Our problem with authority

by

by George Clifford

We Episcopalians frequently have problems with ecclesiastical authority. Here’s some anecdotal evidence:

• Clergy and laity do not want bishops (or, for that matter, any other person or group such as a Canon to the Ordinary or Executive Council) providing authoritative guidance. At every General Convention, diocesan convention, or clergy gathering that I attend, I detect an undercurrent of suspicion directed toward our bishops. Admittedly, a few bishops are inappropriately authoritarian. The suspicion, however, extends to all bishops.

• When I mention to a clergyperson or layperson that I think we have a problem with authority, the person invariably agrees.

• The recent brouhaha at General Seminary was at least partially a conflict over authority.

• Debates about denominational restructuring are frequently couched in the language of power and authority.

More troubling, we Episcopalians often have a problem with biblical authority. We’re sure (or at least the vast majority of us are sure) that we reject biblical literalism and idolatry. However, we’re often unsure in what sense the Bible is authoritative or how to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Our denominational disputes over questions such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage reflect this uncertainty and unease with the Bible’s authority.

Some of the roots of our discomfort with authority are readily apparent. Stories of clergy abused by a bishop are legion. Seminarians are trained to approach both the Bible and life with a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking, in part, who is exercising power and who stands to benefit from that exercise of power. This emulates important aspects of Jesus’ ministry in which he challenged the destructive economic, political, and religious power structures of first century Palestine. Yet this also can breed distrust within the Church. Although we are a connectional Church, congregationalism dominates the American religion scene and increasingly taints The Episcopal Church (TEC). Post-moderns increasingly distrust authority, associating it with a proclivity to corrupt, oppress, and exploit.

Let’s be honest. Authority is a form of power. And, like it or not, authority has a place in the Church.

In the absence of authority, we would cease to be both connectional and a Church. In the Navy, I met many Christians (and a fair number of chaplains) who had no understanding of what it means to have a connectional polity. They regard the Church as a gathering of independent, local congregations that have only a nominal (or no) direct relationship with one another. The most extreme version of this idea that I encountered was a chaplain who refused to conduct Communion services with anyone in the military because he believed the only permissible setting for Holy Communion was the local congregation of which he was a member.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, congregationalism becomes individualism: each person is the ultimate arbiter of right thinking, behavior, and relationships. In one respect, individualism is unavoidable because no organization or person can dictate what another person thinks or does. In another respect, however, radical individualism displaces Jesus from the very center of Christian life. This type of radical individualism is anarchistic and therefore anti-communal. Any commitment to be together requires a common ordering of communal life incompatible with radical individualism.

John’s image of Jesus as the vine and his people as the vine’s branches and Paul’s image of Christians as the constituent parts of Christ’s body are both inherently connectional. In both images, life flows through Jesus to us. It changes and invigorates us, i.e., the flow has a transformative, authoritative power because it is a metaphor for God at work in us.

One option for ordering our common life as the body of Christ is to make decisions based upon mutual consent. The Quakers have traditionally opted for this approach. Much can be said in favor of consensus, but two key disadvantages are that consensus generally requires a great deal of time to achieve and the larger the group, the longer time required. The largely dysfunctional US Senate, with its rules on filibustering and cloture, reflects problems intrinsic to requiring consensus. In some ecclesial situations, I value consensus; as a rule, I find consensus keeps Church groups from taking timely and effective action.

Another option for ordering our common life as Christ’s body is to entrust decisions to an authoritative hierarchy. Few Anglicans, regardless of how much they admire aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, want to be part of a branch of Christianity that has such an authoritative (even authoritarian!) hierarchy.

So, we Episcopalians and TEC, as good Anglicans, seek a middle way. We do not want anarchy, nor consensus (we may pay the ideal lip service, but our actions indicate that we think the cost of always reaching consensus far too high), nor an authoritative hierarchy.

To find and then walk a middle way, we can beneficially:

• Cherish our theological diversity. In the Anglican tradition, our unity depends upon common prayer and not uniformity of belief. Thankfully, we have mostly abandoned prior generations’ efforts to enforce doctrinal conformity.

• Invest time in developing strong connections. Being a connectional church is costly. The cost that receives the most attention is the money that flows from local congregations to the diocese and from dioceses to the national church. However, the more important cost, all too frequently ignored, is the time required to develop and sustain real connections across congregational and diocesan boundaries. If I spend no time with Episcopalians who are not part of my congregation, then my sense of connection is strictly notional rather than actual. Dioceses typically have a companion diocese in another province of the Anglican Communion. Dioceses could also have companion dioceses within TEC. Similarly, our congregations could engage in real mission partnerships with adjoining TEC congregations. I am willing to bet that currently less than one percent of Episcopalians have any direct involvement or knowledge of either their diocese or the national church. When was the last time that your congregation or diocese initiated a joint meal (aka the Eucharist) with another congregation or diocese? Having failed to spend (invest) the time required to become a connectional Church, we are now reaping a harvest of discontent and disinterest.

• Stop sweating the small stuff (and it’s all, or mostly all, small stuff). Ultimately, TEC, its clergy, and its congregations have little real power. Our unity is more valuable than our differences. We cannot prevent God from acting; we cannot start a war (I’d like to think that we could stop a war, but doubt that we have that much power); we’re not going to solve any of the world’s major problems in the next triennium (or even three millennia). Therefore, let’s value our unity and color our inevitable conflicts with the warm hues of love and mutual respect.

