Friday, June 09, 2006

Clergydom and the Failure of the Gospel

[Reader, if you are not in the mood for polemic, this week's reflection on the Beatitudes is below.]

Ho-hum, another General Convention is beginning, a clergy clambake and insider's trade show that claims to be a meeting representing the whole church. I have always found this a fantastic claim of the 'in your dreams' variety. The media have twigged to the real situation and habitually write articles that assume an adversarial relationship of 'the Church' vs 'the laity'.

I have yet to understand how any General Convention touches my life. Oh yes, the prayer and hymn books change occasionally, we start getting women at the altar (most of whom have been sucked up by the lust for power), the clergy are shifted around, the church tries once again to look and feel like a Fortune Five Hundred company (fortunately a conceit at which it fails abysmally).

Clergy have become professionalized in the most negative sense and layers added (minister of this, certified as that), whether or not they are wanted or even useful. 'Ministry' has come to mean, 'imposing my agenda on you.' Presiding bishops are elected and people have absurd disagreements, all the while displaying themselves extravagantly. It's a week-long fancy dress party during which everyone is playing out a fantasy called 'church', schmoozing, politicking, kissing the appropriate asses and hustling for the next step up the ladder.

It might be objected that the Episcopal church is at a unique crossroads, but this one is no different from that which it faced over the ordination of women, except, perhaps, in the degree of hypocrisy. It is all about power struggles among clerics and trying to hide bigotries based on fear. The entire homosexuality 'crisis' is a typical consequence of clerical self-glorification, grandiosity, ass-covering, and posturing. It's laughable that the Convention is taking place at the same time that Dubya is squawking about a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Convention and Dubya have about as much relevance to the real world as pronouncements on sexuality by a supposedly celibate Pope. Each declaration simply confirms that the clerics are talking only to themselves and puts them at one more remove in the land of white noise. To help stabilize a society as fragmented as ours we should be supporting consecrated commitment of every sort of living arrangement.

General Convention delegates may claim all sorts of issues as sources for the current 'problems of the church' but in fact it boils down to one issue: clericalism, clerical self-preservation and who is going to be in control of hearts and minds of the last few people who will be the ones to turn out the lights. Both the primitive wrathful god of the evangelicals and the wooly touchy feely ones of the liberals leave me cold. The gods of General Convention are too small, the Convention a sort of ecclesial fun-fair, a me-oriented carousel of 'spiritual' titillation with each self-interest group barking its wares.

When did clergy ever give up power and preferment? The weaker the personality, the more overweening the ego, the less likely a conversion to the self-emptying of the gospel. While it would be sad to lose the buildings, many of which are beautiful places where prayer has been valid, it might be the best thing ever to happen to the church if it went out of business.

As my meeting with the senior faculty of GTS confirmed last September, the last item on any religious professional's agenda is the passing on of a tradition of self-giving holiness, as the old prayer put it, 'to give and not to count the cost'. Instead, 'If you're not ordained,' one of them opined, 'your work will be forgotten.'

It's all about celebrity, saving the appearances, dressing up, showing off, raising money by dropping famous names, building enormous buildings for which there is no clear purpose, imagining that there are people who really care whether or not one is wearing a collar. At one time when to be ordained meant a commitment to scholarly reflection and a relationship with God that was manifest to all, there might have been.

General Convention will inaugurate a new liturgical setting in honor of the outgoing Presiding Bishop, but will it inaugurate the liturgy of the wounds of ordinary people? (As Martin Laird would put it in his new book, 'Into the Silent Land'.) Is the hungry, thirsting, hurting mass of seekers going to find healing in clergy self-congratulation?

At one Anglican website there are several blogs that have the 'My Journey into the Priesthood' theme, as if we should give a flying duck about pious narcissism or a model of 'priesthood' which Jesus specifically condemned. Why not join the human race, guys and girls? Why not realize that it isn't YOUR precious journey into the idol you have made of God that is important; God is already here within us.

How does the way you live your life help us become aware of this and how are you learning to efface yourselves to help others become aware? Are you willing to be ordinary? Or is your pursuit ordination about being 'special'? (And in the early days of the church, to desire to be ordained meant automatic disqualification.) How will you escape acquiring the attitude of contempt for the non-ordained that is inculcated along with your ordination training? How will you sustain spiritual authenticity in the face of peer pressure to be merely trendy? Will you become a professional deceiver? Will you retreat behind your collar to avoid resolving your deep interior conflicts?

From where I sit there is little hope. What will Convention tell us of our shared nature with God? What will it say to us of transfiguration? How will it help us to awaken to the awe of being a human person, of being alive? How, as John the Solitary cried out in the 4th century when the church was first becoming official, will we learn to move from the world of the voice to the world of the Word to be raised to silence?

Our theological anthropology has sunk to the lowest level since the first communities were called Christian. Jesus did not say, 'The kingdom of heaven is with the clergy,' or 'The kingdom of heaven is hidden in the latest exercise in self-absorption that can be bought in the spiritual marketplace.'

Poor little talkative General Convention. It would be nice to hope that something significant might come out of it but the gospel (which contains nothing about priesthood or power structures except negative commentary) is too simple, too poor, too self-effacing and too silent ever to flourish in a situation like that.

For the rest of us, despair has its use. In Olivier Clément's memorable phrase, we fall through despair into the hand of God.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This expressed so well what I'm feeling; thank you! Dale in Queens, New York

4:17 am, June 10, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Maggie ;-) I've given your link to the people of St. Gregory of Nyssa in SF. I find your writing, as always, very powerful and thought-provoking.
Linda in Alameda, California

10:13 pm, June 16, 2006  
Anonymous In The Wilderness said...

I can't tell you how delighted I am to come across your blog! I have read many of your books ("Pillars of Flame" is my favorite) and I think your article in "The Witness" is one of the best characterizations of the entire controversy.

This morning I did a search to try to find this article (which someone posted to a private listserv) in the hope I could link to it on my blog.

Thank you. I shall be a regular reader here!

1:11 pm, June 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In one sense you are right on the mark. Clergy shouldn't be about clergy. It should always be about the people first, the gospel in their lives, and how Christ can come alive in community. Clerygdom is and always should be about service to God's people-all of them. We are to facilitate the priesthood of all believers-if we put ourselves out of business we will have succeeded very well indeed. Glory to God-the rest of us need humility.

4:35 pm, June 22, 2006  
Blogger fs said...

Thank you Maggie, for this; it expresses what I have observed over the past few years and reluctantly come to accept as truth.

All I can say is, thank God for God and for Godly people, most of whom are neither ordained nor want to be. There is still so much good in the world, and God is with us, whatever happens within a church -- or the church.

You are so very honest and interesting. I'm really enjoying reading your archives. Thanks for keeping them up. They are timeless in what they have to offer.

6:52 am, August 09, 2010  

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