Sunday, December 31, 2006

Toward a Systematic Theology of a System-Resistant Progressive Catholic

Over the past few months I have been unable to convene the Francis/Clare Community (F/CC), the weekly group of progressive Catholics who meet for a discussion of our world, the lectionary of the church, a potluck dinner and the eucharist. Some are members of small independent Catholic bodies, some still Anglican, some disaffected from organized religion altogether. I've missed my community. But with an evening + day class schedule plus a Buddhist group therapy I was attending, being out three nights a week was just impossible. This hiatus has given me a chance to rethink what I understand to be my religion. It would be easy to take the Unitarian seminarian approach of the via negativa - I don't believe in the creeds, I don't believe in the hierarchy, et al. The via positiva is much more difficult: I believe…..and here's why....

In the past few weeks, I've been engaged by John, a former Disciples of Christ pastor turned Episcopalian, in an internet discussion with a wide range of folks assembled by my friend, all of them unknown to me personally, in topics surrounding the issues of what is meant by the concepts "orthodox" and "Christian." It has been a good experience for me. I have thought that before resuming leadership of the F/CC, I probably ought to have a clear sense of what I saw as the mission of that group, including the theology I would bring to bear on that project. In short, I found myself contemplating the unthinkable - rewriting my own systematic theology. I still feel the way I did my first day in systematics class in seminary when I posed this question: Why is it necessary to have a system into which one's theology could be placed? What kind of G-d could be placed in such a box?

But I think today that my concern is not so much with the box as much as the notion that somehow G-d must fit it, thereby creating a compulsion for all others to do the same. What I've become comfortable with is the notion that we all speak for our own faiths and that anything else is dishonest (we don't all believe the same things) and arrogant (none of us have the right to speak for others, only ourselves).

And so, when the question was raised in our internet brawl this week "Exactly what does 'Christian' mean?" I took it upon myself to offer a stream of consciousness systematic theology of my own. The result follows:

Being Christian for me means being:

* A follower in a way of being fully human and living a life radically open to G_d taught and modeled by Jesus of Nazareth
* A seeker and worker for the Kingdom of G-d he preached, incarnated and ultimately gave his life for
* A tiny piece of polished glass in a huge, rich mosaic of widely diverse tradition, praxis, beliefs and self-understanding that stretches back 2000 years and draws from much more ancient sources in Hebrew, Greco-Roman, Celtic, middle eastern sources
* A human being who finds guidance and inspiration in the wisdom found among the Christian Scriptures sometimes called the New Testament and among the Hebrew Scriptures upon which they are based as well as among widely ranging aspects of the ensuing Christian theological tradition
* A child of G-d bearing the image of G-d who by virtue of the Christian tradition has come to value Creation, its inhabitants and the Creator who lies behind as well as within it

* A mystic who recognizes the divine in Creation and in the inner depths of self, a pattern of spirituality with a long pedigree in the Christian movement
* A prophetic voice for social justice, a vocation with a long pedigree in the Christian movement and in the Hebrew tradition which preceded it
* A professed member of the Franciscan third order seeking to live out vocation to follow the Way of Jesus in the manner of Francis of Assisi

In my understanding of Christian, I value

* Creation, Creator
* Spirit and the power of transformation including the redemption of social institutions
* Image of G-d found on every human face even when I have to work hard at seeing it (particularly when I have to work hard at seeing it)
* The life, teachings and example of Jesus who reveals G_d, embodies Spirit, exalts Creation and provides a Way of living into the same
* Sacraments in which the outward and visible signs point to an inward, spiritual grace (which is NOT to say G-d is not always present just that we are particularly aware of it in that moment and manner)
* Principled, post-conventional thinking found in the teachings of Jesus (Love your neighbor as yourself, blessed are the poor) and in the tradition (war is only just when the last resort necessary for self-defense)
* The witness and example of the many saints
* The apostolic succession and the ordering of ordained ministers not so much in terms of authority (and despite its tendency to tyranny) but simply because the succession provides a historical connection to the very roots of the tradition, a wide stream in which we today stand
* The richness of the 2000 years of Christian tradition, practice, beliefs

*Being open to the constant surprise of encountering the divine in totally unexpected ways

In my understanding of Christian I believe

* in G-d, mystery beyond human understanding and construction, who creates, sustains and redeems all of creation (Aquinas - We come from G-d and we return to G-d)
* I can trust G-d with my life here and now as well as whatever - if anything - may follow this life. It is not necessary for me to falsely reassure myself by contracting with G_d through the agency of organized religion (accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, buying into creed or confession) for this to occur.
* in the communion of saints - all of them. Though I do not know there is a life after death, I sense that there is, choose to believe that there is and I experience the souls of those who have gone before me, particularly as they surround us in the eucharist.
* that the Way of Jesus is salvific - it brings health and wholeness to human beings

* that the Way of Jesus is transformative, redemptive personally and collectively
* that the Kingdom of G-d is the heart of Jesus' life and mission and that it is still as potentially life-giving to day as in his day
* that the Kingdom of G-d is the means by which love of neighbor and concern for the least of these, the fundamental tenets of Jesus' teaching, are expressed as right relation, justice

* that the deepest experience I can have of the presence of G-d occurs in the heart of the Creation
* that the second deepest experience of G_d's presence occurs in the heart of the sacraments.

I am a Christian despite

* The needs of so many fellow Christians to create boxes into which they would fit G-d (a laughable notion)
*The needs of so many fellow Christians to create a single box into which they would fit the diverse tradition of which we are a part
* The needs of so many fellow Christians to proclaim the requisite beliefs all must hold so they can feel secure about their own
* The history within our tradition of legitimizing and practicing almost every social pathology known to humanity: slavery, racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, anti-semitism, colonialism
* The tendency toward self-deprecation required of the faithful as a means of aggrandizement of patriarchal constructs of G-d (sovereign, judge, king, et al)
* The tendency toward infantilization of the faithful by its hierarchical leadership including telling people what they must believe in the name of some elusive notion of orthodoxy rather than asking them what they do believe and why

* The long pattern of legitimization of war if not the outright calling for crusade
* The tendencies of exclusivism found in most Christian theology that tend to play out in intrafaith wars for control and extrafaith pathologies such as anti-semitism, crusades, White Man's Burden and the legitimization of often genocidal conquest
* The virtual loss of any authentic appreciation for and following of Jesus (orthopraxis) in favor of conformity to rule-driven moralism and constructed belief systems (orthodoxy)
* The presumption of far too many Christians to speak of their faith in prescriptive terms (you must believe...) rather than descriptive terms (I believe...and here's why...)

Finally, there are a handful of singular aspects of the tradition that strongly inform my understanding of being Christian :

From the Gospels:

* The Beatitudes
* The Lord's Prayer
* The Prodigal Son
* The Good Samaritan
* The Great Commandments
* Jesus' articulation of his vocation from Isaiah at the beginning of Luke (free the captives, heal the wounded, et al)
* When you've done it to the least of these....

From the Christian Scripture:

* "Faith without works is dead: - James
* In Christ there is no slave or free... - Paul
* Paul's four fold form of the eucharist: took, blessed, broke, gave

From the Hebrew Scripture:

* Genesis creation accounts (both of them)
* the Prophets
* the Psalms and Proverbs
* Micah - What does G-d require of you? Love
mercy, do justice, walk humbly with G-d
* Proverbs - Without a vision, the people perish

From the Tradition:

* Historical: Meister Eckhart, Hildegaard of
Bingen, Peter Abelard, Teilhard de Chardin,
* Modern: Latin American liberationists, Matthew
Fox, John Hicks, Elaine Pagels, John
Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bob Funk,
* All will be well and all manner of thing
will be well
- Julian of Norwich
* Canticle of the Sun - Francis
* St. Richard: Day by day, three things I pray,
to see thee more clearly, love thee more
dearly, follow thee more nearly.

OK, that's a beginning, the first word, not the final. As with most things in my life, it is indeed a work in progress.

p.s. I also believe there is a particulary hot spot reserved in hell for those who create these *$#!schizy HTML editors


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.

