Like an old shoe
Chaplain to the margins
This past Sunday, I attended church at St. Richard’s parish, Winter Park. In itself, that’s not terribly remarkable. But what was unusual about it was the fact it was the third Sunday in a row I’d been in the pews, something that had not happened since I last served the church in an official capacity as assistant chaplain at the Chapel of the Resurrection at FSU during my doctoral work days.
To put this into persepctive, I moved to Orlando from Tallahassee in 1997. Over the past 15 years I have occasionally attended church, almost always at St. Richard’s, and have from time to time actually officiated at services in a handful of parishes across the dioceses of Central and Southwest Florida, generally under the auspices of the Franciscan Third Order. More often, I have led services at gravesides, backyards, dining room tables and at altars of churches outside ECUSA. When I was ordained I was told I was going to serve those at the margins of the church. I simply had no idea how far those margins stretched.
Watching others do what I was ordained to do
I’m pretty clear on why I’ve been essentially a no-show at church here in Central Florida on any kind of regular basis. This has long been a hostile diocese to LBGTQ people, leading the retrenchment efforts within the national church against guaranteeing that all Episcopalians have equal access to all the sacraments including ordination and marriage. While St. Richard’s has long been a don’t-ask-don’t-tell exception to that institutional homophobia, it has largely done so in terms of silent tolerance.
What that has meant for this priest is being confined to the pews and watching others officiate services, carrying out the duties I was ordained to do as well but knowing that I could never live into that ordination here. From the pew side, these services are a bittersweet experience, a repeated dagger to the heart of rejection and judgment on the one hand, the warm familiarity of an old shoe on the other. It’s a bit like having a traditional Christmas dinner with one’s abusive family that one still loves despite the history of abuse. Most of the time, it’s just been too much to handle. As a result, my spot in the pew has remained cold most of the time.
Coming back to church on even a semi-regular basis signals that some of the deep hurts this diocese has inflicted upon me and so many other people have largely scarred over. That has been accomplished largely by avoiding the scene of the crime. While I hold fond memories of my days at St. Luke’s Cathedral and its once vibrant downtown ministry, I also know that place and that community no longer exist. Perhaps I have finally worked through my grieving over that loss even as the Ghosts of Cathedrals Past prevent me from returning to its ornate halls, the chaplaincy to the well-to-do now guarded by iron fences and locked gates. Like the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, once one has lost the luxury of naîveté, one’s innocent childhood is no longer available to them, the return barred by angels with flaming swords guarding its gates.
My return to the pews also signals that I have to a large degree come to grips with the disappointment and finally the death of the many dreams held out by life in seminary and my experiences in the magical parish of St. Phillips, San Jose, CA. In those days it seemed the Christian tradition was emerging from its encrusted shell of power, prejudice and an addiction to comfort, promising to offer the world what it needed – a way to love our neighbors as ourselves, to embrace the outcast, to offer ordinary people the tools they needed for a meaningful life here and now with the hope of the presence of G-d in the hereafter. In short, it seemed to offer a means of nothing less than actually transforming the world. Wrapped in the symbolic universe of powerful music, lyrical liturgies and centuries of art and intentionally engaging the ethical wrestling with the many concerns of the world around us, the Episcopal Church offered a way of being fully human like none other I had encountered. I left seminary hopeful, excited about living in the world in a new way.
I find myself wistfully smiling as I write these words. That life seems like a long time ago in a place far removed from here. Things were a lot clearer then. There have been a lot of disappointments and even more disillusionment between that place and here.
Thus I find it a little odd as I realized last Sunday that I was in church for the third straight Sunday for the first time in 15 years. I noted that to the priest on the way out the door and she asked, “So, how does it feel?” I told her it felt pretty good. And it does. Sort of. Why I am not sure though I have some ideas about it.
Actually, he brings me
The immediate occasion for my attendance is at some level a relatively minor act of compassion. My long time friend Charles, legally blind, evicted from public housing and only recently recovered from being run over by a car in middle of the busy highway on which he now lives, wanted to attend church and asked if I’d take him. It’s a bit of a pain to drive up there to get him and take him home afterward, but it also insures that I go to church as well. Perhaps it’s Charles who’s doing me the favor.
