A Question for the Episcopal Church:
What do you have to lose if change occurs?
[N.B. - On the Episcopal Voices of Central Florida list (a list devoted to those resisting the seemingly pending fundamentalist led schism of the diocese from the national church), the unavoidable issues surrounding the place of gay and lesbians in the church have arisen. I've attempted to dialogue with the list on these issues with little success. Frankly, I sense that the chances of the Diocese of Central Florida joining the late 20th CE - much less the 21st CE - anytime soon are remote, even in a faithful remnant diocese that might result from schism of the more rabid conservatives here. This is the second in a series of modified versions of an exchange on the list with a very nice and I believe well intentioned Episcopalian here in Central Florida.]
My dialogue partner has made several well taken points:
1. Reluctance to grown and change is part of the human experience.
2. Change is occurring as is evident in the backlash against it
3. The Episcopal Church is doing better than other churches in changing
It's human nature to resist change
I agree with much of what you say here. While change is a constant in human
history, human beings tend to resist change. And most people readily focus on
penultimate concerns (carpeting, praise music, social respectability) rather
than doing the hard work of seeking things of ultimate concern (per Jesus:
the Kingdom of G_d), just as you note. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the
same thing a half century ago.
This is particularly true when dealing with issues of disparate social power and
privilege. Human beings who enjoy privilege in their socially constructed world
are reluctant to give it up. That is particularly true when such privilege is held
at the expense of others. This makes change difficult because what is
essentially required is an admission to oneself that the understandings one has
held for a long time were not only wrong but have proven destructive to others.
In church terms we call that repentance (literally rethinking, reconsidering)
which leads to regretting, remorse and ultimately to change of mind, behavior
patterns and thus of life. Little wonder that this proves so difficult.
Confronting misanthropy at the core of one's soul has the potential to create a
good bit of cognitive dissonance. It can leave one wondering who they really
are. If the inherited understandings of the other against which one has defined
themselves no longer can be trusted, how do I know who I am? And if this
pattern of thinking, which I have taken for granted, seen as common sense
and thus beyond questioning, has proven not only wrong but destructive,
what other aspects of my thinking might be similarly untrustworthy? Most of
us who grew up in the segregated South and endured the pains of
desegregation know this kind of cognitive dissonance and its related pain only
But why does change ever occur?
The only aspect I think you miss here is the reason change occurs. It does
not occur because people simply are given enough time to reflect on their
attitudes and come to the realization that their privilege is unfounded and
their understandings are destructive to others. Rather, it comes because
those who labor under the injustice of their privilege and those who are in
solidarity with them come to consciousness and steadily apply pressure to
change on the people and institutions which perpetuate that injustice. And
there are few more effective ways of doing that than simply calling upon
people to live into their own stated ideals: Love of neighbor as oneself
simply cannot be reconciled with unjust social relations. Equality under
the law (the inscription over the doors to the US Supreme Court building)
simply cannot be reconciled with discrimination in practice.
The example of John Newton, the composer of Amazing Grace might
be helpful here. Here is a man who benefited from the misery of other
humans whom he impressed into chattel slavery for years until he came
to the realization that slavery was sinful. For Newton that meant he
eventually left the slave trade and freed his own slaves. Ultimately it
would mean undertaking to rectify the injustices his life's privilege had
created, becoming an outspoken voice in the abolitionist movement. But
that whole transformation began as a result of his realization that his
attitudes, his conduct and the rationalizations he had used for so long to
maintain an untroubled soul were sinful. While I do not share his
evangelical theology, I think it is instructive to note how he saw himself,
his former attitudes and his conduct: Amazing grace, how sweet the
sound, that save a wretch like me. It's a hurtful word - not unlike
homophobic - but it was precisely the fearless and truthful willingness
to confront that wretchedness that prompted a life of justice seeking.
We're less phobic than the Bab-dissed
While the Episcopal Church may be light years ahead of regressive
churches like the Southern Baptists, it is simultaneously light years
behind the rest of society. The University of Central Florida where
I work is hardly the bastion of progressive thought and behavior
but even there, the university has found its way to prohibiting
discrimination in employment and promotion. Our LBGT
employees are first class citizens, at least on the books. But that
did not happen because the management of the university was
given enough love, space and time to come to their senses. It
occurred because the union there made it one of their priorities
and refused to back off its insistence that change occur.
The same is true within the Episcopal Church. Change has not
occurred because clergy protective of their power and laity
protective of their social respectability have simply come to
the conclusion that their attitudes and practices were wrong
and sought to rectify them. The reality is that change has
occurred because of nearly 50 years of concentrated effort by
those who languish under the injustice of a discriminatory (and
thus hypocritical) institution. Change has occurred because a
few brave souls were willing to brave the fierce opposition that
coming out of the closet involves and were willing to speak the
truth in love about the church the way its policies have devalued
their lives. And how much more powerfully can love be
demonstrated than being willing to endure the firestorm that
confronting a beloved church on its own sinfulness uleashes?
So, while I agree that change is happening and that the backlash
we are seeing from "the Old Guard" indicates that, I cannot agree
that patience is the appropriate response. People who are the
victims of injustice do not have the luxury of patience. Hence, King's
recognition that "Justice delayed is justice denied." Hence, also,
Burke's observation that " The only thing necessary for the triumph
of evil is for good people to do nothing."
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.
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