Skip to main content

So who's in charge around here?

Photo (c) Jo Fielding. My badges of office just before I wore them for the first time.
We have a fairly well developed authority structure in the Anglican Church in which people are given odd sounding titles and even odder articles of clothing so that people will know exactly who is boss. We all quickly learn whether a cathedral dean outranks a regional dean and the difference between a transitional deacon and an archdeacon. I could let you know the answers to these earth shatteringly important questions but then I'd have to shoot you, so I won't. And anyway, as anyone  who has spent time in our church knows, despite the airs and graces to which the holders of our various offices are sometimes tempted, the real power in the church actually lies elsewhere.

Power is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.People in power can do this with more ease than the rest of us because there is a whole system which enables them to make decisions with which others comply. This system is the power structure of an organisation, and all organisations usually have both a formal and an informal power structure.  

Formal power structures are those laid out in constitutions and job descriptions. Formal power is that which comes with appointments and positions and the consequences of obeying that power or not as the case may be are usually well laid out and well understood. Informal power is more subtle, more hidden and more difficult to understand, but in the church anyway, it is of far more importance than formal power. 

People are informally powerful through the exercise of three things: Mana, which is that importance within the organsation which derives from such things as social position, or previous accomplishment or family connection; Knowledge by which I mean the accumulation of facts and understanding and wisdom about the  organisation and the people which make it up; and Influence which derives from one thing above all, namely a sense of obligation for favours granted in the past.  These last two are by far the most significant and the people who possess knowledge and influence in an organisation may not be the ones you expect them to be.

I was three years into my first parish ministry and just about to leave before I realised that I was not, in fact, the leader of the parish. I might have held the formal role of Vicar and I might have had a piece of paper containing the bishop's signature to prove it, but there was someone else whose decisions were far more decisive than mine. Ever since, I have made it my business to understand the actual, as opposed to the presumed, power structures of parishes and other organisations to which I belong. But basically it comes down to answering a few key questions: who knows things around here? Who are people obliged to? Who do people listen to? Who do they look at before the vote is taken? Of course you can't answer those until you have been there a while and talked to a lot of people. But until you can answer them you shouldn't presume to be in charge in anything but name only.    


Anonymous said…
I wonder Kelvin, if your last component of power has been reinterpreted by the cross. "Influence which derives from one thing above all, namely a sense of obligation for favours granted in the past."
This strikes me as a pretty exhausting way to live our lives and running a little contrary to the grace Jesus invites us into?
Kelvin Wright said…
Yes, I agree. None of this has much to do with the values of the cross, including the official and formal power structures. They have a lot to do with being human however. I wasn't trying to make any comment here about the way things SHOULD be, but rather about how they are. And if someone is answering a call to leadership in a church they need to know this stuff or their call will not be fulfilled.

I think also that much of the informal power structure is unconscious. Some might be manipulative and conniving (the church is not free of any of the manifold sins and weaknesses of humankind) but often the powerful person in the church is only half aware, if at all, of the influence they yield. And they will describe it in terms of 'friendship' or 'doing the right thing' or more usually 'this is the way we do things around here'
Tony said…
Your phrase, 'This is the way we do things around here' is very important I think, as it is usually points directly to the Values of the place being lived out. It's when Values - the deep, unconscious things that are most important to us - get into conflict with someone else's Values that real trouble happens. We can all sign up to Mission Statements etc, but it's the Values that really matter.

Popular posts from this blog

The Matter With Things. 2

  Last night I finished reading Iain McGilchrist's The Matter With Things, Our Brains, our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World , the biggest book I have ever read, in all senses of the word "biggest". Back in 2017 I wrote about books which had been important to me , and, however I would recompile that list now, The Matter With Things would go straight to the top. Really. It's that good. I've read every word: no skipping or coming to and realising that my eyes have been glazed over for the past ten minutes. It's taken me a couple of months to engage  with its 1300 or so pages of text, and, as well, there are another couple of hundred pages of  appendices and bibliography (well, OK, I haven't read the bibliography). At the end of the book proper there is an epilogue which is a "so what" chapter in which McGilchrist speculates about the implications of his hemispheric theory for the world in the immediate future. This epilogue is preceded by a

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared. Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they


I arrive at the door, wondering if I have to pay admittance. I've never been an event photographer before and I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. The young woman at the desk looks up and smiles.  "Oh, we've been expecting you. Come in " she says. She stands and I follow her into the foyer where the show is set up. I put my large camera bag on a table and glance around. There are children everywhere, and someone in a rainbow costume is singing and playing her violin, and radiating seemingly inexhaustible energy from the small stage at the front.  "Rainbow Rosalind" says my host. "She's fabulous, isn't she?" "Yeah. Great."  Who could argue? Who would want to? She's fabulous. "Is there anything I can get you?" she asks. "Coffee? Tea? The friands are actually very good. " "Ahh, no... I'm all good thanks. I'll just get on with it. OK if I put my stuff here?" She smiles and goes back to