Thursday, January 17, 2019

21 Years a Priest

Feeling nostalgic today -- this 21st anniversary of my ordination -- I spied this photo which sits on a table in my office. It's of me receiving a blessing from the inimitable Verna Dozier (in Philadelphia in 1997) and of me giving my first blessing-as-a-priest to Bishop Fred Borsch (in Los Angeles in 1998.)

It is in my office because it has always been an icon for me of a kind of apostolic succession that has nothing to do with patriarchy or institutional church hierarchy and everything to do with what Dr. Dozier taught, fought for and passed down to a next generation.

An African American, a woman and a lay person, her voice was a voice the church hadn’t expected to hear or – I suspect -- even wanted to listen to. And yet like the Gentile woman in Tyre insisting that Jesus hear her plea and heal her daughter, Verna stood her ground and insisted that church hear her plea and heal itself of the clericalism and institutionalism distorting its vision -- hampering its mission – keeping it from becoming all that God intended it to be.

In her 1991 book, The Dream of God, she wrote “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. The urgent task for us is to reclaim our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as the baptized community…that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized."

I first encountered Verna when a copy of The Dream of God leapt off the shelf of the old Diocesan Center bookstore and into my hands. As I was preparing for ordination her words were my constant companions as The Dream of God became part of my seminary-survival-kit – reminding me over and over and over again not to confuse God with the church – challenging me to balance academics and action. I only heard her preach once – in 1997 in Cincinnati at a national justice conference – and what I remember most were these words, “Don’t tell me what you believe – tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” Her foundational thesis – that the church has failed in its high calling to be the Body of Christ in the world because is has too often settled for worshiping Jesus instead of following Jesus -- became a core value of my own priesthood -- and I am deeply grateful to be part of this All Saints Church community that not only shares but lives out those values.

Finally, her words about faith and fear are ones I have turned to again and again – especially whenever it’s time to once more step out into new beginnings, new challenges, new opportunities.

“Doubt” said Verna, “is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today."

Words of hope and challenge we need today more than ever. And now -- back to my regularly scheduled to-do list.

[photo credit: Jamesetta Hammons]

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Friday, January 11, 2019

Comment on Presiding Bishop Curry's Response to Bishop Love

With his response this morning to the Bishop of Albany, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has officially ended the Inclusion Wars in our beloved church and abolished the de facto sacramental apartheid which has for too long denied a percentage of the sacraments to a percentage of the baptized. It is a great day to be an Episcopalian.

Presiding Bishop Curry, responding to Bishop Love’s refusal to make the sacrament of marriage available to all couples in his diocese as instructed by Resolution B012 adopted in July 2018 by our General Convention, wrote:
“I am therefore persuaded that as Presiding Bishop I am called upon to take steps to ensure that same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church is available to all persons to the same extent and under the same conditions in all Dioceses of the Church where same-sex marriage is civilly legal.”

This is good news not only to any couples in the Diocese of Albany who have been waiting to be able to order their wedding cake and invite their friends and family to celebrate with them as they pledge themselves to love, honor and cherish each other until death do they part. And it is not just good news for Episcopalians who have been working for decades to become the church with no outcasts Presiding Bishop Browning dreamed of and to make the full and equal claim on the pastoral care, love and concern of the church promised LGBTQ persons way back in 1976 not just a resolution but a reality. This clarity from the Presiding Bishop is good news for the whole church, equipping us to more fully do the work of living out God’s values of love, justice and compassion in this beautiful and broken world.

There is absolutely a place in this church for those who hold – as the Bishop of Albany does – a minority opinion on the theology of marriage. However, as of today, that place is no longer standing between same-sex couples and the sacrament of marriage.

I am honored to serve as one of the co-conveners of the Communion Across Difference Task Force called for by General Convention Resolution A227 last July. Our first meeting is scheduled for mid-March and our “marching orders” include “That the Task Force seek a lasting path forward for mutual flourishing consistent with this Church’s polity and the 2015 “Communion across Difference” statement of the House of Bishops (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/mind-house-bishops-statement-‘communion-across-difference’), affirming (1) the clear decision of General Convention that Christian marriage is a covenant between two people, of the same sex or of the opposite sex, (2) General Convention’s firm commitment to make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to authorized liturgies; and also affirming  (3) the indispensable place that the minority who hold to this Church’s historic teaching on marriage have in our common life, whose witness the Church needs.”

