Ghostworld of the excommunicated

I died on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012.

Time was called at a little after 8 o'clock in the evening.

"Rory Sullivan is no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses."

I had been sick for at least a decade prior to my passing, but it had not always been that way. For many years I was fit, healthy, and strong. I had grown to be a man qualified to teach and lead. Ten years ago, however, I was infected with a debilitating illness. It was diagnosed as a sympathy toward worldly psychology, but in reality it was a gradually dawning realisation that any lasting spiritual healing could only come from the inside out. Such thinking began to bleed in to my congregation ministry enough that eventually the local body of elders took issue and decided to let me go as an appointed man.

I worked hard to self-manage my condition. At one point I showed all the signs of a remarkable recovery, right up to the point that I was asked to serve again as an elder, but it was all a wicked deception. The disease had taken root at too deep a level. After eighteen months the sickness resurfaced, and I went in to rapid decline.

I had lost all confidence in the body of men self-appointed to oversee the organisation. It seemed contradictory to me that an organisation could lay claim to a monopoly on the truth while at the same time being less than honest themselves. I was only just learning that the Watchtower Society has not always presented its history accurately. Anything questionable written in earlier literature is carelessly brushed aside with a gesture, "The light is getting brighter." Past "mistakes" become those that the Lord has permitted. I couldn't understand why he would do that. Why would he condone years of his spokesman declaring something as truth which could potentially endanger the lives of his flock, or damage their faith, only to have it later revoked? When is it the operation of God's holy spirit, and when is it merely the whims of men? How can you claim not to be infallible and yet insist on calling your teachings "the truth"?

There was no point in going to the spiritual doctors about matters like these. There was no cure. There would just be encouragement to keep taking the medication - Bible-reading, preaching, meetings, prayer - anything to push those pernicious doubts back in to the darkness. By then I knew that it was too late. The walls were crumbling. Nothing was standing up under close scrutiny. It was all superficial nonsense anyway. The fact is, I was finally waking up. I was beginning to see myself clearly for the first time, and these men who had insinuated themselves into my life were just getting in the way. They were not a help, they were a hindrance, and I wanted nothing more to do with them.


Eventually Kate steeled herself for the inevitable question. The moment came. It was night, and the children had been put to bed. I heard her footfall on the bedroom floor. She creaked down the stairs and I braced myself for what I knew was coming. She entered the room, dark save only for the chilly blue glow of the computer screen. I felt her beside me.

"Are you going to die?"

"I think so."

She broke down in tears and I offered empty words of reassurance. Shortly after that I stopped all congregation activities. I was already refusing to report my field ministry, but now I ceased to go out preaching altogether. I stopped attending the meetings at the Kingdom Hall.

The qualified men sought advice and were told that even though I would not accept orthodox treatment I was imposing a sort of self-quarantine, and so they could leave me be and allow the sickness to follow its own course. Time would tell if it was benign or malignant.

In this inactive state all things become unsettled. Associating with others becomes stilted and unnatural. There is a phone-call or two. Promises of visits that never materialise. The community is kept very busy, and quite frankly, if you're not well enough to pitch in and help out, you have only yourself to blame.

Social gatherings are particularly awkward. There is a distinct atmosphere: They wonder why you are there. If you haven't done the work, why should you be entitled to the rewards? The well don't quite know how to handle the sick. The expectation of death hangs in the air. They are preparing themselves for the inevitable. They make comments like, "What are we to do with you?" and "It breaks my heart." There are furtive glances, a curled lip of displeasure, voices dropped to a whisper, enforced cheeriness when accosted, all the time the concern that what the sick one has might be catching.

Some are optimistic, but conversation is pregnant, all a prelude to the expected question, "When are you going to be back with us?" I can't tell them I don't think I ever will be. I don't need the final curtain to come down before its time. So I lie, and say, "I don't know," or "Never say 'never'..." or some other specially prepared phrase - sometimes it's just a shrug and a half smile - and they are a little deflated and touch me on the back or arm and shrink away and the conversation is over. One thing is a given: At all costs, don't talk about the illness. Only those who have the required qualifications are best placed to talk about such things. For anyone else, leave well alone.

Kate begins to go through a sort of grieving process. It starts when the disease is diagnosed as being terminal. Now she is angry, feeling guilty, blaming herself - perhaps there was something more she could have done, things she should not have done; now she is bargaining with God, pleading for him to show her a sign; now she is blaming me: "You knew what you were getting in to, why have you changed your mind now?" It is impossible to reason with her and be heard. Newcomers are only ever made familiar with a sanitised version of the Society's history. Furthermore, the set of beliefs you joined up with may not be the same a few years later. The organisation is allowed to change around you, and you are expected to change with it, but one is not permitted to change independent of the Society - not without serious repercussions. It is likened to Eve's rebellious eating of the fruit, the frightening punishment for which is expulsion from the "spiritual paradise".

