Intensity of Disputes
According to the Wikipedia Entry for "Sayre's Law," it was Wallace Sayre who first said, "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue."
By way of corollary, it adds: "That is why academic politics are so bitter."
But bitterly intense political disputes are not unique to academic settings. You can observe the same intensity of feeling in any human situation: Academia, businesses, non-profit organization, families, and even religious groups.
My first religious job was in 1973, serving as the Youth Pastor/Director of Christian Education for a small congregation. During my time in that post I witnessed some very strange and disturbing behavior among some people who were either currently or formerly members of that congregation. The behavior was so strange, disturbing and painful that when I left that post I vowed never again to work on staff for any church.
Of course, over time, our memory of painful experiences eventually diminish, and by 1980 I had broken my vow and was serving as a pastor.
In the several decades following, I witnessed human craziness again and again, and devoted a fair amount of time, money and study to learn about congregational conflict, power struggles, control freaks and difficult people. Dickens' immortal "it was the best of times; it was the worse of times" would ring again and again in my ears over the years. I would observe both the best and the worse in congregations. Here was a person or group of persons demonstrating love, commitment, intelligence and efforts on behalf of others and in service of God in such a way it would cause the heart to swell and bring tears to one's eyes. And at the same time there was a another person or group of persons demonstrating selfishness, pettiness, and craziness in such a way it would cause the heart to break and bring tears to one's eyes.
That selfishness, pettiness, craziness, and intense, bitter conflict would occur among committed Christians is more than distressing. Because one expects better from the faithful, this reality is disillusioning. I've seen both pastors and laity bitterly abandon churches during or after intense disputes. But I think that it's precisely because we expect better from the faithful that we are ill-prepared for certain common, human behaviors. Because we expect better from others, and especially from ourselves, we don't recognize what is happening in and around us, and fail to take steps we need until it is too late. And then - bang! - stuff happens.
The current Anglicans Online article relates to this. Read it, and reflect on your own behavior and those around you, whether at church or at home or at work or in larger settings, such as denominational, community, political, or global:
The Lord be with you.
In our travels, our custom is to attend a worship service at an Anglican church local to where we find ourselves on Sunday, and to talk and listen to as many people as possible while we are there. We are outsiders, sharing the fellowship and listening to the combatants. We don't claim to have de Tocqueville's skill at analyzing what we see, but our sights are lower. He was studying an entire nation and its founding principles. We are looking at a parish or a diocese, which are smaller, less ambitious, and usually unarmed. We've been doing this for decades, and have visited at least a hundred parishes that are not our own.
The vast majority of parishes that we have visited over the years seem to have some level of 'toxic parish syndrome'. Invariably we listen, coffee cup in hand, to a parishioner complaining about someone in authority exhibiting one or more of the seven deadly sins. As we mentally review all of those cases, the common thread seems to be that bad people aren't getting sacked. An incompetent financial person, an alcoholic youth minister, a tyrannical and arbitrary Chairman of the Fabric Committee, or a verger so odd that several people have made inquiries to the police about his past. Certainly no corporate CEO would be called a 'good manager' if he allowed a grossly incompetent comptroller to remain on the job or failed to sack a technician who caused more problems than she repaired.
We got to wondering what it is about parishes and dioceses that nurtures and encourages the incompetent and tyrannical. Henry Kissinger popularized the saying that 'Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small', and the stakes are certainly small in the world of parish politics. But we've never believed that small stakes are, by themselves, enough to explain or to have created the ubiquitous petty tyrants and entrenched incompetents.
Then we remembered the little Tempest in a Thurible here at AO in Advent 2007 when we grumbled about churches in Second Life. We got to thinking about it again a couple of months ago when we saw mention in The Times of a British pair whose marriages collapsed when they were caught having a 'virtual affair'. We shan't express any further opinions about Second Life or its ilk, but it's certainly true that since long before James Thurber introduced us to Walter Mitty, people were drawn to situations in which they became lord of all that they surveyed by being careful not to survey too much. We recall once hearing someone be dismissed as 'the undisputed champion of the K0K 2K0 Postal Code'.
The incompetent comptroller wants to keep his job not just because of the salary, but because in the Alternate Life that he has built around it, he is the undisputed champion and has adding machines that go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The PCC Fabric Committee is a dominion in which someone can enjoy being the absolute monarch, at least until he has to go home and fix the leaky window.
People looking for a way to escape to an alternate reality in which they are mighty or heroic or adored are finding it harder and harder to do that in the corporate world. Competent Human Resources people have largely cleaned them out, and bankruptcies have handled most of the rest. But dominion seekers can still hide in parishes and dioceses, on staff and in committees, whose clergy are taught not to sack but to forgive, and where no one has yet figured out how to build performance metrics that will demonstrate how useless they are.