Charles will go just about anywhere I am willing to take him, in part just to get out of the house, but his presence with me in churches has long been a litmus test for the communities I have visited with him. He tends to wear old, worn out clothing and sometimes is not the most attentive to personal hygiene. If one didn’t know better, it’d be easy to conclude he was homeless. And given his nearly complete reliance on others at this point in his life, he effectively is. So how people respond to Charles in the churches we visit tells me volumes about them, their character and their religions. It also tells me whether I ever want to go back.
The folks at St. Richards are politely tolerant if nothing else. And their response to Charles has been guardedly welcoming. I find it amusing that many of them signal to me that they see my bringing Charles as some kind of major kindness. An old friend from Cathedral days recently said to me, “Thank you for bringing him.” Without thinking I responded, “Actually, he brings me.” And, at least for the past three Sundays, that has been partially true.
I hear my mother’s voice singing
But there’s more to it than that. In my conversation with the energetic and engaging rector who is a fellow alumna of my seminar in Berkeley, we talked a lot about the value of community. I find my life in a time of upheaval these days. I’m not sure what I am called to be and do at this point in my life as my sixth decade comes to an end. I also find the communities of which I have been a part seem to be disintegrating before my eyes, often painfully and angrily. I find myself craving grounding, relationship, human contact. And, I’m beginning to feel that at St. Richards if ever so tentatively.
I find my throat clutching and my eyes tearing up as I sing old, familiar hymns that date back to my now 38 years of being an Episcopalian, some going back even further to my childhood as a Methodist. (The Wesleys were faithful Anglicans after all). I sometimes hear my mother’s voice as we sing old Wesleyan hymns. And I feel a wave of sad nostalgia sweep over me as the choir sings anthems whose bass line I once sang in the choir of a Cathedral whose intentionally welcoming urban community has long since gone away.
Interestingly, I also find myself doing a lot less wrestling with the liturgy, the lessons and the sermons than I have in more recent years. I have come to enjoy the familiarity of the liturgy even as I can only make sense of it in symbolic terms and awareness of its historical construction. While I have long since realized that atonement theology and the Christology of its pronouncements were almost completely meaningless to me, I continue to find the life and example of Jesus as the revelation of G_d to be worth affirming. And I do believe that it is possible to hope for a life after death with G-d (in the words of the Canadian United Church affirmation we use at Integrity eucharists).
Compassion for the spiritual needs of others
I have also come to be more tolerant of the spiritual needs of others around me that are expressed in common liturgical worship. I know that many feel a need for the lessons from the lectionary to be seen as somehow “the word of God” even as I recognize that while G-d’s voice may be in those lessons, it’s one of many voices present in scripture, along with its writers, editors and transmitters historically. While I never liked the response “Here ends the reading” in my more Anglo-Catholic days, I find in my old age that it really is more honest than responding with “the word of the Lord.”
I also know that rehearsing the details of the bargain in the Creed that many make each week– if one buys into the Trinitarian theology package complete with its atonement construct one gets one free pass directly into Heaven – is important for them. Never underestimate the ability of existential anxiety to motivate people. And what could be more existentially anxiety producing than fear that this life is the only one human beings get or, worse, that an afterlife of suffering is possible if one doesn’t get the formula right here and now?
While notions of arbitrary deities who require agreement with particular human constructions of religion as a condition of an artificial existential security – much less an afterlife - are probably not worthy of serious consideration by thoughtful believers, fear can produce an awful lot of results not otherwise indicated. One of the many gifts my Buddhist teacher in San Jose gave me was the realization that in most cases where judgment is our first instinct, compassion is more likely the appropriate response. “We all know what it feels like to suffer,” she said, “which is why we should recognize the suffering in the other with our compassion, not our judgment.”
Finally, I recognize the deep need almost all of us feel for affirmation if not social respectability. Never underestimate the desire for comfort as a motivation for human behavior. And few institutions are more prone to focus on comfort than organized religion. Indeed, it is the comfort of having a place to belong that at least in part has brought me back to the pews at St. Richards.
