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.”
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.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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