General Convention, Parish Life

GC78, and things I wish we’d stop saying.

Since GC78 has ended I’ve been trying to piece together exactly what we have done and what we have left undone. I’m more and more convinced that it’s the second part of that line from the confession that’s going to be the burden we carry going into the 21st Century. But before I hop on that soapbox It’s important to celebrate what we accomplished.

  • We elected Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop.
  • We opened up the sacrament of Marriage to all people, regardless of orientation.
  • We trimmed down committee bloat at the national level.
  • We approved funding for digital evangelism.
  • We (finally) approved money for church planting and innovative ministries.

We did more, but that’s the stuff that really encourages me. This General Convention did worlds for our efforts to reach out to those who we are not currently. I may just be saying that because I relegated to the House of Twitter, and in comparing the Twitter feed with the livestream was an exercise in how social media can throw shade over the facts on the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but It did leave me with a very clear sense that those of us on #GC78 were just as hungry for cultural change as we were for institutional change.

While some folks were ready to call out our snark, the snark is case in point. We’re snarky about processes. About cultural assumptions. About parliamentary process impeding real work getting done. Ad hominem attacks were few and far between and were usually wrought by trolls. (The fact that #GC78 got big enough to troll is Twitter’s way of saying we were kind of a big deal.)

The things that make us cynical about GC are the same things that make newcomers cynical about our parishes. Committee bloat. Process over product. Covering our institutional asses at the risk of losing out on real relationship. I see it all the time. Folks come into our churches looking for real encounter. Looking for something that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly fragmented culture, and we give them institutional process. I really do get why they’re important to have, especially when you’re dealing with an international denominational body, but they have no place in our parishes. Even in the big ones.

The distinction between process and program is important to make here. Programming is good. Programming as a hoop to jump through for inclusion into the full life of the institution is bad.

We’re here to baptize people into the body of Christ, not inculcate them into our institutional norms. 

Now, a good many goodly Episcopalians are probably saying: “But we welcome everybody!”

Friends, that’s bullshit. And we need to stop saying it. Let’s check this right now. We are good at welcoming people who want to be more like us. And very few people want to be like us anymore.

Our bastion of White middle-class enlightened liberal reserve is not the cultural commodity that it once was, and yet t is still so ingrained in our institutional memory that we don’t realize the pressure we apply when we tell people about ourselves. We can go down the list:

  • We’re Inclusive! (If you fit a mold of what we think it means to be LGBT. Notice the lack of Q, and we’re iffy about B and T too…)
  • We welcome everyone! (But if you’re going to stay here are a list of cultural norms that you have to abide by, otherwise you can get right the hell out. We won’t tell you that, but we’ll sure as hell make you feel it.)
  • We’re progressive! (Except for when you challenge our notions about what it means to actually be progressive. This is especially true if you aren’t white.)
  • We elected a Black Bishop! (Who has told me that he spent the first few years of his Episcopacy in North Carolina having to prove over and over again that he was indeed “Episcopalian enough.”)

This is in our bones. We put it on t-shirts. On Mugs. It’s our flagship meme. The fact that we’re inclusive is good, but we’re increasingly living in a world where inclusivity is assumed. We are no longer weird for welcoming LGBT people. There are other denominations who are, in fact, ahead of us on this one.

In a lot of ways we have to become the anti-institution. Institutions crashed the economy and put me and my peers in boatloads of debt that we can never hope to discharge. Institutions sent my friends to the middle east to die, and didn’t take care of them when they came back. Institutions are keeping people away from receiving vital care because the price of entry is too high. There was a time where we wanted to emulate these institutions, but they’ve spent the last 30 years proving that they can’t be trusted and the whole time we’ve been trying to play nice with them.

We have the unique opportunity to not be that. But it means we’re going to have to give up a lot of what we think makes us who we are. If the millennials like me are going to have keep proving our value to the institutional life of the church then we’re going to keep staying out.

It’s been a fight for me and a lot of folks like me. Some of us have the patience, and we’re here because we love worshiping God in the Anglican way. But it ain’t been easy. The floor debates didn’t lead me to believe that its going to get easier anytime soon. Twitter did though. And for that I give thanks.

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General Convention

Talking Body: Tove Lo, Corpus Christi, and the Task Force on Marriage.

I listen to a lot of top 40 radio, and you should too. There’s a lot of really well-sponsored discourse playing in a 12 song rotation every day, nationwide. While we tend to write it off as thoughtless lyrics with a beat you can dance to, I want to take the time to be clear that no media is neutral media. It takes a particular kind of discourse to filter through the culture industry to the point that the decision is made to reproduce it on a scale that the internet still can’t match.

I won’t say its new. I’m not really convinced that anything is. But my sense is that we’ve seen a shift in content of top 40 pop since the YOLO blitzkrieg of 2011. (That The Lonely Island revived via parody in 2013.) Hedonistic electronic dance music broke through to become the vanguard of the Clear Channel set, to the point that it’s become ubiquitous.

