It would be hard to think of a bleaker year in recent English history than 1974. It was an angry, frightened time: revolution was in the air. Strikes were rife. Prices were soaring daily. The top rate of income tax had been increased to 83% in an Emergency Budget. A low to mid-level civil war was spilling across from Northern Ireland to the mainland. Even America seemed to be falling apart, with defeat in Vietnam and the resignation of its president.
The north of England had once been rich, even in living memory. Not so long ago, Ossett had been confident and optimistic. But by the 1970’s, two world wars and decades of industrial decline had hollowed out its industries to the point of collapse. The town had barely emerged from the three-day week as it blinked and stuttered into another winter. It would be dark at 4pm, with the kids never knowing if the lights would stay on through the night.
Amid the scowling militants and gloomy corner shop owners, one would hardly have noticed Michael Taylor. He was a polite, quiet man, a loyal husband to Christine, and the proud dad of their boys; Michael, 12, Bobby, 10, Mark, 9, David, 8, and Christopher, 6. All those boys would be hard work for anyone. Still, Michael was a good dad, and doting of the shy and chubby Christine. He had a spot of back trouble, which had sometimes affected his ability to work, operating agricultural machinery, but that was about the worst of his problems. Everyone commented on how much the Taylors were in love. Describing their relationship, Michael’s father later said, “They were still courting throughout their marriage." Money was sometimes tight, but no wonder, with all those mouths to feed. And there was the dog. Christine owned a poodle, on which she doted. Sometimes Michael would tease her that she loved that ridiculous creature more than she loved him. No, the Taylors weren’t materially wealthy, but they were rich enough. It was a happy household, full of laughter. “Mild-mannered”, the press called Michael later, and they were right.
There is no evidence that either of the Taylors had ever been religiously inclined. Later, some friends recalled that when the subject came up by chance, Michael said that they found the ceremony and rituals of church services off-putting. But really, they didn’t feel strongly either way. It was hard to even remember the conversation.
Perhaps the Taylors did feel some spiritual stirring, for in September 1974 Michael and Christine were persuaded by their friend and neighbour Barbara Wardman to attend a meeting of the Gawber Christian Fellowship Group. Barbara, a teacher, had been attending the Fellowship for some time. It was wonderful, she told the Taylors. In a time of bad news and misery, in an age of materialism when everyone seemed to be out for themselves, the group offered some hope and friendship, the chance to share some joy, a sense that there was more to life than the mere ownership of things. They should try it, Barbara urged. Why, she could give them a lift. It was only a short drive, a part of the St Thomas’s Anglican church near Barnsley, about eight miles away from Ossett.
Though Michael and Christine were unaware, in recent years St Thomas’s church had undergone a revolutionary doctrinal change. Under the leadership of the new vicar, the Reverend Peter Vincent, St Thomas’s had become infused with the new Charismatic belief system. Services were quite unlike the old and rigid format of traditional Church of England worship: they were spontaneous, musical, intensely emotional crowd events. The Charismatics emphasised the work of the Holy Spirit in everyday life, and the importance of the personal "born-again" conversion experience. They practiced “speaking in tongues” and healing through faith in addition to preaching a strict theology, which contained traditional ideas like the Virgin Birth, Resurrection and Trinity, as well as the reality of Hell and a living Devil. These churches believed that the simple, the only qualification of being a Christian was whether a person could say he had been “born again”. (John 3:3 “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”). If so, that person had “a personal relationship” with God. This was no religious metaphor. God and the Devil were not conceptual, moral entities, but living beings.
As it turned out, the house meetings that Barbara Woodman attended were led by a young lay preacher called Marie Robinson. The Taylors were happily surprised at the meeting. The fellowship welcomed them with open arms. Everyone there seemed so honest and supportive, so eager to get to know them. The fellowship members weren’t weird or stuck up. They were ordinary folk; just like the Taylors - housewives, schoolteachers, forklift operators, bookkeepers, builder’s merchants, and council workers. There were no fussy rituals to understand or hymn books to follow. Everyone was allowed to speak and pray and sing. There was plenty of joy and laughter in the air. And Barbara was right - the fellowship’s message of personal salvation did strike a powerful chord with the Taylors, especially with Michael. At that very first house meeting under Marie Robinson’s guidance, they converted to Christianity.
