Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cat among the canaries

Oh the siutations one can find oneself in- perhaps never more surprisingly so than when it’s unintended.

Within hours of posting on the two ‘P’s I received another to-the point e-mail from ‘E.S.’ one of my more interesting and challenging correspondents (more on her later- she deserves her own post- at least).

‘Can I pass this on (she asked wickedly)?

‘Of course. My blog is in a public space- the Internet.’

‘Consider yourself warned,’ her only rejoinder.

And that was about all the thought I gave to it. Unemployed though I may currently be- with all of the challenges of undergoing unemployment at 62- the days are never long enough. A good part of the next forty-eight hours was spent in a combination of brainstorming & process mapping for an acquaintance who had invited me to be a participant in her year-long discernment process.

During that time I also received another e-mail from Terry. ‘Is that it-your full take on patriarchy and prophetic lives?’

I hesitated before responding and took my blessed pup for a walk- the first one possible after the most recent snow storm as daschunds have notoriously short legs.

‘Actually, I’m toying with a rather interesting train of thought since my rather protracted practice period this morning,’ I eventually admitted. ‘Putting together notes for the second part of ‘Reading the lay of the land,’ I was struck by the uncanny parallels between the toxic patriarchy in too many quarters of the Church and alcoholism.’

Terry shot back right away- ‘What?’

‘I’m not saying the Church is an alcoholic,’ I was quick to assure him. ‘Rather that patriarchy as a behaviour- a 21st Century means of functioning, shows an amazing number of parallels to chronic alcoholic bahavior- and both are equally toxic.’

‘WOW a lot to think about there.’

‘Thinking is what I’m doing here too. And sitting with it, I’m clear that it would be both preposterous and pretentious for me to even think about looking at the clinical parallels. Its the behavioural parallels which interest me: their implications and repercussions... I’m actually thinking of teasing outa 12 step model as an interpretive medium for much of what’s going on in the Churches.’

‘Now THAT could be original.’

‘Early days yet teasing it out, but it’s beginning to strike me there could be some rather striking parallels between 21st Century patriarchal behaviour & attitudes, and alcoholism. No half measures in either situation. You give up serving drinks, cheating on the side and accepting all the ‘treats’ from your ‘customers;’ or you own the toxicity of your behaviour and seek the help to live beyond it.. You’re either in recovery, or you’re not... Continuing to function with the Swiss-cheese rationalizations of drinking, or claiming the blessing of healing and growing towards the wholeness God keeps calling us to... I mean, it should be clear to even a Martian by now, just what toxic a take on reality patriarchy is. Right?’

‘Brings to mind the situation with our former pastor and the help you gave me... Thinking about your last post, I wonder if his real problem might not have been mix-and-match... He’s a good man, and did nothing to deserve his breakdown or what’s followed in its wake, but at times he could be rather ... rigid- authoritative even, and then he’d wonder why people didn’t understand, didn’t get all worked up over his ideas- you could read it in his eyes, the hurt and frustration.’

Which brings me back to E.S. who called to ‘confess’ what she’d done with my earlier post- ‘passed it on to a relatively young, former colleague of mine- a Jesuit,’ she added with some glee.

‘He probably agrees with me already, ‘ I suggested.

‘That’s not it,’ she explained. ‘There’s this other faculty member –a lay Catholic, who’s really been riding my friends ass. Started with a couple of the sermons he preached in the collegial church at mass, which sent the mathmatics guy on a real witch hunt, had him hunting out the two small books and the articles my friend’s published... Last time I spoke with my Jebbie friend he told me they’d had a real session over some gay Catholic writer- probably a theologian... You may not be the right sort of Catholic (E.S. possibly remembering our much earlier exchange on the distinctions between Rome and Anglican Catholicity) but I sent him your post.

It was about then I shared with her my latest investigatory track. (Cue the cat among the canaries)

‘Oh my, oh my, oh my God!’ and it’s moment’s like this that ‘E.S.’s intellectual passion can most often bring to mind a late May evening, mellow with the promise of summer- the night sky blown wide with light and wonder- May 24th- fireworks for the Queen’s birthday and you’re but ten years old.

