Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Special Place

The Anglican Communion, the overall name for the whole organization that includes the Episcopal church in the US, is in the throes of yet another schism-type thing. The majority, I gather, wants to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, wants to bless same-sex unions, and wants to sanctify (is that the term?) gay and lesbian bishops. A minority thinks these things are an abomination.

In the 80s, as I recall, the argument was about ordaining women, and some folks thought that was an abomination.

Before that, in the 70s, the Episcopal church in the US wanted to change the prayer book so that some services used language that wasn't archaic (that's what I remember from being a kid then, anyway). And some folks thought that was an abomination.

In each case, most people stayed with their parish, but folks who didn't like what was happening left. They didn't tend to leave for Unitarian congregations; because they were unhappy with the progressive movement of the Episcopal (or Anglican) communion, they looked for more conservative affiliations or made their own parishes.

And now the Catholic church is reaching out; it's like the Vatican is shouting, "If you hate gays, lesbians and women, come join the Catholic church! We've got a special deal for you!"

What a special deal. If you hate gays, lesbians and women, the Catholic church is the place for you. Really. If you think women aren't equal in your God's eyes, then join the Catholic church. If you think God hates the gay and lesbian people you think he created, join the Catholic church.

(The special deal part has to do with dogma and specific practices, I gather; but I'm guessing most Episcopals really don't care or know much about the dogma. It's not exactly the most strenuous in it's religious education, so far as I remember. And I'm guessing the folks looking seriously at the Catholic church aren't fretting lots over consubstantiation vs transubstantiation.)


I grew up in the 60s and 70s, in an Episcopal, church-going family, but by the time I hit college, I'd had my crisis of faith and decided that, comforting as all the pretty hymns and such might be, I really didn't see any evidence that what I'd been taught as a Christian had any basis in reality. And I saw a good deal of evidence that what I'd been taught made no logical sense at all.

I also wasn't really interested in worshipping a God that thought women were crap. My service in the parish was basically doing dishes. Yeah, it wasn't called that, it was called polishing brass, but it was basically doing dishes, and it was behind the scenes and respected about as much as all women's work. Only boys and men could be seen having meaningful roles in actual services. That didn't help my little crisis of faith. (If I'd been a few years younger, the female ordination thing would have played out and I wouldn't have been turned off by this particular aspect of Episcopal practice.)

And so, I had a couple big arguments with my Mom about whether I had to attend church, and at some point, I was an adult and that was that.

Retrospectively, as I became more aware of the Civil Rights movements that had been happening while I was growing up, and especially as I became aware that the Civil Rights movements had been led by Christians, often, and centered through Christian parishes, I began to wonder why none of the sermons in our church talked about Civil Rights or race or justice. The parish I'd grown up in had mostly middle class white folks (mostly), with a fair scattering of community leaders--bankers, realtors, lawyers. And I wondered what would have happened if the sermons had pushed the bankers and realtors to fairer, more just lending and realty practices.

As an adult, I know full well that most of the bankers and realtors would have pushed back, either threatening to leave and take their supportive tithes with them or threatening to get the rector fired. Either way, it would have taken a very strong rector with strong beliefs to take up that challenge.

I have no idea what the rector of the church where I grew up felt about Civil Rights. I don't remember him ever saying. (I do remember numerous sermons about the beauty of fall leaves and how we should all be grateful.) But by the time I was a young adult, I was disappointed that I hadn't been taught about justice and Civil Rights through my supposed Christian education, because it was the most important movement happening through my youth, and we should have been led to think about it early on. It would have been, as they say, the Christian thing to do.

The rector of the church, Father Last Name, shared a house with the deacon, Father First Name. Father First Name was my favorite, probably most peoples' favorite, because he was kind and caring, taught our confirmation classes, hugged us when we skinned a knee playing, and made us feel that there really was love in the world. When he greeted me on Easter after the service with the traditional "The Lord is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah," his joy and love shone through. Father Last Name was more distant, forbidding, almost scary. He didn't seem joyful at all, but sort of a sour, dour man.

As I said, they shared a house. Neither was married.

In the 70s, a new assistant was hired, a young, married priest.

