Monday, February 17, 2014

We Have No Integrity!

This just in:  Father Anonymous has no integrity!

Regular readers will no doubt find this unsurprising.  Way back in 2010, we expressed our willingness to blog for money -- to shamelessly promote any product for a fee, and the right products in exchange for samples.  We mentioned a particular interest in wristwatches, books and clerical haberdashery.  (Sinn, Continuum [which is now part of Bloomsbury] and Slabbinck came in for particular mention.  These days, we'd happily take a look at some fancy camping gear as well.  Are you listening, Arc'teryx?). To our great regret, no manufacturers or distributors have actually taken us up on this offer -- yet.

But the point remains: Father A. is  sellout by nature, sadly lacking in the ascetical rigor implicit in his vocation.  Miserere nobis, Domine!

Our only comfort was the thought that this abject moral poverty was a somewhat private affair, known only to ourselves and to the minuscule coterie of regular Egg-beaters.  Imagine, then, the shame - the Kristevan horreur -- that we felt when we were called to account by no less august a community than the Facebook  ELCA Pastors' Group.

A group member offered for consideration a paragraph from our first reflection on l'affaire Justman.  It was a rather good paragraph, although we had forgotten writing it.  (Perhaps, indeed, we stole it -- that's how little integrity we have!)  Here it is:

Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down.  The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad.  You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority.  Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.

We will stand by those remarks.  They describe, to our mind, the extraordinarily challenging position in which ELCA bishops find themselves.  The office of bishop in the ELCA is poorly defined, and it is frankly miraculous that any of the people who hold it manage to get anything done.  By the same token,  the only real surprise when a bishop resigns is that ten others haven't resigned as well.

The same thing can be said, incidentally, of pastors.  A glance at the ELCA Model Constitution shows why.  Article 9, concerning the office of the pastor, seems to go on forever, much of its length spent assigning the pastor duties without granting any corresponding executive authority, and even more of it spent on just how to get rid of him (or her).  Lutherans have a long and complex history of interpreting the offices of pastor and bsihop, from nearly idolatrous worship of Herr Pastor to the undisguised anticlericalism of the Pietists; both constitution and parish practice reflect this history.  We are divided between our need for strong pastoral leadership and our fear of pastoral tyranny, and act on that division by both loving our pastors and seeking to destroy them.

Somebody once told us that the best example of passive aggressive behavior is the dog who jumps up to lick your face while simultaneously peeing on your leg.  There, in a nutshell, is the Lutheran approach to pastors and, except even more so, to bishops.

However, the Facebook group sees it differently.  Members read the offending paragraph as a criticism not of the office and how it is defined, but of the people who hold it.  The very first commenter claimed to have known every ELCA bishop ever, and to have seen in them models of solid leadership -- two claims that are difficult to reconcile, given what we know about the catastrophic failure of a few bishops.  Others chimed in accordingly.  The instinct to defend one's bishop, as well as one's friend, is a very good one, displaying just the sort of integrity that the Egg so prominently lacks.  We applaud it, however completely beside the point in question it may be.

Another commenter sniffed that "leadership is hard," an observation which is ... sort of what we were trying to say.

We'll say this more clearly, in case you missed it:  there are many fine bishops in the ELCA, as there are many fine pastors.  We've been privileged to know some of them.  Their presence is proof, however, of God's providence rather than of any human wisdom, because their church has given them a ridiculous job, one which could scarcely be better designed if its goal were to drive them to booze, broads, or bigger parishes -- the three customary causes of an episcopal dimission.

Anyway, back to our integrity -- or lack thereof.

The Facebook ELCA Clergy Group has a number of distinguishing characteristics.  One is that its participants are generally on the young side, and seem not to have fully integrated all the lessons of their priestly formation.  Rather than consult a book, or -- one hopes -- their own memory of the relevant course, they seem to instinctively crowdsource every question.  Some questions are quite naturally resolved this way (e.g., "Where to buy black shirts cheap?"); others are not ("Why can't we make up our own creeds?"  "What is that poncho thing some pastors wear at the Eucharist?" "Does anybody really use Greek?")  It is a little dispiriting to watch.  Older pastors try to dispense such theological learning and practical wisdom as they are able, but generally despair quickly.  (Our biretta is permanently off to Frs. Murphy and Stoffregen, who are tireless dispensers of all that is good and true and beautiful.)

