I have been thinking about authority of late. Partly because of the bishop's annual visitation; partly because the question arose in the "long day" of the Inquirers' series this last Saturday. Perhaps some bits of rumination have occurred as well in light of the fact that we hope to call a clergy associate in the next week or so. God willing.
I got the question last weekend, from a mixed bag of folks arriving to vocation as member of the Episcopal Church from different cultural, religious and denominational backgrounds. One overarching theme worked its way through their queries:
Where does authority lie in the Episcopal Church? How is it exercised? Who, most importantly, does the exercising?
Not easy questions to answer. The difficulty in trying to do so arises from the fact that authority in our society today is a dicey proposition. We have seen some extraordinary abuses of authority in the power structures of our social and political systems over the past few decades. It seems that there is not a single human institution that, in the past two decades, has been able to avoid the scandal of abuses of trust, power and that more ephemeral reality of mutual care to which God is calling us as human beings.
Our President, the wider executive branch of the United States Government, even the legislative and judicial bodies of under whose authority we attempt to live out our lives, have decided national elections as a minority, enacted legislation depriving individuals of the right to self-determination and even taken us to war on now-publicly avowed false claims of incipient threat from a state crippled by UN sanctions. The Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in a very public scandal of clergy sexual misconduct cases, but stands with the rest of the religious establishment as it struggles to remove predators from permissive environments, even as they attempt to reinforce the victims' faith in their efforts to provide safe environments for all. The Anglican Communion, its constituent provinces and the many dioceses and parishes they compass are-according to the media-engaged in an epic conflict over the authority of scripture and the definition of community...and the victims in so many cases are the people who think they are doing the right thing by stealing church buildings, hiding funds and trying to drive wedges of dissent into places where we should be instead celebrating our unity in Christ.
The above paragraph contains sweeping generalizations and some grandstanding on my part...take a break if you need to...go grab a cup of coffee and digest...the rest of this post is going to be quite tame, or maybe not. I seem to be in a groove...
So...where does authority lie in the Episcopal Church?
Depends on what you want to get done and the result you are expecting. At the parochial level, the power and authority break pretty evenly along some distinct lines: all matters financial and structural with regard to the maintenance and support of the parish fall into the hands of the vestry. These people are elected in batches every year at the parish's annual meeting to serve as the leaders, the heart and mind, of the parish for any given year. The decisions around spiritual formation, the planning and execution of liturgy, the pastoral care and evolution of the parish, the oversight of staff and the access to the buildings is given into the hand of the rector. Both these roles are pretty standard to parishes of the Episcopal Church. I have yet to serve in a parish that has a majority of people who understand and accept this division of authority. Sometimes we see parishes attempt to effect a consensus driven model of decisions making. Sometimes, folks can rise up in the parish with power both on their minds and in their hands...old books call them "lay popes." They run things...usually well but sometimes at the expense of the health of the wider parish system.
There is always a wrestling match between folks who don't like seeing such absolute authority awarded by canon to clergy and vestry...and ofttimes the balances tip back and forth, again usually with a loss of energy and vitality-but with a sense of many being able to "reign in" folks who are seen to have too much power to implement change.
So, for me that begs the question of authority in light of a cultural environment where the trust of authority is nearly extinct, and the assumption of conflict a cultural reality.
Authority in the Episcopal Church, in any church, really, is founded first in canon, and second on trust. For a popular culture that assumes and expects authority to abuse its advantages, that means that I, the vestry, my staff, my bishop and my Church are suspect. Period.
Authority is, truly, a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways and is most efficient when it is stabbing something...and yet in both those roles it fails to do something that it should be doing in the first place...something every good sword should do...it should stay in its sheath and bring life and peace.
People subject to the authority of others forget that in the face of their anxieties. Observe the President and the rhetoric he is using with Congress right now. Take a look at how the visits of two Primates of the Anglican Communion to the United States are being seen-(++Peter Akinola of Nigeria and +++Rowan Cantaur of England) by the wider Communion. One is abusing his authority and fostering dissent in our province, the other is struggling to hold the whole bloody mess together long enough for some degree of healing and reconciliation to take place.
I wish I could say that authority wears a positive face in this Church and in our culture. Sadly, the days when institutions were able to claim that authority amongst individuals is long past. It is now up to individuals to, by lives lived out in word and example, reclaim ground lost due to the selfish, self-absorbed and abusive misuses of power and authority-and to again attempt to forge some sense of common purpose from the rubble of Watergate, Iraq, Enron and the whole host of let-downs this generation of aging adults has walked with for the balance of their lives.
Now, for that cup of coffee.....