As a rule, I’m not an avid reader of other folk’s Pastor’s columns. Like most clergy I receive at least half a dozen newsletters from other congregations. I read the parish statistics, and check the program notes. But I don’t generally read the Pastor’s column. The same applies to the Bishop’s missives in the synodical insert to The Lutheran. I usually scan it, catch a line here or there, but don’t really study it. However, the August 1996 “Thoughts from the Bishop’s Office,” caught my attention. I’ve read it through several times and studied its implicit message. It has paid benefits, and I’m grateful whenever I find the bishop exercising the magisterial, teaching function of the office.
What I liked most about the column was the pedagogical method the bishop adopted. It would have been easy to state the questions the article implies, give the proper citations from the Confessions and feel as if one had done the teaching needed. That would have been easy, but dull. Instead, by assigning the task to one of his assistants [Maxine Washington], and using a narrative style, the column sent me back to the Confessions to find the answers for myself. That’s a fine teaching tool, and I marvel at the personal risk taken for the sake of our continuing education. After all, confession in the privacy of the Pastor’s office allows for absolute confidentiality. But putting one’s sins on the pages of The Lutheran exposes the author to peer criticism, even as it prompts thought.
There are at least three issues which the column raises. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me recite these three. First, there’s the question of whether the church has, at the behest of the culture, created a hierarchy of sins. Second, there is the question of the viability of the magisterial office in a society which intensely dislikes authority. Third, there’s the question of the relationship between the inner call to ordained ministry and the external call to a specific position in the church. Of course, the reflections also raise the question of the nature and purpose of the church, the nature of Confessional subscription and one of my favorite questions, the relationship between experiential and doctrinal religion. It amazes me the bishop managed to raise these deep and profound questions were in a few short, narrative paragraphs.
I feel compelled to write about these first three. I’m wondering if others want to discuss. I know I take the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly neo-conservative willing to attack a newly installed bishop’s assistant. But after the risk the bishop’s assistant took, that’s nothing. Besides, I have no grudge against the Bishop or his assistant. My goal is to set my thoughts down for my own sake, and perhaps share them with others because I’m a writer and well, I enjoy the process of bleeding on a page.
That first question, the creation of a hierarchy of sins, puzzled me until I read the “Thoughts” column. We had discussed this question in a Pastor’s support group before I read the article. One of our group members insisted that financial and sexual sins were the only ones which could get a Pastor dropped from the clergy role. I insisted that there were others as well. Yes, murder too might do as a reason for discipline. But covetousness is actually encouraged by the church as we set out career paths from small struggling congregations to high steeple churches with big salaries. Our colleague insisted that we had constructed a hierarchy of sins in response to cultural constraints. I insisted that as heirs of the reformation we knew better than to distinguish among sins, dividing them into cardinal and venial sins.
I believe that this “Thoughts” column was a way to put that same issue before us, demonstrating how far we have fallen from our Lutheran conviction that all sins are signs of Sin and all sinners ought to be treated alike, i.e., called upon to repent, offered divine forgiveness and the opportunity for amendment of life. Here was the bishop’s assistant confessing that she had neglected the Word of God and the preaching of it for at least a month, and that she probably would have gone on neglecting it had her business not forced her to attend worship. It seemed as if she was saying, “I too have sinned. How will the church discipline me?” She deftly used irony, presenting the same sort of excuses one hears from clergy who become involved with parishioners. “‘I was angry with God.’ ‘I was stressed out by my responsibilities.’ ‘I was anxious about the future.’ Therefore, I sinned. I stopped attending worship, neglected the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments. I broke the third [Sabbath day] commandment and ask for forgiveness.”
Of course I’m anxious to forgive her and rejoice that she is feeling better about herself and her life and her call to ministry as the auxiliary bishop of the Metro Synod. But I marvel at her courage. What would the synodical authorities do if a Pastor of this Synod wrote a column for The Lutheran confessing, “I was stressed out, angry with God and overwhelmed by my new duties and therefore, I broke the sixth and seventh [adultery, stealing] commandments. But I heard the voice of God and I have repented and amended my life and I’m not breaking those commandments anymore.” Would we forgive that Pastor for breaching his or her ordination vows? Would we commend him or her for honesty, offer forgiveness, and assure the person that all was well and they could continue with their function in the Pastoral office? I doubt it. I think we would demand that the person who has breached the trust placed in them resign from office as a condition of their forgiveness and restoration to the fellowship.
