May 2012

From Above or Below?

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

I remember a joke we used to frequently tell during my years as a seminarian:

How many priests are required to change a light bulb?

The answer: None. Seminarians do it.

This joke, even though it’s a bit silly, highlights a hierarchical problem where the authority to make decisions--and practically to do anything--comes from the clerical state, while lay people and those who are not ordained are expected to pay, pray and obey.

I believe that in ecclesiological terms one of the major differences between the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, from where many of our new and Hispanic members are coming from, is precisely our polity. Our ecclesiological vision in the Episcopal Church depends on the General Conventions, the House of Bishops, the House of Deputies, synods, local, and diocesan convocations to make decisions concerning church life. Even at the parish level we have the vestry, which manages the assets of the church and shares management authority with the clergy.

The Roman Catholic Church adopted this collegial and more open vision of government, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), with the creation of parish councils at the local level and the international synods that are still in place in Rome today. However, as time has passed it has become evident that in reality the only ones who actually make formal decisions are bishops; this includes the Bishop of Rome, who is not required to consult anyone, even when making decisions that affect the universal church. Even now, the laity has practically no voice or vote in anything including choosing bishops and priests for their own communities.

For many Latinos coming from countries where democracy is either fragile or nonexistent the idea of a democratic church, where authority is shared, is a difficult concept to understand, particularly at the local level. Many of us aren’t used to being consulted in the decision making process or in participating in an open and demanding system of dialogue. There is no question that the Episcopal Church’s way of “being church” requires much more dialogue and cooperation between the clergy and laity, given that our bishops need to have the approval of the diocesan leadership in all matters (remembering that our bishops are elected by members of their diocese).

This model of authority is completely new for many Latinos coming from cultures influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, particularly to those who were never in direct contact with churches shaped by the Reformation. It often surprises me to find that there are still Roman Catholic priests who’ve never worked in an ecumenical atmosphere and who have no idea how the church across the street functions.

Personally, I think that our Episcopal polity is immensely valuable and even though I understand that some colleagues think it can be cumbersome, I am confident that if Jesus could choose an ecclesiastical system today from among the thousands of Christian denominations that exist in the world, He would be very pleased with our decision making process and with our way of “being church”. There is a reason why the Lord Jesus himself tells us that “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” (Mark 10:43).

Our denomination emphasizes not only preaching the Gospel from the pulpit, but also to practicing the Gospel with our way of showing the spirit of service and the Christian humility required by the Gospel from each and every person capable of accepting the call to serve God whether they are lay people, bishops, priests or deacons. In a special way, I believe that the laity of the 21st century is strengthened knowing that it’s acknowledged and that the Church is not a form of spiritual dictatorship but rather the Body of Christ where all have a voice and a vote. Perhaps that is why our greatest challenge is not so much talking about “the Episcopal way of doing things” or our “polity”, but is instead realizing that this way of serving and sharing authority is what the gospel of Jesus truly demands of the Church.

Because our modus operandi is often seen and explained as a system inherited from other political systems, and not as a consequence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, many may never understand why we operate the way that we do. I am sure that God calls us to live our faith in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition, precisely because so many of our our struggles are based on seeking the will of God for everyone, without exception. Of course, a big part of that struggle, includes growing in our awareness of how we are called to function and make decisions.

Alberto Cutié is the rector at the Church of the Resurrection, Miami in the Diocese of Southeastern Florida. He is a former Roman Catholic priest.


This article is part of the May 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Governance