What’s authority got to do with it?
Our President recently outlined some key issues that hinder our ability to be a more effective Uniting Church for the future:
• the Regulations’ perpetuation of the 1.0 ministerial placement as the implied norm, when a majority of Congregations and ministers are needing to develop other options;
• the continuing postponement of a conversation about polity while our Synod/Presbytery system is in disarray;
• the maintenance of a system of theological education that is beyond the means and in excess of the needs of the Church.
In more graphic terms the Church in the Synod of NSW and the ACT portrays an ecclesial system that no longer has the capacity to respond adequately and participate fully in God’s mission, burdened as it is by pervasive mistrust; dysfunctional decision-making processes, and lack of clear vision, priorities, or strategies. In short, the Synod’s work is seen by many as ‘unfocused, disconnected, unfruitful, perfunctory and redundant.’ And apparently the response of the people of God to this reality is to shout: ‘We need real leadership here!’
Implicit in such cries is the view that a void exists in our Church where leadership and authority should be. So I wonder if we are having a leadership crisis. Put another way, are we having a crisis of authority? Should we be having more honest and open conversations about power and hierarchy in the Church? Many have expressed weariness in a system that takes so long to make real and difficult decisions, often characterised by settling for the lowest common denominator. Many are wearied by so much energy, time, and money spent on endless debates over issues that really do not progress the mission of God we are called to serve. So where does this nonsense stop and who has the authority to say enough is enough?
It seems that we have made an art form of employing theological tools at our disposal to convince ourselves of the elusive nature of power and authority, and to confidently appropriate the political doctrine of egalitarianism. Within an Australian socio-political understanding of ‘mateship’, such egalitarianism is a natural cultural fit. Indeed, an understandable response to subjective and collective experiences of ecclesial abuses of authority in the past, and the ongoing threat of authority as a mask for domination. But have we overestimated the value of autonomy, individual or otherwise, as compatible with freedom?
Predictably our default response to perversions of authority is to reject it, treat it like it is a necessary evil, or pretend it does not exist. Having made authority the enemy of freedom, we deny ourselves an opportunity to engage more honestly with the basis and purpose of true authority. Certainly, an exploration of the distinctions between good and bad authority is in order. Perhaps our suspicion of authority reflects a postmodern misconception of autonomy and freedom as little more than unbridled pursuit of self-interests?
Have we created for ourselves an ecclesial system of conflicting and competing autonomous wills and call it ‘inter-conciliar councils’? American theologian Scott Bader-Saye emphasises the positive function of authority to ‘educate, form, and reform’ situations of deficient knowledge or character; whilst co-ordinating the gifts ‘poured out by the Holy Spirit.’(2006: 164) In his terms a healthy and mature Church/community understands authority’s central role in making community possible and in helping members practice ‘self-giving as part of imitating Christ’ for the common good. (165)
Instead, we are a church of independent councils operating under the misguided notion that we’re egalitarian because we prioritise individual preferences. Espousing the values of uniting for the common good is one thing but practicing it is quite another. It is safe to say that we have yet to learn how to dispossess individual interests in the service of the common good.
Dr Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, Synod Multicultural Consultant
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