Loyalty, accountability and the Episcopal Church

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By George Clifford

This spring, President Obama faced what commentators described as a difficult choice: should he fire General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. general in charge of the fighting in Afghanistan? On the one hand, McChrystal had good working relationships with Afghan government leaders, a high profile role in shaping and leading the war, and his troops had confidence in his leadership. On the other hand, McChrystal publicly expressed contempt for senior political appointees in the Obama administration.

Military personnel owe their seniors honest advice, especially when the senior solicits an opinion or the subordinate fills a key leadership role. Theoretically, the military chain of command that stretches from the newest recruit to the President welcomes timely advice, even dissent, appropriately expressed. Timeliness requires communicating advice before the leader makes a decision; appropriate expression involves communicating that advice in a way that will not embarrass the boss. McChrystal’s opinions voiced in Michael Hastings’ The Runaway General (Rolling Stone, June 22, 2010) failed both tests.

Obama acted decisively yet not vindictively. He accepted McChrystal’s resignation and then graciously allowed the general to retire at his four star rank.

What can the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church (TEC) learn about leadership from this incident?

Globally, the Anglican Communion, a lose federation of Churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, has no official “party line” or “chain of command.” The Anglican Covenant’s premise that no member of the Communion should act without consulting the other members seeks to impose new conformity on Communion members, stifling independent action. If the Anglican Communion were to adopt the current draft of the Covenant, the Communion would severely limit the freedom of the Episcopal Church to follow God’s call to practice a radical hospitality that welcomes and fully includes all.

Hoping that (1) the Covenant will die a bureaucratic death, (2) lengthy discursive and approval processes preceding adoption will produce a more acceptable amended Covenant, or (3) keeping a low profile will cause less gnashing of teeth among conservatives and temper their firm resolve to impose their will on the Communion are all naïve miscalculations. Instead, TEC and other, sympathetic Anglican Communion members need to model forthrightness by openly characterizing the proposed Covenant for what it is: an attempt to transform the Anglican Communion into a hierarchical body that enforces an un-Anglican conformity. TEC, like loyal military personnel, best fulfills its duty to Christ by courageously and loyally declaring its discernment of God’s leading.

Rumors of the Very Rev. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Albans cathedral, nomination as the Church of England’s next Bishop of Southwark posed an interesting dilemma for the Archbishop of Canterbury. John, when nominated in 2003 as area Bishop for Reading, faced a torrent of conservative opposition. Unlike Bishops Robinson and Glasspool who live openly and fully with their partners, John, though partnered in a civil union, claims he is celibate. Short of constant video surveillance, nobody can verify that; I have no reason to doubt John’s honesty but find myself skeptical. Archbishop Williams felt sufficient pressure from the opposition that he spent six hours convincing John to withdraw his acceptance of the nomination as area Bishop for Reading.

The rumor prompted some Church of England conservatives to declare that if John were consecrated they would affiliate with another Anglican province. This barefaced ultimatum reflects the disunity that exists in both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Meanwhile, the British press reports that Archbishop Williams, angered by the leak from a supposedly confidential nominating process, has averred that he will not respond to coercive pressure. I’m enough of a cynic to wonder if the Archbishop isn’t secretly delighted with the leak because it effectively derailed John’s nomination without forcing Canterbury to take a no-win public stance for or against the nomination. Clearly, the Archbishop has not acted with the type of decisive and principled courage that Obama exemplified in dealing with McChrystal.

Nationally and in its dioceses, TEC needs to hold its own leaders accountable. Loyalty to TEC is a non-negotiable, sine qua non for leaders, clerical and lay. Loyalty does not necessitate agreement. TEC is a church that prays together using the forms established in the Book of Common Prayer without pretending that beliefs conform to any norm or fall within a particular set of parameters. Loyalty, however, does preclude both attempting to sow dissatisfaction or disenchantment with TEC as an institution and encouraging people or organizational structures to disaffiliate from TEC.

TEC has too often practiced a false kindness by tolerating active disloyalty rather than appropriately challenging disloyal behavior among its clergy and lay leaders. Actively disloyal individuals have decided to abandon TEC, a decision evident in actions if not in words, regardless of any protestations to the contrary. Disaffected dissidents who try to cling to structures or relationships that they believe they own misunderstand the concept of connectional Church that TEC incarnates. Furthermore, the actively disloyal manifest a lack of personal integrity, maintaining an affiliation with an institution that they believe has abandoned or significantly compromised its Christian identity or witness.

Addressing issues of disloyalty should proceed in a firm yet caring rather than vindictive manner; witch hunts and revenge have no place in Christ’s Church. By addressing their lack of integrity in a timely, direct manner, TEC may actually help some of the disloyal to move toward improved spiritual health through greater integrity.

Concomitantly, TEC should continue to make room for the truly undecided as they discern whether they can in good conscience remain a part of TEC. This space should have no time or other artificial limits imposed. The one necessary boundary is that the undecided refrain from actively promoting disloyalty to TEC through words or actions.

Locally, clergy, wardens, vestry members, and other opinion makers must lead. In the 1970s, seminary instruction emphasized facilitation rather than leadership. Facilitation belongs in ecclesial tool kits. But leadership is even more important. A leader leads his/her followers toward actualizing the leader’s vision.

Pressures for leaders to sit on the sidelines, soft-pedal their views, or capitulate to the opposition certainly exist. A priest, for example, whose congregation splits over an issue may soon face a drastic reduction in stipend or unemployment with little probability of soon receiving another call. Emotional pressure on a leader may be more subtle but at least as powerful as economic pressure.

Instead of tolerating disloyalty, TEC should encourage loyalty. TEC, bishops, diocesan staff, elected leaders, and peers can proactively support clergy and laity working to keep people and parishes loyal. Support might include funding, spiritual or psychological counsel, outplacement options, public declarations of support, leadership training, etc. As I have previously argued in this forum, people are far more vital to the Church than is property. The Church will reap the largest dividends for Christ by investing its scarce resources in supporting its leaders battling to preserve and enhance loyalty to TEC.

General Convention 2009 resolutions and the consecration the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool in 2010 clearly indicate TEC’s present course. Now is not the time for waffling. Most TEC lay and clerical leaders, as well as many leaders in other Anglican Communion provinces, whether they agree with TEC’s direction or not, demonstrate their loyalty to Christ and fidelity to the Anglican way through visionary leadership that promotes proclaiming the kingdom of God, healing the sick, reconciling the estranged, and liberating the captive. The rest of us need to emulate their example.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, is a visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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