“Let me give you a piece of advice,” said the man.

Wishing he wouldn’t, I nevertheless nodded my head. After all, this layman was a professional leader, someone who had spent years in various business and nonprofit leadership positions and who had studied leadership extensively. Perhaps I could learn something.

“If you ever have to pull rank,” he said, “you’ve already lost.”

I have heard the same aphorism applied to the canons of the Episcopal Church: if you ever have to refer to them, you’ve already lost.


This unsolicited advice sounds great, but is it really practical in an Episcopal parish? Of course, we can imagine a caricature of a priest who goes around quoting the canons and “pulling rank” all the time — surely not a stellar example of leadership. (For balance, someone in the parish is usually willing to suggest that the priest deposit the canons where the sun don’t shine.)

Our seminaries, however, do not train leaders in autocratic methods, and most of the apocryphal stories of clerical autocrats come from the “Father-knows-best,” post-WWII era, when American culture had been conditioned to military-style rank and privilege, and clergy styles followed suit. Lay and “civilian” leadership normally has more to do with influence rather than command and obligation, and priests today usually want to mobilize others to help lead.

But is there an opposite extreme? For example, if interactions between leaders and people were marked only by influence-peddling, unshaped by recognized standards like law or canon, could that parish be healthy?

No society lasts long without ground rules of some sort. Though it may seem counter-intuitive in a church and a society that emphasize the equality of all, the absence of rules and roles does not protect equality: it obscures or defaces equality, allowing dominant personalities to become de facto rulers, introducing social Darwinism, a survival-of-the-fittest approach to decision-making. If there is no leader and no laws, all lead and none follow.

From the moment of Jesus’ Ascension (and arguably before), the Church has had structure: leaders and followers, community norms, traditions to hand down, sacraments to celebrate. Each of these appears in the first two chapters of Acts, and many appeared during Jesus’ ministry. We find similar points elsewhere in the New Testament. St. Paul’s analogy of the Church as “body” (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Eph. 4:15-16) communicates that the Church is egalitarian in value — indeed, radically so, for all are needed — but the arrangement of the body, including its inequities of function and honor, serve the body’s harmony and growth.

Even “free” churches have bylaws, voluntary associations, and structures of authority, let alone those that are “episcopally led, synodically governed.” While persuasion or rational discussion in the context of a loving and virtuous community should, in an ideal world, be sufficient to allow Christians to coexist peacefully, in practice this is rarely enough. Most people, clergy and lay, are not trained in logic as we once were, and our passions get the better of us. We often mistake our strong feelings for strong thoughts, and the community life of our parishes bears the brunt of our pride.

As Episcopal congregations shrink from age and attrition, it is less and less likely that any lay leaders in an average-sized parish have ever even cracked open a copy of the Constitution and Canons. Maybe in a time of transition they’ve looked at the rules about hiring priests; maybe if a priest needed discipline, Title IV canons became necessary reading. But it is far from normal for a lay member of our congregations to have read Canon III.9: “Of the life and work of priests.” (The same is no doubt true in other churches of the Anglican Communion.)

This situation highlights the clash of leadership cultures in the Episcopal Church. Most of us are used to corporate or nonprofit models of leadership. Corporate leadership can be more hierarchical than that of the Church, but it is nevertheless devoted to an ideal of success, one all-pervasive goal: profit. On the other hand, corporate leadership is democratic at specific times, since all investors or shareholders have a stake and therefore a voice. Meanwhile, nonprofit leadership tends to be focused in a director accountable to a board of trustees or larger foundation, with the vision of the organization resting in the hands of stakeholders and volunteers.

We translate these models into our expectations for church leadership: a director (rector) is accountable to a board (the vestry) and to an ideal of success (say, having people in the pews). Parishioners feel entitled to hold their leadership accountable for doing church as they think it ought to be done. In this context, a shepherd who doesn’t follow the sheep is understood to be out of touch, autocratic, and generally risking the success of the whole enterprise by striking out unilaterally. Recourse to the canons, Scripture, or the rubrics of the prayer book is sometimes considered unhelpful, especially if they run counter to the general will. It is in this situation — where the leadership culture of the parish is guided only by cultural expectations, without recourse to founding documents or other values — that the aphorisms about rank and the canons are expected to be true. Here, if you refer to the canons you have lost because the community, de facto, has no canons.

But leadership in the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Communion more broadly) is modeled on a very different style, one whose hierarchical nature stems partly from the medieval Latin West. When an ordinand has laid prostrate before a bishop and made a vow before God (as strong as any marriage vow) to obey the bishop or other ecclesiastical authority, there is a shift in perspective.

While it would surely be inaccurate to suggest that clergy relationships are entirely conditioned by rank and obedience, hierarchical considerations tend to run close to the surface for many clergy. Even lay people who have deep and broad experience in church culture can fail to see the web of powerful commitments to people, documents, and ideals in which a priest must operate.

As an extreme example, rectors who fail to obey the rubrics of the prayer book can lose their jobs; for some lay people, the rubrics are the tiny words they never bother to read.

Foundational documents (Scripture, canons, prayer book) provide not merely a job description or set of communal practices that may be dispensed with at will, but a rich environment of tasks and mission: these provide the context for ministerial and congregational vocation, and are concrete sources that define the essence of the Anglican ministry within the stream of the Western tradition.

Rank and canon law can define a priest’s existence, even down to deciding what shirt to put on in the morning: Is this an occasion for clericals, or would it be inappropriate? What direction has my bishop given about wearing clerical dress outside church?

Most Americans live their lives within the framework of freedom, rights, the privilege of free speech, and a general environment of empowerment. Yet, within the Church and perhaps especially for priests, our framework must include obedience, rank, and the discipline of orthodoxy.

One of our most maddening, and yet most crucial, tasks is to try to fulfill the expectations of wildly divergent leadership cultures at the same time. We must harmonize or translate the language of obedience, joyfully accepted for the sake of God’s call, into the popular language of egalitarian, rights-driven democracy: we must discover that in God’s service is “perfect freedom” (“The Collect for Peace,” BCP 1979, pp. 57, 99).

We must try to convince confirmed democrats, even ourselves, that salvation is in large measure obtained by offering up our rights and freedoms in submission to God. Simultaneously we must create an environment where everyone feels empowered; we otherwise risk failure in a culture of consumer churchmanship. We must walk back and forth between two systems and create an organization that synthesizes both cultures: so that democratically minded Americans will come to church and feel included, on the one hand; and on the other, so that the parish looks something like an Episcopal parish is intended, and even demanded, to look.

So the aphorisms are wrong, or at least short-sighted. A priest should think about rank, prerogative, and function in the organization. A priest should quote documents and rules. Someone has to.

Parish vestries should also read the canons about priests, and about themselves, and about the entire church, and read them with empathy, not least toward those who have a heavy personal stake in them. Far from destroying the freedoms, rights, and empowerment of the laity, the canons of the church actually protect those freedoms.

The Rev. John Thorpe is the chaplain at St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas. His other Covenant posts are here

The featured image comes via Annedroid.

About The Author

Fr. John Thorpe is a graduate student at St. Louis University and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

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