Tanzania and the Anglican Communion:
On Learning to Deal with an Abusive Parent
As I have watched the spectacle unfolding in Tanzania this past week of the meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion, the world's Anglicans holding their breath to see if the good ole boys would deign to show common courtesy to the new woman Presiding Bishop of the American church, much less join her in communion, I tried to sit with my reactions to that spectacle to try to find something about it that made sense. I monitored my deep disappointment in my classmate from seminary, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, who represented me and many other Episcopalians at the summit, maintaining silence indicating acquiescence to the communiqués of the primates setting deadlines for compliance with homophobic mandates. I noted my sense of complete estrangement from the third world bishops, men of incredibly limited vision and narrow theologies more befitting Southern Baptists than Anglicans, who seek to create an Anglican version of the very Roman hierarchy from which Anglicanism once revolted. And I felt the slightest ache of a heart which was once profoundly devoted to the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican tradition but today senses there is little more than a history in common with those entities remaining.
What dawned on me as I checked my heart, my gut, my thoughts and my soul was that my inability or at least unwillingness to divorce myself from the Episcopal Church and the orders of priesthood I continue to hold there even in the face of yet one more round of denigration, discrimination and dehumanization by the church really bears the mark of an abusive parent/child relationship. The Episcopal Church consistently displays the double bind of dysfunctional parenting. It passes noble resolutions of inclusiveness and proclaiming "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" out front its churches. Simultaneously the church seeks to appease the philistines of the third world and their intent to impose a fundamentalist, homophobic agenda on the worldwide communion as the bottom line of its doctrine and praxis, agreeing to not ordain gay bishops or authorize rites for LBGT unions. Sadly, there are many Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide who know better than this but are willing to sacrifice their LBGT fellow parishioners and clergy - along with their own integrity - to the idol of unity.
Many children in abusive parent/child relationships feel unable to completely sever the bonds to the parents they are, according to common human wisdom, supposed to love. As children, they have little recourse but to endure the abuse and the double binds that are inflicted upon them. As adults, many experience profound conflict between the feelings of love and sometimes compassion they feel for parents who were, after all, very human, and the needs to respect their own dignity and protect it from the potential for abuse they always face when dealing with their parent.
Of course, not all parents remain trapped in their patterns of abuse. Parents can grow up, recognize the pain they have caused their children, repent from their abusive patterns and seek to reconcile with their children. Sadly, this is probably the exception to the rule. But it does happen. I know.
My entire life changed at six years of age when my father felt compelled to leave his job at an insurance agency in Tampa Bay to return to teaching. The only slots open midyear in 1959 in Florida were in Steinhatchee, a tiny fishing community in the Big Bend region of north Florida's west coast, or in Bushnell, a small farming community in Central Florida, ironically where my father had been born and raised. Even at 6, I knew my life had changed and not for the better as we rolled into Bushnell with its nearby state historical site of a major massacre of white soldiers that began the Second Seminole War.
It was not until I became an adult and worked through years of therapy that I began to realize why my father's attitude of me changed with that move. The town was full of his classmates and teachers, people who had known the grandmother I never met and the grandfather I barely remembered. It must have been hard for a father who had left town at the death of his mother at 14, served the country in the Navy during the second world war, and earned a master's degree to come home where everyone remembered him as little Sammy, the kid they remembered from his childhood. And it must have been even more difficult to deal with the dawning realization that his oldest child was gay and would never live into the values that little town which had produced him saw as non-negotiable.
My Dad was highly demanding as a parent. When I made all As, he responded with "Good. Next time maybe you can make all A+s." And in retrospect, he probably suffered no small amount of humiliation as his sissy but brainy kid excelled in journalism, science fairs and marching band while floundering as an athlete and a future farmer despite his best efforts.
When I most needed my Dad in that rocky 11 and a half years in public schools in Bushnell, he was rarely there. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t be. And so I suffered in silence. I built a half acre rock garden to work out the sorrow of realizing that I was not valued in that small town. I rode my bicycle all over town and read every science fiction book in the local public library seeking to escape the bucolic prison in which I languished. I applied for national science foundation grants to spend summers in accelerated high school programs at large universities. And I plotted my escape, something I managed to accomplish the very day after my graduation from high school, moving to the closest small city for community college.
