The pastor king?

I’m continuing to reflect on some of the lessons arising from the 31:8 review of the Jonathan Fletcher case. The case relates to an Anglican minister in London who has been identified as engaging in systemic abuse of young men over a number of years.  Leaders within what is often referred to as “the conservative evangelical” wing of the church (which is what I would be most closely associated with in terms of theology) have recognised that the lessons learnt challenge us to think about he type of church culture we often experience in and whether our culture reflects the Gospel.

A few people have referred to some papers that the late Mike Ovey produced privately about church leadership and culture which knowing Mike’s sharp mind and keen eye would be helpful to our thinking today.  As those papers were never made available publicly I doubt there is much benefit in seeking to search out what may have been intended as personal advice to others. However, those who studied under Mike will no doubt remember that he did lecture on the Doctrine of the Church. My lecture notes are buried away deep up in the loft and I’m hoping to get them down in due course to revisit them. In the meantime, my aim here is to try and set out from memory a couple of the key points which I think were deeply pertinent to these events.  I will also try and reflect on some of my own thoughts on implications for our reflections in later posts (as well as dig out the handouts and see if I’ve remembered things accurately).

First, Mike had a concern for the identity of the local church as being the place where God’s people gathered together around His Word with the marks of teaching, sacraments and discipline in place.  In the lectures, he talked about the difference between seeing the local church as “church” and seeing it as a mere branch of the church with the diocese or denomination holding that status and only delegating aspects of its mission and ministry to the church. He compared the latter to a supermarket chain like Asda or Tesco with its branch managers. I think he saw in that the risk of a remote bureaucratic structure that knew nothing of the life of the Gospel. Further, as an Anglican he had also seen the damage of managerial bishops who often seemed to have little graps of the Gospel or Scripture.

Furthermore, the risk, Mike saw was of tyrannical power where one or two people had unscriptural and either unlimited or scarcely limited power. Such people were monarchical presbyters.  For protestant evangelicals, the pope is the obvious example of someone yielding such power but of course, this kind of authority could sneak into our structures and cultures too.

Secondly, Mike saw the danger of local churches becoming detached from the body, especially where they began to become self sufficient and self-confident due to the resources they had in terms of money and people.  Indeed, the risk is there for any church that  the pastor may become king. It is possible in such circumstances for the pastor to exercise tyrannical power over the congregation.

As I don’t have the notes to hand, I can’t say for certain but I’m fairly sure that Mike would have seen that simply have elders and deacons, congregational votes or PCCs would of themselves protect against someone holding such power. And you will notice from my description of possible check and balances that he challenged Anglicans and Independents alike. Something deeper is needed that surface level structures to protect. 

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