Is it an Ordained Minister’s Job to Toe the Party Line?

Something caught my eye today in an article on Patheos’ Get Religion blog.   The article itself is about how the media covers Christian views on Satan and demonic possession.  I wasn’t aware of the media uproar it references, so most of it went a bit over my head.  But one part jumped out at me because it touches on one of the central themes in my novel Angel.  

Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church gave a sermon in Venezuela recently which denounced the Apostle Paul as mean-spirited and bigoted for having released a slave girl from her demonic bondage or psychic ability depending on your point of view.  (The episode appears in Acts 16:16-34 )

A fellow Episcopal Bishop responded to her unorthodox interpretation on his blog in this way:

I’m going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider’s point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops.

The central character of Angel, Paul Tobit, is the minister of an unidentified Protestant denomination.  Throughout the course of the story it becomes clear that his views contrast with the officially stated positions of his denomination when it comes to LGBT issues.

In once scene Paul and his friend Ian, who is gay, have a spirited debate about why Paul does not get up in the pulpit and take a stand.  Paul says, “I represent the church, but I don’t agree with all of their positions on the issue. You’re right. The church would like to have it both ways and make everyone comfortable. I think they’re going the right way, affirming that we shouldn’t discriminate, and trying to encourage an open dialog. But I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth. I’m just trying to explain what I think, and what the church says. That’s all… It’s a relationship with a church, like a friendship. You don’t stop speaking because you disagree on something.'”

Until Ian arrived on the scene, Paul was able to deal with his conflict by simply not addressing the topic.  When he could no longer do that comfortably it becames a major dilemma.  To what extent does a minister become a representative of and the voice of the larger body of the church when he or she puts on that robe?  I am sure the requirements and expectations on this score vary by denomination, but for any religious organization it is not a straightforward question with an easy answer.

Even a liberal denomination like Unitarian Universalism, sometimes caricatured (even by UUs) as the “believe whatever you want church,” has its expectations.  If a minister decided she believed in demonic possession, in the need to evangelize about salvation through Christ, or– in an interesting inverse of Paul’s situation– the abomination of homosexuality she would no doubt be driven from the pulpit.

The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a Unitarian minister, once wrote:

When I was in seminary, all of us were struggling with how to blend and balance our individuality within the role of minister.  We found that most people have a strong idea of how a minister should look and talk and behave.  I can join a new group of people, talking and laughing, being normal, and the moment they find out I’m a minister the laughter dies as they check back over the things they’ve said in front of me, trying to remember if they’ve sworn or sinned or said something politically incorrect.  It’s hard…There are times, though.. As a minister, I’m the one who is there at the hospital or at the funeral home…. It doesn’t really matter at that moment when my birthday is, or that purple is my favorite color.  What matters is the function I perform when I stand in the broad stream of history and symbol, faith and mythology, and let something larger than myself work through me, through the role I’m filling.

The conflict is more pronounced, perhaps, in the ministry, but it a question we all face in the social roles we play.  When I am in my role as “teacher” or “company man” or any of the guises I might inhabit how much responsibility do I have to the social expectations that come with that position and how much divergence should be tolerated, and how much is needed?  In which situations is it more ethical to claim your role as part of the “broad stream of history and symbol” and in which situations is it more ethical to take a stand and express your individuality?  Where do you draw those lines?

One comment

  1. You might enjoy reading the books or viewing online some of the videos by the retired Episcopal John Shelby Spong. If more Christian leaders were like him, I would sign up.

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