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Archive for November 4, 2006

Nov. 4, 2006 — Healing, or schism?

My sister came down from Maine with an extra ticket for the Holy Eucharist and Investiture of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

As a product of the Episcopal Church, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My father was a priest, serving in southern Mississippi during times of great trial, having to minister to two segregated parishes in Bovina and Vicksburg while teaching at an all-girls’ Episcopal school.

The Ku Klux Klan and the police had tails on him because he associated with people of all races and creeds. He would later learn that the county sheriff was a Grand Wizard of the Klan.

In the dead of night, in early 1968, my father bundled us off in a car bound for northeast Mississippi where our family would spend the next 10 years. The person who arranged his quick transfer was John Maury Allin, the Bishop of Mississippi at the time and the headmaster of the school. Later, he was elected 23rd Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1973. Bishop Allin’s wife is my godmother.

I would attend Episcopal schools in New Jersey for the seven years leading up to my matriculation to Harvard. I would also serve my almae maters. I was on the school board of Trinity Episcopal Academy in Trenton, and was an At-Large member of the Society of Graduates of St. Mary’s Hall in Burlington.

The last few years, though, I have been ambivalent about my Episcopal identity. Since the 1960s, the church has been used as a vehicle to promote political change, rather than the “big tent” in which people worshipped God in Three Persons, respected the separation of church and state, and did not let politics determine the way of the Church.

That has changed — albeit some positive changes have been a long time coming. The ordination of women and gays were a no-brainer. And the addition of new music to our hymnal plus the updating of our prayer book were necessary.

The problem I have is when the Episcopal Church charges into secular issues like gay marriage. Yes, marriage is a sacrament which is not to be entered into lightly. But the way that our nation’s laws treat married couples makes gay marriage a secular issue. I really, really wish that third rail had remained untouched.

Furthermore, our Church has made some ham-fisted decisions about choosing some very important leaders. One bishop alienated an entire segment of its African-American clergy. A Cathedral dean had hidden away priceless artworks in his apartment to sell to the underground of religious art.

I fear that the vote of the House of Bishops and House of Delegates to choose an unfunded oceanographer to become the leader of the Episcopal Church is another such decision.

It used to be that, in order to enter the clergy in any denomination, you had to feel a calling — normally, a spiritual experience with God. Years of religious studies would follow, and various assignments in many places would show who would have the necessary acumen to become a priest.

My ambivalence has not changed after this investiture. Bishop Schori made several references to the environment and developmental issues therein:

“As long as children live exposed on the streets, while seniors go without food to pay for life-sustaining drugs, wherever peoples are sickened by industrial waste, the body suffers, and none of us can say we have finally come home.

“And how shall that scripture be fulfilled in our hearing? … In the courage to challenge our legislators to make poverty history, to fund AIDS work in Africa, and the distribution of anti-malarial mosquito nets, and primary schools where all children are welcomed.”

Furthermore, in the recessional hymn, there was a segment of Hymn 528 during which the National Cathedral’s organ, already at a fiery temper, was enhanced with a healthy sforzando:

“Yet we hoard as private treasure all that you so freely give.”

It was not an accident; I couldn’t decide whether that was a subliminal message or an attempt to block out the singing voices when and if an energy company executive viewed a tape of the service.

Some very important topics were never discussed in her homily, such as the abandonment of parishes in inner cities and their subsequent relocation to suburbia, the challenges of Pentecostalism and exurban megachurches, and the downspiral of Episcopal education — things much more important than civil unions (or their disunions), “intelligent” design, or the ruminations of the papacy. 

At the end of the service, as Bishop Schori ascended a riser in the transept, on which sat the baptismal font, loud cheers could be heard.

My sister, next to me, said, “This sounds like a political convention.”

Which is precisely the problem.