Another characteristic, common to many online discussions, is that threads often meander.  The question of where to buy shirts, for example, can easily turn into a  pissing match among those who insist on black clericals, those who champion the multicolored, and those who dismiss the whole subject as reeking of potpourri -- sorry, we meant popery.  This particular topic, which comes up every couple of months, is as theologically neutral as one can imagine, and yet it predictably preciptates a nasty exchange of self-righteous truisms.

In the case at hand, for example, the question of how Lutherans have defined the episcopal office never really got talked about, even when the OP herself tried to raise it again.  People seemed more interested in talking about how well the bishops of their acquaintance had performed -- and how evil Fr. A. was. for suggesting otherwise, even though he hadn't.

Their gravest objection seemed to be that Father Anonymous was ... anonymous.  It was this that seems to have raised the question of his integrity, although just how anonymity and integrity are connected was never made clear.

A few people muttered politely that anonymity has a long history in journalism.  (Paging Xavier Rynne! Not to mention the only newsmagazine that's actually any good.  Oh, and that gutless wonder Thomas Paine). We thank them, but the Egg is hardly journalism.  It's the periodic ramble of a prematurely senile minister, more concerned with John Donne's mystagogy, John Mason Neale's hymnody and Dick Cheney's predilection for sexual congress with billy goats than with any matters of present-day concern.

Likewise, a few faithful readers rose to our defense, and their kind words are music to our tone-deaf ears.  (Literally tone-deaf.  Can't chant a freaking note, despite the weekly attempt.)  But the truth is that our critics are right:  we have no integrity.  Our critics are right, because how could so intellectually sophisticated a group possibly be wrong?

We offer no defense; it would be pointless.  We will only observe, as we have before, that our "anonymity" is pretty thin stuff.  We adopted it, back in the innocent days of 2005, to prevent our private ramblings about sex and politics from disturbing the peace of the parish.  But over time, it has grown ever more notional.  Most regular readers know pretty much exactly who "Father Anonymous" is; quite a number have entertained him in their homes, served with him on a parish council, chatted with him over brewskis or via the Internet, prayed his eccentric version of the Daily Office.  According to the Egg's Dept. of Statistics, fully one-tenth of our readers actually gave birth to us.  (And btw, thanks for doing that, Mom.)

While it is possible to learn the notorious little cleric's secret identity with two mouse clicks, navigating from this very page, that may be too much work for kids nowadays.  (Durn entitled Millennials -- get offa my lawn!) Still, there's a com-box on every page, and we're busy but by no means bashful.  So if you want to know a guy's name, there's one tried-and-true-method, which is to ask.

But really, why bother?  This blog has no integrity.  It's certainly not a labor of love, nor an expression of care for the church and its theology.  On the contrary, we're just in it for the swag.


Brant Clements said...

I am a member of the aforementioned Facebook group though my contributions can best be described as somewhat less than infrequent.

As I have occasionally expressed the matter, when I want drama I go to the theater.

I did see the thread in which your integrity was brought into question. Had I chosen to respond it might have been to the effect that your anonymity is thinly protected. Certainly there are clues enough throughout the pages of this blog to find the Clark Kent behind your Superman persona. The only reason I've never followed the raveled clews is a profound lack of interest.

Well, that and a certain laziness on my part.

At any rate, I continue to enjoy your blog and often find it thought provoking. This post brought a smile of amusement to my face.

The good work: keep it up.

Father Anonymous said...

Holy cow. I think you posted that before I actually hit "publish." All time speed-responding record!

On a completely different topic, did you know I still haven't seen the Thor sequel? That's practically the definition of "too damn busy."

Geoff said...

I wondered about the longevity about the "Anonymous" handle, ELCA congregations co-pastored by clergy spouses returned from Romania being as thin on the ground as they are ...

Father Anonymous said...

Actually, Geoff, there are more than you might think. "One" being more than any sensible person might think.

In all seriousness, I have considered changing my blog-handle. It would take thirty seconds. But then, all at once, nine years' worth of posts would suddenly make reference to some mysterious guy whose name doesn't appear anywhere on the sidebar. So I think I'm stuck with this for the duration.

mark said...

Anonymous? I can think of only one ELCA clergyman in the universe who would respond to anything with Kristevan horreur.

Mark C. Christianson said...

"Egg-beaters" I like that. :-)

As to substantive comment, I'm left wondering if I should make note of the apparent comprehension impairment of some in said group or if I should simply make note of the enjoyable and thought provoking nature of your lack of integrity.

Pastor Joelle said...

Teehee. I know who you are., When I started my blog I didn't think anyone would actually read it. Now I kinda wish I was anonymous because in my position now I can't really say anything. Not even shit.