Friday, June 30, 2006

Sex and the Singular Church

I've been an Episcopalian since 1978, when I was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City. The following spring, on Trinity Sunday, Bishop Walter Righter confirmed me. I hadn't met the good bishop before, but he made a positive impression. His staff was an ordinary wooden shepherd's crook, which had come from a shepherd's supply store in Virgina. He told a little story about a girl who had gone to church by herself, and then returned home. Her parents asked her about church, and she said, "The bishop visited, and I learned what a crook is." I couldn't help but like the man after hearing that line.

In the fall of 1990, Bishop Righter's name showed up in the news. He was no longer Bishop of Iowa, but Assistant Bishop of Newark. And he had ordained a gay man, living in a comitted relationship with another man, to the diaconate. A few years later, Bishop Righter was accused of heresy and put on trial. In a decision that shocked Episcopalians, the church court ruled that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.

In the last thirty years or so, whenever the Episcopal Church is in the news, the headlines are usually about sex. Not necessarily what fantasy writer Terry Pratchett calls the "athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two" sense of the word, but what people now call "gender" and "sexual orientation." First it was women's ordination, then the ordination of gays and lesbians. And while this isn't a debate on the nature of Christ or the Trinity, or any of the more traditional reasons to divide Christians, the controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians seems more likely to divide both the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion than anything else.

Of course, the ordination of women was supposed to split the church, and it did, sort of. A group calling itself the Anglican Church of North America did break off over women's ordination, and it split again over other issues. The ACNA and its successors never managed to achieve the great scism they anticipated. The Antiochian Orthodox Church tried to lure conservative priests away from the Episcopalians. (In the town of Goshen, Indiana, the priest of the very conservative and Anglo-Catholic St. James Church converted to Orthodoxy, splitting the parish and leaving many bitter feelings. ) The Roman Catholics even offered to accept married Episcopal priests into the Latin Rite. In other words, they bent their own celibacy rules in order to accept priests who agreed with them about the ordination of women. (Eastern Rite Catholic churches have always had married priests, so Rome's celibacy rule was never universal.) Neither church effort was very successful.

While the Episcopal Church lost a few members over women's ordination, it was in line with the membership losses for most mainline Protestant churches. And it did not split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

This time, the chances of a schism look much higher. There's just too much enthusiasm for a split on both sides. If the split comes, I will go with Walter Righter and those who support the ordination of gays and lesbians, but I won't do so with any joy. The Anglican Church has sought the "middle way" since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Then it was a dispute between the Catholic and Protestant wings of the Church. The compromise was to have a very Catholic service (though with a lot of penitential language included, such as "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.") and a very Protestant, even Calvinistic Thirty-Nine Articles. In the Episcopal Church, the Articles are now considered historical documents, which reflects the ascendancy of Anglo-Catholicism in the American church.

Over the centuries, the Church has avoided major schism by following the middle way of compromise and inclusion. I hope and pray that such a compromise can happen now.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Confessions of a Christmas-and-Easter Episcopalian

Note--this post is a reworking of an article I wrote for the South Bend Tribune three years ago. I'll follow it with a post about the recent General Convention in Columbus and relations with worldwide Anglicanism.

For the last year I've been very much a marginal Episcopalian--a "Christmas and Easter man." I work the swing shift at the Amtrak ticket office in Normal Illinois--midday on Friday, mornings on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday and Tuesday evenings. And the Episcopal churches in Bloomington and Normal don't have evening services, except for Christmas and Easter. When I do attend church, it's usually at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, which is within walking distance of my apartment, and offers a Saturday afternoon vigil mass.

When I became an Episcopalian more than a quarter century ago, I was very much an active parishioner. I have served as an acolyte, a lector, and as a member of the vestry (that’s Episcopal for church council—traditionally it met in the room where the liturgical garments, or vestments, were kept).

I had all the enthusiasm of a convert, which I was. The Episcopal Church was within the Catholic tradition, but was also open to change. Every three years, the church holds a general convention, in which representatives of the laity and clergy meet to decide the issues of the national church.
In 1976, three years before my confirmation into the church, the General Convention, meeting in Minneapolis, approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. The fact that it had been willing to make such momentous decisions attracted me to the denomination.

The church went out of its way to accommodate those who could not accept the church’s decision. Bishops who would not ordain women did not have to, so long as they allowed a neighboring bishop to perform the ceremony. The new Book of Common Prayer introduced services in modern English, but gave congregations the option of using the traditional Prayer Book language, such as the following:

“Hear what the Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

That brief, elegant summation of a Christian’s duty can be found only in the older, (Rite I) version of the Eucharistic liturgy. Had the church refused to compromise with conservatives, we would have lost it as a part of the service.

Three years ago, the General Convention met again in Minneapolis, and made two controversial decisions. It voted to confirm the selection of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire. And it agreed to permit American dioceses to continue offering blessings for same-sex unions.

