Sunday, October 31, 2010

On this Reformation Sunday, time for a Second Reformation!

There seems to be something about five hundred year spans of time. In the middle of the 11th century East split from West resulting in what today we call The Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1517 Martin Luther posited his theses sparking the Reformation resulting in Protestant Christianity.

Another five hundred years have passed. Perhaps now Episcopalians need to remind Rowan Williams and the "Covenant" folk that it might be time for yet another "reformation" from central authority. I adore being associated with the Anglican Communion as I have known it, an amalgamation of Christians united by a reasonably common liturgy but not requiring uniformity of faith and belief. The "Covenant" is, protestations from those who advance it aside, an attempt to establish a central authority with the power to decide who is "in" and who is "out" based upon matters of faith and belief.

In the middle of the sixteenth century people lost their heads and were burned at the stake over issues of faith and belief. At issue was the nature of Holy Communion, whether the elements were the Body and Blood of Jesus or a sacred "remembrance" of the acts of the Last Supper. It was the genius of Elizabeth to suggest that people of all conviction could worship together under one liturgy without having to question their neighbors' personal faiths and/or personal beliefs. Catholic and Protestant could worship together at the same altar -- imagine that! Now, five hundred years later this great heritage of gracious acceptance is falling apart such that some wish to assert a "Covenant" of acceptable faith and belief. It is nonsense. It never will work. One cannot legislate faith and belief.

On this Reformation Sunday, I assert that I am ready for a new Reformation, one which reminds us that all people not only can worship at the same altar utilizing a reasonably standard liturgy which has deep, historic roots, but in fact should so do. It requires some give and take from all parties. No one perspective rules the day. We work at it together. It is messy, it is difficult, it requires kindness, tolerance and a good measure of grace, but it is the right thing to do, and it is in keeping with the first five hundred years of Anglicanism.

(with thanks to Drew who planted the seeds)

Monday, August 09, 2010

How long, O Lord? How long? Reflections on the trials of a Bishop

Those words from Habakkuk* strike me as profoundly and deeply descriptive of the battle royal currently taking place in Christian churches across the globe as the faithful attempt to deal with abusive behaviors within their midst. In my denomination, The Episcopal Church, issues of sexual exploitation first came to this priest's attention in the late 1980s during a conversation with a newly elected bishop who also was a classmate from seminary. A number of us sat in his living room after the consecration and listened to him relate some of the then startling information he was being taught by our church during "baby bishop" gatherings. My jaw dropped at the amount of data concerning the broad category of sexual exploitation which the church was teaching newly elected bishops even while those of us in charge of congregations had not a clue. It would be another several years before the church, in her wisdom, finally began to hold seminars for rank and file clergy on issues of misconduct within church settings -- misconduct not only of the clergy, but also of the laity. An intense program of re-education began shortly thereafter and continues to this day with the goal of making all churches within TEC safe havens from any kind of sexual exploitation. Thanks be to God, this program now is required of all clergy and paid lay members of church staffs, and is either required or highly recommended for a wide variety of volunteer lay positions. (My only regret about the current program is that we are not paying as much attention to emotional and/or spiritual abuse as we are to sexual misbehavior.)

Barely a score of years prior to this discussion with my classmate in the Fall of 1988, married students seeking admission to seminary were looked upon askance and faced more hurdles than did single men. Men already admitted needed permission to marry while in seminary, not only from their bishops but also from their seminaries -- such permission was very rarely granted. It was normative and expected that single male graduates from seminary would meet and marry their bride from among the eligible women in the congregations to which young graduates were first assigned. No one, and I mean no one of either gender, talked about imbalances of power between the available young seminary graduate and the single women in the congregation to which he was assigned. Little pitchers have big ears -- as a boy and then a teenager, I have exceptionally clear recollections of conversations among the women of the church in which I was raised concerning the prospects for each new curate. In my church, young single men rotated through every two or three years like clockwork and the women (some single but most already married) reveled in their fantasized matches between the new young clergy and the daughters of the congregation. I vividly remember this dynamic as operative in my home congregation well into the 1960s. Single students were still being subjected to the paternalistic discrimination noted above when I graduated in 1972 although I cannot say for how much longer.

