General Convention

Fistfights and Church Governance.

Part of my Clinical Pastoral Education experience involved me diving headlong into a fist fight. It wasn’t one that I started. Two young men decided to swing on each other in the lobby of the outreach center I was serving. I heard the scuffle, and without thinking bolted around the corner and put myself in the middle of it. I caught a hook across my side, and got some nails dragged down my arm before I could wrestle one man off the other and out into the street. I waited with him for the cops to show up, gave them my statement and then walked him back to the shelter he was staying at.

He wasn’t allowed back in the outreach center, but every time I saw him I felt closer to him than I did before he unknowingly caught me across the side with his right hand. We had bonded in the fray. He trusted me more, approached me more readily, opened up easier after I had thrown him to the ground and pushed him out of the building.

The lists of the people that I’m closest with and the people that I’ve gotten into a physical fight with have a remarkable amount of overlap. I’ve heard the same thing from a number of other people, and I think that’s by and large because (for most non-pugilists) we only get really pissed about the things we really care about. There’s something in the fray that’s cathartic. There’s something that gets accomplished in being raw enough to resort to non-verbal expressions of the ways in which we feel. It isn’t nice, but sometimes it’s necessary. If apathy is the enemy of love, then sticking it out long enough to come to blows involves some level of caring.

With less than a month left before GC2015 I’m starting to wonder if we actually care enough to have a meaningful synod. Don’t get me wrong, I know that we believe strongly, but it isn’t about belief. I wonder if we care. 

Culture war politics don’t require us to have the slightest bit of concern for our fellow Christian so long as they’re on the opposite side of our issue. They actually tend to work better if we don’t have any concern. If we become so intensely convinced of the lunacy of the other position, then we’re more inclined to dismiss it as opposed to actually listen. If the only level of debate that TEC can muster is the level of debate currently present in our civil society then the world is right to ignore is. If all we’re going to do is be cultural partisans, then don’t even bother electing a new PB because we’re done.

If we can’t be a countercultural witness in something so central as how we govern ourselves then our structures are bankrupt, and neoliberal notions of inclusivity aren’t going to be enough to carry us out of it.

I learned the most about myself and my theology from the moments where I vehemently disagreed with someone, and stuck it out long enough for the both of us to figure out why we disagreed. I became an Episcopalian largely because of my friendships with people in the Continuing Anglican movement. They challenged me in love. They were interested in my growth in Christian maturity and wanted to see me come to a fuller understanding of the Gospel of Christ. While I fully believe that they’re wrong about polity, and ecclesiology, and sometimes I question whether or not they’re actually Anglican, they helped me know why it is I believe what I do. Much to their chagrin I’d like to think that my priesthood (and by extension, TEC) is the better for it.

We’re going to handle important issues this year. GC is going to get hot. We should hope that it gets hot the right way. Conflict avoidance will kill a Parish just as much as conflict itself. It’ll do the same for a Denomination. If the floor of both houses doesn’t get heated, then it means we’re not doing our job. The litmus test for whether we’re doing meaningful work is whether we can still come to the Blessed Sacrament together after having gotten heated, not whether or not we get heated in the first place.

I couldn’t care less about whether the delegates are “nice.” I want my delegates to be Christians of goodwill who are intensely and passionately devoted to the good of the Church, and I want them to listen. Don’t grandstand. Don’t posture. Listen. Debate. Learn from one another and grow in love.

Let’s be honest. The world already doesn’t care at all about our governance… but if we can make some real, meaningful, theologically sound decisions moved together in fierce love by a Holy Spirit that comes to us looking like tongues of fire… that would be enough to notice.

It worked for the Church before. I’m inclined to believe it will again.

(Note: Just incase it has to be said outloud… don’t actually start fistfights on the floor at GC, y’all.)

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Church, Parish Life

The Long Ascensiontide.

In the first Chapter of Acts Christ ascends to Heaven, and then the Apostles do some institutional maintenance. It’s built into us. Something happens that we don’t expect, so we turn in on ourselves. Christ ascends, so we get together and pray because we don’t know what else to do. Judas is gone, so we have to replace him. (Take note Vestries, you don’t actually have to have 12 people…) We will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain equilibrium, even when the world around us is changing faster than we can account for.

The Pew Survey on American Religion came out this week and it told us a lot of things we already knew, it just put some clearer numbers to how fast the American religious landscape is changing. The Alarmists sounded the alarm. The Episcopal blogosphere once again went nuts. Some said its good. Some not. Everyone noticed. Either way, its not entirely helpful.

I don’t really know a nice way to say this, so I may as well not try to be nice. We’ve got to stop collectively losing our minds whenever a new number comes out, and we actually have to start being about the work where we are. Nationwide statistics are nice, but the demographics we really need to be concerned with are the demographics immediately surrounding our parishes.

The lead up to this General Convention has thoroughly convinced me of one thing; We don’t think subsidiarity is an applicable ecclesiological concept anymore. I can’t think of a nice way to say this either, but the unaffiliated, the folks that we should be reaching out to and inviting into our life together give precisely zero shits about the next Presiding Bishop, or the next Social Justice resolution, or about restructuring our governance.

