Monday, January 18, 2016

People, Not Politicians: Dealing With an Abusive Mother Church

I received a number of responses to my original post about the actions of the Anglican bishops to suspend the American church from the ill-defined body called the Anglican Communion. They are prompting me to think further about this situation. I always consider that a gift.

No time to play the role of victims

One response came from the former rector of the parish in California in which I was ordained. Jerry is a long-time mentor and currently heads a mission in San Jose to refugees from the conflict in the Sudan. He has been an indispensable advocate and ombudsman for the “lost boys” of the Sudan who have been resettled in the South Bay for a couple of decades now. It is truly a remarkable ministry.

In his reflections on the suspension of the American church, Jerry recalls the history of the Anglican worldwide experience with the locus of power and influence passing from the UK to the US church in the 1950s but by the 1990s moving to the churches of the Global South. As he well puts it, “It is to be expected that the new center would exercise its muscles.”

Indeed. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing for us Americans to be in a place where we are no longer in control of things. Some of my most important lessons in life have arisen from circumstances where as a first world white man of privilege I was in the control of others.

Jerry raises an important point about how the American church should respond: “The danger would be to fall into the role of being a victim, which would be to act out the role assigned to us by the accusers.” Indeed. This is precisely the point I was making in my previous blog entry suggesting that the American church place some safe distance between itself and the institution that insists upon abusing it.

As I have thought about this it has occurred to me that at some level, the “sanctions” the bishops approved are not necessarily a bad thing. The American church will not be chairing committees or helping hammer out issues of policy through voting presence there. Truth be told, to a recent retiree that sounds like a welcome relief from a lot of responsibility.  The To Do list for the American church is hardly empty.

The final sanction is the prohibition of the American church from representing the Communion in interfaith dialogues and gatherings. In all fairness, that probably is also a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, why would the American church want to represent a body marked by its resolute embrace of sexism and homophobia? On the other hand, how could the American church authentically represent such a body given its own long and painful spiritual journey through those very demons of prejudice to become a more inclusive church?

Photo by UNHCR UN Agency 

Of course that leaves people like Jerry and Pam, a fellow parishioner who has done a beautiful job in creating solar lighting and windmill projects in Tanzania, in a difficult place. The ministries that they and thousands of other Episcopalians are doing in the very places whose bishops have just approved this hateful action are way too important to be abandoned.  The needs of the people are a much greater concern than the fragile egos of church leaders, both in the Global South and here at home.

“We love your people even as we fear your government…”

As I was thinking about this distinction between the people in a given place and the leadership which presumes to speak for them and act on their behalf, I was taken back to my own visits to Latin America. One of the most painful days of my life came in April 1992 in the countryside of El Salvador at the end of the war there. As an Episcopal seminarian, I was there under the auspices of the Episcopal Church in El Salvador and the World Council of Churches whose volunteers were monitoring the ceasefire which had just taken effect.

One of our observations took us into the Conflicted Zone well outside the capital, San Salvador, whose demilitarized limits were patrolled by the blue helmeted United Nations peacekeepers. As we drove past the UN troops with a wave, we headed into countryside marked by signs warning us not to leave the highway because of the mines planted there, houses and churches destroyed by artillery and hillsides blackened right down to the bare stone by napalm dropped from helicopters.

                                        Photo from

One of the base communities we visited had become a safe haven for SalvadoreƱos burned by the napalm. The scar tissue on their exposed arms and faces was horrific, painful to even look at. The napalm had been dropped from government helicopters which, along with the napalm, had been provided by the US government. Our so-called “freedom fighters” had been very effective angels of death.

But how had these folks survived? Their burns had clearly been third degree, life-threatening wounds. “The Cuban doctors saved us,” they responded to a person.

Suddenly my own world spun out of orbit. I was taken back to my childhood in Central Florida where we fourth graders were being taught to duck and cover, to stick our heads in our desks when we heard the explosion of nuclear bombs to prevent our eyes from being put out by glass and debris. And over and over we were reminded that the bombs in Castro’s Cuba were only a mere 90 minutes from us. To paraphrase the question Jesus’ disciples pose about becoming his disciples in John’s Gospel, How could anything good come out of Havana?

Later that afternoon we visited a base community named for the daughter of the housekeeper of the Jesuit professors at the University of Central America who had been slaughtered along with her mother and the priests by paramilitary assassins trained in and armed by the US funded and directed School of the Americas. One of the villagers saw us coming, raced up and took my hand and said, “Come with us, we want to show you something.”

Photo by Amando Trull/WAMU

At the top of the hill there was a fuselage of a helicopter which had been raised up and affixed to the tops of a copse of trees. This was the helicopter that had dropped the napalm on them, they told us, shot down by an FMLN rebel rocket. My former LA cop (and now bishop) classmate looked over the helicopter and immediately noted its origin: “It’s a Hughey. It’s one of ours,” he said.

Again, my world went spinning out of control. It was no longer possible to avoid the implications of the revelations of this day. It was the Cuban doctors, the people from the country I had learned to hate and mistrust, who had been the agents of healing here. And it was the people from my own country, the American “security” agents who had taught the military and paramilitary these techniques of terrorism and supplied them with the weaponry to carry it out, who had been the angels of death.

For the remainder of my time in El Salvador I struggled to come to grips with how these embattled people who housed us, fed us and so graciously shared their lives with us could even countenance citizens of the country which had done so much harm to their families, friends and communities. But when I asked that question, I was told repeatedly, “Your government is one thing. Your people are another. We love your people even as we fear your government.”

