Where Two or Three Gather Together, There Will be Politics

Sarah Hey’s piece on @standfirm on the necessity of ACNA’s people getting involved in their church’s politics reminds me of something that took place when I started to work for Church of God Lay Ministries and Paul L. Walker was our Presiding Bishop.  Walker was a successful pastor in Atlanta before he moved onto the Executive Committee so he didn’t get there through the usual cursus honorum that characterises many people in the leadership of the Church of God.  Nevertheless he was wise in the ways of the church; he stated at a gathering of International Office employees that “where two or three gather together, there will be politics”.

He was preaching to the choir; we were all too aware of that fact, as was anyone who worked in the church.  That’s especially true in a centralised/episcopal type of church government, which ours is and which is also true of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA, although the last has dispensed with centralised ownership of the property).

For me, one of the largest legacies of being in the Church of God has been an opportunity to see just how denominational and church politics work from the inside, an opportunity that probably wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed either Episcopalian or Roman Catholic.  Turning to the ACNA, Hey is right: just because we don’t think politics have any place in the church doesn’t mean that they won’t happen or that the course of the church won’t be affected by the results.

I have to admit that I was amused by this line:

Far more parishes in my diocese alone lost that core of 30-40 parishioners and now can only afford part-time clergy.  Along with those consequences comes a lot of heightened rhetoric—now—about the glories of multi-career clergy and “yoked” parishes and “lay-focused ministry” and all sorts of other self-serving theological babble mostly designed to paper over the fact that there are fewer full-time jobs for clergy because there are fewer parishes that are able to afford full-time clergy because, in a phrase, there are now far far far fewer parishioners to pledge.

Having worked in a lay ministry department of a church with many bi-vocational pastors, I got a chuckle out of this.  The issue isn’t the idea but the timing: when your church is going downhill fast, it’s a little late to discover the laity and their ministry potential unless you’re really ready to empower them within the church itself.

Centralised/episcopal churches have a bad habit of investing their clergy with powers and position the New Testament doesn’t, ranging from the keys to the kingdom (Roman Catholicism) to the concentrated anointing concept (Pentecostal,) where only the pastor and perhaps a few others in the church really hold the power of God to dispense same to others.  The result is that the lay people tend to become passive participants in the life of the church, leaving the driving to someone else.

That, of course, is what got the Episcopal Church in trouble.  The run downhill began in the seminaries, where the academics who resided there cast doubt on the veracity of just about every Christian tenet (and the source of those tenets) they could find.  They then sent a clergy with more education but far lower compensation than their parishioners, which in addition to the corrosive effects of their education gave them a sense of both isolation and deprivation.  So they used a “social justice” movement to shame their congregations about their superior state.  And of course they worked the system, making sure that like-minded people moved up in the church.

Lay people, finding church politics both unfamiliar and uncongenial (and sometimes lacking standing in the process), let these people have their way.  The results in TEC–both in terms of those who ended up controlling the church and those who left–speak for themselves.

Now ACNA is about to choose a new Archbishop.  It’s true that political changes such as the ones that transformed TEC aren’t solely effected by leadership choices.  We as Americans have become obsessed with leadership to the point where we are blind to the “behind of scenes” things that make leadership changes the end of the process and not the  start.

But my message to the laity of ACNA is simple: don’t just sit there.  Become informed and make that knowledge known in the process.  Don’t let self-important clergy lead you around by the nose.  And don’t let them tell you that the role of the laity is to just go outside of the church and do laity type ministry: it’s not an either/or situation.  A laity with an active role inside of the church is more likely to want to reach outward with enthusiasm and bring people in to a place where they like to be.

The purpose of ACNA is to remedy the disaster of TEC.  Don’t let it become part of the problem.  As I said in my piece on Tory Baucum:

What was the point of secession, of the cost of litigation and for most of the losers relocation, when you’re just going to throw in the towel?  And, to get back to the key issue, what’s the purpose of a church whose beliefs are little different from the world around it?

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