Monday, October 29, 2007



It has been interesting to preach on Reformation Sunday this year. I am well aware of the Reformation, that extension of the Renaissance that developed in Northern Europe. It was a time that breathed new life throughout Europe in the 16th century. Now I know that Episcopalians still consider themselves catholic and do not celebrate Reformation Sunday with the Lutherans and the Reformed churches. But perhaps it might be something that could be observed.

The Renaissance came about when the trade from the East allowed a merchant class to evolve in Italy in the latter 15th century after the devastating plagues that had rampaged all over Europe and Asia. This new merchant class also thirsted for education and was willing to find it among the Muslims and Jews as well as from the Church. Centers of learning developed all over Europe, and the merchant class became the educated people, not just the nobility and church leaders.

Meanwhile, the Church was in a deep decline. Ancient truths were being overturned by new-found wisdom. Local nobles had wealth only through wise dealing with mercantile efforts, but they began to have more power than the Church who had for a time centered in Southern France. The popes no longer had the power to tax so they began to sell indulgences to raise funds for the re-building campaigns when they returned to Rome. They used the kind of authority they thought they had—over the gates of heaven.

Martin Luther, a 34 year old scholar-monk in northern Germany challenged the seller of the pope’s indulgences to a debate. Luther’s theology was not especially new or electrifying. But it was the first time that anyone had really challenged the papacy—and challenged it where it hurt the most—in the pocketbook.

What happened afterward was the real change of the Reformation. The nobles of the various states in Germany began to say No to papal authority because of the abuse of the popes. The papacy and the clergy throughout Europe had been wracked with scandal for years. It allowed the well-deserved criticism of the Church to stand and thrive by protecting those who began to follow Luther’s lead. Eventually the criticism began to spread all over Europe. Ultra-montaine leaders of both state and religion began to throw off the ancient authority of the popes. It was only this that gave Henry VIII the temerity to oppose Rome.

Luther’s theology did not stop with indulgences. It took on much of what was wrong with the superstitions that had developed in the age of anxiety during the Middle Ages. He attacked the paternalism that had evolved in the Church calling Christians to be responsible for their own faith.

Being responsible for our faith is the call to every Christian, Catholic or Protestant. It requires that all Christians live their lives in ways that emulate Christ and follow his way. We, who follow him, are to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. We are to resist the temptation to buckle under the imperialism of our age. We are to provide a community, in which we can learn of one another, not exclude another because they think or act differently from the majority. Today Christianity cannot look to the majority as their paradigm. We cannot look to our political leaders for this kind of direction. We must be willing to find it in the way of Jesus.

In many ways today is somewhat like the 16th century. The laity has become the educated people in the face of fumbling clergy. The clergy are not trained to bring the message of Christ to a people who no longer understand the meaning of religious myth in their lives. Their myths involve sport’s heroes and get-rich-quick personages, not the stories of those who value truth, equality, integrity, and justice. The American myth no longer has to do with honor; it has to do with wealth. And clergy, who do not preach that God wants us to be wealthy, are likely seen by a great majority of society as irrelevant.

In this post-Christendom era when Christianity must be the leaven and not the loaf, we Christians must be willing to be drastically different from the majority of the world’s society. Christianity, if it is going to survive, is going to have to suffer the rejection of the majority in order to be true to the one who gave all that we might know faith. Honesty, integrity, truth, love, equality, perseverance, and humility, are all qualities that Jesus taught. The stories and parables he told remind us of the need for such virtue in our personal lives and in the social contract of those with whom we live. For that message, the message that a relationship with the God who is more than we can ask or imagine, is possible for those who are Christians look to Jesus. It is our gospel. It is our joy. If others want to know of that joy, we need to be willing to share it with them, not worrying about who can come to communion and who cannot.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Building on Sand

One of the things that I noticed about Clergy Conference this year is that there were so few senior clergy present. That was what I always looked forward to at clergy conference when I was a young priest. I appreciated the presence of the senior and retired clergy. They always carried the history of the diocese and the continuance of the ministry in the diocese that made much of the present issues clear. It was what gave balance and meaning to what was going on in my parish and kept me from being isolated.

