From the make-believe realm of the Parish of Dibley to the tens of thousands of Christian communities that toil in the real world, I come as a practitioner of parish ministry to reflect on ethical challenges in an ecumenical perspective. The messy world of local communities of faith can be approached by commenting on three arenas of action: the world, the community, and the personal.
Each week and sometimes more often the pastor/preacher stands in the pulpit and is overheard by the community in conversation with the scriptures. This witness is public, incited by and addressed to "the world" beyond the listening community. The community leader seeks to speak for the tradition, the denomination, and the gospel in an authentic and moving way.
During the week in endless committee meetings and conversations the parish leader speaks within the community as teacher and guide. In their personal life of decisions and discernments the leader knows that the community is watching and that they are, besides being functioning moral entities, also a model. As witness, teacher, and model the congregational leader seeks to show a coherence of faith and an integrity of behavior that supports and stimulates the community to faithful thinking and action. All these ideals break down in practice, and we need constantly to be revived.
The resources for this lively leadership are the biblical, creedal, confessional, and pastoral training undergone and continued, as well as the experience in which these ministries and identities are embedded. The place of formation of leadership remains the single most potent opportunity to create an ecumenical consciousness within the churches.
A graphic in the October 6, 2009, issue of The Christian Century indicated that eighty percent of Americans older than sixteen thought there was a "big difference" between the morality of young people and their parents. Comments accompanying the graph said this was not a change in perception from the 1960's except that the groups were no longer fighting. They had simply given up the conversation. The tongue-in-cheek observation suggests that the shifting contentions of the generations have brought on a certain exhaustion and ennui. Our moral framework seems fragile and not up to sustaining a painful and contentious, but potentially fruitful conversation.
Leaders in local communities continue to struggle with the rate of change in society. This acceleration of change has overtaken our capacity for reflection, moral and otherwise. Diversities have multiplied, and conversations have become more extreme within our communities led, in part, by the tone of political commentary in the media. Leadership observes that we seem to privilege the pursuit of personal comfort zones at the same time that we exhibit growing incoherence before baffling moral issues. In local communities our general operating moralities are tentative and vague; we are uncomfortable and inarticulate in expressing either our standards or the challenges these standards face. Many exhibit an operating morality that is not distinctively Christian as much as it is a generic civic construct clustered around political rhetoric. Vaguely people sense they are "to be good, be honest, be fair, and above all be careful."
The conflicting forces in the literature of pastoral care seem either fiercely directive or carefully nonjudgmental, nondirective, and nondirectional as we are encouraged to help people be "o.k." Our pastoral care resources seem conflicted and inadequate. Many of the persons with whom I come into contact seek affirmation, not advice. They are cautious and wary of judgments. They make strong efforts to enlist authority for self-made moral strategies. Often moral positions are expressed as sentiments. Moral positions are sensibilities, not a systematic, coherent enterprise; they express affinities, not verities. …