She blames me for not doing more to keep healthy, for not declaring my illness earlier. Perhaps they could have done something before it was too late. But what was the point of arguing with the elders over things like failed prophecies and changing doctrines? I knew what the answer would be: "They are imperfect men...mistakes were made in their eagerness for the end to come...the light is getting brighter..." How could I explain that a dam had burst deep inside of me, and the rushing waters had washed away all the sand upon which my house of faith was built, and that this was a good thing? It was futile. I was a lost cause, a dead man walking. It was only a matter of time.


The sudden discovery of an alarming new symptom sent the qualified men into a flurry of activity. Some of them had found out I had a website and had been writing about my spiritual views and publishing them for all the world to see. To begin with they had tried to ignore it, but for some unexplained reason it eventually came to the attention of the other elders. Now that it had become impossible to ignore the qualified men met to discuss my condition. It didn't matter that nobody had read or been affected by my writings, it was all about the "what-if".

We talked briefly about my misgivings, but they were only really concerned with knowing if I was willing to accept their particular course of treatment. I wasn't, and after consulting with head office they agreed that there was nothing more they could do for me. The final diagnosis was "apostasy" - in other words, I had become mentally diseased. Because they feared the disease was contagious, and lethal, they saw no option but to exterminate the carrier. 2 Timothy 2:16-18 was used to prove that the spread of gangrene must be stopped:
But shun empty speeches that violate what is holy; for they will advance to more and more ungodliness, and their word will spread like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of that number. These very [men] have deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already occurred; and they are subverting the faith of some.
The rich irony of this scriptural judgement was completely lost on them. The Watchtower Society have been declaring that the resurrection has been occurring since 1918. "On this one basic point," declares The Watchtower of April 1, 1986, "What [Hymenaeus and Philetus] were teaching as to the time of the resurrection, Paul rightly branded them as apostates, with whom faithful Christians would not fellowship."

They tell me I only have a week to live.

At the end of seven days, they pull the switch.


I choose not to be present for the announcement - not everyone appreciates an open casket. There is an audible gasp. At the end of the meeting members of the congregation descend upon Kate and offer their condolences and words of consolation. One or two even weep. Afterwards she goes with some of them for a meal, like a sort of wake. She gets sympathy cards. She is a Watchtower widow.

Even though my death is expected, the announcement of my passing still hits Kate hard. However, she will pass through it, it will hurry her through to the last stage of grief - acceptance - and she can then settle back in to some sort of normalcy. There will always be a hole, but she will manage. I try to embrace her, but it is as if we are not in the same room. We do not occupy the same space. For now I am an apparition, barely visible.

Life is punctuated by other-worldly experiences as I drift by people that I know from the congregation. I drive by someone's house as she is loading her car. Everything slips in to silent slow motion as she looks up as if brushed by something uncanny. I pass someone I know sitting on a public bench and she looks at where I would have been, a small sad smile playing about her lips.

I don't see many in town. It could be that I am seen first and avoided. When I do happen upon someone, the reaction is all too common: Embarrassment, not knowing where to look, a hesitant step betraying an overwhelming desire to walk in the opposite direction. If I am somehow spotted, a spectre taken shape, I must be avoided at all costs, head down, or turned. If there is enough time, a road can be crossed. I know that if I was to try to make contact there would be a look of terror, or great pity. One or two forget - a big smile and vigorous wave from a car, or headlights flashed as I drive by - and I know that these will go on to reassure themselves that their merciful and loving God will overlook their momentary forgetfulness.

Would you believe it but the first people we bump in to after my expulsion is the family of my friend who was my best man at our wedding. We are shopping in a neighbouring town, and suddenly there they are. In these situations there is an unspoken protocol to be observed: Before approaching a Watchtower widow one must assess the situation from a safe distance. Is the widow carrying the burden of her dead husband? When it is determined that a reasonable moment has arisen, approach with caution. The conversation is low, the group huddled. The concern will be that reserved for the lost and lonely, the bereaved. "So sorry for your loss, we were shocked to hear...How are you coping? Is everything all right?" I drift around just beyond the periphery. No looks are needed. They know where I am and will sense whether I am straying too close. I turn my back for an instant, and they are gone. A little later we surprise the wife. My presence gives her a cold chill down her back. She grimaces at Kate and hurries off. They will have to leave the shop. They might even abandon the town.

