Politics Magazine

Power Tends To Corrupt, And Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely…or Congregational Polity 101 Pt.2

Posted on the 07 September 2012 by Eastofmidnight

Do I think congregations are perfect? Hell no. As we say in the church I grew up in, “There are just as many devils in the church as out of it.”

Do I think congregationalism is the best form of church governance? Damn skippy.

Why? Because I’ve seen what can happen in the in-between.

Some of my friends are members of the Church of the Brethren. Now if you’re not familiar with the CoB, they are part of the Anabaptist and Pietist movement. And polity-wise they are essentially a hybrid…Congregational and Presbyterian.

Institutionally, the CoB is a lot like the UUA; they have a “home office” (in Elgin, Illinois), districts, and congregations. Like the UUA, they have an annual assembly; theirs is called Annual Conference. The biggest difference, aside from theology (although you might be surprised), is how they handle ministers and ordaination.

The CoB’s Annual Conference carries a little more weight than GA, primarily on districts but also some on congregations. This is especially true when it comes to the handling of things ministerial. Wanna know what Annual Conference has been discussing for the last two years…whether those who have an M.A. in religion/religious studies instead of an M.Div. should be allowed to be ordained. Even us, uppity/arrogant/elitist as we can be, ain’t talking that sh*t.

But if you really want to know how messed up this can be, be an LGBTQIA Brethren and trying to be ordained. It all depends on the district that you want to be ordained in, who the District Supervisor is, who is on the committee that interviews candidates. If you’re lucky, you might be in the Pacific Southwest district (which encompasses all of California and Arizona). If you’re unlucky, you might be in the Southern Plains district (Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma). And woe to the church in a district that doesn’t really want to have to deal with the issue; as the Manchester Church of the Brethren found out when they ordained a gay man. All because the church took it upon themselves to ordain someone who they felt was called but couldn’t make it through the committee.

And there are districts that are still debating whether it is good to ordain women.

Most of us have heard the Lord Acton quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What most people haven’t heard is the next sentences:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

And in another letter Lord Acton wrote:

Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.

And finally, Lord Acton said:

Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety of the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition.

So let’s say that somehow ordaination standards were going to be codified. What’s going to be the code? How much is going to be objective? How much is going to be subjective? Who’s going to do the codifying? What makes them the right people to do the codifying? Who’s going to do the deciding whether candidate X meets a certain criteria? How are you going to eliminate class/race/gender/sexuality/educational bias that becomes inherent when things become codified? To bastardize Plato…who will guard the guardians?

I end this post as I ended the last post.

Congregationalism requires trust. Trust in the individual congregations to know what is best for their locality. I have that trust. Do you?


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