• Trust those with whom we pray to make good decisions. In healthy, functional couples, each partner makes some of the couple’s decisions unilaterally, usually based upon expertise and interest; the couple makes a minority of their decisions jointly. Some couples intentionally choose who will make which decision; other couples establish the pattern of their decision-making more informally. Over time, as circumstances change, the pattern of decision-making will also change. A similar pattern should exist within a healthy, functional community: not every member has an interest in every decision; involving everyone in every decision is too costly and cumbersome; the pattern of decision-making needs to change as circumstances change. My sense is both that TEC’s pattern of decision-making has remained stagnant too long and now is out of sync with circumstances and that too few Episcopalians trust one another to make good decisions about our common life. Furthermore, most of our contentious denominational issues, viewed from the broad perspective of God’s creation, is small stuff. Generally, the fight is over resources. That battle masks the real problem, our weak commitment to the mission of Christ, our dioceses, and our national church that manifests itself in terms of a low level of proportional giving.

• Retain only the minimum levels of ecclesial authority compatible with being a connectional Church. What ministries and missions are only possible when we work together? What ministries and missions are best achieved cooperatively? What organizational structures, invested with what authority, will most effectively and efficiently accomplish those ministries and missions? For example, common prayer requires an authoritative set of practices (words and action), i.e., a set of practices actually required and used. This set can encompass a healthy, broad diversity but imposes some limits, e.g., our scriptures are the Bible and not the Koran or the Teachings of the Buddha. Setting these limits does not exalt our practices or demean those of others; instead, boundaries create our identity. The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgies are too confining; alternatively, allowing bishops, priests, or congregations to develop their own liturgies would quickly erode both our common prayer and connections. We should keep the Book of Common Prayer and supplement it with a large, fluid collection of resources.

• Adopt an annual Advent discipline of self-examination to discern your personal level of comfort (or discomfort) with authority. The gospel narrative is ultimately a story about authority and power. Genuine dialogue requires participants try to understand their own issues and motivations. To what extent does the authority of Scripture—however understood—grate? Do you read the Bible in the hope that God will illuminate your life and path? When, for this is something we all do, do you read the Bible seeking to find confirmation of what you believe and how you live? When and why do you resent ecclesial authority?

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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3 Responses to "Our problem with authority"
  1. Authority has been so grossly abused on so many levels in the Church that it will be difficult for the Church to recover. It starts with little abuses of power. The attitude: no one will notice and what can or will they do about it if they do notice. People mindlessly honoring authority allow this culture to grow. The faithful find themselves bullied by authority— victims of abuse they never imagined possible—not in the church! They feel abandoned. Outsiders peek in the window and say "no thanks."

    Connectional means something different today. Structured mission in a quest for efficiency misses many needs. We really don't need institutional oversight the way we once did in order to reach into the world. We hold the world in our smartphones. It is very possible for individual congregations to bypass structure to conduct valuable mission—locally and with a world reach.

    Hierarchical thinking tries to create connectivity. Assigning companion relationships is a perfect example. How effective are these “shotgun wedding" relationships?

    Connectedness can be elusive. How much do we know about the congregations two miles away? How often do pastors hear other pastors preach? How many clergy have public profiles on LinkedIn?! Do the people in the pew even know what the national entities do? Do denominational ties really mean anything when they are seldom used?

    Congregations today rely on regional bodies for really just one thing—to provide trustworthy theological and pastoral leadership. In our denomination (ELCA), we see a growing number of pastors who seek short-term, part-time commitments—but they expect automatically the authority and trust that comes only with long-term, carefully fostered relationships.

    Laity live in the new world of connectivity—which thrives on engagement and transparency. Our jobs and families depend on it! Most congregations and even church bodies are barely using modern tools of connectivity. Church, with its many boundaries, seems increasingly foreign.

    Ironically, assessments about much of this will be made by people with a vested interest in maintaining hierarchical structure and authority.

    The Church has a lot of work to do if it expects to viable in a connected world.

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  2. Many folks in the church are suspicious of authority, but others are quite deferential to it. We tend to view our leaders as either very good--and therefore beyond question--or very bad, and therefore beyond help. This makes mature conversation about their strengths and weaknesses just about impossible.

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  3. I find George's argument absurd.

    We must treat quite distinctly whether people owe "respect" or "deference", which are, generally, speaking, only earned or granted, but not matters of obligation. And, the sum of the laity's obligation is completed with such respect or deference, when it has been earned is is granted.

    This is assimilated in George's essay with the quite distinct question of whether the clergy of the Episcopal Church are willing to keep their promises.

    Having discovered that the clergy of the Episcopal Church, by and large, are fundamentally unwilling to keep their promises, he declares that the solution is not to ask so much.

    I submit that the solution is for some good solid compunction about having made a promise and then simply disregarding it. There is not an institutional or organizational response possible; there is only the hard individual, one and a time, decision of individual clergy to stop the wholesale violation of their ordination vows, and more assiduous attention to the actual commitments they've made.

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