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The Church, Authority, and Foucault


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Table of Contents

1 The Church and the problem of sovereign power

2 Under Foucault’s gaze: the subject, freedom, and the power-knowledge concept

3 The concept of authority: guardians, gossip, and the sovereign exception

4 The spell of monarchy and the sacralization of obedience

5 The Church as an open space of freedom

6 New spaces and the imagination

7 Bearing the lightning of possible storms: critique, space, imagination, wisdom

About the Author

Steven G. Ogden


"The book is thoroughly researched and closely argued. It requires, but also rewards, a close reading. Some readers will find themselves pushed far outside their comfort zones, but this is a sign of a book worth struggling with. It is a struggle that may leave us as a Church limping, but also empower us to cross over with confidence into a place of renewal. This book shows Stephen Ogden to be one of our most exciting and provocative contemporary Australian theologians. All Australian Anglicans should read it." – Duncan Reid, The Melbourne Anglican, September 2017"It is very often the ‘slim volumes’ that most daringly and effectively carry the charge of provocative new ideas. This new book… both promises and threatens to fill just this role. It is a serious and carefully thought out critique of the culture of the Anglican Church of Australia and its agencies." – Duncan Reid, Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne in PacificaFeatured in the The Christian Humanist's podcast, Christian Humanist Profiles 114"This exceptionally engaging book explores the concept of the church—its identity and authority—as a public, open space, with Michel Foucault serving as the main interlocutor for the inquiry. The study is timely. And in the hands of Steven Ogden, a gifted academic and parish priest from Brisbane, we have a well-crafted study that offers a fresh edge to the growing field of contemporary ecclesiology. What kind of space is the church, exactly? Is it a gathered, memberbased congregation, built around the needs and interests of an organizational culture that serves those who have self-consciously opted in? Or is it an institution, open to all, and held together by a different kind of social glue, that is primarily rooted in a wider support-based culture, albeit that still needs a few committed core members? The Church, Authority, and Foucault addresses the problem of the church’s enmeshment with sovereign power, which can lead to marginalization. Here, I detect resonant echoes with an earlier book by that prescient priest, David Nicholls, who wrote one of the most angular apologias on the nature of the church. Nicholl’s Deity and Domination: Images of God and the State in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Routledge, 1989) is a landmark study on the conflation of kyriarchy and ecclesial polity. Theologians such as Richard Roberts were able to draw some inspiration from Nicholls’s work, and show how socio-theological constructions of reality (in models of episcopacy,for example), could lead to abusive patterns of ecclesial polity. So, breaking new ground in the field of ecclesiology, Ogden uses Foucault’s approach to power and knowledge to interpret the church leader’s significance as the “guardian of knowledge.” We all know what this looks like in fundamentalism. How do believers know the difference between what the Bible says, and what the preacher says the Bible says—and also means? They invariably don’t. And when believers begin to let their intellectual curiosity entertain dissent in fundamentalist churches, they will usually be asked (not always politely) to leave. Or worse, perhaps, have the “spirit of doubt” exorcised from their soul. Guilt can quickly set in under such abusive spiritual pressure. (It reminds me of the old joke about the person worried about keeping up with their monthly payments to their personal exorcist. They are fearful of repossession). We can perhaps manage some wry smiles at these kinds of fundamentalist communities. But we forget that every kind of ecclesial community can vaunt their special, privileged knowledge, and then quickly learn obeisance to the guardians and interpreters of such knowledge. Under the spell of sovereign power, with the complicity of clergy and laity in search of sovereigns, the conflation of divine and human power can easily lead to abusive and constraining patterns of polity. Inevitably, such a culture leads to a sense of entitlement for leaders and conformity for followers. All of this is done in the name of righteous obedience. Ogden argues that the church needs to change in order to fulfill its vocation. Instead of a monarchy (or kyriarchy), the church needs to reconsider itself as “an open space of freedom.” This book, then, is a theological invitation and enterprise, seeking to cultivate practices of freedom. The agenda involves thinking differently, by exploring space, imagination, and wisdom. So Ogden uses a range of sources that would be familiar to Michel Foucault, analyzing apparently “innocent” ephemera such as discourse, gossip, ritual, territory, and pastoral power. The work ultimately gives us a fresh ecclesiological critique that should appeal to theologians and clergy alike. The great strength of Ogden’s book is to highlight the possibility of our churches becoming a new kind of open and capacious space: one less obsessed with hierarchy and authority, and more concerned with wisdom, mutuality, and inclusiveness, a church unafraid of being open, and no longer closed off to the public. Like the kingdom of God, our churches should be perpetually open for business. Because God’s business is still with us, and so remains entirely open. To be sure, the church is a sacred space; but it is also public space. It is not a private member-based sect. The cleverness of Ogden’s thesis is to take us through the Foucauldian gearing, and see the knowledge-power axis mapped up against those of authority-freedom and public-private. The church—in that memorable aphorism of William Temple—was the only club that existed for nonmembers. From the time of the first apostles, it was an open public space, and it modeled the kingdom of God that Jesus lived and preached. The first Christians were radically inclusive, generously hospitable, and absurdly open to others—mostly that no one else would touch. The church was an expression of God’s heart space: open, capacious, and receptive. It is truly remarkable to have a book that brings Foucault into direct dialogue with the church, and offers us a less hierarchical, more hopeful and open ecclesiology."Martyn PercyChrist Church CathedralOxford, United Kingdom

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