Alison Webster: Being Critically WhiteMay 16, 2023
From the Holy Mountain: Demographic Decline in the Church of EnglandJune 15, 2023
The coronation was a triumph – visually, logistically and symbolically. A man in his seventies, weighed down by the crown and robes of the peculiars (in the monarchical sense of the word) of his office, allows himself to be made vulnerable, a vulnerability movingly focused into the moment of unclothing which precedes his anointing, suggesting a vulnerability in leadership that is dependent on trust.
All of this invites reflection on leadership, power and trust in the context of the Church that surrounds and underpins this event. There are three areas that pertain directly to a discussion of power in regard to trust and vulnerability in leadership: collegiality, accountability and authority. The first, collegiality, is the area most in need of attention when it comes to how the Church sees itself as the body of Christ, and to how the world sees the Gospel being lived out at the heart of its life, and in the higher echelons of power.
I understand collegiality to be a working relationship between colleagues, as defined in the Oxford dictionary. Understood in this way, and in the life of the Church, collegiality is the spirit of egalitarianism which ought to give equal weight to the gifts of every single one of its members, beginning with the least among them, its regular worshippers. All must honour, or bear the burden of, the giftedness of others. Clericalism and status envy have no place in such a scenario. Clericalism, and the kind of leadership it models runs counter to any idea of collegiality.
Collegial leadership requires trust, not only in our ability to overcome destructive feelings of envy, feelings that are too easily fomented in a climate of career opportunism (clericalism at its worst), but trust in a God in whom ultimate power and authority rests. Where there is this Godly trust, in the level playing field of collegial leadership, leaders, with the concurrence of those they are called to serve, might judge and delegate according to the measure of the gifts at their disposal, gifts that should be discernibly matched by an equal measure of moral and spiritual integrity in the person who holds them. The majority of these people may not be ordained, but the Church, as an organisation, relies on their presence, and so ought to rely equally on their gifts, both spiritual and practical, for its existence.
The Church is a curious hybrid in this respect, half-way between being an organisation and a spiritual body. These two identities do not sit well together. Issues of power and control tend to dominate, with the result that power, influence and control are exercised alongside a paradoxically laissez faire attitude to bullying. This begs further questions regarding what it is that the Church, as an organisation, does to turn people into bullies, or to attract them to its service in the first place, the chief of which is arguably the attraction to power. Bullies, in almost any context, are people who feel a need to be in control, often due to an innate lack of confidence in their ability to rise to the demands of a job or life situation.
This brings me to my next two points in regard to the issues that pertain to power, and to its abuse in the Church: accountability and authority. The two are closely linked but not inseparable. With power almost uniquely vested in those at the top end of the ordained ranking system, authority is reduced to the demand for puerile obedience, doing as you’re told in deference to perceived power and, in some cases, to an individual’s need to feel they are in control. As a result of this, accountability is reduced to a fear of whoever has the most power. This has the effect of making those who require such obedience seem weak, if only because there appears to be very little in the way of genuine moral strength (especially in regard to facing down bullies) behind the trappings and bureaucratic encumbrances of high office.
The culture of deference, and the anxiety which it generates, in turn disempowers both clergy and laity and, as a result, makes it very difficult for them to question what it requires of them together as Church; what they are to be and how they should act. Clergy consider themselves bound by an oath of allegiance which perpetuates this culture of deference and everyone else succumbs to its aura in an attitude of complacency which can sometimes involve actual moral laziness, whereby justice is avoided in the interest of a spurious peace. The bishop upholds or placates the bully (who might be a cleric or a member of a congregation), deeming themselves powerless to do anything else, while the victim is left to cope emotionally on their own, as I have found in my own experience of being bullied, in one case by a fellow cleric, and, in another, unsupported by a colleague when on the receiving end of bullying from a disturbed person in one of our congregations. Bullies flourish where this kind of silence, or ‘gaslighting’, is allowed or, at times, enforced. ‘Gaslighting’ undermines trust at every level of the Church’s life. So how might we re-think the base on which the Church’s structures depend, so as to make trust something that is not just talked about, but lived out in its life?
We might begin by up-ending the notion of accountability, making those in powerful positions directly accountable to the people. This up-ending exercise might also serve to bridge the gap created by the conceptual separation that exists between clergy and people and between clergy and bishops, both of which contribute to a growing sense of separation in regard to non-church going people and the institution which their local church building represents to them. Non-church goers do not, on the whole, understand clericalism, so they do not trust the Church. They discern the existential gap which seems to exist between clergy and people, bestowing on the clergy a kind of aura that few clerics feel comfortable with, when they stop to think about it, and which the world outside the church’s doors finds incomprehensible and impenetrable.
All of this promotes, and depends on, the climate of deference to which I referred earlier and on which most of the assumptions about authority in the Church rest. There are of course structural and procedural aspects of the Church’s life, in regard to how clergy are often diminished in their own eyes and in the eyes of everyone else. These include the Clergy Discipline Measure and its almost total disregard for modern employment laws and practices, bureaucracy of all kinds, centralisation, strategies and action plans which sap a church’s spiritual life, financial and numerical pressure (the successful church ethic) and anxiety about ‘relevance’, to name only a few.
But to return to the question of trust, and to the absence of trust which foments bullying; is it then perhaps time that the idea of authority, as it is understood in episcopally led Churches, be reviewed and brought more in line with the concepts of collegiality and accountability, as I have described them? Let the people look after those who minister to them. Let the ministers, including bishops, be accountable to their people, and the Church would be a happier and safer place for all of us.