Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Anarchist church leadership and protection

In the comment thread yesterday, Fiona said she'd like to read more thoughts about anarchist church, so here are some.

Several objections and questions to anarchist church could spring to our minds, so I thought it might help to look at some.

There might be a question about leadership. Who would lead an anarchist church? 

Interestingly, Thomas Cranmer went to the stake over a similar question.

His examiner at trial was Thomas Martin.

Martin: Now sir, as touching the last part of your oration, you did deny that the Pope's Holiness was Supreme Head of the Church of Christ.
Cranmer: I did so.
Martin: Who say you then is Supreme Head?
Cranmer: Christ.
Martin: But whom hath Christ left here in earth His vicar and head of His church?
Cranmer: Nobody.

George Fox made a similar assertion the night following his ascent of Pendle Hill:
"Christ was come to teach people Himself, by His power and Spirit in their hearts, and to bring people off from all the world's ways and teachers, to His own free teaching, who had bought them, and was the Saviour of all them that believed in Him."

Thomas Jefferson said something very similar with reference to the political arena (but then leadership is the church is ecclesiastical politics):
"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take of from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."

 Then one might ask — without accredited leaders, who will educate the people? I would say, life and experience will educate them, and discussion in the holy circle, and the exercise of compassion and self-discipline and holiness in their own lives, and prayer and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

We have never at any time in history been so well-placed to educate ourselves as we are at the present moment. The electronic revolution has placed within our grasp all the materials we need to supply us with information; what must be added to that is wisdom and discretion — do we not rely on accredited leadership for that?

You would think so, wouldn't you? But I have not found it so. Here and there I have seen admirable and beautiful shepherding of the flock by the leaders of the church denominations. But equally I have seen shameless abuse of power, and even more often weak and exhausted leaders held up by the kindness of their congregations when the requirements of leadership were beyond their capacity.

There might also be a related question about predatory people. Do we not need accreditation and appraisal to monitor leadership and protect us from abuses of it? Three decades ago I would have said, "Yes." Not today. I have had the opportunity over a lifetime of observing how the accredited leadership of the church works in respect of predatory, abusive, power-hungry, unstable individuals — and I would say now that in general it favours them. Such people operate by ignoring, manipulating and using the channels of power (which are respected by the good people of the flock of God) for their own advantage. And those best protected by accreditation, for good or bad, are not the people but the leaders themselves. Status accords a shelter.

In the worst situations I have experienced — I'm talking now about people who have lost their homes and jobs or committed suicide — I can trace a direct link to the abuse of power that was made possible by people in charge having the ability to bypass or override or simply not inform the people. My experience has been that if you consult, if you listen, if you take everyone with you, then you reach a far better result than if you impose power and control.

My most recent and immediate experience of this came on a Methodist Safeguarding training day, designed to acquaint those in leadership with the procedural and regulatory requirements of safeguarding vulnerable individuals again abuse.

At one point in the day we listened to a podcast describing a scenario where a youth leader had serially sexually abused children in his care (and been apprehended and imprisoned). The podcast told of three situations where he had worked — in two he had abused several children, in one he had not. In the two, all the correct regulatory and procedural safeguards were in place, yet he had still abused. In the one where he had not, he was left alone on duty, at night when the children were in bed, and yet he had not abused them. When asked why, he explained that he dared not touch these children because in this place the staff in general cared for and listened to and respected them. If he had crossed a line here, the children would have felt confident to tell the other adults, knowing they would be heard and believed.

But . . . surely . . . this doesn't inherently carry a recommendation for more procedures, more accreditation, for certification and status and power? It tells us to listen, to respect and pay attention to everyone even the smallest and youngest. It reminds us that the circle, not the pyramid, is the safest place to be. because in the circle, every pair of eyes sees. In the pyramid, the best (sometimes the only) view is from the top.


Rapunzel said...

that's why I so far have remained unchurched since I moved here.

you explain it so much more elegantly that I could.
thank you <3

Pen Wilcock said...

How interesting. Feel free to tell me more by email if you wish. x

Fiona said...

I very much appreciate your continued and very wise thoughts, Pen - thank you. I absolutely agree with what you say about leadership, and think the collaborative and mutually accountable approach you suggest could revolutionise the church, in all sorts of ways. Having recently read about the Club of Nobody's Friends, I'm more convinced than ever that power and authority can be very corrupting, and that since there won't be a "top table" in heaven, there ought not to be one on earth among Jesus's followers.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes. We are usually sold the idea of leadership election and accreditation on the basis of the na├»vety, ignorance and unmanageability of the people: the flock need a shepherd. Yet in the Church of England, where there is frequently an interregnum of eighteen months or two years between incumbents, everyone knows that's a time of maturing and strengthening bonds, and development of leadership skills, in the congregation. Turns out sheep manage quite well if you do don't oblige them to live in flat squares of grass with no shelter surrounded by barbed wire. I think leadership will always happen naturally, and that can be bad as well as good. Self-governance is not all easy or problem-free. I still believe in it, though. I believe in the small and the local, and in having the freedom to learn how to solve our own problems and answer our own questions. The results of tribal thinking can be savage — think of the witch-hunts in Africa. But then, we had witch-hunts in England too, organised and strengthened by the church.

Phil Hollow G. said...

So... I'm pretty young (but lets not make this about age) but it's hard for me not to feel disillusioned and bitter about what we call "church" and what we call "church leadership" (maybe because we've never bothered trying to understand either of those words).
And yet... Paul fills almost an entire letter and significant portions of others with instructions for Church Leadership. There's obviously a place for it in God's plan for his Body. It's interesting to me that most of the traits that Paul seems to believe should be requirements for those seeking leaderships would disqualify anyone from those positions in most of our churches today. But hey!
Perhaps my question's misguided but here it is.
Can you give some concrete examples of what True Leadership would actually look like in the Anarchist Church? (Maybe a little bit more like Jesus and less like...)

Humbly in Christ,

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Isaac
That's such a good question I've made my answer into a blog post of its own, headed "True Leadership".