Perambulations from Exile at the Turn of a Year

Morning, New Year's Eve, 2006

Perhaps it's ironic that a man who spent four years of his life in seminary, years before and after reading and taking classes in topics surrounding the Christian tradition, who jumped through the million hoops required for ordination (including scoring highest in his seminary class on the grueling five day General Ordination Exam) and who was ordained in two of the most colorful multicultural liturgies (diaconal and priestly) ever conducted rarely goes to church, much less ever functions as a priest. Such is the life of those who return from progressive dioceses of the American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, to the regressive, backwater dioceses of their birth, my own being the Diocese of Central Florida (DIOCFL).

In this diocese dominated by homophobia and approaches to faith that differ only by degrees of fundamentalism, the idea that I would ever function as priest here has never been a serious consideration. I knew that when I realized in 1995 that it was time to come home from the west coast, that my callings to be son, brother and uncle had become more pressing than my calling to serve the Episcopal Church in a progressive diocese. And so I find myself free on Sunday mornings, like this one, the end of a very long and tough year, standing at the gate of a New Year, thinking about the year just past and the year to come. This morning I will spend time in my yard, communing with G-d in the plants of the good earth, sharing hymns with the birds, marveling at the stained glass passing by on wings of butterflies, giving thanks for the warm Florida winter sun of G-d.

When I attend an Episcopal church - and I was there for midnight mass last week - I drive the 10 miles north to Winter Park to St. Richard's Church. It's probably the only true safe parish in the diocese, at least that I know of and that's accessible without a long drive. By safe I mean that it's not overtly homophobic and that I won't be pounded over the head with mean-spirited, legalistic sermons which will prompt me to wrestle with my urge to bolt from the church for the rest of the service. The pastor at St. Ricky's is a once-retired priest I've known for years, well educated, former Roman Catholic priest. (Roman retreads, as they are sometimes called). He's the consumate priest, thoughtful, concerned about his flock. He should have been bishop and lost to the current occupant of the position by one vote on the 13th ballot 16 long years ago.

The parish is oh-so-very-tolerant of gays as white middle class liberals tend to be. It's filled with elderly people, the mark of life here in the elephant graveyard, but there are some young families as well, even a few West Indies Anglicans punctuating an otherwise very white parish. In short, it's a nice group of people as white middle class Episcopal parishes tend to be in most places outside these dioceses of darkness in the grips of homophobia and fundamentalism. It's tolerant of people like me and for people like me, tolerable though only in moderate doses.

But it's not dynamic. It's not the parish life to which I grew accustomed in California. It's not a place where racial and ethnic diversity are a way of life, not an aspiration. It's not a place where social justice issues are the stuff of ordinary consideration, not the topics we can't talk about except in heavily nuanced, and thus meaningless, terms. It's not a place engaged with the world around us, it's a place seen as a refuge for those who agree to leave the world at the door, the eternal Episcopal salvation by good manners.

When I attend St. Richards, I find myself struggling with competing feelings: the comfort of an old shoe and the searing, unhealed loss of that to which I devoted my heart and soul for nearly two decades. It comes via the feeling of connection to a past I remember fondly - the salad days of the Cathedral of St. Luke downtown, struggling to develop and appreciate a diverse urban parish, reaching out to other faith traditions in interfaith dialogue, operating truly educational programs through adult education and a diocesan Institute for Christian Studies, where questions were raised rather than party line answers provided.

I also find myself missing the heady days of my four years in California, being a minority in a minority/majority population, learning new cultures and languages, watching my symbol system explode with new understandings and appreciations, talking about real issues - in the church, no less! And, oh yes, not feeling that I had to constantly be on guard because I was gay. (We're past that issue, Harry, a long time ago, the priest on the commission for ministry told me). I miss those incarnations of Episcopal Church. And while I appreciate the good people of St. Richards and their faithful pastor, for those of us who've seen Paree, how can this farm of mediocrity (on a good day) ever appeal for very long?

Of course, part of the problem is, the young man who went to California to take his hero's journey full of dreams and hopes came back a middle aged man with a golden fleece of new understandings that no one who wants to receive. And at some level, I don't know how I could have expected more. The truth is that I changed radically in seminary, California, Latin America and two years of doctoral work in Tallahassee. And Central Florida changed while I was gone, becoming almost as diverse demographically today as California was. But the Diocese of Central Florida did not change much. It stagnated. Such is predictable when ultraconservatives, resolutely committed to a mythologized golden age, are at the helm. And, frankly, from my observations of the Via Media list of Central Florida, the faithful remnant opposing what appears to be a looming schism of many within DIOCFL, the Episcopalians who remain within the church here to reconstitute the diocese will still likely be pretty conservative and conflict adverse. The author(s) of the Proverbs remind us that without a vision the people perish. And the writer of the Apocalypse of John quotes G-d as judging the banality and mediocrity of spirit of the Laodiceans this way: "You are neither hot nor cold; I will spit you out of my mouth."

Of course there is the Unitarian Church which I frequent about as often as the Episcopal Church these days. I love the Unitarians. So conscious, so willing to engage the world, so right on social justice and interfaith awareness, but so lacking in the things that feed my soul: mystery, symbols, liturgy. I almost always come away from church there having had my conscience pricked, my knowledge base expanded, my thought process engaged. I sometimes feel connected to some of the people there, particularly my old boss from my days at the Public Defender's office and their very fine pastor. She is Harvard educated, pastorally sensitive and willing to walk the walk of social justice work in this community. But what I don't feel as I cross Hampton Avenue, the street on which I lived for eight years prior to moving to California, is that I've actually been to church. Lessons and sermons is essentially a Protestant way of being religious. And I have learned anything over the years, it is that my spirit is Catholic with no prefix. While my progressive politics are much at home with the UUs, as they call themselves, my spirit cries out for connection to something deeper.

And so I will spend this Sunday morning in the cathedral of nature, missing the religious life that once preoccupied me, fondly remembering a life that has come and gone. Perhaps the birds will lift my spirits this beautiful sun washed day. Perhaps I'll experience the presence of my beloved late mother in the butterflies she loved so much. As we used to say at the beginning of each service in the Methodist Church of my youth: This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Well, we'll try.


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.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Question for the Episcopal Church:
Can we face up to the truth of our misanthropy?

[N.B. - On the Episcopal Voices of Central Florida list (a list devoted to those resisting the seemingly pending fundamentalist led schism of the diocese from the national church), the unavoidable issues surrounding the place of gay and lesbians in the church have arisen. I've attempted to dialogue with the list on these issues with little success. Frankly, I sense that the chances of the Diocese of Central Florida joining the late 20th CE - much less the 21st CE - anytime soon are remote, even in a faithful remnant diocese that might result from schism of the more rabid conservatives here. This posting is the third in a series of modified versions of an exchange on the list with a very nice and I believe well intentioned Episcopalian here in Central Florida.]

RE: The perennial objection by those holding homophobic attitudes toward having them identified as such

We Need Everyone

First, let me make clear that it is not my desire that anyone leave the Episcopal Church. I believe we need each other, that diversity of experience and resulting understandings are healthy and that without them, we end up essentially engaging in the intellectual incest of the like-minded and like-situated. When perspectives outside those of the likeminded are unable to break through, the distorted results of the groupthink within the circle are not terribly different from those of the limited gene pools of familial and tribal incest.

My goal is not to exclude anyone. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite - to include everyone, fully include them as first class citizens. The only thing I see as worse than sectarian tendencies to circle the theological wagons to define insiders and demonize outsiders is the tendency within a self-proclaimed inclusive institution to create hierarchies of status built on highly arbitrary socially constructed bases. I want everyone to belong. I want everyone to count. And I want everyone to have equal access to the rights and privileges of our church, regardless of any innate or socially constructed status. And I see anything less than that as inconsistent with Jesus' vision of the kingdom of G-d.

