Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Why the Church is Dying III

[A report requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme]

By contrast, at St. X_______ parish one memorable Saturday morning, the clergy were invisible even while they were creating the right kind of context. Until the last minute the vicar remained in the back of the church, allowing the innate spiritual and liturgical sense that inhabits each human being to have a chance to emerge in a way I have never before seen. I doubt that there is anyone among the 55 people who were there who will ever forget that liturgy. [See the Rite for Contemplative Eucharist archived under January 2006 in this blog.]

The best shepherds know that their sheep are smarter than they are, and this is why they lead from behind. Most shepherds let the sheep go where instinct takes them and are there only to save the flock from pitfalls or marauding wolves. Unfortunately, in the parishes I visited, most clergy consistently and destructively underestimate the abilities of the people in their congregations, acting as inhibiting and quashing influences; for as everyone knows, people tend to produce the behavior that is expected of them. If someone treats you as stupid and inept, you will tend to find yourself feeling stupid and inept. Or if you feel you are being trained to perform and will be humiliated if you deviate, you will perform. If this diocese is to reorient itself around the contemplative vision of God, this reorientation necessarily will be laity-driven; the clergy must stand aside, get out of their costumes and take a back seat, opening doors but not presuming to impose themselves, their ideas, or their stereotypes.

Many of these problems are, of course, the consequence of the worst mistake the Episcopal Church ever made, which was self-consciously to adopt a business model for itself back in the Fifties. What is interesting is that this collapsing centralized power is loath to look at what is now going on in the business world, possibly because it means sacrificing personal power and influence, and attention-getting mechanisms, always props for weak personalities. In business today the news from the shop floor is far more important than the news from the board room. In fact, the former influences the latter. Executives spend time on the shop floor, and they realise that the people on the ground have far better ideas of how to make the nuts and bolts aspect of the business run more efficiently that the managers do.

Of course you can’t push this analogy too far because the business model is the problem in the first place. It is antithetical to the Gospel. But in the Episcopal Church today the gulf, nay, the abyss between the clergy and the laity is virtually unbridgeable: the language, values and goals of the two groups are in complete, contradictory opposition, and people are being hurt because they are still under the delusion that the institution wants their gifts, which it does not.

The clergy are far too interested in their status as clergy, their status in their peer group and in running or, rather, controlling their parishes, to realise that they presume in the British sense of the word of an arrogantly imposed ignorance, that is to say, that most of what they do and their attitude towards their people and their ordination is entirely presumptuous. They appear to have little or no reverence for God at work in the mystery of the human person, particularly in the humble laity, forgetting, or perhaps these clergy never knew, that humility is divinity. In some cases the clergy attitude seems to be that laity are necessary nuisances. Clergy are so concerned with self-image that they have become caricatures of themselves, as anyone can witness at the renewal of ordination vows service during Holy Week. It is also true that those clergy who think they are ‘different’ from the rest as regards politics and control, self-image, etc., are often those who are most profoundly in denial and self-delusion.

In addition, attempts to clericalize the laity with ‘ministries’ courses and ‘licensing’ of various kinds simply compounds this problem and creates yet another self-conscious clerical layer between the people and God, and yet another set of rampant egos finding their peers and falling on each other with glad cries while those more self-effacing are ignored or marginalized, if not overtly persecuted and ostracized if they do not ‘affirm’ the egoists and perform as expected. The colonial word "ministry" should be banned; it is condescending, bearing negative nuances that attach to clergy in particular but also to laity who are going to insist on imposing themselves and their self-certifying "authority" on you. The term and process called "spiritual direction" and all it implies is particularly pernicious in this regard and should be banned. Next to fundamentalism, it is perhaps the most destructive force at work in the churches today and has absolutely nothing to do with the ancient tradition, of which it is a blasphemous counterfeit.

These presumptuous ideas of so-called ministry also go way back to the beginnings of the institutional church, of course, which by the third century of its existence had reestablished the very same religious system that Jesus spent most of his ministry trying to overthrow for precisely the reasons presented to this diocese in the last five weeks. If the institutional church is to survive, the clergy are going to have to eat a lot of humble pie and the biggest slice of that humble pie is going to be in revised attitudes towards ordination in particular and the clerical role in general. Among other things, clerics should stop using the word "priest": there is only one priest, and that is Christ.

Otherwise the clergy and para-clergy are going to find that they are chiefs without Indians. And of course that image is also ironic, because Christ came as a servant. It is important to remember that Jesus can be the high priest only because he is not a Levite or a priest: he is a layman. And if we are to be like him, then an awful lot of the pretentions about so-called ordained priesthood are going to have to fall by the wayside, because as the New Testament tries to teach us, and as every great spiritual writer since has reminded us, we can only possess Christ by non-possession, to use John of the Cross’s phrase.

If Christ did not claim equality with God, no more should we. And the degree to which we have this mind of Christ, his humility, the degree to which we stop making claims, particularly about our selves and our offices, is the degree to which we will be effective in communicating the Christian religion, and this will happen primarily by who we are, by our being as opposed to our doing; It will be effective primarily in ways of which we are not aware and which we should not want to know. [See "Whatever Happened to Discretion" and "The Space of Prayer" forthcoming in the journal, Weavings, in the May/June, July/August 2007 issues respectively.]

The Holy Spirit works primarily and necessarily out of our sight. And we become sacred signs by deepening our lives of silent prayer and living in beholding of the vision of God. Everyone on the Faith and Life Committee has been to one of the presentations of the last five weeks, so I won’t belabour the point about the destructiveness of the closed and tiny world of our unredeemed and tyrannical self-consciousness. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the sort of change we are talking about is not that of having the odd prayer group or meditative Eucharist; it is a fundamental change of fundamental attitudes that is called for, and a reversal of the present order.


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