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The Measure Of Authority

True authority is found in the integration of what people say they believe with how they live. This highlights the modern crisis of authority and sets us a compelling challenge.

Among the many vertiginous changes to our shared life in the last two decades, the growing crisis in authority is one of the most pernicious and worrying. It is almost the default setting for people to be suspicious and mistrustful of the institutions which govern them. They assume those in authority are hiding things and do not have their interests at heart. There are several ways in which this assumption has been tested and found true. The scandal over MPs expenses generated the sense that an elite was quietly looking after its own while judging others for wasting taxpayers’ money, for instance..

One corollary of greater media and auditing scrutiny of corporate bodies is that more mistakes are being uncovered and exposed than before. This encourages those who adhere to the conspiracy rather than cock-up theory of human life: that unless there is complete transparency, elites will engineer things to keep the truth from the public. The traction that conspiracy has gained with the internet is remarkable. It is also surprising. Many of us work in public and private bodies and find the alternative is usually true: people simply aren’t clever enough to spin conspiracies and mistakes are almost always the product of human carelessness or too heavy a workload.

The industry in satire and comedy has reinforced the assault on institutions. Cheap laughs are obtained at the expense of people trying but failing to do a good job. Those who defend the role of satire in public life say it inoculates us from tyranny. Isn’t that the function of parliamentary democracy? There is an honourable place for satire and it is defensible as a Christian: some people, inflated with their own ego, need the pinprick of comedy to deflate them. However, a relentless attack on public bodies and figures vandalises the very things which bind us together and keep us from fragmenting.

This growing crisis in authority has been joined by a new sense that everyone’s opinion is as important as the next. It is one thing to affirm the value of individual worth, but not everyone speaks the truth. It can be dispiriting to see experts in certain fields traduced by those who know nothing by comparison but have a blog to promote their ignorance.

The Church itself has been subject to the same trends. It has brought some of the mistrust on itself, like not responding adequately to child abuse scandals. It is no use making excuses to the general public that other people were responsible for this, because people do not make distinctions between denominations and there is something unseemly about distinguishing ourselves from other Christians when things go wrong but sharing in the praise when they do well. The one category of professional that has suffered the greatest documented loss of public trust in the last thirty years is the clergy. It is really painful for me to share that, but it is a reality we must live with.

There is good news in the sense that, while big bodies are less trusted, new confidence is being expressed in the charismatic individual who takes on the powers that be, for this is where our faith story began. Jesus was born and brought up outside the traditional spheres of Jewish authority and he had no relationship with the occupying Roman power. His teaching was fresh, original and inspiring. He exuded charisma in ways which embarrassingly showed the failings of traditional authority. He didn’t shout or coerce attention like a demagogue, but invited it with the strength of his words and the demonstration of his power.

In Mark 1:22, shortly after Jesus’ public ministry began, it says the public was ‘astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes’. If rhetoric was all Jesus had been known for, he would not have distinguished himself greatly from the many compelling prophets of Israelite history. It was the performance of miracles and healings which gave him surpassing credibility. In Mark 1: 23-28, he exorcises someone right in the heart of the worshipping synagogue. Presumably this man had been there before, and his continued presence was indicative of the authorities’ inability to deal with him. Jesus, by contrast, demonstrates very soon in his ministry this staggering power over the forces of evil – a gifting which stayed with him throughout.

In all the talk of a crisis in authority today, there is a rarely articulated yet implicitly understood sense that people should practice what they preach. The public resents being told what to do by people who find ways of not having to do it themselves. True authority is found in an integration of what someone says they stand for and how they live, summed up in a simple yet striking cliché: if you want to know what someone believes, look at what they do, not at what they say. This is the nature of the challenge ahead of us as Christians: to find a way of living with other people on Mondays which is consistent with what we confess on Sundays. To deal with the bullying boss, the grumpy spouse, the needy neighbour in ways which point, in usually unspoken ways, to the faith we have. This is how people are won for Christ.

Research has been carried out into how people view institutions and one thing it demonstrates is that while people may say bad things about the body, they will often contradict it in saying good things about the people who work for it. For example, people may complain about the NHS in general, but when asked to recall their experience of it, will say the nurses were fantastic when they had an operation. This was reinforced in one survey of non-churchgoers which found that while they did not trust the Church, they admired and respected the Christians they knew personally. This shows the fertile ground we are working in, despite the gloomy view some take.

We are sometimes haunted by our failings as Christians but there are many ways in which we are shaping people around us with our faith without even appreciating it. We don’t have to say it, but we do have to show it. We are all evangelists, whether by accident or design.



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