The use and misuse of power

Apr 29, 2021 by

David Banting reviews Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, the 2015 publication from Church House, in the light of recent revelations and insights. 


Abusus non tollit usum?[1]

All institutions now seem to have their ‘Achilles heels’. They have been exposed as the misuse of authority and power – the armed services, the police, the Government, the professions, public schools, the beautiful game of football, the Church, certainly Roman Catholic and Church of England, all have been found wanting. Most recently the more evangelical constituency within the Church has also been called out. Hot on the heels of 2020’s IICSA Reports have come the Makin report and the ThirtyOne-Eight Reports on The Crowded House and Steve Timmis and now on Jonathan Fletcher and Emmanuel Church Wimbledon. The issues highlighted by Safeguarding are everywhere. The misuse of power is abuse.


Bible sermons

During Holy Week, I heard several memorable sermons on power, good and bad power. Two were on Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry as in Matthew 21.1-11 where the headings stood out – power in Jesus’ hands was sovereign power over the details of his journey and even of his own death, humble power on a donkey and selfless power to save; and Jesus before Pilate in John 19.1-16 – ‘Here is the man’, the real man who is the ‘God of the abused’ and the representative man (see Bruce Milne’s BST commentary on these verses). Two more for Wednesday and Maundy Thursday on the ‘full extent of Jesus’ love’ symbolised in the foot-washing in John 13.1-17 – ‘Do you understand what I have done for you? … I have left you an example’. They were powerful, but perhaps because they were also supplemented and pushed home by a number of books that were recommended to me – what I might call the wisdom of the world and of the Church.


Recommended reading

They were recommended as ‘obligatory reading’ by people who were trying to come to terms with what has been disclosed in recent months. I mention them in the order in which they were drawn to my attention, and I do not claim they are exhaustive:

  • Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse – creating healthy Christian cultures (2019), by Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphries, directors in ThirtyOne-Eight   
  • When Narcissism comes to Church – healing your community from emotional and spiritual abuse (2020), by Chuck DeGroat
  • Redeeming Power – understanding authority and power in the Church (2020), by Diane Langberg   
  • Imperative People – those who must be in control (1992), by Les Carter 
  • Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership – becoming effective leaders by confronting potential failures (2007: Gary Mcintosh and Sam Rima) – the main component in the Arrow Leadership


Wisdom of the world?

The Bible and other books are good resources for thinking through the issues of the use and misuse of power or authority in Christian ministry. However, I have lived too long with hearing fellow-evangelicals say (or imply): ‘We have the Bible’s teaching or direction, why do we need anything else?’ I am tempted to think that that has not helped us be as wise and emotionally or relationally intelligent or as safe and protected as we could and should have been. The recent 31.8 Report has also suggested that some evangelicals are so out of communication or communion with their diocesan officers and service that they think they do not need them. So I wish, I dare, to suggest that recourse to a bit of the wisdom of the Church and the wisdom of the world may be timely and helpful.


Wisdom of the Church

For that reason I commend the little booklet published by Church House entitled Guidelines to the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. Quite apart from being necessary and required reading every year for the clergy, it is astonishingly unknown and unused. It is fundamentally about the privileges and responsibilities of the clergy. The Preface is written by that doughty warrior for orthodoxy and historic and legal authority, Stephen Trott, who states that this is ‘the fount of wisdom and experience of clergy to clergy’. It is entirely frameworked on The Ordinal (Common Worship 2007) – that should make it a delight to evangelicals. With the provisions of the Clergy Discipline Measure and Clergy Terms of Service, it a crucial background to Safeguarding in the Church.


The Ordinal

The start-point for the framework and for its elaboration is The Ordinal. I was involved in the Revision of the Ordinal for Common Worship and had my bluff well and truly called when, as a preliminary to a Study Edition being printed, I was asked to identify and record every Scriptural text used or alluded to within its text for foot-notes. I was at once out of my depth and called in historical and liturgical help from the revered Roger Beckwith. The outcome for me personally (apart from much sweat and midnight oil) was the appreciation of the staggering debt to the Scriptures, not least the Pastoral Epistles, that this liturgical text owes. It is suffused with Biblical phrases and understandings. No wonder evangelicals have always loved the BCP Ordinal and its heirs as key components of the Formularies of our Catholic and Reformed Church of England. That alone is enough to commend these Guidelines.

