Church democracy


In a previous post, I referred to two Christian denominations that seem to have a lot in common with one another but which are governed according to two different models--the Catholic Church, which uses a top-down model, and the Episcopal church, which is more democratic in structure. Although I belong to neither church, I made no secret of my sympathies for a more democratic approach, because, first, I believe that theology can best flower to its full potential when it is liberated from authoritarian control, and secondly I believe that church decision-making rightly belongs to the people and not to a self-appointed hierarchy. Part of this viewpoint stems from my understanding of religion as something other than an unchallengeable dogma handed down to humanity on a from above, but rather as a continual human process of grappling with the ultimate meaning of our lives in the framework of an deeper cosmic framework. The key word in that conception, I think, is process. Process means that theology is always in flux, it is always about dialogue, discovery, change, communication, struggle, and a recognition that any and all of us can be prophets. Hierarchical control never serves those ends.

Democracy has its problems, to be sure; but if you see theology as an ongoing process, then real theological growth and reform can only happen if members of a religious community are free to engage in an open dialogue with themselves and with God. The authoritarian model of a magisterial thought police and the use of a denominational soviet-style politboro to select a leadership lends itself to both theological rigidity and to abuses against those who don't toe the party line. ( Just ask Matthew Fox and Hans Kung about that.)

That being said, democracy is clearly no guarantee of tolerance and theological openness in a religious community. There can be reactionary forces within a denomination or church who will use the procedural methods of that very democratic process to resist progressive change; these same forces will operate to persecute or hound progressive theologians and clergy, and promote exclusionary or oppressive doctrines towards women , sexual minorities or others. Sometimes, the tyranny of the majority prevails. But I would take the possibility of failure in a democratic process over the tyranny of a hierarchy any day of the week.

One clear example of this problem can be found in the very Episcopal Church that was the subject of my earlier posting. Despite its generally progressive reputation, it certainly has its own powerful and organized reactionary elements, as do many other Protestant denominations. It has a process for selecting bishops which, though fairly democratic, also has its checks and balances and procedural rules that can end up biting progressives in the ass. This came out recently when organized opposition successfully opposed the nomination of Kevin Thew Forrester for the position of bishop of the diocese of Northern Michigan--because he was apparently deemed too heretical for certain tastes. (A San Francisco Episcopal rector gives a pretty good analysis of this situation here and here.)

In this particular case, the usual suspects from the Episcopal Right were very much involved in opposing Kevin Forrester. Greg Griffith, for example, of the Stand Firm web site, launched a predictable broadside against him. (Griffith, I might recall, once quoted extensively from one of my own blog postings in order to attack progressives in the Episcopal Church, even though I am not an Episcopal myself. Griffith also once engaged in a sexist exercise of displaying his wife as a trophy and comparing her looks to that of a more progressive female Episcopal priest--thus showing how low these people will sometimes sink to pursue their agenda.)

Obviously, this problem exists not just within Episcopalian politics. The Presbyterian Church, to cite another example, has also had its own thought police who have busily rooted out heretics. Robert Jensen, who was not even a member of the clergy, faced an inquisition from members of his Presbyterian church for having unorthodox views and having the temerity to publicly express them.

You don't always get what you want as an end result in a democratic process. Christianity has been a two thousand year long journey among humans, and the broader religious project itself goes back to the very emergence of modern humans tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the point is that religion is not about the end result, but the journey. Religions have had a history of getting things wrong--it just seems to come with the territory. The Bible is a pretty good reflection of sometimes flawed morality that lies side by side with the most sublime beauty. Maybe there is value in the communal self-examination that takes place in the debates, even if they sometimes end up very badly at times. There has been a struggle within religious history for greater inclusiveness versus greater exclusion, and a struggle between those who seek to dethrone those who wield power versus those who insist on maintaining their control. Sometimes religion takes a few steps forward and then a few steps back. Jesus sought to subvert the religious authoritarianism of his own time, and yet the core message of inclusiveness that Jesus preached was largely subverted in the centuries after his death as new hierarchies and new acts of gate keeping emerged to define who was "in" and who was "out". Instead of "scribes and pharisees", we have seen magisteria, consistories and inquisitions. Meet the new boss--same as the old boss. So is the Jesus project some sort of failure? I don't think so. Many people remained inspired by his core message over the centuries, despite all that has gone perverse. We see in the modern world many Christians who have taken the principles of inclusiveness to their natural next steps, in ways once not thought possible--and thus we see female and gay clergy, for example, in many denominations.

The Jesus project thus goes on, but I think real change must come from below, from the grass roots of religious communities. Humanity is still trying to grope its way towards the Divine. It has taken us millenia to get this far. We still have a long way to go.


Frank said...

This raises the question of the very nature of religious authority at all, and there is even an implied question in your post as to whether authority is even possible.

When I say "authority" I'm not talking about someone being in charge, I'm talking about how can anyone declare that any piece of religious insight is somehow authoritative.

For example, most Christians say that John 3:16 is pretty definitive, more so than the verses about swine jumping off a cliff in Matthew Chapter 8. How did that come to be recognized that way? They are both in the Bible, yet somehow one verse came to rise about the others and people have been ok with that.

You describe religion as "a continual human process of grappling with the ultimate meaning of our lives in the framework of an deeper cosmic framework." To me, this definition of religion suggests that we absolutely do need gatekeepers! Without gatekeepers, any one can rattle off about something they know nothing about. I’m in favor of free speech, let anyone rattle off whatever they want, but I also think it is perfectly fine for society or Church or whoever to get together and declare “this one speaks for us, this one doesn’t.” In my mind, the authoritarian structures are gatekeepers of theology that has been at least partially arrived at in a grassroots manner.

