Perambulations from Exile at the Turn of a Year
Morning, New Year's Eve, 2006
Perhaps it's ironic that a man who spent four years of his life in seminary, years before and after reading and taking classes in topics surrounding the Christian tradition, who jumped through the million hoops required for ordination (including scoring highest in his seminary class on the grueling five day General Ordination Exam) and who was ordained in two of the most colorful multicultural liturgies (diaconal and priestly) ever conducted rarely goes to church, much less ever functions as a priest. Such is the life of those who return from progressive dioceses of the American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, to the regressive, backwater dioceses of their birth, my own being the Diocese of Central Florida (DIOCFL).
In this diocese dominated by homophobia and approaches to faith that differ only by degrees of fundamentalism, the idea that I would ever function as priest here has never been a serious consideration. I knew that when I realized in 1995 that it was time to come home from the west coast, that my callings to be son, brother and uncle had become more pressing than my calling to serve the Episcopal Church in a progressive diocese. And so I find myself free on Sunday mornings, like this one, the end of a very long and tough year, standing at the gate of a New Year, thinking about the year just past and the year to come. This morning I will spend time in my yard, communing with G-d in the plants of the good earth, sharing hymns with the birds, marveling at the stained glass passing by on wings of butterflies, giving thanks for the warm Florida winter sun of G-d.
When I attend an Episcopal church - and I was there for midnight mass last week - I drive the 10 miles north to Winter Park to St. Richard's Church. It's probably the only true safe parish in the diocese, at least that I know of and that's accessible without a long drive. By safe I mean that it's not overtly homophobic and that I won't be pounded over the head with mean-spirited, legalistic sermons which will prompt me to wrestle with my urge to bolt from the church for the rest of the service. The pastor at St. Ricky's is a once-retired priest I've known for years, well educated, former Roman Catholic priest. (Roman retreads, as they are sometimes called). He's the consumate priest, thoughtful, concerned about his flock. He should have been bishop and lost to the current occupant of the position by one vote on the 13th ballot 16 long years ago.
The parish is oh-so-very-tolerant of gays as white middle class liberals tend to be. It's filled with elderly people, the mark of life here in the elephant graveyard, but there are some young families as well, even a few West Indies Anglicans punctuating an otherwise very white parish. In short, it's a nice group of people as white middle class Episcopal parishes tend to be in most places outside these dioceses of darkness in the grips of homophobia and fundamentalism. It's tolerant of people like me and for people like me, tolerable though only in moderate doses.
But it's not dynamic. It's not the parish life to which I grew accustomed in California. It's not a place where racial and ethnic diversity are a way of life, not an aspiration. It's not a place where social justice issues are the stuff of ordinary consideration, not the topics we can't talk about except in heavily nuanced, and thus meaningless, terms. It's not a place engaged with the world around us, it's a place seen as a refuge for those who agree to leave the world at the door, the eternal Episcopal salvation by good manners.
When I attend St. Richards, I find myself struggling with competing feelings: the comfort of an old shoe and the searing, unhealed loss of that to which I devoted my heart and soul for nearly two decades. It comes via the feeling of connection to a past I remember fondly - the salad days of the Cathedral of St. Luke downtown, struggling to develop and appreciate a diverse urban parish, reaching out to other faith traditions in interfaith dialogue, operating truly educational programs through adult education and a diocesan Institute for Christian Studies, where questions were raised rather than party line answers provided.
I also find myself missing the heady days of my four years in California, being a minority in a minority/majority population, learning new cultures and languages, watching my symbol system explode with new understandings and appreciations, talking about real issues - in the church, no less! And, oh yes, not feeling that I had to constantly be on guard because I was gay. (We're past that issue, Harry, a long time ago, the priest on the commission for ministry told me). I miss those incarnations of Episcopal Church. And while I appreciate the good people of St. Richards and their faithful pastor, for those of us who've seen Paree, how can this farm of mediocrity (on a good day) ever appeal for very long?
Of course, part of the problem is, the young man who went to California to take his hero's journey full of dreams and hopes came back a middle aged man with a golden fleece of new understandings that no one who wants to receive. And at some level, I don't know how I could have expected more. The truth is that I changed radically in seminary, California, Latin America and two years of doctoral work in Tallahassee. And Central Florida changed while I was gone, becoming almost as diverse demographically today as California was. But the Diocese of Central Florida did not change much. It stagnated. Such is predictable when ultraconservatives, resolutely committed to a mythologized golden age, are at the helm. And, frankly, from my observations of the Via Media list of Central Florida, the faithful remnant opposing what appears to be a looming schism of many within DIOCFL, the Episcopalians who remain within the church here to reconstitute the diocese will still likely be pretty conservative and conflict adverse. The author(s) of the Proverbs remind us that without a vision the people perish. And the writer of the Apocalypse of John quotes G-d as judging the banality and mediocrity of spirit of the Laodiceans this way: "You are neither hot nor cold; I will spit you out of my mouth."
Of course there is the Unitarian Church which I frequent about as often as the Episcopal Church these days. I love the Unitarians. So conscious, so willing to engage the world, so right on social justice and interfaith awareness, but so lacking in the things that feed my soul: mystery, symbols, liturgy. I almost always come away from church there having had my conscience pricked, my knowledge base expanded, my thought process engaged. I sometimes feel connected to some of the people there, particularly my old boss from my days at the Public Defender's office and their very fine pastor. She is Harvard educated, pastorally sensitive and willing to walk the walk of social justice work in this community. But what I don't feel as I cross Hampton Avenue, the street on which I lived for eight years prior to moving to California, is that I've actually been to church. Lessons and sermons is essentially a Protestant way of being religious. And I have learned anything over the years, it is that my spirit is Catholic with no prefix. While my progressive politics are much at home with the UUs, as they call themselves, my spirit cries out for connection to something deeper.
And so I will spend this Sunday morning in the cathedral of nature, missing the religious life that once preoccupied me, fondly remembering a life that has come and gone. Perhaps the birds will lift my spirits this beautiful sun washed day. Perhaps I'll experience the presence of my beloved late mother in the butterflies she loved so much. As we used to say at the beginning of each service in the Methodist Church of my youth: This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
Well, we'll try.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.