‘Oh, I wish we could go back to the day when we were a Christian country.’ I have heard many say words to this effect and it leaves me feeling sad and if I’m honest, quite angry. I wonder whether we can every really claim we were a ‘Christian country.’ I know that’s debatable and many reading this blog may passionately disagree with me. The Church was certainly powerful and Sunday services significantly better attended, but does this make us a Christian country? This is before we even dare to delve into the bloody, corrupt and power crazed history of the Church. A history, I might add, that we must take ownership of as we are part of this Church.
Secondly, I wonder whether the power the Church had during this romanticised era was in fact a good thing. I can hear the famous quote from Lord Acton ringing in my ears, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
You may have heard of the comedian Russell Brand. I have to admit I quite like the bushy bearded hipster. Last year he had a very interesting interview with Bishop Stephen Cottrell, who was recently elected to become the next Archbishop of York. After acknowledging that the Church is not as ‘strong’ as it once was, Bishop Stephen says these very interesting words:
‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing. It’ll make us a little less pompous, a little more humble, a little more determined to just to get alongside people and I think that’s a good thing.’
I find myself in agreement with what Bishop Stephen is saying. Rather than mourning the loss of the Church’s power within the UK, can we start to see our more vulnerable position as a good thing and as a new opportunity for mission? A mission that views and uses power differently. Power as defined by our God, expressed beautifully in the library of scripture.
I passionately believe that if there’s one thing the Bible speaks clearly about, it’s power. From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) to the New Testament, the misuse of power is critiqued and in general, redefined.
Let’s begin our brief exploration in Exodus, the primal narrative for Jewish people. It’s the story of how God (Yahweh) choose the underdog. It’s a story of how God used the powerless to speak truth to the most powerful. Moses (an Israelite slave) VS Pharaoh (the leader of the world’s superpower, Egypt). Spoiler alert…the slaves won. God favoured the have-nots.
Fast forward the narrative of the Israelite people and they are no longer the powerless, but the powerful. Their slow growth from a nomadic people to a nation, hasn’t been entirely positive. The temple, their place of worship, was not only the religious centre of their nation, but also the political and economic. It became controlled by the educated, the privileged and the elite within society. This inevitably led to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
Enter the prophets. They were the freedom fighters of the day challenging and critiquing the misuse of power by the religious elite. Their many sacrifices and elaborate expressions of worship had become fake as they masked the exclusion and mistreatment of the widows, orphans and more vulnerable within their society. You can see why hundreds of years later Jesus loses it and starts flipping tables over within the temple can’t you?
Let’s fast forward again to the greatest critique of power: Jesus. His life and teaching redefined how we view power. He’s forever challenging the religious and political authorities. He spends all his time with the powerless and marginalised. He gives them purpose and welcomes them into what he’s doing; establishing the kingdom of God. His battle cry is, ‘the Kingdom of God is open to all, how dare you exclude anyone!!’
His life and teaching inevitably led to his death. A death, it turned out, that was to redefine how we understood power forever. The greatest victory this world has ever known, the event which placed a stake in the heart of all earthly powers, was won by weakness and the death of an innocent man.
The God we worship flips everything upside down. The apostle Paul puts it perfectly when he says in 1 Cor 1:27-29:
‘Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.’
When I studied at Regents Park College in Oxford, doing my masters, I was encouraged by my lecturers to always be asking the question: Where does the power lie?
This has become one of the most important questions I always ask of myself and others. Not least because my very role as a minister affords me a great amount of power. How dare I condemn others for using power badly before I am critical of my own use of it.
This question opens up many other questions that I’d encourage you to ask.
- Where is God calling me to challenge injustice? (You could join some fantastic initiatives fighting misuses of power: Fairtrade, Stop the Traffick, A21, Unseen, Tearfund etc.)
- Where do I have an unhealthy desire for power? Is there a role within church I’m a little too precious about?
- Where could I lay aside my position/power and allow others to step up instead, even if they do things differently to me?
- In ministry am I more comfortable being a host rather than a guest? If so why? (Jesus was often a guest. He empowered others by relying on them to care for him. Many times, I’ve been a guest and more vulnerable and seen God do amazing things)
These are only a few questions, of which there are many. I would encourage you this week to read 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 and reflect deeply on these questions.
I want to finish this article where I began.
I would edit Bishop Stephens quote from earlier when he says, ‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing.’ I would argue that a poorer, weaker, less strong Church is a very good thing. Can we leave behind the romanticised picture of a once great a powerful Church and instead embrace Jesus’ vision of powerlessness? A vision that leaves space for the overwhelming beauty of God’s loving power at work within and through us?
‘God chose… things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.’ Where does the power lie?