Canterbury Trials #9 On Discipline and Power

This morning, Bishop Josiah led us in an intensive study on the concept of discipline. Hard subject. But, one ordinands and clergy need to talk about since we vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of Christ as this church (in my case, the Anglican Church of Canada) has received them. And the marks of the church for Reformed Christians include, along with the Word of God truly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered, discipline faithfully applied (as noted and defended within our Anglican family by Nicholas Ridley, one of the Oxford martyrs).

Discipline, Josiah observed, was a weak point in our communion, and he spoke movingly of two examples from his own church in Nigeria, one in which discipline was faithfully applied and one where it had failed to take place for a number of years to devastating results.

In my own (very limited) parish experience discipline is hard to think about, let alone enact. And this morning was a good opportunity to think about why. Even when we remove–as we should–notions of punishment from discipline for the more biblical ieas of correction, admonishment, and instruction, the faithful application thereof means that there are going to be awkward conversations from time to time in parishes, many of them (though by no means all) between priest and parishioner(s). These conversations are obviously fraught with difficulty because of the power dynamics involved. And neither I nor of my clergy colleagues want to be “that priest.”

You know the one–the priest who exercises his or her power in a mean and coercive way, even if ostensibly to a good end. Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov is the most extreme example of a cleric corrupted by the use of coercive power to serve “the greater good.”

So, how does the faithful application of discipline take place in a time and place where one is (justifiedly) suspicious of claims to authority and power? That was the question that Bishop Josiah’s presentation prompted and left unanswered.

I wonder if I can get my bearings from the doctrine of creation in which God’s power is not power over a resistant but lesser, pre-existing stuff, but is more basically, the power to call into being that which has no existence of its own. That is true power, but not “power-over” (i.e., the kind of coercive power that every parent knows about–“because I’m your dad!” power). Or perhaps christologically, where power is not the power to conquer God’s enemies with 10 000 angels, but the power of resurrection. Both of these understandings of power–the one creative, the other subversive and apparently submissive–are interrelated in that neither involves coercion. And yet, both are legitimately powerful–the acts accomplish their intended objectives. God speaks and the world is created. Christ is raised and death is defeated.

Now, if that is the kind of thinking about power we are to bring to bear on matters of church discipline, what does it look like? This is not an abstract question for me, nor is it for any of us in ministry. For at some point, we are going to have to ask someone to take a break from teaching Sunday School, or serving on a committee, or even–in my tradition, following due process and with the Bishop’s full knowledge and support–to stop presenting themselves at the altar to receive the sacrament until repentance and reconciliation has taken place. (I must stress that I don’t have any specific situations in my own parish in mind for any of these!)

When I have to engage in those kinds of conversations, even if I do so, as Bishop Josiah reminded us based on Matthew 18, humbly, honestly, prayerfully and with a view to forgiveness, I will be exercising power which will look and feel coercive if not for me then certainly for the person on the receiving end. So, how do I keep in mind the kind of power that is creative rather than coercive, redemptive rather than punitive? How do I exercise discipline faithfully such that, hopefully, it is is experienced by all as creative and redemptive rather than coercive and punitive (if not at the immediate time, at least eventually)?

I have no answer to these questions just now. They really are disturbing for me. This one will be with me a while longer. I would be grateful for any advice. Especially from those of you in ministry–do these kinds of questions trouble you? What does the faithful application of discipline look like to you? I know that a couple of you wear episcopal purple–I would be especially grateful for your help!

4 thoughts on “Canterbury Trials #9 On Discipline and Power

  1. Hi Tim,

    It’s been a long time since we had a meaningful conversation. In any case, I think the tension between the creative and subversive expressions of power you express here are potentially quite fruitful. However, I wonder if power is perhaps a somewhat misleading term in this context. Maybe considering yourself as a clergy member as a servant of your parish and as a servant of the diocese might be a better starting point for your reflection. This I think incurs a shift in dynamic between yourself and the parishioners you serve. Your power does not come from lording it over them, but rather by bearing in mind what the greater good is for your parish as well as for the diocese and the universal church. In this way you are not necessarily attempting simply to modify behaviour. Instead discipline is an invitation to a deeper encounter with the risen Christ. Thus submission to discipline is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. I think a better way of putting it is releasing whatever is preventing the individual from moving deeper and deeper into the life of God. Discipline is therefore both subversive and creative, asking the individual to let go of defences against the Holy Spirit, but similarly drawing forth the wellsprings of the Holy Spirit from the depths of the individual’s being. For this reason discipline must be ongoing, not just a one time encounter. Will be interested to read how you respond.


  2. My definition of power is pretty basic Simon. “Power” is what one needs to actually bring about a certain state of affairs. As such, it’s a neutral term. It may be legitimately derived or illegitimately derived. It may be properly deployed; it may be abused. But in itself, it has no moral component. I actually find notions of servant leadership can often be quite deceptive at this point and frankly, when I hear the term, I get suspicious. It is, in my experience, too often used to mask abuses of power to be of much help anymore.

    As for the rest, you are of course right. And yet. . . . At some point, the awkward conversation will come.

  3. Perhaps it is the term awkward that I am struggling with in this post. I am not sure that these conversations have to be painful in quite the way the term awkward implies. Here I am talking about how we conceive of pastoral care. Depending on the relationships one has with one’s parishioners, it may be that conversations of a disciplinary nature could be anticipated. Not in a negative way, but moreso in a way that is part of mutually edifying life of the church. For this reason I am a strong believer that there must be strong ethical dimensions to the preaching and teaching ministries of any Christian community. Again, to clarify, not in a puritanical sort of way, but more prompting believers to think ethically about life both within and outside the bounds of congregational dynamics. It makes me wonder, if one were to construct a community around certain ethical norms and thought patterns that were regularly thematized in conversation, would church discipline be as dreaded a topic as some make it out to be? Makes me wonder, at least.

  4. Speaking from a wellspring of experience on the issue of church discipline( 1 year of interning), I would think that the situation and subsequent conversation would be dictated by the circumstances. No? Just like speaking of anything in a hypothetical way, there is no way of actually speaking into the specific issue, because there is no specific issue. I’m not sure how it works in Anglican Diocese, whether the Bishop hires or if there is any say from the actual parishioners as to who is their priest, but on some level there has to be an aspect of trust, whether the parish trusts in their decision of hiring you or the parish trusts in their Bishop hiring you. Authority is already established, regardless of if you want to speak of it as serving or power. My question would be , what would the situation where discipline is required look like? Please don’t hear me drawing an interdenominational argument on morality. But if the circumstance does actually dictate the conversation, as I think it would, the reality of asking someone to refrain from Eucharist would look different when having it with someone who has stolen money from the church coffers as oppose to someone who has sexually assaulted a fellow parishioner. I might be way off the mark here.

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