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Clergy as professional revolutionaries

Clergy as professional revolutionaries

by George Clifford

Recently, I read Edward Dreyer’s history of wars in China during the first half of the twentieth century, China at War: 1901-1949 (London: Longman, 1995). Unless you have a particular interest in, and background knowledge of, those wars I do not recommend that you make the effort to read this specialist volume. What drew my attention to the book was that my father had served in the U.S. Navy in China during WWII, assigned as the personnel officer of a then highly secret unit—the Sino American Cooperative Organization. That unit received only one oblique reference, and then by another name that I recognized only because I was familiar with unit’s the history.

One of Dreyer’s paragraphs, unrelated to WWII, did catch my attention. In the late 1920s, Sun Yat-sen had independently evolved many of the features of Leninist party organization (a small corps of professional revolutionaries supported by a larger body of dues-paying members, all obeying the party leader through a cellular organization). Communism used the same structure to serve an entirely different theory of history—whose pretensions to scientific status were taken more seriously than they would be today—according to which a Chinese Communist Party might be considered premature. (pp. 120-121)

Sun Yat-sen was the driving force behind a movement to supplant the last Chinese imperial dynasty with a democratic republic. His model was the United States; he drew particular inspiration from the US Constitution. The Chinese republic quickly floundered, leading to the Nationalist movement under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership that, following WWII, unsuccessfully competed for dominance with the Communists, led by Mao, in China.

What struck me about Dreyer’s paragraph was that both sides in the future conflict initially relied upon the same organizational strategy to establish themselves: “a small corps of professional revolutionaries supported by a larger body of dues-paying members.”

That resembles, although expressed in secular terms, the organizational pattern of the Christian Church. We don’t have dues paying members, but we do have members who contribute tithes and offerings. Although individuals determine how much to give (unlike organizational dues and unlike the thankfully repudiated pew rent system of previous centuries), a large number of donors supports a small cadre of professional revolutionaries (aka the clergy).

I like the image of the clergy as professional revolutionaries. Theoretically, Christianity is a revolutionary endeavor, intended to reorient a community and people radically toward the living God by following the Jesus path. The term professional revolutionary avoids baggage laden biblical terms such as evangelist and missionary while preserving the underlying concept. Of course, many people find the term revolutionary even more troubling, because that term suggests that Christianity initiates radical change. Tellingly, contemporary biblical scholars attribute Jesus’ death to the Romans regarding him as a revolutionary, providing an appropriate role model for clergy ordained in his service.

The Constantinian settlement that led to the establishment of the Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire brought many advantages. Unfortunately, one significant disadvantage that resulted from establishment is that the clergy ceased to be professional revolutionaries and instead became professional guardians of the status quo. No longer did most clergy believe that they needed to change the world and people radically; after all, the Christian world was supposedly just that, Christian.

Yet there is a dramatic and substantive dissonance between the gospel and the world, e.g., the practice of radical love is exceptionally rare. Perhaps William Stringfellow and others correctly characterize today’s Church as existing in a period of Babylonian captivity. Alternatively, but with a wry sense of humor, we Anglicans might appropriately refer to the Church’s present situation as a Victorian captivity.

Our clergy too often fill a role, and those who sit in the pews too often expect their clergy to fill a role, more akin to that of chaplain or pastor (i.e., caring for the people of God, especially by maintaining the status quo). This is a legacy of establishment, when people thought Christendom was synonymous with civil society. Consequently, many clergy no longer function in the more challenging role, especially in this era of postmodern skepticism, of missionary (i.e., a professionally revolutionary who brings the life-altering message of Jesus to broken, hurting people).

In a prior Daily Episcopalian post, Do Churches exist to support the clergy?, I argued that a great many Episcopal congregations do not need full-time clergy because of the congregation’s small numbers. In other Daily Episcopalian posts (e.g., Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?), I have argued that many of our small congregations are in the wrong locations, such as areas of declining population.

What might happen if we Episcopalians re-conceptualized the role of our parish clergy from pastor/chaplain to professional revolutionary? What might happen if our clergy began to think of themselves as professional revolutionaries and to act accordingly? What would happen if clergy spent 90% of their time with the unchurched and 10% of their time with the church people whose giving pays their stipend AND if the church expected (or even demanded) this pattern of ministry? In short, perhaps it’s time that we took our commitment to emulate Jesus more seriously, recognizing that Christendom—if it ever existed—is long gone.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Judith Miller

“the Church might discover new life if its clergy saw their role as primarily carrying the gospel to a broken, unchurched world” – Sounds to me like you are describing what I experience to be my ministry as a lay person.

George Clifford

Most of my ministry as a Navy chaplain was among people who had little formal identification with the Church; they might, if asked, identify themselves as Christian but generally had little spiritual formation or sense of what that identity meant. I very much saw my role as that of a professional revolutionary, someone carrying Jesus’ message of radical love and peace into an institution whose business is waging (or, at least being prepared to wage) war. More importantly, the Church might discover new life if its clergy saw their role as primarily carrying the gospel to a broken, unchurched world instead of tending a flock content with perpetuating the status quo.


Coming back at this essay a second, more-considered time, I wonder why the 2,600+ deacons of TEC are nowhere to be found in these discussions.

For over 40 years, deacons of TEC have been clergy in the midst of the world, spending much of their time among the un-churched. Yet they are invisible in these discussions.

They spend a goodly part of their lives in jobs exactly like the rest of society, earning their living by their own hands and skills. Like Paul the tentmaker, they live among society as “one of them”, yet not one of them. They are trained, ordained clergy whose mission in life is to the poor, the marginalized, the isolated, as well as all children of God. Yet, the only clergy we read about relative to mission are priests, and the work done being by deacons is never recognized, their experienced never mined for learning. And this does not even begin to consider the work done by deaconesses for 100 years prior to the reanimation of the diaconate in the 1970’s. The entire settlement house culture would not exist had it not been for deaconesses.

There is a wealth of information and experience to be had from the community of deacons, as well as a mountain of good work to appreciate. We should stop ignoring it. If we would like our clergy to be revolutionaries, perhaps they need to be deacons rather than priests? Pax!

Kevin McGran – St. Louis, MO

Marshall Scott

Brother Galliher, I wonder if you would share more about your concern. In my work as a chaplain I spend most of my time with “non-Christians” – folks who are in other traditions; who being “spiritual but not religious” have beliefs but no claimed community; or who truly want to deny any and/or all traditions. My vocation is both to respect who and where they are, and also be a Christian among them (and an identifiable one at that).


Unless the clergy have particularly strong spiritual discipline, the most likely result of spending 90% of their time with non-Christians is that the clergy will stop being Christian themselves.

Jonathan Galliher

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