Monthly Archives: November 2017

Power in the Church -analyse in order to understand

I have been reflecting on the way that power is exercised in society, but above all in the church. I want to share with my readers a classification of power loosely based on Max Weber’s ideas. This may help us to think more clearly about what power is and how it manifests itself in institutions and relationships. The sociologist Max Weber spoke about the power given to an individual to exercise on behalf of an institution. That kind of power was authoritative power. There is also another kind of power which he described as charismatic. This is a power that an individual may exert because he has a vision he wants to share. In and through his words there is shared what we would describe as inspiration or a new sense of direction. This resonates with a longing that people have. A third form of power is what is known as social power. This is the power given to an individual because of wealth, expertise, education or the kind of self-confidence that goes with a solid upbringing.

Some people manage to combine all three forms of power in themselves. Usually only one of these types of power is dominant at one moment. These three manifestations of power have one thing in common. Each of them can be used well or badly. They can coerce, control and generally take advantage of another person. In some cases, they may involve actual violence. Such violent exercise of power is unlikely to happen in the church unless a slow process of grooming and seduction has been gone through. In the church, just as anywhere else, power given to individuals can sometimes be used to abuse and exploit another person. But equally and hopefully each of the forms of power we have identified can be used to strengthen and empower another person.

The problem for all of us is that it is not easy to be analytical in the situation where power is being (ab)used. Our attention is drawn to the results of that power, particularly when someone is hurt. We naturally focus on the abuse rather than looking at all the factors and dynamics at play in the situation. When, however, we can see what is going on as a whole, we can hopefully help both sides of a negative power encounter take a new perspective. With the help of this new perspective, some of the pain and humiliation of the abuse can be alleviated. To take one example which Chris would identify with. An illiterate person in a congregation is made to feel bad some way by someone who is trying to be well-meaning. There is harm caused but this is because the person exercising social power lacks insight as to how this power is experienced by another person. Even in the worst cases of sexual abuse and cruelty there may be things to be discovered about the perpetrator and their abusing power which need to be understood even if not excused. People who criminally abuse power in some way are nearly always themselves victims of an abuse crime in years gone by.

The dynamic of charismatic power in Weber’s sense, is the most interesting. In its church manifestation we see that many people will feel very privileged to be close to a person who is thought to have a special charismatic gift or blessing. But relating to a charismatic guru is a bond which may in turn totally disempower an individual. They have entered a situation which can be only described as dangerous. The relationship may start reasonably well by providing hope and an initial experience of empowerment. The danger is that further down the line there is a likely outcome of dependence and an exploitation by the leader of the vulnerabilities of a follower. The reason for this sad outcome is, first of all, that the charismatic figure at the centre is a human being. He (normally a he) enjoys his status as the centre of attention and is not necessarily concerned for the vulnerable needy people who are attracted to him. They serve their purpose by feeding his narcissistic cravings. This kind of relationship is never going to be healthy. It will, as we say, probably end in tears.

Every time that power is exercised in a church setting, we have to recognise that there are two sides to the encounter. If we are pursuing our analytical quest, we will be asking what is happening to both sides of the encounter. Sometimes the encounter is good and healthy for both sides. On other occasions we may detect that the interaction is being exploited by the one with power to bolster up the self and in order to gratify other deep emotional needs. Everyone who uses power of any kind in a church needs to examine how it is undertaken. We may discover, not just occasional lapses, but a whole pattern of entrenched behaviour which is regularly causing harm. As I write this I am thinking about senior individuals within the church who because of their position never need to have their use of authority questioned or challenged. Little by little, the lack of such criticism, internal or external, has made them habitual bullies and creators of havoc and misery for the institution they serve.

I am reminded of the passage where Jesus speaks about power. ‘Kings and governors make them feel the weight of their authority, but it shall not be so with you.’ Jesus commended the way of service and perhaps this word ‘serve’ is the single most important idea to be inserted into our discussion of power. The first thing I am asking for is a greater sensitivity and awareness in the church about how power works. Having gained a greater understanding of what is going on, both inside the one who administers power and the one who receives it, then we need to try to insert this word ‘service’. Because there is up till now so little clear thinking in the church about power and the way it operates, we continue to suffer from its abuse in so many situations and contexts. Child abuse, spiritual abuse and all kinds of bullying and exploitation are made worse through our lack of awareness about the way power operates in institutions of all kinds including our own. We need to understand power and how it can be turned on its head when we internalise Jesus’ command to serve.