It is probably unnecessary to observe that the culture of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s was quite different than today. Some of us lived through those years and remember them well. Others will know them only as lessons from classes in modern American history. As one might expect, the cultural changes we experienced in the 1960s and 1970s were reflected in our churches. So many issues were in the forefront that it is hard today to grasp the amount of change. At the beginning of the 1960s, in some parts of the USA, minorities were not seated in restaurants and could not use public bathrooms. Abortion was illegal and birth control was a pipe dream for most women. Only men were deemed qualified to serve as priests in The Episcopal Church, and indeed, women were ineligible to serve as Deputies to General Convention. Hand-held calculators, let alone personal computers, had not seen the light of day. Worship was conducted routinely in 17th century English. By the end of the 1970s, legal barriers to equality among the races were eliminated, abortion was legal, and the pill was widely available. An unpopular war had come and gone, complete with protests which included burnings of draft cards and American flags. The age of technology was well under way. Within The Episcopal Church, women were eligible not only to be elected Deputies to General Convention but also to be ordained to the priesthood. The Book of Common Prayer 1979, composed largely in contemporary English, was the new standard of worship.

The "sexual revolution", which for purposes of this reflection I date as beginning in the 1960s, perhaps best exemplified by Hugh Hefner's, "Playboy Philosophy", a series of articles which originally appeared in his magazine and later were available as monographs, transformed life in the United States. All kinds of experimental behaviors were taking place throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Concepts such as communal living (wherein gatherings of men and women shared not only the burdens of keeping house but also each other), "free love" (wherein people shared sexual behavior without necessarily sharing intimacy) and pre-marital living arrangements were commonplace. A generation of young people rejected the teachings of their elders in favor of a more open approach to the living of life. The growth of "laboratory-based" experimental teaching methods including "T-groups", EST, and other human relations training events enabled young adults especially (but not exclusively) to try new behaviors, including often sexual exploration and experimentation. Some seminaries of TEC employed some of the new teaching techniques, presumably characterized by less openness, and many dioceses of The Episcopal Church encouraged clergy already ordained to continue their education through participation in these new opportunities. Sexual openness was enough of an issue that each letter of acceptance to experiential learning events made note of the issue and offered cautions about developing relationships in the rarified atmosphere of the laboratory setting. In the mid-1970s this observer, said to be way too uptight for advancement, was sent by the diocese to a series of such laboratory teaching events to learn how to loosen up, to learn how to hug, only a bare decade later to be advised that hugging was not a good idea!

I do not pass judgment on that era, but merely observe: the times were different; the rules were different; the behaviors were different; the consequences, if any, were different.

In my opinion, the current battle royal is an example of the pendulum of life swinging the other way. For the past twenty or so years the church has openly been trying to reverse some of the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, especially those deemed to be either coercive or abusive. While this observer sees a new emphasis on responsibility in relationships among adults, it is also true that what I wish to call the generation of change (which Alvin Toffler documented in his wildly popular book, "Future Shock", a bit before its time) appears to have an evermore open approach today to gay and lesbian partnerships, issues of gender reassignment and bi-sexuality. There is a documented, heightened level of sexual behavior among adolescents which our culture seems to accept as long as coercion and/or abuse is not present. Few come to marriage today without prior experiences of sexual intimacy. While there remain some significant differences in definition about what constitutes "coercion", "abuse" or "adult", it is clear that our culture increasingly accepts sexual behavior among consenting people of adult age. It is also reasonably clear that our culture today has little place for hostile work environments, sexual harassment of any kind, and relationships between people who are on an unequal footing one with another (professor/student, lawyer/client, employer/employee, pastor/parishioner, etc.). With few exceptions, it is my personal belief that we are in a much better place today than we were in the 1970s.

