Who Has Spiritual Authority?

Elizabeth Glass Turner

Elizabeth Glass Turner

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

It’s a straightforward question, really, with a myriad of responses; but in today’s Christendom it plays havoc in the depths of this ocean we call “life together,” like a giant squid in an old horror film. Who has spiritual authority?

Our Catholic sisters and brothers instantly respond with “the pope!” and behind him, a long line of hard-working men in the ranks of the priesthood. Protestants versed in the angles of the Reformation have often posited that the writers of the Bible had a very unique level of spiritual authority – that of divine inspiration.

Within our own little perch of Christendom, The United Methodist Church, it’s safe to say that spiritual authority definitely does not, en masse, reside with the Bishops – who contradict one another with the cohesion and orderliness of a herd of cats. (Dear pastors, the responsibility of making clergy appointments does not spiritual authority make.)

So lurks the creature of spiritual authority in North America. We face the challenge of boldly confronting a façade: activism and spiritual authority are not one in the same. Now we pick up the pieces and discover that, left or right, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, activism has supplanted spiritual authority. We have traded one for the other, all the while thinking that we had both.

Across the ocean (where the giant squid lingers), one voice quietly states, “it’s not about me,” providing an interesting case study in spiritual authority. The owner of the voice is a priest in the Church of England, whom I first heard on the BBC program “QI” (Quite Interesting).

“It’s not as I would have it,” says the Rev. Richard Coles, “but then, it’s not about me.” And so he goes throughout his day, walking his dogs, preparing sermons, sharing a house with a man he loves, and living in celibacy. With waves of popular atheism buffeting England, members of the media are baffled. He has their attention. He has mine.

When I heard this man, this gay man, the man who fronted a pop band in the 1980’s and found his way into a church after years of drug abuse and then found his way into seminary, this man who for a short while joined the Roman Catholic Church and now preaches funeral sermons and appears as a winsome face with a fierce intelligence on BBC programs, when I heard this man – I didn’t hear an activist. I heard a voice with a familiar ring to it. A spirit-ring. A common chord.

Don’t get me wrong, he and I profoundly disagree on many things, but he has quietly commanded my attention in a way that no drum-beating activist draped in rainbow stoles ever has. He sacrifices greatly, every day, out of respect for … me?

It’s not as he would have it: given his point of view, the Church of England would sanction same-sex relationships among its clergy. “But then, it’s not about me.”

These words recalled a conversation I had with my mother, a rare female pastor in a small revivalistic denomination. “I decided I wouldn’t get angry about the way I was being treated. I was a pastor first, not a woman first and a pastor second. Anger would only get in the way of my ministry.”

When someone makes a great personal sacrifice in responding to the call to ministry, one senses that spiritual authority is real. It does exist, even if sightings are rare. It’s not a Loch Ness Monster hoax.

People around the world are entranced by Pope Francis – a man who walks out on a balcony, bows his head, and asks the world to pray for him. A pope who frustrates his security detail with his insistent mingling with crowds. “It’s not about me.”

Billy Graham ages and ails but even hardened journalists sit quietly to hear him speak. No matter how many television cameras followed him, his career is summed up simply. “It’s not about me.”

Mother Teresa spends years in lonely shadows before her name brings global recognition.

“Look out not only for your own interests,” reminds St. Paul, “but also for the interests of others.”

Activism – from the old Christian Coalition to GLAAD – is a grainy black and white image, a mirage that looks like the real thing but comes up empty. Real spiritual authority almost always means real, painful sacrifice. But the truth is out there.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Kemp, Texas. 



  1. Doogie Roller says

    Thanks Bitty,

    I needed to read this article, and it’s re-focused me to the reality that “It’s not about me”. It’s a simple truth of Pastoral Ministry we quickly forget in the revolving crisis-of-the moment.

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