday I visit. There is no repenting, or screaming out of sins. There is a long address by the Rev Winnie Owiti from Kenya, and just a few words from Reid. There is a collection - even though Reid says he does not believe in collections - for an orphanage in Kenya.

The members of his congregation are generous: they do not just dig deep in their pockets for change; there is a rustle of chequebooks as worshippers write out sums of £40 and £50. Children hand over £5 and £10 notes. Reid looks and sounds a bit like a stand-up comedian; he cracks a few jokes.

There are little digs at the Anglican church and little digs at his wife Ruth, which everyone finds funny. There is tea and coffee afterwards - like any other church - and a flurry of purchases at the Peniel's rather upmarket shop, featuring a wide variety of videos, CDs and books produced by the church's own publishing arm, Alive UK.

Bishop Reid himself is spirited away. He is much too busy for an interview with the Guardian. No, he can not talk to us tomorrow, because the miracle worker has broken his wrist after falling off his mountain bike, and it needs treatment.

Gradually the hall empties. The shiny saloons, people carriers and Jeeps drive off, the automated gates swing shut and - for today at least - peace and quiet return to the Essex countryside.

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