The Messy Democracy of the Spirit

Back in December, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected two new Bishops Suffragan (bishops who assist the primary bishop of a diocese), one of whom is a Lesbian woman who has been in a committed relationship for many years.  In March, the Office of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church announced that the Rev. Mary Glasspool had received the necessary consents from other bishops and from a majority of the Standing Committees of the various dioceses for her consecration as a bishop to go forward on May 15.  Since this announcement, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and several other senior bishops in Anglican churches around the world (as well, we must say, as some bishops and others within The Episcopal Church) have expressed their disappointment with the decision, and have suggested that it will have serious consequences for The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion (the fellowship of self-governing Anglican churches around the world).

As all Episcopalians know, this is the latest chapter in a controversy that erupted in its fullness when Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay man in a committed relationship, was made a bishop several years ago.  While Bishop Robinson’s consecration was a very public watershed moment, it was really the culmination of a process that had been going on for some time without much attention being paid to it.  What I am referring to here is a shift in the way many American Episcopalians read and interpret Scripture and Tradition, combined with the growing visibility of the gay and lesbian community within both church and society, who have increasingly questioned whether it is appropriate for the Christian community to continue to marginalize both their relationships and their role within the churches as they have asked new questions about what sexual orientation really is.

Understandably, this process was not unfolding everywhere.  Even within our own church and country, there were great regional differences in engaging these issues, and globally, the Anglican churches in many societies exist in cultural climates in which consideration of the status of gay and lesbian people was not even a blip on the radar screen.  And even if it was on the cultural radar, in most places in the second and third worlds that blip was profoundly negative, connected to deep cultural prejudices against homosexuality.

Within the Anglican fellowship of churches, there has historically been room for disagreement, even if that space was sometimes made reluctantly.  Witness, for example, the decision of the American church to ordain women.  While several Anglican churches have since followed suit, the reality is that most of the world’s Anglicans still do not recognize the possibility of an ordained woman.  But, we agreed to live in the midst of our disagreement about that.  The human sexuality debate, however, has seemed to reveal the limits of our ability to do that.

In all of this, however, it seems to me that there is something much more basic going on than differences in culture and biblical interpretation.  And that has to do with the very nature of the church itself, and of who is entitled to have authority within the Christian community.

One of the learnings that has emerged from the debates and conversations that have flowed from Bishop Robinson’s election and consecration is how different The Episcopal Church’s governance is from most other Anglican churches.  Since our church separated from the Church of England in the aftermath of the American Revolution, our bishops have been democratically elected in conventions which have consisted of clergy and elected lay representatives of each congregation in a diocese.  The approval of those elections has also involved a democratic process, in which a majority of diocesan bishops and a majority of diocesan Standing Committees (consisting of equal numbers of clergy and lay people, who are elected) must vote to confirm or, in the words of the canon, consent to the election.   At the time of Gene Robinson’s election, senior Anglican bishops around the world were generally shocked that our Presiding Bishop did not have the power to veto his selection.  Because in most of their churches, the bishops are chosen only by other bishops, and in some places, the senior bishop does have veto power over the selections.

So what we have discovered is that within the Anglican world, we have very different models of who is given a voice in the selection of leadership and in the making of key decisions.  The Episcopal Church embodies the spirit of American democracy in an ecclesiastical mode:  we allow the Spirit to speak not only through our bishops, but also through ordinary clergy and lay people, believing that this great democracy of the Spirit will lead us into a more faithful living of the Gospel.

The developments within the American church that have roiled so many of our sisters and brothers in other Anglican places, and indeed, within our own church, are directly related to this commitment to spiritual democracy.  Our church is the living embodiment of what it means to refuse to privilege the voices and prayerful discernment of just a few and take seriously the baptismal equality of every Christian.

Does this mean that we are right, and those who dissent from the course we have set ourselves on are wrong?  Not necessarily.  The problem is, there is no way to know for sure.   We would like to be able to say openly and clearly that we know the mind of God, especially on the subjects about which we feel strongly.  Yet, if we are really honest, we will recognize that we don’t have that kind of certainty about sacred matters.  That’s why it’s called “faith”.   The fact of the matter is that this messy democracy of the Spirit has governed the life of the church for much of its history.  Initially, the democracy was admittedly limited:  only the bishops had a vote in the ancient church.  But until the rise of papal supremacy in the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops votes were equal.  And we live with the fruits of those votes:  the New Testament was assembled in this way, and the Nicene Creed was adopted in this way (just to name two examples).  In our time, we have enfranchised more people into the democracy of the Spirit, and that has perhaps increased the messiness, but the truth is that the process has always been messy and thus always imperfect.

The dangers of such a wide-open democracy of the Spirit may indeed be many.  But the dangers of a restricted hierarchical model that privileges only a few voices are surely at least equally as numerous.  The former, it seems to me, is more likely to nurture a creative and dynamic engagement with the Gospel, while the latter seems to tend toward preservation and conservation.  At its extreme, a more wide-open democracy of the Spirit can risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, while in a more hierarchical model, the extreme can lead to the preservation of a Christianity which no longer speaks to the lives of people today and which preserves older human prejudices, enshrining them as sacred truths.   It would be nice to have a middle ground, but the times we live in don’t seem very amenable to middle grounds.  Given the choice, I am glad to take my chances with The Episcopal Church’s wide-open, messy democracy of the Spirit.

It is interesting to note that the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which has been set up as an attempted alternative to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has created a constitution in which the selection of bishops is restricted to other bishops, disenfranchising lesser clergy and laypeople.  This will undoubtedly make their inner church life a bit less messy — but I’m not at all sure it will help the Spirit to be heard more clearly.

I wonder what Jesus would think……?

2 thoughts on “The Messy Democracy of the Spirit

  1. Indeed, what WOULD Jesus think? I wonder what he thought of previous periods of ecclesiastical “political correctness”? What did he think when the Church sold “indulgences”…sort of a pre-paid credit card where so many sins could be committed for so much money? Or, what did he think of the Church burning “heretics” at the stake? Or, the repressive rigidity of the early Quakers? Or, the “hell-fire and damnation” culture of fear practiced by some Southern Baptists even today? I doubt very much that our Lord is too happy with these human-constructed crises.

    And yet, throughout the last 2000 years, we see that the Word has ultimately prevailed, and we are assured that, in the end, it WILL prevail.

    So, in the midst of all of the angst the current issues have created, in the midst of our continuing efforts to discern the Will of God, there is comfort that God is greater that all of us, and that at the end, those who love and trust Him will find personal salvation.

  2. Written most eloquently by a member of the lesser clergy! Thank you for casting a broader contextual light on this story, Matthew. This helps me better understand not only the divergency within the Anglican community, but a contributing factor for it in the US church. Pray for the church!

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