Of course ‘E.S.’ pressed for details- her ready appetite for a well though-out, reasoned model she can test- or demolish –in almost any field- is both remarkable and amusing at times.

‘Early days yet,’ I reminded her- twice.

‘Well you’ve got to promise me, whatever you do with this, I’ve got to be the first one to see it.’

A promise I fully intend to keep, I’m no fool.

Monday, December 13, 2010

those two troublesome 'P's

Some conversations, usually the unexpected one’s can feel so... sacred sometimes. There I’ve said it- downright sacred. Times when, whether a prayer’s been uttered or not- the coming together, the openness and active listening leave space for something more than either of you or the sum of ones’ most evident parts. Case in point: an e-mail and subsequent call from ‘S’ this week-end.

‘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 (√† 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:

; 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.

‘Excuse me?’

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 √§ldre 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.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Religion has always suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or enlarge the body of doctrine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Nothing worth doing in completed in our lifetime, therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we much be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are savced by love.

Reinhold Niebuhr

It is by immersing ourselves in the complex realities of planetary and human conditions that we begin to understand the true nature of incarnational and redemptive faith. The God of the Bible desires the active living of divine purpose over merely celebrating the idea of correct belief in the One True God.

Bill Phipps

What Jesus preached was ‘the kingdom’; what he got was the church!

Don Cupitt

There is so much evidence today to support ‘the kingdom of God’ emphasis in the teaching of Jesus that it is difficult to understand let alone justify the exclusions, divisions, and differences that accompanied the growth of the church. Today, with the church in decline and mired in outdated beliefs and practices, it would seem that we need to learn how to think the kingdom way of thinking, and to live the kingdom way of living. Every attempt to do so is an indication that the kingdom way is not a reduced view of faith but a fulfillment of the dream of Jesus for life in the kingdom now.

Anne Squire

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading the lay of the land- part one

Amazing the exchanges we can find ourselves in- and often over the most unexpected things.

Case in point: a conversation which began almost a month ago; when engaging with the blog posting of one of our more conservative bloggers my response included the word ‘reactive’ to describe the role the Church too often takes in contemporary life.

Turns out, it took Terry a whole to track me down, but several days later he sent me an e-mail. ‘The comment you left- short as it was, really bothered me. Just what did you mean, by your “almost inevitably reactionary?”’

Turns out the author of the original post is a social acquaintance of Terrys- the cousin of a neighbour who is a good friend of Terrys. Their paths crossed at a recent anniversary party where doing ‘the networking thing’ they’d exchanged cards and through this he’d eventually checked out the blog in question. Terry himself eventually admitted that not only is he not an Anglican; he and his wife have pretty much ‘sleepwalked’ through much of their involvement with the local congregation of the denomination they were both born into.

A response from me not only welcomed his kiwi voice but clarified the difference between ‘reactionary’ and the word I had indeed used. Which apparently only encouraged Terry to write and ask: ‘ok, then what did you mean by ‘almost inevitably a reactive stance’?

In brief, I explained how too often when the official or visible representations of the Church engage with situations or issues of contemporary life they almost inevitably arrive with trunks of doctrine and great suitcases of scriptural verses- their minds essentially already made up before the conversation has even begun. As a result they almost invariably not only fail to meaningfully engage, they usually don’t even hear what the ‘other’ party might be saying.

‘You mean like the danged Pope on condoms?’ he shot back. ‘Talk about being out of touch with reality!’

‘The pope’s one example of the Church’s failure to engage meaningfully with contemporary reality- yes, but there’s also all the missed ‘headliner’ opportunities.’

‘Headliner opportunities?’

‘I give you three names- Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. Dawkins and Hitchen lead the way with what many conservative Christians simply objectified & dismissed as ‘attacks on God. And while Harris might not have caught quite the same volume of limelight he’s on his third, general release book- just in time for the Christmas holidays; positing that science is the only basis for an authentic moral code.’

‘I remember hearing something about Hitchen’s book- probably in the media.’

