Thinking about Loyalty

loyaltyA few blogs ago, I spoke about the hold that some Christian leaders have over their followers by appealing to their loyalty. The loyalty thus obtained was subsequently sometimes exploited in various ways, perhaps financially or sexually. I have been thinking what this word ‘loyalty’ involves and how it has different manifestations at the various stages of our lives. One of the first lessons that child is taught is to stick up for his or her family. If people on the outside criticise the family then the child will instinctively defend the honour of their close relatives in whatever way they can. Loyalty is then demanded of the young person in respect of the school, the team or, in some cases, the street gang. There is at one level an almost instinctive component to this tendency to show tribal loyalty. When we support our tribe, our community or our family, we feel at the same time a strong sense of belonging to that group. This sense of belonging is of course very important for our social functioning. As I said in my Stockholm paper on ostracism, belonging is a part of psychological and emotional health. The alternatives to belonging, i.e. isolation and loneliness, are extremely damaging and we can see how people will do almost anything to avoid the desolation of being alone.

Loyalty to the family, a group or a church is for the most part a positive emotion because it connects us to other people. The problem of course is that sometimes this connection binds us to the group in a way that can frustrate our ability to act, feel and develop as an individual. The person who is unable ever to stand outside the group and see it objectively, is likely to be sucked into its values even when these are antisocial or even destructive. The police seem to have some difficulty in gaining the trust of people in certain areas of our cities. The individual living there may not have had any bad experience of the police himself, but he/she is bound by a kind of area tribal loyalty to mistrust the forces of law and order. He will thus not cooperate with them any more than he has to. Still more obvious for understanding malign loyalty is to observe the behaviour of a gang member. His actions will always reflect the value of the gang and in particular that of the leaders. The members of the gang have been socialised to behave only in a way which conforms to the group values and assumptions. We can say that the gang member has had his identity defined by the gang. He has become virtually incapable, not only of acting as an individual but also possibly of feeling like a distinct person.

For many people, to be part of a close-knit group like a family where the decisions of life do not have to be made, is a place that is utterly desirable. They can, as it were, re-enter childhood where other people made all the big decisions and all one had to do was to do what one was told. There are many churches that behave like this towards their followers. They give them plenty of reassurance and security but allow them emotionally to live like children within an extended family. This is a place of warmth and uncomplicated existence. Loyalty to the leaders and to the values of the institution secure a place in this warm protective environment.

My reader will of course expect me to point out the shadow side of this kind of loyal behaviour. When it is practised within the environment of a smothering church set up, it will be an environment which prevents the individual from maturing and indeed growing up to take on adult responsibilities. There has to be always a balance between a secure belonging and a readiness to accept the responsibility of thinking, deciding and acting for oneself as a mature person. Not many churches get this balance right. Some, as I have already implied, provide too much in the way of comfortable belonging with an inability to challenge their members to behave like adults, Christian adults. In other churches people are deprived of any sense of proper belonging and they are left isolated in their small corner of the building and nobody bothers to find out much about them and their particular Christian journey. The ideal church would be one where people are allowed to belong, not as children, but as adults who are prepared to stand up and move along the path which God appears to be showing them as an individual. In other words the ideal church should be a place where each member can find his or her ‘vocation and ministry’, as the collect puts it. We tend to use the word vocation as referring to the particular role played by clergy and other ministers. But of course if the clergy were treating the members of their churches as full adults, then this word vocation would be applied to every single member. Such a church would be an untidy place and it certainly would not be easy for hundred or more people to discover what would be their vocation within the limitations of congregational life. But this is where of course churches should be able to encourage their members to become active in outside society in a whole variety of ways. The church should be a kind of filling station from which people go out and work in all kinds of places which need Christian vision, a passion for healing and reconciliation and service of every kind. All too often the offered ‘jobs’ to church members by their leaders is to play a part on the tea rota or possibly to lead intercessions at a service. Offering people only one of a number of fairly limited and menial tasks does have an advantage for the leader. It allows him to remain unchallenged in his power, having appropriated for himself all the main responsibilities for leadership and care. In this way no one is allowed to challenge his position.

A demand for loyalty in a church appeals to an instinct which was fostered in our early membership of families and groups of all kinds. The other imperative, namely to pursue our own distinct earthly pilgrimage under God, may well conflict with a demand to be loyal to the institution and its leadership. Every church should be a place where this tension can be identified and explored. The church needs to become a school of maturity and individual creativity and also expert in the task of enabling people to live life to the full. Anything less is short-changing Christian disciples. If Jesus called his followers to this life in all its fullness, how can the church today call its members to anything less? Encouraging maturity and individual progress in the Christian life, the pilgrimage journey, may be untidy and indeed hard work for Christian leaders. But to look for anything less leaves the Christian follower with something incomplete and half done.

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 “Thinking about Loyalty

  1. All true. It is, of course, mainly women who get to do the crèche and the scones! It’s funny how the “distinct role” that men speak of for women, is always the low status or boring jobs.

  2. There’s something topsy-turvy too about when it’s serving tea and scones it’s low status, but when it’s wine and bread it’s high status. We read in the lectionary recently how the first will be last, and how the one who wants to be greatest must be the servant of all, but somehow that’s so difficult to realise.

    The early Christian martyrs were clear that their first loyalty was to God.

  3. Job roles in the church change in status, too, depending on whether a man or a woman is doing it! Or whether ordained or lay. Deanery sub-warden lay female, job is a nothing. Change to the male lay chair, or a male Cathedral canon and lo! it’s a high status job.

      1. Very true. But I think churches should do better, and we don’t. “Prejudice against women is more of a problem in the church than prejudice against homosexuals” Discuss!

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