As Episcopalians we have the DNA of Anglican comprehensiveness coursing in our veins. Forged in the crucible of the English Reformation and emerging as a community of faith uniquely wired to hold in tension the seemingly irreconcilable differences of being both protestant and catholic at the same time, we are therefore uniquely wired to take that 16th century heritage into the 21st century and model how it is possible to be a church strengthened by its diversity and committed to moving forward together into God’s future. It is a great day to be an Episcopalian.

Monday, January 07, 2019

When the church is wrong


So here are some words I don't find myself saying very often: "You totally need to read this Baptist Blog." But check this out ... from 3 words for the church in 2019: ‘we were wrong’ by Mark Wingfield.
Too much of Christianity is built upon absolute certainty and not enough on divine mystery. I’m reminded of one prominent Southern Baptist pastor who assuredly declared that he had not changed his mind on anything ever. And I’m haunted by the words of an older adult friend who struggled with our church’s decision two years ago to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians. After hearing a presentation on various ways to understand Scripture, he said: “You’re asking me to say that what I learned about the Bible from my parents and grandparents was wrong on this issue. And if I say they were wrong about this thing, then I have to ask what else they were wrong about. I just can’t do that.”

Sadly, we have been trained to worship the received interpretation of Scripture rather than the overarching narrative of Scripture embodied in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as we have been trained to worship the Bible as the word of God more than Jesus as the divine Word of God. Is our faith so fragile that to admit we have been wrong in one area necessarily pulls a string that undoes all the rest of our faith? Is our faith really a house of cards?
The answer, sadly, for many is yes. And the result -- which I wrote about during Advent in "The War on Truth" -- is a willingness to ignore any data that messes with that house of cards: and that inflicted  collateral damage on our civic discourse.
Marinated in a toxic stew of bad religion, patriarchal privilege and internalized oppression it is not surprising that current statistics tell us 30% of Americans believe without question whatever they are told by those they trust — even when that narrative works against their self-interest. In a context where fact-checking is represented as the road to faithless secularism, truth becomes collateral damage in a war to keep a worldview in place — and questioning any one groundless assertion is like pulling one card out of the house of cards that could come crashing down … and that is both terrifying and immobilizing.
But it doesn't have to be that way. And when Baptists like Mark Wingfield step up to say "we were wrong" it starts to feel like we're at a turning point. It also reminds me of a story.

It was June 2003 -- just days after Gene Robinson’s election as a bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire -- and then-Integrity-President Michael Hopkins was invited onto the Buchanan & Press show on MSNBC to speak in support of that election. After a rather rambling preamble about church history, scripture and the “faith received from the fathers” Pat Buchanan asked Michael (and I quote from the transcript):
BUCHANAN: ... you're saying the church was wrong then?

HOPKINS: I am saying it was wrong. I am saying the problem is that the church has been in hiding all of these years because there have always been gay clergy … they were just forced to live in the closet, to live lives of secrecy.
The Episcopal Church owes a lot to Michael Hopkins and all those who have loved it enough to tell it that it was wrong. And 15+ years later it's encouraging read Mark Wingfield and be reminded that la lucha continua ... the struggle continues. And we're all in it together.

John 8:32 ... The truth will set you free. But first you have to tell the truth. And the truth is -- sometimes the church is wrong.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Advent Reflections on the War on Truth


I am old enough that I remember when the statement “You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts” was filed under "overstating the obvious."

It is one of those great quotes I’ve used over the years without ever bothering to research where it came from. Until today. It turns out it is attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- and it unarguably comes with a haunting quality in this era of poisoned public discourse where “alternative facts” have gone from being a punch line in an SNL skit to standard operating procedure from the current resident of the White House and beyond.

