In the June issue of The Atlantic, James Carroll wrote an article entitled, “To Save The Church, Dismantle the Priesthood.” When I saw the cover of the magazine and it listed this featured article, I knew that I had to read what appeared to be a disconcerting concept.
In the article, Carroll presents an argument for removing the clerical titles which have been a significant part of the church hierarchy. His reasoning for this is that these titles separate and give power to a certain class of members which leads to corruption. He argues that this is why there has been rampant sexual misconduct among the clergy because the clergy protect their “class.” My intent is not to argue in support or opposition to what Carroll states but instead to consider what the pros and cons of the removal of a clergy class in the church. Also, I will not be able to fully cover all the arguments in this post.
Beginning with some pros for this change in the church. I do think that Carroll has a valid point that in some denominations, clergy are able to hide behind a code of secrecy among their peers. When their peers are charged with the task of investigating and trying an accused colleague, accountability may come into question. The one way this works is that there is such a high level of transparency in the process and a structured process which can be problematic as well. Elimination of a special designation for clergy could have the potential of placing the handling of misconduct on a more level ground.
Another possible pro to the elimination of a clergy designation is that it would actually require more commitment from the rest of the members. Part of being a member of the clergy is that certain responsibilities and expectations are placed upon the individual. If one person is not given a title which automatically requires fulfillment of these responsibilities and expectations, then those will need to be divided among others within the church.
However, a change as being proposed here comes with issues. The first issue is that organizations quickly struggle if there is not identifiable leadership. While there are aspects of the work which can be managed through group leadership, there are logistical aspects which require a designated person with the correct skills in place. The reality of humans is that we all are given different abilities so there is an inherent division based on skills and abilities. The church has always considered clergy to have a specific role based on their skills and abilities. My denominational background refers to this as separate in responsibilities but equal in faith.
Another issue is that some responsibilities and expectations within the church require specialized training. The method for this training has traditionally been through learning institutions which are called seminaries. Degrees are obtained confirming that the individual has received the necessary education to reasonably fulfill the unique responsibilities and expectations referred to the clergy. Due to the intensity of study needed to obtain that knowledge, not every person sitting in the pew can be expected to obtain this education. So individuals are chosen through a variety of means to obtain such education and training and then return to the church and fulfill the specific responsibilities and expectations.
Again, this is just scratching the surface but my conclusion is that while creating a classless church may solve some problems which now exist, other problems will arise. Does the church need reformation and restructuring? YES Should the individuals in the pews take on more responsibilities? YES Does the elimination of the designation clergy solve all the problems? NO The church is made up of humans who are imperfect, from top to bottom. This truth means that problems will always exist. The true question is are we willing to adapt, learn, relearn, and reform.