Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I cannot NOT be priest...

I am constantly being aware that even in retirement I am a priest.  I am told that I can’t be a part of a parish calling a new rector.  I would rather not wear my collar but I am challenged by younger clergy to do so.  I thought that I was going to have some respite and yet, and yet….  I don’t think I can NOT be a priest. 

I never have swallowed the theological idea that there is an ontological change with the sacraments.  Yes, I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the blessed bread and wine.  I haven’t the foggiest how it happens.  Perhaps Thomas Aquinus got a word from God, but I just know that that sign makes Christ tactile and real for me through grace.  Yes, I believe in the sign of God’s healing in the laying on of hands.  And yes, I believe through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that something very special happens when we name our sinfulness that leads to transformation.  But I guess I never wanted to be different by being a priest.  I hated the image of the priest being placed upon a pedestal.
Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, I saw the ‘elevation’ to the ordained ministry used

by both clergy and laity to separate those whose call was to serve.  And consequently the servant minister was often made the one who expected service.  Consequently there was a major disconnect in what the clergy were doing and what the people needed.  Vatican II tried to change that image, but it was rejected by those who wanted to maintain that distance.


And after over thirty years of ordained ministry, I am still grappling with what it means to be priest.  It has certainly changed in those years, and not necessarily for the best.  So I am back to the question what does it
mean to be priest today?  Do we need them?  Should we need them?  What can an ordained person do for society that humanity cannot, with God’s grace, do for
themselves?  I am sure that in different times and different eras, this question has been answered in different ways.  Certainly during the Reformation some of the break away groups opted out of an ordained priesthood raising up those who could pastor without the sacramental signs.  But the Church being what it is, seems to need leaders.  So how does society confirm those leaders without making them priests?
What I am discovering about myself is that by being a priest, with God’s grace, I can no longer NOT be a priest.  I may not celebrate the Mass, or absolve sins, but that doesn’t stop me from being what I have been called to do.  I am not a priest by my own
account, or even the laying on of hands by the bishop.  I am a priest simply because I have been molded by God’s grace into the sign that God has made me.  And I am beginning to understand the sacramentality of the sign.  I don’t think I understood this at first.
I remember when I was first ordained; I wanted to have a day off in the little town where I served.  If I went to the Post Office or the grocery, I would get ‘button holed’ by people (often people I didn’t even know) who had ‘religious’ questions.  If I was working in the garden of my rectory, I would get hailed as the ‘Parson’ even when I was in my jeans and t-shirt.  In small towns you were the priest of the whole community even for the Baptists.  I had to leave town to have any invisibility at all. It was difficult to be “on” all the time.
Now, I have heard psychologists tell people not to confuse their work with who they are.  But that isn’t the case with the sacrament of ordination.  The sacrament does not make us different because we are still the numbskulls after the laying on the hands than before.  But what we have is the grace to evolve into what it means to be a sign of God’s presence in the world.  I don’t want to say that there aren’t those signs in many different things.  But I do believe that the transformation that comes with opening one’s self to the sacrament of ordination changes one forever.  And I believe that even if someone were to renounce their ordination, the sacrament has still changed their lives.
One of my Methodist colleagues wears her collar during Lent (not a Methodist custom)

simply to proclaim that there is a Christian leader in her neighborhood.  In our part of the country, women’s ministry is still relatively rare.  It isn’t uncommon for someone
to ask questions while I eat in a restaurant, or wait for friends at the bus stop.  The Parson is one who becomes the ‘safe person’ in the community to share faith with, whether it is with someone who stops to change your tire, or a mother who wants her child baptized by a woman. 
The signs of Christianity have been eroded over the past 20 years. I am not talking about crosses or little fish on the back of the car.  I am talking about the incarnated signs. When I was first ordained, the ministry was a respected profession with all the accoutrements thereof.  But society has changed.  Church scandals, the hijacking of Jesus by the neo-conservatives, warring denominations over whatever issue have often placed a burden on those who have committed there lives to be signs of Christ’s presence to the world.  For a while after the pedophilic scandals of the 80’s and 90’s I didn’t want to wear a collar in public.  The media and movies have made Christian leadership look either dummer than dirt or satanic.  And some of our ilk have done awful things.  But I daresay that there have always been those few in the Church universal who abused their office for personal gain, but the majority of us do try to live into that transformative grace that comes with the sacrament of ordination.  And by it we are changed each moment by the One who calls us to serve.
The priesthood of all believers acts the same way.  The sacrament of Baptism enriches
us with the grace to be just as much of a sign of Christ’s presence.  My ordination does not separate me from that grace I was given in Baptism.  It is my baptism that is the root of my ordination; therefore I am the same as every other person in the Church.  My ordination calls me to serve differently, but that is all.  It calls me to a different type of servanthood but it does not ‘elevate’.  If anything it makes life more hazardous by its temptation to not be transformed.  Ordination merely defines where that servanthood is lived out.  The authority it gives is only the authority that is conferred by the community that I serve.  And if I fail that community in serving it, that authority means nothing. 
Now, as I am retired from holding authority of the Church, I work with those who are in authority.  I serve at the direction of others.  That’s fine with me.  At least I don’t have to go to all those $%**% meetings anymore.  But I cannot NOT be a sign of Christ’ presence.  It is an indelible sign.  For good or ill, I still am a sign.  And it is that redeeming grace that still calls me to serve to my dying breath. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

What's Love Got to Do With It?: Friday Five--Valentine Edition

RevKarla has come up with a very random Valentine's Day Friday Five:  Whatever we love.

