‘S’ ostensibly wrote to ask for prayers for a fellow priest ‘who’s having one hell of a time of it.’ Considering herself a post-denominational priest (à la Matthew Fox), ‘I’ is continually being ‘slammed back and forth between the revolving doors’ of what ‘S’ described as ‘intelligent Christian practice and literal Christianity.’
When I asked for more details, ‘S’ in turn asked if she might call me.
Not the first time we’ve spoken; ‘S’ and ‘I’ are both Lutheran priests- ‘priest’ being a living reality ‘S’ has only really being embodying since here return to America a little over a year ago. After almost eight years as pastor in a two-point rural charge- her first; ‘S’ had managed to go to Sweden, the country of her birth for a sabbatical year- which ended up joyously turning into three; a period of time, to quote ‘S’ ‘I really found myself as a priest.’
Priesthood being a second career for ‘S,’ she is more than a decade older than ‘I’ who has been ordained less than five years. Their paths first crossed when ‘S’ accepted a post as interim Pastor in a large metropolitan parish.
Turns out, to differing degrees both women have been experiencing some of the same thing.
For ‘I’ it began with her questioning some of the items on the parish budget and the proportion spent on self-maintenance as opposed to either mission or service. For ‘S’ the static arose in the adult Bible study, when in response to a rather strident declaration about a particular incident in scripture, ‘S’ had referenced a contradictory version in a second gospel, and the complete omission in the remaining two.
‘Any chance this might be about the fact both pastors are women?’ I asked at one point.
‘I don’t really think so- not overtly at least, though I admit for a nano-second I was ready to react as if it might be,’ she added with a chuckle. ‘No... Perhaps I’m still seeing things through the lens of my European experience, but it’s my sense that our denomination doesn’t quite have the issues of... your British cousins- with female clergy.
‘You really sure on that?’ I nudged.
‘Oh, I have no doubt that in Keith’s mind at least, some of the surety and authority with which he was speaking was firmly rooted in his authority as head of his own household, an elected official and a male of a certain age,’ ‘S’ admitted after a moment, with an audible sigh. ‘But that’s not how I read the group, or even the weight they were willing to allow Keith to assume.’
‘How about the situation for your colleague?’
Another audible sigh. ‘Oh, that’s much more out in the open...’ Turns out ‘I’s charge was managed for more than a decade with an assortment of visiting retired clergy and theology students. ‘The laity is what kept those two churches going.’ But with ‘I’s appointment the Bishop brought them into one charge, and they’re actually trying to resurrect a third one that’s been closed for some time.
‘For ‘I’ it can be things as petty as letting her see the parish books- when she’s been specifically charged to over-see the fiscal consolidation, or believe it or not, the storage of the Communion vessels for one parish.’
‘To say nothing of her ‘new-fangled’ sermons,’ I suggested.
‘Of course,’ a third sigh.
‘I’ had originally come to ‘S’ in search of a spiritual director, though after a while their sessions began to take of a tinge of investigative therapy when ‘I’ admitted how at least two of the elders were almost invariably capable of silencing her- ‘literally cutting me off at the knees’ to quote ‘I’.
Somewhere in there, I reminded ‘S’ of her own ‘nano-second’ and suggested that as tough as it was, both she and ‘I’ should be taking some comfort from what was happening. ‘Whatever you're doing, you’re not leaving them indiffent... and what each of you is undergoing, to one degree or another, is the battle of the two ‘P’s.’
‘O.K.,’ she admitted with more than a hint of patient amusement.
‘It’s both endemic and long overdue- throughout the whole Church.’
‘And why do I have a pretty good idea of where this is heading,’ she asked after a moment with some relish.
‘But it’s not uni-directional,’ I reminded her. ‘That’s why it’s so-‘
‘-tough to deal with?’ she suggested.
‘That, and frustrating, exhausting... and personally uncomfortable.’
‘All of the above! And then some’
‘Within and without-‘
‘Talk to me about the within,’ my wise & courageous asked after a moment.
After a quick detour to the work of Dr. Peter Senge on the risks to ‘agents of change’ I drew a deep breath and shared my person experience of internalized homophobia, and not having any personal experience of same, it really caught my friends attention.
