Accountability and authority

Readings for the feast day of Clement, Bishop of Rome, November 23:

Psalm 78:3-7

1 Chronicles 23:28-32

2 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 6:37-45

“Our Apostles knew also, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the dignity of the Bishop’s office.” -from Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians

My bishop likes to joke that bishops are given two rubber stamps to use in the performance of their ecclesiastical duties in forming priests and deacons–one says, “Has a problem with authority,” and the other says, “Has a regional accent.”

I don’t know if Clement of Rome had to use the latter, but he certainly had to use the former in the first century of the church. “Has a problem with authority” probably reared its head a week after the early church was born–I have no doubt it was the one of the oldest problems in the church and continues to be so today.

In Clement’s case, a younger group of members of the church in Corinth had deposed the clergy unilaterally, without Clement’s authority to do so. Clement had to put on his Big Bishop Boxer Shorts and tell the church in Corinth, “Uh, that’s not how we do things around here.” His Epistle to the Corinthians affirmed the ecclesiastical hierarchy and was read, not only to the church in Corinth, but to many congregations in the early church. It affirmed a framework of authority that we still use in various denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

“Authority” is a tricky business in the Christian community. There’s a fine line between using authority and being authoritarian–a very fine line, and often subject to interpretation. This is a difficult balance, at times, when we are talking about a church full of lay people who see their authority as “from God” and don’t always see as clear a set of rules regarding the ecclesiastical church, co-mingled with clergy who carry an additional definition of “obedience.” Clergy, by virtue of Holy Orders, vow to obey the Bishop and live in accordance with the canons of the church; all of us, lay and ordained, by virtue of our Baptismal Covenant, enter into a covenant as sacred as marriage that we will engage in relationship with God, Christ, and each other.

In other words, it’s too simplistic to see it in dualistic terms–which, unfortunately, is how most people see it. Lay people, in times of congregational strife, pull out the “I only have to answer to God–not you,” card, and clergy sometimes hide behind shadows of the Bishop’s coat tails or the church’s canonical coat tails to push their own agenda, hoping the congregation is not savvy about the rules. I’ve seen parishioners claim the authority of “Jesus the rule-breaker vs. the religious authorities” in their quest to butt heads with a bishop’s decision. I’ve also seen clergy attempt to play the same card.

It’s a tricky dance. Are we, at times, called to question or resist authority? I believe we are. That calling, however doesn’t come with a hall pass. The consequences of such a decision may ultimately end up being to figuratively die in a ditch–or literally die on a cross. Sadly, some of us are called to make that kind of a decision with God’s help.

Today’s readings give insight into our understanding of “informed consent” in such decisions–understanding the obligations of those chosen to attend to the temple, understanding the rules and obligations of right living as Christians, leaving judgment to God, and finally, our duty to tell the stories of these struggles. They bring up another “A” word–accountability.

It’s been my experience and observation that mostly, authority steps in when there’s been a breach in accountability somewhere–and once authority steps in, we run the risk of human judgment vs. God’s judgment. It’s safe to say we humans don’t do it so well. Humans make mistakes from time to time–sometimes serious ones, which also have their own set of consequences.

All Christians are accountable to all of humanity, and this, I believe, is our highest calling in being accountable to God. Perhaps if each of us spent more time being earnest about our exercising accountability, we’d have less cause to confront authority and less desire to exert it.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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