Saturday, July 25, 2015

True Authority: On the Feast of St. James

gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[The collect for the Feast of St. James the Great, Apostle]

Today is the commemoration of St. James, son of Zebedee, Apostle and Martyr. To distinguish him from other persons in the New Testament with the same name, he is often called "the Great."

The collects used for the various holy days in the Calendar are meant to express a key spiritual truth in the Christian faith in connection with the occasion being observed. Collects are best when direct, focused on central concerns of Christianity,  and unafflicted by the fashions and obsessions of a particular era (this is one reason why so many collects being drafted in our ideologically-driven day are puerile, florid, and vacuous). The collect for St. James' day is an example of a fine collect.

We, who live in an age of so many Christian martyrs yet are so rarely put into the position of martyrdom itself, are particularly in need of careful study of this collect, for it says something very important about the source of genuine authority in the Church in our particular time and place.

Early Episcopalians, if they had possessed the ability to look forward into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would have been horrified to see the rise of CEO-bishops, vast cathedral complexes, and (probably) much of the current edifice of financial safeguards currently in place in the Episcopal Church. While not a group of extreme ascetics, they had no desire to develop another Church of England, with all the signs and symbols of power it possesses. 

People like bishop William White and even the Higher Church bishop Hobart envisioned a much more missionary kind of Anglicanism. They were radicals in the best sense: not the pseudo-radicalism that merely wrecks things, but the careful weighing of a contemporary expression's fidelity to its original purpose. Because their Episcopalianism had endured the fires of the American Revolution, they had come to know what was truly important in their practice of the faith, and what was not. 

In practical terms, this often meant sacrificing some of the institutional comfort and power for missionary flexibility while at the same time refining the central core of an authentic, well-formed and practiced Anglican Christianity. Because of the willingness to lose some prestige in the older sense of that term, many of our early Episcopal leaders wielding truly impressive moral authority in what was often a struggling church tradition.

I think such forces are still at work in The Episcopal Church today. After glorying in our long period of cultural access and power, the Episcopal "brand" has sunk quite a bit. Spending many millions in internecine lawsuits (however we choose to justify them by focusing on canons or peculiar readings of church history) is a symptom of a difficulty in letting one era go and embracing the radical call before us. That radical call is not to play catch-up with contemporary culture or destroy dissent. It is to embrace the life of "self-denying service" that marked St. James' ministry--and continues to mark true leadership in the Church today.

Exactly what that service looks like is variable, but in whatever form it takes, it must be there. We can usually tell when it is not, however. When leadership is not practicing "self-denying service" we need a lot of rules, a lot of mandatory this-and-that, and a great deal of coercion to make things happen. Energy is sapped, but adherence to group-think is exalted. When the Christ-like Apostolic witness is present in our midst, in whatever form it takes, there are a great many people who respond to the call to participate, work, give, and plan for a future in faith. Christ alone is exalted and cults of personality (or trendy, facile solutions) are eschewed.

The tone of leadership is a good barometer of exactly where the Holy Spirit is active in the Church. Today's collect reminds us that leadership's real authority is not found in canons, lots of meetings, peculiar get-ups, titles, special seats in the chancel, being able to enforce decisions, or being last (or near the end) in processions: it is in being increasingly transparent to the Light of Christ as expressed in an inner simplicity, godliness in daily life, repentance when we fall, and a thirst for the things of God. Admittedly a high standard: but then, that is what Christ set out for us, and what our hearts yearn for. By God's grace, it is (has been and always will be) attainable.

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