 Clearly, it is possible to separate the people of a country from the leadership who purports to speak for them and act on their behalf. The needs of the suffering to which every follower of Jesus is called to respond do not go away because the religious leaders feel the need to “exercise [their] muscle” in an international body.

There is no small amount of irony in the recognition that as concerns about how the American church deals with issues of sexuality have become the obsession of the Global South bishops, it is the faithful work of first world projects, many of them led and funded by American Episcopalians, which have sought to respond to the many needs of the peoples of the Global South. Daily these volunteers directly confront the nightmares of HIV, poverty, a flood of war refugees and massive environmental degradation which threaten to swallow up the very people the bishops supposedly represent and they often do so at no small risk to their own lives.

Love in conflict with power often leads to crucifixion

Jerry ended his note to me with this statement: “We are not about to abandon our relationships with South Sudanese because of the actions of the primates.” I suspect that’s true of every American partner of a Global South people including the work my own parish is doing in the Diocese of Kondoa, Tanzania. This will hardly be the first time the imperative of loving one’s neighbor as oneself has trumped the imperatives of religious authorities intent on reassuring themselves of their own importance.

But it is essential to remember that when love comes into conflict with power, the result is often some form of crucifixion. As Massachusetts Bishop Barbara Harris once remarked, “They didn’t kill Jesus for asking the little children to come to him.” The question that we Episcopalians are now answering is simply how much our hard won principles are worth to us.

In that light, it is highly encouraging to see our own leadership’s response to this action by the Anglican bishops. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has been very candid in acknowledging the painfulness of the bishops’ actions as well as the resolute determination of the American church to both remain present in the Communion even as it refuses to walk away from the progressive changes in our church polity which prompted the suspension in the first place.

This is not the outcome we expected, and while we are disappointed, it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization. The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. That’s what the Anglican Communion is, and that Communion continues and moves forward.

This has been a disappointing time for many, and there will be heartache and pain for many, but it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion. We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on. And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people. And maybe it’s a part of our vocation to help that to happen. (“Presiding Bishop and Primate speaks on actions at Primates Meeting” ENS,  January 15, 2016)

In the bigger picture, while the actions of the Anglican bishops are hurtful to an American church whose commitment to inclusivity has been hard won and painfully realized over the last half century, they are simultaneously a source of shame for the bishops who pounded out this resolution. In a world where sexism and homophobia are increasingly unacceptable vestiges of cultural understandings whose time has passed, drawing a line in the sand to hold onto values no longer seen as tenable by increasing numbers of people today is a losing gambit. This is particularly true of the rising Millennial generation who want no part of any church which confuses common social prejudices with religion. This reality, too, is slowly but surely coming to a Global South church near you.

The leadership of the churches of the southern hemisphere, whose politics reveal a failure to develop beyond the limited understandings of the evangelical missionaries of the 19th CE who planted those churches, will increasingly find themselves within circled wagons talking only among themselves. Such a reality will make an ever greater mockery of any claims to be a world-wide communion.

Perhaps the witness of the American Presiding Bishop and bishops from the churches in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia can make a difference in this reality over time. If the experience of The Episcopal Church is any indication, it will be a long, painful process. There may be multiple crucifixions before this is over. 

I admire Michael Curry’s sense of dedication to this calling. I wish him well in the process. And my prayers, contributions and energies will remain with all of those who seek to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with G-d among the peoples of the Global South.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

1 comment:

Pam Taormina said...

I was moved emotionally as I read your blog today. I have spent the past several days in turmoil over the latest decision made by the Anglican Communion concerning the Episcopal Church. I was first disturbed by the rejection attempt led by some members of the Global South bloc - worried about the political/legal impact for individuals in those countries. Then I began to lose sleep worrying about whether or not the Episcopal Church would begin to reject the opportunity of our parishes to continue to provide spiritual and financial support to our partners in the Global South.

I have a long term (11 year relationship) with the current Bishop of Kondoa, Tanzania. My husband and I met him when we still lived in Virginia full time - during that period of turmoil. We saw parishes leave the diocese there (that is a background to the story) for the acceptance of not only Bishop Gene Robinson, but also the election of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Scori. We hosted him as a "foreign student" while he waited to attend Virginia Theological Seminary. We became instant friends - he stayed with us many different times during that period. He also became exposed to the concept of openly gay priests - and we discussed this topic with him. He made friends who were gay, he let us know that he wanted his wife to become an ordained priest also - because the diocese in Central Tanganyika had already ordained women. (This is a result of the Bishop of Central Tanganyika having attended seminary in Australia.) His wife was able to attend seminary at Trinity with a full scholarship and she is also an ordained priest. Given Gaula was awarded his master's degree at Virginia Theological Seminary and returned to Tanzania with the goal of sharing his more enhanced exposure to the Anglican Communion. Within a year and a half later he and his wife and three children were moved to Auckland, New Zealand to study and receive his doctorate. I mention this because of the undeniable expansion for all of them - culturally, educationally and spiritually. This has been invaluable for not only them, but for the people of the diocese of Kondoa.

After 4 trips to East Africa, 3 of those in Kondoa to try to fulfill my more practical side I have finally found my mission in life. A place that is one of the poorest of the poorest countries, I am beyond language to describe my belief into my soul that what our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry said, "The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. That’s what the Anglican Communion is, and that Communion continues and moves forward." is our mission!