The very fact that “Facts Matter” bumper stickers are a thing is in-and-of-itself a sad commentary on the state of our democracy in specific and the global war on truth in general.

In recent days the NYT Editorial Board offered "The War on Truth Spreads" -- describing how both democratically elected leaders and dictators are systematically undermining the free press -- while Chris Hayes unpacked "The Information Crisis" on his WITHpod podcast and TIME Magazine announced its 2018 Person of the Year: "The Guardians" -- journalists who have been imprisoned or killed in pursuit of the truth.

Journalists like Jamal Khashoggi -- whose brutal murder at the hands of the Saudi regime he was critiquing is being disputed as fact ... in spite of gruesome audio taped evidence of the crime. Meanwhile, climate deniers dispute the fact of the climate change crisis facing our planet in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary and the current resident of the White House insists that words which we hear come out of his mouth in archived video footage are words he did not say.

How did we get from the place where the fact that you are not entitled to your own facts was a "given" to this place where data has become an endangered species? How is it that truth seems to be losing the war waged against it?

There are many facets to the answer to that question -- but I am convinced that one of the weapons in the arsenal of the war on truth is the kind of biblical literalism that creates a “The Bible Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” worldview where science is heresy, where facts and faith are antithetical and where to challenge the patriarchy is to challenge the Godly order of the universe. And that leads to the Lake of Fire and eternal punishment so the stakes are pretty high if you even question -- much less step out of line.

Marinated in a toxic stew of bad religion, patriarchal privilege and internalized oppression it is not surprising that current statistics tell us 30% of Americans believe without question whatever they are told by those they trust -- even when that narrative works against their self-interest. In a context where fact-checking is represented as the road to faithless secularism, truth becomes collateral damage in a war to keep a worldview in place -- and questioning any one groundless assertion is like pulling one card out of the house of cards that could come crashing down ... and that is both terrifying and immobilizing.

And yet it helps to explain -- at least in part -- how a percentage of Americans raised in the bubble of fact-averse biblical literalism accept without question increasingly outrageous "truths" that have no empirical foundation whatsoever.

Obama was born in Kenya. OK.
The climate crisis is a Chinese hoax. Sure.
The presidency of a man who bragged about grabbing women's genitals is God ordained. If you say so.
There was no collusion. Of course not.

The good news is that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was in fact right. Just as you are entitled to your own opinion, the First Amendment entitles you to your own theology -- but nothing entitles you to your own facts. And because facts are a thing -- and because it is a fact that one of the weapons in the arsenal of the war on truth is a weaponized version of Christianity that would give Baby Jesus colic -- it is critical for the rest of us to stand up and claim the promise of John 8:32 ..."The truth will set you free."

The truth is that we have an alternative to the toxic rhetoric of the religious right and if ever there was a time to claim it and proclaim it that time is now. Good people of deep faith can and do disagree about a whole host of issues, ideas and ideologies ... but in the end the question on the final exam will not be who got the theology right but who served the least of these in the name of the one who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another.

The fact is we cannot do that when we allow the Christian Gospel to be hijacked and deployed as a weapon of mass destruction … attacking the truth that there are children in cages on our border and we are turning away refugees seeking asylum to protect a worldview that has nothing to do with the Good News of God’s inclusive love and everything to do with narrow literalism in the service of patriarchal privilege.

And all of this while we decorate our mantles with the crèche celebrating the baby who was turned away from the inn. No wonder Jesus wept.

This year the soundtrack for my Advent season has been this verse of the beloved Advent hymn:

     Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? 
     Life from death and from our failings, realms of wholeness generate? 
     Take our fears, then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew. 
     Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.

Here’s hoping that Bishop Barbara Harris is right -- and that one of the endings we’re living through right now is what she calls “the death rattle of the patriarchy – which is not going to go gently in the good night.”

