Sunday, December 31, 2006

Further reflections on ecclesiology

Let's clarify "clergy driven."

Does a priest represent the people in the pews? Is she called from them to represent them? Does the shepherd represent the sheep?

Without question the people often lead and the clergy follows. Augustine was made a bishop by acclamation and the will of the people, not by his own ego and seeking office. Without the people, there is no church; without their agreement about what the church does, clergy are worse than useless. But do clergy represent the people? And if so, to who?

A representative in the legislature represents her district, a Senator her state, in a national body of other such representatives where, ideally, the different interest of the differing regions are resolved into something resembling the national interest.

In some Protestant denominations the pastor may be regarded as a representative of the congregation, perhaps the person who represents God to them, or better, represents them to God. The danger in this is that the pastor who represents the congregation, is the employee of the congregation, and must be lead by them, rather than they by her. If that person represents the congregation, it may well be as a puppet, not as a shepherd.

Shepherd is a fortunate metaphor for ministry. The shepherd does not represent the sheep; does not come from the sheep; does not represent the interests of the sheep to the wolf, the weather, the pastures. The shepherd takes care of the sheep, protects the sheep, provides for the sheep. But the shepherd is not of the sheep, and does not consult the sheep for guidance in how they want to be cared for. Push that metaphor too far and the shepherd is out of a job, of course, because people simply are not sheep. But neither are they represented by their priest; not in the sense we generally think of as "representative."

After all, to whom does the priest represent the congregation? The bishop? God? For what purpose? To be sure the people's interests are considered, their privileges protected, their comforts preserved? If the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of others, how can the priest possibly be a representative? So, if the people demand the church change, is the priest obligated to do as they demand? And if that could be shown to be the case, would that exonerate priests from any responsibility for talk of schism, or actions of schism, in the TEC today?

It may be the struggle in The Episcopal Church originated with parish members. But what do church members do when they disagree strongly with the position of the church? Take their building and seek another denomination? Or simply stop filling the pews? They may make the effort of changing the pastoral leadership, if that lies at all within their power. But above the level of the local church, what power, really, does a layperson have? Perhaps you can get the ear of a bishop, but to lead a movement that affects the entire Anglican Communion, you must have clergy. Otherwise all you have are disgruntled church members, and in an era which has seen a steady decline in church attendance across the board, and in which various "churches" from those of Ted Haggard to Joel Osteen compete for attention and members, who notices a few more unhappy church members?

So, is the struggle in the TEC clergy-driven? If clergy weren't involved in it, it wouldn't occur at all. This makes clergy responsible for it, to a large degree. Are priests obligated to follow the lead of their congregations? Well, they cannot defy them, even if they think the congregation is wholly wrong. Fr. Jake is right about that: defiance couched as "follow my lead!" is an abuse of power, not good pastoral leadership. But priests (and pastors, in my opinion) have a peculiar position: they are not lay people without true responsibility for the church, able to walk away as it suits them (which shouldn't be so for the laity, but it is). Priests (or pastors) have sought a position with the church, sought to use it's authority and the institution itself, and agreed to abide by its workings. If those workings go too much against one's conscience, the priest can always resign. But to defy the church in the name of purifying the church, especially for a priest, who can make that effort his life's work (lay people have jobs!), is simply arrogance, and again, an abuse of one's position. You cannot serve two masters and, if you are convinced the church is no longer following the will of God, your final obligation is to leave. But you cannot take the church you want to have, with you.

Anymore than you can ever have the church you want to have. But that's a question of Christian community; which is a far thornier question than who's driving this small team of horses they wish would turn into a stampede.

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