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.


Robin G. Jordan said...

Five years ago this coming May the bus was stopped and I was asked to get off. The rector of my then parish, a priest whom I had known for fifteen years and whose ordination I had attended, demanded my resignation as senior lay reader of the parish. He was upset because I had sent an email to a small handful of former parishioners, telling them about a new Anglican Mission church that was starting in the community. All of these former parishioners had been gone from the parish for more than 18 months, having left as a result of the church fight that had divided the church membership over the rector’s ability to lead a large church. The bishop had been alerted to the simmering conflict. At his insistence a church consultant had been hired. The consultant had interviewed church leaders and members, held congregational meetings, and made recommendations. After the presentation of these recommendations a group of key church leaders had demanded the rector’s resignation. At a face-off between these church leaders and the rector, members of the church had rallied to the rector’s support. The church leaders had themselves resigned and left the church. Over the ensuing months one third of the households in the church had left. Some had found new church homes; others had not.

I had not aligned myself with either faction. To this day I question the wisdom of those who called for the rector’s resignation. I had learned from experience that, when the rector was pressured, he would become obstinate and refuse to budge. Circumstances had reached the point where the rector was in crisis and was open to change. Among the consultant’s recommendations was that the rector and the church leaders undergo conflict resolution training. It was also recommended that the rector undergo training to develop the skills he need to lead a large, growing church, an area in which he was weak. Both the rector and the church would have benefited from the recommended training. However, when the church leaders demanded his resignation, the rector dug in his heels. With members of the church rallying to his support, they had no option but resign themselves. At this point the rector was no longer in crisis. What motivation that he might have to change disappeared. The church has plateaued and has not recovered. It is not likely to experience significant growth until the rector accepts another call or retires.

I had already committed the faux pas of having accompanied the Anglican Mission church planter to the church’s Annual Spring Festival and having introduced him to the junior warden and a parishioner. He had wanted to meet the rector and introduce himself. I had expected to find the rector at church since the Annual Spring Festival provided a great opportunity to meet people from the community. I had thought to find him working the crowd, introducing himself to newcomers and building relationships with them. I had forgotten that Friday was his day off and therefore sacrosanct: he would not violate it to build bridges with the community.

I also would discover that I had underestimated his active dislike of and ill will toward the Anglican Mission. To my knowledge he had never had any personal contact with the folks of the Anglican Mission. The rumors that were circulating at diocesan clerical meetings, various articles in The Living Church and Episcopal Life, and the hostile attitudes that one of the parish’s seminarians had picked up from his professors at seminary had largely shaped how he perceived the Mission.

After the first occasion he called me into his office on Sunday morning and demanded to know why I had brought an Anglican Mission priest to the church. He was extremely suspicious and refused to accept my explanation that the priest had wanted to meet him. He was insisted that I knew that he would not be there on a Friday. His main concern that the priest was trying to steal members of his church. I assured him that was not the case. The priest’s bishop the Rt. Rev. Thaddeus Barnum had instructed him not to attempt to recruit people who were already active in a church in the community but to focus upon those who were not active in any of the community’s churches. The priest was young, married, with small children, and his main target group was young married couples like his wife and himself. The priest had already made several courtesy visits to the pastors of other churches, a standard practice for a church planter new to a community. Both the Anglican Mission church planter and I also knew which my rector apparently did not is that disaffected Episcopalians are not your best recruits for a new church launch team. They generally do not have evangelism in their DNA; they have set ideas about “doing church”. They are also likely to want to start a new church from the wrong motives. However, I realized that my rector was not in any mood to hear a lecture from me on church planting and I said nothing.

After the second occasion the rector called me into his office on Sunday morning and demanded my resignation. He said that I had assured him that the Anglican Mission church planter was not trying to steal his parishioners. However, I had contacted several people in the parish and told them about the new church. He insisted that my actions represented a conflict of interest with my role as a church leader. He did not mention that none of the people that I had contacted had been active members of the church for 18 months and had no intention of returning to active membership in the church at any time in the near future. At least one family had transferred their membership to a Lutheran church in the community and at least one family to a Methodist church. I had contacted about 5 or 6 families altogether and briefly informed them about the establishment of the new church. He went on to say that he knew how to protect his flock from wolves. He gave me an ultimatum. I could treat the young priest as a pariah, avoiding all contact with him, or I could resign as the parish’s senior lay reader. My first thought was that he had already let the wolves into his flock: they wore sheep’s clothing. They had introduced labyrinth walking and all kinds of “new religion” devotional material from Grace Cathedral. Those who walked the labyrinth struck a Buddhist gong with a hammer after they completed their walk. If he thought that I was intent upon leading an exodus of parishioners from his church, he should have looked behind me. He would have seen no one lined up to follow me out of the church. I did not even have my hand on the doorknob. Even those times when I strongly disagreed with what he was doing, I had never sought to organize any kind of opposition to what he was doing. I had kept our private disagreements private. I had stayed on when others with less cause had left. I had served on the mission committee that had overseen the launch of the parish as a satellite congregation of a sponsoring church and in the launch team that had pioneered the church. I had served on the selection committee that interviewed the rector then a deacon one year out of seminary before he became the pastor of the new mission. I held my peace. I told him that I would pray about the matter and give him my decision.

