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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday 9 July 2017

Defer! (Or not...)

Defer, defer,
To the noble Lord, to the noble Lord,
To the Lord High Executioner!
He (the LHE) is, as everybody knows, a personage of noble rank and title... whose functions are particularly vital! We love Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado for its wit as much as its music. And we are not many minutes into the opera before it's clear that it's intended as a priceless parody of power and its abuses. You don't have to have your head physically chopped off to be "executed" by those whose power has intoxicated them. There are victims of power in every kind of institution. And this includes the church. (On which, you will find a lot of thought-provoking reading on my friend Stephen Parsons' blog Surviving Church.)
Dame Moira Gibb has recently published her report An Abuse of Faith on how the Church of England (mis)handled the reports of the shocking abuses perpetrated by Bishop Peter Ball. It is a dreadful story that has brought shame on the whole church. Many have commented on the report as a whole. I simply want to highlight a couple of paragraphs that leaped out of the text as I read it, and which I think we need to take seriously as a church.
We have seen that Ball was:
- older than those he abused; 
- in a position to identify and exploit troubled boys and young men; 
- able to rely on and exploit connections with famous and powerful people.

But, most significant of all, he was a bishop. In the structures of the Church, a bishop has a crucial and central role, underpinned by an essential autonomy. Even a retired bishop could draw on a particular spiritual authority over those he might seek to exploit.

