Thursday, December 20, 2012

*This* is the church I joined

You’re studying too hard…

In 1973, I was a junior at the University of Florida. I had transferred there from a community college where I had been a big fish in a little pond. At UF, I had become merely one of the cast of thousands, 27,000 to be precise, and quickly came to feel pretty lost.

I had been raised in the Methodist Church, a refuge of sanity in a small town where Southern Baptists were dominant and where fundamentalist churches such as the Primitive Baptists and the Church of Christ were their main competitors. The Methodist Church was the place where most of the teachers in the local high school (like my Dad) attended.  There was a modicum of social consciousness there. And while it was hardly a paragon of depth or critical thought, it was certainly better than any of the alternatives.

The Methodists maintained a chaplaincy on the edge of the UF campus. It offered a limited refuge each week from the dorm room I shared with a nasty, stinky kid from New Jersey and a drug dealer from Lakeland. I came home from class one afternoon to find the latter sitting with his supplier, a gun in his face, being threatened with being “blown away” if he ever “held out on” on his dealer again.  

In all honesty, I was pretty depressed by the end of that first semester, not the least of which came from dealing with my first round of attempts to come to grips with my sexual orientation. I could often hear the yellow jackets of suicide buzzing around my ears those days awaiting opportunities to light and sting. My wrists still bear the scars of those painful though fortunately not fatal stings.

Desperate for some direction, I sought out the pastor at the Methodist chaplaincy. I began to tell him how frightened I was, how lonely I felt and how confused I was about where I was going. The man listened with patience saying little. And then I dropped the bomb about my confusion over my sexual orientation.

At that point, the man’s face changed visibly, drained of all its color. He turned away from me to his desk. Without even looking at me he said, “I think you’ve been studying too hard. Why don’t you go home and get some rest and come back and we’ll talk in January.”  I had no idea what to say except, “OK. Thank you” and I got up to leave.

What I hold in my memory to this day is the image of the exterior of that office door as I closed it behind me. I stood and looked at it for a full minute or so. It was full of dings and thumb tack holes as well as a few errant pieces of Scotch tape which had all been clumsily painted over with a bright red enamel. And I remember thinking as I stood there that I was closing the door to a chapter of my life that day. From that day forward, I would never again be a Methodist.

It felt like a holy place.

I survived the semester, moved across campus to another residential housing dorm with two other roommates for the Spring. The following fall I would move to my father’s fraternity house which had just reopened its chapter at UF where I would meet my future husband. 

For a couple of years I simply forgot about church. I knew the Methodist Church had no room for me anymore. But I had no alternatives in mind. In Fall of 1975, I moved to a duplex across town in Gainesville with my big brother in the fraternity who would later become my partner and then husband.  Away from campus and the fraternity, I had the space to think once again about my spiritual life.

Right down the street from our apartment was the main Episcopal Church in Gainesville. I walked by the church by accident one day and decided to poke my head in the door. It was a century old building, full of stained glass and carved wood. The place wreaked of incense and candle wax of liturgies past. It was dark inside with colored pools of light pouring through the windows, puddling on dark, heavily oiled hard wood floors between the rows of pews. There was a deep, meditative feeling about that space. It felt like a holy place. And I had a strange feeling as I sat in the pew that day, praying for guidance, that perhaps I had found the place I needed to be.

The first night I attended a Sunday evening service there (because I was inevitably too hung over Sunday mornings from Saturday night parties to get up and go to church) a few things struck me immediately. The first was that the priest’s sermon was fairly intellectual. He used multi-syllable words and didn’t start off with some version of “Hi, y’all!” Clearly, this was not your mother’s Methodist Church.

The second thing that struck me was that the priest was black. I’d never seen a black minister of any tradition in any church I’d ever attended. Indeed, I could probably count on one hand the black people I’d ever seen in church, period. I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance as I watched this young priest preach and celebrate the communion at the altar. It was a strange thing but I felt deep down that it was also a good thing.

A lot of things were changing….

But this was 1975 and many things were changing. The Episcopal Church was in the midst of changing its prayer book from the 1929 version with its chopped up, muddled liturgies to a more lyrical modern version which spoke of “this fragile earth, our island home.” The new BCP would relegate most of its self-deprecating theology such as the prayer of humble (humiliating?) access (We are not worth so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table – Really? Even ants can do that!) to a Rite I that would find a home at early services with elderly parishioners. It would incarnate the Anglican via media by placing both old and new liturgical forms within one book offering a choice to those who would use it.

Perhaps more revolutionary was the change taking place in its leadership. Women were being ordained priest in the Episcopal Church even as its boys club clergy  had to be brought kicking and screaming into that new reality. And white Episcopal priests who had been strongly involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were now embodying the equality for which they struggled, opening  pulpits and altars to people of color.

I looked around the church that night, pondering the provocative sermon I had heard about social responsibilities, feeling strangely at home in that place of stained glass, lyrical liturgies, incense and flickering candles, rejoicing that this church was actually embodying its principles in its own leadership. And I thought, maybe this church has a place for me. 

Two years later I would be confirmed as an Episcopalian.