Influence and conformity in politics and religion

I have been reflecting on the way that people are caught up with the actions as well as the opinions of the people around them. It is so easy in our desire to fit in to find ourselves thinking and feeling in an identical or similar way to the group of which we are part. This desire to conform is at variance with the self-image that many people have of themselves. They would like to think that they are sufficiently educated to think for themselves and not have their opinions formed by people around them. The evidence suggests the opposite. There are various experiments performed by social psychologists which suggests that even when the evidence of the eyes says something different, we often prefer the comfort of siding with the dominant opinion.

Agreeing with our tribe or the people around us is probably a form of survival instinct. If one is part of the thinking and feeling of a large group, then there is safety in these numbers. To be a dissident is a dangerous path to follow. Even if it may not cause us to lose our life, it will often be a source of danger, discomfort and dissonance. How much easier to merge into the opinion of the mass?

This tendency for people to identify with the ‘tribe’ rather than their individual convictions has implications for our political as well as our church lives. A political leader may win a following by expressing a point of view which appeals to base instincts like hatred or scapegoating others. Hatred is a very good example of ‘tribal’ mass thinking. Blaming the world’s woes on the Jewish people, as Hitler did, may do absolutely nothing to forward the interests of those who respond to such a message. It is crude populism which bypasses rational processes and wins the approval of the crowd. Rhetoric works because it activates this crowd thinking, or non-thinking, and gives the individual member a sense of his or her power. The political life of both the United States and Britain is at present unhealthy. Leaders in both countries are appealing to base motives in the electorate. These arguably are a long way from their self-interest. It is particularly striking how the poorest people in the States appear to have voted for a party that is working hard only for those who are the wealthiest in society.

It is not of course just voting habits that are subject to the influence of others. We also subconsciously are affected by the standards of behaviour we see in the society around us. If the general atmosphere of civility and courtesy is good, then that will help to raise the standards within the entire population. If, on the other hand, there is a deterioration of morality and honesty at the top, that too will percolate down to affect everyone within society. The problem that is affecting the United States at present is that from President Trump down there seems to be an increasing disrespect for truth, honesty and showing tolerance to other ethnic groups. A single insulting tweet by the president can set up a ripple within the whole of American society. Other people feel that they can behave in a similar way. Coarseness as demonstrated by presidents can contaminate and cheapen the life of an entire society.

This readiness of large groups of people to think and feel in an identical way may also seem to be something positive. Certainly, it is commended in Scripture and in many situations the team can achieve things far beyond the capability of individuals. But we have to be prepared to face the problem of how we deal with the dissident. The liberals among us believe that an individual who thinks differently should always be afforded an honourable place within the tribe. The conservative, because they see only untidiness and divisiveness in such a thinker, will want to expel this nonconformist. I would have much more sympathy for the conservative position and even quote the Bible to support their instinct but for one fact. This fact is that the professed unity they think they have in their conservative orthodox congregations does not exist. Large groups of people do not ever in fact think and feel exactly alike. The only reason for them to appear to do so is to allow a fantasy of ‘biblical’ unity to exist. This is what the leaders want. So, the members all play at the game of pretending to be uniformly orthodox to preserve the fantasy in the mind of the leader.

The dissident, the nonconformist, has an important role to play in any church congregation. He or she can be the one that challenges the falsity of pretend identical thinking which has been set up as an orthodox ideal. A Christian leader who presides over a congregation where identical beliefs are claimed is extremely powerful. He is certainly more outwardly ‘successful’ in some circles than the one who oversees a group of people with a healthy range of ideas and experiences. This less powerful leader has of course to work much harder to hold things together. He or she may well suffer from misunderstanding and attack for providing a home for untidy believing. While the powerful leader may seem to have greater control and prestige, all this is likely achieved only in the absence of genuine honesty. The ‘weaker’ leader presides in a culture of openness and discovery. The other oversees in an atmosphere of control and even fear. I know which church I would prefer to be part of. Untidiness reflects the muddle and chaos of everyday human life. ‘Orthodoxy’ in its protestant expression needs regimentation and firm control.

