Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Christian authority (with a little help from Ignatius of Antioch)

I have a good friend and colleague who has just been blessed with election to the episcopate. He is now the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Nebraska, and he, his family and his soon-to-be diocese are surely blessed by the Holy Spirit that after a long period of discernment and prayer that God should so powerfully call them together to more deeply explore the life of Christ. That's the poetic and political thought. The more base line I would offer in the vernacular is that I am utterly stoked to see someone I respect and love as a brother be able to both articulate a call to the episcopate, and then have that call ratified with a resounding "amen" from the community that will accept him as overseer in a few short months.

It's a big call: bigger, I think, than most people realize at this point in the church's history. We are once again at a point of flux, perhaps several points of flux, as a community of faith. The Episcopal Church is seeing deep change in its leadership due to the impending retirements of a large generation of clergy and lay leaders. It has also seen an influx of people to the denomination who are converts to the faith, or to the way the faith of the Church catholic is articulated at this point by TEC. On top of that, we are still in the throes of a culture war between folks who remember-and desire to maintain-things "the way they 'always' have been" and folks who are seeking radical and progressive change to systems they perceive as antiquated and sadly, dominated by patriarchal and exclusionary theologies that are out of step with where they see the Holy Spirit guiding us. And, of course, there are the folks who DON'T WANT CONFLICT.

Great time to be called as a leader? Yes. Really.

Because I know the man, and I see in him and in the people of this generation a group of leaders who are able to acknowledge that they are not "all that and a bag of chips" while at the same time being just that. Leaders who can lead people through crazy, changing times have been rare...but are becoming more and more common, and welcome, as the Church begins to evolve into whatever the next generations are called to shape it into in God's good time and in accordance with God's will.

He, and his diocese-to-be are in my thoughts this morning. This is due for the most part because a daily reader of samples from the early Church fathers offers today's reading as an excerpt from a letter of Ignatius (Antioch) to the Trallians. More on Ignatius here.

As he writes to the Trallians, Ignatius opines on the deep connection between the Bishop and the people. This relationship, he holds, is primary to the nature of us being the Church and the Body of Christ. That pastoral bond between the people of God and the person charged with their pastoral care and called to leadership is paramount, and its health exhibits the Church's vitality...first, and foremost. After that, there comes the call to the people to both support and call forth from their presbyters and deacons the very best in virtue, spirit and graceful conduct in ministry:
Reports of your splendid character have reached me: how you are beyond reproach and ever unshaken in your patient endurance--qualities that you have not acquired but are yours by nature. My informant was your own bishop Polybius, who by the will of God and Jesus Christ visited me here in Smyrna. He so fully entered into my joy at being in chains for Christ that I came to see your whole community embodied in him. Moreover, when I learned from him of your God-given kindliness toward me, I broke out in words of praise for God. It is on him, I discovered, that you pattern your lives.
Ignatius his holding up a model of how we might choose to live in Christ, in the Church. What happens in our lives when we live with the support of our leaders in the highest esteem? What happens when we not only expect the best from them, but do our best to lift up, care for and nurture the best in them? What happens when the virtue and health of the parish, the Diocese, the Body itself is the first and chief aim of leaders not over and against the will of the people...but in accord with them? Simple answer, the Church glows with grace and strength.

Sadly, where authority lies, there also resides power...and human beings experience power more often as a drug that intoxicates, rather than one that brings cure and consolation to those who are suffering. I have seen it time and again in the Church. I have seen and felt it time and again in myself. It isn't easy to live in that place where the ability to change things becomes for a person, committee or community a way to dominate and control, instead.

So, Ignatius has reminded me...and my friend's great joy in being called to a new ministry to a wonderful Church in a great Diocese support the same...that as leaders we are called to exhort primarily from our faith and commitment to Christ Jesus as the model and pattern in all things. As well, that we continue to teach the people of God that authority and power in all shapes and sizes can only be holy when it exists within the grace and consolation of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

A blessing on all Christian leaders today, lay AND ordained. We have a lot of work to do, on ourselves and on behalf of the Church for a whole world of need and want as humanity seeks God's mercy and healing light.

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