Friday, January 15, 2016

Keeping a Safe Distance from an Abusive Mother Church

 The news from the UK is that the convened primates of the Anglican churches throughout the world have voted to suspend the US Episcopal Church from that body for three years:

A majority of Anglican primates Jan. 14 asked that the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

Photo: Matthew Davies/Episcopal News Service

In short, we American Episcopalians have essentially just been voted off the Anglican Island.

Just the Latest in a Long History of Abuse

This trial separation was less severe than the permanent divorce a large minority of Anglican primates (arch or presiding bishop of a national church) wanted. A vote on a canonically questionable motion for outright suspension of the American church failed on a 15-20 vote. But the closeness of the vote clearly demonstrates the animosity toward the American (and to a lesser extent the Canadian and English) church brewing in many corners of the worldwide Anglican tradition, predominately among its southern hemisphere churches.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that our bishops, clergy and laity have been run over roughshod at Canterbury. At the Lambeth Council gathering of Anglican bishops in 1998, American bishops were shouted down from the floor and essentially silenced during the debates over the final resolutions passed by the conference. Newark Bishop John Spong was widely castigated for describing such behaviors and the attitudes they reveal as tribalistic even as an African bishop physically assaulted openly gay Anglican clergy and sought to cast out their “demons” outside the conference halls.

Hearings allowing gay and lesbian Anglicans to offer their testimony to the committee on sexuality were cancelled while self-proclaimed “healed” gays and lesbians, many who were not Anglican, were provided space and time to speak. For most Americans present, it was a nuclear nightmare.

The bone of contention with American prelates in 1998 was two-fold: One, the American church’s proceeding with the ordination of women clergy and bishops and, two, the steady movement toward insuring first class citizenship for LBGTQ people in the American church already underway then which came to culmination last summer in the General Convention’s vote to perform same sex marriages. Women bishops were particularly poorly treated at the 1998 Lambeth, greeted with demeaning sexist commentary and often not permitted to speak. The shabby treatment of the American presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, by these bishops in the past decade, has been an ongoing expression of this sexist behavior since then.

The slow but steady decision making to end systemic discrimination against LBGTQ people by the American church has been matched by the increasing level of vitriol against American Episcopalians in the more conservative quarters of Anglicanism around the world. In the US a handful of bishops and parishes left The Episcopal Church (TEC) over the decision to marry same sex couples following similar minor departures by those opposed to women’s ordination and prayer book revisions in the past. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual (though not juridical) head of the communion, announced that the 2018 Lambeth Conference would be cancelled in the face of widespread opposition among African bishops to even meet with American prelates because of TEC’s stance on LBGTQ issues.

At the same time, the occupants of the primacy of Canterbury have routinely engaged in politics of avoidance which have largely served to exacerbate this pattern. The abusive behaviors of bishops at Lambeth 1998 occurred under the watch of George Carey, himself an evangelical, whose tacit agreement with the bullying tactics of the gathering’s conservative quarters allowed them to occur with abandon. Rowan Williams, Carey’s successor, spent the entirety of his archbishopric desperately trying to keep the fragile communion from coming apart on his shift, empowering conservatives to make ever greater demands on the body. Now Justin Welby has called a meeting of the bishops after just saying he would not convene Lambeth two years from now for fear of schism only to see the Americans voted off the island.

Whatever other qualities are required of an Archbishop of Canterbury, integrity in the face of demagoguery and courage in the face of existential crisis are clearly not among them. The apology offered by the current Archbishop to LBGTQ persons today may be comforting but it occurs in the wake of yet another round of institutional gay bashing this very week.

Photo: Episcopal News Service

Only Certain Fathers Actually Know Best

Of course, it is hardly unusual to see conservative religious people confusing religion with common social prejudices.  Whatever else one might want to say about sexism and homophobia, they always remain common social prejudices in both inception and in substance. It’s hardly surprising that people with fear and control-driven constructs of religion would hold prejudices that reflect an abiding fear of those who are different.

Projecting these prejudices into the mind of G-d exacerbates the sin of failing to love one’s neighbor as oneself with the blasphemy of attempting to require G-d to do the same. Writer Anne Lamott hits the nail on the head regarding attempts to rationalize this disingenuous misanthropy with her observation “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

The goal of the conservative bishops over the last two decades has always been to whip the American and egalitarian Canadian and English bishops into line. The basic demand was that these churches not proceed with any plans to lift centuries old discrimination against women and LBGTQ people, both lay and ordained, until the other bishops agreed to permit them to do so. Like most conservative thinking, this reflects no small amount of paternalism:

Father knows best but only certain fathers.

Mixed in with this paternalism is no small amount of well-deserved resentment toward the northern hemisphere churches generally and the American church specifically regarding its own paternalistic tendencies historically. The majority of Anglican missionaries to the southern hemisphere came from evangelical quarters of the church whose evangelizing always begins with the incredibly self-serving presumption “We have what you need.” Indeed, the recent tying of huge “gifts” of American evangelical money to Anglican support for homophobic legislation in numerous jurisdictions in Africa has made that presumption quite literal.

Spiritualties Talking Past One Another

The vote of the bishops also reveals disparate levels of spirituality in conflict. Religiosity based in believing is the lowest level of any spirituality. It is dualistic by definition (us v. them, right v. wrong), tribal in its function (true believers v. the great unwashed) and highly exclusive in result. Belief-driven spiritualties seek to nail down the mystery of the divine into manageable tenets of belief and resulting behavioral regulations. Those who buy into the set of beliefs become the self-appointed guardians of absolute truth and those who do not must by definition be seen as anathema. Once we presume that our god holds our understandings, then by definition that god has no obligation to anyone outside the tribe and neither do the members of that tribe. This is both the most common expression of religion historically and its most dangerous.