There remains, however, one aspect of the changes in our culture (and in our churches) which deeply troubles me. I think it wholly irrational to hold people to account to the standards of today for behaviors which are thirty to forty years old. An example of this lunacy is the trial, conviction and reversal of conviction involving Bishop Charles Bennison of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. The charges against Bishop Bennison are the result of the behavior of his brother, John. It seems to be the case that some people cannot separate the two men -- the sins of the brother are visited upon the brother. At worse case, Charles Bennison may have been in a place to report the behaviors of his brother -- something few close family members likely would find the courage to do. I wonder how many of the shrill, crone-like voices being raised against Bp. Bennison would have had the courage to report a sister or brother under similar circumstances? The behaviors of John Bennison surfaced and were addressed by the Church. The captioned behaviors took place in the middle of the 1970s, as noted already a very different time. I do not cite that fact as an excuse for John Bennison's behavior which is ultimately inexcusable. I cite it, rather, to help to find context. It is time for rational people to step forward and apologize to Charles Bennison for the damage done to his name and his episcopacy. The Bishops' Court of Appeal made the correct decision, finally. Though retired, I would be proud, indeed I would count it an honor and a privilege, to work under Bishop Charles Bennison, and I think that needs to be said.

*O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? [Habakkuk 1:2]

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury's New Vestments

I am a lad now so many years ago, and my fifth grade teacher is reading her class a story. It is Hans Christian Andersen's, "The Emperor's New Clothes" and seems to paint a picture of an inept, bumbling ruler who, along with many of his subjects, is given over to the power of persuasion by dishonest and mean-spirited men. The men are tailors who tell the emperor they are crafting a new suit of clothes, the finest ever made, fabricated from materials which are visible only to those who are capable and competent. As the emperor parades down the street in the new clothes it takes the intervention of a child, an innocent, to help the emperor realize in his foolishness that he is indeed naked, wearing nothing at all.

Some say it is impertinent for a retired priest to question or criticize the Archbishop of Canterbury, and indeed so it might be to some at least foolish. Nonsense. When the Archbishop begins worship without his cope and miter, someone needs to remind him that he is not wearing his vestments! This retired cleric intends no disrespect for either Rowan Williams, the scholar, priest and bishop, nor the office which currently he holds. The Archbishop is an accomplished scholar and, one suspects, a good man trying very hard to perform his duties in the midst of very trying, often troubling, times. Let me say I admire the man, and I admire many of his accomplishments, but I disagree with him profoundly about the decisions which he is making regarding the Anglican Communion. At issue is the most recent diatribe from his palace, entitled merely, "Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion."

The Archbishop appears to want to take The Episcopal Church over his knees and give us a good spanking, most recently for consecrating as a Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles the Right Reverend Mary Glasspool, an avowed lesbian living openly in a committed and monogamous partnership now for many years. As the daddy of a family is wont to provide discipline when the children appear to misbehave, Rowan seeks to expel The Episcopal Church from two functions within the Anglican Communion -- a group which studies doctrine and a group which participates in international ecumenical discussion.* It is a given that there are many differences within the Anglican Communion, much as there are sometimes when children play. In the face of such differences, wise parents do not remove the sand from the sand box, but remind the children to get along, one with another.

It surprises me, nay indeed it both saddens and alternately infuriates me, that an academician of merit suggests that punishment is best meted out by limiting the number of voices at the tables of reason. One cannot control the growth and development of thought, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am reminded that five hundred or so years ago a Pope tries to silence a monk and the Reformation is born, an event which for ever changes the course of Christianity. Does the highly gifted Williams really believe that the course of international ecumenism is going deleteriously to be impacted by having representatives of The Episcopal Church sitting at the tables of discussion, or is he merely looking for a way to paddle TEC?

One wonders if the current Archbishop ponders, even for a second, the relative value of being at table with the Roman Catholic Church in ecumenical matters? The Roman Catholic Church is, after all, the organization which excommunicates its nuns when they permit medical procedures designed to save a twenty seven year old mother of four whose life is in jeopardy due to a pregnancy. This is the church which cannot seem to take effective, meaningful action to end the molestation of children at the hands of its ordained clergy. This is the church which steadfastly refuses to recognize the dignity and humanity of women as potential clerics. This is the church which proclaims that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and doctrine when speaking ex-cathedra. Perhaps Rowan Williams pursues ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church because he envies the stature of infallibility?

