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In troubled ACNA church, alleged ‘spiritual hazing’ pressured members to conform

Former members of Church of the Resurrection, headquarters of the Upper Midwest Diocese in the ACNA, say its leadership used spiritual language to force them to conform.

Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Image courtesy of Google Maps

(RNS) — When John and Jenna Perrine first attended Church of the Resurrection’s acclaimed Easter Vigil in 2014, the high-octane service was everything they were looking for in a church: spirit-filled and Bible-based but centered on ancient liturgy. When they had fulfilled their leadership commitments at their non-denominational megachurch in 2017, they returned, eager to join the dynamic church in Wheaton, Illinois, known as “Rez.” 

The couple soon launched their training as church planters at Rez, which belongs to the Anglican Church in North America, a small denomination that spun off from the Episcopal Church USA a decade ago, largely in response to the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages.

But after three years of what they call “spiritual hazing,” the couple was left financially, professionally and spiritually devastated.

The Perrines are two of 21 people who told Religion News Service in recent interviews that they were spiritually abused at Resurrection, which is the seat of ACNA’s Upper Midwest Diocese.

Though initially formed by dissenting Episcopalians, ACNA has shown modest growth over its decade of existence. Though data is sparse, the churches that have prospered most seem to be those founded since the split.

But ACNA’s decentralized structure allows for a range of theology among its 28 dioceses. Some permit the ordination of women, though they may not be bishops anywhere. Its churches near Chicago have drawn faculty and students from evangelical Wheaton College and editors from Christianity Today magazine.

Its newer dioceses, such as the Upper Midwest and others that make a priority of planting new churches, at least anecdotally appear to attract migrants from charismatic traditions and nondenominational churches, according to Jeremy Bonner, an honorary fellow at Durham University who has studied ACNA’s growth. 

It was Rez’s combination of charismatic preaching and dramatic liturgy with priests wearing traditional robes and reading from the Book of Common Prayer that attracted the Perrines. But they found that the evangelical-Episcopal culture came with severe requirements to conform.

“The more you become involved in leadership, the more you’re encouraged to distrust anything outside of Rez’s orbit,” said former Rez parishioner Whitney Harrison. “There is a kind of blind submission to authority present at Rez that, in my understanding of the broader Anglican world, is not standard.”

According to Harrison, only those willing to submit to authority were invited into church leadership.

An anonymous former parishioner said, “I remember thinking, this is starting to feel a little bit more like a, I don’t want to say personality cult, but more of a rallying around a particular leader, in this case (Bishop) Stewart’s charisma.”

Former members also said church leaders pressured them to stay in abusive relationships, subjected them to conversion therapy and denied them leadership positions for voicing criticism. They describe a culture of censorship and controlling behavior, all packaged in overtly spiritual language.

Bishop Stewart Ruch III. Photo via ChurchRez.org

Bishop Stewart Ruch III. Photo via ChurchRez.org

The Upper Midwest diocese Bishop Stewart Ruch III, who has been rector at Rez since 1999 and became bishop in 2013, took a leave of absence in July after admitting to “regrettable errors” in handling sexual abuse allegations in the diocese. At least two lay leaders he oversaw have been accused of sexual abuse since 2019, and one has been charged with felony child sexual abuse and assault.

On Aug. 28, ACNA announced the eight members of a Provincial Response Team that will oversee an investigation into the diocese’s handling of the allegations. A day later, a letter from ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach said the investigation would be expanded to include “additional allegations regarding abuse of power within the Diocese.”

Former church members say the allegations are an indictment of an authoritarian culture that originated with Ruch.

“There’s this emphasis on the supernatural that enforces specifically the authority of Bishop Stewart in his position of speaking for the Holy Spirit,” said Harrison. “Whether deliberately or not, it is set up to support the idea that Bishop Stewart is the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit to this church.”

The diocese responded to the allegations of spiritual abuse in an email to RNS, saying, “The Diocese supports the Province undertaking a review of the diocese’s internal structures. We are thankful for a denominational structure that provides appropriate channels for parishioners and staff to resolve issues as they arise in the Parish, Diocese, and Province. We seek to learn how we can improve accountability, communication channels, and support for the benefit of all our parishioners, our churches, and our leaders.”


RELATED: With abuse allegations, conservative Anglican diocese faces questions about structure


Jack Bates began attending Rez with his then wife and son in 2016, shortly after coming out as bisexual. Bates said that on his first Sunday at Rez, Ruch assured him that he’d found a safe place as a queer person. Bates quickly grew to love the liturgy at Rez, and after a year and a half, decided to join the church.

Bates began meeting regularly with Father Brett Crull and Dean Val McIntyre, head of pastoral care at Rez, to begin what Bates said they called his “path to healing.” Bates said McIntyre and Crull told him to cut off contact with all other queer people and to rely on the church as his support network.

Jack Bates as his drag queen persona Rhea Billy Tatum. Photo courtesy of Bates

Jack Bates. Photo courtesy of Bates

“They didn’t want me to have any relationships or influences that weren’t under their control,” he said. Bates said Crull instructed him to stop painting his nails, dressing in soft fabrics and wearing pink.

“On a number of occasions, meeting alone with Val or Brett, they tried to do exorcisms on me, told me I had demons inside me, told me those demons were the reasons I was attracted to men,” said Bates. “If those demons were to be cast out, I would be ‘cured’ and would be straight.”

Bates said McIntyre and Crull also pressured his wife to have an exorcist come to their house to cast out demons they said were terrorizing their son. “The leadership at Rez encouraged her to see me as a sort of villain, as the sole cause of the tensions and strains that we’d been experiencing since I came out,” he said.