Which is why the assertion that the rector at St. Richard’s makes each week is refreshing – “We’re here to change our lives and to change our world,” adding puckishly, “That’s all.” I’ve long since come to believe that a religion which does not have the potential to transform individual lives and the world in which we live is not a faith worth practicing. How that happens is quite another story. And, frankly, while St. Richard’s is not a particularly dynamic parish in this sense, it is clearly a stark contrast to the parishes which dominate this diocese who weekly pound their parishioners with moralistic, fear-driven drivel and the smug, self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee giving thanks that G-d has not made them like other men.
Over the past couple of years I’ve taught a couple of adult Sunday School classes at the parish and volunteered to lead a couple of rounds of Stations of the Cross this past Lent. I’ve also agreed to preach on the Feast of St. Francis this fall. There are some who would like to see me become more active in parish life while I sense there are others who are at best tentative about the presence of a well-educated, outspoken and openly gay priest who is legally married to his husband of 38 years. Such figures tend to be lightning rods.
A new breeze is blowing?
Frankly, I don’t see this diocese returning to its former tolerance for gay priests anytime soon. The new bishop is his own man and will not be guided by the mean-spirited moralism of his predecessor who destroyed the Cathedral community I once loved and served. His deployment officer recently was quoted as saying “A new breeze is blowing through this diocese.” Time will tell what that means.
In the meantime, I am not holding my breath that I’ll be licensed to function here. Indeed, I’m not sure I even want that. I do know that my intuition was on target when I realized in seminary that I never wanted to run a parish myself. I also know that the idealistic alternative vision I entertained in seminary of being an engaged worker priest may have been optimistic about my energies and my time management skills.
But I also know that my life is changing in ways I never thought possible. I am more tolerant of beliefs and practices I once found antithetical to true religion (always defined, of course, on my own terms). I am more desirous of community and the occasional opportunity to serve that community than I have been in the past. And I find that my arm’s length reengagement of the church after a 15 year self-imposed exile might actually provide a workable relationship. Perhaps this is a good example of the rabbinical joke, “If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans. If you want to make G-d really laugh, tell G-d G-d’s plans.”
One final thought. It does not hurt the chances that I might reengage the Episcopal Church in a more substantial manner that it has in its last two General Conventions accomplished things I never thought possible. Last convention it apologized to LBGTQ people for the pain it had caused them. This convention it approved a trial use of same-sex blessings and removed discrimination against transgendered persons in the ordination track. It has also expanded its Lesser Feasts and Fasts to include a wide range of human exemplars worthy of our reverence and remembrance. Amazing.
This sounds like the Episcopal Church I thought I had joined some 38 years ago – marked by a beautiful, lyrical and mystical worship, devoted to community both within and without its walls and dedicated to justice in the world around us. That is the church I knew as a child I wished to join and which I once loved deeply and devotedly. That is the church I once vowed to serve as priest. And perhaps it is a church I will re-embrace and perhaps actually be able to serve once again. Time will tell.
Post Scriptum Unus – I celebrated the 17th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood on June 22, the Feast of Saint Thomas More, patron saint of attorneys and college professors, and, not coincidentally, also the Summer Solstice in honor of my Celtic heritage. It has been an interesting 17 years as the chaplain to the far flung margins. As I reflected on my nearly two decades of priesthood on the anniversary of my ordination, it occurred to me that I actually like being a priest. I have never been a conventional priest, confusing middle class mores with the concerns of the divine. And I have never felt the need to be a defender of the institution. Indeed, I see the failure to be critically aware of its shortcomings and humbly willing to confront them honestly as a greater liability to the tradition than any perceived threat from the outside.
Though I have been prevented from serving the church in any systematic fashion since my return to Central Florida, I remain grateful for everything the Episcopal Church has given me over the past nearly four decades. And even as I sit in the pew watching others do what I, too, was ordained to do but prevented from doing so by the ongoing legacy of homophobia within the Christian tradition, I remain grateful to the bishop who took a chance on me and ordained me priest 17 years ago. May you rest in peace, Richard Schimpfky.
Post-Scriptum Secondus – As Mark Twain’s famous quip that rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated, I find myself sheepishly smiling as I put the finishing touches on this blog entry on Sunday four, having overslept this morning after a long weekend with my Dad and two nephews and thus absent from my pew at St. Richards.
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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