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Clericalism is the bigger problem for all Churches

15 September 2010

Ecclesiastical models of power infantilise lay people and create conditions for abuse, argues Hugh Valentine

Much of the media coverage in preparation for the Pope’s visit has focused on the child-abuse scandals that have so damaged the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church. But I believe that the abuse should be worrying the Church of England and its sister Churches more — not the abuse itself, but the conditions that made it possible: the dangerous cul­tural and organisational predis­positions.

Sexual and emotional abuse vio­lates bodies and hearts; it is also, always, an abuse of power, whether by the adult over the child, or by a more powerful adult against another. The power may arise from sheer force of personality (or even straightforward physical power); often, it derives from a role or office that itself confers power — such as that of parent, teacher, or priest. It is here that the condition known as clericalism is relevant; for it is about power.

I don’t suppose many Anglicans think much about this. The term is used to describe church structures in which control is largely or entirely vested in the clergy. But it goes further than that: it is a condition that has the effect of infantilising the laity, pro­tecting those in control from any real reciprocal accountability, and creat­ing the conditions in which abuse (misuse of power) can both flourish and be got away with.

The current crisis in our sister Church arises from the abuse itself and the structural conditions that fostered it, and the way in which those with ecclesiastical power res­ponded to it.

What has struck me as most encouraging, amid all that has been said about the scandals, has been opinions from laity and clergy in some Roman Catholic journals and websites (including The Tablet). Con­tributors to these forums identify clericalism as a large component of the scandals, and as a significant ob­stacle to the Church’s being a faithful vehicle of the gospel. They call for a radical transformation in the way power is exercised in the Church. This would bring about an end to clerical dominance, and emancipation for the baptised.

This has a message for the Church of England. We, too, are a clerically centred Church — in some settings similar to the Roman model, in others dissimilar. The office of priest or minister tends to be not only the organising but the dom­inating principle of the local church.

True, this is often in ways that embody all that is best in the position: service, attentiveness, seriousness about the gospel, professional com­petence, and maturity and generosity, involving others. Yet it is not un­known for it to be heavy-handed, preoccupied with self, bossy, control­ling, and even exploitative or plain lazy. These are extremes of the clerical bell-curve.

Many will say, “Of course, so what?” to the idea of the priest as organising principle. Many clergy might add: “And if I did not do x, it would not get done at all.”

Perhaps so, although I wonder how often such a claim is really tested. I know Christian people who do not attend church because their experi­ence has been that it is predisposed to a model they find infantilising. It makes me wonder whether the re­verse is truer than we care to think: that many of those attracted to church come because of the power structures and their infantilising aspects.

Churches of all traditions within the Church of England display some or all of the characteristics that may foster or actually be the abuse of power: a dominant leader, free to operate without effective account­ability; centralised decision-making; immature emotional dependencies; subtle favouritisms; the freezing out of dissenters; insistence on confor­mity of thought.

We humans can exercise power in abusive ways, ranging from the blatant to the carefully disguised. Most of us, at times, practise this second, oblique kind, and, if we are conscientious, spend a lifetime seeking to transform the habit.

Clerics are equip­ped profession­ally (and often personally inclined) to be good in the “soft” skills. Em­barrassingly, “niceness” is the hall­mark of the fabled vicar. Yet it can easily conceal — and become an ob­stacle to the transformation of — harder attitudes.

None of this is limited to the parochial foot-soldiers. Bishops exer­cise power, and one might note from report and occasional experience that they do not always do so justly or wisely. Again, there is a bell-curve. The same appears to be true of some archdeacons and deans. And it can be true of all of us in circumstances in which we hold organisational power, are not effectively accountable, and can get away with it.

William Stringfellow, the great 20th-century American Episcopalian lawyer and writer, who was radical­ised by his experiences in Harlem and his reading of the Gospels, recognised the Church as a “power and prin­cipality”, capable of corruption within itself and of corrupting others. For him, the question of power was fundamental to the Gospels, and its proper and humanising use was a sign that the gospel was at least par­tially understood.

The scandal of the clerical abuse of children must disturb us deeply. More than this, it must provoke us to understand better the predisposing factors of abuses of power within our own part of the Body of Christ, and how we might address them. This is a difficult challenge, because there is little consensus that such a problem exists — and many will say it does not.

As with all ideologies and organ­isations, those of us within them can be strangely blind to the obvious about them. Being aware of the defensive responses that such a claim will surely provoke, I believe that the starting point must involve facing up to the linked features of clericalism and a disenfranchised laity, as they exist in our part of the Body of Christ.

A graphic lesson has and is being played out before our eyes. We need to learn from it.

The Revd Hugh Valentine is a former Assistant Director of Social Services, and was a Bishops’ Adviser in Child Protection and Safeguarding.

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