Rev Joel Edwards finds the new documentary on evangelical leader...
We investigate how a world-renowned evangelist was exposed for falsifying significant parts of his testimony 'More extraordinary than fantasy, more remarkable than fiction, this blockbusting read almost defies belief.'
So reads the blurb on the back of Taming the Tiger, the purported true life testimony of Tony Anthony, published by Authentic. Christianity magazine wouldn’t be the first to point out the irony of that statement in the light of events of June and July this year.
Until July, Anthony, who lives with his family in Essex, headed up the evangelistic organisation Avanti Ministries. The ministry was built around his testimony, which roughly goes like this:
Tony Anthony was taken to China when he was four to be schooled in Kung Fu techniques by his grandfather. He won various competitions, including the Kung Fu world championships three times. He moved to Cyprus, the story continues, and was a bodyguard. Here he was convicted of theft and was sent to Nicosia Central Prison where he became a Christian following visits by the evangelist Michael Wright.
Once back in the UK, he met and married Sara and became a youth worker. While living in Berkshire he was involved in a hit and run accident in which a woman died. He went to prison again, where he evangelised several prisoners. On his release from prison this time, he founded Avanti Ministries, an evangelistic charity which he directed.
It’s an extraordinary story, but the reality may turn out to be even more so. In June, a three month enquiry, chaired by three members of the Evangelical Alliance council, concluded that large parts of Anthony’s testimony were untrue. The Alliance is currently bound by confidentiality and unable to itself release details, but the evidence has been documented elsewhere ‐ including on Premier Radio, the Guardian and the website crosswire.org.uk, run by journalist Gavin Drake, who first broke the story.
Proof of Untruth
First, and perhaps on the face of it least interesting but most significant, is Anthony’s date of birth. When he registered Avanti, he claimed his birth date was July 1971, which he later changed to August 1969. Anthony’s actual birth certificate indicates that he would have been 18 when he went to Nicosia prison, far too young to have engaged in the close protection work he was supposed to have done in his early 20s, prior to prison. He also used a different name ‐ his real name is Andonis Andreou Anthanasiou.
Secondly, no proof of his three Kung Fu world titles has been produced. The body which he refers to in the book, the International Kung Fu Federation in Geneva, which he says sponsored him, doesn’t appear to exist.
How did it happen, and what do we do now?
Thirdly, his grandfather died seven years before he was born and, far from being a Kung Fu grand master, was a laundry worker in Cardiff (Anthony now claims that he didn’t know the man in the book who taught him Kung Fu was not his grandfather).
Finally, his account in his book of the hit and run accident differs wildly from the court records and press reports at the time. In Taming the Tiger he describes ‘just a very small tap’ to his car which he assumes was an animal which had limped off into the bushes. In reality he knocked a woman off her motorcycle and fled the scene, leaving her in full sight in the middle of the road. She later died of her injuries. Anthony was jailed for perverting the course of justice.
Since the enquiry, Avanti Ministries has shut down and Authentic has withdrawn his book from sale. But that is by no means the end of the story. The consequences for Avanti, the EA, his local church, his publisher, not to mention the many thousands he claims to have evangelised, are far-reaching. So how did it happen, and what do we do now?
How did this come about?
It began with a group of Christian leaders, who became known as the ‘research group’, who submitted a huge file of evidence on Tony Anthony to the Evangelical Alliance in late 2012. These documents had been more than a year in the making.
The group consisted of David Buick, Carl Chambers, Geoff Elliott, Mike Hancock, Jon Mason, Tony Pancaldi and Aaron Petersen. They researched a number of aspects of Anthony’s life, supporting their suspicion that he was lying. ‘The group started to search for the absent evidence,’ says Hancock. ‘This was no easy task as Tony concealed his Cypriot Birth name, Andonis Athanasiou, and falsified his birth date. In our search for the truth we found no evidence to prove his “amazing” story but exactly the opposite.’
Following their submission, the Evangelical Alliance agreed with Avanti Ministries to hold an enquiry, which was concluded at the end of June.
