Friday, December 29, 2006

Is Our Current Unpleasantness Clergy Driven?

In a previous post, we began a discussion about the role the clergy played in some of the Virginia congregations deciding to become Nigerian Anglicans. RMJ expanded that point:

...Clergy, of course, have a vested interest in the niceities of church polity; which is all well and good, but if there is going to be any energy generated over questions of polity, doctrine, and church identity, it will not come primarily from the laity, and even if it originates there, unless the majority of the people supporting a change are clergy, the change isn't going to happen. Time was when people sought denominational identity, and freely created new ones as they felt the need, inventing clergy to serve them as they went along (well, seldom did the clergy lead the departure. Wesley didn't intend to start a new church anymore than Luther did, and most American denominations were formed by lay people, not pastors.). The majority of congregants simply don't care what denomination their church is. They go to the church they are comfortable with, not the one they grew up in. We are, in other words, in a post-denominational world, and as we go from one state to the other we face an interregnum in which all manner of morbid symptoms appear.

Which is why clergy are driving this talk of schism in The Episcopal Church, not laity. The leaders in this issue are Archbishops and Bishops and priests. That seems normal for a polity like the TEC's, but they are the ones whipping up the froth; they are not responding to pressure from their parishes...
Alex Kim recently sent me an academic study from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, December 2006 issue. This study contributes more information to our conversation. Here's a couple of relevant excerpts:

...The results of our present analysis offer a rare glimpse into clergy’s actual political effectiveness. Put simply, Episcopal priests affect their members, whereas ELCA pastors do not. In part, Episcopal priests are more likely to be addressing issues concerning homosexuality within the denomination, but Episcopal laity can also attach any information provided about gay rights to something concrete; ELCA members do not have that option... It appears that the issue has to be salient (hence no ELCA effect), targeted at an issue on which clergy have expertise or are provided deference (here, denominational affairs), and one on which clergy and church members largely agree...

...The questions posed at the agenda-setting stage may generate conflicting desires. Many clergy and members believe their faith must bear witness to society and are supportive of their denomination becoming more active in public debates. At the same time, such public debates are divisive, the outcomes are uncertain, and conflict over issues can strike at the organizational robustness of the denomination and local congregations. In the end, the denomination is left in an uncomfortable position, with serious ramifications no matter the action committed or omitted...
As this study and the testimonies from Virginia suggest, in the Episcopal Church the clergy do hold substantial influence over the members, but that influence has its limits. As Alex suggested, to avoid the "uncomfortable position," anti-gay clergy shifted the argument to more comfortable turf; debate on our place in the Anglican Communion.

There was another statement made in this study worth noting:

...This table shows that over 80 percent of clergy in both denominations overwhelmingly favor equal treatment of gay and lesbian people. Congregation members are more conservative on the issue, but not by much. Over 70 percent of Episcopalian church members and just over half of ELCA church members support equal treatment of gays and lesbians...
In the 1999 study, the question asked was; "Homosexuals should have the same rights and privilages as other American citizens." 11% of the Episcopalians and 18.5% of the Lutherans disagreed with that statement. I find that astonishing. We're not talking about the issue of ordination, but basic civil rights. I cannot imagine a Christian disagreeing with that. One can only hope that in the 7 years that have passed since this data was collected there's been some consciousness raising going on among our members.

Returning to the original topic; what is your experience? Is our current unpleasantness primarily clergy driven?


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