‘And where was the articulate reasoned engagements by the ‘professional,’ the ‘expert’ Christians... and I’m not talking about Sunday sermons, letters to the editor or even personal blog posts here. All three men, to varying degrees of success chose the public area of published books (also available in electronic versions)- equally available to individuals wrestling with the current behaviour and issues within their own denominations and to those outside the Church who might pick up either author out of idle curiosity but end up finding what they read only affirms their troubled personal experience of the Church... And where was the voice of the Church, engaging in the same forum, the issues these three men raised?’

‘But wouldn’t that have been “reactive”?’

‘I’m not talking about taking on the three men personally, or even a point-by-point refutation of their arguments. I’m talking about looking at their work as symptoms and addressing the underlying issues- the real questions; contemporary anguish or indifference- in an articulate, engaged manner- IN EXACTLY THE SAME FORUM... You can’t tell me that our Churches have become so addled with their unilateral pronouncements that they’ve forgotten how real engagement & communication work?’


‘At least two of those three men probably became millionaires on those particular titles, and there was the leadership of my particular denomination working itself into a very expensive fit over the election of one honestly gay bishop?’

‘To say nothing about Bennie finally working his mind around to allowing that condoms are permissible- for male prostitutes?’

‘As if anyone even considers what the Pope might have to say on the matter anymore? He’s effectively made himself irrelevant- on condoms and everything else.’

‘But what’s your alternative then?’ Terry asked before signing off.

‘Well as people of faith- people who believe in the active, engaged, passionate presence of the Holy Spirit in the everyday reality of our lives, we might be a little more open- ready to see what’s really going on ‘out there’; ready to listen; to learn- ready for whatever the situation might really be to be a learning opportunity for us as well as a "situation to be addressed".... It’s my experience that whatever the experience one might be stepping into, Ruah is usually there already ahead of us.’

Obviously a patient man, Terry didn’t give up on me and once I’d explained my slip- using Hebrew, probably in the cause of simplified keyboarding Terry shot back’ Keep going.’

Turns out he’d never heard of St. Patrick’s Breastplate. When I waxed slightly lyrical speaking of the Holy Spirit not only actively, if exceedingly patiently present in our lives but ‘above us, below us, before us and working in our wake, within us and without,’ things got really interesting.

‘Whoa! You really believe all that?’

A couple prayerful, thoughtful of days before days before I wrote back: ‘I can only represent my experience, but for me I guess what it boils down to is the seal of our baptism- as simplistic as that might sound. Scripture and countless glowing examples in history stand proof of our Lord’s promise being kept- to send the Comforter. Not that I’m in anyway implying that the Holy Spirit works only in and through the lives of the baptised, but if She is present anywhere, it’s got to be through Baptism.’

My friend had no problem with that. ‘But I’ve got to remind you, I’m not really sure I’d call our gang a sacramental church,’ he reminded me. ‘In a way you Anglicans are so much luckier- having so many more clear issues and concepts to tussle with. We prots most of the time aren’t too clear on what we believe about most things.’

THAT sure gave me food for thought, and brought to mind another cherished correspondent, E.S- more on her later.

It was only several emails later we ‘got back on track’ as Terry called it. ‘About this reactive thing that got us started in the first place.’

‘You’re having an argument with your eldest son, but before the two of you even get together around the kitchen table, you’re already clear an your position- you’ve argued it out in your own mind, and possibly even with your wife; you know where you stand and what you want out of the exchange with your son.’


‘And that whole ‘conversation’ idea- talking things out- the meeting of your individual realities- really nothing more than a sham?’ I suggested. ‘An exercise in enforcement?’

‘Keep going.’

‘But what about if both of you allowed it to be an open opportunity for relationship?’

‘Relationship? Fighting over him using the car’s relationship?’

EVERYTHING is relationship. Especially if you’re a person of faith- everything is implicitly a sacramental relationship between three parties in this instance- you, your son and the limitless possibilities for understanding, growth, healing, insight and transformation the Holy Spirit brings to that kitchen table.’

‘Are you actually suggesting the two of us should have prayed before having that discussion about the car?’

I confess I chuckled.‘Not necessarily. I’ve seen too many instances where prayer has been used as a passive/aggressive opportunity to frame an argument or make points before the ‘discussion’ even begins... The two of you however could have each taken a couple of deep breaths while maintaining eye contact to disengage from the argument you’d already won in your own minds- to authentically arrive in the sacrament of the situation you found yourselves in.