That’s because we have clearly adopted the world’s criteria for judging the seriousness of sins. Any sin which involves more than one person is more serious than a sin which involves the individual and God. Luther, of course, saw things the other way around. His theology makes all sins an example of Sin against God. All sins are a violation of the first commandment. One may justifiably ask if a Pastor’s neglect of Word and Sacrament affects only the individual? Doesn’t it affect all of us when the Bishop’s assistant is so busy with her work that she does not have time to engage in corporate worship in a congregation? At the very least it sets a bad example. It is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for evangelism when the leadership of the Synod sees worship as something to avoid when the going gets rough.
The second question the article raises is the viability of episcopal authority in an anti-authoritarian culture. Here again, the adoption of a narrative style, a folksy narrative style if you will, raises the question indirectly. If the Bishop had exercised the authority of his office directly we would have seen him as stodgy, “Puritanical” and legalistic. It would be akin to receiving a missive from the Bishop declaring that all clergy ought to attend public functions in clerical collars. I’ve heard that one southern ELCA Bishop once sent out such a letter. It made for a few unintended laughs, but taught neither the dignity of the Pastoral office, nor sartorial propriety.
Our clever Bishop instead addressed these issues in a veiled way. But is indirection the best course? Isn’t it likely that many of us will miss the subtlety of the arguments presented in August’s “Thoughts”. It isn’t that we’re stupid or unliterary. I’d guess that most of the Metro Chicago Pastors I’ve met are able to recognize irony when they see it. But most of us are busy, and irony takes a certain amount of time out of the busy day. Maybe it would be better for the Bishop to be a little more direct with his attempts at teaching the church the meaning of sins and Sin. It’s possible that we would rebel, we are of that breed of rebellious flesh after all. However, if the Bishop directly exercised the teaching function of his office, we would at least be certain of what we were rebelling against. As it is, this use of indirection, this literary conceit, leads to some confusion. Are we really to take the Bishop’s assistant as speaking only for herself, an individual soul and not as theologian and representative of the office of Bishop? I’m not sure. It is the polyvalence of narrative which inevitably leads to confusion.
The final question the article touched upon is the struggle between the inner call and the outward call of the church to a particular form of service. It seems to me that I heard rumor that H. George Anderson was unwilling to answer the call of the church to serve as its Bishop the first two times the call was issued because he did not have an accompanying sense of inner call. I know how painful that lack of inner call can be. I served a congregation when I lacked the inner certainty that God was calling me to that place. The call was a disaster and ended in less than three years. Perhaps the discussion of the pain the Bishop’s assistant felt after accepting the call of the church and moving from Holy Spirit Lutheran to the Synod office was a way of teaching that there must be convergence of the inner and the outer call. Perhaps it was a tangential issue to her main point about the uncertainty of subjectivism and the need for a certain, objective word from God in Scripture and Confessions.
That, or course, is both the problem with and the glory of narrative theology. Unlike didacticism it has several possible valences. Narrative theology exposes the “polyglot” nature of theological discourse, to borrow a term from Mikael Bahktin. The glory is that one can attend to which ever voice one privileges in the reading of the story. There is no one authoritative voice bearing the narrative weight, but rather a competition of voices present even through the mediation of a single narrator. The problem of narrative as a teaching tool is that one cannot privilege a single voice. While it is a wonderful way to pass on the lore of the tribe, it is less apt as a disseminator of doctrinal truth. Doctrine tends, it seems to me, to be univocal, or at least less multivalent than narrative.
So, Bishop Olsen, thanks for the occasion to think about Sin, sins, social norms and churchly discipline. Thanks for forcing me to reflect on my own call to ministry in this place. Thanks for the chance to air the issues again. But, next time you want to stimulate thought, make it a little less difficult to discern your direction, if you get my drift.