Tuesday, March 27, 2007
"Go to the back of the bus"
When the House of Bishops was meeting recently I was far too busy with many other things, worthwhile ministry, so I was able to push what they were up to to the back of my mind. I only really started tuning back in when I drove back from our week-long mission trip to New Orleans, and began to realize that what these men and women in purple are saying to the likes of me, "Go to the back of the bus," or better still, "Get off the bus altogether."
I guess I have known for all the thirty-one years that I have served as a priest of the Episcopal Church: that I am not particularly welcome here, but never has denominational leadership spelled it out so bluntly.
In October 1976, less than six weeks after I had arrived in the United States, I attended a diocesan clergy conference in Massachusetts. I knew virtually no one, no one knew me, and feeling very much like a fish out of water I was keeping my mouth firmly shut. However, this didn't prevent a bevy of my 'colleagues' from cornering me, rounding on me, and castigating me with some of the most vituperative language because of what they thought were the primitive nature of my beliefs. This kangaroo court lit into me without even doing me the courtesy of checking out the facts!
This may have been the first time such a thing happened, but it was certainly not the last, and such harassment has continued with varying levels of intensity through all these years. Now, at last, the point is reached where there is a big enough critical mass of those in political power to castigate us as throwbacks, primitives whose ideas and belief systems are inadequately developed, less than wholly Episcopal (whatever that means), and therefore fit only to squat at the back of the bus, or better still, be kicked out the back through the emergency exit.
What is ironic is that we were told in 1985 by the then newly-elected Presiding Bishop that there would be "no outsiders" in this church. Of course, that pledge was the code language of those pushing the program that aggressive agenda-driven interest groups would get the substantial hearing, but those of us whose Anglicanism might be dismissed as 'fundamentalist,' and therefore, defective, can only ever be seen but definitely not heard. Increasingly, the councils of the church were loaded against us, and despite growth our voice was diminished. Perhaps we are merely 2/3 of a person.
After years of such discrimination it is hardly surprising that many of our number have decided that this bus isn't worth riding, but before they go they are frisked down and forced to leave their possessions and even those things that only have sentimental value behind. Part of me envies those who have gone. It must be nice to be out of the uncomfortable pressure cooker that the Episcopal Church has become; but even if separate theological development takes some of the difficult pressures out of life, I suspect this course is fraught with profound, and as yet unrecognized problems. I would hazard that some of these will be as challenging as staying part of the dying mainline denomination.
If history is anything to go by, world-altering new movements and fresh ideas do not arise from opting out, but by engaging what is going on in creative and courageous ways. In his breathtaking grasp of the nature of faith and history, Herbert Butterfield points out that "The Hebrew prophets in the periods of successive disaster found what might almost be called new patterns in history" (Christianity and History, p. 108), from which he draws the conclusion that it is in cataclysmic times that God opens us up to new insights that will lead us creatively away from the rut and trench warfare into which we have fallen.
I believe we are in just such a time, and it is by surviving in the midst of being maltreated, like the Suffering Servant, that the raw materials for forging the Holy Spirit's new way forward come to the surface. Right now the whole Episcopal Church, perhaps on behalf of a large chunk of our culture, stands under the judgment of God, and we should never forget that.
I can think of a thousand reasons why I do not belong on the bus. I am a wretched sinner saved by God's grace alone, and I reach the end of each day conscious of how undeserving I am of the Lord's goodness and generosity. Perhaps it is good for me, one who is blessed and privileged in so many ways, to spend some time at the back of the bus for there are always new lessons in humility that I can learn only when I am excluded and treated as valueless. However, it does not seem appropriate to cast the likes of me out of this particular bus on the charges that have been trumped up.
I developed a nose for bullying when I was a small and timid boy on the receiving end of many such torments: what has come out of the House of Bishops smells an awful lot like bullying. You don't belong here we are told despite our faithfulness within the tradition of faith to which we belong! One of the things this frightened little kid learned was being on the receiving end was that the only way to handle bullies is to stand up to them. "Grief, no, this is my seat and I am not walking away from it, as much as you might want me to and put pressure on me to do so."
The truth is that great movements begin with seemingly insignificant actions -- whether a humble African-American woman refusing to be intimidated by gross discrimination, or a studious Augustinian monk nailing his theses to an abbey door hoping to get a hearing. These people fermented revolutions because they stuck to their guns in the face of error and falsehood.
This, I think, is where we are today. I do not have a crystal ball so I cannot tell what the future is going to be like. The only thing I can claim is that I have been saying for a long time now that God was going to reconfigure his church. This is happening, and sometimes it is agony to us all.