Like a cancer deeply buried within

I also recognize that overcoming long held, generally unexamined prejudices is difficult. Straight people hardly need to tell LBGT persons about how difficult it is to come to grips with homophobia. Most of us have wrestled with its most virulent strain, internalized homophobia, most of our lives with the predictable results any socially imposed self-deprecation would generate. The lives of Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey and Ted Haggard, the self-loathing evangelical pastor, are current examples of the self-destructiveness of internalized homophobia. Roy Cohn, the gay-baiting Red Scare conductor of witch hunts who later died in pain and self-loathing in the first wave of the HIV pandemic, is a good example of how destructive pathological internalized homophobia can prove to a society generally.

That is precisely why it is important to engage in the painful truth telling process of self-confrontation in getting at this social disease of homophobia. No one wants to see themselves in misanthropic terms. I cannot name one of my relatives or friends in 1960s segregated Central Florida who were willing to recognize that their understandings and values were racist. But they were. And it was only when we were forced to confront that reality, almost entirely after integration was a fait accompli, that it began to change. I dare say that we who grew up in an overtly racist culture will spend the rest of our lives confronting the subtle but indelible lines it has drawn upon our lives.

The Problem of Reductionism

That being said, I think you raise a good point when you object to the implicit reductionism in the common use of the term homophobia. At some level, we all have a tendency to reduce the complex reality of the other to the lowest common denominator when we call them on their misanthropic thinking. Thus it is not surprising that a person who holds largely unconscious racist understandings, for example, resists confronting those understandings because at a basic level they fear being reduced to that single malevolent aspect of themselves: "just a racist." Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, makes a powerful point when, speaking of capital felons, she says "[P]eople are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives."

That the products of a historically homophobic culture hold homophobic attitudes is not surprising. But that does not mean they can be reduced to a single trait caricature: "just a homophobe." And those who would do so are not terribly interested in either helping the other confront that misanthropic attitude or in social change; they are interested in self-righteousness at the expense of the dignity of the other. It is one thing to recognize an attitude and pattern of behaviors as the products of a socially constructed misanthropy and thus capable of change. It is quite another to dismiss the other as "just a homophobe," less than fully human and thus unworthy of one's time and energies.

Clearly, it requires the ability to think critically to distinguish the criticism of an attitude from the demonization for purposes of dismissal of the human being who holds that attitude. It is hard work. But it is the work to which the Way of Jesus calls those who would seek ever closer approximations to the Kingdom of G-d here and now, as Jesus taught us. And it is the work of those who recognize that an unjust institution is the explicit rejection of our highest ideals as both followers of Jesus as well as Americans.

That work begins with truth telling, painful as it almost always is. The fact it is painful does not excuse us from engaging it. But if we believe what we say in our Baptismal Covenant, we are not alone in this task, we simply have to be willing to do our part: "I will with God's help."


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.

A Question for the Episcopal Church:
What do you have to lose if change occurs?

[N.B. - On the Episcopal Voices of Central Florida list (a list devoted to those resisting the seemingly pending fundamentalist led schism of the diocese from the national church), the unavoidable issues surrounding the place of gay and lesbians in the church have arisen. I've attempted to dialogue with the list on these issues with little success. Frankly, I sense that the chances of the Diocese of Central Florida joining the late 20th CE - much less the 21st CE - anytime soon are remote, even in a faithful remnant diocese that might result from schism of the more rabid conservatives here. This is the second in a series of modified versions of an exchange on the list with a very nice and I believe well intentioned Episcopalian here in Central Florida.]

My dialogue partner has made several well taken points:

1. Reluctance to grown and change is part of the human experience.
2. Change is occurring as is evident in the backlash against it
3. The Episcopal Church is doing better than other churches in changing

My responses:

It's human nature to resist change

I agree with much of what you say here. While change is a constant in human
history, human beings tend to resist change. And most people readily focus on
penultimate concerns (carpeting, praise music, social respectability) rather
than doing the hard work of seeking things of ultimate concern (per Jesus:
the Kingdom of G_d), just as you note. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the
same thing a half century ago.

This is particularly true when dealing with issues of disparate social power and
privilege. Human beings who enjoy privilege in their socially constructed world
are reluctant to give it up. That is particularly true when such privilege is held
at the expense of others. This makes change difficult because what is
essentially required is an admission to oneself that the understandings one has
held for a long time were not only wrong but have proven destructive to others.
In church terms we call that repentance (literally rethinking, reconsidering)
which leads to regretting, remorse and ultimately to change of mind, behavior
patterns and thus of life. Little wonder that this proves so difficult.

Confronting misanthropy at the core of one's soul has the potential to create a
good bit of cognitive dissonance. It can leave one wondering who they really
are. If the inherited understandings of the other against which one has defined
themselves no longer can be trusted, how do I know who I am? And if this
pattern of thinking, which I have taken for granted, seen as common sense
and thus beyond questioning, has proven not only wrong but destructive,
what other aspects of my thinking might be similarly untrustworthy? Most of
us who grew up in the segregated South and endured the pains of
desegregation know this kind of cognitive dissonance and its related pain only
too well.

But why does change ever occur?

The only aspect I think you miss here is the reason change occurs. It does
not occur because people simply are given enough time to reflect on their
attitudes and come to the realization that their privilege is unfounded and
their understandings are destructive to others. Rather, it comes because
those who labor under the injustice of their privilege and those who are in
solidarity with them come to consciousness and steadily apply pressure to
change on the people and institutions which perpetuate that injustice. And
there are few more effective ways of doing that than simply calling upon
people to live into their own stated ideals: Love of neighbor as oneself
simply cannot be reconciled with unjust social relations. Equality under
the law (the inscription over the doors to the US Supreme Court building)
simply cannot be reconciled with discrimination in practice.

The example of John Newton, the composer of Amazing Grace might
be helpful here. Here is a man who benefited from the misery of other
humans whom he impressed into chattel slavery for years until he came
to the realization that slavery was sinful. For Newton that meant he
eventually left the slave trade and freed his own slaves. Ultimately it
would mean undertaking to rectify the injustices his life's privilege had
created, becoming an outspoken voice in the abolitionist movement. But
that whole transformation began as a result of his realization that his
attitudes, his conduct and the rationalizations he had used for so long to
maintain an untroubled soul were sinful. While I do not share his
evangelical theology, I think it is instructive to note how he saw himself,
his former attitudes and his conduct: Amazing grace, how sweet the
sound, that save a wretch like me. It's a hurtful word - not unlike
homophobic - but it was precisely the fearless and truthful willingness
to confront that wretchedness that prompted a life of justice seeking.

We're less phobic than the Bab-dissed

While the Episcopal Church may be light years ahead of regressive
churches like the Southern Baptists, it is simultaneously light years
behind the rest of society. The University of Central Florida where
I work is hardly the bastion of progressive thought and behavior
but even there, the university has found its way to prohibiting
discrimination in employment and promotion. Our LBGT
employees are first class citizens, at least on the books. But that
did not happen because the management of the university was
given enough love, space and time to come to their senses. It
occurred because the union there made it one of their priorities
and refused to back off its insistence that change occur.

The same is true within the Episcopal Church. Change has not
occurred because clergy protective of their power and laity
protective of their social respectability have simply come to
the conclusion that their attitudes and practices were wrong
and sought to rectify them. The reality is that change has
occurred because of nearly 50 years of concentrated effort by
those who languish under the injustice of a discriminatory (and
thus hypocritical) institution. Change has occurred because a
few brave souls were willing to brave the fierce opposition that
coming out of the closet involves and were willing to speak the
truth in love about the church the way its policies have devalued
their lives. And how much more powerfully can love be
demonstrated than being willing to endure the firestorm that
confronting a beloved church on its own sinfulness uleashes?

So, while I agree that change is happening and that the backlash
we are seeing from "the Old Guard" indicates that, I cannot agree
that patience is the appropriate response. People who are the
victims of injustice do not have the luxury of patience. Hence, King's
recognition that "Justice delayed is justice denied." Hence, also,
Burke's observation that " The only thing necessary for the triumph
of evil is for good people to do nothing."


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.

A Question for the Episcopal Church:
Is Your Homophobia Worth Dying For?

