A quick primer on power and the Church of England

Sculptor Kevin Stone's image of power and authority. It's for sale.

Power is a complex term, the Church is a slippery organization, and very few people address the combination directly except, perhaps, to complain.

[Note 1 In the literature on the Church of England there is one book I can bring to mind and a couple of articles which overtly address power – and a vast literature on authority. This is not an accident].

This is prologue to the questions: what is, should be, could be the proper relationships between bishops, clergy and laity in the Church of England? How should the Church of England be constituted?

My working definitions:
· Power – the capacity to effect or prevent change
· Authority – the right to take decisions.

Neither power nor authority are objects or object-like (notwithstanding all the language which treats them as such) [ Note 2: That is, there is a body of literature which conceptualises power in this way. I reject it: it serves those who hold power]
. Power and authority are relational (i.e. exercised between people) and, though either may be latent, both exist only insofar as they are exercised.

Both are essential: power is what makes anything happen and stops anything else [Note 3: This is a distributed model of power in which, bar complete extremes, everyone has some power and some people have a lot]
. Authority says what’s right. Together they form the organizational foundation which sustains society.

· Power is always limited
· Authority is always contested

Both power and its limits are visible whenever power is exercised.

Authority is created in the process of overcoming those who would contest it.

Neither can stand still. Each has its own internal logic which is inherently imperial – power, to be recognised, has to be exercised over others; authority, to be sustained, has to defeat those who would contest it. The greater the concentration of power or higher the claim to authority the more the needs for enemies.

Power and authority are inherently unstable: like a pile of sand they must continually be built up or tide and time will simply wash them away.

Power and authority
Power and authority are thus clearly separable. They are also intimately connected. In particular:
· Those who use power crave legitimacy. Thus authority serves those with power.
· The claim to authority is not authority. It is, however, also a claim to the right to power. Thus power is bent to the service of those with authority.
· The claim to authority is also a claim for deference. To fail to defer is to challenge the illusion of authority and to expose its lack of power.
· The claim of moral authority is a demand for deference in the explicit acknowledgement of the lack of power.
· On the other hand, there is no point claiming power you don’t have – threats that are exposed as empty merely render you ridiculous.
· The grounds of the claim to authority, and thus to the legitimacy of action, are never [Note 4: So far as I can conceive today]
coterminous with action. There is always discontinuity between authority and power, intention and action, legitimation and result.

Therefore there is always the possibility, and maybe always the probability, that any action will contradict the stated reasons (whether in the manner of those actions or the results) and new post hoc legitimation will always be needed.

Curiously these inbuilt disconnections are also the grounds of hope: power is limited and authority contested and nothing lasts forever. This is politics: what made and maintains one configuration of authority and power can always unmake it and create another.

Jurisdiction [Note 5: Etymologically, ‘law-speaking’]
, in the normal course of events, is the codification of authority and power in harness.

A jurisdiction is a declaration of who has authority to make certain decisions within defined bounds. The bounds would frequently include: subject matter, geographic territory, persons subject to the jurisdiction, and due process. It generally (though not inevitably) also specifies the terms on which coercive power may be used to implement decisions properly made within the jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction is generally a nested hierarchy. Lower levels may be constrained along any of the bounds which constrain that jurisdiction (e.g. Magistrates Courts can only hear cases related to their geographic area and can’t hear more serious cases; when they deal with civil matters, e.g. licensing, they do so under different rules). Lower levels are controlled by higher levels which can generally review and, if thought necessary, reverse lower level decisions.

Bishops have jurisdiction (their function as ‘ordinary’) over their diocese, its clergy and lay people, in matters relating to doctrine, worship and the discipline of clergy. They do so in accordance with legislation and in consultation with other bishops. However there is no higher level of hierarchy: there is no body which can review or reverse their decisions (though in some areas it may be possible to challenge the exercise of their jurisdiction in secular courts and tribunals).

Bishops, power and authority
Bishops have no power over the laity (effectively lost in the C18). Their power over clergy is generally more persuasive than directive. Power over appointments is a strong lever.

(I’m not up top date on progress towards common tenure for clergy. Hitherto freehold has nominally left clergy impervious to episcopal power and those with licences wholly dependent on episcopal power, even if the reality was much more blurred.)

Such power that bishops do have is generally reactive and negative – the power to prevent change but not the power to effect change.

Bishops have little power but they claim high authority. They expect deference (some more overtly than others).

The Church is not a democracy. However few people take the next step of then saying how, in political terms, the Church of England should be designated. I suggest that the Church is a constitutional monarchy, like the British State. However in the State the emphasis is on the constitution; in the Church the emphasis is still on the monarchical. Making the Standing Committee of the Diocesan Synod the Bishops Council was a deliberate fudging of centres of power in favour of the Diocesan bishop. The bishop’s council (cf. Privy Council) is a court. Influence in a diocese (a milder but real form of power) stems from the goodwill of the bishop, and is sustained by continued access to the bishop’s ear.

(Incidentally this is organizationally dysfunctional and works counter to any possibility of a ‘learning organization’. Influence comes from telling the prince what he wants to hear. If influence depends on continuing to have the ear of the bishop then it is not in your interests to share your knowledge with anyone else. It is in your interests to exclude other sources of information in your area of knowledge – like using ‘pre-emergence’ weedkiller to keep potential competitors from ever seeing the light of day.)

Bishops, clergy, laity
The creation of synodical structures (in 1919 and 1970) were deliberate attempts to include the laity in the government of the Church. The particular structures of Synod reflect the attempt to incorporate the laity without reducing the power of the bishop.

General Synod was a trade-off with Parliament. In effect it allowed the laity the minimum voice possible which would enable church leaders to persuade Parliament to transfer to it jurisdiction over worship and doctrine (in the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974), a goal that had been sought since at least the 1840s.

A key element is ‘consultation’. Where those who are consulted must give their assent they have real power to stop change. Where they do not they are, at best, advisors. At worst they merely provide additional legitimation for actions that those with power wish to take on other grounds.

In General Synod it is possible for one House to refuse assent to proposed Measures (or other votes). Both clergy and laity thus have a veto and thus also constructive power in the shaping of Measures. Diocesan Synods were intended to parallel General Synod: the bishop cannot have his views overridden in synodical decision making and every effort is made to ensure that such a possibility is not exposed by avoiding putting bishops in the position where they would be forced to exercise their power of veto.

Since the creation of General Synod, and especially since the mid-1980s, I believe there has been a steady assertion of the authority and power of bishops at the expense of both clergy and laity.

I also believe that the laity are the heart of the Church. I think the centre of worship should be in the nave, not the chancel. I know that the whole superstructure rests on funds provided by the laity. I suspect that the ratio of paying laity : all clergy : senior staff and bishops has been shifting towards the clergy as a whole and towards the more expensive clergy in particular. I am convinced that a church which excludes the laity from doctrinal debate and engagement is thereby impoverished and (lacking any serious notion of reception) is ecclesiologically deformed.

And the greater the claim that bishops know best the bigger the mess will be made of things.

I suggest a thought experiment: mentally remove each class of laity, clergy, bishops, and see what remains: would there still be a church without any one of these groups?

Paul Bagshaw

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