I have done a lot of reflecting in the days since I wrote my post about my unhealthy relationship with The Church. With a bit of space, I can see now the way in which recent encounters, personality conflicts, and behaviours have tapped into old hurts and frustrations. I am able to say about some of it — in the words of friends — ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’; and just as significantly, I am able to claim the circus and monkeys that are mine and not anyone else’s, the circus and monkeys that just might need a bit of work yet. Some good conversations with wise people have helped immensely in making that distinction.
Priests are encouraged to be reflective practitioners, after all. And I have always said that my priesthood is about accepting that I will fall and fail publicly and that it is just as important to know how to get back up again after the fall. We are imperfect human beings ministering to other imperfect human beings, are we not? If we can’t admit mistakes honestly, model sincere apologies, and show courage in walking with limps, how can we expect those whom we serve to do the same? Or, in the words of one of my most beloved heroes and iconoclasts: ‘You’re going to f*** up. You may as well do it publicly and boldly. Because then you will give others courage to live with passion and make their own mistakes’.
But if we (rightly) expect mature self-awareness, reflective practice, and passion from our priests, shouldn’t we expect the same from other leaders, and from the church itself? Aren’t we called to model a different way of being from that which we see in the world?
Sadly, that isn’t the reality I’ve experienced.
We proudly call ‘prophets’ those within the church who speak out against injustices in our society. We celebrate those who use art, preaching, and social media to try to highlight systemic abuses of power that trap people in poverty, cause wars, and create the mass immigration crises we are now seeing. But those who dare publicly name injustices, conflicts, and abuses of power in the church are all too quickly labelled troublemakers, live wires, and loose cannons.
We praise the ones who cry out on behalf of those who have no voice in our world. But to encourage our congregations to find their voice and challenge decisions and statements made by church leaders is often considered betrayal and disobedience.
We are willing to criticise the health services when we see those whom we love and visit being poorly looked after. We fight for more robust systems which will enable patient-centred care. We want people to be able to have a contribution in the decisions made about their treatment. But when it comes to pastoral care of clergy or lay leaders, concerned whispers to others behind closed doors are more common than direct contact with those who are suffering.
We call for more transparency in government, for structures that have at their heart the good of all. And yet decisions in the church which directly affect congregations, clergy, ordinands and even those going through the discernment process are made in private and announced without any consultation.
We say that the church should model healthier, more mature communication than what we see in the world, particularly in the midst of conflict. We talk a lot about communication based on love and with an eye towards reconciliation. And yet gossip, assumptions, and triangulation are at the very centre of far too many of our dealings.
We applaud those who speak with honesty and passion about all these things in society. And that is indeed right. That is what those of us in the church should be doing. But anyone who questions publicly the church’s own complicity in these injustices, anyone who challenges those in power in the church, anyone who brings to light experiences of bullying amongst staff or clergy or congregations is too often ignored, sidelined, or even worse, silenced.
Isn’t there something in scripture about specks and planks in eyes?
I love the church. I love the Scottish Episcopal Church in particular. It has been my home for the better part of 15 years, and even though I am going to be spending the next 5 years working for the Church of Scotland overseas, I will always be an Episcopalian. So it is not out of disloyalty that I write this. On the contrary, it is out of a fierce loyalty.
But we have to accept that the church is a human institution. Or as one person reminded me, it should be a movement, one that responds to the movement of the Spirit and the context in which it finds itself, not something which has fossilised in the past. But even so, institution or movement, it’s a human one. Which means it is flawed. It is as flawed as the people who worship within it, who serve within it, who lead it. It is as crazy and chaotic as all the circuses and monkeys we each bring to it.
And if we in — and as — the church, in all our passionate, messy, flawed humanity are so insecure and frightened and uncertain about our purpose that we panic and close ranks when someone admits their own failings or names ours, then just what message are we really sending about grace? Or courage? Or forgiveness? Or prophecy? Or redemption? Or love?
This post was inspired — in more ways than one — as so much of my ministry and blogging has been, by the Rev Laurie Brock’s recent post over on Dirty Sexy Ministry.
Image: The grand lay-out. Circus parade around tents, with crowd watching alongside railroad train. Via Wikimedia Commons