Without Thornfield and having to pay for conference space now makes it difficult for the retired clergy to come. White Eagle Conference Center is also not accommodating for those who have difficulty with stairs, walking long distance, need easy access to bathrooms, etc. The cost of clergy conference is now becoming prohibitive for those living solely on their retirement or don’t have wealthy parishes that can pay for the privilege of comfy rooms. Oh, yes, they can ASK for assistance. But that is like asking Lazarus to beg outside of Dives door. For those who have served this diocese, it is demeaning. Perhaps we need to hold the clergy conference at a place where all of us can come and those in parishes pay for the retired clergy as well as their own attendance, like American dioceses pay for the impoverished African dioceses to send their bishops to Lambeth.

The continued strife in the diocese also makes it difficult for senior clergy to come. For those of us who have experienced the leadership of bishops who had a clear notion of what to do in difficult times, it is tiresome to attend clergy conferences which have no clear objective. This year’s conference had no stated goal. There was no speaker to bring us new issues to focus on. There was nothing to do but raise the same issues that have been confronting the college of clergy for the past 5 years. And when they were raised, they were shouted down as being too individualistic (read: not what the bishop wanted to hear) to be considered. What has happened is that there can be nothing addressed that is uncomfortable for the bishop.

Into this void of the senior leadership has come the young clergy appointed to their parishes by the bishop. The divide is palpable. “We are moving on”, the young say, “we cannot wait around and deal with OLD problems.” And they think that they CAN move on without the senior clergy—those who have been a part of the diocese for over 20 years ---those who hold the stories of the ministry of this diocese. Not only is their naiveté amusing, it is also saddening to think that we have raised up a group of young clergy that cannot listen to those who have sustained this diocese. They cannot listen to those who have experience in other dioceses either because their vision is limited to CNY.

The unwillingness of the bishop and the diocese to address major issues such as the expenditure of over $187K on a trial that the diocese could not even prosecute, the largess of newsprint yet still no action from diocesan leadership after 6 years and a calling process that is in total shambles should draw the attention of every Episcopalian in the diocese to note that something is NOT happening, and that is leadership.

What is also not happening is the continuing education of clergy. Not only was there no new material for us to talk over at our breaks, it is clear from the questions on the final day of clergy conference that the new clergy to the diocese have not had the kinds of education or preparation that is necessary for them to do ministy in their parishes. The mentor program, for those clergy that have been educated through ‘reading for orders’, seems not to be working. If the younger clergy had had the direction of the elders of the diocese, and if the idea that “we choose to move on” wasn’t indelibly imprinted on their minds, the division between experienced and inexperienced in the diocese would not be so marked. Granted, it is easier to control those who are inexperienced because leadership can make up the rules as it goes along. But that is not the kind of leadership who can approach the experienced, those who have known what good leadership is.

I have always understood Clergy Conference to be a time when mutual sharing of the ministry went on. It was a time when colleagues could sit down and discuss the issues that are facing the Church over a drink with the kind of laughter that salves the divisions and heals old wounds. That kind of discussion was conspicuously absent this year. “Moving on” is adolescent at best. It is dangerous at its worst. It means that we are trying to build on sand, the sand which does not carry the truth of the history of the diocese.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Balance of Powers and the Calling Process: Repris

Earlier I wrote concerning a process for calling rectors to parishes in the Diocese of Central NY proposing for a new way of implementing the canons regarding the calling of rectors. I was told this week that “we have a calling process in the Diocese that is geared for each parish.”

One of the charisms of the Episcopal Church has been the balance of power that has been held in tension among the laity, clergy and bishops. It is a necessary tension which holds any one order from becoming too powerful and oppressing any of the other. One of the important areas in which this tension is played out is in the calling of a rector. In the past positions would be posted with the Clergy Deployment Office [CDO] at National Church Center and clergy would apply for the parish. The profile, or position description would be posted and clergy would call or write the Director of Deployment in the diocese to apply for a parish. Sometimes, a parish could ask that their parish’s profile be “run” and then clergy whose profile would match the parish’s profile would be contacted to see if they were interested. The task of the Diocesan Deployment Officer was to teach parishes how to prepare their profile, assist the parishes in developing their lists of desires and needs and help them be aware of the demographics in their area. In the past it was not uncommon for a full-time parish with a healthy financial status to attract between 30 and 100 clerics. These days are gone. But this does not mean that there are not clergy in the Church who are interested to moving to our diocese if the right parish came along.