Charisma and Evil

One of the new challenges for voters in America is to know what to think about a politician who has abused sexually in the past. The numbers of these appear to be increasing. Christian politicians also who have become heroes to their ultra-right constituency for solidly opposing gay marriage, abortion and other offences against family values seem to be as guilty as the rest. One reaction to this dilemma has become increasingly popular. This is to declare that the moral failings of a politician are of no importance as long as they support God’s work. When the supporter is talking about God’s work in this context, it nearly always has to do with issues of sexuality. If the politician says the right things about sex, then he can be voted for whatever seedy activities lie in his past. The political agenda of the Christian Right has little interest in such things as justice, racism and support for the poor. The God of the alt-right and Donald Trump has little in common with the God of the Bible; the alt-right God is one who looks after the successful and the rich.

This topic of leadership and past evil actions is also something to be negotiated in church circles. I have been recently reading a biography of Frank Houston. He is the father of Brian Houston of Hillsong fame in Australia. The Frank Houston story is written by his wife and like many Pentecostal/charismatic biographies it is full of stories of wonder, spontaneous insights and healings. I read this biography against the background of knowing that Frank would be eventually outed as a paedophile with acknowledged offences against young men and boys. Obviously, there was no mention of any such failing in his hagiography. We are given the impression that God was working through him and in him at every point in his ministry. When he approached somebody with a problem, God would often speak to him directly and give him the solution to whatever was the issue.

Alongside the story of the elder Houston, I have been re-reading the accounts of the many people who suffered at the hands of Michael Reid at Peniel. In contrast to these accounts of his staggering abuse of power, I have also been watching the videos on You Tube which talk about the divinely authorised ministry of this ‘man of God’. Once again there are stories of healings, wonderful events and acts of great power. Reid himself often used to say to people that these same happenings were an indication that God himself had handed over authority for him to rule the church as he saw fit.

Two apparently divinely blessed ministries and two examples of criminal abuses of power. How does one make sense of such a contrast and remain a Christian? Are we to say that God used these two leaders in spite of their flawed personalities? Would that not lead us to be saying that we can ignore the evil on account to the blessings that flowed apparently from these ministries? This would seem to be the argument which is being used currently in the States by conservative pastors when offering their support to the notorious Ray Moore. It is an argument that does not convince me. I am still left looking for another way of dealing with this conundrum.

I do not claim to be able to answer this question to my own satisfaction. But I would start by saying that it may be necessary to look afresh at the phenomena of Charismatic and Pentecostal renewal. Should we not be far more analytical about what is going on in these Spirit-filled events? Should we not find some new ways of characterising what some people wish to call Acts of God? Might they not be simply examples of crowd hysteria? The church seems to be in danger of wanting to see these moments of crowd excitement as being crucial to its future. Crowd froth and superficial emotion do not seem to be good foundations for a solid expression of church life. Frank Houston and Michael Reid, as well as many others, discovered that they were able to manipulate crowds and pack church buildings. Simultaneously they were learning techniques which would in another context be described as paranormal or psychic. My own understanding of the strange phenomena which take place when there is endless loud rhythmic music is fairly mundane. It is not difficult for leaders and led to enter trance states where strange things can happen. I personally try to keep abreast of what might be happening in these scenarios but I detect little or no interest elsewhere to have a discussion able to critique these large congregations. The powers that be applaud full churches and the sound of joyful exuberance in a church building. Nobody wants to ask any further questions.

Frank Houston and Michael Reid, now both disgraced in the eyes of their respective churches, flourished because what they did and what they said came apparently from God and thus was beyond contradiction. Evil was permitted to flourish because nobody at the time dared to ask any questions. ‘Success’ trumped all other criteria including truth. Thus, many suffered because the church was so bad at scrutinising what was done in its name. In this way evil was allowed to coexist with apparently successful ministries. If this same mistake continues to be made in future, then it will progressively undermine the integrity of many of our churches in a serious way. American politics has been weakened for ever because an increasing number of people refuse to question the immoral antics of those who stand in the places of power. Let us pray that this will not happen in the churches of our nation.

