Sunday, November 25, 2007

Still More Questions

For the past week I have been trying to put together a post about some statements by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that I first saw mentioned at Susan Russell’s An Inch At A Time. The statements were reported in an article in the Los Angeles Times with the curious title “Episcopal leader seeks to mend church rift.”

I was struck by the strength of the responses in the blogs to one remark in particular: “Perhaps, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could hold their truths more lightly, they might yet find a way forward – together.” [In the article, only the words “hold their truths more lightly” are directly attributed to Bishop Katharine.] People on both sides were offended by that remark. MadPriest called it “stupid,” and several others were even more unkind.

I think Bishop Katharine is uttering the hope that we will all take to heart the advice given in James 1:19b-20a. Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. But Bishop Katharine is fully aware how difficult that advice is. “I think the center of the church has heard the message,” she said. “But it’s more of a struggle for people on the edge of the progressive part and the edge of the more conservative part. Both believe in utter faithfulness that they’re right ... and there’s less patience that God will work all things out in the end.”

At her blog Telling Secrets, Elizabeth Kaeton considers “the Great Divide” in our church “between Evangelical Episcopalians/Anglicans and the rest of us in North America.” She was particularly probing to find reasons that account for the “harsh, often violent rhetoric” coming from the “right” and she proposes that part of the answer may lie in class.

Referring both to her own experience growing up and to an essay called “Not My Father’s Religion” by Doug Muder, a Unitarian Universalist pastor, Elizabeth Kaeton points out that many working class people have no time for the luxuries of discernment and asking critical questions and in fact these particular luxuries can often be perceive as dangerous to survival. Life is harsh for many working class people – people who don’t have much room to make mistakes tend to see life in black and white terms. Elizabeth suggests that this may account for “Evangelical resistance – no, repulsion, actually – to ambiguity and paradox, which, for me, are two of the compelling parts which form the nexus of the Spirit of Anglicanism.”

I think both Doug Muder and Elizabeth Kaeton are on to something. Understanding class issues is important in trying to understand what is going on both in our church and in other churches.

Yet I find “harsh, often violent rhetoric” coming from people on the progressive side of this struggle as well as from people on the conservative side. It’s my experience that harsh and violent rhetoric and indeed actual violence usually comes from a place of pain (or remembered pain, or fear of pain.) Class issues can account for some of the pain, but there is also pain that stems from actual personal injuries. That means there are injured people in this struggle who are in need of healing.

So when Bishop Katharine says “it’s a struggle for those at the edges of both the progressive and the conservative parts of the church,” she’s absolutely correct, but when she continues “because both sets of people believe with utter faithfulness that they are right,” she’s only partly right. There’s a lot more to it besides believing we are right. Now I can speak only from the progressive side, and only from a small place on this side. From here I see faithful lesbian and gay sisters and brothers bearing witness to the truth that LGBT folk are God’s children just like everyone else and that no one chooses to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or “queer.” Of course, “the current debate over sexuality and Scripture” is mostly about how LGBT people live, not about who we are. (The sad Jeffrey John episode in the Church of England indicates that it is not really as simple as that.)

I suggest that Bishop Katharine is speaking mostly to and about the “center”of the Episcopal Church. It is in relation to that center that she is suggesting that a way forward together might be found if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could hold their truths more lightly. I see the “current debate over sexuality and Scripture” as mostly about authority – authority in the church, authority in the Anglican communion, and the authority of the Bible. But it is also about hermeneutics and about enculturation. Some on the right also see improper accommodation to secular society or even syncretism. It is a debate in which, to use Elizabeth Kaeton’s words, ambiguity and paradox play a major role. Or to use the formulation of John Dominic Crossan, it is a debate about choosing between the radicality of God’s distributive justice and the normalcy of civilization’s retributive justice.

The first chapter of James’s Epistle concludes: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1: 26-27.

Paul, at end of chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians says “I will show you a still more excellent way.” That way is the way of love. Bridling our tongues, and holding our truths lightly are not the same as ceasing to bear witness to the truth, but are rather part of the way that we can beat witness in a loving manner.

I am not completely satisfied with what I have written here and I put it forward as a kind of thinking out loud, much as Elizabeth Kaeton did with her piece quoted above.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Allen, I would ask Bishop Katharine which truths we are to hold lightly. Are we to hold lightly that it's not permissible to have a two-tiered membership in the church? Are we to hold lightly that it's not right that certain of the baptized members are not allowed full participation?

If I come to see full inclusion as a matter of justice, then how can I hold that belief lightly? I can regulate what actions I take, but I don't understand what she means by holding this sort of truth lightly.

One of the reasons I began to write on my blog is that I did not want to be causing a stir in my church by talking about the subject often.

I use my blog as an outlet, or I would explode. Members of my church know who I am now, and a few read my blog. I'm sure some of them don't much care for what they read there, but they don't have to visit. It's not as though I'm standing next to them haranguing them constantly.

We can curb our words and our actions, but hold our truths lightly? I don't think so.

Allen said...


I started to answer, and the answer grew so long that I am moving it to a full post.