Interfaith Relationships

One of the pleasures of my work is the opportunity to work with pastors of many different traditions. White Plains has some very talented clergy.

More recently our group has gotten much more diverse – and much larger.

We have historically African-American churches, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Rabbis, two Episcopalians, a Unitarian, and a Buddhist.

The prayers are, of course, broad. But we’ve gotten in the habit of charity. We have learned to translate each other’s traditions. When people say that religions are the source of violence, I have counter data.

Collaboration without rivalry allows us to better address our local needs. Today we heard a speaker discussing the needs of the elderly population. We discussed ways we can better partner with each other.

I think it’s one virtue the church must train: collaboration. It’s not instinctive in a culture where spectacle and self-promotion leads to pretty things. Sharing leadership, seeking each other’s welfare, taking joy in other’s successes, that takes spiritual work.

And in the long run, the benefits are worth it.

The Pope’s Remarks

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Many people were probably politely surprised at the pope’s reticence toward judging gay people.  It did invite a stronger inquiry in the church’s formal perspective, and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.  The church has a public doctrine that it  maintains; and then there is pastoral practice, one framed by a monosexual group of privately gay – tolerant men.

The Anglican Church prioritizes pastoral practice:  we begin our understanding with prayer and relationship (or, as ++Rowan once said, doctrine must begin with joy).  Our lens is primarily liturgical rather than doctrinal, which is why some Anglican theologians have said Anglican “doctrine” is in the rubrics:  in how we pray together.  This makes creates an enormous leap to even start talking about sexuality:  how do we pray that, anyway?

Some are a bit upset that Francis remains intractable about women’s ordination.  I think he was simply stating his current vantage point, while also inviting an opening for deeper thinking.  Those outside the church continue to be irritated, but I’m not always sure why people think being a priest is a good thing.  Priests remain ignored by their congregations on most important matters.  Garry Wills even argues it’s a failed vocation.

Nuns, by and large, do a lot of the heavy lifting in the church, and although they have little ecclesial power, their institutions matter equally, if not more so.  Sometimes being seemingly marginalized gives one greater power.

Francis could still appoint a female cardinal.

Emory and the politics of compromise

The president of Emory has gotten quite the ass-kicking for calling the 3/5s rule an example of a good compromise.  I admit, I’m perplexed by the push back in part because I’m skeptical of the counterfactual histories his critics presume.

Certainly the best thing was for all people at all times to recognize the immediate humanity of all people.  It would have been desirable and magnificent if such could have been an option.

But we are far from that time.  Can we know how those founders thought?  Certainly counting blacks completely would have given them some humanity; but it would have mainly strengthened southern power:  they wouldn’t have been able to vote.

The most moral option would have been for Southern States to admit they were wrong and the voting rights of their slaves.  But, however luscious and joyful such an image is, it was probably not an option anyone considered.  Unpropertied white men couldn’t vote either.

Perhaps not counting slaves at all would have been the just option, given they had no real representation.  But in that case, we would not have had a country.  And it also signifies that slaves were not actually people.

I do not think that this compromise was the best world.  In my world, if I were God, all people have always been equal, brilliant, understand evolution, the big bang, and math.  We would all love everyone.  But in a different world, one I do not understand, perhaps the 3/5′s rule was a compromise that was worthy.  One does not need to believe that slavery or the dehumanization of blacks was moral to also acknowledge that we make compromises that are imperfect, frail and open to change.  As this one was.  The better option for blacks at this time – counting as nothing – may have been worse in the long run.  We do not know.

But I do think the president of Emory has been misunderstood by well-meaning people.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.

Do Churches Need Denominations?

A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations.   He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.

Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness.  Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours.   Lutherans chant.  Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings.   However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.

But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together.  They can harness resources.  They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors.  They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy.   They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.

So yes, churches need denominational structures. Continue reading

Nominees announced

The nominees for the next bishop, the bishop ordinary, the chief honcho and hierophant, have been announced.   The news, of course, is that one of the candidates, Tracey Lind, is married to someone of the same sex.  Nothing about her extraordinary competence.  Her reputation is of someone who gets things done, a woman of high expectations.