This observer dates the foundation of the current struggles within the Anglican Communion to the post-World War Two era when some very famous but sadly now often forgotten clergy of note began to speak their faith in the form of questions. It is hard to imagine the current so-called crisis without the foundations laid by Bishops John A. T. Robinson and James Pike whose writings enabled an entire generation to look at Christian faith from non-traditional perspectives. One wonders if today anyone reads books like, "Honest to God," or, "A Time for Christian Candor," and if so, whether the realization of their significance is not lost to the cacophony of willful ignorance pouring from the religious right. Sad to say, but the more Archbishop Rowan Williams pontificates [word chosen with care], the weaker he becomes as a leader among leaders.

* "Representatives of those Provinces, national or regional churches whose decision-making bodies have gone against the agreed moratoria a) will be asked to step down from formal ecumenical dialogues such as those with Orthodox Churches or the Roman Catholic Church, and b) will no longer have any decision-making powers in the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order that handles questions of church doctrine and authority."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Regarding the License of The Reverend Jim Lewis to function in the Diocese of West Virginia

At the outset let me say that Jim Lewis is a friend as well as a colleague, one whom I have known for more than thirty years. I have great respect for him. I should also say that I have met the current Bishop of West Virginia and have great respect for him as well. It is a very hard thing to have hearts rent asunder when two good people find themselves at odds, one with another.

I do not know about the "church policy" which was cited in the Charleston Gazette article of May 10, 2010, as being enforced by the Bishop in Jim Lewis' case, to wit: “Clergy who have formerly had a pastoral relationship with a parish will not continue to minister in the former parish in any way.” Unless I am more uninformed than heretofore I have thought, this must be a local policy of the Diocese of West Virginia -- I do not believe it exists in the Canons of TEC. If I misstate the case, I apologize in advance for any error.

By tradition one does not provide pastoral responses to people after leaving a charge without specific invitation from the incumbent; by tradition, incumbents extend such invitations as a professional courtesy whenever asked so to do. Such invitations are similar to those issued on an ecumenical basis to other clergy in the area when an event includes families from differing religious and/or denominational backgrounds. It is also quite common as a matter of professional courtesy to make church facilities available upon request to neighboring clergy even for events which are not necessarily associated with one's congregation -- for example, a larger church might well agree to permit a neighboring cleric from a smaller church to perform a wedding or funeral. It is also quite common in churches staffed by only one cleric for neighboring and/or retired clergy to be "on call" for one another to meet pastoral needs when one is out of town or incapacitated.

Prior to my recent retirement after nearly forty years ordained service to the Episcopal Church, it was always my policy to invite former clergy back not only upon request for baptisms, weddings and funerals, but on some occasions without being asked simply because I knew of strong ties. On several occasions, I invited former clergy back simply to preach or teach. I never had even a moment's difficulty.

One cannot pass judgment on this particular situation from afar without knowing all of the data, but given the report that Jim worked successfully with the prior incumbent for eight or so years, and Jim's own admission that he most always referred requests for care back to the rector, one does have to wonder why the traditional professional courtesies have not continued to be a matter of routine, one professional to another.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Anglican Communion, Football and Hubris

Football is a sport to which many a male and not a few females are devoted. It gets the blood cursing through the veins, helps us to know we are alive and often generates quite odd behaviors. I remember so very clearly to this day that when the defense of the Baltimore Colts seemed lacking in the days of Johnny Unitas, my genteel, Virginia-bred Mother would rise from the sofa with a blood curdling, "Get him!" Perhaps she thought that yelling at the television would impact the play of the day. Football is an interesting sport with many variations. Here in the USA, professional football is played to one set of rules while collegiate football is played to another. The infraction of 'pass interference' can easily change the outcome of a professional game, but is less likely so to do in a collegiate contest. Football in Canada is played on a field with differing dimensions than in the USA, and in 'arena football' the players are encased in a box. The are many variations of this game where (mostly) men chase after an elliptical shaped piece of 'pigskin' inflated with air -- except for the rest of the world (apart from Canada and the USA) where football is played with a round ball in a game called soccer! Across the spectrum of this game the common denominators of athleticism and sportsmanship prevail because football is a team sport requiring the cooperation of many players working as a unit on each side of the ball.

