Power for God’s sake

This weekend my attention was drawn to an obituary in The Daily Telegraph of Brandon Jackson, a strong-minded Evangelical cleric who as Dean of Lincoln became embroiled in acrimony with the four canons who constituted the rest of the cathedral chapter. It makes for sorry reading.

However, as the obituary makes clear, feuding in the Lincoln leadership pre-dated Brendon Jackson’s arrival. When Oliver Twisleton-Wykham-Fiennes, Brendon Jackson’s predecessor, became dean, the canons of that time were engaged in a battle with the Bishop of Lincoln over the place that women might or might not have in the cathedral’s life.

But what the obituary did not make clear is that the roots of  feuding in Lincoln went back to the Middle Ages. According to the official report of Brian Thorne and Kathleen Baker, who were brought in by the Bishop of Lincoln to act as mediators between the protagonists, the conflict, marked by ‘the presence of fear and rage within the group and of a sense of intolerable pain have probably permeated the Lincoln environment for centuries’ and they operate in complete opposition to the spirit of the cathedral statutes, which require collegiality and co-operation based on an atmosphere of trust’.

Sadly power struggles in God’s church have not been limited to Lincoln. Time and again, in churches of every denomination and ‘stream’, power has been misused and people have been abused. Power has been exercised as though it were for God’s sake, even though the real underlying issues may have had nothing to do with God himself.

As one of my former deacons, who had developed an interest in the psychodynamics of power, wrote to me: ‘The most damaging abuse of power is that which happens unconsciously, whereby those misappropriating the power may well be unaware of their actions or of the repercussions. No one is immune – indeed, quite often it is those who are most well-meaning and concerned for others who fall prey because is it a learnt pattern developed from the primary caregivers around them in their formative years: i.e. the authority figures that made up their childhood in the home, church and school… The difficulty for many of us is that abusive patterns of relating feel “normal” because of course in the world which we developed that was normal.”

I find it interesting that Martyn Percy, who over the years developed an interest in the use and abuse of power in the church, was himself embroiled in a very public and long-running dispute between himself as dean of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford and the governing body of Christchurch. Eventually last year Martyn Percy stepped down, but only after the payment of substantial sum had been paid to him in compensation; and at the same time the college was left with millions of pounds of costs which the governing body had spent in pursuing the dispute.

All this makes his preface to my book Power for God’s Sake, published in 1998, of significance:

What kind of ‘power-model’ does Jesus connote to the would-be church leader? If a church is absolutist in its testimony to the power of God, does it follow that in its ecclesial formation the maxim ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ will eventually describe the leadership? How can churches be empowered by individuals without being overpowered by the same? What forms of theological and practical discernment can be brought to bear on issues of power?

In my own conclusion in Power for God’s Sake, referring to the troubles at Lincoln, I wrote that the troubles at Lincoln can be paralleled many times over:

There are Christian institutions where the leadership has almost perpetually been dogged by unhappiness, and at times by outright conflict. In such it would appear that there has been some kind of institutional ‘virus’, evil in nature, which has never been dealt with properly. The cast has changed, but not the plot.


  1. I remember Brandon Jackson when I was a student at Leeds University and he was the curate at St George’s Leeds which I attended. At least he was not dull! Now in my seventies I regret to say that I have been aware of too many painful power struggles in different churches. Mediation works if all parties are willing to engage in the process. All those in leadership need people who will ‘tell truth to power’.

  2. It’s also interesting that churches (and other organisations) can inherit a “Conflict DNA”. I really struggled with power centres in one church I pastored; the pursuit and maintenance of power by some individuals was constant but, as you say, possibly unconscious. What was interesting though was something that happened when newspaper archives became, for a while, freely available online through the local Library. The report of a Induction about 115 years before my arrival expressed the hope that the new minister would not encounter the difficulties encountered by his predecessor! This was a church which thought of itself as the “top” Nonconformist chapel in the town and was both bankrolled and governed by a number of prominent local business families.

  3. I have two recollections of Brandon Jackson, both good. When I was a teenager in Keighley, he came as a preacher to one of our “Keighley for Christ” rallies, with powerful effect. His preaching affected a number of people significantly. Many years later, when my Dad lived in Pilgrim Homes, one of his fellow residents was a retired vicar who was converted through Jackson’s ministry. He had lived in Keighley in the 1950s, as I did and worked as a bus conductor, totally hostile to Christianity, until he met Brandon Jackson. A marvellous testimonial.

  4. So what’s new? Division has always been one of the Devil’s most powerful tools. Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves as to who should be the greatest. The first matter Paul takes up in 1 Corinthians is division:

    “11 For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.

    12 Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.

    13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”

    So it’s hardly surprising that there has always been dissension among clerics, especially where a position of authority brings considerable power with it.

    Sadly, the words of Jesus in Matthew 20.26 – “It will not be so among you, but whoever wants to be great among you, let him be one who waits on you” – have too often been ignored.

    The Anglican Church isn’t helping itself. A report coverd in the Times this week says that a high proportion of Anglican clergy think Christianity is doomed because the Church doesn’t keep up with modern (or should I say post-modern) thinking.

    But thank God for the remnant that hold fast to the Gospel of Christ!

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