Crull and McIntyre declined to respond to request for comment.

Bates began to see McIntyre’s and Crull’s interventions — which he now identifies as conversion therapy — as spiritually abusive. When he asked Ruch to weigh in, the bishop, in an email Bates shared with RNS, praised Crull and said “the perspectives he’s shared with you are ones that I hold to as well.”

Bates said he eventually did meet with Ruch, who asked Bates to stop calling himself bisexual, submit to authority and to reject the “spirits of homosexuality” inside him. When Bates refused, he said, Ruch became agitated and claimed to be speaking on behalf of God.

When Bates told Ruch in March 2018 that he was leaving the church, he said Ruch forbade Bates from telling church members the reason for his departure. Ruch did not respond to request for comment. Bates is now a member at an Episcopal church.

Leanne Payne, founder of the healing prayer organization Pastoral Care Ministries, was heavily involved in the early years at Church of the Resurrection. She was affiliated with the ex-gay movement, and her book, “Crisis of Masculinity,” says gay and lesbian individuals have a “cannibal compulsion” that desires others of their sex to fulfill their own unaffirmed masculinity or femininity. McIntyre worked with Payne for 13 years.

“The hallmarks of her teachings have really imprinted themselves on everything that Rez does,” Harrison said of Payne. “She taught that masculinity and femininity were archetypal and that healing prayer would help people achieve true womanhood and manhood.”

In a statement to RNS, Church of the Resurrection said: “The church, Diocese, and Province affirm the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman and the importance of fidelity to the vows of marriage. Our practice with couples who express marital difficulties is to recommend they remain faithful to their marriage vows and seek professional counseling.”

In 2017, Ruch and his wife, Katherine, launched a sermon series on gender and sexuality called Fully Alive. Harrison said the series taught congregants that Rez’s version of masculinity and femininity was an essential part of their identity as God’s image bearers and was part of the church’s “rollout into complementarianism” after the departure of former church leaders Karen and Kevin Miller, who, Harrison says, had a “more egalitarian outlook on things.”

After the series began, Harrison said, there was a shift toward “prioritizing of gender roles in all aspects of theology, combined with a need for anyone in leadership to adhere and conform to a very specific mold of what a leader looked like.”

Given that shift, the Perrines were an unusual choice for leadership at Rez. They saw themselves as equal partners, and when, in 2017, John was the only one to receive training for the church planting residency, Jenna asked how she could pursue her ministry calling. Church leaders, the couple said, put their residency on hold for nearly two months.

But Jenna continued to seek a leadership role, and each time they questioned the structure of the residency, they were shut down, the Perrines said. In an email to RNS, John wrote that many in church leadership, including Katherine Ruch, told Jenna that her call to ministry and to work professionally would change when she became a mother.

“It felt like all of our previous ministry experience was unimportant, our education almost needed to be deprogrammed and reprogrammed,” said Jenna. At the time she was at Rez, Jenna was a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in mental health counseling and years of ministry leadership experience.

John said that after two years of church planting training, Ruch pressured him to take an assistant pastor position at an existing church in Chicago. When pressed, according to John, Ruch said it had been decided that John was too spiritually immature to church plant. The Perrines joined Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago in 2019.


RELATED: Alleged victims say ACNA church leaders failed to acknowledge their abuse allegations


The Perrines said that the church’s rector, Aaron Damiani, suggested Jenna as a great fit for Immanuel’s paid worship leader position, and the head of the hiring committee said the application process was only a formality. Jenna said she declined another job offer to apply. 

From left, Bishop Stewart Ruch III, John and Jenna Perrine, and then church rector Aaron Damiani stand together for a photo when the Perrine’s were still attending the Church of the Resurrection. Photo courtesy of Jenna Perrine

From left, Bishop Stewart Ruch III, John and Jenna Perrine, and Aaron Damiani, rector at Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago. Photo courtesy Jenna Perrine

But after an intensive two-month audition, the job was given to another candidate. When John said he told Damiani they felt misled, the pastor told John that if he prayed about the decision, God would assure him that he needed to accept it.

In an email to RNS, Damiani said, “Our hiring practice for senior staff roles involves delegating staffing decisions to an appropriate ministry team. The church’s search process is rigorous, including an initial screening, interviews, and auditions for worship leaders. The ministry team then selects the candidate they believe is the best person for the position. As a matter of procedure, I make the final approval.”

In a follow-up meeting at the Ruchs’ house, Stewart Ruch allegedly instructed John to apologize to Damiani for questioning his decision, suggested John was idolizing church planting and said he and Jenna were too dependent on one another in their marriage. Ruch did not address the Perrine’s concerns about the hiring decision.

The Perrines realized they could no longer work in the Upper Midwest Diocese but offered to stay on at Immanuel through the summer. Parish leaders instructed the Perrines not to tell Rez or Immanuel why they were leaving as a condition for receiving severance.

“The only reason we had to depart was that we questioned the structure and authority system with constructive concerns. And it was always pushed back on us as a reflection of spiritual immaturity on our part to question the system,” said John. “By the end, we were told we were leaving because we were the problem.”

After three years, the Perrines, now parents, left for Ireland in February 2020, burdened with an expensive lease in Chicago and no source of income. But the spiritual impact was perhaps even more devastating.

“I think they really do believe they’re doing the work of God,” said Jenna. “And that’s where it’s dangerous. If you’re speaking on behalf of God, it’s really hard for people to separate the two. And the last year has been a lot of painful work around trying to decipher what was God and what was Stewart.”

This article has been updated.