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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Friday, January 20, 2006


Whether or not you're Episcopalian, you are likely aware that we, in the words of my daughter and her teenage friends, "have issues." I realize that this does not make us a whole lot different than other denominational Christians. Being as how this is my branch of the Christian family tree, however, I tend to pay more attention to the details.

To recap: we've been getting a lot of press since 2003, when our national General Convention voted (in a contentious and far from unanimous manner) to approve the consecration of a partnered gay man as the bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. And we've been doing a lot of bickering-- at levels local, national, and international-- ever since.

A group of theological bigwigs got together and wrote a response to that action from the wider Anglican Communion (and the decision on the part of the Anglican Church in Canada to allow the blessing of same-sex unions), called the Windsor Report. Among its several comments was the suggestion that "in particular, we need to develop the habit, and thence the virtue, of that charity which listens intensely and with good will to widely different expressions of sincerely held Christian theology."

It reiterates the Lambeth Conference call, several years earlier, "for an ongoing process of listening and discernment, and that Christians of good will need to be prepared to engage honestly and frankly with each other on issues relating to human sexuality. It is vital that the Communion establish processes and structures to facilitate ongoing discussion."

Under the guidance of our bishop, that's what we've been doing in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. We've had a series of three day-long sessions here, termed in a lighthearted moment "the Merry Days of Windsor." Technically, we've been referring to them as "clergy days;" but this has been a misnomer, as lay leaders of the diocese have also been included. The first of these days dwelt on our understanding of hermeneutics - how one does biblical interpretation. AKMA was the presenter, and you can read on his blog Part I, Part II and Part III of what he had to say. The second day dealt with understanding ecclesiology, and the nature and structure of how the church functions through history. It was led by Fr. Richard McBrien, a Roman Catholic theologian from Notre Dame.

Last Wednesday was the third day in the series. It was not so academic as the other days were; but it was highly educational nonetheless. We had a panel of speakers, lay and ordained, who spoke to their experiences in life and in the church with these issues. Some were gay, and some were straight. Some had been blessed and supported in their Christian walk through the human sexuality minefield, while others had been abused, dismissed and mistreated. A gay man spoke frankly of the very real possibility of losing his job if his administration learned of his sexual preference. A priest spoke of being shut out of job searches, asked to step down from committees, and treated in really nasty ways after he wrote a letter questioning the authorization of same-sex unions. There was joy, and there was pain, experiencd by both "liberal" and "conservative," and they were shared openly and honestly.

And we listened.

I know we get typecast, over here in Hooiserland, as being some sort of conservative bastion; but it simply isn't so. Our people run the whole spectrum of political and theological opinion, in this issue as in so many others. We do not agree, and do not share a consensus. So why aren't we simply shouting at one another, as so often is happening? After all, we hear over and over (from people in both conservative and liberal dioceses) that "we couldn't possibly have that conversation here!"

What makes this work is we are trying to start with what we have in common: the good news of salvation found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, offered to all who come to him; the Gospel imperative to love one another; and our baptismal covenant promise to "respect the dignity of every human being." So we have this conversation, and we listen to one another, and we pray and worship together. And we begin to understand that behind the issues... are people. We have not come to any conclusions, here; this is only a beginning. But we're working on it. And we're still coming to the Table, together.

I am sorry and ashamed to say that much of the rhetoric from our religious leaders (in the news both secular and ecclesial, in blogs and magazines and press releases and convention minutes) has more to do with power, and control, and "I'm right and you're going to hell," on both sides of the fence, than any desire to live out a life of discipleship. I am grateful to be a part of a place that is trying to live into a different call.


Blogger The young fogey said...

It'd be more accurate to describe Fr McBrien as 'a theologian who also happens to be a nominal Roman Catholic' than 'a Roman Catholic theologian'. Pope Benedict XVI for example is the latter.

A religious institution that simply discusses these matters without taking a stand, right or wrong, is merely a debating society, not acting like a church, as now-Mgr Graham Leonard put it.

Somehow I don't think there'd be endless dialogue and talk of 'inclusion' if the issue were drive-by shootings or racial discrimination. (Hey, aren't they just exercising their right to choose?) Both sides in this would agree on those matters, but a Christian can't reduce truth to consensus on these alone, which even most non-Christians and atheists would agree negatively on. To a Christian, especially a Catholic, all the issues, including the sexual ones, are of a piece (a seamless garment?).

Truth is, whether one is in Hoosierland, Stepney or Kathmandu.

I haven't got your credentials (and in fact can only read a few words of koine) but if one can legitimately use hermeneutics to explain away all the bits of the Bible one doesn't want to hear (like all those rules about sex spoiling my fun), then on Sunday mornings I may as well sleep in, play sports or go to the mall like most of our generation does.

'There are no absolutes' is an absolute. :)

Pax vobiscum.

January 20, 2006 11:30 AM  

Anonymous shari said...

Alas, the attempt to "live into a different sort of a call" has led to about a 7% decline in ASA in the past 2 years with further declines likely in the near future.

The "call" is not to have interminable chats but to boldly proclaim the Gospel. The DiNI is manifestedly not doing this and her numbers show it.

