Yesterday morning, the bishops sitting in secret conclave in St. Mark’s Cathedral elected one of their brothers as the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, the soon-to-be Most Reverend Michael J. Curry. There was, alas, no white smoke from the cathedral chimney. It was somehow leaked slightly early and many in the room heard it first on Twitter.
I am told by highly placed sources in the church — by which I mean, President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings, in her opening press conference — that the Episcopal Church is a “participatory democracy.” This has an aspect of the truth and I know it is a formula dear to the hearts of many Episcopalians, but I was struck yesterday by an entirely different aspect of our episcopal church. Here was a room full of people who did not in fact participate in the election of their new leader, wildly clapping and cheering and generally carrying on. There was thunderous applause that went on forever. If bishops could be elected today by acclamation, Curry would have been a shoo-in.
Clearly, the whole room was saying: This man is our leader. There was more going on in this room, in this church, than something like: Hurrah and thanks be to God, for the Lord has anointed a new denominational functionary and chief executive officer to carry out the policy directives of General Convention! Hail, great festival day!
What was it?
The grim old German sociologist Max Weber famously thought that groups are often whipped up by charismatic leaders, after which their charisma is routinized into a chain of institutional office-holders. Emile Durkheim spoke of religion itself as the result of “collective effervescence,” which Peter Berger glossed as the “sacred canopy” that a group pitches over itself to reify its basic values and cherished beliefs in collective symbols. God, as Karl Barth had it, is for this school of thought precisely nothing more than man speaking in a louder voice.
Following the logic out a bit more, institutions whose charisma has been routinized will crave a dose of the real thing, the wind billowing upward and filling out the sacred canopy once more with new life and color. And one can imagine a skeptic — say, a low-church Virginian or South Carolinian, or perhaps a deputy from Berkeley or Austin who always thought that bishops and/or The Man in general were a bad idea anyhow — sitting somewhere off to one side in the cheering crowd yesterday thinking such thoughts, muttering about the dangers of charismatic leaders and hierarchy.
For we are, undoubtedly, a hierarchical church. I know whereof I speak. I grew up in the Free Lutheran Church, where we celebrated our congregational heritage of freedom from the iron fist of the state Church of Norway. We had a president. He was absolutely nothing like a Most Reverend Presiding Bishop and Primate. He was a nice man who wore a necktie to work at the denominational office in Minneapolis. He did not tell us stubborn Upper Midwesterners what to do. We democratically elected him as free and equal congregations to make sure the insurance plan was taken care of, and meanwhile the congregations did as they saw fit. That was a democratic church. You cannot imagine how strange the Episcopal Church’s mitres and primatial crosses and processions look like to my family from back in North Dakota.
If leaders, not to mention thrones, dominions, principalities and powers, are to be something better than mere charismatic leaders who embody the Geist of the people, and something more than legally specified administrative functionaries, then what are they? What happened in that secret cathedral conclave, and in that cheering throng at the convention hall?
The French Catholic philosopher Yves Simon (1903-61) criticized what he called the “cab driver” theory of government — namely, that we elect our leaders just like we call for cab drivers, and then tell them where we want to go. That does not, he observed, really account for genuine authority, whereby one person is morally able to bind the conscience of another. When confronted with a command from a genuine authority, we cannot simply snap our fingers and ask to be taken somewhere else, thank you. We are obliged to obey.
Does this sound frighteningly authoritarian? Simon knew well the dangers of authoritarian regimes, and in fact spent much of his life resisting them. He fought tooth and nail against the rise of fascism in the 1930s and ’40s, eventually fleeing the Nazis with his family and settling in the United States. He spent the last 15 years of his life working on the theory of democracy and authority, precisely because he knew the dangers of authoritarianism.
In this world, it is simply not possible to get rid of power and authority. The entire project of political liberalism (not left-wing or progressive politics; Simon was a progressive by any measure) was to do away with the need for authority, on the supposition that individuals can contract out for a government that does what they tell it, like hiring a cab driver. But libertarians like Robert Nozick and F.A. Hayek have always pointed out that liberal governments really do make you do things against your will, such as pay your taxes and serve in the military. Precisely by assuming that authority is not necessary, political liberalism hides the power it inevitably wields. And power that is deceived about itself is a dangerous thing.
Many Episcopalians know this quite well. How many churches and dioceses are riven by conflict, because of disputes about the authority of rectors and bishops? We know that authoritarianism is bad. We have seen it. But perhaps what we need is not less authority and more “participatory democracy,” but a clearer and richer understanding of genuine authority.
The Episcopal priest and theologian Victor Austin has written about this well, in his impishly titled book Up With Authority. Imagine, he says, an orchestra tasked with playing a Beethoven symphony. There is a single score, but it is vastly complex and there are many ways to interpret it faithfully and well. An orchestra knows that each of its members cannot just interpret the text any which way; if they did, they would not produce a symphony but a cacophony. And so an orchestra needs a conductor, to direct the many members to play together in harmony.
Do you see? Genuine authority is that which serves the common good, that which enables us together to achieve a good that we could not have alone. Freedom and authority are not really opposites, at bottom. For who is free to play a Beethoven symphony by herself? I am only free to do so together with others engaged in the realization of that common good, directed by an authority who empowers us to achieve it.
We are not an orchestra, but a church. We do not have before us a musical score, but the script of the Holy Scriptures. And the divine playwright has given us our marching orders: All the world’s a stage, and we are to perform the text like Jesus did, the play’s Author who wrote himself into the Story.
There is room for some improvisation, no doubt. In fact we will need to improvise at times, for the script doesn’t give us instructions for everything, but only trusts that we know the Story well enough to know how to go on.
A good director, a good bishop, keeps everyone together playing the same score, performing the same script, and so enabling a genuinely common good. They are authoritative as they do so with wisdom, distinguishing between a harmonious improvising flute over here and a discordant tuba over there. They are authoritarian when they cut off a harmony line that was enriching the performance. They are negligently lax when they allow the wayward tuba to honk away and ruin the symphony for everyone.
What happened yesterday, I suggest, is that we chose Bishop Curry to be just this kind of authoritative leader for the church. Or at least, we ought to have. If he is no more than yet another charismatic leader to reflect back to us our collective effervescence, or a political liberal who hides his power under a benevolent smile, then I’m with the Berkeley hippies, the low-church Virginians, and the libertarians. Down with authoritarianism!
But if he’s a good director of our rather discordant orchestra? Then he will not have only the power of his office, but its genuine authority. I have a hunch that he might make for a good director indeed. Curry looks like a director who knows the script, the Scriptures, quite well — and I even think that he knows the Author.