[N.B. - On the Episcopal Voices of Central Florida list (a list devoted to those resisting the seemingly pending fundamentalist led schism of the diocese from the national church), the unavoidable issues surrounding the place of gay and lesbians in the church have arisen. I've attempted to dialogue with the list on these issues with little success. Frankly, I sense that the chances of the Diocese of Central Florida joining the late 20th CE - much less the 21st CE - anytime soon are remote, even in a faithful remnant diocese that might result from schism of the more rabid conservatives here.This posting and the next couple to follow are modified versions of an exchange on the list with a very nice and I believe well intentioned Episcopalian here in Central Florida.]

RE: Straight people need time to become comfortable with the idea of same sex marriages; they simply need "love, prayer and time."

Perhaps the specific issue of same sex marriage is new. But the larger
underlying issue of first class citizenship of LBGT members of the church is
hardly new. The General Convention in 1976 declared that "homosexual
persons are children of God and have a full and equal claim with all other
persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the
Church…[and] entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other
citizens…" It also "call[ed] upon our society to see that such protection
is provided in actuality."

Since then, the church has studied, engaged in dialogue, resolved, wrung its
hands, threatened schism and sold its soul - and its LBGT members in the
process - to insure a ticket to the Lambeth tea party. But the bottom line is
simply this: LBGT persons do NOT have a full and equal claim with all other
persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the
Church. Ironically, while the rest of society has made noticeable, though
slow, progress toward removing discrimination in our society at large, it
has become the church generally and, in places like this diocese, the
Episcopal Church specifically which has proven the most vociferous
opponent of equal protection of the laws, both within and outside the

The argument that people just need time to get comfortable with these
new ideas is hardly anything new. Those of us who grew up in segregated
Central Florida are very familiar with this argument. White people just
need time to get used to the idea that black people will be treated
equally in our society. Indeed, it was precisely that argument that
prompted Martin Luther King, Jr. to observe, "Justice delayed is justice

What reveals the lie in this plea is simply this: there is no timetable for
getting comfortable. There is no end point on this process of "love, prayer and
time." To test this theory one only has to ask: How much time do you need?
Give us a date when your process will be completed. We will wait patiently.
But the reality is, we all know one will not be forthcoming.

The reality is, acceptance of peoples historically treated unjustly does not
precede the institution of just social relations. White people did not get
comfortable with black people prior to integration. It only occurred in
retrospect when the caricatures and stereotypes began to be punctured
by experience of real live human beings who proved not much different
from us. Male priests and bishops did not get comfortable with women
priests prior to their entry into pulpits where they proved themselves
equally adept as their male colleagues. A million years will not prove
sufficient to a people ommitted to the comfort of their inherited,
unexamined understandings.

But, as the poster noted, attitudes are fairly generationally related. If the attitudes of our young people are any indication, the changes in attitudes regarding same sex relationships will be a fait accompli in only a few years.

My observation is that this is already happening. With the breakdown of taboos
on LBGT relationships in our media and the changes in the laws of states and
the practices of many corporations, the children coming to adulthood today
will have lived in a culture where discrimination against LBGTs is rightly seen
as the product of the social disease of homophobia that it is. In the last election,
amendments which singled out LBGT relationships for discrimination,
prohibiting legal marriages, passed in six of the seven states in which they
were proposed. But in looking at the exit poll data, a striking demographic
jumps off the page - the group with the lowest level of support for these
amendments was the 18-25 year old voters and in six of the seven states,
that demographic group voted against the amendments. The group with
the highest support was those over 65. Thus, I observe that in another
10-20 years, it is likely that much of this dispute will be over and resolved
in favor of equality for LBGT persons.

The questions that this raises for the church, however, are significant:
If the church continues to define itself by its opposition to LBGT persons,
what is going to draw keep people who have long since recognized the
injustice in such positions? If our elderly who support the status quo die
off and our young who cannot reconcile such positions with fundamental
theological principles of indiscriminate love of neighbor opt out, whither
the church ?

Bottom line: Is our homophobia, our reluctance to grow and change,
worth dying for?


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.

At 53, still the 8 year old boy, amazed, watching the heavens light up

I never seem to be amazed at how excited I still become when a manned space mission blasts off from Kennedy Space Center. Cape Canaveral is perhaps 45 miles due east of Orlando. On a clear day (or night, as the case was this time), the rockets clear the horizon within 10 seconds of liftoff. While we're a bit too far here to see the rocket body itself without telescope, we can see the fantail plume of gases, fire and smoke rushing from the rocket engines, propelling the rocket ever higher into space.

Here in Central Florida, there is an old custom of folks leaving their homes and places of work to go watch the skies when rockets lift off, particularly manned flights. We find open fields absent of light, like my father last night in Bushnell, 50 miles to the west, who would have to wait another few seconds to see the tiny yellow/orange/white spot rising from the eastern horizon. Here in Orlando, many of us go to lakeshores, bringing portable radios (and today more sophisticated hand held electronic devices with television broadcasting) and often libations with which to celebrate successful launches. We hold our breath, letting it out in a long gasp of awe as the rockets mount the heavens and we follow it with cheers and applause. Bravo! Tens from all the judges, even the Russians!

In my own lifetime, I have seen hundreds of rockets lift off from the Cape stretching all the way back to my third grade class, piled into the playground by our teacher who told us to look to the east, our eyes squinting in the bright sun. And there on the horizon, the first American manned space shot (we were behind the Russians at that point!) crossed the blue/white sky of early afternoon, leaving a vapor trail behind it, carrying Alan Shephard into the history books. It was love at first sight and has never abated since.

Not unlike the phenomenon of Kennedy assassination awareness of place and company, I remember exactly where I was when the first flight to circle the moon lifted off. I remember the images the crew sent back to earth, the first time we had seen our beautiful blue and green planet from space. And I remember the lump forming in my throat as I realized things would never be the same. I remember the first lunar landing mission lifting off from the Cape early in the morning, a cold morning in Central Florida in which my father, brother and I shivered in the car parked alongside the cow pasture that has since given way to a shopping center and a high school. And I remember our state student council leadership training conference coming to a complete, screeching halt at Stetson University, everyone leaving the conference room to crowd around the televisions in the student lounge to watch Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and his reflection on that event: One small step for man, one giant leap for humankind.

But the legacy of the space program watcher contains great sorrow as well. I remember the very sad evening during high school when news of the Gemini astronauts burning alive in their capsule at the Cape interrupted the Miami Hurricanes game to which we were all listening on the transistor radio. I remember praying with all my might for the Apollo 13 astronauts, drifting home from space on little more than hope and desperate measures. And I remember the very long drive home a Jesus Seminar on the Road conference I had attended in Sarasota, the grim news of the break up of the Columbia over Texas pouring from the car radio as I struggled to stifle tears, hurtling across the Central Florida I-4 corridor at 70 mph.

The most poignant memory of this long love affair came with the disastrous end of the Challenger in January 1986. It was a particularly cold day in Central Florida that morning, the 26 degrees in Orlando a record low in a decade of harsh freezes of the century. I wondered why NASA would send up a rocket in such cold weather. (Later a friend from NASA told me they had been heavily pressured by the Reagan White House to have the shuttle in orbit for the upcoming State of the Union address). I had stayed home from the law firm that day, too sick to go to work. As I lay on the couch, half dozing, the telephone rang. It was a friend calling to say the shuttle had just exploded. "Go outside," was all he said.

There in the sky was the most unnatural cloud I had ever seen. My neighbors, who had gone out to see the shot, stood there, mouths agape, stunned. When I asked what had happened, they pointed to the swath of clouds swerving left and down. "That's where it went down," they said. Back inside the warm house, the television was full of scenes of the explosion, repeated over and over until many people in the world had visions of that explosion burned into their memory banks. And while the television reporters kept hope alive for much of the day that perhaps the astronauts had survived the cataclysmic explosion, those of us shivering on the street corner in Orlando that morning knew just from the unearthly configuration hanging over our heads for the duration of that day that there would be no survivors. While the clouds themselves dissipated by the following day, an overwhelming sense of grief would huddle low over Central Florida's psyche for weeks to come. A people that celebrated successful launches of manned space flights was in deep mourning.

