Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Whatever Happened to Authority in the Episcopal Church?


We have some na├»ve ideas about authority in The Episcopal Church.  I remember a bishop saying years ago, “The first thing I discovered when I became a bishop is that bishops don’t have any authority.”  I once repeated that to one of the old Anglo-Catholic prince bishops of the Church.  I shouldn’t have said that while he was eating lunch, he almost choked on his soup.  The truth is somewhere in between those two extremes.  That is part of the problem. 

Bishops do have authority, under the canons and constitutions of the Church. Rectors also have authority to protect themselves from bishops, but that has its own limits.  A congregation with a profligate or licentious priest may be almost ruined before authority can be brought to bear to rectify the problem.  On the other hand some Rectors need to be strongly defended against predatory and manipulative lay people.   On all sides people with authority problems abuse authority.  All too often the relationships can turn adversarial.  Part of the problem is that a local church is a congregation that may never become a communion of saints.  Do I sound too glum? Listen to the pain of the Church, and the pain of the Lord of the Church who weeps with his people.

It’s not enough to be converted to Christ unless one’s relationship to authority is also converted.  You know the baptismal questions as well as I do.  One asks, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?”   That question was not meant to be separated from the question that asks, “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”  Listen carefully.  We are saying that we shouldn’t expect to get our way, unless His way is our way.  Rather we should pray with Augustine, “Give what You command.  Command what you will.”

In current events in the Church there are people on both sides want their own way, and will go to great lengths to get it.  In the Church as a whole and in local parishes, many have been wounded by the stubborn selfishness of other Christians.  You know the old rubber about the Church eating its own wounded?  Did I get that right?  You know what I mean.

What is missing is true surrender to the actual authority of God as it is expressed in Holy Scripture.  Some would tell us that Scripture has no relevance today, and would rather follow the revolutionary principles of Saul Alinsky and force change on an unwilling Church.  Others in reaction would rather come out from amongst them and be clean.  In the middle we have Holy Scripture speaking about mishpat, justice in its old meaning of fair play, give and take, and giving a fair deal to all.  We have Holy Scripture speaking to us about personal integrity and truth in our actions.  We have Holy Scripture speaking about holiness and love in relationships, about such odd things as mercy and compassion.  On all sides we want our own way rather than the way of Love.  Love after all demands integrity.

That is after all what the fall was all about.  God said ‘don’t eat of the tree in the middle of the garden’, the serpent said, ‘eat, and you can be like God’, and Adam and Eve said, ‘that sounds right.’  Our first parents wanted their own way, and often, so do we.  It is time to call the fallen Church to repentance, starting with each one of us.


We need to begin to see things through God’s eyes.  “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).  God is not fooled by the posturing of anyone within the Church, nor was Jesus ever abashed about speaking the truth about inappropriate attitudes or behavior.  Truth speaking must only be done in the context of love, for truth without love is just another form of falsehood.  If something is not right in the actions of the members of Church, regardless of the canonical rights of any party, it should be spoken to by those who can speak the truth in love.