Power in the Church of England

Over the past two years, I have been part of a group organising webinars on the theme ‘Power in the Church of England’. It has been a joint project of the Michael Ramsey Centre for Anglican Studies at Durham University and the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Videos of all eight webinars are available on our website. These blogposts are my own personal reflections, prompted by those presentations and the conversations that followed them – and also by papers and conversations at the recent conference on power hosted by the Society for the Study of Theology.

1.   Redefining power

‘Power’ is often taken to refer to a person’s capacity to influence others to bring about some desired outcome.

This definition conjures up a certain picture. We begin with an individual, who has some project in mind. We then widen the field of view, and see that this person is surrounded by others. We ask about the individual’s capacity to enlist these others in service of the project.

Once this definition has been given, the next step is often to set out the different ways in which the individual might succeed in enlisting these others – influencing, persuading, instructing, ordering, forcing and so on.

Before we get to this point, however, we already have a problem. This approach to power suggests that the basic subject matter is a person’s ability to get their own way. We may be interested in better and worse ways of exercising such power, but our basic picture of power will already be of

  1. an individual,
  2. a goal that this individual already has in mind, and
  3. other people, who appear in the picture only in ways framed by (1) and (2).

Let me suggest a different starting point. (This was prompted by a discussion at that SST conference, during which Emily Kempson posed the question of how our basic definition of power might need to change.)

  1. Instead of an individual’s project, I want to begin with the project of a whole community – to form a life together in the world.
  2. Instead of a goal that is already possessed, I want to begin with the idea that the members of this community don’t yet know all that they can become together.
  3. Instead of asking how one person can enlist others, I want to begin with the question of how all the people involved contribute to defining and pursuing their project.

If we want to think about power in the church, therefore, I think we should start with one central question: Who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together?

2.   Belonging 

The key word in this question is ‘belonging’. I use it to name something that goes beyond bare inclusion.

It refers to a certain kind of relationship between a community and an individual.

  • I belong in this community if I would be missed if I were not there.
  • I belong in this community if I make a difference to it, such that the community would be significantly different were I not there.
  • I belong in this community if not only my presence but the difference that I make to its life is acknowledged and welcomed.
  • I belong to this community if my presence and contribution shape not only how this community heads towards its goals, but also how this community identifies the goals it should pursue.
  • In short: I belong to this community if who ‘we’ are depends, in part, upon who ‘I’ am.

The Body of Christ

In the background here, I have in mind the Pauline image of the Body of Christ. In Ephesians 4:15–16, for instance, it is clear that the Body of Christ is supposed to ‘grow up in every way … into Christ’ and (which is to say the same thing) to engage in ‘building itself up in love’. It is equally clear that this is a process in which every ligament of the body has a part to play, each working in cooperation with all the others.

That should, I suggest, be the primary picture we have in mind when we ask questions about power in the church. Who belongs in the process by which we are, as a body, growing up together into Christ?

3.   Leadership is secondary

When we think about power in the church, we often default to thinking about leadership, or about processes and structures that resemble leadership. That is certainly not an irrelevant topic, but it should not be primary. It should not set the terms of our discussion.

We should instead begin with the whole Body of Christ in the midst of the world, with the processes by which all its members share in its building up in love and into Christ, and with the question of what it means truly to belong in that process of building up.

Within that context, leadership is a secondary reality.

We are engaged in building a life together in the world, and in principle all of us have a place in that process. The fundamental form of relationships into which we are called in this process is one of interdependence. We are supposed to depend upon one another, learn from one another, support one another, encourage one another, stand up for one another, receive from one another, and give to one another.

As we pursue this life of interdependence, there will be times and situations in which more asymmetrical relationships are needed. It may be proper, in a certain context or for a certain time, for there to be relationships in which one person is primarily giver and another primarily receiver, or one primarily teacher and another primarily learner. Those are, however, secondary realities, and they make sense only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

Leadership is one such secondary reality.

It makes sense, if it makes sense at all, only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

4.   Diagnosis

One thing that has struck me again and again as I have attended the ‘Power in the Church of England’ webinars is the importance, especially for people who, like me, occupy quite prominent positions, of asking questions about our own power. That is, it is important to ask about the factors that affect how much weight our voices are accorded in the deliberations of our churches.

  • Why do people take notice of me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What allows people to dismiss me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to hear others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to ignore others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?

These are simple questions to pose, but not to answer.

In my own case, I know that anything like a full answer is going to have to include reference to the positions I occupy, the expertise I have, the access I have to various different fora for speaking, the networks I am a part of, the cultural reference points I share with other people in influential positions in the church, my job title, my accent, my skin colour, my gender … and the list could go on. Diagnosis is a matter of noticing what makes a difference.