And yet, knowing the possibilities of disaster (including danger to the observers should the occasional nuclear payload explode with the rocket lifting off), we still make our pilgrimages to the open fields, lake shores, skyscraper windows, beach fronts, to watch, to hope, to pray and to celebrate. Last night, we celebrated a successful launch that turned our cool, indigo evening skies nearly bright as day. And I gave thanks for the latest chapter in this lifetime of watching, waiting and hoping, celebrating humanity's technological genius. But most of all, I gave thanks that after 45 years and countless launches, I am still that eight year old boy from Bushnell, watching that speck of light racing across the sky, feelings of amazement and excitement racing through my mind, hope and gratitude filling my heart.


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.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Knowing where one stands....or doesn't

It's always nice to know where one stands with one's
compatriots - or, perhaps, where one doesn't stand.
This past week on the discussion list for the Via Media
(the group opposing the schismatic direction of the
current leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Central
Florida, DIOCFL) , the following exchange occurred.
I found it particularly helpful in understanding where
the Via Media stands as well as where I and other LBGT
people stand with them:

We will at some point in the future gather to discuss these issues, and if the majority of theparishioners object to the idea of same-sex blessings in our church, then that won't happen…

I don't believe it will happen, at least not now, at (parish) or anywhere else in our diocese regardless of how parishioners think. The diocese has been very clear about what we will and won't do in Central Florida. That is what local option is about: it boils down to the bishop and the convention. I don't know what the future might bring, but this is where we are at present. Blessings…

I've wrestled with my conscience about whether to respond
to these posts on the list itself. After my contentious engagement
of a right wing authoritarian spy from DIOCFL which ended in
ad hominem attacks on my person last week, I have maintained
a low profile, waiting for the smoke to clear. If I felt I could be heard
in this very personal response to these comments, it might be
worth the waves it would no doubt cause. But I'm not sure
that is the case. And, I really don't have the stomach for being
on the receiving end of many more personal attacks.

So, in the end, what I decided was to simply post my response here
on my own turf and invite those who may wish to consider my
thoughts to do so here and to respond to me personally. I'm hardly
a coward as anyone who has ever heard me preach or practice law
knows. But I'm not sure this is the ditch I want to die in, as my
liturgics professor Louie Weil was prone to say, inevitably adding,
"Choose your battles." On this one, I'm punting.

My response to the comments above follows:


I think it's always easy to take strong stands on abstract
issues when one doesn't have to look too closely at the human
lives impacted by one's position. That is precisely why I feel it is
critical to put a human face on the issues we discuss here. In this
particular case, those who would take this "very clear" position
need to know what that really means for real live human beings,
one of whom has shared this list with you these past months and
who happens to be, among other things, an Episcopal priest.

My partner and I have been together 32 years. That's longer
than most people have been married, a fact particularly
noteworthy when one considers that there are none of the
societal supports seen as ordinary and expectable for
straight couples in place to sustain gay partnerships. Our
anniversary does not make the church bulletin nor are we
called to the front to have the priest offer G-d's blessing for
another year together. Indeed, if diocesan rules are strictly
observed, we can have no active role in the worship life of the
church at all. In many ways, we have been rendered invisible.
And were that the worst we faced, it might be tolerable.

But it's not. Should one of us become incapacitated,
the other cannot expect to be able to make decisions about
the medical treatment, funeral arrangements or estate settlement
without extraordinary legal arrangements, some of which may
not be honored by the state of Florida. Indeed, we are not even
guaranteed the ability to visit the other in the hospital should
he become ill. These are all expectations married couples
never think twice about which is why our General Convention
has voted to support these rights for all couples even as the local
diocese continues to oppose them.

Our partnership has endured well-funded efforts nationwide
by people who are perhaps well-intentioned but certainly
ill-informed to write legal discrimination into constitutions
targeting us. It has endured uncritical theologizing from the
pulpits of most churches in this country, churches which
simultaneously proclaim the Great Commandment to love
one's neighbor as oneself as their ultimate principle. And it
has endured the distorted caricatures proffered by demagogues
from the bully pulpits of state legislatures, Congress and the White
House itself - all of which simultaneously proclaim the
Declaration of Independence's assertion that "all men are
created equal."

And yet we endure. And we do that despite an ongoing
discussion *about* us - but never *with* us - a discussion of
our relationships, our rights and our thus far unrealized
expectations of being treated equally under the law and
as fellow children of G-d in our houses of worship. In the
exchange I quote above, note who is talking - straight people
trying to decide what they should do about LBGT people.
Note also who is missing - the very people about whom the
discussion is focused.

I recognize that it is important for some people in the
DIOCFL to feel secure in the belief that they have made
their minds up about same sex blessings and can treat it
as a closed subject. They do not want to worry that such
might ever happen here so long as the majority of
heterosexuals - presuming to be in a parent/child
relationship with their LBGT brothers and sisters -
don't want to give their permission. But, folks, do not
delude yourselves with notions that it has to be this way.
Indeed, I can tell you it simply isn't this way in many other
quarters of the church.

When I was ordained transitional deacon in the parish of St.
Philips, San Jose, CA, my bishop called my partner out of
the audience to stand beside me at the altar. He said, "No
one gets through this process alone. Harry is here in great
part due to the support of his partner, Andy. Let's give him a
round of applause to recognize that support." The parish
rose to its feet in applause. We both wept. Indeed, tears
come to my eyes now as I recall that night that today seems
so very long ago.

In 1991 I had given up my home of five generations, a law
practice and a college teaching position, my family
and friends for the church. I moved across the country to
seminary in Berkeley, CA in pursuit of a calling by G-d to
the priesthood. I answered that calling without any diocesan
sponsorship, attending totally on my own dime (and I still
have nearly $50K in student loans to show for it). Even
though the odds were heavily stacked against me, I was
ordained priest in the Diocese of El Camino Real in June 1995.
But in 1997 when it came time to come home to be near a
mother who was battling cancer, I answered that
calling, too, without hesitation, knowing it would mean
the end of any possibility of an active clerical role in official
diocesan work under the current leadership of DIOCFL.

When the Via Media of DIOCFL was formed, I found
myself feeling hopeful for the first time in many years.
I supposed I had hoped against hope that with a group of
people who recognized the problems with the right wing
authoritarian direction of the current diocesan leadership, things
might be different. I have waited for the discussion to become
less self-focused, turning away from the "he said/she said"
obsession with the Network, diocesan politics and property
questions. I have patiently parsed the comments to find
some sense of distinction from the status quo. And I have
listened hard to find any hint of inclination to discuss a vision
of the future, a vision of what DIOCFL could become if it allowed
itself to dream once again.

When the exchange above was published, I realized that what I
was hearing was little more than business as usual. I need to
hasten to say that I have nothing but personal respect for the
posters themselves (whose identifying information I have
removed above for their anonymity). But I sense their comments
are more representative of this Via Media than not. The players
might be different from those currently holding power but the
playbook appears to be the same, differing from the status
quo perhaps in degree but not in substance.

I also realized as I read these comments that I had let wishful
thinking cloud my judgment. At a very basic level, I really knew
better. I had allowed myself to get my hopes up when very little
suggested such was warranted. In retrospect, I suppose that was
naïve. Optimists often tend to be.

The comment that we don't know what the future might
bring is at least a deference to the reality of change in human
cultures, a change we sometimes ascribe to the work of the
Holy Spirit. And, brothers and sisters, change is coming,
even to this remote backwater of the church. It's not a question
of if, only of when and how we will respond to it. I remain
a man of deep faith and optimism. And so I continue to hold
out hope that one day change will come at last, even to the

If and when the day does come that LBGT parishioners and
clergy are treated with the same dignity and respect their
straight fellow parishioners and clergy expect as a matter of
entitlement, I will be most interested to hear about it. I would
guess others may be as well. But until then, I fear that a
continued investment of limited time and energy engaging a
diocese which has no plans to treat me as a first class citizen
will do more violence to my soul than I am prepared to sustain.
We Christians may be called to the Way of the Cross, but we
should not have to endure our fellow Christians pounding
in the nails.

