For a few months, a draft of a letter has been circulating among the email inboxes of our congregation’s finance committee. Back in early summer, the Assistant Treasurer sent out her first ‘cut’ for edits. I added a paragraph. Several other committee members made comments.
When the committee came back together, all it needed was consent. At that point on the agenda, someone spoke: “It seems to me there’s still too much ‘us’ and ‘you’ language,” he said; “it reads like there are insiders and outsiders.”
Various folks nodded their heads in relative agreement. It wasn’t good enough to go out and, maybe, we were having a much deeper conversation about this entire process. At the same time, we weren’t sure we wanted to have a conversation, let alone an argument, when maybe only a few felt any degree of certainty. That odd hush, which I’ve found is really the lack of something, hovered over the table.
“The point of this exercise,” one spoke up, “was that we’d have the last few months to have worked this out. This letter is already overdue.”
They were already checking their watches – this particular committee having an amazing gift to accomplish very good work, along with a few jokes, in no more than 59 minutes. The chair looked for a way forward: “What things would you suggest changing?” she asked the person who raised the point.
“It sounds like we are the church and they need to understand, accept, and buy in,” he said. “Maybe we could get rid of all the ‘you’ language in here.”
“Yeah, but how do you get rid of ‘you’ in the first line,” someone asked: “‘…Thank you for your contributions…’?” Gentle laughter broke the former stiffness of the room.
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said, mostly to the one who raised the issue. “Not only that, I really appreciate what you’re saying. It’s just that, as a contributor to this letter, I can’t see it.” He volunteered to take another stab at his revisions. By 9 o’clock that night, long after everyone had gone home (the meeting lasting a record 70 minutes!) a new draft popped into my inbox. It was clean, fresh, and darn near perfect.
“I just can’t see it” was what I said, but I was really saying, “I need your help.” Truthfully, I saw very clearly what he was saying and he, much more than me, was articulating a vision of the church that Jesus would recognize as being his own body. I needed his help in getting my words to reflect, again, that vision.
One of the first things I realized when I was ordained was that I could no longer speak with integrity about the ministry of lay persons. I had gotten that collar and, suddenly, it made me mute. One of the first things I realized when I became a rector was that the ministry I sought to do would always be checked by the business of the institution I was leading.
We could resist this. I know I have. I don’t lack in stubbornness, and I’ve had plenty of experience pushing through any number of brilliant plans so that they come out the other end looking just how they did in my mind all along, untarnished.
Or we could be honest. Authority is a slippery thing in the church, at least in our church. And I’m glad it’s so. Even the abbot – the one who “is believed to hold the place of Christ,”(1) according to Benedict’s rule – must still “call the whole community together,” “hear the advice of the brothers,” and remember that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.”(2) To an outsider, it appears that our hierarchy enables us to do things by going up the rungs. In truth, though, there are only two choices at every step, and each has profound consequences. You can command, line things up, and organize – order, as in, a verb. Or you can participate, pray, converse, think out loud and in community – to be in your order among other orders; that is, a noun.
The Prayer Book names four orders of ministry: lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop.(3) We know that each is distinct. What we don’t seem to know so readily or what we forget all too quickly is what a few of those Prayer Book-radicals said way, way back in 1979 – that “perhaps…we are coming to an understanding of the church, not as a society where authority trickles down from the top but as an ordered body of many members where they who are greatest are servants of all – a New Testament model for the church with revolutionary implications for the state as well.”(4)
Greg Syler is the rector of St. George's, Valley Lee. Share your thoughts, comments, and questions on Facebook.
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(1) Rule of Benedict, ch.2
(2) Rule of Benedict, ch.3
(3) Book of Common Prayer, p.855
(4) Charles Price & Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living, p.6