There’s always been a gulf fixed between the ideal of the Church we see in the New Testament and its reality. Indeed the ideal is set forth in the Epistles as the letter writers address the failure of Christians either to love one another or to live in peace together. St Paul chides the Corinthians and years later, St. Clement of Rome tries to tackle the same failures in the same church.

The other day I had a report of a vestry meeting in a very conservative parish in which those who want to distance themselves from the diocese and those who do not got into a name calling process. Of course there’s nothing new in that. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked retired priests what they enjoy most about retirement and they invariable answer “not going to vestry meetings.”

I think I might say the same thing and I’m not retired. I’m lucky to have a positive-minded vestry, but at the annual meeting each year I worry that some of the nominees noted for their negative spirit and bad temperedness may get elected.

What puzzles me is that people who visit their own internal anger, conveniently hooked to some event or issue, seem unaware that their language and behavior is inappropriate in a Christian setting. What bothers me even more is that we excuse their behavior and enable their creating dysfunction among us.

At no time do angry people have a better excuse than when there’s division and conflict in the church. Being zealous for a Cause is seen by many as a good excuse for people to vent in a manner which would not be tolerated in a secular club. Character assassination, name-calling, the imputation of the worst motives all seem tolerated weapons in the arsenal of a Christian crusader. Not that there’s anything new in all this. Read the first chapter of Luther’s reply to Erasmus on justification by faith entitled “The Bondage of the Will” if you want to read some purple prose. Read the Puritan attack on episcopacy in Elizabeth I’s reign, called the “Marprelate Tracts.” And yet in the 21st Century one would think that people who call themselves orthodox or progressive would somehow catch themselves, particularly at that moment in worship when we recite the General Confession.

To most of us, it looks like the two mothers of contemporary Anglicanism are going to allow the baby to be cut in half, although many of us would say that the baby doesn’t belong to either of them.

In England the leaders of part of the Evangelical Party have gone to Lambeth Palace and said that if the Archbishop doesn’t allow them to ignore liberal bishops, they will take unilateral action and call in their own pure bishops. One would think that liberal bishops were new to the Church of England. In return the liberals have written their own manifesto which basically says that unless +Rowan does something about the narrow puritans in the Church of England there will be trouble, as if Evangelicalism is something new. They should read J.C. Ryle’s, “Knots Untied” if they want to become familiar with historical Evangelical Anglicanism. Perhaps they should read their old liberal papers issued by what was once termed the “Modern Churchman’s Union”, if they can stay awake. The trouble is that both factions can’t remember yesterday and so they repeat the same old stuff over and over again.

Or perhaps the trouble is that none of us can remember yesterday. In all the noise, we moderates can hardly hear ourselves think. Like a dysfunctional parish or vestry, we actually allow people to shriek and yell, do things in secret, stir up the malcontents and drive off good, gentle, devout parishioners. We know the angry can’t yell at home or in the office. It’s only at church and perhaps in politics that they are able to get away with dreadful behavior. That should tell us something.

One Response

  1. Thanks for this, Tony. In 25 years of vestry meetings I’ve had a few ups and downs too. Right now I’ve got a pretty good group, for which I give thanks. It’s something of a miracle, actually, when it happens.

    I think you’re right that so much of the sturm and drang of our civil and ecclesial political worlds is rooted in the mysterious and sometimes darker shadows and recesses of the disordered psyche. Confluences of narcissism and overcompensated inadequacy and sometimes anxiety disorders that verge into paranoia gather in an institution where there are few real controls or monitored boundaries. Whether in the parish or diocese or wider church, I’m afraid all too often leadership with the basic capacities of psychological health, emotional stability, and spiritual maturity is pushed aside to make room for those who are working out more urgent but, alas, also more destructive tendencies. In many ways, actually, the fact that we muddle on even as well as we do is an oblique testimony to the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Difficult to explain otherwise why things haven’t imploded long before now . . . .

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