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Flip not unless ye be anointed.Hallo again to all.

In the sacristy of one of North America's most venerable cathedrals, you can see an old-fashioned electrical switch accompanied by a very strict placard. A few years ago, we took this picture surreptitiously in hopes of sharing it with you, but soon after that the thought of it went out of our mind. It turned up this week when we were reviewing an old backup of an old hard-drive, and here you have it.

On the trip home from this fine pile of stone, we mused about what so holy a switch might do. Does it ring a special bell? Does it open a trap-door into which miscreant parishioners can be disappeared? Does it set the ventilation on high when incense overpowers? Does it broadcast subliminal donation-encouraging messages through the sound system? We have read through ordinals from all periods of Anglican history, and come up always empty in our search for a reference to ordination conferring special gifts that would reserve the use of any switch to the clerical state.

The truth is that we do not know what mystical things this switch does, since we are not clergy and we did not dare flip it when we saw it. Nor do we know if it is the only such electrical switch in the Anglican Communion. But we fear it is not so singular. Or that if it is singular in its bold weirdness, it is far from the only manifestation of the attitude written so clearly above it.

This week, as in many weeks, news stories abound about the hardening of divisions in a big-tent Anglicanism some of whose poles are falling in on those beneath it. These stories usually focus on divisions between Right and Left or North and South however construed. (But it bears saying that we have never met Anglicans who imagine themselves to be anywhere but 'right here in the middle with extremes over there and way over there' on any matters about which there is serious controversy.) We'd submit tonight that the bigger, sadder divisions are deeper than any of this. They're the usually unspoken fight about who gets to flip whichever switch: the Us-Them distinctions between clergy and laity, made by either toward the other as the case may be.

Layfolk who believe that clergy have magic switch-flipping abilities will inevitably place unfair burdens of expectation on the deacons, priests and bishops in their midst; burnout and disappointment tend to follow. Clergy who believe that they alone flip the switches on any aspect of the church's life will inevitably fall into attitudes of imperiousness toward those they have promised and chosen to serve. Those who visit and view our churches from the outside and find a people who rely on a select group to turn the lights on and off will judge us rightly as deeply flawed. They'll look elsewhere—as they should—for light and life. The resulting paralysis makes us all strangers to one another, and we lose the ability to make healthful, careful decisions together about our common life. In the model of ministry that reserves control of all sorts to one group to the exclusion of others, everyone must lose.

We suspect that big Anglican news often has quite a lot to do with people wanting to be the ones who cause their lights to shine, rather than being content to rejoice that 'the light shineth in darkness' at all, and to fan its flames. And that the roads that bring us to each recurring ecclesiastical precipice have been paved with many decisions that privileged power over substance, might over thought, position over love.

News stories will not find these deeper aspects of life in our parishes and dioceses: the ways in which we learn—or too often fail to learn—to love one another in community with Christ as our goal and guide. News coverage will not ask the hard questions about why dividing groups make more and more bishops with such frequency, or why there is a demonstrable tendency toward clergy-heaviness in such organizations. Nor do they ask why any community of Christians would prefer to put its vast energy into erecting multiplicities of canonical structures and installing archbishops rather than creating and staffing a diocesan hospice; planting a parish garden to grow fresh local produce; starting a program to enrich parish libraries; raising funds to allow a home-grown seminarian to study without long-term debt; or breaking ground on a new building for Christian education or a shelter for homeless or threatened persons.

The world in need just outside the church porch depends urgently on the end of struggles inside the church about which people may and may not flip which switches. Please just turn the light on, wherever you are.

Hide it under a bushel? No! See you next week.

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Last updated: 28 June 2009

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