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Book Review: Steven Ogden on Church, Authority, and Foucault (Part 1)


Ogden, Steven, G. 2017. The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom. London and New York: Routledge.

Steven Ogden is the Parish Priest at St Oswald’s Anglican Church, Parkside, Adelaide, SA.

The Church, Authority, and Foucault is an impressive book, an original work on the Anglican Church of Australia. Key learning questions guide the reader on the way to the conclusion, which becomes a starting point for further conversation. The learning questions are: How does authority actually operate in the Church? (67) and, in light of the new understanding of the Church proposed throughout the book, how do we change the ecclesial culture? (158)

Ogden articulates the weaknesses of the Anglican Church of Australia and looks towards, outlines and argues convincingly for a church culture which expresses a Gospel and ekklesia vocation of the Christian church in an Australian Anglican context.

This is a big-picture publication, complex, imaginative and theologically practical with an eye on thinking differently about ministry practice. As the author wrote, “…the book is a theological exercise in thinking otherwise” (4). Throughout the work, the author creatively uses, explores and discusses the ideas and writing of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, 1926-1984, a valuable conversation partner.

Ogden presents two scenarios, describing and analysing two different church cultures for the Anglican Church in Australia and maybe other churches. The purpose is to make a case for moving the church from scenario one towards scenario two.

The first scenario is of a church culture described as a practice of empire, a church “under sovereign power, which is hierarchical, focusing on the instrumental value of persons and pursuing order over love. It is inherently exclusive, a culture of conformity, partly because of a commitment to unitary speech (discourses) and uniform behaviours, but also because of a lack of critical awareness” (4). This sovereign power over people reflects a monarchical church model, which is reminiscent of the Christendom era of Church history. This kind of church culture is still a reality where bishops and senior clergy exercise power with a sense of entitlement and ecclesial privilege, sometimes using the power of veto. Particular examples of such behaviour are described. The book’s author wrote that scenario one type of church culture has to be unlearned (145).

A second scenario of church culture is described as an “open space of freedom,” a place of possible transformation. Those words open space of freedom are quoted from Foucault’s writing (3). The words “open space of freedom” describe a church culture, which values power to, with and amongst people. It values shared authority and leadership in a Christian space, a space established by Jesus and his friends, and the early church in its understanding of ekklesia, a gathering or assembly of equals in discipleship. Chapter Five explains and explores the biblical verse Galatians 3: 28 in its context, and describes the word ekklesia, an open, hospitable, inclusive, democratic and transparent space in faith communities. Ogden wrote, “This is not church as empire, but ekklesia the democratic space. There are no sovereign exceptions here, but an open faith community, which means the Church is open to the wisdom of others” (145). New meanings and possibilities emerge (Chapter Seven).

In the light of scenario two, Ogden names, describes and explores the fault lines or “lines of fragility” (66) of the Anglican Church of Australia in relation to authority, leadership and culture. For example, the case study in Chapter Three examines the problem of the Church’s enmeshment with sovereign power and how it marginalises laity, clergy and minority groups by being orientated towards the practice of power over others. Injustices in Anglican Church life are named, exposed and discussed in a respectful and conversational manner. A fascinating account of how gossip functions in the Church is presented (56-62). Child abuse is discussed (7-9). Bullying is discussed (93-95).  Ogden wrote “In all this, the ecclesial discursive practices of negative gossip and hate speech are hardly Christ-like” (62). Importantly, the book offers new possibilities and some solutions for the renewal of the Anglican Church of Australia, renewal with biblical and theological foundations.

One starting point for further conversation about practical ways forward for parishes, dioceses and General Synod would be to consider that scenario one and scenario two are on a spectrum or continuum, rather than being presented as an either/or choice. Scenario one might be depicted at one end of the continuum, and scenario two on the other end, with the area in between representing the various stages in developing a church culture. Such a continuum provides churches with a practical guide as the leadership and members identify their church culture.

Ogden has written a brave and honest theological book with an eye on ministry practice. Potential and possible ways of practising ministry in light of scenario two are yet to be fully identified and articulated.

John Littleton


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