I have written about this in an earlier post on ‘Being Privileged’, trying to tease out some of the ways in which power works in my own case. I’ve no doubt I’m still not as attentive as I could and should be to the ways in which my own power works, but one of my hopes for the church is that we might, collectively, become better at noticing and acknowledging our own power, and the strange ways in which it works.

To set a low bar, it would be good for our discussions about power to reach the point at which it would be plainly ridiculous for any archbishop, any bishop, any member of the clergy – or any academic theologian who gets to sit on church commissions and committees – to think or say that they have no real power in the church.

Such diagnostic work is necessary, if we are asking who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together in the world. It is necessary if we are to understand what holds us back from interdependence – from being a community of belonging. And it is necessary if we are to understand how secondary realities like leadership relate to our primary calling as people baptised into that community of belonging.

5.   Positional Power

From discussions in various of the webinars, it has seemed to me that there is in Church of England a specific barrier to good diagnosis. We have a persistent twofold problem in the acknowledgment and assessment of power.

  1. There is a widespread reluctance to talk about positional power: the power that someone has by virtue of their office or position.
  2. There seems to be a widespread belief that questions posed by positional power can be answered in behavioural or cultural terms.

Let me explain. Consider, for instance, the asymmetric relationship between an ordinand and their sponsoring bishop. The bishop, simply by virtue of being the sponsoring bishop, has considerable power over the ordinand. They can say and do things that will make a sharp difference to the path the ordinand takes within the Body of Christ. They can say and do things that will do a great deal to determine where and how the ordinand’s voice is heard in the conversations of the church. This power unavoidably takes the form of ‘power over’, whether the bishop wants it to or not. That power is baked in, legally and procedurally, to the way in which our system of ordination works.

The first problem I mention above is our reluctance to talk about such positional power in the church (or our tendency only to talk about the forms of it exercise by other people, never the forms we exercise ourselves). We (understandably) want to focus on our primary calling to interdependence and mutuality. We let the secondary realities of asymmetry and positional power drift out of focus.

The second problem arises when we, as a church, do think about the dangers that come with such positional power (fundamentally, the danger that it will undercut or betray the primary realities of mutuality and interdependence). We have a tendency to think that the dangers of positional power can be overcome by behavioural and cultural means. A sponsoring bishop might, for instance, think that the approachability, friendliness, and humility evident in their behaviour, and the collegiality of the culture that they seek to cultivate, are enough to make their positional power safe, or even irrelevant.

They are not.

Note that I am not, here, saying that positional power is inherently wrong. I will, for instance, be sitting on an interview panel in a few weeks’ time. That position will inevitably give me (working with a small group of others) power over the candidates who are interviewed (the power to decide whether they get this particular job). That power will be sharply asymmetrical: they will not have the same power over me. I don’t think that fact is in itself a problem.

I am also not saying that behavioural and cultural responses to this fact are unnecessary or unimportant. Far from it! It will clearly be essential in that interview process, for instance, that I behave respectfully and attentively, and that the panel cultivates an appropriately open atmosphere.

What I am saying is that behavioural and cultural responses are not by themselves enough to mitigate the dangers inherent in positional power. Those dangers require structural thinking.

In the case of the bishop and the ordinand, for instance, as well as thinking about behaviour and culture, we need to think about structures of accountability. That means asking questions like these: In what ways can a bishop be held accountable for the things they say and do from this position of power? How can the ordinand access those processes so as to ensure the bishop is indeed held to account? How can those processes be designed so that they don’t automatically favour those holding the ‘power over’? And so on.

It is only by a combination of cultural/behavioural thinking and structural thinking that we’re going to get anywhere. To put it aphoristically:

  • Good culture isn’t enough to make bad structure safe.
  • Good structure will be ineffective without good culture.

6.   Trust and accountability

A couple of times in the webinars, questions of trust have come up. This makes good sense. It is hard to imagine how the community of belonging can come into being unless its members are able to trust one another. It is clear that any breakdown of mutual trust will eat away at our ability to become such a community.

Mutual trust, however, goes with the other forms of mutuality and interdependence that hold together the community of belonging. I trust you because we depend upon one another, learn from one another, give to and receive from one another.

When we deal with asymmetrical relationships, and especially with those generated by positional power, we need to think more carefully about the moorings of trust.

I’d like to suggest a rule of thumb here. If you have power over me, and if I need to trust your exercise of that power, my trust is going to depend upon the accountability that surrounds your power.

It may be appropriate that the asymmetry of our relationship exists. It may be appropriate that you have and exercise this positional power. It may be true that my trust is necessary for this relationship to work well. But I need to be able to see that this asymmetric relationship is held within a more fundamental pattern of interdependence and mutuality – and, specifically, that you remain even in your exercise of this power someone who depends upon others, who receives from others, and who learns from others.

