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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do we really need bishops?

There's an interesting article over at The Episcopal Cafe this morning.

Well, there are always interesting articles at EC most mornings, but this one has stuck in my brain, raising all sorts of questions. Mainly, because it makes me uncomfortable. That usually means that it's resonating with something I know to be true.

It's an excerpt from an interview with 70-year old Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas in Christianity Today entitled, "The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible." In it, he makes a very provocative statement, "We're all congregationalists now."

Here's the quote:
CT: When you just said, "The Episcopal church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about," I think you are referring to a particular congregation and not the denomination as a whole.

SH: I say, "We're all congregationalists now." I don't particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By "unity," I don't mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular.
Ann Fontaine, who posted the article asks, "Do think Hauerwas is right?"

I encourage you all to visit Episcopal Cafe, read the article and leave your comment. I did. Of course.

There are at least ten reactions and responses to this quote, but here's what struck me.

I'm uncomfortable with sweeping generalizations like this but I think Hauerwas has his finger on a trend which I would articulate as being much more theologically and functionally pragmatic in our ecclesiology.

We've seen this trend nationally and internationally. In many ways, I think it's a natural extension of the Spirit of Anglicanism which has always embraced the "Big Tent" theological position of high, broad and low liturgy and Christology.

This has been misunderstood and sharply criticized as being a sort of "Church of the Burger King" where one can "have it your way."

Rather, it is a mature understanding of the nature of Christ and the Church - His Body - which grows out of the Anglican understanding of the need for "Common Prayer" verses a rigid catholicity which insists on unity through conformity.

You need lots of rules and regulations with solid answers to the questions of your belief? We got that.

You need a place where you can bring the serious doubts of your faith which lurk in the deep crevices of your mind and haunt the inner chambers of your soul? Yeah, we got that, too.

You need smells, bells, chanting and lots of mystery? That would be St. Mary's, up the road a piece, to your left.

You'd rather have your liturgy straight up, no frills?  Ah, then you'll love St. Mark's, down the street, bear right at the corner.

It's all part of the Spirit of Anglicanism which can lead to the kind of lively, intelligent, relevant faith which has always been the jewel in the crown of Christianity. Well, I suppose my bias is showing there, but I'm not an Episcopal Priest for nothing.

Truth be told, it can also lead to a sort of "theological flabbiness" (I think that's Harvey Guthrie's term which I remember from seminary) which can have exactly the opposite effect.

Rather than a confessional religion or a religion based on shared, similar ecstatic experiences, we've always been a pragmatic religion. We're rather fond of "local option" - wherein bishops in dioceses and archbishops of provinces are left to determine how The Spirit of Anglicanism will be embodied locally. Which has its problems.

The Episcopal Church USA has been scapegoated as 'the problem' by one of no less stature than The Archbishop of Canterbury, +++Himself, who is very keen on promoting this image he has of us as "very naughty children" who won't "conform" (read: compromise on issues of justice) for the sake of unity.

We've seen increasing attempts to organize this very disorganized religion by articulating things like "The Five Marks of Mission,"and "The Four Instruments of Unity".

Apparently, these are not enough for +++Himself and others around the World Wide Anglican Communion who are simply aghast by the "local option" in The Episcopal Church, USA, for the blessing of covenants made between couples of the same sex, and the ordination of LGBT people to the diaconate, priesthood and consecration to the episcopacy.

So, now we have a proposed Anglican Covenant - because, apparently, Mission and Unity are not enough. The problem with the so-called Anglican Covenant, besides being based on a punitive, retributive impulse, is that it is thoroughly, completely and utterly un-Anglican.

It should be noted that, as I read it in its final draft, The Covenant has nothing to do with either mission or unity but rather, conformity. Neither do I read anything in it that has anything to do with the only Covenant I think we need - that of our Baptism.

It has more to do with centralizing the authority and power of the Anglican Communion in the Episcopacy - namely, the Archbishop who would be Pope.

Don't get me started.

But it does raise an interesting point which was inspired, originally, by this article.

The statement from Hauerwas about us being "all congregationalist", I think, raises important questions about the role and function of bishops. Indeed, I think it raises important questions about the role of ordination across the board.

We've seen a renaissance, of sorts, of the historic diaconate. Which, from my perspective, is good. In fact, it's a Very Good Thing. One of the roles of deacons, besides serving the people of God, is to raise up and empower all the baptized into the mission and ministry of the Gospel.

I have seen deacons have a dramatic effect on the mission, ministry and unity of local churches as well as the diocese. There are those, of course, who don't do it so well. You know, like some priests and bishops and even some "empowered" members of the laity. But, when done well, the deacon is an invaluable member of the four orders of ministry, always calling us to remember Christ's body outside the church walls.