What they care about is whether or not the Gospel is being communicated in a compelling way. What they care about is Pentecost. If the Apostles stayed indoors after ascension, then Christianity as a historical phenomenon stops in that room in Jerusalem. It may have been a really nice room, but the room isn’t where the life is.  We invite people into parishes, not the institutions. If later on down the line they decide that they want to take their place in institutional decision making, that is well and good, but less that describes less than 5% of our membership. If that.

We have willingly stuck ourselves in the long ascensiontide, where we huddle together wondering where exactly it is that Jesus went, and what exactly he wants us to do. We have done a great job of re-imagining the institution, without getting specific about re-imaging our lives. The Spirit is with us, calling us to step outside our doors and to give a compelling witness to what it is that gives us life, and gives the world life. That starts at the parish. That starts with us. If the institution is dying, then let the dead bury their own.

Christianity was built by tongues of fire. If that offends our middle-class WASP sensibilities, then our sensibilities need to go. Like the good Saint said, “Give me a man in love; he understands what I mean. Give me a man who yearns: give me a man who is hungry: give me a man travelling in the desert, who is thirsty and sighing for the spring of the eternal country. Give me that sort of man; he knows what I mean.” -St. Augustine (On John’s Gospel 26.4)

I know a lot of folks who fit that description. I know a lot of parishes that fit that description. The Spirit is not leaving us, it is with us, guiding us into all Truth. Pentecost happened, and we are it’s legacy. So, for the love of God, (and I still don’t know a nice way to say this) let’s fucking act like it.

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Anglo-Catholicism, Priestcraft

Forever Front of House: Why I Wear a Maniple.

When I was a transitional Deacon I worked in a restaurant. The significance wasn’t lost on me. The commissioning of the seven was read at my ordination, complete with that lovely line “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.” (Acts 6:2)

I’m not much for literalism, but it was fitting to say the least.

Service industry work is hard. Its taxing physically and emotionally, and so, almost by necessity, Industry workers form this weird kind of closeness. You’re getting into work when the rest of the world is getting ready to go out for the evening. You’re getting off when the rest of the world is asleep. The people you get to know and get to love are the people who share your hours, and who share your stories. It’s weird and lovely and transitional and heartbreaking. Some people thrive on it. Some people just pass through. Some do it because they have to.

In a lot of ways its what the Church should be. Diverse people, all of whom are a little fucked up, uniting around a shared life, shared food, shared drink.

When I transferred to full time parish ministry it was a bit of a shock. I missed the sense of shared purpose. I missed the late night beer and bitching. There was a lot of temerity about sharing too much. About being too loud. About being too open. Eventually that wore off. Things started to open up. Folks started asking me to be a priest, but it still wasn’t quite the same.

One day I started looking through the Sacristy, just to take stock of what we had and what we needed to order. Hanging on a plastic hangar, buried behind unused acolyte albs was a set of maniples. It was pretty obvious that they had been hand sewn (the stitching was a bit rough) and there was one for every liturgical color.

I’ve made it a practice to pray while I’m vesting. I use the old Tridentine formulas that I taped to the door of the wardrobe in the sacristy. I always just skipped the prayer for the maniple, but now that I had some I figured I’d try them on for a few Sundays and see how they felt. I’d just run a small, mostly harmless experiment.

Putting on the maniple felt remarkably familiar, and remarkably right. It felt diaconal. It felt like I was getting ready to serve. Of all the vestments reserved for ordination, that’s the one that grounded me. It told me what I was there to do. I had a towel back on my arm. The rest of the vestments felt new and weird, but I could make sense of a towel on my arm.

When I started praying the vesting prayer for the maniple it added another dimension.

“Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris.

May I deserve, Lord, to bear the maniple of tears and sorrow; that I may receive the reward for my labors with rejoicing.”

That towel was there for wiping tears. My tears? The congregations tears? It doesn’t say. We can be overly pious and say that the maniple originated in a handkerchief used to dry the tears of priests who burst out crying at the sight of the Blessed Sacrament. Maybe. I’ve said Mass with tears in my eyes once or twice. I think there’s more to it than that, though. For better or worse we wear the sorrow of our people on our sleeve. We wear our sorrow on our sleeve.

Or at least we used to.

What I loved about the Industry is what I want people to love about the Church. I want us to work hard, and then come to a place where we get to be ourselves. Where we get to come together for something that’s bigger than us. For somethings that’s meaningful and gives us life. No pretense. Just community.

This isn’t some Church-as-the-bar-from-Cheers metaphor. Its not about “everyone knowing your name.” Its about a group of people with a common life, coming together day after day and bringing all of themselves to the table.

Someone has to set the table. Someone has to serve.

If not using a vestment means forgetting that this is the exact reason why we ordain clergy, then lets wear the vestment.

(Or not. Because Adiaphora.)

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