I have got to come to terms with the fact that I've abused my own children," says Bill, matter of factly. Bill Blackmore is a 56-year-old businessman. He has spent the most of his time on Earth waiting for it to be annihilated. Bill is a former Jehovah's Witness. He and his wife Julia have lost their faith. "I'd been having doubts for around 13 years but I was so indoctrinated I didn't leave," says Julia.
They are currently embroiled in a bizarre battle to disentangle themselves from the religion they say has controlled their lives for the last 38 years. The Blackmores have forgone birthdays and Christmases, avoided non-Witness friends, frowned on academic and career success and shut out independent thought. Their 23-year-old son Abel has attempted suicide. They say their former faith must take some of the blame. "It's an abusive system. You don't allow your children to have a normal life. They think the end of the world is coming," says Bill. "They are discouraged from having non-Witness friends and told they are different. If you don't fit the mould it can be hard. Abel didn't fit the mould so easily."
Bill and Julia aren't bitter - they just want out. But walking away is not that easy. The Blackmores are in the process of being expelled from the church and face a lifetime of rejection from the people they looked upon as their closest friends.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society that heads the church was formed in 1884. It promises a place in heaven for 144,000 elite, and paradise on earth for run-of-the-mill Witnesses, or 'The Other Sheep', as they are known. The end of the world has been well-and-truly nigh for more than 100 years. Key dates - like 1975, which was largely touted for the end of the world - have come and gone without so much as a sniff of Armageddon. The Watchtower claims it has never given a definite date for the world's demise. But people around in 1975 tell a different story. "We sold our house and Bill gave up his job because we were told we wouldn't need them," storms Julia. "How dare they claim they didn't say it."
Disobeying the rules results in expulsion - or 'disfellowshipping' as it is known. Wayward Witnesses, such as the Blackmores, are tried in kangaroo court hearings held by church elders. These can be used for any number of transgressions, from smoking to losing your faith. But the rules can change. The latest example being confusion over the permissibility of blood transfusions. Recent press reports claim that the Watchtower has done a U-turn over its ban on the procedure, angering many people whose loved ones have died through adherence to the religion's rules. But the Watchtower insists its stance remains consistent. A spokesman says: "You wouldn't be disfellowshipped if you had a transfusion, but you would be disassociating yourself by putting yourself outside god's law." The disfellowshipped have their names read out in Kingdom Halls (places of worship) and are shunned by other Witnesses, a practice that can have devastating effects. Those brought up in the faith often have no other friends or family to turn to.
"It is actually a very cruel process," says Doug Harris from Reach Out Trust, a Christian-based charity which has been monitoring Witness activity for the last 18 years. "Not only has your whole belief system crumbled, but you have no one to talk to about it. It turns husband against wife and stops grandparents from ever seeing their grandchildren." Shunning can be so serious that one woman took the Watchtower to court in America when none of her friends would speak to her. She lost the case when the court said intervention would be an infringement of religious freedom.
Although the Blackmores have not yet been formally disfellowshipped, they are feeling the effects already. "People who we looked on as our closest friends now have nothing to do with us. It's like the McCarthy trials in America. People thought they would be contaminated by even talking to communists. People believe they are giving up their chance of eternal life by talking to us." "My mates started calling me the Antichrist," says Bill's son Adam, 28, who was disfellowshipped last year for questioning the faith. "People who I thought were my friends wouldn't even look me in the eye. I came to the conclusion that maybe they weren't my real mates after all."
The family business has also collapsed as former friends now refuse to trade with them.
The Blackmores are unusual in that they are challenging the decision to start disfellowship procedures against them. "We have done nothing wrong. We have the right to believe what we believe without being shunned." But for many the strain is too much. One woman who was disfellowshipped for forming a relationship with a non-Witness told The Big Issue: "It was terrible. My own mother would not speak to me. When I got pregnant, I couldn't stand it anymore. I couldn't stand the thought of giving birth without her being there. I had to repent and go back."
Bill tells of another couple who were disfellowshipped for alleged immorality. "They came to Kingdom Hall three times a week for eight years. Everyone ignored them. No one would make eye contact but they just kept coming until the elders decided they were allowed back in again."
The Watchtower refutes any claims of cruelty. "We see ourselves as a family," says a spokesman. "We love one another. If a Witness was truly repentant it would give us great joy." They claim that disfellowshipping is a loving act and that religion needs discipline. They use the Bible to back up their claims: "Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard." 1 Corinthians 5:11.
"It's very clever. They tell you you're elite and special and that's why other people don't like you," says one former Witness. "You're kept very busy with meetings and spreading the word so there's no time to think. Questioning the faith is a big taboo. In the end I decided I wanted a life with questions I couldn't answer rather than a life with questions I wasn't allowed to ask."
The Blackmores are still trying to fill the hole left by their religion. "When I look back," says Julia. "I just think, 'Where were our brains?'"
For support and information, see:
www.welcome.to/witnesscd, or http://members.xoom.com/ WitnessAidUK/index.html. Call The Reach Out Trust on 0208-332 7785, or see www.reachouttrust.org. The official Jehovah's Witness site is www.watchtower.org
Note: A few comments from Bill Blackmore on the above article in the interests of accuracy:
As with most media articles there are a couple of mistakes in the above. Bill is 52 years old. Abel is 28 years old. The Blackmore's loss of faith is not a loss of faith in God, the Bible, or Bible based Christianity, but in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society - the cult most people know as Jehovah's witnesses. The selling of their home and change of employment pre-1975 was not as a result of direct instructions given them by the Society. It was a response to the general expectations within the organisation at the time - expectations fuelled by the Society's literature and encouraged by its official representatives around the world. (July 30, 2000)