1.  My colleague J. with whom I have lived with for 36 years.  We are not lovers (as most suspect and I wish) but we are now two old ladies who love the Church and each other and try to love others the best we can.

2.  The Church--not only the denomination but the Universal Church.  It is

more of a love/hate relationship at times, but it is a passionate love that we might be what we say that we are and Christ calls us to be.

3.  My beasties:  Bit and Tyke.

4.  I spent much of my youth playing french horn in band and orchestra.  I studied music and even played professionally for some years before Christ got me.  Now I am blessed with being able to listen to band and wind ensemble music on Pandora while working at my computer.  I am also back near my alma mater so now I can attend concerts and remember the joy.  Music still is the place where the Holy touches me most readily. 

5.  Friends and Colleagues who have the courage to kick me in the butt when I have been acting like an ass.  They are the best.

Monday, February 3, 2014

OK, Call me Mother!

I am in a new parish.  And as usual, the question, “What do we call you?” comes up.  I am not fond of titles for those who lead in the Christian community for the lay or ordained and yet we are a hierarchical church in which titles are not only used but coveted by both the ordained and the laity.  Over the years, I have been called Mother, Sister, Reverend, Pastor, and Ms. I prefer to be called by my baptismal name, but that isn’t the custom of the parish I am presently in.  Because I am adjunct in my new parish, I will conform to the practice of the parish.  It doesn’t bother me what people call me as long as it conveys the respect that the Incarnation confirms, not just for the position of priest, but that promotes the dignity of every human being.

I do have an aversion to parental titles for clergy.  I know how they developed—from the monastic and even the rabbinical relationships over the centuries.  The title ‘Father’ is a relatively recent manifestation in the Episcopal Church or Anglican tradition, just since the mid-19th century.  And my earliest acquaintance with Anglican tradition was in a part of the country that was rather low-church so the parental titles were not dogmatically adhered to.

My first encounter with the Christian community was among a group of Roman Catholic nuns.  They all called each other ‘Sister’ or ‘Mother’.  Coming to know Christ in semi-monastic community in which egalitarianism was essential to one’s living out of one’s faith, it always seemed peculiar to me that ‘Sister’ was less a familial endearment than a way to ignore the other’s unique personality.  Much has changed in the religious communities since that time.

When I entered that community as a postulant, I used to take the bus to school.  Each day the bus driver and I would have a lively conversation as we were trying to
open our eyes to a new day.  But the morning after I received the veil, the joviality that had been a part of our interactions stopped.  I was no longer Lauren.  I was ‘Sister’ and we lost that exchange that was marked by friendship.  The boundary was up.  The title was there.  There was just too much cultural baggage in New Orleans for joviality and human interaction to cross it.  It was a loss I have remembered for 40 years.  And I identify titles with that loss.

I have found that ‘being different’, the experience of all LGBTQ folk, has helped me understand how essential to my faith that being unique is.  It is part of my
understanding of the Holy that the Divine creates everyone inimitable. And part of the ideal of Christian community is when all of us come together, not the same, but with all the diversity of creation.  So pigeon-hole titles don’t celebrate that matchlessness that our lives are.

I am especially uncomfortable with parental titles for clergy.  It is all too easy to allow those titles to become reality in the faith community.  Too many times I have entered a parish community in which ‘Father knows Best’ continues as an infantilizing climate.  Both clergy and faith community play out ‘familial roles’ which are often that of the dysfunctional stasis of addicted relationships. It is neither holy nor life-giving.  The genuine faith-filled, Spirit-infused environment in which the Gospel is to be lived out requires mature personalities and spirituality that stands in the awe of newness that comes with childhood. It also requires recognition of the part all play in the healthy lived out faith that Church should imply.  But that too is ideal, and we don't live there.

Often times I see clergy trying to live out parental roles with their congregations that may rooted in the dysfunction of their own homes.  I also see parishioners playing out transactions that witness to their own histories rather than the healthy nurture of the pastor/parishioner dynamic. 
At the same time, I know that the spiritual journey of individuals often is aided by those guides and mentors that take on very primal roles in our spiritual
development.  I know that while my confessor is much younger than I, she mothers me to a new place in my relationship with the Holy One.  I must be that child with her so that I may grow in my relationship with Christ.  It is incumbent upon me, however, that outside that very private and intimate moment of holiness that comes with that direction, it is Christ, not she who is the mover of my soul.   I cannot succumb to the continued transference that would ultimately destroy all the growth that I have come to in that sacramental moment.

There are so many levels to the clergy/parishioner-parish relationship that no single title really serves.  And yet… And yet..  It goes way beyond the individual or even the parish.  As clergy we are also parsons in a society that needs to sign its religious persons in order to remember the spiritual dimension in society. I thank a sister colleague of reminding me of this very central position that we represent not just for our parishes but in a very real sense for the whole of in society. (another blog; another time)

When I was ordained over 30 years the women clergy in the Episcopal Church were still few and far between.  There was no consensus as to title.  Even the words Mother and Father were not equal in society.  It was the women who were working as assistants that demanded parity with ‘Father So-in-so’.  I was never an assistant so I could call my own shots, usually inviting parishioners to call me by my Christian name.  (It somehow seemed appropriate.)

The title ‘Mother’ is one that is fraught with post-holes for me, yet I am going to have to recognize that it has become, in my lifetime, the parlance of the people who recognize women priests in the locales I am being called to serve.  It isn’t the word—that means anything at all, but the respect and the honor that others have for the sacramental role that I am, have become and continue to become.  So call me Mother—perhaps not Muthah+ so much anymore.