Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the new Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, raised some eyebrows recently in an interview with Christian Today (Aug. 6, 2015). He asserted that the question of homosexuality is a far less important issue for the Church than is, say, the reality of corruption. Fearon has actually been insisting on this for some years. He hasn’t really said what kind of corruption he is referring to. But it’s not hard to imagine. Corruption as a political and economic reality is estimated to cost the world’s economies something like 2.5 trillion dollars a year. Bribery, kickbacks, systematic embezzlement — all adding up to about 5% of the world’s GDP. In Fearon’s own country of origin, Nigeria, corruption has robbed one of Africa’s most richly resourced nations of well over 400 billion dollars of oil revenue, and put it into the pockets of a few individuals. Even more destructively, nations rife with corruption inevitably create cultures of inequality, injustice, political desperation, and even unrest. Nigeria is only one of many countries where this is obvious.

But what does the Church have to do with this? True, Christians actually invented the terms (although hardly the practice of) “simony” and “nepotism”. While these may be “ecclesial abuses,” it is not clear what purchase the Church has to deal with them in the civil sphere. Certainly, churches have done little to engage civil corruption. But the category only first came in for serious reflection in the 1970s. And only in the 1990s did formal groups emerge that monitored and analyzed corruption (e.g. Transparency International).

Not only is corruption only a recent object of study; it turns out to be complicated. You’ve got political reforms involved of course, and then political scientists. But economists too have entered the fray (e.g. Susan Rose-Ackerman), armed with sophisticated methods like game theory (cf. Ariane Lambert-Mogiliansky). Corruption involves, after all, multiple parties, each with distinct interests, and these parties and interests end up creating a system that “works” in one way, while ruining things in another. This bears some sorting out if we are going to combat it usefully in different places. Finally, the recognition that corruption actually serves practical ends whose outcome is ambiguous makes it a lot like many relationships. Thus, corruption has become a problem for moral philosophy. When is something corrupt? How many people need to be hurt for corruption to happen? Does anybody need to be hurt? What kind of “hurt”?

Distinctions and nuances turn out to be important. Nigeria is not Japan; building permits in Tanzania don’t work as they do in rural America; and how we deal with corruption cannot be the same in every place. How might the Church actually figure out a way to deal with all this? After all, the Church is herself involved in corrupt practices, simply by virtue of being a system of people at work with each other. She is an “institution;” and institutions have a hard time looking at themselves honestly and critically.

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Here we come to one of the great challenges Fearon’s claim implies: the kinds of corruption that envelop churches are just those that impede their capacity to be servants of change. For, with the churches more obviously than with many other institutions, corruption is the loss of critical spirit and vision. And that marks the death-knell of credible witness.

Michael Johnston’s excellent volume, Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (2005), suggests some illuminating distinctions that can help North American Anglicans think some of this through. The book offers an outline of four major types of corruption dynamics, associated with distinct clusters of civil and political life. “Influence Market” corruption describes the legal and relatively transparent way power is manipulated through controlling the major means of social influence (cf. Germany, Japan); “Elite Cartel” corruption is found in countries, like Italy and Korea, where networks of business and party groups share the “spoils” of political and economic power; Oligarch and Clan corruption (cf. Russia and Mexico) is a more violent system of power-grabbing by groups; while, finally, Official Moguls constitute societies where power is monopolized in the hands of a single individual or party (cf. China, Indonesia, and Fearon’s own Nigeria).

A key point Johnston argues is that the “Influence Market” model of corruption is rampant in the United States, especially its political system. Basically, money buys “voice”, which is intrinsically disruptive of a democratic system. This fact skews decision-making in certain directions: it incentivizes money-accumulating decisions (i.e. by politicians, who must garner vast amounts of financial support to be elected), and, as a consequence, it silences (financially unsupported) views and dampens broader resources of persuasion. Under these circumstances, the American electoral process is intrinsically corrupt, and entrenched resistance to significant campaign finance reform is but a symptom of this.

Influence Market corruption, legal though it is, is still “corruption” insofar as it destroys the proper functioning of the democracy that ostensibly permits it. It literally “rots out” that democracy from the inside. More than that, the Influence Market has deeper moral consequences. Most corruption analysts agree that a free flow of information is a bulwark against corruption, as well as a means for its exposure and correction. A free press, cell phones, and pluralistic academic interchanges are often viewed as destabilizers of business and political corruption (one might wonder though, about the Internet in this regard!). More importantly, the converse is true: corruption diminishes the plurality of voices within a society. Hence, the Influence Market, insofar as it consolidates power within the limited hands of its manipulators, hems in the Truth. When only certain people can have a voice, and these are linked with a limited range of material qualities — money, power, etc. — then the enunciation and hearing of the Truth suffers.