Soon after my demise I bid a heartfelt farewell to my close working companion of twelve years. Even though he has no real qualms about continuing to work with me he cannot risk the disapproval of his fellow elders, and the possibility of upsetting members of his congregation. Now that I am a corpse, I must not be touched. If any of the living lay their hands on me too often they run the risk of losing their own lives. Although the organisation teaches that Israelite Law was nailed to the cross along with the Christ, in reality it is still very much alive and kicking. Apostasy is the worst sort of disease, most contagious. Even the qualified men are warned against any close contact. Each year the elders are encouraged to visit disfellowshipped people in the territory, and apostates are not included on this list.

Lapsed Witnesses are also considered to be at risk from contamination. Elders feel duty bound to act as inter-congregational informants, and local bodies of elders have been known to be particularly (un)scrupulous in dealing with deliberate absentees. On one occasion I return to the Kingdom Hall to attend a funeral. A companion of mine is there. He has not been active in the religion for a while, but still we must avoid acknowledging one another.

That funeral is a strange and sad affair. Right there on their home territory, passing among these people - men, women, and children I have known for twenty years - who must now act as if I do not exist. Eye contact is conspicuously avoided. Eye contact could betray true feelings - compassion, friendship, a yearning to smile, greet, or embrace. I can't even get the attention of the one sitting behind me in order to borrow a songbook, so I just remove it like a poltergeist.

I sing like an angel. They might not be able to see me, or talk to me, but they will be able to hear me - a voice from the afterlife. For one or two, it is simply too much. They can not bear to ignore me. A light touch on the arm, a whispered, "Lovely to see you..." Perhaps there is hope for some.

What is very sad is knowing that natural affection is being suppressed. Occasionally around town I catch a member of the congregation suddenly seeing me. At first there is an instinctive look of recognition and a smile, but almost immediately this is followed by a set expression and a bowed, defiant head, as they remember the way I should be treated now that I have entered a disfellowshipped state.

Even sadder is the subtle instructing of children in the ways of hatred. To see young boys and girls casting shy glances, but knowing that they have been primed - "We don't talk to so-and-so any more" - and they meekly go along with it. This despite the fact that children are not strictly bound by congregation law and are free to interact with the expelled should they choose to. But the grown-ups aren't so keen on them exercising this freedom. They get uneasy and hurry them along. Being so young, children can't really understand why someone should be ignored and avoided, but this is simply one of those facts of life they will have to come to terms with, until the spirit fades from their vision too.

Sometimes I happen upon Kate quietly weeping, the bathroom door locked, stifled sobs coming from within. Her grief is understandable. By default, the widowed wife is subjected to the same isolation as the deceased husband. Her house has become a mausoleum. It is too risky to visit. The path leading to our house rounds a blind corner, the front door part of a glass conservatory, and there is every possibility I might be sitting right there. Visitors could easily be caught off guard - a faltering step, a self-conscious laugh, stiff formalism, a visit cut short. Few enter beyond the thresh-hold. Most conversations are made hurriedly at the door accompanied by cautious glances over shoulders. Telephone conversations are quickly reduced to formal passing on of information. All social niceties are dispensed with.

The decision to expel me has stripped our marriage of a potentially valuable avenue of conversation. The extensive Talmudic notes on the subject of excommunication - those oral laws pencilled in to the margin that are not specifically stated in the scriptures, but become just as binding - state that no spiritual matters may be discussed with a disfellowshipped partner. By extension this would include philosophy, psychology, politics, and any other subject which might have a tendency to slip in to the spiritual. The laws of the Society hang like a shadow over our relationship rendering it monochromatic. Of course the marriage suffers as a result. It can no longer be a full and healthy relationship. We now move in two completely separate circles.

Once Kate said, "Talk to me about it. Maybe we'll come with you..." But we both know these are just words of desperation. Conversations like this are rarely successful. Ultimately, an overwhelming realisation must well up irresistibly from within, and it would take nothing short of a miracle for this to happen to Kate. Born and raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, an extravert who needs the love and approval of others, the only people she knows are Jehovah's Witnesses. As well as the huge embarrassment it would be to admit the religion could be wrong, there is too big a risk of losing ones friends and family. These can appear to be insurmountable barriers to overcome in one's own strength alone. It can only be accomplished with a complete over-turning of one's self-image, and that is not a road that many are prepared to go down.

For those who are ready to venture down that road, it is true that there are sacrifices to be made, and wandering this ghostworld of the excommunicated can certainly be a sad and surreal experience at times. However, if one is to live with any sort of love, integrity, and freedom from contradiction, it is a sacrifice well worth making.