The Evangelical Alliance, which supplied people from their council to chair the enquiry, has underlined that it was not in fact their enquiry, but Avanti’s. A subsequent statement, released jointly by the two organisations, stated that [large] parts of the testimony had indeed been proven to be false.
Anthony went on Premier Radio to defend himself, claiming attack and ersecution by the research group. He acknowledged a number of ‘minor’ inaccuracies in his story.
‘Since writing, it’s important to tell you that I’ve discovered some information about my family history of which I was unaware when I wrote Taming the Tiger nearly ten years ago,’ he said on air. ‘I’m afraid, you know, as time passes by you discover new things about your life; about your background. And that’s certainly been true in my case. So I now fully accept that there are a number of details that appear in the book that are not historically accurate today at all and, in the light of this new information, work is already in progress to address these items for a revised edition of the book ‐ to be able to tell it as accurately as possible today.’
But, he claimed, they were ‘inconsequential inaccuracies’ which affected him more than anybody else and did not undermine the fundamental truth of the story.
Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, however, is keen to refute that. ‘It is important to be clear that the panel found that large sections of Taming the Tiger and associated materials which claim to tell the true story of Tony Anthony’s life, do not do so,’ he says. ‘In light of this, Authentic have withdrawn the book and Avanti Ministries is closing down. These key facts should not be lost.’
Consequences for the parachurch.
All of this has had massive consequences for the Church, and raises interesting wider questions about how we police ourselves, and what the role of the Evangelical Alliance should be.
In this case, there was frustration about the vagueness of its initial statement with Avanti. Why was it not more explicit about the contents of the report, and the allegations against Anthony? Clifford says the Alliance’s hands were tied.
‘Avanti and the independent panel signed an agreement relating to the enquiry,’ he says. ‘Under that agreement the Alliance received a copy of the report. The Alliance believes the report should be made public in the interests of transparency and to bring closure. Avanti can release the report at any time but have declined to do so. For legal reasons the Alliance cannot release the report.
It might cause us all to reflect on the place of a powerful testimony
‘Sadly the Avanti board’s decision to close the ministry upon receipt of the report and their refusal to publish [it], which we have requested they do, has left the situation, at present, in an unsatisfactory position. Fortunately, situations such as this are rare within the UK evangelical scene,’ he adds. ‘However, when they do occur, the Evangelical Alliance is usually drawn in. Such issues which have arisen over the years have either been dealt with privately or resolved through mutual agreement without legal intervention. In this current situation, Avanti have chosen to respond through their solicitor rather than engage directly, despite numerous phone calls and emails. This is a cause of genuine sadness and disappointment to us in conducting family business.’
Consequences for publisher
Aside from how we bring people to account, the other big question is, how did Anthony go unchallenged for so long? The truth is, he didn’t. Concerns about the testimony’s validity were raised as far back as 2003. Reports suggest the book has sold 1.5 million copies, though Authentic say that figure is between 600 and 750,000 copies, both in the UK and around the world, along with the accompanying DVD and resources.
It is still a significant number. But no thorough research into its content was done until the research group made its submission. There is a further question here about why it took the actions of an independent group of Church leaders to expose Anthony’s falsehood. Shouldn't it have been someone’s job?
‘Over the years there have been concerns raised [about Taming the Tiger],’ says Steve Mitchell, director of Authentic. ‘We get emails quite a lot about different books, but there had never been anything substantive. When the research group gave us the documentation, which was very detailed, we went to Tony and to Avanti and said “you've got to get this refuted or you’re going to suffer”.’
The commissioning editor of the book noted concerns at the time, but pointed to positive endorsements and character references from well-known Christians such as George Verwer as proof that Anthony was the real deal. Authentic say that they have since tightened up their verification process. ‘In these days, of transparency [verification] is more important than ever,’ says Mitchell. ‘Each publishing project, especially biographies, now has each editor reviewing the manuscripts in much more detail for potential discrepancies and directly checking more sources to verify the story. Some authors feel this impinges on their integrity, but telling the story as it really happened is more important.’
