Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Shifting of Authorities -- where is the church headed?

I am in attendance at the 2012 Academy of Parish Clergy Annual Meeting in Dayton, OH.  We have as our presenter The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, Associate pastor of Western Presbyterian Church of Washington DC, and author of two books -- Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation and Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.

The topic of the day has been the shifting of authorities in the church in the context of generational changes.  It is clear that clergy do not have the same kind of authority they once did -- either in the church or in the broader society.  Once it was a given that clergy were people of authority.  As one of my members, recently deceased, told me of the congregation's founding pastor, "What Dr. Jones wanted, Dr. Jones got."  He was a person of personal authority, who had gained not only a local, but a national reputation.  So that's not so surprising.  We're not that church today, nor am I Dr. Jones (nor do I wish to be him, thank you very much).  But, the point is -- we live in an age when questioning authority is the new norm.  We have been formed by events that have led us, as a culture, to question people's authority.  Credentials, while helpful, no longer matter.  This is a positive in some ways, but can be dangerous in other ways.  

We talked today about events that formed us.  I grew up watching the Apollo missions head to outer space on TV, but I also watched Vietnam live on the 6:00 news.  While we celebrated the Apollo missions, Vietnam raised questions about the wisdom of our leaders (though we seemed to accept the rationale offered for two wars in the past decade).  Another event of my early teen years was Watergate.  This event would forever mar our view of the government, even more so than earlier scandals, because it led to the resignation in disgrace of the President of the United States.

It is in this context that the church has struggled to maintain its presence.  Our ability to speak with any kind of moral authority has been hampered by any number of scandals, from the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church to any number of financial scandals that have rocked our churches.  So, no longer can we as clergy expect to mount the pulpit, speak our word, and expect that it will be received with unquestioning fervor.  We can speak, we can interpret, but whatever authority we have is rooted in the community that shares life with us.

As Carol noted we are moving from priest/preacher as interpretive authority to "we" as authoritative interpreter -- what she referred to us crowd sourced.   This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I added my caveat to the discussion.  The problem in so many of our churches today, especially mainline ones, is that so many are simply biblically illiterate.  If people don't know the basic story, it's hard to have a meaningful conversation about what it means to be part of a community of faith that takes its story from the biblical story.  I will grant that while I disagree with how many of my more conservative brothers and sisters read the text, they are more likely to know the story than many in the mainline.  So, if we're going to move to crowd sourced or open sourced authority, we may want to get a better handle on the foundational story, which as our preacher last evening, The Rev. Heidi Neumark, demonstrated with great clarity, has great liberative power.      


So in an age of shifting authorities, where is the church headed, and how will it be led?  

2 comments:

John said...

Maybe people are no longer convinced that the recorded history of the Jewish people is the exclusive authoritative lense through which to discern divinity? Hence, what you refer to as biblical illiteracy for the doubtful is biblical irrelevance.

As for the decline of clerical authority, while the scandals of the contemporary age have certainly played a role, it must be acknowledged that such scandals are nothing new. Just as important I think is the increasing modesty of most clerics, e.g., abandoning clerical garb, abandoning of honorific titles, and an increasing willingness to undermine their own teaching with the acknowledgement that their words are just one person's informed opinion, i.e., their teachings are optional. That same phenomenon may also explain in part the continuing vitality of conservatives in most faith traditions, their claim to teach authoritatively - and their adherents cling to the certainty of their authoritative teaching - regardless of the genuine truth of those teachings. In essense, they are granted authority because they claim it.

keithwatkinshistorian said...

James K. Wellman, Jr., in his book comparing liberals and evangelicals in the Pacific Northwest describes one of the major tenets of liberal churches, which is their determination to allow people to hold their own convictions about matters and still be accepted. A downside to this liberality of attitude is that it is difficult to speak as though some beliefs really make a difference. Part of the decline of authority is our own unwillingness to speak with clarity and conviction.