Some power lines as powerful as can be

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Sometimes what comes out in conversation takes our breath away doesn’t it? Conversations are wonderful ways of learning and realising stuff deep within our experience.

At a recent workshop on power leaders in ministry were sharing empowering stories and exploring ways of empowering others. What emerged was a radical question, very simply expressed: don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?

There is, of course:

  1. a huge “as long as”,
  2. and a qualification who the “we” is who so want us all to be powerful as can be
  3. as well as a health warning.

The health warning is that power can be so dangerous and all of our perceptions of power are coloured by our experiences and the extent to which we have been overpowered or empowered.

The “we”, of course, is not everyone. There are those who want to protect their “superpower” status and they depend on belittling and demeaning behaviours to manipulate dependence and fear in others. They have a vested interest – and they often are vested, dressed up in uniform – in a status quo in which they are favoured. To be part of the band of “we” we need to ask the question about how we can be disarming – to unilaterally disarm as an initial step to deescalate unhealthy power dynamics.

The “as long as” of the question “don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?” is as long as it is the right sort of power. We know what the wrong sort of power looks and feels like. It either makes us feel big (aka arrogant) or small – either way it is dehumanising. Our workshop conversation had begun with a consideration of a typology of power developed by French and Raven back in 1959. They identified five (later expanded to six) bases of power. Those bases are of two sorts. The first sort is the power that is handed on with authority, hierarchically and is based on position. The second sort is the power that is given by “followers”. Followers turn to people who they believe are competent (“experts”) and to people they like or respect (“referent”). Those we turn to may have positional power, or they may not.


What we wish for when we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be is:

  1. for them to be freed from oppressive power, and
  2. for us to help one another into habits (not vests!) and disciplines in which virtues grow to the extent that we inspire confidence in one another

This is a tall order. We are all broken power brokers and we all come to the conversation with temptations to, such as, protect our position, make ourselves look big/clever, win. We can only help one another. This is a community endeavour in which we can help one another uncover our abuses of power and re-member those excluded by our executive powers.

NB Spoken by a white middle class university educated priest with well reinforced positional power but convinced that the communities I care for should be as powerful as they can be and eternally grateful for those communities which have been empowering and made this life worth more that it otherwise would have been.

All tweets great and small

“Best bagel ever this morning” (via Twitter).

That sums up a recent conversation thread I was involved with. There is a lot of chatter about the ratio of noise to significance in our social media.  The criticism behind the bagel reference was there being such little significance and too much noise in that sort of conversation. That was their excuse not to tweet. (Is it their excuse not to talk, as well?) It is strange how one tweet a winter of discontent makes.

Refuseniks are missing the party. Here are some of my (not by me) top tweets. @nancyWhite collected some from the Applied Improvisation Network Conference in a post that make me wish I had been there:

  • #AIN12 @brentdarnell Traditional training is a conspiracy create by sellers of 3 ring binders
  • #ain12 Matt Smith: “do what you can to get into a sense of gratitude before you perform” … or teach, or host, or lead, or ….
  • “You have to find people who are broken and help them heal. Laughter is my weapon of mass construction.” Genie Joseph #AIN12

Others are funny, like this from @theMiltonJones: Roman numerals to be phased out – not on my watch. (Retweeted 1467 times!)

Favourites showing when I wrote this:

  • From @alaindebotton: People who want to be famous generally had parents who took the media a bit too seriously
  • Again from@alaindebotton: How needlessly mean to buy only as many books as one actually has time to read

Without a tweet from @theosoc I would not have been alert to it being World Mental Health Day today, and there being a global crisis of depression affecting >350 million people. Without @first4LCFC I wouldn’t get score updates for my team.

Some tweets are profound and stimulating. They are clever. Other tweets are delivered without such pretension.

The taste of my bagel (in less than 140 characters) is not insignificant. It is a fact of life that some people do record their bagel consumption as a “status update” on Facebook. It is another fact of life that others give them their thumbs up because they care. Many do. They “like” it.

I wonder what it was like when there were other technological breakthroughs in social media. There have been famous letters. Some letters were kept, some thrown straight on the fire. But the triviality of some didn’t prevent people replying with “it was lovely to hear from you” and “please write back”.

