Church Discipline.. Four Legs good, two legs better

A recent BBC documentary, The Turbulent Priest,  followed Fr Brian D’Arcy on his journey within the Catholic Church. Censured by the Vatican for his writings and views the documentary ended with Fr D’Arcy and a friend discussing how to live authentically as a Priest under the authority of those with whom he disagrees. And he does. A fierce critic of the church’s handling of child sex abuse claims, he is also outspoken on his views against mandatory celibacy within the priesthood, as well as his views on homosexuality. When is it right to challenge the authority of the church that you serve in? When is it right to point to the mind of the church, and assert that those who minister within it, who undertake ordination vows submitting themselves to its doctrine and teaching, should adhere to this? How broad should the church be in allowing varying opinions to exist within the same umbrella, or when does permitting such a spectrum leave the church open to the potentially legitimate charge that it really doesn’t know what it thinks?

Watching as an ordained member of the Anglican church one couldn’t help but think that if the authority and discipline of the church should always prevail, then really the Anglican church (and all others emanating from the Reformation) shouldn’t exist. For Martin Luther the assertion was simple: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen”. The stage was set for the battle between what he knew and believed to be right, and that which the church affirmed as being right. Authority lines were challenged and, crucially, with the advent of the printing press, the communication lines opened to tell others that the central dictums need no longer prevail. The belief of the individual over the authority of the institution, combined with the ability to spread this news far and wide, challenged the ability of the centre to control and exercise discipline.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we find an Anglican Church wrestling with a lot of the same issues. Is there a central authority and what is the extent of its reach? What should discipline look like both within the Anglican Provinces and across the Anglican Communion? What is the impact of modern communication and travel on our awareness of what others think and do in other parts of the world, and our ability to homogenize life and teaching across all peoples bearing the Anglican name? Attempts to form an Anglican Covenant were basically kicked into touch as significant numbers recoiled at the prospect of some central body making determinations on the teaching, doctrine and behaviour of others. A broad church was deemed to be a tolerant church, allowing significant room for diverse views without imposing disciplinary sanctions. Suggestions of a ‘two-tier’ Communion have hardly curried global favour, the suggestion that, for instance, The Episcopal Church  in the US might not be in complete ‘full communion’ with the rest of the Anglican Communion, dismissed as being heavy handed and exclusory by nature. A Communion governed by authority and discipline considered an anathema to a church that should espouse tolerance, grace, and openness.

What then of the exercise of discipline by TEC on Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina? A restriction has been placed on his ministry for not adhering to the discipline of The Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark does not share, for instance, the views of Fr Brian D’Arcy on human sexuality, or of Bishop Gene Robinson, consecrated within TEC as an openly gay man. My focus is not here on sexuality. It is on authority, and discipline. What of the discipline of the church when Gene Robinson was consecrated? It was to be challenged, and changed, not enforced. In the decade that has followed any suggestion of the broader Anglican Church exercising any discipline over TEC has met with fierce resistance. In the current climate in Ireland one very much doubts that any exercise of authority over Fr Brian D’Arcy would be not be seen as anything other than heavy handed and symptomatic of an out of touch and authoritarian church.

The censure of Bishop Mark has met with little public fervour. It seems that he falls foul of the teaching of the church and, consequently, should come under its discipline. It seems that the church deems it right to impose its authority and its sanctions. It is now apparently right to do so, because the authorities have decided he is in the wrong. Wrong. A final determination. No longer scope for a variance of opinions. Wrong. Adjudicated on. Pronounced. Enforced. The exercise of authority and discipline, with forethought, consideration, and consequences. The formation of a judgment. All hitherto considered to be inappropriate means, until directed towards newly favoured ends. And all carried out with conviction by those who defend against any conviction sought by others.

The truth is we all point to ‘the teaching of the church’ when it represents us, and work against it when it doesn’t. Authority is sought and discipline imposed much more easily when it fits our particular bill. The labels of conservative or liberal are smokescreens, for the reality is that both (if there are only two) wish for their version of what is true and right to be the truth by which all live and are judged. A so called prophetic voice against the institution quickly becomes the imposing voice of the new institution. The rallying call for change almost certainly becomes the resolute norm. Apparently, as Orwell once highlighted, four legs are good, but two legs are better…

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