The Roy Moore scandal -evangelical misogyny

One of the more horrifying examples of American evangelical culture has, thankfully, not yet reached our shores. I am referring to habit of some evangelical parents to release their daughters for marriage in their mid-teens to a groom who may be twice their age. This apparently is one of the ideas put out by Christian lecturers on the home-schooling network in the southern states of the USA. This institutionalised child abuse is part of the background which we need to understand when hearing about the accusations being made against the Senate nominee, Judge Roy Moore. He is accused by three women of molestation when they were underage. Many Republicans both Christian and not, are horrified at these allegations and want him removed from the ballot paper. Others, who are accustomed to the existence of very early marriage by girls of godly evangelical families, see nothing unusual in his behaviour. This is the way that things are done in the American Christian bible-believing South. The argument goes that if a girl is chosen young, she will be amenable to being more easily trained up to be a good obedient Christian wife. She will other words fulfil her task of complete subservience and conformity and this is in accordance to an ideal of Christian womanhood.

This blog post is in many ways an overlap and continuation with the last one. But the topic raised helps us further to emphasise the appalling mindset which some biblical Christians absorb as part of their formation. Most of my readers will have already anticipated my objections to this way of thinking. In the name of Christianity half of humanity is considered somehow more godlike if the maturing process is terminated halfway through the teens. They are not expected to develop any further. Things like skills, interests, academic training and maturity of character are all supressed. All that they are good for is to bear children, worship a man and try to please him in every way possible.

I have been trying to imagine how these ‘godly’ marriages develop over the years. In the first place the wife, totally dedicated to the needs of her husband, will have a very limited understanding of her own needs and desires. She will not, for example, have developed any outside interests beyond that of caring for the home. Her children will grow up without experiencing much from her in the area of life experience. Even when the children leave home the mother may still be in her forties and the marriage could then settle into a state of extreme apathy. What will such a couple find to talk about? I would expect that in some cases a wife trapped in such a situation would try to escape such a marriage. The obscenity of the original marriage arrangement was so appalling that it is hard not to applaud a woman who chooses to walk away. A woman trapped in this kind of patriarchal relationship is like a member of a cult, unable to think or feel for herself. The cultic mind-set that has been absorbed over the years may in fact make a breaking away very hard to achieve.

A further reason for encouraging these very young women to marry is that they fulfil another ideal of evangelical thinking – that of sexual purity. It is difficult to know what is the ideal in a Christian context for sexual behaviour before marriage, but enslavement to an older man at the age of 15 or 16 cannot be a proper answer. Whatever we think about sex before marriage the case for equality between men and women must be made loudly and vocally. The institutions in the church which seem to encourage a state of inequality must be scrutinised and exposed for their hidden misogyny. As a long-time supporter of the ordination of women I am becoming increasingly impatient at the way that such misogyny is being buried under apparently sophisticated theological argument. One hopes that the court of public opinion will eventually completely outlaw areas of inequality that still exist in parts of the church. While we do not tolerate Alabama Christian traditions towards women, we still have our own cultural battles to fight against forces which discriminate against women in the church.

Child marriages for religious reasons do not exist in this country, but we must continue to resist the kind of thinking that makes such an institution possible. In the meantime, let us hope that the liberal backlash in the States against Judge Moore continues. These ugly forms of child abuse supported by fundamentalist readings of Scripture must be defeated. Women of every age and background deserve better. Nothing in the words of Jesus supports the idea of women being subordinate to men. The enforced subservience of women over the centuries seems to have been a way to flatter men and help them to retain their sense of importance and power. Let us strive to preserve equality and mutuality between the sexes. This will require us to challenge the misogyny of past centuries especially in societies and places where it has become deeply entrenched.