However, I will continue to summarise their content as a further incentive to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ their wisdom at this time of great vulnerability and challenge to evangelical Anglicans. There are fourteen sections: Calling, Care, Reconciliation, Mission, Ministry at deepest times of need, Servant Leadership, Learning and Teaching, Faith, Public Ministry, Life and Conduct, Discipline, Trust, Well-being, and Care for the Carers. The penultimate section prompts a parallel reading of The Covenant for Clergy Well-being, recently passed by General Synod (a good piece of work, for which all clergy can and should rejoice) and offering thoughtful insights and support.


Power Texts

The paragraphs that are explicitly about power are 2.4, 12.2, and 14.5. These may be thought few, but their whole surrounding context and wisdom is crucial in such a document. The issues of clergy ‘power’ reminded me of my work as a Pastoral Selector in Bishops’ Advisory Panels (BAPs), as they were till recently called and set up. After being initially surprised and, if I am honest, a little disappointed to be designated as a ‘Pastoral’ Selector, whose focus was not on what I thought the headline categories of Vocation, Faith and Mission, but on those subjective, soft categories of Personality & Character, Relationships & Collaboration, Leadership & Communication. Later years in ministry taught me, sometimes painfully, how absolutely vital these soft categories were – almost invariably it was in these areas that clergy ministry came unstuck or broke down. My favourite question, almost deliberately expressed in what might look like gobbledygook, but in fact using routine professional language, was: ‘What do you understand as the dangers inherent in professional relationships, and how do you personally guard yourself?’ As silence invariably followed, I had to stave off the temptation to rephrase the question or even offer some help for the candidate even to begin to engage with the concepts, let alone articulate anything. It was a great learning exercise. Most got there eventually, often through the parallel professions of teachers or doctors – individuals who are given very high degrees of authority, access and trust to the minds, hearts and even bodies of those they oversee, and whose very positions, if unaware and misused or, worse, abused, can lead to such violation and harm. It seems to take a long time for ministers to accept that they do have a very real form of power and authority in their calling which is given a very high degree of trust. So it is not only Caveat Emptor, but Caveat Sacerdos.

The Guidelines end with an expected call to clergy to be found ‘worthy of their calling’ (as in Ephesians 4.1). Bible folk might recall and add ‘worthy of the gospel’ (Philippians 1.27), ‘worthy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1.10), and ‘worthy of God’ (1 Thessalonians 2.12).


Theological Reflection

But there is a PS, a big PS, in the shape of A Theological Reflection. I urge readers not to shy off the author for any past credentials or critiques. It does not do for us too quickly to take the position of moral or theological high ground. Personally I have not found anything quite like this short essay anywhere else, and I am profoundly grateful. He starts with pragmatic considerations about the present climate of the need for Clergy Discipline and Safeguarding, then moves on to the concepts of professions and professional responsibility, of Covenant obligations, of the distinctive depth of Agape, and of the importance of virtue. Under Agape, the five operational principles of pastoral counselling and the five types of power alternated between blistering and blinding. To see types of power so succinctly analysed into which were positive, negative or neutral was ridiculously revelatory. To be reminded of how important character is above every gift, skill and achievement was as powerful as it was obvious – the deliberate and persistent cultivation, in private as well as public, of a Christian, Christ-like character.


Stand firm in the grace of God

There are brief appendices on The Ministry of Absolution, the Documents referred to in the text and Safeguarding and other relevant documents. However, the last word of the text itself is simple and obvious, but, after the weight and depth of preceding 31 pages, is all the more profound and necessary. Christians, and par excellence Christian ministers, live by grace. I came away with allusions of Ephesians 2.8 and Romans 15.7 echoing round my mind and heart: As Christ has loved you, forgiven you, welcomed you, accepted you, so love, forgive, welcome and accept others – as by grace you have been saved, so live by grace, show grace to all.


The Revd Canon David Banting, Vicar, St Peter’s Harold Wood 1998-2018; Member, General Synod 1995-2000; 2005-2021; CPAS Patronage Trustee: 1995-present; Trustee of Anglican Mainstream 2004-2021.

[1] The abuse of something does not negate its good use.


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