Property and Power

powerchuchAmid the vast amount of material in the Langlois report, one observation stood out very starkly. This was someone speaking about the moment that things started to go wrong at Peniel in the late 70s. The person speaking was not a particularly hostile witness to Michael Reid, and he expressed appreciation for the very early days when the church was still based in Ongar, operating in a rented building. The problems for the church and in particular Reid himself, was when the church bought its first property in Brentwood. Somehow the church changed and Reid himself changed. Having acquired property, and probably putting it into his own name, there seems to have begun a process of aggrandisement and corruption in Reid. Property and the possession of assets also seems to have changed the character of the whole church. From being a group of enthusiastic Christians who were enjoying the freedom of being able to discover what it means to be Christian without the trappings of buildings and plant, they became suddenly, in the negative sense, an institution. Now that the leader had become the owner or trustee for a valuable piece of real estate, the path to growing an empire had begun.

A major complaint about the leaders at many churches, not just Peniel, is that they frequently become so important that they become inaccessible to all but a few at the top. Another way of interpreting this remoteness in some church leaders is that the more remote they appear, the easier it is to preserve a mystique of power. If you are distant from ordinary members, then they have to look up to you and you hold on to that super-human aura which means in practical terms that fewer people are likely to challenge you or your power. Control of millions of pounds of assets and the influence that brings is of no mean significance in this process. That was a constant complaint in the report. The leaders were just too important to be bothered with the problems, whether pastoral or practical, experienced by the ordinary members unless they were among the elite. By the elite at Brentwood, we are talking about a group of very wealthy supporters and their families. This group, because it gave generously to the church projects, were carefully protected from the spiritual and emotional abuse meted out to poorer families. It reminds one a little of the way that the Nazi occupiers never upset the wealthy elite of France, unless they were Jewish, during the WW2 occupation.

The acquisition of property by churches has always through history been a problem for their healthy flourishing. During the Middle Ages, the monasteries of Britain became extremely wealthy because the elite of the country endowed them with increasing amounts of land. In return the monastery promised to pray for the soul of the benefactor in perpetuity so that they could be free from Purgatory. When Henry 8th wanted to close these institutions, he was in part justified as they had become bloated with wealth and in some cases they had begun a descent into rampant corruption. The foundations of these communities had come into being in the context of poverty and extreme simplicity of life. That had ceased to be true of many of the foundations in the 16th century. Similar things happen to many churches who become burdened with too much plant and money today. It is not that property and wealth are bad things in themselves, but that the fact of owning such plant frequently gives to their owners a sense of their own importance and power. If I preside over a building worth two or three million pounds, that must mean that I am an important person. My most important task is to preserve this inherited or acquired wealth. If I devote a lot of my time to this task, then it is because it is the most pressing priority for my work.
The Church of England does in fact have a great problem with the sheer weight of its inherited wealth and property. I cannot presume to suggest how it can resolve this issue but I merely want to stress how much its servants can be deflected from the tasks of teaching and caring for people by the need to oversee the care of property and buildings. The deeper problem, as I have suggested, is this spiritual one. How do people in positions of church leadership find the faith not to measure success by numbers of people, size of buildings and wealth, but by invisible criteria such as humility, integrity and total honesty?

Power abuse in churches starts with the acquisition of power. Clergy and pastors have the power of the care of souls given to them as well as the power over assets and money. I am not suggesting that many clergy actually steal these assets, but there is the temptation simply to enjoy the reflected glory of being an important person in a wealthy institution. There is the parallel temptation of using the pastoral responsibilities over people as an excuse to obtain social influence in a community as opposed to seeking to help others at every possible opportunity. One of the constant themes of this blog is that the temptation to power is a constant one in churches. What the Langlois Report has pointed out, in the words of one of the respondents, is that corrupt power, money and property are sometimes inextricably linked.

This reflection about the corrupting of power in churches that sometimes is linked to the possession of great assets, leads me to some final observations about the mysterious thing we describe as status. Status is the ability of an individual to feel confident within the group to which he belongs. Status is another word for being valued by the group rather than being pushed to the bottom so that one feels rejected and despised. It is of course true that achieving a moderate amount of status is important for our emotional and social flourishing but it is also true that an excessive concern for status is against the spirit of the Christian faith. We are all called, not to focus on our status in the eyes of our fellows, but to seek our status and approval from God. In the gospels we are encouraged, not to pray in front of other people to gain their approval, but to enter into ‘the inner chamber’ to be alone with God. Clearly there is an implied command that leaders in churches, as well as ‘ordinary’ members should never use their functions in the church to acquire power or status. This is the way of the world and Jesus clearly stated that ‘it shall not be so with you’. Rather in the place of power, all Christians should be seeking what feet washing might mean in practice. We need in other words to rediscover the meaning of humility. This is a word to which I shall return as it sums up into itself the opposite of the power abuse that we want to expose and remove from 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 “Property and Power

  1. My brother Chris once remarked in the 1960s that the church has always been strongest when it had no buildings, and his words have stayed with me ever since. Paul wrote of the church that meets at so and so’s house. I think we would do well to downsize churches to what fits into a typical living room in a home. A by product would be everyone having a sense of status. You can’t feel unrecognised in a church of only six!

  2. Excellent post, Stephen. I was brought up in a church that never owned property, and used to rent a place to meet, if possible in an upper room. Even they usually own their buildings now. I also know of a very famous and I assume wealthy, person, who was treated by his church to an eightieth birthday party. Lovely. But should it have been taken from funds? Would such a “do” have been provided for me?

  3. Right on target EnglishAthena, thank you. “The rich man in his castle”?
    The poor, the ordinary always, ‘At the gate’.
    I think there is a lot of unpacking to do, even in this age?


  4. The great irony is that many clergy are indifferent to the needs of the physical and financial resources entrusted to their care. I’ll never forget one very highly compensated priest telling me, “I have neither the time nor the interest [to deal with matters involving the church building]. This, despite the clear provisions of his letter of agreement.

    Where but church can you find a job where you get to ignore 1/2 of your job description and get away with it?

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