It wouldn't make sense for just anyone to declare that they can do heart surgeries without going to med school and being accredited, certified or whatever else needs done. I would be wary of any religious insight that did not check itself against centuries of tradition and learning and whatever other “official” mechanisms we have put in place to recognize authority.

Fundamentalism is anti-intellectual. A preacher will just open up the Bible and whatever pops into his mind he figures is definitive and he preaches it at the top of his lungs. He could hardly care whether he conflicts with scholarship or not. This same anti-intellectualism is endemic in our culture. You end up with this: “Authority seems bad to me, so therefore it is bad.” Very dangerous thinking.

For just as bad as authoritarian structures are, it is in my opinion even worse when every individual is the ultimate authority of the universe (in their own mind). If you haven't checked your point of view against those very centuries of tradition that you have talked about, then has it really been evaluated properly or democratically?

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I am not saying that religion is a matter of everyone doing their individual thing. Quite the opposite. I instead see religion as a collective process; it always has been, and always will be. It is a process in which all individuals act in community, in dialogue with each other and with God.

The problem is that this communal process is stifled when anyone within the community sets themselves up as the religious thought police. In that case, dynamism of dialogue and discovery is choked by the rigidity of control and dogma.

Yes, tradition plays a role in this as well. It is a feedback loop of sorts, with tradition and individual inspiration always engaged in a kind of a dance. Checking one's theology against tradition is all well and good, as long as we take a proper view of the role that tradition offers in this process. Its value lies not in serving as an unchallengeable theological precedent that we must obey; rather, it gives us insight into how previous generations grappled with certain issues so that we can learn from both their successes and their mistakes.

The Bible is a good example of this. We know it is in many ways a flawed work. The biblical authors got some things right, and some things wrong. The list of the things they got wrong isn't hard to find. Just to cite one simple example, the holy war thesis of the book of Joshua makes God out to be a genocidal tribal deity; I categorically reject this notion. Yet I would never say that the book of Joshua should be ignored, for as a source of tradition it gives us a road map to the struggles that humanity has undergone as it has tried to make sense of God.

Traditions of all sorts can be wrong as well as right. Traditions can claim that women cannot serve in the clergy or church leadership because that's the way it was always done (not really true in the case of early Christianity, by the way, since Paul referred to female apostles, which illustrates the point that "tradition" can often become manufactured by those in power through a simple act of rewriting history). Those in power often use "tradition" as a cudgel to wield against dissenters who seek progressive change against injustice that has become codified into "tradition".

As for the analogy with heart surgery, I would argue that theology is quite different from a a medical procedure, because it is not based on a hard science in the way that medical procedures are based on empirical knowledge about the human body. The academic discipline that theology has more in common with than medicine is philosophy, and no one would suggest that philosophical inquiry should be shut down. I am certainly in favor of theological education; the problem does not (and SHOULD not) guarantee that everyone thinks the same way. Shutting down theological inquiry from trained theologians is also part and parcel of religious authoritarianism--this is found in the example of Matthew Fox, who I cited.

And there are those (including Dominic Crossan) who make the argument that almost all Jewish peasants in Palestine 2000 years ago, including carpenters and carpenters' sons, were illiterate. We don't know for sure that Jesus was illiterate, but those who object so strenuously to this suggestion seem to do so for no other reason than that they don't like the idea. But I agree with Crossan; the odds seem rather high, based on that statistic, that he was. However, regardless of where one falls on this issue, the fact is that Jesus was not part of the academic or religious elite of his day. He did not toe the party line. He had no use for the scribes and pharisees, who one could say were the magisterium of his day. The point is that, sometimes, prophetic voices come from surprising places.

Sherry said...

Thanks for a great post. I left the Roman Catholic church when it became obvious that as much as I loved her, we were so theologically opposed that it made no sense. I moved to the Episcopal Church, only to find it embroiled in a mess of it's own.

Yet I take comfort in the fact that we on the left are I think, doing our best to be gentle with our more conservative brothers and sisters, who at times seem quite ugly in their remarks and attempts to regain control. When conservative Anglicans call Episcopal women priests, "priestesses" in utter disgust, we have a problem indeed.

Still I believe that we are more democratic, and that as we struggle to resolve these issues, we will emerge the stronger.

While we are engaged in this evolving theology, we do need help from experts, but only to guide the dialogue, I suggest. To inform and explain. We, as congregants must inform ourselves so that we can be intelligent participants in the discussion. This is what is missing, I believe in the heirarchy of the RCC. The only people who bother to become knowledgeable are the extremes on each side. The middle rather ignores it all.

This can be a problem in the democratic religious church, but at least the church actively can be involved in nurturing along the more complacent middlers.

I do agree with you on your response to Frank too, that tradition cannot be used to stiffle good theological thought. If that were the case, blacks would still be slaves and women not able to vote. After all, tradition did not give them freedom or the vote.

Cynthia said...

Right now it is the emergent church that excites me, where I see the next great movement in Christian thought. In a recent edition of The Christian Century there was an article about the emergent church in England, where a pub was being used as a gathering place for storytelling, singing and such, based on Jesus' teachings. Very egalitarian, hardly any structure or hierarchy (or property for that matter), and yet it also seemed like one of the places that Jesus would have gone to reach people.

Given the control the establishment has had for the past 2,000 years, the pendulum is bound to swing the other way sooner or later.

Great post. Always appreciate your thoughts.