We don’t always have something of earth shattering importance. I wonder, with the development of speech (early social media), whether Adam and Eve really did turn to each other and say “Just listen to you. All you go on about is your bagels. Can’t we talk about something more important? Just tell me, do I look big in this? And, how about this big apple?”

Conversations great and small build community and relationships. One of the reasons we go back to Patara for our holidays (maybe you’re not interested in that!) is the way everyone greets us with “gunaydin” (good morning). I would rather walk a street where people say “Hi” than walk a street where there is no expression because people think such apparently meaningless banter is beneath them. I am likely to go back to a cafe with waiting staff anxious to know whether I was pleased with their bagel.

Post-Phone (get it?)

I rarely get letters now – apart from leaflets from the local pizzerias. There are days when the phone does not ring. Communication has changed very significantly and rapidly. We have moved from beacon to drum to messenger to post to phone to fax to email to facebook to …. We have moved from moorland track to canals to railtrack to the road to the by-pass to Runway 5. Our horizons have shifted from village to town to Spanish Costas to antipodean holidays and now interplanetary travel plans.

My own journey is from a 35 year ministry in parishes where my business was “to know and be known” to living more anonymously on a housing estate. I have been discovering what most people have long known. That is, that communication is minimal in neighbourhoods. We talk amiably as neighbours – though we don’t see much of one another because working hours are very different. Others are just “passers by”. When we go to the local shops (thank goodness we’ve got some) we pass by one another without recognising one another and realising that the common ground that we share.

Fortunately new communities are being constructed all the time. These are often communities of our own making – virtual communities which offer conviviality and new possibilities for relationship. Unfortunately we feel safer in our Facebook communities than we do in our own street (even though the stats say that crime is lower than it has been for years).

Good Samaritan window at Tarvin Church

Passers-by don’t get a good press in the gospels. The Good Samaritan was the exception to the general rule of passers-by when he went out of his way to help the victim. Peter Shaw, in Conversation Matters, reports on a discussion with Veronica who told him about the short conversations she had (she is a flight attendant). She explained that they were all trained to be cheerful, and to look people in the eye and smile. She was full of stories about conversations she had with footballing stars and leading politicians making the point that what mattered was not who they were, but the way they were. What sort of tone did they adopt? Did they smile? Were they cheerful? Did they say ‘thank you’?

I suppose these sort of short conversations prevent us from being just passers-by of one another. A “thank you” shows we appreciate the other person. A “good morning”  shows we’ve noticed. A “how are you” shows we care. Words get over our boundaries. Maybe communities are only built brick by brick and word by word.

The art of conversation

>The words ‘sermon’ and ‘homily’ seem to get used interchangeably. I always thought that homilies get preached in Catholic churches or are sermons which aren’t long enough to be sermons. I have also always been rather wary of the power relationship between preacher and hearer and its patronising nature.

Timothy Radcliffe reminded me this morning (in ‘Why go to Church’) that the word ‘homily’ comes from a Greek word ‘homilein’ which means ‘to converse’. Aha! Inclusive language. Everyone converses, but not everyone preaches sermons (you have to be qualified for that!). “Conversation is surely the foundation of any society” writes Radcliffe. “It is by talking together that we overcome misunderstandings, receive and offer forgiveness, grow in sympathy and mutual understanding, take pleasure in each other’s company, and develop a shared language and memories.”

What if what we preach is ‘conversation’? It means ‘listening’ and ‘appreciation’ – by all parties. If conversation is something all of us do, then the Sunday homily should be enabling “the real preaching, the community’s conversations” so that Christian faith becomes embedded in the everyday conversation of our communities, the Word thereby becoming flesh and living among us.

Man of conversation

Jesus always has time for conversation. He has animated conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man born blind, anyone he meets. He will eat, drink and pass time with everyone: prostitutes, the hated tax collectors, religious leaders, lepers. God’s word became flesh – not, initially, in sermons proclaimed from pulpits, in learned books of theology, but in human conversation.
Timothy Radcliffe: Why go to Church? (p53)