Monday, May 20, 2013

Priesthood: Religious leadership and clericalism

In the 1970’s, following Vatican II, there was a study done among religious orders, especially men’s orders that did not ordain their members, on the importance of the priesthood.  I was teaching in a combined Ursuline and Christian Brothers school in Galveston.  I remember reading the document and it raised many questions about the efficacy of priestly orders and was interested that priestly orders were considered really non-essential to the communities of men who embraced celibacy.  Except for liturgical duties, priests among the community were seen as a detriment to the community life of the brothers. The status of ‘priest’ was considered an impediment to the common life. 

When I attended the Kellogg lectures at EDS last week, this conversation was being reprised.  The issue of clericalism is a big one in the Church these days.  It is my contention that the schism that we have been experiencing over the past 15 years is a clerical one.  It concerns not the people in the pew, but it concerns the clergy and bishops of a minority in the Anglican Communion.  It has much to do with control and order, not theology or even basic faith.  And after what I have seen here in Fort Worth following the split of the diocese, clericalism is alive and flourishing in this part of the Church militant.

The discussion at EDS was clearly on the side of abolishing the priesthood.  But the
panelists were all NOT ordained.  They were professors or academics who do not celebrate the Eucharist or absolve sins.  Now, I know some of the members of that panel and some of them have their own ax to grind, BUT I do know what they are trying to get at.  They are trying to address the excruciatingly difficult problem of clericalism that faces, I believe, all churches with the exception of the Quakers.  And while I know that the Methodists, Presbyterians and the Reformed churches do not have priests, they still have clerical leadership that have power that can subject others to their will. 

Here in Texas we have a preponderance of independent non-denominational churches
since the break-up of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Many of those Baptist churches claim themselves as non-denominational these days but they still carry on Baptist theology and ethos.   Some of the churches try to hide their Baptist affiliation by renaming themselves Gateway, or Heartland, or Harvest rather than being ____Ave. Baptist.  But when you attend them even though they have screens and guitars, they are still Baptist.  And the pastor still ‘knows best’.

Religious leadership is difficult at best.  When your primary role model is Jesus who
spoke of the Good Shepherd, it is so easy to fall into the habit of thinking that the people you are called to serve are sheep to be pushed around.  The bishop carries a big stick to drag the sheep back into the fold.  And yet the reality is much different.  As a priest one is called upon to represent Christ (as any baptized person should) but also act as an agent of the institution of church.  I have always understood that priestly orders give me the Good Housekeeping seal of approval of the Church to speak of God AND the organization.  It is why we make vows to obey our bishops in matters of faith and morals. But it IS a crazy-making position.  Those who lead are mortal and fallible.  We have feet of clay and make huge blunders in our efforts to lead the people of God in the way of faith.  And those of us who are priests--the ‘middle management’ often do not get to advocate for our flocks as we would like because the ‘shepherds’ who are in charge think of us as sheep as well.

It is naïve, I believe, to think that doing away with the priesthood would do away with clericalism.  Luther and Calvin tried to do that only to create their own forms of clerical leadership that fell into the same mote that the Eastern and Western clergy had done:  creating a caste of the chosen few who control the Church. 

Over the past decade or so, the underbelly of the Roman Catholic Church has been shown to the world.  If there is any organization that has allowed it to be unresponsive to the Church at large, it is the Vatican.  And the tendency of the populace to speak of The Church as some amalgam of Romanism and severe Reformed versions of Christianity makes it difficult to provide any coherent leadership for those who wish to affiliate with others who have come to a mature faith.  I am thankful for my own denomination simply because it is a form of Christianity that does allow for question, allows for diversity of theological discussion and even allows us to discuss the need for priests. 

As a priest and one who is each day confounded by the mystery of this vocation, it is difficult to explain the uniqueness of the calling.  I am at once humbled by this affirmation of Church and God and exalted by the privilege of serving the Church and God in this way.  But the issue of clericalism is still with me.  I must continually be willing to confront the temptation to use my priesthood to further empower a specific class in the faith.  I am there to empower others with the power of God.  I am there to help liberate those who find themselves disenfranchised by sin to step into that place of wholeness that the Incarnation proclaims.  It makes for a very unwieldy social context because freedom in Christ creates its own havoc.  It is for that reason that the Church instituted the orders of Bishop, priest and deacon in the first place. 

I guess I am of the opinion that if the position of priest was abolished, there would be a
form of religious leadership that would evolve would descend into clericalism just as surely as do some priests do today.  Clericalism is ever with us.  But what we do need is an image of priesthood that is NOT imbued with all the arrogance and exclusivity that we see in so many priests.  I remember writing a paper in seminary using George Hebert’s Memoirs of a Country Parson as a paradigm for priesthood.  It served me well.  But all too often what we see of many priests is the outward desire to be seen as God’s representative and little of the true humility of living out the life of Christ. 

The vocation of priest is hard to live because so many have different images of priesthood.  To live the calling means that one needs to be constantly in relationship with the Holy One so that the Voice that calls also reminds one of their failings.  There are too many who are willing to demand an image of priesthood that is not in keeping with God’s call to us.  I have had people of my parishes want me to be their parent, their ruler, and their step-n-fetchit and at the same time fight me at every turn all in the name of the peace of Christ.   

Being willing to be out of step with society is a constant for those called to be priest.  I can never use the greater society as the pattern for my life.  For those who are introverts it is a bit easier than it is for extroverts because the interior voice is a bit louder but discerning which voice, God’s or self, is still difficult. 

To face the issues of power in our lives is the same for anyone.  But religious power has its own particular evil attached.  To use power of any kind is for the Christian is always a trial because power can be so easily used for ill.  In the early church Power was seen as a manifestation of Evil.  It was referred to as ‘Principalities and Powers’ and was something that was understood as demonic in nature.  I do not believe that power in and of itself is evil.  But it is so easy to blindly use power for ill, thinking that one is using it for good. So
the power in religious leadership constantly has to be raised up to scrutiny so that the image of Christ as the humble itinerant rabbi can be seen and the message that he taught can show forth the Holy One of Israel.   Learning how to do that IS part of the work of the seminary.  It is part of the work of the Commissions on Ordained Ministry in our dioceses.  But it is the work of the individuals who have been called to this unique and mysterious vocation of religious leadership.  It is this constant review and the practice of it that truly creates the ‘priest’ rather than the laying on of hands of the Apostolic Succession.  It is what keeps the Church a living and creative presence of God in the world.

1 comment:

Barbara Bunsold said...

Thanks for tackling this thorny topic.