Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Anglican Communion, Football and Hubris

Football is a sport to which many a male and not a few females are devoted. It gets the blood cursing through the veins, helps us to know we are alive and often generates quite odd behaviors. I remember so very clearly to this day that when the defense of the Baltimore Colts seemed lacking in the days of Johnny Unitas, my genteel, Virginia-bred Mother would rise from the sofa with a blood curdling, "Get him!" Perhaps she thought that yelling at the television would impact the play of the day. Football is an interesting sport with many variations. Here in the USA, professional football is played to one set of rules while collegiate football is played to another. The infraction of 'pass interference' can easily change the outcome of a professional game, but is less likely so to do in a collegiate contest. Football in Canada is played on a field with differing dimensions than in the USA, and in 'arena football' the players are encased in a box. The are many variations of this game where (mostly) men chase after an elliptical shaped piece of 'pigskin' inflated with air -- except for the rest of the world (apart from Canada and the USA) where football is played with a round ball in a game called soccer! Across the spectrum of this game the common denominators of athleticism and sportsmanship prevail because football is a team sport requiring the cooperation of many players working as a unit on each side of the ball.

Hubris is an English transliteration of a Greek word best translated as 'pride'. The damage wrecked in lives due to hubris is directly proportional to the amount of pride present in one's life. Look to the Greek playwrights for clear examples of hubris at work, calling to mind especially but not exclusively The Theban Plays by Sophocles, "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus," and "Antigone". How can a man horrified by his purported destiny to kill his father and marry his mother actually wind up living out that prediction? The answer is hubris, being so full of pride that he actually believes that he, acting through his own will, can avert the fates. Similar "tales of woe" in English are woven by the consummate playwright William Shakespeare -- take your pick from among the tragedies to see pride at work among the protagonists. When pride gets the best of us, tragedy often results. To hearken back for a moment to the analogy of football, it only takes one athlete convinced he is better than everyone else to bring an entire team with winning potential to its knees, often costing hugely talented players their chance for the glory of the Super Bowl. Pride without constraint is a very destructive force.

The Anglican Communion is a loosely knit confederation of national churches which dates itself to the time of Jesus, himself. Much like the many variations of football, the constituent churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion feature differing rules, differing fields of play and, some might say, differing levels of commitment to the essentials of faith. So is has been certainly since the English Reformation when Protestant and Catholic believers were forced by the Act of Uniformity to worship in the same church, at the same altar and with the same book. In a day and time when people were beheaded or burned at the stake for their beliefs, relative peace was brought to the land by this notion that people of varying consciences but of good will could and should worship together without calling into question the faith of the other. Those who believe that Holy Communion is merely a remembrance of the Last Supper kneel at the same altar rail with those who believe that Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The problem is solved -- folk may not like one another but they get along. Beheadings and burnings at the stake come to an end. Relative peace reigns because pride is replaced by an enforced humility.

As an Episcopal priest now for nearly thirty eight years, and very active in ministry for virtually all of my life, it has been my privilege to meet and know many bishops, as well as to observe the behaviors of many, many others. The best are the ones who lead by serving, who do not take themselves or their positions too seriously. The Christian Church has existed for just about two thousand years now. Without a statistic in hand, I suspect that it is only the fortunate bishops who serve as many as twenty active years. As one colleague said to me when under the strain of a particularly strong-willed leader, "bishops come and bishops go but the Church of Christ carries on." I suggest as an observation that often, though not always, something happens when one becomes a bishop. Careers formerly marked by humility can become defined by hubris. Although this strange transformation of character appears to be a bit less common in The Episcopal Church where the powers of a bishop are somewhat more limited than in other constituent members of the Anglican Communion, it is still an observation which is easy to note. Perhaps it is the stress of the job, perhaps it is a shift in one's understanding of God's Call in one's life, or perhaps it is just pride run amok -- an inflation of ego common to persons with unfettered power.

When the leaders of one national church take on the task of correcting the other national churches, hubris is at work. Such behavior is a failure to recognize that the various constituent churches of the Anglican Communion are called to serve in differing locations, under a variety of polities, with often opposing "on-the-ground" realities. What is right for one national church may not be right for another, and vice-versa. The Anglican Communion is held together by some very strong bonds, most clearly enumerated at the end of the nineteenth century as being four in nature: the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the sufficiency of Scripture and the historic Episcopate. It is now long past time for the constituent national churches of the Anglican Communion to recall the rich heritage from the sixteenth century English church and the wisdom of the Act of Uniformity. We can and should worship together in the same buildings and at the same altars even though we do not share exactly the same beliefs. The issues today, in my judgment, are not as profound today as they were four and a half hundred years ago and certainly need not separate us, one from the other -- as long as a little humility and tolerance are brought into the fore.

In the worldwide Anglican Communion as on the football field, we dare not take hubris for granted. Just as an entire team can be bought low by the actions of one or two prideful players, so also the Anglican Communion can be brought low by the actions of one or two prideful clerics who while forgetting their call to serve think they know better than everyone else