“Choosing with integrity means finding ways to speak up that honor your reality, the reality of others, and your willingness to meet in the center of that large field. It’s hard sometimes.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Many of you may not know it, but priests of the diocese are required to do forty hours of continuing education a year! In February that’s just what I did.
I must begin this article, however, with a confession: The idea of going to a Gathering of Leaders Conference titled “By Whose Authority? Faithfully Exercising Authority in the Missionary Church” sounded as scintillating watching paint dry!
Sure, it is a relevant, timely subject, however, after engaging on the subject, most especially after the recent Primates meeting, and after talking with colleagues both face-to-face as well as on social media of just about every platform, I was done with conversations on authority!
Still, the opportunity to see old friends, gain new ones, and be in the beautiful setting of Sierra Retreat Center in Malibu, was more than enough to assuage me into going.
What is it about the process of choosing speakers that beckons us to consider deeply the subject at hand? In many ways it’s mystical to me how it all comes together and works.
Each person that spoke, whether it was on practical application, a theological reflection, or a struggle with their own authority, struck a resonating chord within me. It wasn’t long before I realized that while I may have talked out the issue of authority until I was tired of it, authority wasn’t done with me.
Not by a long-shot.
By the time we reached the bishops panel of discussion, I found myself in liminal space, suffused with questions that begged for answers: What were the times in my life when authority was used well? How did I know? What were the times in my life when authority was used poorly? How often did I prove the example? When did I know that my authority grew? What happened?
I kept coming back to authenticity and integrity, which for me, was tremendously comforting. Authority, first and foremost wasn’t about power or privilege or charisma. Chiefly, authority has nothing to do with what William Shakespeare said about greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” (Twelfth Night). It rather begins on the humble ground of integrity; that place where all of us must stand if we are to lead, speak the truth with love, or engage in being the missionary church.
Just to be sure, I asked our panel of bishops the following: “As a bishop, by the very nature of your authority you are both the lightening rod of people’s anger and the screen onto which they shine their hope. What do you do with that?”
It was The Right Reverend Dena Harris, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, who responded first: “I try to wear it very lightly,” she said. Somewhere in her response I could hear C.S. Lewis: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” (Mere Christianity). Indeed, I think I’m at my best when I wear my authority like that too. Indeed, hasn’t the world gotten more than it needs from those who are puffed up by authority?
In conclusion, I’m still wresting, looking for deeper answers. But I do know this: A shift from hubris to humility and authenticity makes room in the heart not only for the Holy Spirit to work, but for growth, divergent thinking, and space for a radical, transformative center.
Sounds like hope to me!
Yours for the reign of God,