Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Problem with St. Skip

A recent comment made me think of this old article of mine.

“The Problem with St. Skip” first appeared in the April, 2003 issue of Touchstone, a Journal of mere Christianity.

Robert Hart on True Humility

In 1976, when I was eighteen and voting for the first time, a friend of mine the same age told me to vote for Jerry Brown because “if he is President, he won’t live in the White House. He’ll just be a regular guy.” That seemed wrong to me then, and at my current age I see that it is because Mr. Brown was letting his own self-importance diminish the dignity of the office he sought.

Oh yes, his seemed like down-to-earth, “regular guy” humility. But it was a statement of egotism beyond simple pride or vanity. Mr. Brown was making himself more important than the office of President of the United States, to the point where he would change the customs and traditions of the American people. Not respecting the people or honoring those who had served before him, he would belittle the office itself.

How much worse is it, then, when one is speaking of a higher and nobler office than the Presidency? Yet a kind of priest exists who does this very thing. “You don’t have to call me Father. All my friends call me Skip.” This is said with the characteristic humility of which he is characteristically proud.

A Regular Guy

Yes, he is just a regular guy and is always very quick to say so. It was this sort who once inflicted clown Masses on innocent people. It is terrible conceit to pretend that one is being very lowly by putting down his office rather than by humbling himself. In sermons and conversations he will remind everyone just how much he really is only a regular guy. He will downplay the significance of theological education and of ordination.

He lets them know that the office he holds does not make him all that special—the office, that is. His “humility” extends to reminding the people that he is not any smarter or holier than they are, whether they need such reminding or not. By this he means, by all that can be observed of his actions, that he has no special calling or authority by virtue of ordination to the sacred ministry.

Perhaps this seems at first glance like the real article, genuine humility, so much so that in the minds of some people, he deserves canonization for it. To them he is St. Skip, and they will not hear a bad word about him.

There can be no genuine “in your face” humility, because true humility requires that one take the attitude of a servant. We cannot help but think of the great Christological passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, and that he began the passage with the words, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” The humility of a servant, in the Christian mind, is not self-centered and abrasive, but obedient to the Father’s will; and it includes the death of the cross.

On the other hand, the conceited version of “humility” is a challenge, by which a man hopes to assert himself in a contest of who can be the greatest at being the least. And in true 1960s style, anyone who can win that contest will have succeeded in toppling the powers that be, redesigning the social order, and becoming great at being insignificant.

So we must ask just what St. Skip is really doing by humbling the ministry and thereby exalting himself. What he is doing is promoting egalitarianism and diminishing Christ. He reverses John the Baptist’s statement and says (by his actions and sometimes in his words), “He must decrease, and I must increase. I’m the one in touch with the feelings and needs of today.”

Earthen Vessels

He does not believe the church’s teaching—throughout all of its ages—that the ministry is not a human institution but a divine one. The gifts given in ordination do not come from the men who ordain but from the Holy Spirit working through them. The ordained ministry is (in Catholic terms) an icon of Jesus Christ himself, a living sacrament. No wonder St. Paul asks, “And who is sufficient for such a task?” He also says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

Indeed, the apostle was a truly humble man. He never imagined that he himself was anything but a servant, and in that mind he was able to speak of the exalted office and the glorious gifts God had given to him. In that mind he could surrender to the death of martyrdom, entrusting the Church to God. He never diminished his apostolic office or spoke of it with less than great respect, for he never confused that office and its gifts with himself, the “chief of sinners.”

But our buddy St. Skip is of a different mind altogether.

He wants to teach old stick-in-the-mud traditionalists a lesson. Our priorities are wrong and centered on having power. Is it any wonder that we oppress women and homosexuals? That we cannot change with the times? It is obvious, is it not, that we are guarding our position and privilege quite jealously.

But not him. He doesn’t want power. He doesn’t want to tell other people what to do. He is the one giving everybody a break. He is allowed to change all the rules himself and tear down every tradition that stands in the way of progress. He has the right to challenge God’s commandments and reject any of the church’s teachings that make people feel oppressed and unaffirmed. He can disregard the Bible and the ecumenical councils, spurn canon law, and despise the plain meaning of the Creeds if he feels he needs to for “pastoral” reasons.

He is a very, very “humble” man who wants no power for himself—except that of completely rewriting the Christian Tradition. No pope ever claimed such power, but of course the popes were all guarding the position and privilege. St. Skip’s brand of “humility” gives him the right to hold ultimate power, even over God. It is only out of “humility” that he relaxes the laws and commandments when his pastoral wisdom gives him sufficient cause to be soft and flexible, for he is too “humble” to speak and act dogmatically, in a firm and authoritative manner. He that humbleth the ministry exalteth himself.

If He Were Humble

If he were truly humble, he would not reject the dignity of the priestly office, for he would know that it is not about him, but about Christ. He would be glad when people called him Father, for it is God they are honoring by “saluting the uniform” he is so unworthy to wear.

He would know that people, when entering a church, are saying, in effect, “Sirs, we would see Jesus,” and would stop saying, “Look at me,” through his immoderately extroverted behavior. He would faithfully preach the message of Christ, handed down by the Church over her generations, instead of a message of his own, no matter how much more popular and in line with the current trends his own message may be.

He would celebrate the sacraments and preach the Word by subsuming his own personality into the larger world of Christ and his ministry, and without theatrical interpretation. If he were humble, the ministry would retain its full majesty, against which he himself is ever inadequate, and into which he is willing to disappear that Christ may appear to all.