I kept it short- little more than naming the most obvious low-lights:
‘shame’; elicited a sympathetic murmur
awkwardness-’ and ‘embarrassment’ at one’s difference
‘alienation from one’s body, one’s heart, and in too many cases in the past from one’s mind: existential murder in the name of God’
‘pain’- so much pain, and it’s Siamese twin ‘fear’
essentially what becomes a thousand-and-one degrees of self-hatred; most of them dressed up in appropriate verse of Scripture- you don’t have to hear ‘abomination’ too many times before you really take it to heart.
‘The hardest part was seeing it all worked out on the bodies and in the lives of too many of our POZ clients- especially in the first decade of AIDS here in Montreal. Broken & mutilated lives- why d’you think they called so much of it, ‘acting-out...’ and the bottom line is not one of my sisters in Christ, to one degree or another, haven’t lived their own version of the very same thing.’
It’s about then both of us stopped trying to hide our tears.
‘And the difficult thing is, once we’ve been broken open by life or the Holy Spirit herself- once She’s had Her way with us-‘
‘- the Comforter.’
‘Source of all healing... Once we’re seemingly back on our feet again, it’s still an on-going process.’
‘Coming out, you mean?’
‘Coming out, but also being continually ‘bracketed;’ when the first thing people see about you is that your gay or a woman, and a lot of them never quite get over it either, however well intentioned they might be.’
A sigh of experience on the other end of the line.
‘Essentially it’s coming out to the sacramental nature of our very lives.’
‘Within and without-right.’ ‘S’ reminded me with an audible breath which just might have been prayer.
‘Internalized homophobia’ a hint of surprise in ‘S’s voice, as if fingering a new object.
‘That ‘nano-second’ of yours? Sounds like it just might be a momentary twinge of internalized patriarchy,’ I suggested playfully. ‘Which means, with what of I know of your mindfulness practice, your intelligence and the passion you apply to making your Church a relevant reality, you’re also wearing the vestments of the second ‘P.’’
‘Tell me,’ she asked.
‘Prophecy- my treasured friend... Doing your very best to live and breathe yourself into the Church- here and now- the Spirit unfailingly calls us to be.’
Audible tears, though this time they sounded different- perhaps relief.
‘And the amazing thing is how radically different they are. Patriarchy is cold, hollow and dark- rigid, reactive , accusatory and divisive, always working out the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of any situation... The roof of the prophetic life is as high and wide as the sky itself, as open as we let our hearts to She who calls us forth in Love- that’s the life and vocation you and ‘I’ are living into.’
‘Aching towards’ more like it,’ with a hint of self-depreciating irony.
‘And this is still all new for ‘I,’ I reminded her. ‘Lucky- no make that blessed she is to have found you.’
‘And she hasn’t had the blessing of my break away.’
It didn’t end there.
A while later something ‘S’ had said during our first conversation came to mind, only months after her return to America. ‘It may sound strange... but you know, in a way, the most surprising thing was how more mature many of the younger Swedish Christians appeared to be.’
‘All those generations of Swedish protestanism?’
‘As indifferent as they might seem most of the time, the whole thing is a lot less... indirect- less complicated. Does that make any sense?’
‘Tell me more.’
‘Well a lot of the time it’s a pretty secular sea you’re swimming in- but it’s like everyone’s recognized and accepted that. So when you do have a conversation with someone: a conference with a parishioner or what first appears to be a casual conversation on the street, it rarely theoretical or to score a triangulated point... This is going to sound strange, but in a certain way it feels more.. adult-‘
‘-Spong!’ I interjected.
That’s when I explained about Bishop Spong’s casual on-air mention of ‘mature Christianity,’ and once I was sailing on the generous jet stream of some of the finest Anglican minds we were soon soaring into the vastness of post-transactional theology and its blessed implications.
‘S’ signed off with a half-dozen titles on her list.
Only moments later the phone rang again.
‘I forgot to thank-you – for everything... Oh, and I’ve figure out who you are- the older brother I never had- my äldre bror,’ she added with a chuckle. ‘I love you-‘
‘-Love you too... and give my love to ‘I'. too’
See what I mean, how unexpected as it might be, Life can be so much more than the sum of its parts.