A chaplain to the margins

That seems like a long time ago now and a lot has happened in my life and in my relationship with the Episcopal Church in the meantime. It would take another 15 years but I finally came to grips with my sexuality, a Kinsey 4 just to the gay side of center. I would get involved with the Episcopal Church’s struggle for justice within its own membership over LGBT first class citizenship, a struggle which is only just now coming to fruition.

After a brief period studying in the local diocesan seminary for deacons, I would leave my law practice behind and move across the country to embrace a totally unforeseen role of seminarian studying for the Episcopal priesthood. I would become a member of a very dynamic multi-cultural parish in San Jose, CA which, in turn, would launch a 20 year period of traveling and studying all over Latin America. 

Eventually, I would be ordained priest in 1995, a chaplain to those “at the margins” I was told. But I knew even then that I would not be able to make my living in parish ministry. And so I would return home to Florida to complete my education in a doctoral program in religion and society to teach at the university level.

The “margins” have always proven much further flung than I had originally envisioned.  By moving home and returning to a diocese with an officially homophobic stance,  my function as a priest was relegated to occasionally celebrating for Integrity, the LBGT fellowship of the church, for the third order Franciscans and in the occasional invitation to pulpits and altars I have received over the years. And at least for the time being, connection to parish ministry in any kind of regular form is probably out of the question.

But the margins have proved far broader than an institution whose control issues too often play out in a confusion of moralism with religion. As the chaplain to the margins, I have celebrated any number of weddings, unions and officiated at more funerals than I’d like to imagine, all of them outside the auspices of the church. I’ve blessed any number of homes and I have offered prayers at any number of interfaith functions. I was privileged to baptize both of my sister’s babies, preside over my mother’s graveside service and I led a religious community of exiles from a wide range of traditions who met weekly in my home over a 13 year period.

None-of-the-Above with spiritual needs

What none of us had foreseen in 1995 when the Episcopal Church made me a priest “to the margins” was the great diaspora from organized religion that was coming. The ranks of the unaffiliated have mushroomed over the past two decades and now a full 1 in 5 Americans report no affiliation with a religious body. And yet, they remain human beings with spiritual needs, needs for rites of passage at the deaths of their loved ones, needs for counseling when confused or frightened, needs for space to voice their anger at the harm done to them by their former religious affiliations even as they speak of the need for Spirit in their lives. 

I have to doubt the Episcopal Church recognized how prescient its ordination of a priest to serve as chaplain to the margins would actually become. In all fairness, it is a chaplaincy that has more often played out in those margins than inside the church. And yet, my heart – and at least a portion of my soul - remains Episcopalian.

Latter day epiphanies…

The history I lay out above seems like several lifetimes ago. Life is largely up in the air for me these days as I struggle to decide what the next step in my professional life will be. After a long hiatus from any kind of regular connection with the Episcopal Church, I find myself back in the pew, occasionally in the pulpit and at the altar. I have learned to be content to watch others do what I am ordained to do. And I am happy to have some semblance of spiritual community and connection to my chosen religious tradition again.

This past Sunday, I found myself having yet another moment of epiphany that took me back to that night 37 years ago in Gainesville, this time in the parish I have recently come to call home, St. Richards, Winter Park. I looked at the altar and it suddenly dawned on me that standing there was a gay priest, a black priest and a woman priest. Kneeling at the altar rail and ringing the sanctus bells was a middle aged man with Downs Syndrome.

In the congregation around me sat two retired priests, white, male, straight, with their families. Next to them sat lesbian couples, a gay couple with their adopted son who also served as acolyte, and a number of families of color from all over the Caribbean. Over 20 children from the parish ran to the altar steps when it was time for the children’s sermon and the sea of gray heads, my own included, nodded and smiled at their energetic time together.  

It was a little glimpse of the kingdom of G-d.

The main sermon was provocative, theological but also with calls to social responsibility in the wake of this week’s massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, CT. Indeed, the service began with five minutes of silence in their memory which ended with 27 peels of the bells for each child of G-d whose lives had ended so abruptly and so brutally.  And as I looked around the parish that morning, there were many eyes brimming with tears, my own included.

This is a parish working hard at being the church in which "there are no outcasts," to quote its former presiding bishop, where all the children of G-d have a place at the table; a church which recognizes that faith without works is dead and calls it to action, avoiding the trap of becoming a mere exercise in spiritual escapism;  a church which nourishes the right brain with robust symbols, beautiful music and good liturgy; a church which does not require checking your brain in at the door; a church which works hard at embodying community and hospitality. And to the degree that this parish reflects the larger tradition of which it is a part, this is a church worth serious consideration by people seeking Spirit in all the many forms it takes.

As I walked from church Sunday, making the sign of the cross with holy water and shaking hands with the three priests lined up outside the door, I thought to myself, “Now, this is the church I joined so many years ago.” Deo gratias.

O G-d in whom we live, move and have our being:
We pray for your holy Catholic Church. May it be filled 
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
help us to purify it; where it is in error, open our hearts and minds 
to your guidance; where in anything it is amiss,
help us find the courage to reform it. Where it is right,
may we ever strengthen it; where it is in want, 
help us find the will to provide for it; and where it is divided,
be with us in our work to reunite it.

We ask all this in the name of Jesus called the Christ,
our Brother and your Son, whose way we would ever followAmen.
(Prayer for the Church, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, adapted)

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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