Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Pack of Dogs?

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
- John 10:11-16
I sometimes hear bishops and priests referred to as "shepherds." The bishop's crozier is often described as a "shepherd's staff." I've always been uncomfortable with this image.

In the Book of Common Prayer, page 521, there is a reference to this imagery in the consecration of a bishop;

...fill, we pray, the heart of this your servant whom you have chosen to be a bishop in your Church with such love of you and of all the people, that he may feed and tend the flock of Christ...
And again, at the presentation of the bible;

Receive the Holy Scriptures. Feed the flock of Christ committed to your charge, guard and defend them in his truth, and be a faithful steward of his holy Word and Sacraments.
Note that in the first quote, it is "the flock of Christ." In the second, the role is that of a "steward." The bishop is not the shepherd; Christ is.

I think this is an important distinction. Eastern thought seems to able to embrace the idea that the divine dwells in us all without too many repercussions. The greeting, offered with a bow, of Namaste (the divine in me greets the divine in you) is a beautiful tradition; one that would seem to be worth being adopted by us all. Imagine the way our world might be transformed if we treated each person as Christ.

Western thought, with its emphasis on the individual, seems to constantly stumble when trying to embrace this concept. It seems that I often never get to God dwelling in you because I get stuck on the notion of God dwelling in me. I like being God. If I make you God as well, the notion is not quite as pleasant.

Consequently we have to emphasize that we are creatures, not the Creator. God is God, and we are not. Without this caveat in Western thought, strange creatures arise who attempt to draw all power unto themselves. Maybe someday we can fine tune this idea, but as recent events continue to reveal, that day has not yet arrived.

I think this distinction is especially critical for bishops (and priests as their representatives) to recognize. Bishops are sacramental persons; outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. They are icons, or windows, through which we are all drawn towards growing into the full stature of Christ. In this role, there is an ongoing tension between representing the people before God, and representing God for the people. The latter is the most problematic role, and seems to be the one that is most prominent in our liturgies today. I think it is helpful to remind ourselves that, as with any sacrament, we can say "this is God" only if we add the disclaimer "but God is much more than this." The bishop is a symbol of the Good Shepherd, but he or she is not Christ.

I want to suggest that a better image for bishops would be that of a sheepdog. Stay with me for a minute; don't shake your head and click out yet. The sheepdog works with the shepherd by keeping the flock safe, but the dog has more in common with the sheep than with the shepherd. The relationship is different, yet the full knowledge and authority rests with the shepherd, to whom the dog must always submit.

The sheepdog also has much in common with the greatest predator of the sheep; the wolf. They are of the same family. The dog knows the dark side well, and so is of great help to the shepherd in defending the flock.

I suggest this image with some reservations. Over a dozen years ago, my daily routine was to say Morning Prayer with the Dean and the Bishop, and then adjourn to the bishop's office for coffee. One morning over coffee I presented this idea to the bishop. He sat silently for a moment, and then responded with, "Father, are you suggesting that I am a dog?" Needless to say, I did some quick backpedaling. I don't recommend that you mention this image to your bishop!

I happen to be a dog person; I've shared my life with dogs over most of my adult years. I recognize that some dogs are much better suited as a shepherd's helper than others. German Shepherds are probably the most intelligent, in my experience, but they tend to have a hard side; sometimes they seem more related to their cousin the wolf. The Golden Retriever is a gentle and beautiful breed, but, like the Irish Setter, not very bright, and tends to easily get lost. My choice would be the Black Lab; smart, eager to please, good temperament, yet able to call on those ancient genes from the wild when confronted by an intruder.

Gender is also a consideration, although not as important as breed, it seems to me. I've found females to be better companions, over all. Over time, they are more predictable and mellow. The males tend to continue to do goofy things even into their adult years, and never seem to quite outgrow the "alpha-wolf" games.

Returning to the consideration of bishops, has it struck anyone else as significant that all of the 38 archbishops who gathered for the recent Primates' Meeting happened to be male?

At a recent forum at General Theological Seminary regarding the Windsor Report, this point was mentioned by the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of mission and world Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School and the Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam, Bishop Suffragan of New York;

...Both Bishop Roskam and Prof. Dou­glas were of the opinion that any deep­ening of communion among Anglican provinces would require broader rep­resentation of its grassroots member­ship among the instruments of unity.

"Over 95 percent of those who com­prise the instruments of unity are men and bishops," Prof. Douglas said. "I dissent from the idea that bishops rep­resent the primary manifestation of the local faith community."

Women are even less represented among the existing four instruments of unity than the general grassroots pop­ulation, according to Bishop Roskam, who concluded that if women's repre­sentation approached something closer to half, then no matter the province in which they resided, homo­sexuality would not be a potentially Communion-breaking issue.

"This has to do with manhood," Bishop Roskam said. "Women hold the same range of opinions as men, but they suffer in so many other ways"...
It is my opinion that gender issues are at the root of much of the turmoil we see within the Church today. Allow me to call your attention once again to an excellent article from the Witness that more fully explores this possibility; Fear of the Feminine;
..."What is driving the intensity of our current church infighting?" Is it really just about what people do sexually with each other?

Probably not. A more likely reason for a significant amount of the negativism is that same-sex relationships violate the rules laid down by all patriarchal cultures about how men and women should behave in relationship to one another. The same rules also narrowly define acceptable relationships between people of the same sex.

Looking through this lens, we can see that the offenses pile up rapidly. If a lesbian woman does not need a man to satisfy her, protect her and keep her in line, the threat of the feminine is there; if a gay man is able to access the feminine side of his being, his every move can be considered suspect and an affront to many. If long-term relationships between two people of the same sex toss the age-old formulas attached to male dominance and female submission out the window, what are we left with? And if we must allow people who are partnered in this way to live openly and with our blessing -- so that we can't pretend that this is not happening -- how offensive is that? It is only offensive if we continue to cling to a patriarchal framework which keeps the feminine in her "proper" place.
Returning to the shepherd/sheepdog analogy, are the sheepdogs confusing themselves with the shepherd? How much authority do we grant them? Does the breed matter? Does the gender matter? And, to introduce a future discussion, is it appropriate for the sheepdogs to make major decisions regarding the well being
of the flock without listening to representatives from among the sheep?


P.S. I just had to come back and add this pic, as who knows when this topic will ever come up again. It appears that sometimes even sheepdogs just want to have fun!

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