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The Church, Authority, and Foucault by Steven G. Ogden

06 October 2017

John Saxbee has his doubts about a choice of ally against prelacy

“IN THIS book, the focus is on the meaning and practice of ecclesial authority.” So Steven Ogden, an Australian Anglican rector and theological lecturer, summarises his project.

By “ecclesial authority” he means church leaders in general, and bishops in particular — and he pulls no punches. He goes on: “I suspect the problem with church culture is a combination of sovereign power, and our need for sovereigns, which normalises abusive actions.”

He argues that, at least since Constantine, the Church has been enmeshed with monarchical forms of power. Bishops, in particular, have come to see themselves as di­­vinely authorised to exercise power over followers — clerical and lay — and such power is related to the gu­ardian­ship of tradition, and the as­­sumed possession of superior know­­ledge, leading to “epistemic hubris”. While followers collude with this because they “are seeking sovereigns”, others are marginalised by the leader’s inexorable drive to­­wards maintain­ing a common pat­tern of beliefs and practice — what Ogden calls “unitary discourse and uniform behaviours”.

He draws on the writings of Michel Foucault to inform his analysis, and especially Foucault’s emphasis on the potentially corrosive relation­ship between knowledge and power. “Under the reign of sovereign power, the guardian of the tradition takes custody of truth.”

Ogden offers case-studies relating to the Anglican Church of Australia. The first concerns a bishop’s dictat­ing to members of a diocesan council, who prove supine in ac­­­cordance with the prevailing culture of defer­ence and obedience. The second describes how bishops esta­bli­shed protocols to close down wider de­­­bate about sexuality. Dissent is stifled, and minority groups are mar­­ginalised. He also cites the handl­­ing of child abuse cases in the Roman Cath­olic Church as further grist to his mill.

This culture in the Church needs to change, and he recommends con­structive critique, the creation of the Church as “an open space for free­dom” (his definition of ecclesia), and shared wisdom, drawing on “diverse knowledge and human experience” evidenced by the church member­ship as a whole, not just the leaders.

And that’s it. Ogden calls this “pre-­ecclesiology”, which sets out a conceptual framework for change, but stops short of specific practical recommendations. This is disap­point­ing, as is his appeal to Foucault as his primary source. He has repeat­edly to ac­­­know­­ledge Foucault’s lim­ita­tions in this respect, and his argu­ment suf­­fers by association with such a dub­­ious ally.

The Australian dimension is also problematic — few other Provinces have a diocese of Sydney to contend with. Furthermore, too little account is taken of how bishops have often taken a prophetic stance in relation to marginalised minorities.

Nevertheless, the case for vigil­ance when it comes to the use and abuse of power, authority, and in­flu­ence is well made. Being obsessed with enthronements, vesture, and one’s place in processions is never seemly, and, as Ogden emphasises, the control of formal and informal discourse (gossip) is even more corrupting. But at a time of declin­­ing ex officio respect, and an in­­­crease in collaborative modes of governance and leadership, illusions of “sovereign power”, as may have prevailed in the past, are clearly being eroded. Bishops have in­­­flu­ence, which can be used abusi­vely, but I am less sure about the extent of episcopal power, particu­larly in the Church of England.

Sadly, for such an expensive book, this has too much repetition and too many misprints. Still, in so far as Ogden invites and encourages us “to love the Church so much that we find out how it works, warts and all, facing the painful truths, naming and testing unnamed norms”, he is a constructively critical friend.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an open space of freedom

Steven G. Ogden

Routledge £110


Church Times Bookshop £99




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