In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s biography of her father, Roger Stott. He was a leading figure in the Exclusive Brethren, leaving the movement in 1970 when he was in his early 30’s, and when Rebecca herself was just 5. His story was pieced together after his death in 2007. The book won the author the Costa Biography Award in 2017. It illustrates the power of a religious community to damage people profoundly.
The story is told sympathetically, in spite of the author’s painful childhood experiences, both before and after her father’s break with the Exclusive Brethren. He struggled to come to terms with a deep sense of bereavement after parting company with a community which had shaped his whole life until that point. He stopped believing in God. He became a compulsive gambler, drinking heavily. His marriage fell apart. He was convicted of embezzling money from the company he worked for and spent time in prison.
Stott is portrayed as a victim as much as a villain. Bullied by his own father, he was compelled as a child to submit to the strict discipline of the Exclusive Brethren and to keep apart from the world beyond its borders. In spite of its privations, it did not prevent him taking up a place at Cambridge University to read English Literature. The broadening of his intellectual life that resulted from this did not lead to a loosening or breaking of ties with the Brethren, rooted as they were in deep and long-standing family bonds. In fact, no “loosening” was possible – you were either in or out.
The 1960’s were a time of increasing rigour and extremism among the Exclusive Brethren, under the global leadership of James Taylor, the “Man of God”. Stalinist purges took place within the movement and the demands made of its members to live separately from others multiplied. Stott and his family were trapped in a system of close personal ties, dogma and religious practice that demanded discipline and loyalty.
The end eventually came when Taylor was exposed for being drunk, foul-mouthed and sleeping with another man’s wife at a Brethren meeting in Aberdeen. Stott was shaken and bewildered. For a while he continued to preach at “Non-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren” gatherings, but within a few years abandoned Christianity altogether and began a steady decline into compulsive gambling, drinking, debt, criminality and the neglect of his family.
Roger Stott’s story may be seen by some to illustrate the destructiveness of any religious belief. The Exclusive Brethren, however, were a small religious cult quite untypical of religious groups in general. But there are similar cults in existence, and probably always have been, in most if not all religious traditions, and in that sense it is a warning about the destructive potential of religion.
The story is better seen as an illustration of the immense power of religious faith to inspire devotion and loyalty, and to create community. It is hard for those who deny the validity of any kind of religious faith to explain the source of this power. There is something about our human condition that longs for the transcendent; that thirsts for God. Extreme religion, for all its potential to do harm, reveals how deep-seated this longing is. Religious faith needs to be acknowledged as important and brought into the open, to be talked about in a serious way. Destructive extremism is fostered in a closed, exclusive environment where it is not exposed to challenge or debate. The more religion is relegated to the margins or ignored, the more dangerous it is likely to be.
In the Days of Rain also demonstrates processes that encourage extremism. The author describes the power of a close community to control the emotions and behaviour of individuals within it. Within such an environment people’s freedom to think, to explore ideas and to make decisions for themselves can be restricted or even stolen from them. It is not only religious communities that are guilty of this, of course. If this is to be avoided, communities need to encourage their members to think for themselves.
Another force in the growth of extremism is the role of the charismatic leader. A frequent feature of dysfunctional communities is a leader whose authority is accepted without question. The leader’s status is identified with the welfare of the community as a whole, so that to question it is seen as profoundly threatening. To prevent this, the community needs to develop a strong sense of its own identity, quite apart from the personalities that rise within it, and that can survive their departure.
Reading Rebecca Stott’s book would benefit anyone preparing for ministry or leadership in the Church.
Peter Shepherd (February 2018)