I’m not sure if she is the best candidate for this diocese or not, but she should be judged on her talent and the quality of her public relationships; not on her partner’s gender.

The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.

Nun Embezzles

Every now and again one of my “anti-” religious friends sends me an article of some priest doing wrong.  In conversation they are usually polite, but inevitably the link has to do with bad clergy, bad religion, or an atheist insight they guess I’ve never heard.

Recently a nun was charged with embezzling at a local Catholic college.

Of course, I’m always disappointed, frustrated and saddened whenever this happens.  Not just because it’s bad for the institution and the individuals who are hurt, but because it affects me.

Whenever a priest or a nun is accused of a crime, of any denomination or tradition, it wears off a little.  I become embarrassed and ashamed, even though I did nothing wrong.  A conviction of one priest, and we’re all convicted.  One accusation, and we’re all accused.

I don’t think that one’s religion or faith has much to do with why or when a crime is committed.  It may be that, as churches are fundamentally trust-based institutions- it’s easier to commit crimes without being detected.  It’s easier to avoid the normal controls that businesses have.

Plenty of churches operate more responsibly.  The Episcopal church, by and large, has systems to encourage churches to monitor their money.  The priest in my church, for example, doesn’t count the money – in fact, the entire vestry is trained to do the work instead.  We have two, not one, treasurers, so that power isn’t in the hands of one person.  My discretionary account isn’t separated from the main account, and is easily tracked by the wardens.  Churches are required to have audits.

And when someone gives me cash, I remind them of a simple rule:  never give a priest cash.  I remind them that the $20 will either sit on my dresser, or be a part of my clergy beer fund, to which I buy rounds of drinks for anyone who joins me.

Priests often feel that they work hard, and are undercompensated.  When they are disconnected from their own congregations, they justify to themselves taking a couple dollars here and there.   It’s an insidious cycle.

It is one reason dioceses encourage churches to compensate parish priests enough so that they do not have to be stressed, worried or resentful.  Nobody becomes rich when they decide to enter the ministry – we are fully aware that we won’t have a Mercedes, send our children to Switzerland for skiing trips, and routinely go to fancy restaurants.  It is enough to have a wage that is just, that allows a priest to have a family without being afraid of what the next day brings.

Jesus sacrificed his life, so that we would not have to.

Juan Williams

Juan Williams, a reporter and analyst has been fired.  I don’t think it was because of his admission of bigotry, but for confusing confessional with analysis.

I’m one of those who have found him irritating on NPR.  He’s found a niche becoming the moderate, the centrist, the skeptical liberal.  I found his analysis of Obama particularly grating, a little churlish and usually pedestrian.   Too often he takes a David Brooks-like attitude: a little self-righteousness, a little smarmy, a little slippery, and usually patronizing.  The smartest kid in the class, who never had to learn from anybody, surrounded by the rest of us idiots.

It wasn’t always the case.  Once he was a reporter, and a very good one.

But I also sometimes enjoyed watching him on Fox.   He was the token liberal, a little more aggressive and thoughtful than Alan Colmes, trying to understand the conservative mindset without getting in too deep.

The quote that began this kerfuffle was kind of like the liberal who says, “hey, we’re all racists, right?”  Williams then didn’t defend racism but challenged O’Reilly to reconsider his views.  He honestly tried to change O’Reilly’s mind.

Self-revelation is one way we try to describe what is true.  Sometimes, such as in group therapy, it is useful.  It is not part of the traditional culture of public debate.   Perhaps NPR could have quietly suggested that he’s got to find other ways to share his analysis.

I can’t help but think that there were already plenty of people thinking of ways to get him out of NPR, and this was just an excuse, the final straw, an opportunity to cut him loose.  After all, he’s been a headache for NPR for a long time.

I won’t miss him, but I think he’s been wronged.  An apology and a reprimand would have been enough.  That said, now that he’s been fired by NPR, perhaps his credibility among conservatives will soar.

But please, Juan, handle this like with magnanimity and grace.  Handle this as if you’d like your job back.  Don’t feed into the madness.

The NPR Ombudsman argues the firing could have been handled differently, although it was probably legitimate.