On the other hand, the interminable conversations do mean that folks are too worn down to litigate. From a political point of view this is a wise and a good thing. From an ecclesiastical point of view it does not appear to be blessed by growth. (Why would anybody wish to come to church that does nothing but dialogue on the important issues of the day?)

In the year and one half that I've been here, my Roman Catholic parish has grown from 9,000 souls to about 13,000, and since our ministries are escalating our budget has grown from 1.4 million to over 2 million. We would be larger, but 2 years ago we spun off another church which now has about 4,000 people.

Our parish alone is far larger than the entire diocese of Northern Indiana.

Sometimes it pays to have the courage of one's convictions, rather than to simply try to stay in conversation.

January 20, 2006 6:40 PM  

Anonymous Joseph Walker said...

"...the decision on the part of the Anglican Church in Canada to allow the blessing of same-sex unions."

Just a clarification for American readers: there is a diocese within the Canadian Church (New West) which officially allows blessing of same sex unions, but this is not the policy of the national church.

A motion to allow such blessings did not pass at our last General Synod, though I assume another motion will be brought forward at GS 2007.

January 20, 2006 7:02 PM  

Blogger Anna said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and hopeful post, Jane Ellen.

January 22, 2006 1:32 PM  

Anonymous Mark J. said...

Staying in conversation takes conviction.

January 23, 2006 7:10 PM  

Anonymous shari said...

Conviction of what? The importance of a military career? The importance of peace and quiet?

Not the importance of proclaiming the Gospel.

January 23, 2006 10:33 PM  

Anonymous Mark said...

The importance of not shouting, for starters. Listening isn't passivity. It doesn't mean sitting on your hands and letting yourself or your faith get run over. It does mean realizing that the same faith you want to protect also demands that you care for everyone, not only those who agree with you. That demands that you do not attack people, shout them down, or demean them. Listening mean honoring the image of God in everyone, even people who scare you, people who disagree with you, and people who you might find threatening. It means realizing that they probably are just as afraid, just as angry as you are. It means finding what still links us instead of continually pointing out what divides us.

It is darn hard to admit that someone whose position, opionion, etc. you don't like is human too, and that they might be just like you when all that is boiled away. That is where the conviction comes in.

Jane didn't mention anyone backing down, being walked all over, or abandoning their beliefs. At the "clergy day" they did however treat each other with respect and dignity. That is the miracle. That is the Good News of that day.

January 24, 2006 10:47 AM  

Anonymous shari said...

A stalemate in other words. Or a filibuster. This is useful in that nobody loses. Unfortunately it wins no converts.

Why would anybody wish to come to a church that had no clue what her core doctrines included? A church that could not even agree on what is adiaphora? How can you proclaim the Gospel when nobody is quite sure what that means other than everybody being civil to one another.

At some point, conversation needs to be stopped so that mission can take place. There appears no mechanism for "cloture" so that the church can get on with its mission. Whether that mission is the gospel of inclusiveness and acceptance or the gospel of redemption and transformation, if a church is not to simply sit about filibustering, at some point the conversation needs to end so that everybody can all get back to work.

This is why we have mechanisms to cut off debate in Congress. If we didn't, our politicians would be even more useless than they are now.

Without closure, the only function of the church is to serve as a jobs program for clergy.

January 24, 2006 12:22 PM  

Anonymous Mark J. said...

I've been going about this all wrong! I didn't realize I was trying to convert people to my side! If that is the case then yes, this process isn't getting us anywhere, you're right.

Last comment on this thread: As I was pondering "converstaion" and all that, I started thinking about the early church. It took them hundreds of years to agree on the nature of the Trinity. There was a lot of heated debate, and quite a number of councils.

Sounds a lot like the church today. Except today we're used to having everything on demand that we hope to have this all neatly wrapped up and the heretics exiled in our lifetime. Something tells me none of us will see the end, and it isn't because of lack of convictions (unless you'd care to say that all those theologians in the early church also lacked conviction..?). It is because we're human.

As I say, end of this thread for me. Jane, thanks for posting this. I'm encouraged to know that some people have the conviction to keep conversation happening. I pray that through such conversations and through today's church councils we may yet see the end of this in God's time, even if it isn't in my time.

January 24, 2006 12:49 PM  

Anonymous shari said...

The point of the church is to make converts. Not to make nice. If a church does not make converts then we call that a "club".

January 24, 2006 2:10 PM  

Anonymous shari said...

The evangelical outpost answers Mark's argument better than I can.


January 24, 2006 6:29 PM  

Anonymous Mark J. said...

Shari, I hear your fears, I do. I don't share all of them, but I know they are real. I, too, hope culture won't overwhelm the church. But I also hope the church will not, in the process, lapse into thinking it has everything right, that there is no room for growth and change, or that it is our job to condemn.

I fear a church that forgets that Christ welcomed all. A church that makes judgement a priority over love and caring. A church that thinks it has all the answers. That is the church of the Pharisees, that Christ spoke so much against.

Okay, sisters and brothers, I've already violated my agreement to leave this one behind once. I am now well and truly done with this thread. Peace!

January 24, 2006 6:53 PM  

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