‘Maybe we ought to clear up just exactly what you mean by ‘sacrament’ then,’ Terry suggested.

That’s when the comfort of a great catechist in my life- Father James R. Allen came to the fore ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace’ I quoted from memory.

For the next several days the emails really flew- sometimes two or three from Terry to my one- but eventually he brought us back to the issue with his son: the argument about using the car.

‘How about the possibility that it’s rarely about the seemingly obvious?’ I suggested. ‘Consciously, or subconsciously when you’ve ‘worked it out’ in advance in your own mind, the memory or resonances of many or if not all of the unsatisfactorily resolved situations in your long history with that same son kicked in too, to one degree or another. And equally, consciously or unconsciously, all the times he felt you hadn’t really listened- hadn’t to his mind understood or agreed with what he was saying- they call kicked in too. So essentially the two of you were bringing whole armies of history to that kitchen table- none of which were voiced outside your respective minds, but each of which had a vote in how you’d decided the matter.’

‘So what would have been a ‘sacramental’ approach?’ Terry asked almost forty-eight hours later.

‘How about, once you’d each drawn those couple of breaths, you as the parent opened things up to something radically new by telling your son you wanted it to be different this time? Perhaps, instead of sitting across the table from each other, the two of you had gone for a walk, or you’d teased the ‘issue of the car’ away from your shared history by asking what he thought was really at stake?’

‘OK, keep going.’

‘Maybe the two of you even managed to tease apart the car issue and your frustration with the condition of his room- and in the process discovered that his ‘slovenly chaos’ is really a statement of personhood... Maybe the two of you end up having a whole discussion about ‘personhood;’ about how your particular family functions and what it’s like for each of you in your ‘role’ of son and father- I'm suggesting that just might be the real conversation behind the car and just how wilfully defiant the state of his bedroom might be.’

Eventually Terry responded. ‘I’m not saying you’re right- or wrong. But fuck, do you realize how much things would have to change around here? Is that what you mean by sacramental?’

‘Hmmm the word ‘transformational’ is what comes to mind. But yeah, sacramental covers the same reality too. To plagiarize Ms. Oprah, it’s all about living our ‘best lives-‘ "life more abundantly”, our Saviour called it.’

‘Which means the next time Zack and I have an issue, we’re got to work at leaving all the past issues outside?’

‘Perhaps it’s the only real way of moving forward- by first stepping, un-armoured and unadorned into the raw sacrament of the present moment, to see what the grace in each of you and working through both of you is capable of.’

‘And what about old Bennie and his effing condoms?’ Jay shot back within twenty-four hours?

‘I can’t speak for ‘Bennie,’ or the Vatican’- no, make that I wouldn’t want to speak for them... but maybe, just maybe what we- the generic Church- has to do is flip the sacred paradigm and start right where the Holy Spirit places us- un-armoured and unadorned. Yes, with Scripture, dogma, canon law and whole libraries of commentary and opinion as references. They’re all the legacy of patriarchy, and if we’re really supposed to be outliving that mentality we’ve got to start where we and the Church are supposed to be- in the rawness of the very first sacrament: Life itself- the sacred, unadorned reality of our lives.’

‘No scripture? What are all those pastors and ministers going to talk about?’ Terry asked with what I’m sure was a generous chuckle on his end.’

‘Not quite what I was suggesting,’ I reminded him. ‘Scripture- which we Anglicans believe contains everything necessary for salvation, but not that everything in Scripture is necessary for salvation’ is our heritage, our sacred history,
our reference or context
. Dogma, canon law, all those tons of tomes of theological opinion and theory are all historical artefacts- but none- none of them are meant to supplant, or take precedence over the raw, sacred and very real vocation to engage the Holy Spirit, Herself in that primary sacrament- Life. That’s when dogma becomes idolatry.’

The exchanges with Terry continue- at least once daily- a sacred, wondrous, and at times outrageously funny exchange (like when Terry suddenly remembered I’m gay). But sharing what I have of our exchanges has brought us to where this exploration needs to be left for now- flipping the paradigm of patriarchy and mustering the grace to embrace- to step into- to each day step up to meet the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of our very lives.