Re-thinking power and the Church

By John Gillibrand
July 3, 2020

“We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Let us pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.”

As an Anglican priest, when I celebrate the Eucharist, I am constantly reminded of how amazing it is to be in the presence of, and to be part of, the body of Christ in that place. The local congregation as Christ’s body, in association with other Christian congregations locally, making Christ present to the community in which we are set. We sometimes fail to recognise how wonderful – how filled with wonder – our gathering for worship is. 

And apart from the wonder, there is the church as an institution. Institutionalisation came early in Christian history. It would be possible to see this in the ministry of St Paul, that great founder and consolidator of local Christian congregations. It could even be said that this enables our mission, because we are talking to those who are like us. The church as an institution shares in the problems of all institutions. The traditional problem of institutions is the abuse of power, and the Anglican Church, alongside other Christian denominations, and Christian faith-based foundations, has not been immune from this. Yet perhaps the problem is not with the abuse of power but with power itself. 

The French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that relationships of power are present in all social relationships, and that relationships of power are inevitable in such relationships. Foucault’s conception of power included the resistances to it: when we resist the power of others over us, we generate the power which is applied to us. Foucault spoke of problematisation. He postulated power as a problem. 

It has been said that when the Iron Curtain fell, capitalism moved East, and Soviet systems of control moved West. Many people, trapped within the structures of a new managerialism, would recognise the reality of Foucault’s commentary. There is perhaps no place in which the relations of power are more on display than in a manager’s appraisal of an individual worker, and the choice is always between resistance and compliance. Those engaged in the pastoral work of the church recognise all too well the pastoral consequences: the anger which goes with a loss of control over one’s own situation, the mental distress which goes with internalising unaccountable injustice. The lack of accountability arises exactly because this is a non-equidistant power relationship. Power is exactly the problem. 

Endless pastoral energies are invested in sorting out the consequences of this situation in the lives of individuals, or rather failing to offer solutions, and doing our best to get alongside those who are  the victims of the operations  of power, to share in their difficult journey.  But we can do better than this, by not only caring for individuals but by addressing the systemic problems which so beset their lives and ours. Maybe Foucault was wrong. Maybe there is a way of living outside power relationships. The church has so often failed historically to provide safe spaces. But maybe that is our true calling – that the door of each church building in the land should be an entry into a space where the usual crushing burdens of power do not apply. 

Now we all know churches that are not like that; we may not know any church that is like that. Yet acknowledging the reality of the power play that can be going on in the average parochial church council or coffee morning or Bible study group, and most certainly goes on in the meetings of the General Synod, or here in Wales in the meetings of the Governing Body, does not allow us to dodge our calling, any more than the reality of who we are as individuals allows us to dodge who we are called to be. Equally, you might say that this is a strange way of thinking for a church with an episcopal order, the classically Foucauldian disciplinary and overseeing gaze. Yet is exactly that order, which embeds the operations of power into our identity as the body of Christ, that enables and facilitates our reflection upon those operations of power. For an Anglican such reflection is inevitable, yet it belongs to the episcopal calling to model for all the ways in which power can be exercised, otherwise.

In this endeavour, we have ample resources in Scripture. A story in St Matthew’s Gospel, (20.20-28) paralleled in St Mark (10.35-45), shows Jesus responding to the bid of the mother of Zebedee for places of power for her sons in his kingdom – a power grab – with an acknowledgement that there are indeed such places of power, but he calls the fractious disciples aside and tells them that, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them.  It shall not be this way among you.” (verses 25-26) St Paul’s letter to the Philippians has a kenotic Christology: Jesus emptied himself, “and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –  even death on a cross.” (2.7-8) It is when he divests himself of power that our salvation is wrought. 

Even St Paul, so assertive in his rights as a Christian leader, and seeking so much control over the lives of different Christian congregations, knows that it is weakness that matters, not power. He prayed to be delivered from an unspecified trouble, a thorn in the flesh. According to Paul, God’s response to his prayer is “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore”, says Paul “I most gladly will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10) Power is acknowledged, but it is weakness that counts. Weakness transcends power. 

So what are the consequences of all of this? 

In terms of the mission of the church, we resolve a key issue in theodicy. In the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, so many will have asked the age-old question: “If an almighty and all-loving God exists, why doesn’t that God step in to sort this out? How can God leave humanity in such appalling pain?” The prayers of so many will have been disappointed. Yet, just as we are called to do power otherwise, so God’s power itself is otherwise. God’s crown, the crown of Jesus, is a crown of thorns, and from beneath that crown, he echoes the cry of suffering humanity, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46. Mark 15.34) 

Foucault took us away from thinking about power as sovereignty to thinking about power diffused in all social relationships. On the cross we see God himself caught up in, and killed by, that network of power relations. None of this stops me, or any of us, from praying, but it is to a God like that that I bring my prayers. Power comes into play when God the Father raises his Son from the grave. Even in a time of Coronavirus, there is hope. God is almighty. Until we get our theodicy right, we are blocked from effective mission. People do not come to church (when they can) because they are disappointed in the God that they think we worship. 

Just as the renewal of our thinking about power transforms our mission, so it transforms our ministry. Foucault traced the roots of Western thinking about power in general to its roots in the development of pastoral power in the early church. I began full-time ordained ministry as an Anglican cleric in 1988. In all those years, I have refused to see pastoral work as the exercising of power over the lives of others. I hope that I have succeeded, because the exercise of power is a constant temptation. Rather, it is always meant to be dialogue, it is always a sharing of the journey as we encounter one another. In true Anglican style, my resources for that journey have been Holy Scripture, the tradition of the church, and rational reflection on the situations in which I and others have found ourselves. 

The continuing debates about equal marriage, and ‘issues in human sexuality’ have at their heart a fundamental mistake: we are not here to exercise power over the lives of others. When the risen Jesus spoke of our teaching others ‘to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28.20), it was in the context in which there is no other commandment greater than loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and loving “your neighbour as yourself.”(Mark 12:29-31) In Matthew, “on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets”. (22:40) “Do this”, he told the lawyer before he told him the story of the Good Samaritan, “and you will live.” (Luke 10:28) In love, that is the only condition, that it leads to life. It is in the nature of power to be conditional; it is in the nature of God’s love that it is unconditional. 

We are told by voices both within and outside the church that we live in a secular age. So much of the thinking in the church about the church is determined by that. There is a longing to restore our former power. We will not truly be ourselves until we forget power, and seek to love with the same unconditionality that God loves us. In the secular world, that is – generally – not what people experience. We all know that. What we do not realise is the priceless gift that we are called by God to share, and as we share, transforming our relationships with those around us into something a lot better than power relationships. 

I was very struck recently by a quotation from the late Professor Gary Lease, back in in 1994. "Religions thus become the most finely tuned examples of power structures, patterns of force which control human lives and dictate how they are to be conducted. Make no mistake about it: religions are about power, about the power to be given you and about the power which controls us.”  [1]  In respect of the faith community to which I belong, I know precisely why he says this, but I also know exactly why, with respect, I disagree. Let us forget power, and live but no longer for ourselves. We are not to do with power but empowerment – we must wait in the city, until we are clothed with power from on high. Knowing such empowerment for ourselves, our life is to empower all.

[1] Gary Lease, ‘The History of “Religious” Consciousness and the Diffusion of Culture: Strategies for Surviving Dissolution’, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 20, no. 3 (1994): 274.


© John Gillibrand is Vicar of Pontarddulais with Penllergaer, in the Church in Wales Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. He is an Ekklesia associate, writer and independent scholar. His other writings for Ekklesia can be found here.

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