Very soon Michael and Christine were valued members of the Christian Fellowship Group and the Taylor’s house became an additional venue for the house meetings. Over the next few weeks, inspired by Marie Robinson, the previously quiet and non-religious Michael began regularly to speak in tongues at the Fellowship (1).
Leaning on his spiritual mentor in these first few days of religious bliss, Michael grew close to Marie Robinson. She was a vivacious and articulate Evangelical Christian, glowing with the passion of her faith, delighted that Michael and Christine should have converted in her fellowship group, and eager to instruct. It was perhaps understandable that the fellowship leader and her ardent new convert should want to spend time together. But somewhere along this highly charged spiritual pathway, Michael started to experience feelings towards the twenty-two year old Marie of a more worldly nature.
There is a snap of Marie taken outside the courtroom at the later inquest in Wakefield. In the picture she is turning to face the press, grinning sassily and touching her floppy, wide-brimmed hat in a provocative, model-like gesture. For what must have been a depressing and harrowing experience, it was a confident show. Marie Robinson, in other words, was sexy. And she was giving Michael a lot of her attention.
Later Marie described herself as “just a normal Jesus freak”. Perhaps so, but she was no stranger to confrontation with the occult, having “taken part at several exorcisms, or been present at them”. She had been there when the Reverend Vincent had expelled one or two exceptionally violent demons. Exorcisms were au fond traumatic experiences. Marie didn’t mind. She liked them.
Whatever their nature, Michael’s feelings towards the young lay preacher grew stronger. Barbara Wardman related that when she called at the Taylors’ house sometime shortly after his conversion, she found Michael with his arms on Marie’s shoulders. To Barbara it seemed that that there was a strange atmosphere in the room. Right in front of her, Michael told Marie that; “he loved her with a Christian love – a love that could hurt no one.” Barbara found this declaration slightly unsettling, but she said nothing.
It was during a meeting at the Taylor’s house on the night after this encounter that Marie made a botched exorcism attempt. From all accounts it was a terrible experience. Fellowship was often a time when emotions ran high. Members often used the group as a mutual support system, a chance to pour out their troubles and seek fraternal Christian advice. So there was nothing odd about the mood of heightened emotional intensity in the Taylor’s modest living room that night. It seems that one of the older single women in the fellowship, a lady called Mavis Smith, had been depressed during the previous few weeks. Liberated by the heady mood of the meeting, Mavis’s problems came to the surface; during prayers the poor thing started sobbing, quietly and steadily. It says much about the Charismatic outlook that rather than seeking the causes of Mavis’s problems, or even asking her if there was anything they could be praying about on her behalf, Marie seems to have made a snap judgment that the phenomenon was evil, invasive and must be cast out. She therefore moved to exorcise the woman.
“In retrospect and with hindsight, I know this was wrong.” Marie said later. She described what happened. “I started shaking. I’m not a nervous person, so in me it meant the power of the Holy Spirit was within me.” For the already fragile Mavis, the sight of the lay preacher advancing towards her, juddering like an epileptic, was utterly unnerving. But now Marie made contact, laying hands upon Mavis to commence the exorcism. Marie told the Wakefield inquest, with typical understatement, “I laid my hands on her and prayed… I think I prayed in tongues because I didn’t want her to know what I was praying for. She showed great animosity directed straight at me. I thought she hated me.” Mavis reacted viciously, even violently to Marie’s assault, and from all accounts the confrontation between the two was genuinely disturbing, with Marie screaming about demons and Mavis trying to fight her off.
“Great animosity”, indeed.
Poor Mavis wasn’t the only one scarred by the horror of the aborted exorcism. The freshly converted Taylors, under whose roof it had occurred, were new to this brand of lunacy – they were deeply affected. The Taylor’s started to see the welcoming, smiling fellowship group in a new and more sinister light. As Christine’s friend Peggy Gilby would later testify, Michael and Christine started to become very, very nervous of Marie.