I know how cynical this is going to sound, but I don't think it's an accident that the rise in the number of deacons has coincided with the stipulation in the canons of our church that deacons are non-stipendiary.

Pragmatics, my dears. Pragmatics.

A few years ago there was a hue and cry about a "clergy shortage". Now, full time cures for priests are drying up faster than new ones open up after early retirement. The role of the priest - indeed, the need for a priest - has come under sharp fire which is often aimed at seminaries. What are we training/educating priests to do? Why should it cost so much? Sacraments are important, but should they cost a congregation that much ($60 - $100,000 is not an uncommon annual compensation package for a priest, depending on the location). Isn't it better to raise up and educate clergy locally in a model of "Total Mutual Ministry"?

Pragmatics, my dears. Pragmatics.

I'm wondering how long it will take before we begin to question the role and function of the bishop - especially when, as Hauerwas says, the office is essentially a sign and symbol of unity.

The role of bishop as "chief pastor" has been seriously compromised by our litigious culture. Priests are feeling the pinch with the changes to Title IV "disciplinary canons". Don't get me wrong, I think boundary violations - especially sexual ones - are serious offenses and ought to be treated seriously. Right now, however, the canons seem to be based on the principle of "guilty until proven innocent" which is not only an over-correction, but the legal implications of even an allegation of abuse seriously strains the relationship between bishop and priest.

The impulse to centralize power in the office of the episcopacy has also strained the role of chief pastor and her/his clergy. The increase in the number of positions of "Priest-In-Charge" in which the bishop is also effectively rector of the congregation, is one indicator. In times of congregational conflict, more and more clergy are reporting that their bishops have a clear "preferential option" for the congregational pledge. It's a disconcerting if not disturbing trend.

Many bishops couldn't be CFOs or CEOs if they tried - and many dioceses don't want them to be. The finances of a diocese are often complicated and complex. There are too many examples which prove the adage that it's not a good idea to have the bishop too close to the purse strings of the diocese. Indeed, that's another historic role of the diaconate, and there's good reason for that precedence.

Pragmatics, my dears. Pragmatics.

Being an "ambassador for Christ" and engaging the world as well as the local community on critical issues of our faith is, for me, a very important role of the episcopacy, but I wonder how this "congregational trend" will support that role.

Hauerwas says, "The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another." My question is: How long before the economic crisis we're in begins to give rise to pragmatic questions about how bishops are compensated for this role?

Indeed, how long will it take before our current economic crisis turns our pragmatic theology into 'flabby' theology and ecclesiology?

I don't know about you, but I think we need to exercise our faith a bit more - especially as embodied in the Spirit of Anglicanism - before we find that we're so organized and unified and top-heavy, we can't get out of our own way.


The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Elizabeth, fine thoughts.

May I add that to your last point, it seems that part of what's happening now is we ARE already far too top-heavy, we're just now waking up to it, and we're trying to figure out how to cope with it without changing the structures, which anyone can see is a losing game.

This is why I'm so interested to see how it will go in Western Kansas with a rector-bishop whose dual jobs, of necessity, will cause real focus on "what matters." In this case "what matters" can't possibly involve CFOing or CEOing, or at least very much of it, but rather more the ordination-and-consecration language from the BCP about what a bishop really does, what a priest is actually supposed to do.

As you say, pragmatics.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey there, Tory. We also have retired bishops and bishops without cures functioning as Interims and "Bishop In Residence". An interesting development, to be sure. The situation in Kansas is one to watch. Closely. Same thing with what W.Michigan will do now.

I think you're right. I think we're waking up to the fact that we ARE top-heavy. And, flabby, theologically. And, it's our own damn fault.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sorry. TorEy.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Don't worry - I've been called way worse.

Part of the way The Episcopal Church will effectively minister in the next 10-20 years will critically hang upon this business of business and whom we "hire" to do it. Episcopal clergy could take a lesson from the "preach, teach, and administer the sacraments" logic we see 'round about us. How many of us, really, are Supermen or Wonder Women?

Perhaps we should stop pretending that our compensation is derived from being effective administrators and instead is rooted in something much more, well, radical - Jesus, say.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, now you've gone way over the line, Torey. Being rooted in Jesus and "representatives of Christ" is part of our Baptismal Covenant. We're all about the Anglican Covenant, dontcha know.

I think your predictions are right, though, which has more authenticity with the church I read in ACTS than the church I see today.

Ann said...

giggling at some of the cartoons -- "faked" LOL and the "birth of the AC"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann - I couldn't resist.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear "Anonymous" - you know who you are. I wasn't sure, at first, if you were joking about clergy "cures" and "disease" but then when you compared the church to "other social service organizations" I knew you really didn't know what you're talking about. Sign your name and make a contribution to the conversation and I'll publish your comment.