My trust is not, after all, primarily in you. I know that you act, as I do, in ignorance. I know that you are, as I am, beset by clumsiness and derailed by circumstance. I know that you are, as I am, a sinner. If I am to trust you, it will ultimately be because I trust the one who is making you a part of his Body, who is drawing you into the weave of relationships that hold that Body together. And the one who is drawing you to himself in that way is also, at the very same time, the one who stands against you to the extent that you remain sinful, and who stands against the church as it presently exists, to the extent that it exists sinfully. The trust to which I am called is not, therefore, an uncomplicated acceptance of all that you say and do, nor an uncomplicated acceptance of all that the church permits and sustains.

My trust in you will be bound up with my trust in the processes by which I see that you can be challenged and held to account. My trust in those processes will be bound up with my trust in the community that can do that challenging and holding to account. My trust in that community will be bound up with my trust in the Spirit who can raise up prophetic voices to interrupt that community and call it to repentance, and in what I see of that community’s ability to hear and respond to such voices.

Trust is inevitably complicated in a fallen world. Let me, however, risk one simple rule of thumb: Do not expect to be trusted where you cannot be held to account.

7 Thoughts on “Power in the Church of England

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 7 June 2023 | Thinking Anglicans

  2. Brian Castle on June 7, 2023 at 12:49 pm said:

    Thanks, Mike, for your thought-provoking blog. One reflection I have is whether you are overloading the word ‘power’ with meaning. I appreciate that you nuance your understandings (eg defining positional power), but some of what you write about could be understood as ‘authority.’ For instance, I would say that in today’s society bishops (especially suffragan bishops) have little power but more authority. The source of authority is different from the source of power. In case you are interested the Church Times recently published an article I wrote which essentially distinguishes power from authority (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/21-april/comment/opinion/are-cabinet-members-too-rich-to-govern or a fuller version here: https://briancastle.org/2023/02/10/where-is-the-moral-authority-in-a-political-system-dominated-by-wealth/ ) Best wishes, Brian

    • Mike Higton on June 23, 2023 at 8:46 am said:

      Thanks, Brian – and sorry not to reply more quickly. June has been a little busy. I think it’s perfectly possible to distinguish power and authority in the way you suggest – but in most of the discussions I’ve been engaging with, ‘power’ is defined rather differently, and taken as the umbrella concept, with authority (in its various forms) is taken to name one subset of the ways in which power operates. So, if you have a project in mind, one of the ways in which you might secure my contribution to that project is by exercise of your authority, if it is an authority that I recognise. I think that’s mostly a terminological difference – though I find it helpful to realise the way in which authority is *always* entangled with other factors that shape how influence works.

  3. Tim Evans on June 7, 2023 at 6:36 pm said:

    Thanks, Mike. Very helpful to tease apart culture, structure and positional power and be reminded that asymmetrical power is not intrinsically wrong.
    I would add that your approach is strongly embedded in communication theology, not a theology of communication, but theology as intrinsically communication. And that the trust that is so important for power to be exercised well and respectfully and accepted as such is only possible when communication leading to communio/community is made an absolutely top priority. So, not just, how can we communicate our message/decisions effectively? (which is the instrumental and usually top-down question) but, how can we place community at the heart of decision making through excellent mutual communication about decisions and the use of power?

  4. Mike Higton on June 23, 2023 at 8:57 am said:

    Having had a couple of conversations about this, I should add one clarification. In the final three paragraphs, on trust, I was meaning to speak primarily about relationships where there is a fixed asymmetry of power. Within an ordinary friendship, say, I know that I and my friend can hold one another to account; we might make mistakes and hurt one another, but I know that we’ll be able to sort them out together afterwards. Trust grows within the give and take of our relationship, which includes real mutual accountability – and I think we can give an account of it which focuses primarily on the dynamics of the relationship between us. I’m interested, however, in how trust works when that possibility of give and take, of holding one another informally to account, is significantly undercut or removed. It is in that context that my trust in the person who has power over me becomes tied to the ways in which they are woven into other relationships that can do what I can’t, and hold them to account. And so it is in that context that the concentric circles of accountability surrounding them come into view. Or, to put it negatively, I am worried when someone in a position of ‘power over’ calls for the kind of trust that makes sense in a context of mutual accountability, without taking account of the ways in which that mutual accountability is made impossible by their power.

  5. Thank you Mike Higton! I am quoting this blog in my ministry assignment, and more importantly, chewing on it in my ministry. I’m interested in the two overlapping but different worlds of church as institution and church as community. It feels to me like all the questions about power, leadership, relationship and accountability play out differently in these two different worlds.

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