Clergy and theological/liturgical experimentation

Derek has a good post on those he calls spiritual adventurers/seekers in the Episcopal Church, in the context of debates about messing around with the liturgy. As Derek points out, the liturgy (including, I’d emphasize, the creeds) provides guard rails for the life of the church. A priest or pastor who ignores these for the sake of following his or her own spiritual bliss is doing a disservice to the congregation he or she has been called to serve.

For whatever reason, this seems to be a more prominent phenomenon in TEC than in the ELCA. I don’t know if this is because Lutheranism has a more defined theology, or because the Episcopal priesthood attracts more free spirits, or if it’s some other reason altogether. Personally, I want my pastor to be more theologically conservative than I am. As a layperson I prize my freedom to explore theological possibilities and entertain outlandish and even heterodox theories. Not to say that we should have a double standard for laypeople and clergy, or that laypeople don’t have responsibilities to uphold the faith–we do, as part of our baptismal covenant. But someone who is called to the pastorate/priesthood carries a much heavier and more public burden to hew to orthodoxy in preaching, teaching, and leading worship.

And yet, many of the great reformers, saints, and mystics of the church who were also ordained clergy have pushed the envelope of what’s acceptable and orthodox. (A certain Augustinian monk comes to mind.) If anything, the church has often erred on the side of suppressing the spirit of freedom that allows new insights to be unearthed. This is probably not the biggest problem in mainline churches today where, if anything, an overly-liberal, anything goes attitude holds sway in many quarters. One of Derek’s concluding points strikes the appropriate note:

On one-hand, I’m open to legitimate spiritual adventurism on the part of the clergy in so far as it reflects necessary growth and listening to the Spirit and transformation into the Mind of Christ. On the other hand, I believe that much of it reflects a failure of our discernment and formation processes. Yes, it’s fine to deepen, but I’m seeing a lot more wandering around than rooting down.

I guess the question–which is hard to answer in particular cases–is whether someone’s theological, spiritual, or liturgical gyrations are occurring because they’re on a quest for self-fulfillment or self-expression, or because of a deepening fidelity to Christ and his gospel. I think Derek is right that formation is a prerequisite here–both for clergy and laity–to ensure that we are grounded in the tradition before proposing changes to it. And community discernment is necessary to “test the spirits” of any proposed innovations.

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