'Never meant to be accurate'
Anthony, however, now appears to be claiming that he never intended the book to be an accurate historical record. ‘It needs to be stated at the outset that Taming The Tiger was intended to be the “story” of my early life,’ he says on his website. ‘It never set out to be a strict historical account of each and every event with supporting minutiae. As such, it remains a “true story”, descriptively told and consistent with many other similar publications in its genre…
‘I regret that a clear disclaimer was not included in the original editions of Taming The Tiger (published by Authentic Media), but, as my writer will testify, the details as they are told in the book are presented with considered alteration of identities, places and some circumstances in order to appropriately protect confidentiality. Revised editions will include a clear disclaimer.’
It is clear that Authentic, however, thought they were publishing a true life story. ‘Authentic published the book as “the true story of a world champion”. It’s there on the book,’ says Mitchell. ‘We are accepting all stock back from bookshops. We are not going to republish his updated book.’
It is standard practice for a contract to be signed between author and publisher, stating that the contents of the book are based on true events. If Anthony continues to infer that it is in fact Authentic’s fault, then there may well be a legal wrangle in forthcoming months.
Authentic thought they were publishing a true life story
So what will this mean for publishers in the future? ‘I think that what the recent “expose” shows is that publishers and editors in the Christian book world have a really tough but important job in checking stories out,’ says Clem Jackson, editor of Together magazine, the magazine for the Christian book trade.‘[This is] difficult because if an individual is telling their story in a book on the back of an already established ministry the start point is that you probably want to believe their story anyway.
‘All of us involved in the Christian media have a tremendous responsibility. People, by and large, believe what we print and publish and we need to do all we can to ensure that we are diligent, honest and work with integrity in all we do.’ Jackson seems to think there is almost an inevitability in errors creeping in to manuscripts. ‘Mistakes will be made, of course they will ‐ we’re only human ‐ and when we make them we need to be big enough to face up, say sorry and try and ensure we don’t repeat them.’
And what next for Tony?
Tony Anthony still owns Avanti Ltd; it’s his company. He has many months of speaking engagements booked in. He spoke at a church in Northern Ireland two weeks after the enquiry had ended where he was still referring to his grandfather in China teaching him Kung Fu. So it looks likely that he will continue to work as an evangelist and protest his innocence. There are rumours that he and ex-Avanti evangelist John Lawson may work together. He also says on his website that he will seek to republish the book.
There is likely to be some serious pastoral fallout from the revelations. ‘While grappling with the complexities of these issues at a national level we are also aware of the implications this is having on the lives of individuals, churches and organisations who are facing the pain, disappointment and frustration associated with the closure of Avanti and the enquiry panel’s findings,’ says Steve Clifford. Anthony and his family attend Leigh Road Baptist Church in Essex where a number of families have financially supported him, and many thousands of people are thought to have heard his testimony and become Christians as a result.
At the end of this, we’ll be a little bit sadder, but a little bit wiser
‘The thing I find incredibly sad is that a) lots of people have come to Christ because of his testimony and they might now not believe in Jesus purely because the testimony is probably fabricated; that’s the horrible bit and b) I have worked on other testimonies I believe to be true, but will have to be extra careful regarding facts when editing anything further,’ says Sheila Jacobs, a freelance copy editor who has worked on many testimony books. ‘And I do think testimonies are so powerful; it was a testimony that brought me to Christ and I never doubted them ‐ till now.’
It might cause us all to reflect on the place of a powerful testimony in our own faith walk. ‘God certainly can transform lives. Whether he has in a particular case is an entirely separate question. Saul of Tarsus, better known as Paul the apostle, wrote about those he called pseudo-apostles and warned of the damage they could do,’ says Christian Hofreiter, research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (@theocca). ‘An equal and opposite mistake is made by those who come across one or more testimonies that turn out to have been exaggerated or even entirely fabricated, and conclude that, therefore, God never radically changes lives, or that all Christians are gullible, or that God does not exist.’
There may be lessons for all of us in this sad tale ‐ about vigilance, gullibility, and not automatically thinking the best of people because they are Christians. Perhaps, at the end of this, we’ll be a little bit sadder, but a little bit wiser.