Every year for a number of years I had tried to persuade the rector to spearhead the planting of a new church in the deanery. The population of the deanery was growing rapidly and my own survey of the population growth and demographics of the deanery suggested that the area could support one or more additional Episcopal churches. God had richly blessed my parish and planting a new church I believed was one way of showing our gratitude to God. We had become a parish in the space of less than 10 years. The rector, however, did not share my passion for church planting. On one occasion he told me that I could try to start a new church on my own and if I were successful, he would then consider adopting the new church as a preaching station of the church but that was the only kind of support that he was willing to offer. He was not going to mobilize the resources of the church behind a new church start in its initial stages.

After helping to launch the mission that became my parish, the diocese had passed on responsibility for launching any further church plants to the deanery. Leadership of the deanery rotated among the rectors of the deanery in turn but none had shown any interest in church planting. One of the deanery’s churches had gone as far as asking the new bishop not to start a new church in its part of the deanery, fearing the new church might attract new families and even its own families away from it. This was during the Decade of Evangelism. The apathetic even hostile attitude of Episcopalians toward evangelism during the closing decade of the 20th century convinced me that a Canadian Anglican church planter was correct in his assessment. In order to reach the growing dechurched and unchurched population of Canada and the United States, he argued that new churches needed to be planted in the shadow of existing ones, especially those that were not outward looking and had become stuck in a maintenance mindset or where the demographics of a community or neighborhood had changed and the existing churches were not reaching the new people groups in the community or neighborhood. When I compared the explosive growth of the Anglican Church in the global South provinces with the indifference if not open hostility toward evangelism in the Episcopal Church, I concluded that a dynamic alternative Anglican gospel ministry was needed in the United States, one that was grounded in the Bible and the historic Anglican formularies and thoroughly committed to evangelism and church planting. If Anglicans could reach the lost and plant hundreds of new churches outside the United States, they could do the same here. This belief led me to the Anglican Mission, then two years old.

I had met Anglican Mission Bishop John Rodgers shortly after he had retired as dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He had conducted a series of Bible studies on evangelism at the church of a Trinity graduate in my former diocese. Bishop Rodger’s involvement in the Anglican Mission had prompted me to question the allegations of "sheep stealing" that those hostile to the Mission made against the organization. I attended the second Annual Winter Conference of the Anglican Mission. There I met an enthusiastic group of people who shared my evangelical convictions and my passion for church planting. I attended a number of meetings and workshops at the conference. The subject of proselytizing Episcopalians was not brought up at the conference. Rather reaching the dechurched and unchurched and evangelizing them and folding them into new churches was stressed over and over again.

I first tried persuading the members of a Bible study group to which I belonged to become the nucleus of a new church. All of them, with the exception of myself, had left my former parish. However, none of them was interested in pioneering a new church. At least one couple had served on the launch team of my former parish. They all wanted find a new church home that was already established. Disappointed but not deterred I set about doing a feasibility study for a new church in my part of the deanery. I was in the midst of this study when I learned that God had led a Florida Anglican Mission church to select the same area as the site for a new church plant. I contacted the church planter and provided him with the data that I gathered. This enabled him to complete his church planting proposal and submit it to the sponsor church for approval. I had subsequently helped him to obtain a local phone number. Having involved myself to this extent in his church planting efforts, I saw no going back.

The pastoral relationship between the rector and my extended family had deteriorated over the years. Only my oldest grandnephew and I were attending church. One way or another the rector had alienated the other members of my family. I was disturbed by how the rector and the church’s new leadership had reorganized the preschool so they could tap its revenues to make up for the shortfalls from the drop in giving caused by the loss of households in the parish. It did not strike me as ethical. I had talked with the rector about exploring new ministries but he had not offered to appoint a discernment committee to help me. Instead he talked about how he had attended a church that had a verger and how he was thinking about establishing this ceremonial position in the worship of the parish. We clearly were not on the same page. I also discovered that the rector had prohibited the new music director from using my suggestions and ideas for music and thereby prevented any collaboration between us in the selection of music. The new music director was not able to make use of my knowledge of the congregational song repertoire, which was extensive, nor was she able to consult with me about what songs I knew. I was serving as precentor for one of the Sunday services and these restrictions seriously diminished the effectiveness of my ministry. I did not see much future for myself in the parish.