I wish you well in your struggle for power in this diocese.
I hope you will be victorious and that my fellow lawyers don't
end up eating the diocesan assets in the process. Should you
emerge from the rubble as the new DIOCFL, I will be watching
carefully from the margins, waiting patiently and hopefully
to see what happens then.

Godspeed, folks.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, Ph.D., J.D.







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.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Observations from the Church's Last Orbital Ring

At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC), the deputations and bishops, on their last day of convention, voted through a resolution vowing not to approve any new bishop whose lifestyle would prove problematic to others. In typical TEC fashion, the statement avoided the obvious elephant in the room: the reality of non-celibate gay bishops elected and confirmed to the House of Bishops, the first of whom was Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The last second resolution had been designed to appease third world conservatives in the Anglican Communion and, most importantly, preserve the invitation for the American presiding bishop to the decennial tea party of Anglican primates at Lambeth.

Many LBGT Episcopalians felt betrayed by the resolution. The joy we had felt from the election of Katharine Jeffert-Schori, a classmate of mine from seminary in Berkeley, evaporated overnight into bittersweet wondering about where we stood with our church the next day. Such wondering prompted the following comments on a list on which I occasionally participate:

"I don't want to be An Issue. But -- given the current climate in the
church -- I'm too afraid of that risk.

"I've been wrestling, as well, with my own personal response to its passage, asking myself, 'How can I remain a part of an institution that has an official policy to exclude a segment of God's children from one part of that institution?'"

I can certainly relate to these concerns. In a response to the list, I offered the following:

The older I get, the more I engage in a
sort of life cost-benefit analysis that
would have been unthinkable in my younger,
idealistic days. The questions I ask myself
include "What are the likely outcomes of this
action? What difference will it make if I
continue to fight?" And given the answers to
the first two questions, a third: "Is this
where I want to use my limited time and
life energies"

A couple of principles have emerged for me
in this process. The first is well stated
above: I will not become an issue. Issues are
less than human. I refuse to be dehumanized.
I have suffered enough of that for one lifetime.
I will no longer play that game.

The second is recognizing the nature of the
problem. Homophobia is not the problem of
its targets. It's the problem of its holders.
Institutions which have historically treated
me as less than human are doing me no favor
by suddenly changing direction. They are saving
their own souls. I am not the recipient of their
largesse, I am the witness of their redemption.

The reality of the Episcopal Church nationally
is that it is suffering birth pangs in a process
that is destined to bring it ever so slightly
closer to the redemptive Way of Jesus than it has
been. I believe time is on our side. And I believe
the new PB is precisely the leader we need at this
moment to lead us. But all births are painful.
And for those of us here in DIOCFL, there's little
we can do but stand on the sidelines and watch.

Of course, for me that's not so difficult. I've
been on the sidelines since returning here nine
years ago knowing that as long as John Howe is
bishop, I'll never function here canonically.
I've come to feel some level of comfort, if not
relief from responsibility here. Whatever the
diocese does, it does without me, one way or the

I darken the door of a local parish from
time to time. And I continue to baptize babies,
marry couples both straight and same-sex, and I
continue to give extreme unction and bury the
dead. My parishioners are the folks on the margin,
the folks who are so alienated from institutional
religion that they feel they can't go ask
the clergy there to take care of their lives'
rites of passage. And so they come to me, the
priest standing on the last orbital ring, one
foot still inside the institution - at least
officially - for their ritual and pastoral needs,
needs I am happy to oblige.

So, at a basic level, the question about going
or staying is somewhat moot for me. Like many
of you, I was furious with B033 and felt betrayed.
But I also recognize it is both consistent with
the pattern observable in TEC and most institutional
churches historically and it is also, in the larger
scheme of things, a bump in the road. I have no
need to go anywhere. I observe there is at least
as much pathology in any other religious institution
as there is in the TEC. I see no point in moving
from one dysfunctional body to another.

But I also see no point in investing major amounts of
time and energy in the current struggles of TEC. The
church has had long enough to figure out that its
conduct is wrong, destructive and inconsistent with
the Gospel. I have given that struggle what I have
to give. When they finally do figure it out, I'll
still be here, one foot still inside the institution,
waiting and watching. In the meantime, I offer my
solidarity with those who stay, however you adapt,
as well as with those who feel they have no choice
in good conscience but to leave.


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.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Faded, Tattered Yellow Ribbon

At the top of our street there is a public park overlooking Army Corps of Engineer created Lake Underhill, the fill having been used during WWII to create the landing strips on then Orlando Air Base, now Executive Airport. It is a beautiful place providing a view of the modern, concrete bridge of the East-West Expressway spanning the lake and the airport runways lying beyond. The park is home to joggers, animals taking yuppy/guppy and retiree owners alike for walks, sweating overweight walkers brandishing terry cloth head wraps and NFL ball towels promising themselves they'll lose that 50 pounds, children running from exercise station to exercise station, eager to show their flexibility on the parallel bars.

Across the street on the west side of heavily traveled Lake Underhill Drive there is a triangular segment of the park where grass covers the mounds of fill dirt removed from the former swamp land now constituting Lake Underhill's southern shore. Among the grassy mounds, golfers find enough space to practice their putting and dog owners teach their canines to catch Frisbees in mid-air. There is also a modicum of trees - magnolias, maples, live oaks and tabebuias planted by the city - which survived the brutal assault of Hurricane Charley two years ago. The category two storm produced a category 5 microburst in its inner vortex as it blew through our formerly leafy neighborhood at 24 mph (an unheard of pace for a hurricane) taking out trees throughout the neighborhood but cutting a fairly clear path up Roberta Avenue - our street and our house - and then through the formerly tree laden west end of the park.

One of the surviving maples left in that portion of the park stands within feet of the concrete and stainless steel art deco sign the city erected at the corner of Roberta and Lake Underhill to announce to passersby that they had entered the "Lake Underhill Neighborhood." Three years ago when the U.S. invaded Iraq, someone had tied a yellow ribbon around that maple tree the week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Central Florida, like much of the rest of American, was awash in a tide of a mindless sort of militarism confused for patriotism. With polls showing nearly 90% of Americans had allowed themselves to be seduced by George Bush's lies, yellow ribbons sprouted from trees all over town, supposedly a means of showing "support for the troops." Of course, that might have been more convincing had not the magnetic car bumper sticker version shown up primarily on the SUVs and Hummers whizzing by the yellow ribbon clad tree on Lake Underhill Drive, telling evidence of the real reason America invaded oil-rich Iraq.

I remember walking past that newly placed ribbon during those first few testosterone driven days of shameless cheerleading on every broadcast outlet in America (Shock and Awe! Man, that's as good as it gets!), harboring angry desires to rip the ribbon down from that tree, unwilling to let my neighborhood admit it had bought into the smarmy sentimentality of fetishizing young boys and girls - most were not men or women, truth be told - as heroes and heroines if not martyrs. I remember thinking "If you truly want to support these young people, get your ass into the street to protest the squandering of their lives by this idiot prince who has whipped you into a frenzy over a lie."

Discretion being the better part of valor, I never took the ribbon down. It wasn't mine to do with as I saw fit though its placement in a public park was questionable. Three years later, I wish I had. The years have not been kind to the yellow ribbon or the soldiers for whom it supposedly stood. I have watched as the ribbon has sagged, faded, molded in the humid Florida climate and begun to fray around the ends. The boys and girls have not come home, save those whose flag draped caskets we aren't allowed to show on our TVs (by G-d, we aren't gonna repeat the mistake of Vietnam, are we?) and those whose fire and IED ravaged bodies and minds will never again allow them to see themselves as fully human. But the ribbon - and the occupying forces, besieged by warring factions who can only agree on their desire for the Americans to leave - remain. And the magnetic yellow ribbons, some now joined by red, white and blue version on the SUV rear doors, whiz by the tattered yellow ribbon on Lake Underhill Drive on gas that now costs nearly 1.5 times its cost at the time of the invasion.

It is a pathetic sight, that poor yellow ribbon. In days gone by, I had wished to snatch it down in righteous indignation over a people who had bought into a lie when deep at heart they knew better. Today, I simply wish to put it - and all of us - out of our misery.