Christine Taylor also began reassessing the situation in the St Thomas’s Fellowship from another angle. Put bluntly, she didn’t like the relationship between Marie Robinson and her husband. She and Michael had always had a happy marriage. Now, Christine’s female senses told her, there was something strange afoot. Somehow Michael’s exploration of Christian passion always involved him spending time with Marie Robinson. Christine was happy that Michael had found his new faith, but it looked to her as if his spiritual ardour might be becoming misdirected. And, perhaps it was her imagination, but to Christine it seemed as if Marie did very little to dissuade him.
Christine Taylor may have been intimidated by Marie Robinson, but when the Fellowship assembled once more at the Taylors’, she decided that it was time to speak out about Marie’s relationship with her husband. With considerable bravery, she stood up. There was something wrong going on, Christine stated in front of the group, and the situation needed to be resolved. With dignity, Christine suggested that Michael and Marie were left alone for a few moments, to set things right. The pair was duly provided the space they needed in an upstairs room.
We only have Marie’s account of what happened next, but according to that big-eyed, “normal Jesus freak”, after the door closed, Michael made a determined attempt to speak to her with, rather than in tongues.
Now things got ugly.
Marie recounted, “The whole of my being just reacted completely against that. We just snapped apart. It was like a clash of wills, a clash of spirits perhaps, and I said ‘Mike, you know this is wrong. You know you love Chris.’”
Michael agreed to cool it, and after a few minutes, hormones in temporary subsidence, the pair asked Christine to return, curious fellowship members following upstairs behind her. For a few moments Michael was triumphant. “We have won a great victory for the Lord!” he announced to everyone. “A miracle has happened. We have both overcome our passions!”
Then something happened. Perhaps Michael was aware how weak this all sounded. After all, he had just admitted that he wanted to have sex with his preacher. Perhaps there was an embarrassing, excruciating silence. Anyway, according to Marie, he underwent a sudden and sinister transformation.
Marie: “I glanced at Mike and his whole features seemed to have changed. He looked almost bestial. There was a wild look in his eyes. I started screaming at him out of fear. I started speaking in a tongue… Mike also screamed at me in a tongue. I did not know what he was saying or what I was saying. We just screamed at each other. Then Mike started slapping my face.”
What was really going on here? In sexual terms, Michael had been told to get lost by a younger woman. This must have been both crushing and embarrassing. Faced with private rejection from Marie and public humiliation in front of his wife and friends, Michael lost control. He testified later that he had felt an evil force taking him over.
“She stabbed me with her eyes.” Michael later told the police, in a phrase of ghastly authenticity. “I can still see those eyes. I saw her standing naked before me, and I was naked…”
Michael suddenly attacked Marie, tearing at her, trying to throttle her, shouting at her in tongues.
Marie again: “Chris tried to pull him off me. Somehow we were at the other side of the room away from her, with him crouching over me ready to kill. It was like pictures of lions ready to kill their prey. I really tasted fear in my mouth. I thought this was it. I was on the verge of death and I seemed to come to my senses. I knew that Jesus would save me and I started saying his name over and over”.
Eventually and only after being restrained by several other members of the congregation, Michael was pulled off Marie, leaving her scratched and bruised, hair pulled and arms twisted. Confused, rejected and hurt, his shame was complete.
The next morning Michael was riven with anguish. It might well have been advisable for Marie to leave things alone, to allow passions to cool for a week or so. But extraordinarily, she came to the Taylor’s house to see Michael the very next day. This time Christine was polite, but hard faced. “I have got to get you and Michael apart,” she told Marie. “Please go.”
Marie later mused to the inquest that the Taylors were “A family that had – please don’t take this the wrong way – grown to love me.”
One wonders whether Christine would have agreed. She had thirteen more days to live.
(1) What is “speaking in tongues”? More correctly known as “glossolalia”, it is regarded by Evangelicals as the voice of the Holy Spirit, i.e. of God. The ability to summon the phenomenon in a state of religious ecstasy is highly prized in Charismatic circles, who say the speaker has been “filled with the Holy Spirit”. To the uninitiated listener it is a stream of garbled gibberish, a disconcerting polysyllabic babble. It is the noise that a sugar rushing three year old makes – a series of disconnected half words, occasionally forming patterns and repetitions. From the mouth of an otherwise sane adult it is either comical or disturbing, depending on your mood and environment.
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