While mystic spiritualties which focus on Being are the highest level of spiritual development at which few human beings ever arrive, Belonging-based religion is the middle level of spirituality. It is less focused on the litmus tests for true believers and more focused on membership, being a part of something larger than oneself. In the terms of sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, belonging based religion is more likely to be expressed in denominational terms than the more sectarian belief-driven expressions.

In theory, this notion of catholicity in its truest sense - universality - which writer James Joyce described as “Here comes everybody,” is the concept which originally under laid the Anglican Communion. Disparate churches held together by a common history rooted in the British Empire and a common prayer using variations of a Book of Common Prayer, the communion was designed to be less a body driven by power - like its counterpart in Rome - than a body driven by desires for communion, shared prayer and work. Sadly, today’s Anglican Communion has lost sight of that original vision, its majority invoking the control issues of a more tribal expression of spirituality, as the statement from the majority of bishops well reflects.

I have to admit that the Presiding Bishop of TEC has done a very fine job at adeptly responding to this latest round of abuse from his fellow prelates. Refusing to bow to the demands that TEC turn back the hands of time as a condition of first class citizenship, Michael Curry said yesterday:

"Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ."
TEC’s commitment to inclusivity is reflected by the fact that Curry is an African-American in a predominately white, Anglo tradition and follows the first woman presiding bishop of any church within the Anglican Communion. His belonging focused church is a stark contrast to the more sectarian believing focused Anglican churches where toeing the party line – in this case the relegation to second class citizenship of women and LBGTQ people - is the litmus test for one’s ongoing place at the table.

As in many cases where parties of differing developmental stages encounter one another, there is little real contact between their divergent patterns of thinking. As theorists from Fowler and Peck to Kohlberg and Wilber have observed, those operating out of higher stages of understanding – which both incorporate and transcend those stages they have already passed through - inevitably understand the thinking of lower stages because they once shared it. But the reverse is rarely if ever true.

In short, these folks are talking past one another and, absent some kind of event to destabilize the lower stage thinking enough to prompt further growth and development, are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Withdrawing from an Abusive Family

To its credit, the leadership of TEC has endured now two decades of abuse from their supposed brothers in Christ with amazing dignity and aplomb. I am not sure I could do the same, frankly. To the degree that the Anglican Communion can be compared to family systems, there is a point where the abused must claim its own dignity, insist it be respected and, failing that, respond in whatever manner is necessary to place enough distance between abused and abuser that the pattern of abuse can be arrested.

I think of a young man I know who came out as a gay man while in college. Unlike my parents who dealt with my own extended coming out process much more healthily than I did, his parents, who are fundamentalists, did not deal with this reality well. “They chose the church over their child,” the young man often said. His final years of high school were stormy and when he got a chance to escape to college, he did – all the way out to the west coast, “As far away as I could get,” in his own words.

His contact with his family is limited these days. He generally leaves a phone message on holidays and actually talks with his family members once in a while. He has briefly visited only twice in the last  eight years. Otherwise, he has chosen to move on with his life, marrying his life partner and making the west coast his home. I doubt there will ever be much more substantial contact with any of his family. It is a very tragic loss for all the parties involved.

There are a lot of LBGTQ people who know this story only too well. At some point, they have had to choose between their own dignity – if not sanity – and their abusive families. And when churches reveal themselves to be abusers in institutional form, LBGTQ people have often walked away from their once spiritual homes in sorrow. Respect for their very dignity demands nothing less and under the circumstances, it was the most loving thing they could do.

It is ironic that TEC as a whole now finds itself in the role that so many of its own women clergy and LBGTQ members have had to endure historically. Discrimination has become very real for one of America’s ultimate establishment religious bodies which once was described as “the Republican Party at prayer.” The question now before it is how it should respond to this new reality.

I am an ordained clergyman who stands with one foot still inside the institution
at the very farthest margins of this church, unable to function as priest in one of the last inveterately homophobic dioceses in TEC. As such, I think the young man’s example mentioned above offers some direction for our national church.

While I strongly believe that we always need each other and that devolving into circled wagons of the like-minded is always potentially dangerous, for TEC there is a question of how much more mental and spiritual energy should be poured down this black hole of fear, anger, ignorance and obsession with control. While admittedly it sounds more than a little cheesy to say this, the reality is that the Anglican Communion needs the American church much more than the reverse. TEC resources and personnel have long helped keep the Communion afloat. What TEC does NOT need is any more holier-than-thou pronouncements of perhaps well-intentioned prelates whose own constructions of religion are so brittle that they require the ongoing affirmation of everyone on board with them to actually continue being able to believe them.

Truth is, there are a lot of people who need the undivided attention of TEC right here at home and in the Latin American nations where it has been transplanted. There are a lot of needs for spiritual wisdom in a nation which has lost its way and currently seems intent on splitting at its seams and disintegrating into internecine fighting. The opportunities to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d have probably never been greater here at home and they cry out for attention. At the bottom line, TEC has better things to do with its time, energy and resources than to worry about currying the favor of bible-thumping petty tyrants.

Sadly, it may be that, like the young man and his family, TEC will need to find a way to maintain enough distance from its abusive family that its dignity can be respected and its abuse limited. Indeed, that may prove the only means it can remain a part of a body whose current state makes a mockery of its very name, Communion. It is a sad reality our church faces in the face of the devolution of this once venerable tradition. But it is a reality we must take seriously and prayerfully.  

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)

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