One of the important pieces of the tension between parish, clergy and laity has always been the calling of clergy that are right for the parish. Traditionally the vetting of applications has been done by the parish. The process which each parish went about was a bit different but in each case, but the parish needed to be a part of engaging the priest, walking the journey in discernment and finally calling a priest with whom they thought they could work. The process was alike for all congregations and we could follow the process of a parish in the calling process because it was published in the monthly newsletter. Always that process culminated in the approval of the bishop after the parish had done the lion's share of the work. Sometimes a parish would get a lemon, and sometimes the cleric would get a lemon. But there was always a chance to make lemonade.

These days, clergy must have background checks done; “the red flag” check must be done, so says Canon Lewis. But what is happening is that clergy may be excluded from a search, no matter if their profile is right on target for the parish, simply at a whim. The criteria of these “red flag tests” are not published. Clergy can be black balled at a mere whim of a bishop or diocesan staff member.

This process reminds me of the “good ole boy system” that the CDO process was designed to do away with. It also means that the Bishop has far too much control of the process at the beginning of the search. It means that the walk of discernment does not take place among the priest and the parish, but between the Bishop and the priest. What is happening in the diocese is that far too many self-supporting parishes are allowing themselves to be treated like missions. Allowing the bishop to appoint a vicar of his choice to be approved as rector at some later date is now common. It means that the parish has little say so in the calling process and consequently abolishing the power assigned to the laity by the Constitution and Canons.

I agree whole-heartedly with the canons that call for the approval of the Bishop of every rector in the diocese. But the process as it is lived-out in the diocese is one which is being controlled by the bishop. The process as it stands now is paternalistic and deprives the parish, the laity who call these clergy into their lives, of appropriate ways to evaluate those who apply for the position of rector. It means that all too often the discernment of the Holy Spirit is done only by the bishop.

With no published formula by which to call clergy, the process to call a rector falls into the realm of whim and hoop jumping rather than good process which is fair and clear to all. All too often in our diocese the rules and criteria for each stage to be met are manipulated by diocesan officials. I know of one instance in which the rules for calling a new priest were changed from one meeting with the parish to the next. Rules for calling a new rector become Byzantine when the process is different for each parish. It smacks of manipulation rather than healthy process.

We once had a system that when a priest was made rector, that priest had tenure—that priest could not be fired or removed without the agreement of bishop, priest and the Vestry. This is still the canonically approved system. This tenure allowed the priest to preach the Gospel to the parish when often the parish did not want to hear the Gospel. Yes, it did mean conflict. But it is only in conflict that we really understand the need to change. But also, this tenure allowed the rector to preach the Gospel to the Bishop.

These days it is dangerous for even a tenured rector to try to preach the Gospel to the Bishop. Partially this is due to the individual who sits in that office; partially it is because we are tired of having to take care of ourselves in the midst of conflict. Granted, we have had those who have “preached their gospel” which have led them to leave the Church. However, in the aftermath of the “Great Shakedown” we cannot allow the basic freedoms that have served to make this Church great, be subverted. We must be willing to guard our liberties in the Church from those who would usurp them just to make life “easy.”

