Monday, September 10, 2007
HONESTY AND THE CHURCH
Perhaps the greatest sin of our present age is not sexual misconduct—it is dishonesty. We face it constantly among public officials. We have almost become inured to the dishonesty coming from our politicians. We have become jaded enough to take anything come from them with a grain of salt. Telling lies to the people who vote for one seems to be part of the election strategy. The dishonesty of the system permeates the way that politicians do business. Today, we just expect our politicians to be dishonest if not corrupt. The credibility of those in public office ranks up there with used car salesmen and guys on the make.
Clergy, on the other hand, are expected to tell the truth. But even that has become eroded. The scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the way that their hierarchy dealt with sexual misconduct has done immense harm to all religious organizations’ credibility. The scandals of many televangelists too, have damaged the trustworthiness of the religious world. The misuse of funds by gurus, the forgery of Mormon documents, the sex scandals, the blatant ‘get rich’ gospels preached by some, and the yawning gap between intelligent design and fundamentalism and considered theological opinion have all contributed to the loss of respect that clergy must endure. We have seen over the last 20 years, deep distrust of religious institutions develop. It is hard to find any characterization of clergy on TV or film that portrays religious leadership in a positive, or for that matter, a neutral light.
And yet, we still EXPECT our clergy to tell the truth. Unlike the politician, we still expect our clergy to live in a way that is consistent with what they preach. And I believe that this is because the majority of those who still attend church still respect their pastors and religious leaders, still tell the truth, still live by a code in which their word is their bond. There are still vestiges of a conscience visible within the religious world. And there are still clergy who believe that as a messenger of the Divine that they have an obligation to be messengers of Truth.
I am thankful for this. It makes life much simpler to live as a cleric. Living a life that is transparent, based upon saying what is true in one’s life is so much easier than trying to live in a world of make-believe. As clergy we do have an obligation to hope. And as a Christian, that hope includes a willingness to be optimistic about life. But I may not be so altruistic as to distort the truth for myself or others. This honesty is appreciated by most people.
In honesty, I cannot tell a dying person what heaven is going to be like—I have never been there. I can merely tell them what I hope for. In honesty, I may not tell my congregation that the parish is financially on solid ground when I know that given the rate of spending off the endowment means that in a mere ten years that the congregation is going to be bankrupt. My pie-in-the-sky proclivities may not cover up the fiscal responsibilities I have to the congregation (this is not a situation in my present parish, but I know there are clergy who do not believe in bringing up the issue because it might ‘take away their hope’).
If the Church is going to regain its place as the plumb line in society, the mark of credibility in the world, we must begin with honesty. We as clergy may not “fudge” when we speak to our parishioners. We must be willing to speak with absolute frankness about our own actions—admitting our failures when we have failed. We must learn to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and mean them. We must be willing to do the things that we say we are going to do and be faithful to our word. And we must call the Church and our congregations to do the same.
We must be willing to call our colleagues and our religious leaders to account when their words or actions do not convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must be willing to face the conflict that real Truth, that sword that cleaves mothers and daughters, fathers and son. We must be willing to call from ourselves an unwillingness to slough off dishonesty as a mere aberration of our era, and instead see it as the greatest sin that is destroying the credibility of the Church in society.
As leaders of the Church we must have no truck with lazy thinking that says “they will believe whatever I tell them.” We cannot allow ourselves the quick response that cuts off questioning because we don’t really have the answer. We must be willing to not have the answers and be a part of finding the answers among our people. We must be willing to elect those to leadership who are direct and honest in all their dealings and to depose or remove those who do not adhere to the life-giving Truth as a part of their ministry.
If we are to have a Church for the Third Millennium it must be a place where honesty is paramount. It must be a place where one may find the value of truth-telling as important as breathing because if we do not, the Church may not stand.