Power in church institutions -fresh insights

churchRecently I have been struggling my way through an important book on Christian fundamentalism as it is experienced in Australia. This is for the purposes of a book review. The author, Josie McSkimming, is looking at the stories of 20 individuals who have successfully escaped their membership of a variety of fundamentalist groups in the Sydney area. The book is distinctive for the way that it presents Christian fundamentalism, using fresh categories of analysis and description. This examination of the structures of these Christian groups utilises the terminology and ideas of Michel Foucault. As a philosopher and historian of ideas Foucault is no easy read. What I will be able to share in this blog post will be only the beginning of an impression of his ideas. The reason that I believe him to be of great importance to our blog is that he is deeply interested in the issue of power. His interest in this theme is both historical and contemporary. McSkimming shows how power in its Foucauldian sense is not something as crude as a single individual exercising influence over others. Rather power is something which is dispersed throughout any institution. When we examine the case of a conservative Christian group, we can see how power is not only about authoritarian control but it is also something experienced inside each of the members. The conversion experience which provided the way into the Christian group is not only a matter of a new relationship with God for the individual. It has also transformed the individual self to become part of a new social order. In other words, the converted Christian has allowed him/herself to be part of a social structure which embodies within itself strict rules of discourse and controls over behaviour. Real power exists within these structures of discourse and assumptions. The individual conscience and the decision-making power of the committed member will now be expected to internalise the values and beliefs of the group. The individual is no longer thinking of themselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we’. When this internalisation is working as it should, coercive power on the part of leaders is seldom needed to enforce conformity. Week by week the teaching of the group message will help to reinforce these group values. Also, the internal policeman that every member has appropriated for themselves to guide their beliefs and conduct will also provide a restraint over any fellow members in the event of their going ‘off-message’. To summarise, as a member of such a group you will have taken on a new personality, and this personality is one was created and is now sustained by the systems of group power.

It is interesting to read in McSkimming’s book how the 20 individuals managed to escape from the structure of their conservative groups in Australia. In several cases there was the recognition that they possessed an unacceptable identity, one which could not be articulated within the group – that of the homosexual. The discourse of the group demanded a conformity only to controlled and approved forms of sexuality. Those who knew that they would never be able to fit in with this control found that they were living in a permanent state of dissonance with the group. A nonconformist sexuality in this way allowed them to preserve intact a suppressed area of identity which the group could never possess. This double life or sense of dissonance provided a firm foundation from which to gradually re-assert their pre-group self over the group personality. The path out of the various groups was never straightforward but in each case the individual found some core part of the personality which the group had not destroyed. That provided the means for creating an ideological or emotional resistance to the group system, eventually leading to escape. McSkimming describes in the words of her interviewees the tremendous sense of liberation experienced when the individual finally broke free of the bonds of the old repressive Christian group identity. They recovered the ability to speak of themselves as ‘I’.

Although we have suggested that the power in these conservative Christian groups was exercised without obvious coercion, it is interesting to note how there are still mechanisms of control. One idea from Foucault, relevant to McSkimming’s study, is the idea of pastoral power. In a typical conservative or cultic group, a controlling technique is to insist on obedience and personal submission to leaders. This will involve a form of confession and will ensure that the leader knows the internal workings of the mind of every follower. This will make difficult any kind of disloyal or independent thought. A follower in this sort of relationship will naturally become more fully meshed in the power dynamics of the group. They will never find it easy to reclaim the pre-group personality.

I am still working my way to make sense of these Foucauldian ideas from McSkimming’s book but I have already identified that they are valuable to us for two main reasons. First they provide new insights into the dynamics of conservative/fundamentalist groups. Foucault suggests that power in such groups is dispersed and control is far more subtly organised than many have understood. Secondly we can see that this idea of dispersed power is of importance in any investigation into religious institutions. It would be tidy if all power in a church or cathedral was given to the person/s nominally in charge. In fact, we need to recognise how power exists in many places within any institution. The important thing is to name and identify where power is actually to be found rather than pretending that there are always clear lines of authority at work. Our account of York Minster identified how much power seem to exist among one group, the bell-ringers. Unchallenged, that power had grown over decades to become a destabilising focus within the whole institution. Our analysis of Exeter Cathedral and its problems suggests that a dysfunctional situation had arisen there again because of the way power was being exercised in an untidy unpredictable way. I suggested that the problem was not just one of personalities but the way that the Cathedrals Measure of 1999 had set up structures of power within cathedrals which are unlikely ever to work successfully. Blaming the individuals within institutions when they are struggling to make impossible structures work, is probably never the best solution.

