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Posted January 11, 2007

Book: Power and Christian Theology
Author: Stephen Sykes
Continuum. New York. 2006. Pp. 180

An Excerpt from the Foreward:

On the face of it, a faith in which God is worshiped as ‘God of power and might’ has every reason to think long and hard about the relationship of power and theology. This is especially the case in a context in which the very idea of power has pejorative connotations. It has been asked, indeed, whether the Christian Church has any business with power? Or is it the case that ‘worldly power’ is one thing, and ‘spiritual power’ quite another? In the West, and especially in Europe, both East and West, one is inevitably conscious of the long association of the Church and the power of the ruler. It includes episodes of such authoritarian misrule and institutional abuse of freedom that Lord Acton’s celebrated dictum (‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’) scarcely seems adequate. Is it not power itself which is the problem? Some have thought so, and have not hesitated to draw the conclusion that a ‘God of power and might’ is in urgent need of demythologization.

The invocation of ‘spiritual power’ provokes further questioning. It has become unmistakably clear that the domestic life of the Church and the existence in it of sacramental or spiritual authority creates the conditions in which abuse can occur. Appalling cases of paedophile activity have been exposed and admitted in the Catholic Church in recent years. But a large penumbra of abusive activities have also been identified in other churches. These facts prompt the searching question, whether it is not the very existence of power which is the problem?

An Excerpt from the Book:

Power in the Church

In his ‘Reflections in Retirement’ on the office of bishop, Archbishop Stuart Blanch cited a sentence, orally gleaned, he believed, from William Temple; ‘the acute institutional stage of the Church may well be over.’ it is not a remark to which any particular analysis is appended. But it expresses a certain unease which a distinguished and devoted Bishop and Archbishop felt about the contemporary construction of those offices. He quoted a prominent Roman Catholic theologian on the tradition embodied in the Gospel and letters of St. John, marked by a pronounced lack of interest in precedence or status. Then he added:

This does not at all sound like the Holy Catholic Church we are familiar with. It is to secular society that that Church owes much of its distinctive patterns — the decision-making, the hierarchies, the appeal to tradition, the attitude to dissidents, the judicial procedures, its defense mechanisms. Such knowledge as we have of Johannine community must cause us to question our assumption about the great ecclesial institutions we have come to take for granted. They may not be indispensable . . . ‘Patterns of episcopacy’ will be different. Bishops might be seen as ‘apostles’ once more, leaders of mission rather than servants of a great institution, close to the ground rather than enthroned on high, primus inter pares rather than potentates.

Table of Contents:

1. Power: an essay in definition

2. Power and Christian theology: a map

3. The affirmation of power

4. The rejection of power

5. Sociology and theology

6. Power and sacrifice

7. Power in the church