Many Episcopalians, including Bishop Edward Stuart Little of South Bend, were and are adamantly opposed to the convention’s decision. I believe the convention made the right decision. Bishop Little and his allies are sincere and decent Christians, with whom I disagree on this issue. I supported the decision largely from personal experience. When I worked at Amtrak's Chicago call center, many of my co-workers were gay or lesbian, and I had come to respect them. I believe that same-sex partners are entitled to a legal recognition of their partnership, and that a church blessing of such a commitment is appropriate. Sexual orientation, at least according to the most recent science, appears to be determined more by genetics than environment.

I also spent eight years in the Diocese of Chicago, where gay priests were almost the norm, and where there had been at least one gay bishop. Not openly gay, of course. And that was the problem. There was an environment of hypocrisy and deceit which was, to put it mildly, unhealthy for a Christian church. Priests, who were often married and with children, carried on affairs with gay lovers, to the detriment of both their ministry and their families.

“Were there no legislative items on the table in Minneapolis,” wrote Bishop Little in a “pastoral word” explaining his vote against Robinson’s confirmation and the blessing of same-sex unions, “I could easily maintain a holy silence as I walk the pilgrim’s journey with gay and lesbian Christians, allowing God to sort things out in his own wondrously surprising way.”
Bishop Little is a man I admire and respect. But a “holy silence,” maintained by people without the integrity of an Edward Stuart Little, can degenerate into “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

And it’s just possible that God is sorting things out “in his own wondrously surprising way” in the wake of the General Convention. Bishop-elect Robinson, interviewed after his return to New Hampshire, said that he “had any number of people come up to me and say, my son or daughter is going back to church for the first time in years.”

Saturday, June 24, 2006

"The past is a foreign country"

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," wrote British novelist L.P. Hartley. It seems obvious enough when that past is centuries ago. But when it is within our memory, the past can also be foreign. In fact, Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, which begins with that memorable sentence, is written in the form of a reminiscence.

Last year I entered the White Wolf Novel contest with an idea for a vampire novel set in part in the Chicago of August, 1968. It didn't make the first cut, but the idea of a fantasy/time-travel novel involving those interesting times stayed with me. And it was better without the vampires or White Wolf's World of Darkness setting. So I've been doing a lot of reading about the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was 16 years old in 1968, and I followed the news very closely. Still, I'm dealing with a foreign country. Take the first paragraph of the Chicago Tribune's August 25, 1968 lead editorial:

"It will probably occasion little surprise among readers that in his former days around the family drug store in Huron, S.D., Hubert Horatio Humphrey was known to the clientele as Pinkie. But if the readers jump to the logical conclusion that this appellation had something to do with Hubert's political coloration, which is socialist, radical, and left-wing, if not precisely Red, they will be wrong. The tag was hung on him simply because of his complexion."

That's what the Trib thought of Humphrey--the Establishment candidate. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern didn't fare any better. While Gene McCarthy was pursuing his noble campaign, the spirit of Joe McCarthy seemed to prevail in the Tribune. More precisely, it was the spirit of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime publisher of the Tribune, who died in 1955. Along with McCormick's right-wing politics, the paper was still promoting his spelling reform--cigaret, thru, tho. I don't know if it still used "frater," for freighter, but it spelled aides "aids," though that would not have meant anything to the 1968 audience. While the paper's editors heaped praise on Nixon and Agnew, they defended Democrat Richard Daley's use of the police to beat "hippies," though they did express objection to the clubbing of Tribune reporters.

I've been listening to oldies radio stations recently. They present the 1960s nostalgically, as though it was some halcyon era. There was great beauty, incredible creativity, and the kind of idealism which may just be blooming in some of today's college students. But at the same time there was the madness of 1968. Writer Jules Witcover called it "The Year the Dream Died." Two assassinations, riots in virtually every major city, the brutality in Chicago, the triumph of Richard Nixon, and behind it all, blatant racism and a shameful American war. While I've heard the oldies stations play Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," about the 1967 Sunset Strip riots, I have yet to hear "Universal Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction," or even the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," which was banned from Chicago radio stations during the '68 convention. Just as Clear Channel and other media giants wouldn't play anti-Iraq war songs (or even the Dixie Chicks), they don't want to remind people of an earlier illegal, immoral war.

And there was a spirit of confrontation which seems almost alien to present times. An excerpt from Paul Schultz's No One Was Killed provides a good example:

"There were a series of confrontations inside the Convention and outside it. The challenger could either turn away from the impending confrontation and hope the gesture would bring about a desired response, depending on the good will of cops and politicians, and it never did, or they could go smack into the confrontation. Every time a confrontation was avoided, in the Convention or on the streets, the challenger, on the terms of his own aspirations, made a mistake. (Emphasis in original, pp. 36-7)

"In another time, another situation, possibly even another convention, this might not be the case. But here in Chicago all the cells of good will and common sense were turned off in The Pig."
And what was "The Pig?" Schultz again:

"The Yippies were running a pig for president, and the cops were pigs, and the politicians were pigs, and the Pig was a proliferating force and growth in the mind and the soul and in the society. Like cancer in the way it grows, the Pig sickens and hardens all cells of common sense, compassion, responsibility and sense of consequence, and turns them to greedy, self-protective, oppressive ends." (p. 34)

A foreign country indeed. If I can re-create the moods, atttitudes, and events of August, 1968, in some (not all) of their complexities, it will be worth the effort.