Saturday, 17 April 2010

Election Special: View from the Vicarage - Whose Power?

And so another General Election is upon us, as well as the local elections. But the real question that I think we have to ask ourselves is how do we make decisions about who to vote for. Who do we want to be ‘in power’ and why? For me, the biggest question mark remains over that phrase ‘in power’, because as Christians our context must surely lie in these very familiar words:

“For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours...”
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory...”

Who’s ‘in power’ in our prayers?

So how should we feel about voting for an earthly political party to be ‘in power’?

I think that before we look at our potential local and national government, (because it would be very easy to stand in judgement), we should perhaps begin by looking at ourselves since politicians are just flawed human beings like the rest of us. It’s likely that all of us pray this prayer at least weekly and possibly daily, but I wonder how much we mean it, for this is a ‘giving-up’ prayer. It says that all this thing called power that humans seem to want actually belongs solely to God, not to us, and to pray this prayer means that we are giving up our claim on the object of our desire: power. What makes this so difficult for us is that it goes against our instincts. I’ve just been watching a programme about a monkey sanctuary and the difficulties which the keepers go through when they occasionally have to introduce a new animal to a pre-existing and stable group. What maintains the stability of the existing group is the power of the dominant male, keeping unruly behaviour in check, and if a new male is introduced it can often require a power-struggle in order to establish a new order, or re-establish the old one. We cannot deny our shared common heritage with the other higher primates, and so this struggle to establish a power base and hold on to it is second nature to much of humanity (even if we don’t acknowledge it to ourselves), and whilst this may seem like a very male dominated argument, it’s worth noting that the alpha male is usually accompanied by the alpha female (and in fact in some species it is the alpha female who chooses who will be the alpha male!), so women should not think themselves to be unaffected by this drive for power. Yet to pray this prayer is to lay aside those claims; to declare that all power is God’s.

Now this is all very well, but surely there have to be leaders, people in positions of power? I’m not sure I agree, although I hasten to add that I am not an anarchist! What I would say is that there are positions of authority that need to be filled. ‘Surely’, you might say, ‘we are dealing in semantics now?’ I would beg to disagree; there is a significant difference between power and authority. Power belongs to God alone, as we have prayed many times in the Lord’s Prayer, but God does give authority to some. However there needs to be a recognition that it is God’s power that some are given authority to wield, and I use the word ‘wield’ rather than ‘use’ on purpose. When someone thinks they have power, they are under an illusion. They may have been given authority but they have no real power. The difficulty is that those with authority often don’t seem to have the humility to realise that they merely have authority rather than real power. However when you meet someone who has been given authority and wields it in a Godly and humble power you rapidly become aware of the shallowness of the search for power. I will never forget meeting the St. Albans Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), whom I had to see every month for nigh on a year and a half whilst going through the discernment process for priesthood. The contrast between him and some of the power-wielding businessmen and scientists I had dealt with in industry was very distinct. They liked their power and some seemed addicted to it and extremely protective of what they had, but Michael was different, and even now it’s not easy to describe. He was a very gentle man who laughed easily, and in fact was quite capable of giggling. He was also wonderfully fallible and had no problems with laughing at himself. What marked him out was the way he wielded the gentle and holy authority that seemed to flow from him in such a loving way. There was a sort of holy confidence about him. I looked up to him, not because he was powerful, but because God had trusted him with authority, and I suspect that was because he had given up his claims to power. He was a servant.

So we have no power really; none of us, whatever illusions our jobs or roles in society may have spun for us. But there are some, who recognise that the power is God’s, that God will trust with authority. They don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be servants and to know where power really comes from, and that it is not theirs and that it should not be pursued. So when you are voting in the national and local election, as well as sorting through the political manifestos, ask yourself whether you are looking at someone trusted with divine authority to lead from a servant heart, or someone who wants power. And while you’re at it, ask it of yourself too!

1 comment:

  1. brilliant summary Vic; I think the cross-party debacle that was the expenses scandal is the perfect example of the difference between power and authority. no-one in a position of true authority would have allowed themselves or those around them to become so far embroiled in such astonishing and blatant corruption despite the air of legitimacy that parliamentary rules lent. a person with a true sense of justice and propriety would have vocally challenged colleagues and the very legislation that allowed this to take place, rather than wait until it was whistleblown and then cry "well I didn't do it because I could see the law was wrong". even in our lifetime we've seen far too many seemingly good parliamentary candidates do good honest work as back-benchers, only to become some ghost of their former moral self when ascended to cabinet or front-bench office.