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.

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.

11 thoughts on “Power in the Church -analyse in order to understand

  1. A good question to ask is, “Whose needs are being met here?” If the answer is, “The needs of the person in the more powerful position,” you are almost looking at abuse. Clergy and others in positions of power are always responsible for maintaining boundaries. “She egged me on,” and similar contrivances are, by definition, no excuse whatsoever.

  2. The power that exists in the church is (For want of a better description) a closed in power, it operates in an inverted closed in system.

    Traditionally, the vicar/priest was seen as the moral guardian of the faithful. Recent history has shown that this was in many cases anything but the case.
    There was a smug remoteness, an absolute security, fear was the abiding feature.

    I remember the local priest leading morning assembly at the secondary modern school I attended, perverts and paedophiles freely acted out their perversions.
    Bullies and the ‘Strong’ crushed the weak, illiteracy was commonplace, the underdog had, “Only themselves to blame’? All this was under the noses of the priest/ vicar?

    Nothing has really changed, most vicars today know nothing of the disempowerment and abuse in the work place of the lower working class.

    No one (Except SP) has challenged this?

    Ministers go on well paid, ‘Sabbaticals’ the working poor are disciplined if they go 5 minutes over on their tea break.
    Where is the historic Christ, where is reality?

    1. Chris this simply is not accurate. I have lived with a clergyman for over forty years and know large numbers of clergy. By the very nature of their jobs they are in constant and close contact with people of all social strata and most particularly, the disadvantaged. They know exactly what is going on. The vast majority of them do their best. The fact that their best does not sort out all the wider problems in society is not their fault. There is is no magic and ultimate “They” either in the Church or in government, to whom we can all turn. We can, all of us, only do our small bit in our own small patch. I am not being naive when I say that I have not met a single paedophile and among the many dozens of clergy I have known, only one has taken a sabbatical. Over the years we never even took our allowed time off because we couldn’t afford to.
      We all recognise and accept the problems that you frequently describe, but sweeping generalisations won’t heal them.

      1. Your experience is not mine. I completely accept that you are describing your experience accurately, and you will have to do the same! Most of the clergy I have worked with have taken all their time off, and maybe more. They have managed to wangle extra holidays, and they have simply phoned the Reader at 6 am on a Sunday and got him to take the services. Rather more often than you would consider reasonable. They have used those sermon guide books without re-jigging to give the personal touch, or indeed got their spouse to write the sermons for them! As is said below, you can’t know whether you have met a paedophile. They look like everyone else. Most clergy, as you have said, do their best. And I have seen clergy abused by the system, trying to do too much. But the church I inhabit is corrupt and evil. Sorry, but it is so.

  3. My experience with clergy is not nearly as bad as Chris’, but I have seen some pretty bad behavior, ranging from a priest (my own) who actually actually instructed parish staff and clergy to engage in shunning/bullying; to a Roman Catholic priest who officiated at a wedding I attended and was openly leering at one of the teenaged altar boys. Or the time, while in high school, I visited church with a family member and the priest said, looking at my varsity letter jacket, “You must be quite the athlete.” (I proved a reasonably capable sprinter as I dashed down the front steps of the church to make my escape!)

    The problem with abuse in a church setting, of course, is the inherent imbalance of power between clergy and laity. As a result, when abuse happens, it is a profound betrayal of trust that results in harm that often can’t be undone.

    The added wrinkle is that no one wants to believe that the priest they trusted is abusive, so those who complain of the matter often are labeled as “sick,” or “unbalanced.”

    Additionally, people often don’t understand the dynamics of abuse. Victims must process in the time and manner of their choosing. Telling others that it is, “time to move on,” is invariably unhelpful, particularly if those in a position of power have made no effort to provide pastoral care or counseling.

    1. I left out a phrase, which was to indicate that the priest who hit on me in high school did so with a tone, and a facial expression, that made my hair stand on end. Trust me, it was not a compliment.

    2. I’ve watched clergy completely suborn church systems, from PCC resolutions to the appointment of new incumbents. And your last paragraph, oh yes. If you’ve never been allowed to talk it out, you still need to, however long it’s been.

  4. I agree with much of what Hare has said – most clergy in most areas are doing their best (I have been a member of a couple of highly dysfunctional deanery chapters, and others that were every good).

    However, I don’t think any of us can say we have not met a single paedophile. Their crimes are hidden and they seem just like anyone else – they are prime deceivers. I joined the Church of England in 1980 and in that time have known and worked with an alarming number of padeophiles, bullies, and abusers of power and position. In most cases I didn’t know that until the police or the national press caught up with them. In a few cases I was on the receiving end myself, but those are not yet public knowledge. The sad reality. is that any of us, any day, may turn on the telly to see someone we know and trusted being led away by the police. That has happened to me.

    I am still wondering whether I have been unusually unlucky in the clergy (of all ranks) whose path I have crossed – but until we know the full extent of abuses of power within the Church, it’s impossible to tell. Being a clergywoman and single probably laid me open to abuses from those so inclined, and those not afflicted too often don’t notice what’s going on.

  5. I’d also like to say that it’s not invariably parishioners who are bullied by clergy – sometimes parishioners bully clergy. Some parishioners have charismatic and/or social power, and the clergyperson may have only authoritative power. You can get a group of parishioners gathering behind such a lay person, especially if they are a church officer. After all the minister is a newcomer and they are on their home turf and have established alliances. This is especially true in denominations where the congregation calls and pays for the minister, but can also happen in the C of E.

    1. This is totally true. I’ve seen that, too. But my Bishop is so obsessed with that, he can’t see the reverse at all.

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