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Angela Tilby: Be alert to the misuse of power

09 June 2023


Henry Kissinger in 1975

Henry Kissinger in 1975

HENRY KISSINGER, not perhaps the world’s most attractive man, was, never the less, known as a seducer of women. Asked about this, he responded: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

I have been thinking about church leaders who have affairs or engage in “inappropriate behaviour”. There are a lot of them: from the confusion of spirituality and sexual arousal which Peter Ball went in for, to John Smyth’s Evangelical sadism, the dalliances with married women which ruined the reputations of Willow Creek and Hillsong, and the recent alleged weird goings-on with young men at Soul Survivor (News, 26 May). In all of them, power is an issue: the power of the Christian leader as holy man, performer, persuader, and, in some cases, alas, seducer.

I do not believe that all these leaders were just in it for the gratification, or that they were simply manipulative. But I do think that they were naïvely unaware of what was obvious to Kissinger: power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The problem was diagnosed in the fourth century by the wise Evagrius, who, being not immune to vanity in his youth, understood what was going on in holy people who ended up harming others and themselves. He realised that being full of the power of God was not a stable state. Without a degree of self-suspicion, the preacher’s “high” can easily tip over into demonic temptation. It is a short step from charisma to vainglory and then to lust.

Part of the problem is that so many preachers and pastors claim that they neither possess nor desire power. They see themselves as servant-leaders and innocent of any inappropriate desire.

Billy Graham, the late American evangelist, knew otherwise. Blue-eyed, blond, and magnetic, he was blessed with a strong sense of his own fallibility. He understood how easy it is to be seduced by one’s own charisma, and, for this reason, was always extremely circumspect in his relationships with women.

We put a lot of emphasis on safeguarding at the moment, and for good reason. But we should surely also attend much more to the issue of power. Ministers of religion, after all, become personalities, persuaders, and, in many circumstances, politicians. The power that they exercise opens up vulnerabilities in others, at the same time as making the ministers themselves vulnerable to desires of their own, of which they might not be aware.

I have been involved in both residential and non-residential ministerial training, and I cannot remember any real attempt to encourage self-awareness about this kind of power. Instead, there was the assumption that “power” was generally a bad and oppressive thing, unless it was from the Holy Spirit, when it was divine. This split in thinking is theologically unintelligible, but also dangerous. Some, at least, of those who are survivors of abuse are victims of the Church’s failure to understand the aphrodisiac effects of power.

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