This is a key issue for the Church. The classic exemplars of ecclesial corruption from the past, simony and nepotism, clearly subvert the truth of the Gospel by placing the leadership of the Church in the hands, not of the faithful or the learned, but of those with money to buy positions or of those with relatives already in offices of power. And the control of influence in the Church, once established and however canonically legal in some respects, also corrupts the Church. This is a fact that all churches must face: those in power restrict the voices of others, in the Body of Christ as much as anywhere. Ordinands, appointments, commissions, chancellors, committees, delegates, budgets, and what budgets support are all inevitably controlled by someone. But has this control become corrupted by the consolidation of influence in the hands of a few?

At this point, we can make the definition of corruption more precise. I would put it this way: corruption involves, not restriction of voice in general, but its illegitimate restriction, defined in terms of the rules of a given game. When those rules are established and accepted, then the issue of “voice” becomes less problematic: bowling clubs are not acting illegitimately when they restrict their membership to bowlers, rather than opening it up to ping-pong players. Similarly, churches are not acting illegitimately, and therefore are not restricting voice, when they limit ordination to baptized and believing Christians. Thus, the inevitable question of whether “orthodoxy” should restrict the voices of the “unorthodox” must be answered as both “yes” and “no.” “Yes,” if this restriction is built into the canonical structures of the church in question; “no”, if these restrictions derive from structures that are extra-canonically constrained by manipulations of influence. For when there is canonical space for diverse embodiments of, e.g. theological positions in a church, as in both “evangelical” and “catholic” views within the older Anglican ecclesial structures, engaging the Influence Market in a way that restricts those voices becomes a matter of corruption.

This can arguably be shown with the Episcopal Church (TEC): what was once a relatively theologically diverse church, within the limits of its formularies, has become one of the most theologically monochromatic churches in America. This has happened through the ever more deeply engaged Influence Market. On the one hand, there has been nothing “illegal” about the outworking of that market: bishops can ordain whom they wish and appointments can be made according to personal preferences of those in power. But the end result of caving into, let alone deliberately manipulating, these dynamics is corruption, and on two scores.

First, through the suppression of legitimate voices in the Church, it is inevitable that the truth — in this case, the truth of the Gospel — suffers, simply for lack of adequately trained hearts and minds to engage that truth. More corruption follows, through the perversion of critical Christian inquiry. Second, when Influence Markets such as TEC’s are moving ahead at full steam, it is inevitable that more concrete and classical acts of corruption take place: misuse of funds and misuse of canons (the church’s legal process). In an institution where everybody is “on the same side” (because there are few left on any other side), no one wishes to hurt their “friends” by raising questions. This has happened on a number of fronts in TEC in matters involving the national budget (e.g. misusing trust funds to balance the bottom line), discipline (manipulating canons to silence dissenting voices), and the legislative process (not following canonical procedures at General Convention). It represents a matter of corruption, at least in Johnston’s paradigm, where the “legal” Influence Market has finally given way to quite “illegal” activities.

Other churches in the Anglican Communion have related challenges. Many African churches have been corrupted by something similar to the Influence Market, or perhaps according to dynamics of the “Elite Cartel” structures, where a few key power groups — ecclesially, regionally, or ethnically — control the ordering of the Church’s life. When Fearon speaks of nepotism, for instance, it is certainly applicable to some (though hardly all) current ecclesial contexts, and not just civil and political structures. To take but one small example: I have visited enough Anglican churches around the world to be struck, in various places, at how many members of one family seem to inhabit the diocesan structures, or to have heard here and there consistent whispers about where the money from some overseas gift went once the bishop got a hold of it. This is not an accident, but rather a sign of corruption.

But what can be done about this? One obvious fact is that churches seem to mimic the larger patterns of corruption in their surrounding societies. There are common sense reasons why this may be so: ways of behaving and achieving ends are not only learned, but are demanded within well-habituated contexts of action. It would be interesting to see every Anglican church in the Communion engage in a “self-study” of corruption that paired the church with the dynamics of its nation (as I have done with the US and TEC). This would be cleansing, but, just because of that, perhaps too hard. Who wants to look in the mirror? Still, unless our churches are willing to do so honestly, there will be no “witness against corruption” that the churches themselves could possibly engage. And I am absolutely certain that the task is necessary for Anglo-American churches as much as for the younger churches.

There is also something to be said about a broader approach. The Anglican Communion as a whole, I would argue, has functioned under the specific banner of the Influence Market, largely because its operation is literally supported by the money — and hence influence — of the Anglo-American churches of the Communion. There are no “cartels”, no “clans,” and no “moguls” pulling the strings in the Communion. Just the market of “influence” (masking under the euphemism of “bonds of affection”). But that leads to a new form of corruption

So here is my new-old suggestion: If radical campaign finance reform is the only solution to the corruption of American politics, something like the Anglican Covenant is the only solution to the corruption of Anglican ecclesial politics. What has essentially been a free-market approach to theology and practice in the Communion has turned into an influence market where local nodes of corruption have flourished (and not just in the US, as I have indicated). Clarifying the boundaries of legitimate teaching, ministry, and ecclesial governance is an essential foundation for the permission of diverse voices within Anglican churches and among them. It is also ground for a credible Anglican anti-corruption movement.

The featured image is “Tired of Corruption” (2011) by Devin Smith. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale Divinity School is in systematic theology.

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