Canon Tallis said...

Wonderful, Father.

It reminded me of an incident long ago, actually when you were still in diapers, when after a truly disastrous eight o'clock Eucharist a few of met at our favorite Sunday morning breakfast spot. We sat there for a while and finally Ken spoke up. "I understand the vestments for the Epiphany were supposed to have stars on them, not a star in them." Yes, the college chaplain had done it once again. We had just experienced another star turn when we had gone to Church to worship God.

I have just arrived home after teaching a Bible class. On the way I was thinking how much different things might me now if all those who had become priests over the last fifty years had simply done their best to "disappear in Christ" by actually doing their best to believe and keep the "doctrine, discipline and worship . . . of the Church" as we find them in our Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book tradition in general and a firm adherence to Holy Scripture, the Creeds, the Councils and the fathers. Dreaming, I know, but I cannot but believe that if even a goodly number of of had done just that and not attempted to be someone special, the difference in the Church and in the world might have been enormous. Instead we let our ego and our attempt to please others allow us to create a Church that could not be recognized as having anything near the same faith, the same doctrine and worship from parish to parish or diocese to diocese. If the Church, our Church, was intended to be the very mystical body of Christ, the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, what sins have we committed against it and against those whom we were called to serve?

I can't, of course, answer that question for anyone except myself and I repent of my own failings as best I can. It is such a privilege to have been called and to be allowed to serve, to be His and not my own . . . but it is an equally great privilege to have such a great reminder as you have given us.

RSC+ said...

Fr. Hart,

I first read this article last Spring, roughly contemporaneous with a course on "Pastoral Priesthood." We read Maggie Ross' /Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity."

The primary thrust of her argument attempted to validate the faux humility of our St. Skip through a peculiar understanding of the concept of Kenosis. She argued, in far more eloquent terms, that since Christ self-emptied himself and spoke truth to power, then so, too, shall those called to ministry. This "kenosis" gives them license to tear down every tradition which "the Spirit" teaches them to be false. And since they've emptied themselves, why, they're just surrendering to their inner humility.

It was thoroughly, thoroughly maddening, and I never quite came up with an argument against it that statisfied me, except for the one which I used for every book we read in that course: Do not take any one line of Scripture (in this case, the notion of Christ's kenosis) and use it to bulldoze every other line of the text which we find problematic.

I'd recommend Ross' book, but I don't want to put anyone in the twitching fits that I suffered while reading it.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, I'm not real fond of Father "Skip" either and would prefer to call him Father "Smith" or "Wilson" or whatever. We've discarded way too much formality.

As an adult, I'm often called by my first name by children and when you correct them you end up offending their parents or you're assumed to be behaving in a pompous manner.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


I hope you survived the trauma of that course without any permanent scars, like nightmares. Of course the self-emptying of Christ, in that text, is simply a metaphor for his having humbled himself. And, he did not "speak truth to power." With genuine power, he spoke truth to human hearts, and what he confronted was sin. The "revolutionary Christ" of the 60s is not Jesus Christ who we see in the Gospels.


Many years ago when my daughter was a child, she came home from a new friend's house, and presumed to call her mother and me by our first names. That was the first and the last time; she never repeated that mistake.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Hart,
Your article remended me of the first time I read of TEC Bishop "Skip" (Gladstone) Adams of Central New York. I thought: why would a Successor to the Apostles use a name he most likely acquired in grade school? But with Gladstone as one's first name, I need to be more understanding. Statmann

poetreader said...

The points above are all well taken, but, lest we get too stuffy about names and titles, it would behoove us to remember that Our Lord Himself chose to refer to Simon bar-Jona by a nickname: "Peter", i.e. "Rocky". Basically, to my mind, names and titles are given to one by others, and, unless something very false is being conveyed, I accept what comes my way. That means, for me, neither insisting on titles nor rejecting them. My preferences are perhaps not quite conventional, and I'll introduce myself in the way I think best, but, unless (in my case) the title is "ordaining " me, when I am a mere layman, I don't correct forms of address. And, whatever form of address one uses, a cleric is to be treated with high respect, and not merely as a buddy.



Anonymous said...

I remember Maggie Ross from more than 20 years ago. At that time I was in Oxford and discovering lots of new things such as properly hot curries. Can't really say more about the woman who publishes under the name of Maggie Ross, as this is a public forum where it would not be appropriate to tell tales of largely private dealings, but can talk about kenosis and curry. Kenosis tended to happen the morning after a Madras, in the middle of the night following a Vindaloo, and almost immediately after a Bengali Pall.

On a more serious note, the Bishop of Fulham remarked that a lot of the present-day heresies arise from defective Christology. The 'kenotic' Christology perpetrated by the likes of Ms Ross is one example. It allows Him as much myrrh as can be found but steadfastly denies Him gold and frankincense. The self-emptying and taking of the form of a servant must not be separated from the taking up of manhood into God, nor should it be separated from the image of Jesus that comes out of the Gospels--a 'teacher' (in a society where it would appear that teachers were respected), who washed the disciples' feet, not out of chumminess, but in order to teach them a lesson, and who still spoke with authority when outwardly in the position of greatest humiliation. Wear the uniform, Fathers, if not with pride, then at least with dignity!

Alice C. Linsley said...

I shivered reading this. I've known far too many Father Skips while in ECUSA.