Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nothing Funny Here

If we make a joke, some readers will accuse us of a divisive touch-down dance, which is not our intention here at all. Other readers will accuse us of beating a dead horse, which may actually come closer to the mark. But in fact, we think that there is something worth noting in this terrible, terrible story from Australia.

Here's the gist:

Wilfred Edward Dennis is on trial for a series of sexual assaults against a minor, said to have taken place in the 1970s, when he was a priest of the Anglican Church.

After a recent extortion demand by the victim, Dennis called his bishop, who asked him if there had been other instances. "Oh, yes," Dennis is said to have answered. As many as 41.

Now, the main point here -- assuming the story to be true -- is that Dennis is a dirtbag, who should never have been admitted to holy orders, who has done incalculable damage to the lives of many boys, and who should now spend the remainder of his life in prison. (In most prisons, we are given to understand, it is likely to be a brief remainder.)

But here's another factoid which we are afraid may not get sufficient play:

Dennis is not, nor has he been for some time, a priest of the Anglican Church, which with 3.7 million members is the second-largest religious community in Australia, and a significant force in that nation's public life. He is a priest of the Anglican Catholic Church, which is part of the "Continuing Anglican" movement. It has 25 Australian congregations, is not part of the Anglican Communion, and its principal raison d'etre is opposition to the ordination of women.

In other words, a schismatic. And you know how the Egg loves schismatics.

For the sake of clarity, we point out that, when Dennis committed these crimes, he was apparently still part of the mainstream church. Nor, by any means, do we mean to suggest that there is some necessary relationship between schismatic church groups and sexual misconduct. Not a necessary, one-thing-leads-to-another, relationship.

But there is a relationship. We have spent a lot of time reflecting on James Nestingen's claim that, in the ELCA's early years, the tiny cohort of AELC pastors accounted for a disproportionately large number of misconduct cases. (To be honest, we'd like to see some hard numbers on this, but doubt that any will ever be made public.) In our own synod, several shocking misconduct cases have been resolved, extra legis, by schism -- when, rather than accept his guilt and take his punishment, a pastor joins the ranks of a micro-denomination, usually taking his congregation along as dowry.

There are, we suspect, at least two different elements in this relationship between schismatics and misconduct.

First, a full-sized modern denomination typically has some safeguards in place to identify and remove miscreants. Psychological testing for seminarians, "boundaries workshops" for the clergy, and accountability and discipline through a church hierarchy which has become accustomed to covering its own tail in legal matters. While the effectiveness of these safeguards may vary, and it is well-known that they sometimes break down altogether (thank you, Cardinal Law), they do exist. And for that very reason, these are less hospitable environments than the tiny church bodies created by and for the disaffected.

Second, offenders (whether actual or potential) are not stupid. They may well lack impulse control, but they do not lack intellect. They know where they are most likely to get away with the things they do, and they gravitate toward such places. Our biggest concern is that the faithful often fail to see this. If Pastor Bob says that the Orthodox Five-Points Church of the Westminster Confession is just as good as the PCUSA -- better, even, because it doesn't have gays, women or those damned intrusive presbyteries -- they believe him, because he's their pastor. He knows, even if they don't, that he has led the flock into a gently permissive pasture, in which delicate questions go unasked.

And add to these elements a third, which is less direct but arguably more potent: invincible self-righteousness. This was, and remains, the Missouri Synod's principal export; it was the mother's milk on which those AELC babes had sucked their whole lives, supported by a series of univocal institutions, and unchallenged by the example of other Lutheran bodies, from which they were largely protected. They entered the AELC and later the ELCA convinced of their utter superiority -- intellectual, moral and otherwise -- to those around them.

One finds the same flaw, writ in miniature, among the other schismatics. Wilfred Dennis left a church of the Anglican Communion because he felt that he and his friends possessed a higher truth than the many millions of their brethren, acting prayerfully and in union with one another; likewise Marcel Lefebvre and the Roman Communion, and so forth and so on. One almost wants to scream: Seriously? And a guy who molested 41 children thought he had the moral high ground?

So, we'll say it again: Schism is an ugly thing, and schismatics take on some of that ugliness. It may sometimes be inevitable, even necessary, but that does not make it good in itself, or in any way praiseworthy. And let the faithful beware, because when they and their congregations line up with these people, "it is as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear."

1 comment:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Pretty strong language, but I can see why you are making your point.

I've read a number of blogs of the more conservative Lutheran types in the last few years, and I've commented. Unfortunately, I've found that there seems to be a general tone of 'Your opinion as a lay person doesn't count.' If fact, one pastor was highly skeptical, actually very negative, about the possibility that there could be a Bible Study that was not led by a pastor. And of course, there has been a constant put down of other Lutheran groups.

I can see where anyone growing up in this atmosphere would follow "their pastor" without checking out the direction that pastor is leading the flock.

Well, they will have their own special, sound proof room in heaven.

And fortunately, the rest of us are still saved by Grace, in spite of the way WE might feel superior to THOSE people.