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]