As I walked home this unseasonably hot June day when the mercury would hit 96, no cooling thunderstorm in sight (but rumors of an early season hurricane next week beginning to titter on the airwaves), two thoughts occurred to me. First, being a man who loves symbols as I do, it dawned on me that the tattered, faded yellow ribbon was probably a particularly potent symbol for the United States of America in 2006. Once the nation who proudly offered its ideals of democracy, equality and justice for all to the world, America has become a nation this recovering lawyer no longer recognizes. In the name of a "war on terror," whatever a war on any idea might be, my countrymen no longer offer trials to the accused. We not only torture prisoners of war in the same prisons tyrants named Saddam formerly tortured them, we ship them all over the world under cover of darkness and secrecy to do so. The American madam has many johns in this enterprise - places with the same kinds of ideals Americans once embraced such as Ireland, Germany, France and Britain - sharing her shame and her evil. Fear makes a particularly poor basis for public policy.

Meanwhile at home, the resident of the White House attempts to divert our attention from his black hole in the middle east by making war on the 3-10% of the population who are gay or lesbian, intent on making political hay through an ill-fated attempt to amend the Constitution to actually single out a group for discrimination. And like Pavlov's dogs, his religious right supporters line up to respond: Queers…drool! Abortion….drool! Ten Commandments in courthouses….drool! When the resident is not preoccupied with saving marriage from activist judges (those few liberal activist judges that remain, that is…conservative activist judges are OK by George, the Unready and his handlers) his minions in the Congress make war on the 7 million undocumented aliens whose labor enables the privileged life most of us overweight, self-indulged Americans see as a matter of entitlement. The tattered, yellow ribbon, clinging to a tree for a cause long ago lost sight of, is indeed a good symbol of this devolution, this unreasonable facsimile of America.

The other thought that occurred to me as I thought about the yellow ribbon and its origins was that the original song, recorded by Tony Orlando, was actually about a man who had been in prison. In Orlando's song, the yellow ribbon was the sign that his lover - we never know if they were married - who would have to bear the shame of an ex-convict partner would be willing to forgive him for that shaming and take him back. While the subject of the song had "done (his) time" and was "coming home," the question raised by the songwriter was whether his wrongdoing and subsequent imprisonment had so badly damaged his relationship with his significant other that it was beyond repair. He might have beeen freed from his literal prison bars but whether he'd be able to live a life worth living was another question.

Will the America I knew and loved as a child ever come back? Has the US reached the tipping point at which the Roman Empire once arrived in which its republic simply atrophied and died only to be replaced by an empire driven by greed and lust for power? Is that tattered yellow ribbon a warning sign we Americans are capable of recognizing and heeding or is it the epitaph for an America which has lost its way and its will to be a people devoted to democracy, equality and justice for all? Already the pundits speak of how long it will take America to repair George the Unready's damage to the nation and to our relations with the rest of the world. But is it possible that this time, unlike the post-Reagan recovery, the wounds are too deep?

I suppose I am willing to indulge myself with a modicum of hopefulness that we will heed the signs, that we will repair the damage, that there will be a fresh yellow ribbon on the tree when our train arrives from our self-imposed prison of late. Time will tell. But the recent willingness of the American public to be diverted by divisive non-issues, to buy the spin, to be whipped into a militaristic frenzy by obvious lies, to stand silently while elections have been stolen and losers have assumed power - none of this bodes well for the America I once knew, loved ….and believed in. More often than I'd like, I have to wonder if this yellow ribbon song will have a happy ending.


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.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Scouting Teaches Values?

The state of Florida, in its ongoing determination to be socially irresponsible, particularly when it involves anything remotely connected to taxation, has created a whole series of specialty auto tags. For a mere $30 extra above the cost of a state-issued tag with its rather pale orange plugging the citrus industry, individualist drivers in a hyperindividualist culture can express their individuality. They do this by placing tags on their vehicles which express the identities they've purchased from an array of consumerist options. These range from one's alma mater to anti-abortion "Choose Life" tags to the inevitable environmentalist tags appearing on the backs of environmentally destructive Hummers and SUVs. This purchased identity of the individualist can then join the thousands of other individuals on clogged expressways who are similarly disposed to display their individuality.

One of the options available to Florida drivers today is one which praises the Boy Scouts of America. "Scouting Teaches Values" the tags proclaim. But what kind of values?


The building contractor originally scheduled to repair our home from Hurricane Charley had long run boy scout troops out of his home. For years his trailers bearing canoes, tenting and other equipment had been parked along our residential street making passage nearly impossible. After weekend and vacation time scouting events were passed, we would pick up candy wrappers, citrus fruit which had been used as ammo and drink cans from our streetside yard. Even so, wanting to be good neighbors, we had regularly participated in food drives and bought the luminaries the scouts created for Christmas Eve.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, our builder decided he could make more money in a shorter period of time than our house reconstruction offered him. So, after a year of slow repairs, promises ("You're just going to love it when I'm done") and interminable waiting during which hope turned to despair, our contractor/scout master left town for Mississippi and the quick buck. In the process, he left our home with 2/3 of its roof removed, open to the elements where the remaining undamaged flooring and walls quickly became more damage to be removed and replaced.

The night he finally came back to town, we demanded to see him, to simply ask if he was going to finish the project. Sixteen months into the repairs, he simply said, "I just don't see how I can finish it" to which he added, "I appreciate your being so nice about this." I didn't know whether to feel relieved, angry or despondent. But I will never forget the image burned into my memory as he left that night. On the tag on his van was the fleur-de-lis of the Boy Scouts of America and the specialty tag proclaiming, "Scouting Teaches Values."


On my return home from visiting my father yesterday, I got back on the Florida Turnpike (I NEVER call it the Ronald Reagan Expressway and I never confuse National Airport in DC for Reagan International) headed south toward Orlando. After about 15 miles or so, a large green SUV in the left, passing lane had parked itself there, holding up a long line of traffic behind him and me. After a few minutes of hoping the man would catch a clue and pull to the right, I flashed my lights at him. No response. Finally the car in the right lane began to pass the man. I pulled to the right and passed him on the right.

His wife, sitting in the driver's seat, looked over at me just as I passed, shaking my head and comparing the driver, presumably her husband, to a rather detestable part of the human anatomy. It had not been my intent for either of them to see my assessment of the driver. But from the events that occurred next, I assume that at least the passenger - if not both of them - did.

Passing the SUV, I finally managed to return to the left passing lane. Suddenly. this SUV, which had been holding up traffic for five miles, its driver stodgily refusing to speed up or move out of the pass lane, roared into the right lane, cutting off cars which had followed me to get past the SUV. Given my own speed of 75 mph, the SUV must have been going 85 when the driver pulled up just to my right and shot me a bird. But before he slowed down to the speed limit, I caught a glimpse of his tag once more: "Scouting Teaches Values."


A few years ago, I agreed to give my brother and sister-in-law a night out by taking their boys to their scouting meeting. It was supposed to be a hamburger dinner at MacDonalds kind of outing of two local packs, one a full scouting troop, the other the up and coming Cub Scouts. But after supper, the scout master got out a book with pictures and began to tell the Christmas story from his own Southern Baptist perspective. "Jesus had to be born so he could die for our sins," he droned to the antsy group of boys from homes in this affluent suburb north of Orlando representing a number of Asian traditions as well as Judaism.

Turning to a page with a depiction of the manger scene, he began trying to engage the boys: "So, who's at the manger?" The first couple of boys gave innocuous answers: "Shepherds." "Sheep." Good, the man would proclaim, rewarding them for the obvious and expected answers. But things began to go haywire when they reached the child sitting next to my younger nephew. "Who else is at the manger?" the leader asked. "Tyler," the child said. "Tyler?" the puzzled leader asked to which the child pointed to a tow-headed boy with mischief written all over his face and responded, "Tyler. Tyler was there." "No, I don't think Tyler was there," the chagrinned leader continued, turning next to my nephew. "So who else is at the manger?" Knowing my nephew to be capable of just about anything, I caught my breath: "Tyler's butt!" he said. At this point all the boys began to roar with laughter - all except Tyler and the leader whose face had turned a brilliant shade of scarlet. Trying to regain his momentum, he moved on to my older nephew, "So, JD, who else was at the manger?" at which point this gifted middle school student launched into a dissertation on how it was not Christmas, it was actually Advent and he didn't understand why we were doing this in the first place. At that point, the book slammed closed and the leader moved on to talk about upcoming events for the pack.

