Enforcing Orthodoxy

Maybe you’ve seen the news blurb.  A Roman Catholic priest in the Philippines was suspended recently for riding a hoverboard while singing a Christmas song at a Christmas Eve worship service.  It sounds kind of goofy, but what exactly is going on here, and why?  And what is the role of ecclesiastical supervision?

I like the wording from the Diocese of San Pablo when announcing his suspension.  It cited the reverent nature of the Eucharist, and condemns an action which shifts the focus from Christ to the officiant.  This ought to serve as a good reminder to congregations and pastors everywhere, regardless of denomination – what we do is not about us, it is about Christ.  Reverence is appropriate.  It doesn’t need to be stuffy.  It doesn’t need to be over-ritualized (although there are benefits to ritual and liturgy).  But what is happening needs to be acknowledged and defined for the people present, which is why theology of worship ought to be something that all congregations talk about.  What is worship?  Why are we here and what is happening and who is doing it?  How we answer these questions has very real importance.  It determines whether riding a hoverboard is appropriate, or whether dancing down the aisle to the altar for a wedding is a good idea.

I thought about how I would feel if an ecclesiastical supervisor saw a clip like this with me in it.  Not that I’m coordinated enough to pull something like this off, even were I so inclined – which I’m not!  My denomination benefits and suffers from a rather ambiguous ecclesiastical supervisory hierarchy.  Being censured in the way this priest has is not very likely except for a grave offense.  While many folks in my denomination would be happy to see their fellow clergy suspended for this sort of thing, the mechanisms to do so would be unclear and probably ineffective.

Now, let me clarify.  Would I consider using a hover board or some other ‘gimmick’ in worship?  Certainly.  But as part of the sermon, not as part of the liturgy.  I could totally understand a preacher who sought to utilize this sort of thing to emphasize a point in their sermon.  I think any sort of censure for such a use would be inappropriate, and I would have disagreed with the Roman Catholic diocese if they had suspended the priest for doing something in the context of a sermon.

Our denomination is struggling right now with the issue of supervision.  Like many denominations we have a broad spectrum of tastes and preferences between individual clergy and congregations.  Some prefer the very traditional high liturgy, others are far more comfortable with contemporary worship formats that remove or obscure any liturgical elements at all.  I answer to the president of my geographical district, who in turn answers to the present of our entire denominational entity.  I am accorded broad latitude in what I do in the parish, provided I don’t violate certain broad parameters (not allowed to preach heresy, not allowed to completely ignore my duties as pastor, and not allowed to get into trouble that would cause the church a black eye and the congregation severe difficulties, a broad third category that can include adultery and bankruptcy).

Because there are over 300 congregations in my particular geographical district, the district president relies on more local representatives to help him manage the various issues that come up in congregations – a pastor leaving or retiring, Calling a new pastor, divisions in a congregation, etc.  We call these local pastors Visitors (formerly Counselors), each one responsible for helping with anywhere from a half dozen to 20 congregations near them.

Right now there is a major examination of the role of these Visitors (of which I’m one).  Should we be reporting to the District President on the practices of the clergy in our areas?  Should I let him know when a fellow clergy member doesn’t observe close(d) Communion in the way that I think he should?  What if I observe him riding a hoverboard?  Because each congregation is self-governing, there is understandable reluctance and fear of a more rigidly enforced hierarchy of ecclesiastical supervision.  And Visitors themselves are somewhat reluctant to take on that role as well, as it understandably strains their  relationships with the other pastors in their area.

Yet supervision is, in theory, a good thing, right?  I should welcome the input and insight of someone else.  I should welcome someone else’s input where it might make a crucial difference to my ministry effectiveness.  But how to distinguish between differences in personal preferences and styles, and something that is truly impeding worship or charting a new course into a different theology of worship?  There’s the rub, as Shakespeare once put it.  It isn’t so easy.  And for a denomination still wracked with distrust of one another from past pains, it is difficult even to discuss without people becoming defensive.

We all need supervision.  We all need input.  We all need, though we hate it, to be corrected from time to time.  And for religious leaders there is no exception.  It’s too easy to remain ensconced in our own little kingdoms, answering to no one and slowly drifting to ineffectiveness at the least, heresy and unfaithfulness at the worst.  Figuring out how to make supervision faithful and helpful, with the goal of strengthening the body of Christ as a whole rather than as an excuse for a witch hunt against those who do things in a way we personally don’t care for, that’s the tricky part.  But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s bad and shouldn’t be seriously attempted.

I pray that the suspended priest benefits from his suspension, and that in time he is reinstated to carry on his duties.  I pray that his congregation is blessed in the midst of this as well, and that things are done with care and concern for them.  And I pray that on the other side of it all there is forgiveness, restoration, and most importantly, worship.

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