Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Mighty Burden

A mysterious excerpt from a hidden manuscript written by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named:
With Rieff, we can well ask, Where are the priests? Who is manning the boundaries?

And the answer is that this dimension of pastoral ministry has all but evaporated. Pastors see themselves as proponents of Christianity, teaching "religious" things or assisting people on their personal spiritual journeys. Pastors have lost any sense that they are overseers of a new city and that they thererfore have responsibilities for governance.

In part, this is an effect of the degeneration of the pastoral vocation. If the tension between duty and desire has lost its existential edge in the twenty-first century, it is not because desire has become more vigorous. Instead, the tension has eased because duty has been collapsed into desire. Since Hume, moderns have been forbidden to derive an "ought" from an "is," but it has become second nature to derive an "ought" from a "feels." The consequences lie strewn on the surface of today's social landscape, too obvious to require enumeration.

Historically, a pastoral candidate's desires often had little to do with the Church's call to service in pastoral office. Far from seeking out positions of leadership, the greatest of the church fathers resisted with all their strength. Augustine had to be dragged into the cathedral for his ordination to the bishopric of Hippo. When he was a deacon, John Chrysostom made a pact with a friend that they would enter the priesthood together, but when the friend went forward John was nowhere to be found. Martin of Tours was carried from his cell and conducted to his ordination under guard. Gregory the Great, so we are told by his earliest biographer, fled from Rome to hide in the woods when rumours began to circulate that he was being considered for bishop. A humble anchorite saw in a vision where Gregory was hiding, and the Romans trooped out to bring him back for ordination. Calvin was persuaded to remain in Geneva only because Farel's warnings made leaving even more terrifying than staying. So common was such resistance to ordination that as late as the nineteenth century the patriarchs-elect of Alexandria were led to their ordination wearing shackles.

In the modern church, calling has been reduced to little more than a strong desire to hold position of ecclesiastical leadership. The terror of responsibility for the Church described by many of the leading pastoral writers if earlier centuries is seldom expressed during ordination exams. Candidates with even slight reservations about entering into the ministry are treated with more than a little suspicion.

This dramatic shift in the Church's understanding of calling is part and parcel of what David F. Wells has identified as the professionalization of the clergy, the reduction of the ministry to technical and managerial competence. Pastoral ministry, Wells charges, has been detached from its theological moorings, and has become another career option for the upwardly mobile "helping professional." One might well recoil from a duty imposed by divine vocation; but one aggressively markets oneself for a career. It is no accident that so many pastors disdain the clerical collar, which is, after all, the collar of the slave.

The Church will find herself in a healthier, if more intense and serious, condition when pastoral candidates begin again to appear for their ordination exams wearing chains.

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