At a basic level, I felt sorry for the man. He had bitten off way more than he could chew, probably with the best of intentions. But it was his obliviousness to the group, his perceived need to impose his religious views on them and all in the name of values and under the aegis of the Boy Scouts of America that I found more than a little irritating. He deserved what he got that night but I doubt he got the message. Indeed, I wondered if he could. "Scouting Teaches Values."


June 28, 2000, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision upholding the Boy Scouts of America in their policy of excluding homosexuals as leaders. The Scouts also exclude agnostics and atheists from leadership. In its ruling SCOTUS overturned a New Jersey statute which prohibited discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The BSA policies apply not just to scout leaders but to scouts themselves.

Not surprisingly, the Irving, Texas based Boy Scouts sounded an awful lot like Bible Belt fundamentalists when they defended their discriminatory policies:

  • "A homosexual is not a role model for traditional family values," says Scout spokesman Gregg Shields. (Newsweek, 8/17/98).
  • "We also think that men who are promiscuous and those with DWI convictions do not make good role models," said Gregg Shields, spokesman for the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas. (Kansas City Star, 3/21/01). Note the assumption that gay men are necessarily promiscuous. Note also the structure of this argument is essentially the same as the evangelical Protestant appropriation of Paul's epistles which, taken completely out of context, list homosexuality along with murder as sins of equal value.
  • Shields, like a good fundamentalist, also interprets the Scout's oath, in which Scouts pledge to keep physically strong, mentally awake and "morally straight," in a literalist, acontextual manner like that of religious fundamentalists. "The Boy Scouts of America have always taught traditional American values. An avowed homosexual is not a role model for those values," said Gregg Shields, a spokesman at the group's national headquarters near Dallas. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/22/01) Like chicken in which parts is parts, straight is straight, for the Boy Scouts.

Every group which expresses ideals and offers them as normative for the culture around them runs the risk of appearing hypocritical when they fall short of their own ideals. Just ask any college sophomore who can spell out with detail and specificity the hypocrisy they observe around them in the world. It's easy to see the examples in the scenarios above as the exceptions to the rule, the bad apple which should not spoil the whole barrel.

But when one looks at the pattern of overt and blatant discrimination, of the self-deception in legitimizing raw human bigotry by dressing it up as "traditional family values," it's hard not to wonder if this is not so much the exception as the rule. That becomes even more plausible when one looks at comparable groups to the Boy Scouts: "The Girls Scouts of America, the YMCA, 4-H clubs, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Jewish community groups, don't exclude gays." (USA Today, 10/10/00) Canada's Boy Scouts permit gay troops. (Toronto Globe and Mail, 6/19/00). So what is it the US Boy Scouts know that everyone else doesn't?

A good friend responded to the Boy Scout's defense of its homophobic policies by sending his uniform and merit badges earned attaining his Eagle Scout status back to the BSA with a letter explaining why he'd done that. My friend is gay but more importantly he felt his own values of tolerance, valuation of diversity and human dignity - values he felt he had learned in part from the Boy Scouts of America - were simply incompatible with those demonstrated by today's incarnation of the American Boy Scouts. It's probably not suprising that he never heard a word from the Scouts. Apparently one of the values Scouting teaches is denial and avoidance of anything which might draw the foregone conclusions of the tribe into question.

Increasingly I see the Boy Scouts as one of the last bastions of patriarchy along with all its less desirable traits: focus on power and status within hierarchy, aversion to critical thinking and social responsibility, tribal self-understanding, demonization of the other outside the tribal bounds. Scouting, as practiced by the Boy Scouts of America, might well be teaching values. But somehow, I wonder if these are values a responsible parent truly want their boys to learn.


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.

Thoughts on an Unrepentant Prophet

A friend on Future Faiths Forum, one of the lists on
which I participate, sent in a couple of quotes
by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York's
Riverside Church. Coffin was an amazing prophetic
figure in a mainline Christianity known more for its
obsessions over genital contact and social respectability
through observance of middle class morality than for
anything particularly related to the Kingdom of G_d.

Here are the quotes and some musings on their content:

"Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it.
Hope resists, hopelessness adapts."
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

I think Coffin was onto something when he spoke about
hope and criticism. In a film I show in my classes,
Faces of the Enemy one of the speakers talking
about the Reformation said that the presumption of
the reformer who criticized the Roman Catholic
Church was that things could be better and
thus we had the obligation to try to make them so.
I see many social activists in the same light. They
see the potential of a society and in their critique
insists that a people live into that potential.

Inevitably they are seen as assailants and malcontents
by those who cannot see a larger picture than the
immediate construction of reality. These are folks
who confuse patriotism with an uncritical support
of policy regardless of its deleterious effects on
others and its contradictions vis-à-vis one's own
stated principles. These are folks who cannot distinguish
critique for purposes of betterment of a society from
bashing for purposes of denigrating its current leadership.
The author of Proverbs observed that without a vision
the people perish. Rarely were such words more on target
than in today's America.

But I wonder if it's simply hopelessness that prompts
the rationalization and adaptation to destructive
social constructions that Coffin talks about. I am
strongly informed by the work of M. Scott Peck whose
book The Road Less Traveled speaks of the force of
entropy, declining to one's lowest level of functioning
if no energy is exerted to counteract that trend.
Peck assessed the causes of entropy as laziness,
fear of the unknown (the devil you know v. the devil
you don't know) and the aversion to any kind of
suffering. He called entropy "original sin." That's
the only definition of that concept that's ever made
sense to me.

So, I guess I wonder if what Coffin calls
hopelessness is not so much a lack of hope as
lack of will to exert the energy, endure the pain
and face the unknown that he called entropy. In
other words, it's not that human beings are incapable
of doing the right thing or even that we don't know
what it is. We simply choose to avoid it when we
can get by with it. Little wonder, then, that prophets
are stoned. They blow the cover of the entropist,
they explode the rationalizations and call the
adapters on the lives they lead vis-a-vis the
principles they say they believe.

"It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos,
"Let justice roll down like mighty waters,'
and quite another to work out the irrigation system.
Clearly there is more certainty in the recognition of wrongs
than there is in the prescription for their cure.
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

Truer words were never spoken. And here's where the
entropy is really felt. To critique a system
means to recognize two things: one, it has the
potential to be better, to be more closely
approximating of its ideal; but, two, that to
create a more perfect union, to move closer to
that ideal will require the ability to conceptualize
with a wide angle lens, to figure out ways to
actualize that vision and then to muster the hard
work to get there. Frankly, I feel weary even as
I write these things. Doing them is even more

On the other hand, it is unreasonable to expect
the prophetic voice of the critic to also have
all the answers for fixing that which they decry.
Indeed, to demand that critics have an answer
as a condition of listening to their critique
is a prime example of the entropic qualities
Peck decries. In both the critiqued construction
and the replacement construction, the masses
have remained uninvolved. They've not had to
exert any energy, face an unknown or endure the
pain required to recreate their society.

It is not reasonable to expect one critic or
even a handful to provide the replacement for
the current way of being a people. It took years
and countless souls to create the current version
of society which is not working. It will take more
than a small group of prophetic voices to make
the necessary changes.

In the meantime, do we have the luxury of
simply blowing off the task of dealing with
global warming? or the grinding, death dealing
occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq? or the
slow but sure build to the attacks on Iran?
or the genocide in Darfur and Timor? That a
problem is huge and difficult does not mean
we are somehow excused from dealing with it.
Rationalization and adaptation in the face
of crises like these are not viable options
for people of good faith. Indeed, they are not
viable options for a people who value their
ongoing existence.

Without a vision the people perish.


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.