by Alan Jeans
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018

This is the second book by Roger Payne, a Reader in the Church of England.

His first, A different way: A human approach to the Divine, explored the use of language and the meaning of words. From that book, he believed the word ‘authority’ needed reassessment, particularly when applied to ‘religious authority’. The authority of service and love seeks to show that our understanding of authority must change if we are to be true to the message of Jesus.

The early chapters summarize the roots of the word ‘authority’ and move to a thumbnail sketch of Augustine and Aquinas and early Christian understandings, through to the Reformation and Richard Hooker. Payne uses reflections from contemporary commentators including Paul Avis, N.T. Wright, Martyn Percy and Alister McGrath to punctuate the historical narrative. Payne concludes:

as the Christian Church grew in size and influence, it also claimed increasing authority and wielded greater power.

It is the abuse of power, and the crisis of authority in the Church, including the publication in 1968 of Humanae Vitae and the ‘Monkey Trial’ debates of creationism verses evolutionism in the USA, that leads Payne into exploring responses to religious authority.

Our responses, Payne concludes, are drawn from our psychological foundations, including fear and anxiety, need and dependence, habit and herd instinct; and lead into growth, creativity and being. The rationale and conclusions are again drawn from a plethora of authors from Jung, Freud, Maslow and Tillich.

I found the concluding section on extremism in religious authority connecting with our concerns around the contemporary debate on radicalization, and fundamentalism in religious teaching and authority. This, together with recent media interest in spiritual abuse by clergy, focused my attention on Payne’s coverage of authoritarianism, dogmatism and fundamentalism. Payne draws from Jack Dominian, who I confess I’d not read since studying marriage preparation at theological college thirty years ago! Dominian has some interesting thoughts around authority and personality.

Payne concludes his book by underlining and unpacking the book’s title. He suggests authority is a hierarchical top-down approach, whereas service is bottom-up. He quotes Dominian and Jesus Christ to remind us that service is the hallmark of the use of authority in the New Testament:

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.

The polarization of both extreme religious teaching, and the rise of militant atheism, calls for a solution to this new but not so new, crisis.

The solution, Payne cleverly sets out from his first book A different way: A human approach to the Divine, is to explore further what it means to be human. Payne states [p.165],

Progress will not be made in tackling the ‘crisis of authority’ until our image of God is worthy of the authority we ascribe to him.

The book is an easy read, and offers a number of questions for the reader, Christian or not. The text challenges us to reflect, as we seek to understand the authority entrusted to us, and how that authority is given and received.

It would make a useful tool for a book group, especially for clergy and lay ministers, as they explore this unavoidable topic.

Alan Jeans is Archdeacon of Sarum, in the Diocese of Salisbury