In the comments section of my blog, Paul T. pursued our conversation about the nature of institutional church life. I appreciate his critique and wish to continue responding as his points are commonly raised criticisms of religious instutitionalism.
On May 27, 2016 at 9:Even11 am Paul T. wrote,
It will take a lot of explanation to me that a man who calls himself the “rector” (meaning “ruler”, ahem) – see http://stphilipvictoria.ca/staff/ – of his congregation is really “working hard to reduce hierarchy”
I admit I am not a huge fan of the term “rector”. Etymologically it comes from the Latin “regere” which can mean “ruler” but can also mean “guide.” I certainly am not happy being considered a ruler. And I believe most of the people in the congregation I serve would not view me as the ruler of the community. But I am content to be seen as a “guide” who joins people in the spiritual journey and seeks to walk with them into the mysterious terrain of the spiritual life.
Generally, when people ask me what they should call me, I say, “Call me Christopher.” If I were describing my position in the church, I would probably choose “priest” over “Rector.” Priest comes from the word “presbyter” which means simply “elder.” I am now both chronologically and functionally an elder in the church. But, even in my younger years, I functioned as an elder fulfilling a role of leadership in our community.
Any organization that includes leaders inevitably involves some degree of hierarchy. In even the most democratically organized institutions, certain people are appointed to fulfill certain tasks and inevitably some people have more responsibility than others.
It is not hierarchy in itself that is necessarily evil. It is the uses to which we put hierarchy that cause problems. I hope the people in the community I serve would say that they experience my leadership as seeking to set people free to discover their gifts and open to the work of God’s Spirit in their lives and never to oppress or manipulate.
Paul T. goes on to suggest that
dressing one man who stands before people preaching at them in a robe is a way to direct people toward some supposedly enlightened sense of tradition and history standing against the evil of cultural transience.
I hope that the congregation in which I preach does not experience what I do on Sunday as “preaching at them.” I can only reiterate that I seek in my preaching to join with the people in the congregation in an exploration of deeper meaning and to open the texts we read to discover the riches and wisdom that reside beneath the surface. I have some training in explicating these ancient texts that other people may lack. I have been privileged to set aside more time than is available to most people to study, ponder and pray over these texts. Hopefully, out of this practice I may have something to share that is enriching to others whose lives do not make it possible for them to give such intensive study to these texts.
I do not believe that “cultural transience” is evil. But, I do believe that, just as a Buddhist is enriched by being connected to a long line of transmission traced back to the Buddha, so I find my spirituality is deepened by tracing back the lineage of teaching in which I situate myself all the way to Jesus and even Abraham, Moses, all the patriarchs, and the prophets of Hebrew tradition. The Christian faith was not born yesterday and it will be here for my children and my grandchildren, long after I am gone.
The robes I wear serve as a reminder that what we are doing in our worship is not about the person leading the worship. The robes indicate that we locate ourselves in a long stream of tradition and a wider community that transcends any one person, culture, or period in history. We do not gather because of the personality of the person leading the worship, or because of a particular time bound cultural expression we happen to find appealing at the time.
In a world of such transience and change, the lasting testimony to some permanent dimension of the human enterprise to which all world faiths bear witness, seems to me a potentially enriching stream into which we might choose to be immersed.