Women, violence and the Church

The recent appalling massacre in a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas conforms to a tragically familiar pattern. A man goes on the rampage with a powerful weapon and kills 26 innocents including an unborn child. The individual concerned, like many before him guilty of similar atrocities, had been a woman batterer. Mass killers have nearly always previously practised their violence on those around them at home. This common thread of domestic violence seems to link most of the recent mass killers we have seen recently. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice killer and Dylann Roof the Charleston killer had both been involved with violence at home. Whatever ideological tag is placed on these and other killings, a history of irrational and blind rage against women seems to be a common thread behind most, if not all, of these appalling acts of violence.

It has not gone unnoticed that conservative churches are places which appear to tolerate, if not encourage, an attitude that places men in a place of power over women. While we would hope that most church going men would internalise the prior command to love and respect the women and children of their family, there are others who hear a different message. Particularly on the edges of the church there are men who hear and act out biblical texts which seem to allow them to overawe and dominate their womenfolk. Two passages from the New Testament stand out. These both appear to justify potentially oppressive behaviour on the part of a man towards his wife. The first is the passage from Ephesians 5. It states that wives should submit to their husbands. The fact that the passage goes on to speak about the importance of mutuality with in the marriage relationship is often ignored. The other classic text which has caused much grief to Christian women over the centuries is from 1 Timothy 2. 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man;’

These two texts, however we interpret them, look back to a commonly accepted notion in the ancient world that a women’s nature was inferior to that of men. Aristotle thought that women were natural slaves. Like slaves, it was their nature to be obedient. The traditions of scholastic theology followed these ideas of Aristotle rather than Jesus when it came to assessing the role and status of women in mediaeval society. Thomas Aquinas typically believed that women were in some way defective. So, the order of nature as created by God decreed that she should be subjugated. Also, a woman can never represent Christ or be ordained.

The Reformation in the 16th century did little to improve the lot of women in the church. Both Luther and Calvin repeated the traditions of the previous centuries which saw women firmly bound to the home and subject to the law of their husband’s will. Any woman in who challenged this status quo was sinful and was possibly a witch. Violence against women at the hands of their husbands came to be a normalised part of family life. The town law of the city of Villlefranche decreed all the inhabitants of the town had the right to beat their wives so long as death does not ensue. Even Thomas Moore in his Utopia represented a society where husbands regularly chastised their wives. The wives were to minister to their husband in everything. On holy days they were to prostrate themselves before their husbands asking for their forgiveness if they have offended them in any way. It is not hard to see the campaigns against witchcraft as being an attempt to suppress and control women. Society then was not tolerant towards those women who tried to survive outside the role of wife and mother. A single woman, who was outside the control of a man, may perhaps have been continuing ancient traditions of healing and herbalism. She was obviously from a patriarchal perspective someone to be targeted and persecuted.

The Ephesians and I Timothy texts continue to exercise a strong influence in conservative Christian circles today. They are used in some places as a justification to deny women any part in Christian leadership. They also become part of a generalised Christian patriarchy which puts women in a disadvantaged place whether in the home or in the church. Some recent research in Australia found that evangelical men who sporadically attend church more likely than secular men to assault their wives. It is not hard to see how a man with a tendency towards violence might be attracted to a church with a culture of male domination. The traditional approach to a ‘biblical’ view of women might also make conservative churches dangerous places when the battered wife seeks help. Domestic violence will not be tackled if the there is a ‘biblical’ answer that the wife should always submit and apply the rule of godly obedience to the man who is abusing her.

The recent events at Sutherland Springs cannot not of course be laid at the feet of the Baptist church where the massacre took place. But in a broad sense a culture of violence within the family which preceded the terrible events of last Sunday had been subtly normalised for Devin Kelley, the perpetrator. Many upright Christians who believe that they are following Scripture also tolerate coercive behaviour towards women. This will of course normally stop far short of acts of rage and murder. Somewhere along the line, Devin learnt the path of violence. It may have been a small step for him to tip over from ‘acceptable’ coercion and control of women in his family to actual violence. It may seem to be ‘biblical’ to apply coercion to wives but surely it has no place whatever in a modern society. The words of Paul, Luther and Thomas Aquinas need to be explored and explained in their historical context. They cannot be allowed to smoulder in a dark place where they can infect and corrupt the thinking of contemporary Christians. We need a revolution that will deny any oxygen to the thinking of contemporary Christians and those they influence who want to high-jack the faith to further their nefarious desires for power.

