Hubris syndrome

A problem for Christian leadership?

Next month I am off to the States as a first time visitor for nine days to attend an international conference on cults. I have little direct experience of what are normally known as cults, Moonies, Hari Krishna etc., but I found that the organisation was interested in the study I had made on Christian groups which behave in cultic ways. Increasingly the articles in its journals seem to touch on groups that would normally have been thought to be part of main-stream Christianity. Because I am not a specialist, I am offering a paper which is based on my reading of the literature around the subject rather than some in-depth study with statistical charts. My offering this year is an attempt to apply some of the fascinating insights of social psychology to an understanding of cults.

Today I am not going to try and summarise the entire argument of the paper in 500 words, but rather to share with the blog one part of the discussion which is provided by an article written by Lord Owen, the former politician and medical doctor. The essence of his article is to postulate something he calls ‘hubris syndrome’, an affliction he ascribes to politicians, bankers and other very important people. The syndrome affects anyone, Owen believes, who has become self-important over a period over a period of time, through a constant exposure to the public admiration or scrutiny. He shows that the syndrome is similar, though not identical to narcissistic disorders. Both demonstrate a tremendous self-importance, sense of entitlement and messianic pretensions. Owen believes that both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher developed the syndrome while in office. Interestingly he believes that in these cases the power of being Prime Minister gave rise to the hubris. It was this exposure to power that created the syndrome rather than a character flaw they possessed before they took power. This fits in with other material I have unearthed that talks about the power of the environment or situation to affect an individual in radical and unexpected ways.

Lord Owen’s article raises the intriguing possibility that religious leaders may be among those who are susceptible to hubris syndrome. He mentions cult leaders in passing but I am raising the thought that anyone who is put in a place of great responsibility and power may develop hubris in this way. The word hubris with its associations with classical Greek mythology is a better word than narcissism to describe the tendency of certain religious personalities to become overwhelmed by their sense of importance and entitlement. The unhealthy hankering after privileges and titles among some leaders is unhealthy to say the least. It is good that Pope Francis is beginning to challenge the pomposity of honorary titles, monsignors etc among the Catholic clergy, not to mention simplifying their accommodation arrangements. Within Greek mythology hubris is followed by nemesis. Nemesis implies a collapse of reputation, of power through having acted inappropriately or wrongly. It is true that many of the scandals involving Christian leaders, financial or sexual, involve the individual clergyman believing that they are in a place above rules, above conventions and even above people.

Hubris in short needs to be reflected upon as a failing which is possible for every person who takes on power in whatever setting. As part of clerical or ministerial training I can see a place for hubris sensitivity training! If such training were to be offered it may be that not only would clergy and pastors avoid it themselves, but perhaps they would pass on to their laity the ability to challenge it wherever it appears. The best antidote for hubris at the earliest stage is humour. It difficult to develop such hubris when those around you are laughing at the pomposity that is being developed. Before the full-blown syndrome has been developed, there is something rather sad and pathetic about its early stages. The best cure for this is to have it made the subject of ridicule. If it develops beyond the ridiculous, it then can become something sinister, dangerous or harmful. The political classes are to some extent held in check by such programmes as ‘Have I got News for You’. We need some equivalent mechanism within the Church ! ?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “Hubris syndrome

  1. Well put Stephen! This certainly rings bells with me.
    And I agree that we need some way of pricking the bubbles of those suffering from it. Sadly our media age seems to encourage hubris in those who we make our heroes.

  2. All true, but it’s not always possible to poke fun at someone. What if your employer brings his children to be babysat while you are at work, evidently believing that you are his servant, rather than his employee? Not a lot you can do, especially if the employer is irrascible at best. What if the way you are treated upsets you? Not easy to think of a witty repost. Yes to awareness training. But most people come away from training courses with exactly what they arrived with. It will be of limited use I’m afraid. The best solution is for others of equal rank and status to do something. What actually happens is they either cannot conceive of a fellow cleric’s behaving in this way, or they do believe you, but do nothing out of what I believe is mistaken loyalty. Or worse, because the abuser is of more value to the church than the victim!

  3. It is not always possible to laugh at hubris, I agree. In some cases, as with all types of power abuse, the abuser seems to win. I was however pointing out that there is a level of absurdity built in to many cases of people being above themselves. Owen noticed a change in the way Blair spoke, when he became ‘messaianic’ after 2002. . I could rephrase what I said ‘where possible, see the absurdities and the humour within it.’

  4. You remind me of the opening sentences of Peter Hinchliffe’s Bampton lectures on Politics and Holiness. It reads as follows:
    “The day Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister she quoted the so called Prayer of St Francis, thereby rendering unusable ever again”

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