The Church, Authority, and Foucault

Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom (1st Edition)

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Steven G. Ogden
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
    , February
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imagining the Church as an Open Space of Freedom, Steven Ogden has contributed important scholarship that adeptly links French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on power, knowledge, and subjectivity to what Ogden calls a “pre-ecclesiology.” Ogden addresses the problem of the church’s enthrallment with sovereign power models of leadership, and he examines four “catalysts” for transformation to a more inclusive space of freedom and shared power for the Other: critique, spatiality, imagination, and shared wisdom (2). He clarifies that the hierarchal dynamic is mutual and systemic more than individualistic. That is, followers seek a sovereign even as the sovereign accepts epistemic privilege and reinforces it (5). Indeed, the sovereignty model is harmful to all within its spell, but it is particularly harmful to the marginalized. He links this condition to the “epistemological status of church leaders” and thus directly connects his critique to Foucault’s work at the intersection of power and knowledge.

Ogden follows his introduction with an astute overview of Foucault’s work as it relates to his pre-ecclesiology. He emphasizes Foucault’s overall “gaze,” understood as the meta-ethic toward which his oeuvre gestures. In doing so, Ogden acknowledges critical challenges to Foucault and moves the reader beyond simplistic categories (e.g., complexifying the “three phases,” 33–34). He also counters simplistic dismissals, such as the accusation that Foucault cares nothing for “truth” (40–42). The primary importance of this chapter, however, is in his linkage of Foucauldian epistemology and subjectivity to the ecclesial problem of sovereign power through Foucault’s concept of freedom as an ethic, the practical capacity for “critical reflection and the potential for self-transformation” (30). The transformation Ogden has in mind is the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” (40) available in the church, which can help transform its “mesh of power-relations” (36) from sovereign power into shared power.

Chapters 3 and 4 then constitute a two-part case study on how authority functions within the Anglican Church of Australia. The first part introduces the idea of the bishop as the “sovereign exception” (51) who occupies the ambiguous space between lawlessness and law. Under sovereign power the bishop almost inevitably ends up functioning as a gatekeeper of privileged knowledge rather than its caretaker (55). This epistemological status leads inexorably toward a culture of unitary discourse, which marginalizes the Other. Both clergy and laity are formed to respect the bishop’s epistemic hubris of entitlement and prerogative. This is maintained culturally through discursive practices such as negative gossip, which can destroy reputations, proliferate false knowledge, and blur the lines between pastoral care discourse and hate speech, ultimately serving to uphold the status quo (58–59).

The second part looks at two examples, one a specific scenario and the other an ongoing event—first a bishop’s power to unilaterally overrule a diocesan council and second a group of Australian bishops’ declaration of the status quo regarding sexuality (86–89). Foucault’s notion of pastoral power then illuminates how such things affect formation. According to Ogden, the faithful internalize the “episcopal gaze” of the bishops (92), which fosters conformity since the “fear of disobedience is embedded in the Christian psyche” (91). This is the “sacralization of obedience,” maintained and fostered through sovereign power and even by authoritarian and bullying behavior (e.g., shouting, negative gossip, withholding power, and micromanagement 93–94).

Ogden concludes this section by noting that despite Anglicanism’s avowed heritage of “dispersed authority,” a primal ecclesial model of sovereign power derails shared power. He gestures toward his solution—a new primal model based on ekklesia (church) as an open space of freedom. Realizing this vision requires disruptive cultural change prompted by the four catalysts: critique, space, imagination, and wisdom. He presents the first catalyst, critique, through the notion of freedom, arguing that Christianity is a practice of freedom. Sovereign power is a “form of captivity,” oppressing some more than others but distorting the subject formation of all (112). Christian freedom is the capacity to critique, to “think otherwise” with the already/not yet reign of God (116) and thus to co-collaborate with God in the baptismal vocation of openness to Others.

He explores the second catalyst, spatiality, through the ways that Foucault’s “lines of fragility” can lead to opening up this “space of freedom” (114). For Ogden this space is the ekklesia, not a container but a context that makes freedom possible. He develops this through Foucault’s concept of “heterotopic imagination” (135). The church’s work of prophetic imagination calls, therefore, for the development of heterotopic imagination, envisioning space otherwise in ways that can foster transformation of power relations and new ways of being (146). Thus imagination, Ogden’s third catalyst, plays the vital role translating critique into the practice of freedom.

In the final chapter Ogden explores the fourth catalyst, that of shared wisdom. Here he envisions the church as a heterotopic space of embracing “multiple subjectivities, discourse, practices, and knowledges . . . of unlearning, new learning, and shared wisdom” (166). This entails provoking “epistemological insurrections” by attending to subjugated knowledges. This may take a variety of specific forms, but will entail shared power, prioritizing love over the “sacralization of obedience,” facing the reality of the church, being ready to “challenge the malevolent presence of sovereign power,” as well as “owning collusion.” Importantly, it also involves establishing leaders committed to transparent, collaborative shared power.

Ogden does the church a great service with this contribution, and his engagement with Foucault is generative. His work is timely, creative, and relevant to those interested in fostering liberative power dynamics within religious institutions. Ogden himself seems to hint at what those with more than mere academic interest in the church might see as a primary weakness of the book. He notes that his research “has been an exercise in theorization and theological reflection” (159) and that he has avoided the temptation of “being overly prescriptive” (160). Possibilities of what form his theorization might take are herein prefigured but given no concrete form (167).

However, the reader may not be faulted for wishing that Ogden had ventured even an initial, tentative prescription, some specific expression of what might be built on his “new starting point” (169). For instance, he might have imagined what insurrections might be necessary to shift the dynamics in his two case studies and how those might have influenced the outcomes he describes. Another volume might prove necessary to flesh out a practical theology of his open space of freedom, but a glimpse to provoke the imagination would have been welcome. Nevertheless, this work is a richly suggestive and an important contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew S. Beal is a doctoral candidate in practical theology at the Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven G. Ogden is adjunct lecturer in theology, and Research Fellow for the Center for Public and Contextual Theology (PACT), Charles Sturt University Australia.



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