And then the first schism I talked about hit, and suddenly Father Last Name and Father First Name retired, and the young assistant I guess tried to take over, but ended up leaving the Episcopal church to start his own parish of folks who didn't like the new changes.

As an adult, I've talked to some people who were adults parish-members then, and the vague consensus is that Father First Name and Father Last Name were gay, closeted and very careful, lovers. Maybe people in the parish guessed it, if they cared, but since the two were closeted and very careful, and maybe since Father First Name was beloved by all, it just wasn't that big a deal. But the folks I know seem to think that Father New Assistant tried to use it against them, and forced them to retire thinking he'd be able to take over, but that he didn't fully succeed in that last part.

So I wonder whether Father Last Name could have preached about Civil Rights? Maybe as a privileged white man, he didn't care. But I wonder, when Stonewall happened in 1969, did he want to preach about it to his parish?

Of course, I'll never know. For all I know, they weren't gay. Or they had sex together but didn't identify as gay. Or whatever.

But I wish Father Last Name had preached about Civil Rights and Stonewall.

The very things that would attract me to the Episcopal church now (except for the whole God part) are the things that some people hate so much that they'll leave. It's not the logic that takes them away, as it is for me, it's that the church is too darned progressive. It's that they want a place where they can hate women, gays and lesbians. And the Catholic church welcomes their hatred.

Were I a believer in such things, I might conceive a special place reserved for people who hate so much.


  1. I just can never reconcile what the Catholic Church has become with the wonderful things Jesus taught. It's like these guys never read their own bible...

  2. Anonymous1:35 PM

    With all due respect, this is majorly reductionstic.

  3. I grew up in a Presbyterian church in Wilmington, Delaware in the 50s and 60s. The minister took a courageous and vocal stand for civil rights. He was forced out in short order. I know now how brave a man he was.

    Like you, I early rejected the underpinnings of faith. What I wish I had is the sense of a caring and committed community that my ideal church would provide. I have tried the Unitarians, but found them awfully smug. Quakers appeal to me more, but the Kansas City group is Christ-centered.

  4. TBTAM, I agree there is often beauty in the parables and such, but there's lots else in that book that either makes no sense or scares me.

    Anastasia, Agreed. But for most of the lay people, the theology isn't at issue. What's at issue is homophobia and a deep seated misogyny. And responses that see the Pope as a happy patriarch reaching out to his misguided lambs is far more problematic. A real response needs to recognize the misogyny and homophobia that makes these the sticking points.

    LenapeGirl, I admire that minister, too. A caring community is a hard thing to create and maintain, alas.

  5. I grew up in NYC in two churches. One was an episcopal church that did take civil rights seriously (our rector went down to Selma, etc.) And anti-war. It was a shock when I left NYC and realized that most of the church wasn't like that.
    The other was a Presbyterian church that was VERY establishment upper middle class/upper class. (my oldest friend and I met in their pre-school). They had a Sunday School and a Nursery School, run by two women who lived together. It wasn't until I was much much older that I figured that one out... I gather they got pushed out in the 70s, I think as people got more aware of lesbianism. (Ironies abound).

    I'm still a member of ECUSA, mostly because I find the discipline of being part of a *community* of faith important; and the community has given me lots of support. I see a faith community that strives in some way to be the face of god in the world as a source of hope amid despair. And I love the language, and I like being forced to engage with scripture... But I can see why others stepped out.

  6. I grew up in Indiana, where the Catholic church was (weirdly) very liberal. They talked a lot about social justice and love -- I thought that was good. But the older I got, the more aware I became of the hypocrisy of what they were saying. They wanted to show themselves as being all-inclusive, but "officially" they couldn't be. I was really involved in the church, and I had a lot of good times (socially) with it, so I shrugged off things that bothered me for a long time (treatment of women, gays, and mindsets about priests being celibate being the main things).

    Later, when the priest sex-abuse scandal hit the news, I was shocked and appalled. What made it worse was that gay men were suddenly banned from becoming priests because the church thought that might "solve" something. I couldn't believe the absurdity of that. But I stuck around because I thought that I shouldn't let the "institution's imperfections" affect my relationship with God. But then, I started examining my "relationship with God" and started to realize that I didn't really 100% believe in Jesus as messiah. (Actually, I don't believe it at all.) Sure, he said a lot of good, philosophical things, but I didn't really believe that his death saved anyone. And ain't that the point of Christianity?