Hubris is an English transliteration of a Greek word best translated as 'pride'. The damage wrecked in lives due to hubris is directly proportional to the amount of pride present in one's life. Look to the Greek playwrights for clear examples of hubris at work, calling to mind especially but not exclusively The Theban Plays by Sophocles, "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus," and "Antigone". How can a man horrified by his purported destiny to kill his father and marry his mother actually wind up living out that prediction? The answer is hubris, being so full of pride that he actually believes that he, acting through his own will, can avert the fates. Similar "tales of woe" in English are woven by the consummate playwright William Shakespeare -- take your pick from among the tragedies to see pride at work among the protagonists. When pride gets the best of us, tragedy often results. To hearken back for a moment to the analogy of football, it only takes one athlete convinced he is better than everyone else to bring an entire team with winning potential to its knees, often costing hugely talented players their chance for the glory of the Super Bowl. Pride without constraint is a very destructive force.

The Anglican Communion is a loosely knit confederation of national churches which dates itself to the time of Jesus, himself. Much like the many variations of football, the constituent churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion feature differing rules, differing fields of play and, some might say, differing levels of commitment to the essentials of faith. So is has been certainly since the English Reformation when Protestant and Catholic believers were forced by the Act of Uniformity to worship in the same church, at the same altar and with the same book. In a day and time when people were beheaded or burned at the stake for their beliefs, relative peace was brought to the land by this notion that people of varying consciences but of good will could and should worship together without calling into question the faith of the other. Those who believe that Holy Communion is merely a remembrance of the Last Supper kneel at the same altar rail with those who believe that Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The problem is solved -- folk may not like one another but they get along. Beheadings and burnings at the stake come to an end. Relative peace reigns because pride is replaced by an enforced humility.

As an Episcopal priest now for nearly thirty eight years, and very active in ministry for virtually all of my life, it has been my privilege to meet and know many bishops, as well as to observe the behaviors of many, many others. The best are the ones who lead by serving, who do not take themselves or their positions too seriously. The Christian Church has existed for just about two thousand years now. Without a statistic in hand, I suspect that it is only the fortunate bishops who serve as many as twenty active years. As one colleague said to me when under the strain of a particularly strong-willed leader, "bishops come and bishops go but the Church of Christ carries on." I suggest as an observation that often, though not always, something happens when one becomes a bishop. Careers formerly marked by humility can become defined by hubris. Although this strange transformation of character appears to be a bit less common in The Episcopal Church where the powers of a bishop are somewhat more limited than in other constituent members of the Anglican Communion, it is still an observation which is easy to note. Perhaps it is the stress of the job, perhaps it is a shift in one's understanding of God's Call in one's life, or perhaps it is just pride run amok -- an inflation of ego common to persons with unfettered power.

When the leaders of one national church take on the task of correcting the other national churches, hubris is at work. Such behavior is a failure to recognize that the various constituent churches of the Anglican Communion are called to serve in differing locations, under a variety of polities, with often opposing "on-the-ground" realities. What is right for one national church may not be right for another, and vice-versa. The Anglican Communion is held together by some very strong bonds, most clearly enumerated at the end of the nineteenth century as being four in nature: the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the sufficiency of Scripture and the historic Episcopate. It is now long past time for the constituent national churches of the Anglican Communion to recall the rich heritage from the sixteenth century English church and the wisdom of the Act of Uniformity. We can and should worship together in the same buildings and at the same altars even though we do not share exactly the same beliefs. The issues today, in my judgment, are not as profound today as they were four and a half hundred years ago and certainly need not separate us, one from the other -- as long as a little humility and tolerance are brought into the fore.

In the worldwide Anglican Communion as on the football field, we dare not take hubris for granted. Just as an entire team can be bought low by the actions of one or two prideful players, so also the Anglican Communion can be brought low by the actions of one or two prideful clerics who while forgetting their call to serve think they know better than everyone else