I tendered my resignation as a lay reader, trading the certainty of stagnation for the uncertainty of church planting. Although I never resigned as a member of the church, my name was apparently dropped from the membership rolls as I stopped receiving the parish newsletter and the diocesan newspaper.

I would like to report that I went on to become a founding member of a dynamic new church in the Anglican tradition. But that did not happen. The new church plant, for a number of reasons, failed. The young priest accepted a call to a church in Alabama. At his suggestion I had begun sojourning with a United Methodist church since the new church plant had not reached the launching of the first service of public worship stage. It never did. It died before it was born. I had previously sojourned with an Assembly of God Church for several months. I sojourned with the United Methodist church for more than a year. It was a three-year old new church start that met in a local maritime museum for worship. I sung in the choir and set out the welcome table. The pastor’s liberal theology, which had not been apparent initially, his preoccupation with the church’s first building project, his seeming indifference to a major crisis in my family, the diagnosis of my second oldest grandnephew with leukemia, and his unannounced withdrawal of support for a prison ministry project in which he asked me to participate prompted me to move on. I sojourned for more than a year with a two-year old Southern Baptist new church start that, when I began sojourning with them, was meeting in a fire station for worship. I was invited to join the church’s worship team as a vocalist. During my sojourn with this church I had hoped to gather the core group for a new Anglican church in the area, using what I had learned in sojourning with three new church starts. The Assembly of God church had also been a new church start. However, lost my apartment. The high cost of scarce housing in my part of Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina forced me to move out of state.

My mother has a summer home in western Kentucky. Although no one had lived in the house for ten years, I thought that it might be habitable. It was not. However, I found housing more affordable in Western Kentucky so I have relocated to that region. I am presently sojourning with a one-year old Southern Baptist new church start that meets for worship in a university student center. I help to unload the equipment off a trailer and set up the video projection system, the chairs, and the stage for each service and to tear down the equipment and load it on the trailer after each service. It is heavy manual labor, tedious and unrewarding, but it serves the extension of God’s kingdom. I have not relinquished my dream of starting a new Anglican church. Whether I am the right person to start a new Anglican church or the region is the right area for a new Anglican church start is another matter. But it does not stop me from dreaming.

I have visited a number of Episcopal churches in western Kentucky. The Episcopal Church has suffered some serious setbacks since my family first began spending summer vacations in the region in the 1970s. No new churches have been started since 1970. One church has been closed; a second church has been reduced to one service a month. The associate rector of the region’s only self-supporting parish serves this church and a third church. The third church has weekly services except on one Sunday a month when the priest’s duties require her presence at the parish where she is associate rector. A fourth church is served by a retired priest. This church suffered a split following the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. A segment of the congregation left the church and formed a Continuing Anglican church. The one parish and the Episcopal church in the town where I am living give all appearances of holding their own. One is located in the region’s chief urban center and only city and the other in a university town. The “new religion” prevails in all five Episcopal churches that I have visited. I have also visited the Continuing Anglican church. It uses the Anglican Missal in its worship. Its theology is too Catholic for me.

When I was asked to get off the bus, I did. The bus then drove away, leaving me on the side of the road. I now must walk. The road is dusty. I get pebbles in my shoes. I cannot see what is around each bend in the road. I just keep walking. Having been asked to get off the bus, I have no desire to get back on. Riding in a bus might be easier on my feet. But I do not like where the bus is going. So I keep walking. And dreaming.

We are all sojourners and strangers any way. This world is not our home. We are just passing through. Jesus never rode on a bus. He walked from village to village, from town to town. He walked to Jerusalem and he walked to Calvary. If you are asked to get off the bus or are pushed out of the emergency door, and must walk the dusty road, remember that Jesus walked the road before you. He walks the road with you now. When you are tired and footsore, you can lean on his arm. He will give you strength. He will enable you to carry on. He is with you always. You have his word. And his word can be trusted. You can count on it.

A brother in Christ

Anonymous said...

I would submit to you that our (insert the various titles of an Episcopal church leader here) have allowed themselves to be moved to the back of the bus on much less complex issues, like pastoring the flocks, being honest, admitting failure, keeping your word, accountability, honoring your commitments and leading by Christ's example to your congregations. It is hard for me to see how much further back in the bus one can go.

There is so much politic and personal preservation going on at the local level that the "going to the back of the bus" is but a temporary rotation; you seem to take assigned turns riding in the back, while the people of the church are left in the church parking lot.

The sheep are crying out for leaders with integrity, that are lovingly self-sacrificial, even if they disagree with some aspects of their theology. But it seems that the shepherds are more concerned with their own self-preservation (I can only specualte as to genuine motives).

The end reslut is a much greater problem facing the Episcopal church than the vote forthcoming in September.

dryer_lent said...

You either refuse to give up your seat or you go to the back of the bus, but not both.