But some parents change. When I graduated from undergraduate with my degree in history and secondary ed, I set out to change the world through teaching (no small amount of hubris there!). My father knew some people in the county adjacent to where I grew up and I landed a job teaching middle school English and social studies. What I did not know was that people in rapidly changing areas tend to be contentious and defensive. When I blew into town espousing equal rights for women and people of color, I quickly found myself on the outside of the little town I had come to save. And when I came to the defense of a colleague the school system sought to dismiss because she was lesbian, I became a marked man. Late night threatening phone calls ensued and children began to accost me in the supermarket.
I'm not sure what my father had heard. But whatever it was, it alarmed him enough to come rescue his first born child. He arrived with his pick-up truck one morning with the simple statement, "I've come to get your first load of furniture." There was no arguing with him. And in hindsight, he probably saved my life. If the people of the town had not killed me (and already they were stopping their trucks in front of my house late at night with guns pointed out the windows), I no doubt would have drunk myself to death.
The magnitude of his change became apparent to me years later when I had graduated from seminary and been ordained a priest. When I told him I did not plan to return to Central Florida because I could not function as a priest there (a good example of the Yiddish proverb about making G-d laugh by telling him your plans), he asked why not. "Because I’m gay, Daddy." To which he simply responded, "But why not?"
The healing and reconciliation with my father over time has been one of the greatest joys of my life. My Dad still does not understand my life or why I have to live it as I do. But I think he always loved me. And ultimately, that love and his desire to have his family intact and together proved the more important value to him and to all of us.
The Episcopal Church could learn something from my father. It need not understand the experience of its LBGT members. Indeed, it need not even trouble itself about whether it should accept them because ultimately it is not their place to do so. All it must do is simply treat them with the same respect it demands for everyone else. In other words, it simply needs to practice the Golden Rule.
There are moments when it seems the church is poised to finally grow up, to deal with its LBGT members as adults, to recognize the image of G_d all children of G-d carry and to respect the human dignity such recognition demands. And then there are moments like the past week in Tanzania, where integrity is sacrificed to the false god of unity, where the perceived need for affirmation of one's peers marking conventional reasoning supplants the drive for just relations marking post-conventional reasoning, the reason exhibited by Jesus.
So, how to deal with this abusive parent, with the interminable double binds, with the periods of maturity punctuated by regressions into those primitive, fear and power driven moments of abuse? At least for this Episcopalian, the answer is simply to adopt a detached, arms length tentativeness.
At some level, the church will always be my mother. She has shaped me, forged many of my values and given name to some of the deepest achings of my heart and soul. I see the world in large part through the lenses of mother church. I could no more divorce myself from that history and its internalization in my life experience than I could surgically remove one of my own vital organs. Like my biological parents, the church's DNA is encoded into my very being.
At the same time, the church has been an abusive parent. It devalues my experience as a gay man, it prevents me from living out my vocation as priest in this diocese in which darkness has fallen. At the same time it speaks of justice for LBGT persons in the wider society, it discriminates against its own queer people and has sold its very soul of justice and integrity for the affirmation of an Anglican Communion now driven by its philistine wing.
So how to deal? I think it looks like this. Family gatherings at holidays are expected and often simply endured because it is the right thing to do. Funerals and weddings are often unavoidable. Adult abused children often attend such events knowing the potential to be abused but also knowing that it is only for a short while after which they can again escape into the arms length safety of detachment. As for the abusive parent church, attendance at Christmas and Easter are probably expectable. And there might be visits on special occasions or times when the ache of absence is too great to ignore. But a regular engagement of this abusive parent is probably not possible. And, sadly, this situation is probably a fact of life for the duration of my lifetime.
I do not like this arrangement, this keeping one foot inside the door with the rest of my body - and soul - elsewhere. As I age I find myself craving community, connectedness, a spiritual grounding. But I have also resigned myself to finding it where it can be found, to meeting those needs in a variety of places, persons and groups. As I often told my juvenile clients on the way into the courtroom, "We don't get to choose our facts, but we do have to deal with them."
And so I value the many things mother church has given me and thank her for the deep impact she has made on my life. And I visit on holidays and occasionally just because I've missed her too much to stay away. I never give up hope that the church I once vowed to serve as priest will finally mature into the kind of healthy institution it has always had the potential to become. But I'm not holding my breath. And I cannot waste any more of my remaining time and energies engaging an institution in denial, the abusive parent unwilling to grow up. I admire those who feel called to that task. And I wish them luck.
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.