A Question of Authority or, "Yeah? Says You!"
Authority is a funny thing in the Church. As the Episcopal Church is by nature hierarchic, there are multiple levels and expressions of authority wandering all over the place. Often, these expressions come into conflict. There is the authority granted those who have answered the call to live in the sacrament of ordination: deacons, priests and bishops. There is the authority of our governing bodies: conventions, councils, standing committees, vestries, etc. There are elected lay officials in parishes, and at every level of Church governance.
Looking up from our Church's official structures, our eyes and attention are drawn to the Book of Common Prayer. Whatever edition you prefer to hew to (1979, 1928, 1892--for those alive today, at least), that book directs our worship and frames our day-to-day walk with God in community. Get a bunch of clerics together to debate liturgy, and you will see how fast interpretations of the BCP can create controversy!
Finally, and this is the big point of conflict for most who follow Christ, there is the question of the nature of the authority of scripture in our common life in Christ. Therein lies the greatest lever for schism and the most challenging call to communion for us as people who seek to know Christ more fully, and to make him known in the world.
Paul's letter to the Romans hits a swing point today. Chapter 12 is one of the greatest passages in the New Testament for us as we seek our useful ways to present life-giving (instead of life-determining) models for the authority of scripture in our lives. Aside from its incredible grace and flow, and the way it pulls us away from judgement and into engagement with each other as we seek to follow, and model, Christ, it also does something remarkable in that it does not so much tell us what not to do but what to do overall in our discipleship. It makes the question of authority one that knocks us off our pedestals. It pushes us into places where we are open and vulnerable to each other. It defines the ways we are to deal with opposition. It reminds us that we have chosen submission to Christ...and that all other authority is subject to his grace and love. It keeps us related to each other and demands a liberal flexibility from us...for we never do know when Christ is going to manifest. It could be in the very people we want to pull away from because we do not agree with their choices, their practices or their positions.
Authority like that does not exclude. It includes.
Therein lies the challenge...for when we as human beings start bantering and fighting about authority the default is an assumption of conflict. If you don't agree with me, or submit to the expressions of authority I articulate, then you are WRONG. I can demand that you hew to my interpretation of the canons that govern both of us...while at the same time discounting yours. We can tear each other to shreds, and use our sharply defined polarities to split our communities into a myriad of factions....and never even get to the question that pushed us to argue over who has the corner on authority in the first place.....
...or we can choose to attempt to see life from God's perspective. As in Psalm 121...we make a conscious effort to life our eyes to the hills, to seek God's help. We acknowledge God's supremacy in our lives and recognize that manifestation of God in our neighbors. We submit to God's authority in our lives, and recognize that each one of us is attempting to interpret what that call means in the here and now. We share the struggle, and understand that conflict can be creative--but only when we set aside the desire to prevail over and against our opponents.
When it comes to the Question of Authority....in God's economy it is not about who is right or who is wrong. It is about how we can all discern ways to hear, embrace, love, honor and respect all who seek a deeper knowledge of God and of God's ways. Not easy, not easy at all....but an answer that brings life in Christ, over and against the half-life of conflict and recrimination that we too often seem to seize upon as our default response to the question of authority in our lives.....