This morning, Bishop Josiah led us in an intensive study on the concept of discipline. Hard subject. But, one ordinands and clergy need to talk about since we vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of Christ as this church (in my case, the Anglican Church of Canada) has received them. And the marks of the church for Reformed Christians include, along with the Word of God truly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered, discipline faithfully applied (as noted and defended within our Anglican family by Nicholas Ridley, one of the Oxford martyrs).
Discipline, Josiah observed, was a weak point in our communion, and he spoke movingly of two examples from his own church in Nigeria, one in which discipline was faithfully applied and one where it had failed to take place for a number of years to devastating results.
In my own (very limited) parish experience discipline is hard to think about, let alone enact. And this morning was a good opportunity to think about why. Even when we remove–as we should–notions of punishment from discipline for the more biblical ieas of correction, admonishment, and instruction, the faithful application thereof means that there are going to be awkward conversations from time to time in parishes, many of them (though by no means all) between priest and parishioner(s). These conversations are obviously fraught with difficulty because of the power dynamics involved. And neither I nor of my clergy colleagues want to be “that priest.”
You know the one–the priest who exercises his or her power in a mean and coercive way, even if ostensibly to a good end. Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov is the most extreme example of a cleric corrupted by the use of coercive power to serve “the greater good.”
So, how does the faithful application of discipline take place in a time and place where one is (justifiedly) suspicious of claims to authority and power? That was the question that Bishop Josiah’s presentation prompted and left unanswered.
I wonder if I can get my bearings from the doctrine of creation in which God’s power is not power over a resistant but lesser, pre-existing stuff, but is more basically, the power to call into being that which has no existence of its own. That is true power, but not “power-over” (i.e., the kind of coercive power that every parent knows about–“because I’m your dad!” power). Or perhaps christologically, where power is not the power to conquer God’s enemies with 10 000 angels, but the power of resurrection. Both of these understandings of power–the one creative, the other subversive and apparently submissive–are interrelated in that neither involves coercion. And yet, both are legitimately powerful–the acts accomplish their intended objectives. God speaks and the world is created. Christ is raised and death is defeated.
Now, if that is the kind of thinking about power we are to bring to bear on matters of church discipline, what does it look like? This is not an abstract question for me, nor is it for any of us in ministry. For at some point, we are going to have to ask someone to take a break from teaching Sunday School, or serving on a committee, or even–in my tradition, following due process and with the Bishop’s full knowledge and support–to stop presenting themselves at the altar to receive the sacrament until repentance and reconciliation has taken place. (I must stress that I don’t have any specific situations in my own parish in mind for any of these!)
When I have to engage in those kinds of conversations, even if I do so, as Bishop Josiah reminded us based on Matthew 18, humbly, honestly, prayerfully and with a view to forgiveness, I will be exercising power which will look and feel coercive if not for me then certainly for the person on the receiving end. So, how do I keep in mind the kind of power that is creative rather than coercive, redemptive rather than punitive? How do I exercise discipline faithfully such that, hopefully, it is is experienced by all as creative and redemptive rather than coercive and punitive (if not at the immediate time, at least eventually)?
I have no answer to these questions just now. They really are disturbing for me. This one will be with me a while longer. I would be grateful for any advice. Especially from those of you in ministry–do these kinds of questions trouble you? What does the faithful application of discipline look like to you? I know that a couple of you wear episcopal purple–I would be especially grateful for your help!