One thing I take from Michel Foucault is that it is important to identify in a dispassionate way how power actually is operating in any institution. The people who work within an institution which has run into problems are not the people to do this work. They are caught up in the subjectivity of the power relationships and they will not ever be able to see exactly what is going on. It takes the outsider, one perhaps familiar with Foucault’s ideas, to analyse, interpret and disentangle the complexities of power relationships. When these are laid bare and exposed to the light of day, it may then be possible to engage everyone concerned in a possible process of recalibration. The problem will always be that power relationships within institutions are normally hidden and often unacknowledged. They are hidden because of human frailty, petty jealousies and competition. When power dynamics are hidden from view they will sometimes undermine and even destroy the individuals caught up in them. In the case of larger institutions, such as cathedrals, we risk the demoralisation and even destruction of highly gifted people. They are trying to work within a system which we suggested is inherently dysfunctional and unable to deal with its issues of power.

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.

4 thoughts on “Power in church institutions -fresh insights

  1. Interesting post, Stephen. I couldn’t agree more. I recently looked up the Definition of tyranny according to the US Constitution Society:

    “Tyranny is usually thought of as cruel and oppressive, and it often is, but the original definition of the term was rule by persons who lack legitimacy, whether they be malign or benevolent. Historically, benign tyrannies have tended to be insecure, and to try to maintain their power by becoming increasingly oppressive. Therefore, rule that initially seems benign is inherently dangerous, and the only security is to maintain legitimacy — an unbroken accountability to the people through the framework of a written constitution that provides for election of key officials and the division of powers among branches and officials in a way that avoids concentration of powers in the hands of a few persons who might then abuse those powers.”


    Outside such a framework, in other words that which is without legitimacy, we find that naive or inexperienced leaders may default to certain archaic human ‘coping mechanisms’ that lie within the definition of tyranny. I understand that in safety systems often the reason for a catastrophic failure was identified within the system prior to an incident or accident. What I am beginning to understand about church as an organisational structure is that a person may be placed in a position of authority when they don’t really carry such authority; they lack legitimacy. Thus the seeds of catastrophe are planted.

    To my mind, the causes of such tyranny as defined here are down to unregenerate minds rather than people who set out to be tyrannical. In that sense, the tyrant is at the mercy of their own vagaries of mind but they still wreak havoc in organisations.

  2. My antennae went up and started twitching when you got to the bit about demanding obedience, (like to the Bishop for example?) and expecting confession (!!!).

  3. Christine. I think that what Foucault would want to emphasise is that identifiable tyranny is not going to be obvious in the sort of structures represented by a conservative Bible-based group. The power ruling over people is what has been internalised inside the head of each member. They have through conversion bought into a self-policing system of power and self-management which does not need any form of external power to make it work. It is easier to struggle against a tyranny outside yourself than something that operates inside as part of your ‘converted’ personality. It is thus much more invidious and difficult to escape. The gays among the group (8 out of the 20) were in this way fortunate. They were not allowed to share the gay part of themselves so it provided a point of resistance for their eventual escape. I am still struggling to understand all this material but meanwhile it allows me to see that there is more to power than tyranny and coercion.

  4. Thanks, Stephen. I have experienced what you write about.
    I came to Christ through a group which although admirable in many ways had some beliefs which I later came to reject as being inconsistent. I can remember actually reading Paul’s words in the NT saying “Certain groups forbid marriage” and thinking to myself, “But Paul you don’t understand that it is good to avoid marriage if you can.” Notice that I was actually giving the group belief greater status than the NT text, even though they and I regarded the NT text as the word of God! How bizarre is that? But it shows the influence on the new convert of the beliefs of the group through which one comes to Christ. Later on, when I adopted different beliefs which seemed more in line with the NT, I was angry with the group, feeling I had been betrayed, because they claimed allegiance to the NT, and I had to make sure I had forgiven them which was not easy. So these practices that you identify are not easy to avoid. Still, my opinion is that they and I are all doing our best to be biblical, so I don’t want to make too big a thing out of it.

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