    But the straw that broke my back was the fact that I had a kid. I decided that I couldn't hold up the charade any more. I would not be able to go to church and participate in the hypocrisy any more because I didn't want to lie to my son about my core beliefs. It was bad enough that I lied to myself for so long (out of fear, honestly). I'm not sure what I believe, so I guess if I have to categorize myself, I'd say I'm agnostic. But I think honestly saying "I don't know" is far better than a crossed-fingers "I believe."

  7. i also grew up in an episcopal church in the 1960's and early '70's. men ran the show, as they pretty much did everywhere then, but i remember that the ministers at least talked about inclusiveness and fairness and social justice.

    that all changed in 1971, when a new rector arrived. he had a hellfire and brimstone approach to theology, was autocratic and condemning. the youth group imploded when we had planned a dance, but when we arrived, the rector instead had us [and guests from another church youth group] sit through a 2 hour lecture by someone who found god while adrift in a lifeboat. afterwards, our youth group was angrily informed that we were all going to hell for fidgeting. i think about half the long-time families left the parish shortly after that. [it was just one of many incidents that drove the adults away.]

    now, my old parish is one of those that has defected from the episcopal church; they are now following a bishop in africa. there is a legal fight over whether the parish property belongs to the current congregation, or to the diosese.

    i have not been a church member for a very long time, but the turn that my old parish took made me very sad, and i'm horrified that the slide into [what i see as] hate-based fundamentalism has continued. it feels like a betrayal of the values i learned, which i retained after leaving the church.

  8. I know it's probably sorta limiting by where you live, but a lot of people in our circle (my friends, family) who want the community thing with maybe some meditation have found the Unitarians ok with them. I think that the upper class thing is less so if you aren't in New England.

    In Sac, oddly enough, there's a Catholic church that is very open and most of my parents' gay non-Jewish friends go there, whether they grew up Catholic or not. I'm not sure what the pull is, I never visited.

  9. That is a bold move but beware of the Catholic Church. I used to be Catholic but then I stopped practicing after I found out some disturbing truth. Some say the papacy is the antichrist. They changed the ten commandments which is the Law of God, the Pope claims to be a god, they have killed innocent people for centuries like the Spanish Inquisition and supporting the Nazis, and the priests have molested a lot of children. Jesus would not approve of any of these, it is not Christian, that is evil hiding behind religion. I pray people really to open their eyes. I know I did!!!

  10. Amy, I'm unwilling to go with the whole Catholics as non-Christian evil thing. It sounds like you've taken Spenser seriously, and that's a bad idea.

  11. I think having kids really made us examine what we believed, even after deciding as adults what we generally believed. How you're going to teach your kids really makes you look hard at it, though. Paul was raised Catholic and I suspect he would have continued with them despite the misgivings I know he had. We took the boys as toddlers to several Catholic services, and at a Christmas service the priest actually denounced gays in an amazing display of vitriol and hatred. And I walked out and I made it very clear that there was no way the boys were going to be raised with that sort of acid corroding their minds.

    So, we looked around. Paul was very clear that he wanted them to have some sort of religious grounding (though I confess I didn't see the need), but part of the partnership and raising kids seems to involve compromise, so we shopped around.

    We eventually ended up at the Unitarians, where the boys love going and get a chance to learn about all the major religions. Right now it's Hinduism, and there's a Diwali celebration that they'll be part of next Sunday. I can live with that. I can live with the values that everyone is worthwhile and all are welcomed there.

    I suspect it really depends on what congregation you try whether they are smug (ours has been called 'too intellectual' by some), but we find we genuinely like and respect the vast majority of people who go there. It works for us and the boys get a more balanced education about all the different religions that they would be very unlikely to get from just us.

  12. I had a couple of door-to-door Catholics come to my home the other day, and I wondered if it was part of this new 'outreach' programme. Had I not been so busy at the time, I would have had a bit of fun with them. But as it was, as soon as I told them I was a committed atheist, they looked scandalised and scuttled off with barely a protest.