studying at st barnabas

Book Review: Steven Ogden on Church, Authority, and Foucault (Part 2)

Ogden, Steven, G. 2017. The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom. London and New York: Routledge. 180 Pages.

These reflections flow on from Part 1.

The Church, Authority and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom is a work of academic theology, which draws on a number of interrelated disciplines. As a Christian educator with a learning community focus, I note the lack of reference to educational sources and missed the mention of the discipline of Christian education. An educational reference would have supported and enriched the argument as has the use of other disciplines. For example, mention of the works of Christian educators would have enhanced many sections: on changing church culture; on imagination; on unlearning in the church; on open space; on enabling shared ministry and leadership; on the importance of learning theory for ministry practice.  Nevertheless, Ogden’s book is a significant theological contribution towards the renewal of the Anglican Church of Australia. Whether the arguments for that renewal are based on theology or Christian education is not the main point. In effect, scenario two (see Part A of this review) now has a stronger supportive base in both theology and Christian education.

My next reflection draws attention to the words in the book “the leader/follower dynamic” or alternatively expressed “leader/follower relationship” (15, 110, 157). The words derive from Foucault’s power/knowledge concept. In Chapter Seven, Ogden presents two sketches of the Church from the leader/follower perspective. First, under sovereign power, leaders are seen as “guardians of the tradition” and followers are subordinate (157). Second, when the Church is seen “as an open space of freedom…leaders and followers are mutually empowered” (157). There is a partnership, leaders are accountable to the people of God, mutual trust exists and “followers entrust leaders with authority and accept their leadership in good faith” (158). Ecclesial authority is there “to enable; not to control” (159).

I am, however, a little uncomfortable with the wording “leader/follower dynamic.” Those words may convey something of an atmosphere of “them and us.” Perhaps Ogden wants to soften the impact of the leadership change he is articulating. When he writes “leaders welcome diverse knowledges” (165), those words might suggest a condescending attitude on the part of the leader! Perhaps there is a small hand still holding on to a leader/follower paradigm, rather than moving further towards a power with and among the people of God. Authority derives from within the ‘body of Christ,’ where Christ is the head of the church and the disciples/followers of Jesus Christ have different abilities and roles; where the ministry and leadership of the laity and the deacons, priests and bishops are all included. To be fair, Ogden discusses ekklesia, the people of God, bishop-in-synod and team ministry (114-121, 162, 55-56, 169).

Familiarity with a learning community focus for Christian education may have influenced Ogden to move a little closer to embracing more fully the discipleship of mutuality as practised in church life. A learning community approach, customised for a parish context, is defined as: “A visionary community of faith where leaders and members, while respecting a diversity of abilities and perspectives, practise holistic, collaborative and theologically reflective learning processes” (Littleton 2017, 13-20). Leaders facilitate, guide and consult.

The author emphasises that he has his eye on thinking otherwise about ministry practice (138-146), and wants to establish a new starting point for conversation. His mention of shared leadership (a term much used by Christian educators) in the final paragraphs of the book introduces the possibility of the discipline of Christian education not only supporting the argument for change towards scenario two, but also providing some practical ministry suggestions, which reflect the thinking of scenario two.

Scenario two provides a positive church culture for the acceptance and flourishing of a learning community approach.

Even though the book is expensive, such a seminal theologically reflective book is a must purchase for Anglican Theological Colleges and Theological Libraries. Any biblically and theologically informed disciple of Jesus the Christ, who is a serious reader of books and makes time to reflect on their own ministry practice, will be enriched, stimulated and delighted. That disciple will learn to dream and imagine.

John Littleton

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