And here’s committing to continue to claim the John 8:32 promise that the truth will set us free. Because the stakes are way too high to settle for anything less.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Comment on the Debacle in the Diocese of Albany:

It is sad news indeed that the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Albany is choosing to defy the councils of the church and continue to deny access to the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples under his pastoral care. Our hearts go out to the LGBTQ faithful in that diocese who are once again being told by their bishop that who they are is not acceptable to God and that the love and commitment they share with the love of their life is not worthy of the church's blessing.

The text message I got from one of them today read simply "We are devastated."

Just as the shepherd in Matthew's parable left the ninety-nine sheep to tend to the one who was separated from the flock, so must the church which is the Body of Christ in the world seek out those sheep in Albany who are feeling lost and abandoned by their shepherd. The Episcopal Church must say loud and clear to them that their bishop may have abandoned them but Jesus never will ... and neither will the Episcopal Church.

We are blessed with incredible leadership by our Presiding Officers who quickly issued these statements doing precisely that.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's statement included both this affirmation and this reminder:
We are committed to the principle of full and equal access to, and inclusion in, the sacraments for all of the baptized children of God, including our LGBTQ siblings. For as St. Paul reminds us in Galatians 3, "in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

As members of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12), we also are committed to respecting the conscience of those who hold opinions that differ from the official policy of The Episcopal Church regarding the sacrament of marriage. It should be noted that the canons of The Episcopal Church give authority to all members of the clergy to decline to officiate a marriage for reasons of conscience, and Resolution B012 of the 79th General Convention does not change this fact.

In all matters, those of us who have taken vows to obey the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church must act in ways that reflect and uphold the discernment and decisions of the General Convention of the Church.
And President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings offered this affirmation:
For more than 40 years, the Episcopal Church has prayed, studied and discerned and, in doing so, we have seen the evidence of God's blessing in the lives of LGBT people. The Episcopal Church's General Convention, our highest temporal authority, first acknowledged that God calls LGBT people to any ordained ministry in 2009. In 2012, the General Convention authorized a liturgical rite for the blessing of same sex unions, and in 2015, we authorized marriage equality in the church.

We recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the marriages of LGBTQ people and we know that there are Christians who have been drawn further into fidelity and service to the world by living in committed same-sex partnerships and marriages based on holy love and the gift of seeing Christ in one another. When we celebrate these marriages, the entire church is blessed by the love and fidelity of these faithful couples.
The Episcopal Church has been on a long journey toward the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the work and witness of the church ... including full inclusion in all the sacraments. And for all the progress we have made it is clearly a journey that is not yet over.

In 2015 when liturgies for marriage were made available to all couples in the Episcopal Church and the marriage canons were amended to be fully inclusive, bishops with jurisdiction were required by a resolution overwhelming adopted by both houses of General Convention to "make provision for all couples seeking marriage to have access" to those rites.

Eight bishops with jurisdiction declined to follow that directive. And so in 2018 the General Convention spoke again -- this time in Resolution B012 which gave rectors or clergy in charge of a congregation the ability to provide access to the trial use of the marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples: removing the "under the authority of the bishop" clause.

The resolution takes effect on the First Sunday of Advent (December 2) ... and to their credit seven of the eight bishops who hold what is a theological minority position in the Episcopal Church are crafting plans to comply with the actions of General Convention. The Bishop of Albany is not.

There is, in fact, a difference between respecting theological conscience and confusing your theological conscience with your ecclesiastical authority. And while Bishop Love is entitled to the former he must not be allowed to presume the latter.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that anything less than full and unequivocal access for all couples in the Episcopal Church to marriage in the prayer book is good enough for Jesus or for us. I believe in my heart of hearts that we are on the road to that destination -- and I know for a fact certain that we persist until we arrive.

However, we continue to journey there together as a church that has committed itself to both full inclusion and to respecting the theological consciences of those who hold minority positions ... because we're Anglicans.

Nobody ever said that would be easy -- but as Anglicans we claim the spiritual DNA of those who found a way to be both protestant and catholic in the 16th century and so I believe we are uniquely wired to meet this challenge in the 21st. And we do not meet that challenge by allowing one bishop to reject the canons of the church, the resolutions of General Convention and his pastoral responsibility to pastor all the sheep of his flock.