It would be all too easy for us to end up with the kind of marionette clergy that the Roman Catholic Church has if we do not guard this complex but oh so rich Episcopal Church polity that we have. We need to call upon our Diocesan Convention to reassert our stance that this Church has a polity that demands that parishes be independent in the calling process so that the appropriate checks and balances are maintained.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Lies We All Tell
By Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared at Columbia University that “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country”, most everyone in the U.S. knew he was lying. What he meant to say is that he is doing his best to commit genocide against homosexuals in Iran and/or so terrorize them that they will deny their own identities as gay people.
This, of course, is not the only lie that Mr. Ahmadinejad tells, smirking as he does so. He lies about the Holocaust, he lies about the real lives of women in Iran, he lies about persecuting journalists and intellectuals, and he lies about his country’s nuclear program. He is helping to make Iran a liar society.
It is easy to see this pattern of being a liar society when it’s somebody else doing it. It’s also easier to see when the lies are such a bunch of big whoppers like Ahmadinejad tells. But a little deception is also bad and the thing about deception is that it tends to lead to more and more distortion so it’s hard to tell where the lies end and where the truth begins.
I’m sorry that some Episcopal Bishops are apparently yielding to world-wide and national pressure from conservatives and backing off of their courageous stance on the full equality of homosexuals in the Episcopal Church. The “compromise” position that strengthened the 2006 resolution on “restraint” in consecrating gay bishops and that explained that the Episcopal Church has no official liturgy for same sex blessing is a gentler form of deception. I have to agree with the Episcopal conservatives here (though of course for different reasons) who called this a “legal fiction.” It is fiction and it is unfortunately a step back from the truth that some Episcopalians are gay, but that all are equal in the sight of God. It also is a step back from the truth that some gay or lesbian Episcopalians have the spiritual gifts needed to be a Bishop. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. If you know Gene, and I do, you will quickly realize he is one of the most spiritually luminous people you will ever meet. Any church that refuses to recognize spiritual gifts for leadership is, frankly, lying to itself and no good ever comes from that.
What happens when people and societies lie about important things like the diversity of human gender preference? Well, one of the things that may happen is that some people so deny their own sexual orientation that they end up playing footsie in a Minneapolis bathroom instead of leading a healthy, self-aware life.
At the end of the day, being a liar society is fundamentally corrupting to individuals and the whole nation. There is simply no better teacher on the multiple and degrading effects of lying than Mr. Ahmadinejad.

"On Faith" panelist Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president of Chicago Theological Seminary. She has been a Professor of Theology at the seminary for 20 years and director of its graduate degree center for five years. Her area of expertise is contextual theologies of liberation, specializing in issues of violence and violation.

CommentWhen I read this article linked on Susan Russell’s blog I took exception to it. While I am not happy with the House of Bishop’s (HOB) statement about GLBT folk and our place in the Church, I wasn’t going to claim that their statement was lying. I don’t know if I was just “defending the family” or whether I have allowed myself to believe the rhetoric of the HOB. I just saw the HOB statement as just the usual political tiptoeing through the minefield of Episcopal/Anglican polity.

I do believe that the majority of the bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) do support GLBT folks. But it only goes so far. It only goes far enough to be respectable. And extreme stances for justice or any other cause just isn’t “Episcopalian, doncha know?"

But Susan has it right. When we allow our leaders to speak lies in our names, we become complicit in their degrading of our lives together we call society, Church, or whatever.

I am concerned with this generation—those who are in power in both Church and State in North America and Europe—who believe that if you tell people a fiction long enough they will believe it. I have heard that the HOB is supportive of GLBT persons in the Church. I know and am one of those gay clergy who has served the church. But when push comes to shove, when we need folks to step out and support us, I have seen few who are willing to lose anything to stand for justice. When justice pinches ---when it means a Lambeth without TEC presence, those principles get a bit clear.

Does the Bishops’ statement mean that they are lying? I don’t want to say that… I really don’t. But if it walks like a duck…

We, in the Church cannot hold with dishonesty in any form, from ourselves before God, from our congregants, from our leaders, without losing too much integrity in a national climate that eschews traditional religion because the Church does not keep faith with itself. If the Church is going to have any impact upon the majority culture today, we must be impeccable in our honesty. We must be transparent about our decisions, our finances, and our deliberations. To do less, confirms the suspicions of those who call us hypocrites. We cannot tell the world that LGBT folks are to be supported and then step back from that to maintain a tenuous unity. We cannot say that LGBT folks are full members of our churches when our relationships cannot be affirmed and celebrated the same as heterosexuals.

Susan is right! The HOB lied--either in saying that they are supportive of LGBT people or in the reality of our acceptance in the Church. And no unity is worth that. And what will happen? Nothing. No bishop will be charged with violating his ordination vows. No condemnation will come from the larger House. No one will hold the HOB accountable because like politicians in secular government, we have become inured to the actions of church politicians shuffling papers and dodging the real issue—how are they going to play the power hand they have been dealt.

It is hard to be part of the Church today. But Christ calls us to be faithful to God, not to the Church, not to the HOB, not to the shuffling of papers. We are called to be faithful to the Truth of Jesus Christ in our midst. It may not look loyal in the Church, but it is faithful.