Power and the Church: Ecclesiology in an Age of Transition

Written by Martyn Percy Reviewed By Tony Gray

Following on from his Words, Wonders and Power, Percy offers another volume of essays brought together under the heading of ‘power and the church’. That church and power go together is no new thesis. Percy’s novelty is both in how he looks at power in the church, employing much modern sociological analysis, and what he looks at, primarily fundamentalism and revivalism.

Often collections of essays fail to come together as a whole, yet the body of this work follows common themes, even if two of the essays seem slightly out of place (one examining the concept of ‘ambassadors’ as a paradigm for the early church, the other considering forms of bureaucracy in the Church of England). Perhaps the most challenging essay considers the context of the gospel miracles, and the fact that the subjects of most of the miracles were the disadvantaged (although Percy could have made more of the eschatological implications of this for the kingdom of God).

One of Percy’s objectives is to avoid using the theme of power as a metanarrative, and so escape any post-modern critique. Such an aim is laudable, for there is much more to the narrative of theology and church than power. Power, and the way we understand its operation, is a tool by which we can investigate and highlight the relationships between people and ideas within the church. Yet, instead of using the metanarrative of power to make ultimate judgements, Percy consistently uses the metanarrative of liberalism. For example, he critiques evangelicalism for being a movement which is ‘simply a religion of calculated psephology, rather than a correspondence with the spirit of truth’ (p.213); he attacks fundamentalists who abuse power, saying that power should be about generation, rather than coercion; he provides good reasons why revivalism may be exhibiting certain social and psychological phenomena, but as a theologian allows for no discussion considering whether the ‘rain’ in the Toronto blessing might have some origin in heaven. All of these are at least some examples of the weak methodology of an otherwise fascinating book. Percy consistently makes value judgements concerning power—on what basis?

There are a number of points of minor criticism. In defining fundamentalism, he himself agrees that his definition becomes drastically close to boiling it down to ‘mere’ Christianity, yet maintains that fundamentalism is different in that it is fundamentalistic in attitude—counter pluralism, modernism, etc. Yet surely many classically liberal theologians could fit this bill. Percy misses the point concerning evangelical’s denial of the label of fundamentalism in the light of Barr’s work. It was not primarily because they disliked the terminology, but because they thought Barr’s critique lacked an informed historical perspective. Similarly, Percy’s observation may be true that most evangelicals work in evangelical ghettos, but two points must be made. Firstly this may happen for the defensible reason that a church completely inculturated in the academy loses its very reason for being. Secondly, many other sections of the church are guilty of the same accusation. Percy seems to ignore the claims of post-liberalism that scholarship should be done within the community of faith, not merely seeking out the self-congratulations of the academy.

Percy is at his most insightful when analysing the relationships within fundamentalist and revival movements. Unfortunately, he seems all too often to be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water. True, some fundamentalists may love the power of controlling truth, more than the people they serve, but some fundamentalists (Mother Theresa?) do not. Some charismatics may lack theological development, but others are working hard to produce theological reflection (see the recent offerings of Tom Smail and Nigel Wright). Some fundamentalists and revivalists cannot avoid determinism and predestination, but others can (Roger Forster, for example).

Percy has written a highly engaging and fascinating book. For those interested in the sociological approach to contemporary church movements, this is a must. Percy is guilty of sweeping statements and unwarranted judgements at times, yet the work is always provocative and enlightening. However, this is by no means the last word on the subject, and should act as a stimulus to dig deeper into a vitally important topic.

Tony Gray