Of experts and authority
Once again, we repost from the blog of the Revd Robert Hendrickson, who has said it better than we could.
A clergy colleague of another tradition shared on Facebook yesterday an excellent article that was about the declining trust in those with expertise in various fields and the rise of the notion that everyone being entitled to their own opinion means that evidence and facts can be ignored in favored of personal gut-impulses. The squares with an overall decline in our willingness to trust or, in the case of those in Holy Orders, to obey those who have authority.
The challenge is that someone can labor a lifetime in a field, say medicine, and then have someone who has formed their opinion via 12 minutes of internet browsing decide that they know better. Not only do they know better, they are going to start a Facebook page and comment on every comment thread they can find and then make a YouTube video – and suddenly they are an expert. And that seems, nowadays, to settle it.
This is the cost of a democratized celebrity culture in which everyone gets to claim some sort of prize – and no one is subject to anyone else.
The challenge for the Church is that this thinking has seeped into our bones too – and it is causing chaos.
I have, of late, been reading J. Robert Wright’s book, Prayer Book Spirituality. It is a look through the Prayer Book using Anglican writers from across our history to provide context and spiritual depth to any given portion of the Prayer Book. It is a joy to read and illuminating to see the converging lines of Anglican thought that truly weave together the best of Reformed and Catholic thinking into a spiritual system of belief and practice that not only coheres but is robust, moving, and Christ-centered.
Historically, the Prayer Book has, as often as not, been a source of disunion and not simply union. Look at the unrest that comes after its adoption in England – or the comments made at the adoption of the new Prayer Book in 1979. Yet, the Prayer Book serves as the heart of our common identity and a source of authority and direction that we mutually agree upon as Episcopalians.
It, combined with our Constitution and Canons, form the framework for our common life together as a democratic Church with an historically valid Episcopate.
Yet, whether it is in the debate over Communion Regardless of Baptism or in the creative approaches taken to liturgy – we are seeing those charged with maintaining and strengthening our shared system of obedience decide that they are experts too. Their class in liturgics, and their gut-feeling, has given them the expertise to design “experimental” liturgies for pastoral reasons or to avoid our common discipline.
The problem is that it is not the liturgies being experimented upon – the real subjects of these experiments are the faithful in our congregations. Their spiritual lives, growth, and discipleship become something to be tooled around with for the sake of innovation – because the priest knows better – they can just feel it.
You can hear the contempt present when a priest dismisses historical theology, liturgy, or spirituality as the product of a bunch of “dead white men” (I have more than once heard that exact phrasing) who will have no hold over our more enlightened selves.
This is a theology of rupture – the rupturing of relationship between ourselves and the faithful of past ages with whom we continue to be in Communion. It is a theology of rupture between ourselves and one another – those with whom we are in Communion and to whom we are mutually accountable. It is a theology of rupture between us and our bishops and those in authority over us. It is rupture within our own soul as we follow the dictates of our instinct rather than submitting ourselves to the wisdom and movement of the Spirit that has given us the tradition we share.
The problem with this rupturing is that it is antithetical to the nature of the Church. The Church which is His Body is not a collection of fragmented, isolated individuals. It is a community of diverse and powerful gifts called together in unity and mutual accountability. The diversity of gifts present does not mean that a brilliant Christian dentist can perform an appendectomy because her spiritual gifts are equal to the surgeon’s.
In the same way a priest who is a great preacher may not be a great liturgist. So we have the Prayer Book. A priest may not be great at answering questions like, “What is a Sacrament?” So we have the Catechism (in the Prayer Book). A priest may find themselves at a loss for words at the graveside – so we have the Prayer Book.
The perhaps more critical role of the Prayer Book is not simply to aid the priest who might be deficient in any given area – it is to rein in those who might think themselves gifted in any given area. Our greatest occasions for sin are not when we are making up for weakness but when we are relying on our supposed strength.
We are vain creatures, yet it is Christ’s humility not our pride that must be the center of our common life.
The liturgy is not a time for us to show our respective creative sides – it is the opposite. It is that point at which we show ourselves as part of a loving whole that has given its need for unchecked individuality over to an ancient, holy grace that holds us together as one in the wholeness of Christ.
This applies to so many aspects of our life, not just liturgy. Whether it is in preaching, catechizing, fellowship, or more – we have patterns and practices that we are called into. We have a doctrine, discipline, and worship that we are pledged to uphold. This is not for the sake of those very things but so that we can have a unified prayer, a whole vision, and that we all may be one in the way we have inherited across the generations.
The Prayer Book is our community’s shared response to the work and presence of the Holy One through the ages – responding to that holy mystery is the awe-filled joy of a whole Body. When we use it with faithful authority, we are truly speaking on behalf of our gathered community. We are then relying not on our charisma or gut-feelings but on trust and love – which are at the heart of Christian accountability.
The Prayer Book is the great tool for giving the wisdom of the ages, of our tradition, to us and forming us in its pattern of generous, faithful order. It is the witness of the faith and scholarship of countless experts and authorities and has taken shape in the faithful prayer of believers across centuries. It provides continuity, identity, and strength to our faith family – guards against its fracturing and rupture by the pressures of any one time or place.
A horizontal ecclesiology does not mean that each and every gift is equally appropriate in each and every moment – there are experts in our midst and in our past on any given topic. Our voice is but one in a continuum and there are sources of authority to whom we are called to obedience even when (and especially when) it is inconvenient.
Ultimately this obedience and acquiescence to the will of others is not about anything other than trust and love. The way we engage the sources of authority in our tradition and one another will say something about how we engage the Presence of Christ in our lives. Are we willing to set aside our need to be an expert – our self-generated sources of authority – and allow ourselves be drawn in and changed by the challenging and unnerving faith that mutual responsibility in Christ requires?