Friday, July 19, 2013

The Gospel Truth

Perhaps the most crucial issue for the Church today is veracity.  All too often clergy are expected to teach ‘the party line’ instead of engaging God in the intimacy of holiness.  As one who has read and taught Church history for almost 40 years, I cannot do that.  It is the Church’s failure to be honest about what it is and what it is trying to achieve that is causing wholesale withdrawal by people who once had rich faith heritages.  The younger generations find the Church’s opposition to LGBTQ issues as evidence of our hypocrisy.   Others find that the scholarship that has been available to church leaders for as much as 500 years has been withheld from the rank and file and rightly feel betrayed.  Others find that the emphasis on sexual issues by the Church as requisite to be considered ‘christian’ as not essential to one’s relationship with the Holy One.  If there has been a failure in the leadership of the Church it has been at the level of honesty.

While this dishonesty has been going on since Peter and Judas, in my lifetime I began to see its deleterious effect with the extensive pedophilia scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.  The failure of the Church to come clean and ask forgiveness for its sins
against the People of God has marginalized the Church’s (not just Roman Catholicism) influence in the Western world.  The continued grasping at scientific impossibilities by the fundamentalists, the denial of sexual misconduct by both the Catholic and Protestant arms of the world-wide Church, and the continued demand for doctrinal sameness is making a mockery of the real relationship that humanity has with God in the Incarnation.  People are not losing faith in God; they have lost faith in the Church because of her willingness to demand sameness and shallow belief.

I was thankful to be Episcopalian when all the pedophilia scandals began to surface in the Roman Catholic Church.  In the early 90’s I began to see some real integrity around issues of clergy sexual and financial misconduct found in our own denomination.  At the time I was on the Standing Committee of my diocese and had to struggle with the kinds of dishonesty that such scandals produce.  Thankfully, we had a bishop who had the integrity to stand up to such transgressions and believed in being transparent.  It cost us some heartache, but it did not cause us to lose our integrity as a diocese.

Today, we have policies in place to help parishes and dioceses to face and deal with the bad behavior of church leaders.  The difficult problem lies when those policies and procedures are not supported by frightened leaders who want to ‘make nice’—who want the image of the Church to remain ‘pure’ without the hard work of honesty.

Clergy and laity sin.  It is a fact.  The Church is supposedly a place where sinners can come to be absolved of their sinfulness and repent.  But when the Church is only filled with the ‘holy’ or the ‘presumed holy’, it has no place for those who are really trying to transform their lives to walk in the paths of balance and joy that the Christian life is supposed to be.  If the Church is not a place where people can question, criticize, can engage in honest discussion about the Church and faith, then it ceases to be the Church and becomes just a club to go on Sundays.  The liturgy becomes hollow, the preaching becomes inane and coffee hours are ‘nice.’  And the reality of church pales and falters.  This is where we are in this diocese (and in most dioceses), if we fool ourselves into thinking that we are wonderful.  
Over and over in Christian and Jewish Scripture we find God sending spokespersons to
the people to remind people of their dishonesty.  We cannot miss the constant call to honesty of the Hebrew prophets if we read the Bible.  These prophets were not just for the rank and file of Hebrew society; they were nearly always the voice of God to the religious leadership.  The failure of religious leadership has always been a concern in Hebrew Scripture.  Jesus was constantly calling the people who followed him to honesty.  Each of his stories are concerned with chastising the dishonesty of the religious and political leadership of his day.  It was the reason he was crucified.

If the past 40 years in church leadership has taught me anything, it has taught me that lay folks deserve honesty from their leadership. And unlike Jack Nicolson in A Few Good Men and the Vatican, I believe that the people CAN handle the Truth.   Parishioners can appreciate doubt, failure, depression, the willingness to grapple with difficult issues, change and newness if their leadership is willing to be there with them, not above them.  

Experience has taught me also that there are plenty of people in the pews who come to church to be transformed but damned few in the pulpit.  We have created a whole class
of church leaders who are dishonest with themselves and consequently dishonest with the people they are supposed to serve.  There are just too many in the ‘clergy club’ whose image of the vocation is to pull the wool over other peoples’ lives and make people happy.  They have adopted big business’ tactics to ‘sell religion’ rather than to live the transformation that Christ calls for.  And what is sad is that they have never really looked at their vocation, grappled with it because they have spent their entire years of preparation jumping through inane hoops rather than wrestling with God.  It is almost as if the adage “If you keep telling the same story, people will believe it” is how they envision the ministry.

The prophets are among us.  They are telling us that God is a figment of our imagination—or at least the God that the Church has been promulgating.  And I have to agree with them.  The message of the Church often has become: “we have to keep our membership at all cost.” But the message of Jesus is to be honest with one’s self and the institutions that we may know the freedom to live fulfilled lives. To continue to ‘make nice’ destroys the message of tough love that is fundamental to relationship with the Holy One. For us Christians, to continue keeping the 'peace at all costs means that Christ died in vain-- that the evil in the lie triumphs.

I am too old now to care what happens to the Episcopal Church.  I have loved the institution even in her sinfulness—the same way I loved my parents.  But for my own health I cannot ignore her faults and will not be silent about them.  I am retired.  I have spent my life devoted to the people I was called to serve.  I will continue to do that in the Church or out of it.  It matters not—my vocation and my vows are to God, not the Church.  I will continue to preach, write and serve—it is what I am called to do.  But I will not make ‘nice’ and call it the Gospel.


klady said...

Yep. I hate that church is such that you must speak this way, but thank you for speaking here (and your previous rant). Things are o.k. in my current parish but I ache for the church at large. I have not known it as long as you but I fear it will not be around much longer. I miss all those with the depth of experience and knowledge such of yours, and most of all your insistence on honest talk. So tired of the b.s. of the elite.

Kathy Jensen

Grandmère Mimi said...

Alas, Lauren, I agree with much of what you say. I love the Episcopal Church, and I love my parish, but I, too, feel a sadness for the future of the church. How to restructure the church? Should TEC headquarters move? My eyes glaze over. Even the word "mission", which is thrown about so freely, has little meaning left for me. The church that is the Body of Christ will prevail, but what it will look like, I don't know. I'm old, so I won't be around to see.

Linda McMillan said...

As usual, I agree with my friends above. We are in different situations regarding our affiliation with the institution, but they remain part of my own church.

Even though I miss it, truly miss it, I can see that getting kicked out of church has forced me to grow up and to actually work out my own salvation. I would have preferred to do that inside the institution, but wonder if I ever would have.

I have long seen that the job of the clergy is to keep the laity in it's place. I don't think I'll ever forget a vicar telling me not to teach something in a Sunday School class -- it was regarding the so-called heresy trials. Not something I made up, not an opinion, but verified history -- because is might upset some people. Honestly... Well... there it is, a lack of honesty.

I think you're on target, Lauren. I wish it weren't so, but I think you are.


Muthah+ said...

Hey, Lindy. I understand what you are saying and grieve that you had to endure being kicked out of your church. But as a priest who does not believe that my job is controlling the laity, I still feel a need to call the Church to a type of honesty and transparency that scares many who want Church to be a womb rather than a place to live out a vibrant faith. It won't happen in my lifetime--it hasn't happened in 2000 years but the vocation demands that I speak.

Crimson Rambler said...

"the powerful odor of ... MENDACITY." Yes. There is a sourness in the air (in our part of the world and I suspect in TX also that usually means that an oil or gas well has gone wrong somewhere close by) that I haven't felt in quite the same way before. And I'm very tired of it, tired of the bullying and the pitiful, nauseous CANT on all sides...