Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
This video will be released on Ascension day and in a tradition established over the last three years, I have sought a high vantage point. I’m very grateful today for exclusive access to the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral where I’ve just attended a service of thanksgiving for the Clergy Support Trust.
As it always falls on a Thursday, the Ascension is often side-lined in our liturgical celebrations and quickly forgotten. But in Christian theology the event provides a crucial marker in our understanding of Jesus. It is in effect his coronation: a vindication of his life, death and resurrection, and restoration of his place in glory as the second person of the Trinity. It is evidence of his supreme authority and gives clear to support to disciples calling him Lord. This is not simply an honorary title, but an acknowledgement of his divinity and absolute authority over our lives.
As Jesus said to the disciples at the end of Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me therefore go and make disciples.” One of the questions Jesus and his disciples were asked frequently was, “by what authority are you doing these things?” the ancient world had an established hierarchical system both religious and political. It didn’t encourage individual initiative. Those in authority expected people to do as they were told. When the disciples were told under pain of beating and imprisonment to stop preaching the gospel the religious leaders were flabbergasted when they went straight back out again after being released from prison. Jesus authority, indeed command for them to preach superseded all other authorities.
Today our relationship with authority is much more ambivalent. In an individualistic culture no-one likes being told what to do. If a policeman gave an instruction to do something 25 years ago it was likely to be obeyed – nowadays it’s a likely to be greeted with expletives. There are some good aspects to this. Its much more difficult to hide immoral actions behind a cloak of authority. We are used to subjecting leaders to scrutiny. We are much more aware of how authority can be abused, especially in religious contexts. Spiritual abuse is a form of psychological abuse in which religious texts are manipulated to compel conformity. It is rare, but real as recent cases have shown.
But authority and power are not restricted to those in positions of leadership. The Clergy Support Trust will have helped clergy over the past year who have been subject to bullying by members of their own congregations. I’ve seen such behaviour here in my two years at Hereford. If clergy misbehave we can discipline them through proper channels – we can’t do much if its the other way around. It’s not difficult for legitimate pastoral expectations of our clergy to evolve into unreasonable demands, particularly if we remember a day when our vicar had just one or two parishes to look after rather than eight. Clarifying expectations will be an important part of our diocesan strategy.
Authority when used well is a gift. It empowers people, releases missional energy, gives security and safety. The way to ensure it is used properly is to model its use on that of Jesus. His authority was exercised with vulnerability, honesty and emotional intelligence. His interactions caused people to examine their own hearts and own for themselves the right direction to go. Authority that is exercised after the building of relational capital allows us to ask the awkward and challenging questions without bullying. If people know the person in authority loves them and wants the best for them it makes change and development a real possibility.
The remedy for the bad use of authority is not anarchy but the right use. The current relative success of the Ukrainian army in the war is an example of two types of authority. Russia’s is command and control with little care for the canon fodder on the front line. Ukraine’s allows for individual initiative, is permissive around loosely agreed goals. One sides morale is at rock bottom despite their military might. Ukraine’s seems to remain buoyant despite the suffering and loss. Russia’s might may achieve the control of territory, but it will not command the loyalty of occupied hearts.
At a time of change and crisis understanding the possibilities and limits of authority are vital, if we are to achieve the renewal of missional effectiveness we all want to see.