From hierarchy to community

Archbishop Douglas Hambidge with Archbishop Fred Hiltz, right. Photo: Saskia Rowley Fielder
Archbishop Douglas Hambidge with Archbishop Fred Hiltz, right. Photo: Saskia Rowley Fielder
By on February 21, 2012

From where I sit now, the church looks very different than it did when I used to sit in the sanctuary. And as I move around in different parishes and dioceses, I now have the sense that we function as a business model. There is a CEO-the parish priest or bishop. The parish council or diocesan council is the board of directors, while the rest of us are the shareholders. We are only distantly involved in the decision-making; we make our regular contributions and receive directions from the boardroom.

Once a year, we’re invited to a shareholders’ meeting-we call it the annual vestry meeting, or simply the AGM, where we pass formal resolutions about the minutes of a previous meeting, nitpick every line in the proposed budget and ask polite questions about what was done with the money we contributed. Then we resume our seats in our pews for another year.

Of course that is an exaggeration, but some of it is not far off the mark.

The fact is, we are not a business. We are business-like in that we do our work carefully and in an organized way, but we are so much more than a business. The church is essentially a community. Laity, clergy and bishops have a wide variety of ministries and responsibilities, but there is an interdependence that underlies all we do. Paul speaks of the church as a body, with every part contributing to the well-being of the whole. That is the sort of community that, I believe, is the very nature of who we, as church, are.

Is it possible to change? To turn away from the top-down, boardroom-to-rank-and-file approach?

When I spent time in villages of the First Nations along the north coast of B.C., I caught a glimpse of what could be. There, the people of the community would gather over a meal to talk about their life as a community; they would discuss the issues facing them and the options that were before them; they offered ideas and suggestions.

It was quite clear that nobody was a spectator, no one was passive. Might it be possible, I wondered, for the rest of the church to function in the same way?

In the diocese of New Westminster I saw something similar at work. The diocesan council still had its work to do; parish councils were not in any way displaced; but the people of the faith community were given opportunities to wrestle with questions such as: “What do we believe God is calling this faith community to do in the next one, two or three years?” and “What has God entrusted to this faith community, and what are we doing with it?”

Through this kind of discussion, the sense that we are a community began to grow. As ideas were shared-by clergy, councillors and people in the pews-so grew the sense that we belong to one another. We
were no longer isolated shareholders, no longer mere contributors to mission. We were not absorbers of mission and ministry, but participants in these.

What an exciting church that is. And if Anglicans are to live by the Marks of Mission as proposed by the Anglican Communion, this is the model we need to follow.

Archbishop Douglas Hambidge is the former metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon and bishop of New Westminster.

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