We were struck during this review by a manifest culture of deference both to authority figures in the Church, particularly bishops, and to individuals with distinctive religious reputations – or both. This deference had two negative consequences.  Firstly it discouraged people from “speaking truth to power”. Then, on the few occasions where people did speak out and were rebuffed by a bishop – the summit of the hierarchy – there was nowhere else to go. That reinforced the barriers to stepping up in the first place.
(5.6.2-3, my emphasis)
This "manifest culture of deference": why is it so dangerous?
I once gave a lecture to theological students on wisdom in ordained ministry. (I was invited to speak to them because I had written a book Wisdom and Ministry based on addresses I gave at an ordination retreat not long before.) I warned against deference. I said that not only was it not good for those on the receiving end of it, but that it was even worse for those who were giving it. When I'd finished, there was quite a lot of discussion about this point, beginning with one poor student who had to ask what the word itself meant.
I explained that as normally used nowadays, it doesn't simply mean respect or regard or even reverence but carries the more negative connotation of submissiveness and servility. In both good and bad senses, it is clearly a "power" word. But the question here is not so much how power is being exercised but how it is being received and responded to. Deference, in the literature about leadership and authority, means a dysfunctional response to power, whether that power is being exercised in a good or bad way.
It's easy to see why deference is bad for the person receiving it. It's a kind of flattery that can distend the ego and distort good judgment. If I am given deference, even if I understand that it belongs to the office I hold, not to me personally, I can be tempted to think that I am beyond criticism. It can feed my hubristic instinct that I tend to be more right than wrong. Again, I can find myself wanting to bestow favours on someone who defers to me. That would make it a kind of bribe which, as the Book of Proverbs says, is like throwing dust into the eyes so as to compromise their vision. Of course, at its least worst, deference is meant as a courtesy. But in an environment where courtesy is (rightly) valued, I can be tempted to take deference too literally, not realising that the pedestal on which I am standing is not at all a safe place but could topple at any moment if I am not careful. "Let those who think they stand take care in case they fall" says St Paul.
It's harder to see why deference is bad for the person giving it. But look at it from the perspective of the person deferred-to and it becomes clear that its effect is to pull both parties into dangerous and destructive collusions. For example, if my deference makes it difficult or impossible for me to criticise or challenge the person I've put on the pedestal, then I've given away the power that properly belongs to me as a separate person with my own integrity and conscience. At best I am disabled. Worse, I may be infantilised. Worst of all, I may have sold myself to another. With this can come a loss of dignity which will be damaging to my self-respect.
Deference is a risk wherever there are unequal power relationships. This means it's a hazard most of the time, for so many relationships are not equal (nor should they be). In our adult relationships, we can think of teachers and students, bosses and workers, doctors and patients, landlords and tenants, financial advisors and clients, the elderly and their carers, and of course clergy and people. We trust people with authority and expertise to know what they are doing. This is the healthy way of acknowledging who and what they are with a duty of care towards us. But an unhealthy deference magnifies and then distorts the power that exists in the relationship. This was precisely what enabled Peter Ball to practise such appalling abuses. Priests and bishops are in high-trust relationships where it is natural to assume that the person in authority is acting responsibly and justly. But if deference means that questions, suspicions or doubts are not allowed to be expressed, then abuses of power can masquerade as responsible care rather than being seen for the ugly reality they really are.
Here's a memory of a little incident from a long time ago. I was at a lecture given by a bishop (now dead) on the subject of authority in the church. It touched on the abuse of power but didn't explore why power gets abused. So I put my hand up and asked if he thought there was a problem of deference in the Church of England and whether this could lead to distortions in how authority and power are understood by senior clergy. He eyeballed me, laughed and asked me in turn, "Do you have an authority problem of your own then, Michael?" That was all I got. I smiled (a trifle too deferentially?) and left it at that. But I wondered why he did not want to engage with my question which was a genuine attempt to understand my own propensity both to give deference and to receive it.
"Speaking truth to power", the phrase quoted by Dame Moira Gibb in her report, is never easy. But it is especially hard to interrogate power that is held within the church itself. When you swear an oath of canonical obedience, it is not always straightforward to suggest to a bishop - however carefully and courteously - that he or she might perhaps look again at some decision, revisit some process, reappraise some judgment about a person, or that he or she may simply have made a mistake. The Oath of Canonical Obedience is both a legal avowal and a spiritual promise on the part of licensed ministers to our bishops.  Perhaps it could benefit from being examined to make sure that its language does not inculcate deference but is properly understood in the setting of how institutions are governed, led and managed in the twenty-first century. I hope that bishops would welcome this.
In case anyone thinks this post is subversive or even seditious, let me say what I do believe needs to feature in healthy relationships with those who have authority over us in the church. My five virtues are: respect, honour, responsibility, loyalty, and accountability. These are all vitally important attitudes. Without them, no institution could exist for long, let alone be stable and flourish. All of them, I believe, ennoble not only those who receive them but also those who give them. What's good about these words is that they can all be prefixed by the words critical or in conscience. This means that they are given out of an intelligent appraisal and judgment that recognises the claim to authority as reasonable, conscionable, good and right. I don't think you can have "critical deference".
When we are under lawful authority and where power is properly exercised, accountability and loyalty are never absolute. They are always subject to other, higher authorities to which we owe allegiance, whether it is the law of the land, the law of conscience or the law of God. This is recognised in the Oath of Canonical Obedience by the phrase "in all things lawful and honest". So "critically" is in no way to limit or compromise these accountability words, simply to draw attention to the necessity of behaving as intelligent people who understand what it means to be employed by or hold office in an institution. If you like, it's about cultivating adult-adult relationships rather than reverting to immature parent-child ones, to draw on the insights of transactional analysis. And as Dame Moira implies, it's a vital aspect of safeguarding the young and vulnerable because in a culture of deference, the risks they face at the hands of potential or actual abusers who abuse positions of power are very great indeed.
In the cathedrals I've worked in, no-one now swears obedience to the Dean. But I'm aware, having held a senior church post for two decades, how dangerously collusive deference is. As a Dean, you preside over a Chapter that oversees numerous employees and volunteers, works to a considerable budget, holds property assets, is a significant public presence to its diocese, city and region, and all this in great buildings which hold real spiritual power. I tried to encourage colleagues and worshippers to question, critique or challenge anything in my actions or behaviours that concerned them or with which they disagreed. Some did, some didn't. Those who did were often right, though not always. But I regard it as a mark of grown-up relationships that we should try to work collaboratively. Maybe it's becoming more possible in the 360 degree world we now live in. It needs to be, because every diocese, cathedral or church has no choice but to be an organisation of consent where respect has to be earned and can't be taken for granted. What's good in that is that deference won't sit easily within a ministry that is genuinely collaborative.
Tomorrow the General Synod is due to discuss the vesture of clergy. One member wants to see bishops throw away their mitres because, he says, they encourage deference. He cites the same section of Moira Gibb's report that I've quoted. I very much doubt whether wearing, or not wearing, mitres will make any difference to the culture of our church. It's going to be a lot harder than that!

But to see what a less deferential church might look like in practice, watch Sean Bean as the parish priest in the recent BBC TV series Broken. To some he is "Father", to others "Michael". He is a flawed man, but precisely because of that, becomes a wounded healer for other people because he breaks through the default deference some (even now) have for a priest. And his parishioners love him. "You marvellous priest" they tell him one by one as they come up to receive communion from him at the end of the drama. Why do they tell him this? It must be because like Jesus, he is among them as one who serves. Tout simple. It's most moving. We should learn from him. 


  1. Thank you Michael - once again you bring your incisive understanding to bear on a problem that is all too real to so many of us. Every blessing.

  2. Very good stuff as always, Michael. Thank you.

  3. PS I say that because I mean it - not to be deferential!

  4. Well, how do you tell a Dean that you don't want to babysit his children if you work for him? Difficult, isn't it?