Winter Solstice (The Feast of St. Thomas) Dec. 21, 2014
Twenty years ago this night, I was ordained deacon in the Diocese of El Camino Real in my home parish of St. Philips, San Jose, CA. In a service that reflected the multicultural parish that had been my spiritual home for four years of seminary, I took the first step toward priesthood that would be completed the following June.
The date was chosen with care. It was the Feast of St. Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, a feast day traditionally chosen for diaconal ordinations. Transitional deacons are in a period of ongoing development and preparation for their priestly vows. If there are any doubts, that is the time to consider them.
It was also the winter solstice. As the true Celt I am, it seemed the perfect date for an ordination, a time of endings and new beginnings. My days in seminary and the many wonderful classes and trips throughout Latin America were coming to an end. My time as a clergyperson within an institutional church about which I have always been uncertain on a good day how or if I really fit was commencing. New light was beginning to illuminate a dark road ahead. A new life was beginning.
Prior to taking my diaconal vows, my bishop, the late Rt. Rev. Richard Shimpfky, read me the following charge from the Ordination of a Deacon rite in our prayer book:
My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.
As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship.
You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God's Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.
My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?
Answer I believe I am so called.
Life as a Deacon
I was only a deacon for six months. My transitional diaconate concluded with ordination to the priesthood the following June. But the call to diaconal ministry has marked my life both inside and outside the church since my first ordination.
Franciscans are perfect matches for diaconal ministry. Francis himself refused to become ordained a priest. He felt his place was with “the little ones” that Jesus loved who for the most part were found outside the church of his day. And, sadly, in all truthfulness, for the most part they still are.
My life work has long sought to serve “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” The little ones have also been my teachers, reminding me of my own largely unearned privilege. They have taught me what justice means and what injustice looks like. They have reminded me of my own finitude in their illness, their limitations, their weaknesses. They have helped me understand that being fully human means much, much more than amassing degrees, winning awards, attaining a modicum of social status and making a modest income.
The image of G-d shines so brightly on the faces of many of the little ones even as it hides behind distressing disguises of poverty, addictions, criminality and mental illness among others. They are often the ignored and the forgotten in the life of socially respectable churches like the Episcopal Church (once called the Republican Party at prayer).
My diaconal calling to study the scriptures took an unexpected turn shortly after my priestly ordination. I was pretty clear even in seminary that I was probably not cut out to run a parish. Truth be told, I have negative managerial skills and the parish that hired me would have to be crazy. I was told I’d be the priest to the margins at my ordination but Lord knows I had no idea then how far the margins stretched.
Knowing I’d need to make a living at something, I decided to get a doctorate and teach college students. Thus my actual study of scripture proved to be intensive and critical. I learned how scripture was read by Latin American liberationists and critical theorists. I learned how scripture was appropriated and explained through thinkers in sociology, criminology and social psychology. And I learned some Greek and Latin along the way to actually consider the etymology of these words and their historical-cultural context.
Somehow I doubt that’s what the writers of the ordination rite had in mind. But once that cat was out of the bag, it was too late to return to any kind of devotional or dogmatic approaches to scripture.
However, that’s where the last part of the diaconal calling comes in.
Francis often told his friars “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” The Way of Jesus followed by Franciscans is highly incarnational. It sees the image of G-d everywhere it looks. It is precisely what a good deacon should do to “make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship” and, in turn, to "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. "
The Rock That Crushes
Just before I began the process of applying to seminaries, knowing I had no diocesan support for ordination but feeling certain I was called there nonetheless, I accompanied my husband, my parents and my sister and her husband on a trip to Europe. We spent the first four days in Rome. Our hotel was close to the Vatican and I slipped out one night after dinner to go to the colonnaded piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica to pray.
“Peter,” I began, “I want to be a part of your rock. I want to serve the church with all of my heart.”
The presence that came to me that moment was grave though not threatening. “You will be a part of the rock,” Peter said, “and that rock will crush you.”
In the years since my ordination, St. Peter’s rock has indeed proved crushing, a process that has occurred with regularity and a high level of effectiveness. Since leaving my home diocese of El Camino Real in central California in 1995 I was only able to serve briefly as an assistant to the chaplain at the Episcopal chaplaincy at Florida State University during my two years of graduate work there.
When I left Tallahassee in 1997 I was first hired and almost as quickly fired before I even began a position as a university chaplain in another diocese here in Florida, an encounter marked by major subterfuge, incredible dishonesty and eventually no small amount of slander on the part of the bishop and his staff there. As for my current residence, I have never even considered asking the diocese where I now live to license me given its deeply homophobic policies and virulent history. I may be a glutton for punishment but I'm no masochist.
There was a very long time that the Episcopal Church and I had little to say to one another. I presumed that my time with the church was over, that it had been a wonderful dream briefly realized but not to be held onto for any length of time. About five years ago I began to attend a local parish whose rector is a graduate of the seminary I attended in Berkeley. I came to support her and to bring a legally blind friend to church. Sadly, he now is too infirm to leave his care facility. My attendance is spotty at best but I have come to value the community I experience even as my ability to serve there remains highly marginal.
Twenty Years Later - Still Seeking the Way
As the years have passed, I have found myself less and less concerned about the imperatives of an institutional church from which I am largely estranged. One of the benefits of not serving the institution in any leadership capacity is not having to worry about the things with which all institutions concern themselves – toeing the company line, behaving in ways which meet the expectations of its leadership, meeting the demands of its customers and doing whatever is necessary to maintain - if not grow - the customer base.
In the place of those institutional imperatives, I find myself increasingly seeking to discern who Jesus was, what the Way of Jesus was about and what following that Way means here and now. Increasingly I have come to realize that just as Jesus and Francis found themselves on the margins of the institutional religious bodies of their days, following the Way of Jesus in the manner of Francis not surprisingly results in the same thing today.
There are days that it is simply too painful to sit in the pew and watch others do what I was ordained to do but am barred from doing. I put a lot of time, energy and my heart and soul into becoming an ordained priest. Almost the entire cost of my four years of seminary came out of my own pocket.
I continue to try to make my peace with this reality.
That said, I give thanks for the courage of my bishop in California to ordain me. I know he did so in part to get in the face of the now retired bishop of Central Florida. I also know he did so even as I struggled with authority issues and survived a close encounter with a DUI just before leaving California. Much like the mixed blessing Simeon gave Mary that she would have the joy of bearing a child but it would bring with it a sword to pierce her soul, I have cherished both my diaconal and priestly ordinations even as they regularly prove to be swords ever ready to pierce my own soul.
At the moment of my ordination, my bishop prayed, “Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Harry; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church.” At the beginning of my 21st year as an ordained Episcopal clergyman who now sits in a pew, I know that my world is changing and that I am being called in new directions that as of this moment are not very clear. The road is once again dark ahead of me as I await the light of a new year and new life. I pray for the grace and power to be led by Spirit to whatever this new calling might be and the courage to say yes when that calling finally manifests itself.
For this, I believe I am so called.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Regional Campus, Kissimmee
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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