Its only been in the last few weeks that Tove Lo’s single Talking Body broke into regular rotation. It’s already peaked out at number 13 on the Hot 100. It didn’t even crack the top ten, so why the spilled ink? Because I sincerely believe that Talking Body is the perfect expression of the contemporary sexual ethic to which the Church must respond.

(See for yourself, but know it’s all kinds of explicit.)

Tove Lo is the real deal. This song is layered. Its nuanced. Its smart. You can’t just chalk it up to “kids these days” and dismiss it. The whole song is worth contending with, but for the sake of brevity I want to focus on the chorus.

If you’re talking body, you have a perfect one, so put it on me. Swear it won’t take you long.

If you love me right, we fuck for life. On and on and on. 

The Chorus is espousing monogamy. If we’re physically compatible, we’ll be sexually intimate for life. It’s a pretty clear line of reasoning. If you’re interested, I’m attracted. If the sex is good, there’s no reason why we can’t do this forever. It shatters the notion that Millennial sexuality is about diversity of experience over depth of relationship. It’s anything but. Millennials (arguably more than their parents) value monogamy, but the way in which the worth of that monogamy is judged is obvious. This is about physical and emotional (but certainly not spiritual) compatibility. Full Stop.

A good friend of mine wrote strongly against clergy moonlighting as cultural critics. I agree with him. But I was ordained to take my part in the Councils of the Church, and with the Task Force on Marriage’s report weighing heavy over GC78, bringing up the way that we look at bodies as a culture is worth looking at. So I’d like to take a detour, on this feast of Corpus Christi, through some Eucharistic theology.

When we shifted to a baptismal ecclesiology in the BCP79 we did so at the expense of our sense of the Eucharist. Yes, the BCP79 elevating the position of the Holy Eucharist to the principal celebration on Sundays was a victory, but the way in which we began talking about the Eucharist negated the net benefit. By making Baptism cornerstone of our ecclesiology we stopped emphasizing the fact that the Eucharist is the full expression of our continual participation in the life of the body of Christ. (I’m treading Wesleyan waters here, but stay with me…)

For us to grow in Christ, Christ must continually pour himself into us. This is the work of the Spirit, but that work is expressed in the kenosis that takes place Sunday in and Sunday out on the Altar. At the heart of the real presence is the fact that, whether we want him to or not, Christ continues to take on flesh and blood. The Romish doctrine of transubstantiation reduces this to an Aristotelian slight of hand, but I think that we (like the Orthodox) get this one right in saying that the mystery is enough. The heart of the Eucharist is the fact that Christ becomes present in the matter of bread and wine. This is the outward and visible sign of the inward grace of a Baptised life. We become members of the Body of Christ so that we can continually partake in the Body of Christ. We become what we receive, but only if we receive it.

Every Sacrament involves a similar kind of outpouring, a similar kind of kenosis. The Spirit pours out on us in Baptism, and seals us as Christ’s own. In Confirmation and Ordination we pour out parts of ourselves, that the spirit may move in us to make us more effective servants of Christ’s kingdom. Confession and Extreme Unction are perhaps the most obvious examples of kenosis in the list of the 7, but marriage continues to confound us.

I’m equally unhappy with the notions that marriage is intended for blessing monogamous unions, and that marriage is intended for the procreation of children. The preface in the BCP seems to tell us that it’s both, at least sometimes. If it’s just about monogamy, then Tove Lo is espousing a perfectly acceptable theology of marriage. You want to fuck for life? Then the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with you…

…but none of us would say that, because there’s something more to this. There’s some kenotic aspect of the sacramental union of marriage that we’re completely leaving out of our discourse, and it has a lot to do with the fact that we, as a Church, have no idea what to make of the Blessed Sacrament. We don’t know how to get on the same page and say that the heart of what we are comes from Christ being poured out in front of us so that we can pour ourselves out to each other.

The days of the binary of procreative/non-procreative unions are gone. It is very likely that many of us will see services where two people who express the same gender will come to be married, and yet still have the ability to procreate. We’re already more than okay with marrying heteronormative couples who are unable, or unwilling, to have children. The ambiguity is there, and it isn’t going away. That’s the world we live in, and it’s a world that has never existed before, despite how ambiguous the Task Force’s report seems to think that the history of gender expression, and same-gender attraction is. (Taking disparate historic and cultural norms as reason enough to drop theological claims is weak criticism, and it needs to stop.)

Talking Body makes it clear that we have something to respond to, and we don’t need to be ambiguous about it. The world is good with monogamy being the benchmark. For folks in the procreative camp, I’m sorry y’all, but the BCP makes it clear that procreation is a conditional requirement, at best. If you’re going to make a utilitarian argument about making more Christians, then don’t waste my time.

None of these arguments is saying anything that the Church is uniquely called to say. We need to come back with kenotic love. Love that pours out of itself and makes a new creation. We need to come back with Sacrament. Sacrament that is open to all, but Sacrament none the less.

That means working, listening, and loving harder than we currently are.

The culture industry is throwing their best at us. I linked to it above. What are we going to give back to them? If it’s going to be compelling, then it’s got to be a damn sight better than what we’re doing now.

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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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