In Praise of Integrity

We as a nation are in a crisis of trust with respect to our institutions. Parliament is being scrutinised over the behaviour of its members in the way they sometimes mistreat the young people who work for them. Show business has brought up numerous examples of sexual harassment and abuse which have taken place over the years. Even the church seems not to be immune from examples of exploitative behaviour. It is as if all our national institutions are falling like dominoes one by one, plagued by the accusation that they are morally rotten. The individuals who work within them seem apparently not to have what we would call integrity.

I wrote a post with the word ‘integrity’ in its title two years ago when first reviewing the report about Peniel. It was then quite apparent that abusive behaviour of all kinds had been experienced in that church over many years. The accusations that were made seemed to far more to do with finance and emotional abuse than the issues in our current scandals. Peniel did of course have stories of sexual exploitation. In this post I want us to think more about the word ’integrity’. I took the trouble to check the word and once again it is a word which does not appear in traditional translations of the New Testament. Our English word comes from the Latin ‘integer’ which means whole or complete. The Latin word is used in English to describe a whole number as opposed to a fraction. There is one biblical passage which carries an idea close to the notion of integrity. Jesus says: ‘be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect’. It is suggested by one commentary I have read that a good translation for perfect is contained in the idea of having integrity. While perfection is a hard target for us to aim at, we can aim to be men and women of integrity.

In thinking about integrity, I find myself, first of all, describing it by a series of negatives. Integrity implies that an individual does not lie. It is hard to see integrity in politicians who are found to have lied for their own personal or political advantage. It is also difficult to see integrity in a behaviour that uses another person as an object. People are never objects to be used and exploited. They are always subjects and the way we treat fellow human being is to honour that subjectivity and treat them with respect. Hierarchical systems such as we find in the church or in political life make it more likely that people can become pawns in complicated power games. In this respect the church fails its members because it does not seem to understand how people within its structure are being disempowered for the advantage of the influential and powerful.

A further indication that a person lacks integrity is when they betray trust. Another word for trustworthiness is reliability. We want other human beings, particularly our leaders, to be reliable and trustworthy. When they fail in this standard we find ourselves floundering, not knowing how to proceed. The recent open letter from Gino to the Archbishop of Canterbury was a cry for help in a situation where trust had been betrayed and confidence in the integrity of others could no longer be depended on.

Having dwelt on the negatives, the ways that integrity is undermined and destroyed, we can begin to see what a man or woman of integrity might look like. The problem is that this integrity in individuals is hard to retain when the individual has become part of the hierarchy of a powerful institution. Institutions easily corrupt people. What begins as a compromise to protect an institutional reputation can easily end up by destroying and individual’s integrity. A bishop who protects one of his clergy from an accusation of sexual misbehaviour has become a colluder in an evil act. In the process his integrity has become compromised and destroyed. This sort of behaviour was endemic in the Roman Catholic Church. Over the last 20 years we have learnt of massive cover-ups and suppression of the truth. The one responsible for the collusion is not the erring priest but we have to lay the blame at the feet of the institution the bishop serves. President Trump has successfully morally compromised every single official and subordinate that he works with. The corruption of his own integrity and of the office of president has also had a massive effect on the whole of American society. The people of integrity that still remain are those not under his control. We especially remember Robert Mueller the special investigator. We must hope that his integrity and that of the whole justice system are preserved and protected for the future of the United States.

When Jesus told us to be ‘perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect’, I believe he wants us to be people of integrity. While we can never claim to be people without sin, we can aspire to honesty in speech, possessing respect and honour towards other people and being the kind of people that others can rely on. In writing this I can see how I personally have never been placed in a situation where I might have been strongly tempted to abuse power. A parish priest does have some power. Some do manage to become corrupted by it. Nevertheless, most can resist the modest temptations that the role produces and thus they preserve their integrity. All I can say is that it is extremely important to pray for leaders in the church and the nation. We must ask that they do not become seduced by the temptations of power. Institutions of any kind are dangerous places. The positions of leadership not infrequently damage their holders. I hope that anyone reading this blog becomes fully aware of these dangers.