Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the Retirement of John the Oppressor - II

Whiter, Grayer and Stagnant

The conservative myth about church and society often asserted as somehow self-evidently true is that if a tradition becomes too liberal it loses all its conservative members to more conservative denominations. In fact, that has rarely been true of the Episcopal Church where social mobility and social cachet have played much larger roles in drawing new members than anything theological. When one becomes the president of the local bank, it is often seen as a violation of the unwritten rules of social hierarchy to continue attending the local Baptist or Pentecostal Church. There are an awful lot of ex-Baptist bankers and judges sitting in Episcopal pews.

Moreover, Episcopalians have always celebrated being the “church of the refugee” in the words of sociologist Robert Bellah. He observed that many Episcopalians come from the churches of their childhood having outgrown the parent/child self-understandings, the tribal moralism and the rigid, dark theologies of their former churches. And the Episcopal Church has long prided itself on its role in providing refuge to such wounded souls.

The truth is that most of the bleeding which has occurred in more liberal traditions like ECUSA over the past three decades has actually occurred on the left end of the spectrum, not the right. Episcopalians simply don’t leave their churches to become Baptists. But the opposite has always been true. Sadly, when Episcopalians leave, most generally just leave organized religion altogether.

Refugees from the Church of the Refugees

That pattern was certainly true in the post-Howe Diocese of Central Florida. Some who fled the Cathedral in its new fundamentalist politically correct incarnation found parishes that were “not so bad.” A few parishes even sought to be magnanimous in their tolerance of gay people, an effort that probably says more about the need for affirmation of those who would see themselves as tolerant than anything about those they’d tolerate, a relationship built on condescension rather than the dignity of equals.

But the reality is that most who left the Diocese of Central Florida in the early days of the Howe regime – and many, many did - simply stopped attending church altogether. For those who had already left behind hurtful churches with adolescent theologies and authoritarian polities for refuge in the Episcopal Church, this sudden shift to a familiar but already rejected purity-based moralistic religion was seen as a betrayal. And for many it was simply the last straw with institutional religion.

In the 25 years that ensued, the Diocese of Central Florida earned itself a reputation in the national church as a backwater of regression, a place where the church in its earlier, adolescent stages of development had come back with a vengeance. Many Episcopalians who had come to Central Florida from other dioceses found themselves alienated when the tolerant, erudite tradition they had come to church expecting proved to be missing. In its place they found parishes whose worship had some of the appearances of being Anglican but whose ethos, politics and theology were anything but.

In all fairness, some remaining parishioners gladly welcomed the changes in a church in which they would previously have felt somewhat marginalized. Indeed, it is amusing to hear conservatives in Central Florida today speak of themselves in terms of martyrdom vis-à-vis their pariah status in the larger Episcopal Church. While they have gladly pursued actual oppression of gays and lesbians in their own diocese, they readily point to the fact that their views have not managed to win the hearts and minds – much less the respect - of the larger church (and thus provide them the means of controlling it) as somehow a sign of being marginalized. It’s a bit like hearing inveterate segregationists in the 1960s lamenting over their discrimination and oppression in a desegregated America which had come to recognize them for what they truly were – racists.

Whiter, Grayer and Stagnant

As I noted in the interview with the Sentinel, when one looks at the Episcopal Church in Central Florida over this 25 year period when the region’s population has more than doubled and greatly diversified, the diocese has stagnated and become whiter than the surrounding population and decidedly grayer. For the most part people of color and young people are missing. That bodes poorly for the future of a once respected tradition in Central Florida.

I do not see the Episcopal Church disappearing altogether in Central Florida or anywhere else across the country. There will always be some who come for the aesthetics – a celebrated musical tradition and a lyrical liturgy that draw anyone with a taste for public ritual done well. And, truth be told, conservatives feeling a need for theologies driven by fear and self-affirmation will continue to find refuge in shrinking and increasingly conservative churches which will affirm them as an island of the elect in a frightening sea of the damned.

But the long range future of organized religious bodies generally is overshadowed by a trend that Robert Putnam recently noted in his study of American religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us (Manchester U. Press, 2010). Putnam and co-author David Campbell have found that the “none of the above” response to queries about one’s religious institutional affiliation in America has jumped over the past decade to 17% overall but 25% among the 18-24 year old cohort. Putnam explains it this way: If all the church has to talk about is gay marriage and abortion, most young people want little to do with it. It’s pretty clear that this message never made it down to the diocesan offices here in Orlando.

It is the ghosts of Episcopal Churches past whom I encounter from time to time in the grocery store, at Petsmart or at the occasional event downtown that continue to grieve my soul. While I chalk up a lot of John Howe’s brittle theology and poorly reasoned political statements to a largely uncritical, poorly educated mind and a fearful existence clearly driven by inner demons I thank G-d I have not had to contend with, it is the hardness of heart by which John simply refused to look at the human carnage of his policies with which I have had the most trouble. As a preacher, he was mediocre on a good day, as a politician within the larger church he was a flop. As a manager, his hegemony over every aspect of his own diocese – particularly its propaganda organs – was legendary. But as a pastor to all the members of his flock - a duty he agreed to undertake in his ordination vows -  John Howe was an abject failure. And it is that failure, and the resulting damage he caused to so many vulnerable, already damaged human beings, that I find difficult to forgive.

Still, I wish him well.....

It will be tempting for those who support John Howe to dismiss this posting as a mindless bashing animated by personal animosity. Increasingly I observe that few people today are able to distinguish critique from bashing given how few are skilled at and accustomed to critical thinking. But I’d like to be clear here that these comments are directed at an elected official in the conduct of his office, fair game from a constituent any day. Fair or not, bishops are held to slightly higher standards than their flock in the execution of their duties, particularly given the power their office affords them with its capacity to harm others. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it’s not that I think John Howe is “a very bad man,” I simply observe that from the perspective of those he has harmed, he’s been a very poor bishop.

As for myself, I do not wish John Howe ill. My observation of him is that he has endured a very trying personal life and that his self-created fiasco in the latter years of his bishopric would have tried the patience of saints. Due partly to his efforts, however conflicted, the Diocese remains a part of the national church even as the remaining clergy who passed the Howe litmus test will no doubt insure the election of a successor even farther to the right than Howe.

Most of all, I can only imagine the demons that haunt a soul which exhibits such a high need for assertive righteousness and hostility toward those it determines to be enemies. Carl Jung observed that the brighter one’s persona is constructed, the darker its shadow content. The psychic cost of repressing the shadow in this case must be enormous. Little wonder it results in so much projection of shadow in its dealing with LBGQT people and those who would dare to afford them human dignity.

I do wish John Howe a pleasant retirement. As I once told him, “I was here before you came and I’ll be here after you’re gone.” While that is technically true, the reality is that the Episcopal Church has long since stopped being a regular part of my life, a somewhat painful reality for this priest but something I have accepted as a cost of living here in Central Florida. While I have in fact preached from pulpits and celebrated the eucharist from altars within John Howe’s diocese since my ordination, other than the occasional feast day and odd service such as the blessing of the animals, I’m simply not present in any of Howe’s churches most Sundays. That’s a reality that probably has little to do with John Howe and a lot to do with a religious tradition I have come to value in retrospect but painfully recognize I have largely outgrown in any kind of ongoing engagement.

Farewell, John the Oppressor. May you find the peace in your retirement that clearly eluded you during your reign as bishop of Central Florida. As the Buddhists have taught me to say, “I wish you well.”

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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