“Circle the Wagons”: Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD
If you grew up in the 50s or 60s, you’ll remember the films and television shows about the Old West. At one point or another in most of these film depictions of the West, one would see stout-hearted settlers in a wagon train making their way across the prairie. Suddenly, a threat would be seen on the horizon. It could be a war party of Native Americans, or it could be a gang of outlaws. Immediately the head of the settlers would cry out, “Circle the Wagons!” and the train would form itself into a defensive perimeter to withstand the attack and, if fortunate, the cavalry might even arrive to save them. At night, the wagons would again be formed into a circle to corral the livestock, keep the settlers secure from dangers outside the confines of the camp and to prepare for any assault that might come with the darkness.
Now, while this might have been an effective strategy for nineteenth century pioneers, I’ve increasing witnessed its use in the twenty-first century, only now it is used in politics and, increasingly, in churches.
When The Boston Globe began its “Spotlight” investigation into sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, the first reaction of the church authorities was to “circle the wagons”. As we now know, this was a disastrous strategy, both in the medium and long term. In the short term, not admitting guilt and protecting those within might have seemed a reasonable approach. Maybe the enquiries could be fended off and all could be dealt with privately, with minimum of publicity? Maybe the real issues could be set aside? Of course, we now know that was an impossibility. After the initial revelations a priest was brought in to be a liaison with the press. That priest, now a bishop, is a friend of mine. In talking about his role, I once asked him how he handled things with the reporters and press outlets. He replied, “I strove for full transparency”. He explained that most of the facts would emerge eventually in any case. His job was to gain and maintain the confidence of the reporters by informing them in a timely manner concerning what he knew at the moment. He knew that if he shaded the truth, made excuses, failed to address the real issues, or was less than forthright, he would lose the trust of those he was speaking with. In other words, circling the wagons was not an option.
Now, this may seem an extreme case, but I think it also provides lessons for us.
For instance, I am an Anglican. Yet, if you asked me about going to an Anglican or Episcopal church in your city or town, I would hesitate and probably ask you a number of questions. You might ask why is this the case. It is very simple. I refuse to circle the wagons in the hope of defending my tribe. I would have to explain to you that there is a large portion of The Episcopal Church that is heterodox to a lesser or greater degree. There are, however, portions of the denomination, such as those connected with the Foreword Movement, Forward in Faith and other such groups, that are wonderful, nurturing and sound communities. If you were to ask me about ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) I would have to tell you that while many of their churches are truly Anglican, others, quite simply, are “barely Anglican”. It is almost impossible to tell if you will encounter a parish that makes use of The Book of Common Prayer, or if it will be a praise band and a hipster evangelical sermon, or if you will stumble into an Anglo-Catholic Mass, or if you will find yourself in a mega-church wannabe. Again, I refuse to circle the wagons and ignore the reality.
The desire to circle the wagons, however, is an ever present reality in most churches and, from my experience, is not limited to individuals, or individual churches, but, unfortunately, it is modeled by those in leadership positions. I could cite numerous examples from the leadership in Calvary Chapel churches, or Lutheran denominations, or the United Methodists, or even the Presbyterians, but I will limit myself to Anglicans here in the US.
The most common form of circling the wagons has become the refusal to acknowledge, much less address, the genuine problems and issues which are evident. This is generally done by lofty and, often, very spiritual pronouncements. As an example, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was recently interviewed by Harvard Business Review. Now, I’ve never met Bishop Curry, but he seems like a very nice man and I thoroughly enjoyed his homily delivered at the royal wedding. Yet, when asked what strategies he would employ to address the 24% loss of membership in The Episcopal Church in the last decade, he said the following:
“None! Questions about church attendance and church decline are second-order questions. The first-order questions are whether we are helping our people—Episcopalians—to have living relationships with God and with other people. If the answer is yes, then issues of church growth will take care of themselves, or we’ll figure out how to handle them.”
Now, while I might agree with his lofty sentiments, the question, and the issues behind the question, remain unanswered and unaddressed. No mention of aging clergy; no mention of aging congregations; no mention of seminary closures; no mention of entire dioceses abandoning The Episcopal Church; no mention of almost 50% of parishes being served by only a part-time priest; in fact, no mention of any of the real issues facing the denomination. One merely “circles the wagons” and hopes… Maybe, the cavalry will arrive…
We must note, however, that those who have separated themselves from The Episcopal Church over issues of sexuality or doctrine, fare little better in this regard. In ACNA, for instance, there are very real issues concerning the education and training of those who are ordained and then sent out to establish new churches (some having only become acquainted with Anglicanism for a matter of months before their ordination). Yet when I raised this matter with an ACNA bishop, I was told that these ordinations were similar to “battlefield commissions” and “we’re trusting in the Lord” that they will somehow discover what it means to be a priest. Now, with no real acquaintance with the Book of Common Prayer, the Liturgy, the Daily Office, Anglican history, Anglican pastoral practice, and placed on their own with minimal oversight, what is one to expect will be the outcome? Yet, when this is brought up for discussion, ACNA leadership, like the leadership of The Episcopal Church, will not address the issues, which are real, but, with spiritual phrases, will merely circle the wagons as though under attack or protecting themselves from those outside the camp. While the theology may be different, the leadership of each is a mirror image of the other.
Circling the wagons and refusing to address the real issues has also become a reality in church bodies outside my own. The recent problems in the Southern Baptist Convention could easily be seen as a struggle between those who want to address issues and those who want to form a circle. None of us are exempt from this inclination, from Calvary Chapels to Roman Catholic dioceses. Transparency and honesty are called for if we are actually to address the problems that confront us. It has to begin with each of us as individuals and then, perhaps, it may continue into our communities of faith.