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Thoughts on the Episcopal Church

As one who was once an orthodox pillar of the Episcopal Church (Lay Reader, Vestry, Sunday School Superintendent, Every Member Canvass Chairman, etc.  etc. -- even co-founded a mission Church), I found one day to my sorrow that I no longer believed in what was apparently required for membership in the club.

     The parents of a malformed child found comfort in the concept of God's Will Be Done. I found horror in the concept of such a god.

     Those separated by death from their loved ones were comforted by the Church with the promise of joining them in heaven. I found my solace in the fact that they lived in my heart.

     I found in the language of communion a tribal ritual of cannibalism wherein he who eats the heart of a courageous warrior will absorb his virtue, and in the crucifixion echoes of "The King Must Die," or any of a dozen other practices we label as superstitions when practiced by others.

     I found a pantheon of saints no different from a pagan polytheism, though by and large less imaginative and less rewarding. I would rather give up the Virgin Mary than Demeter and Persephone.

     To ask God for special favors ("especially for this congregation") seemed both selfish and presumptuous, and to believe He required worship to satisfy his ego repugnant. If his eye was on the sparrow, who the hell was watching the cat?

     And so on. I joined the ranks of the worn out Christians as one of my clerical friends described me. I'm a drop out.

     But dammit, the Church matters to me. We need a place in which to share the quest, to ask the questions, to feel at home.

     And it has to be more than intellectual. Love is emotional. People have always been swayed more by their emotions than by their reason. One of the problems with both Christianity and democracy (not remotely the same things) is that both require integrity and sophistication in their leadership. Even with such leadership, people remain easy prey for the demagogues when the going gets rough and sacrifice becomes part of the package. Enter your favorite villain.

     So here you are, caught between the con men who promise a ticket to Paradise and the disenchanted who find our Church to be (in the words of Tennessee Williams) "worn out magic."

      Well, maybe baby sitting and barbecues are the answer, but Lord God, I hope we can do better than that.

     A few thoughts:

     1. Celebrate the Past! I am not ashamed of my orthodox past. It produced the me that is me. I was honest. And I did some good things in response to those beliefs. But when I was a child... etc. So let us not turn our back on our history, our heritage, or our culture. Most of us love "going back to Williamsburg" or looking at the Liberty Bell. But we don't live in the past! We know it is the past. It produced us. It's our heritage. We build on it. But the Church tries to present it as NOW. No! No! No! Keep it; keep some of the rituals; the liturgy; the symbols; fine! But make clear that they are a celebration of foundations stones. Primitive rocks to build upon. So part of what a church building and a Church service have to offer is a celebration of our heritage, the roots of our quest. Keep it clear for what it is! And enjoy it!

     2. Expand the Bible! To limit our source literature to the traditional Bible is to go along with those ignorant souls who claim that all we'll ever need to know is "in the Bible." I've attended retreats where an earnest clergyman labored to twist Leviticus around to illustrate the perennial conflict between duty to the state and duty to private conscience. "Why don't you use Antigone?" I asked. "It illustrates the dilemma beautifully." (Creon moaning at the end, "And all my civic wisdom!") To which the clergyman replied in innocent wonder, "I suppose because I'm a clergyman, and my text is the Bible."      Saints preserve us! We don't have the Principia? Or E=mc2? "All things are full of gods," wrote Thales. Do we not have paleontologists reading what God has written in the rocks? Does not Aristotle have as much place in the pulpit as Paul? Or Tolkien?      When we limit the religious quest of our parishioners to the pages of "the Bible," we drive them from our midst. And why not? Outside the walls is a treasure house of astounding beauty and deep meaning for the pilgrim. Inside, we limit him to the insights of Hebrew authors whose narrow vision reduces the image of God to a caricature. The universe is our Bible!

     The fault, dear Reader, is not is our stars, but in our Churches that we are underlings.

     3. Abolish Slavery. This will be a problem. Most people want to be slaves. Most of my students at Chapel Hill did. They wanted me to give them the answers. And I would say to them, "If you accept my answers uncritically, I own you. I worked for my answers; they belong to me; you work for yours. Then bring them in and we'll compare notes. Perhaps I will like yours better. In which case I will have learned from you. Perhaps you will like mine. Or perhaps we will each retain our own. But in any case, earn your freedom." A Church that refuses to "know the answer" will lose many slaves. But a Church that encourages its congregation to seek for their answers, to actively participate in our common quest -- that Church will be a lot more exciting place to attend than one where we passively listen to ignorance proclaiming wisdom with arguments from doubtful authority.

     4. Rescue Prayer from Superstition. The value of meditation and prayer are well established. The Church provides a place to focus one's attention upon both public and private concerns. Corporate and private prayer each have genuine value. Yet to corrupt this vital function with an appeal for a supernatural Lone Ranger to ride to our rescue is to weaken our spiritual strength and the capacity of the Church to contribute to our individual and corporate need in times of stress. We cannot be con men exploiting the legitimate needs of our parishioners with "worn out magic." We must heal the sick, not add to their sickness. When my wife was dying from a malignant brain tumor where the mortality rate was 100% regardless of treatment, it was almost more than I could bear to tolerate the comfort of the well meaning pious who urged me to "pray for a miracle." What kind of god would participate in such cruelty? Let the child in the next room die, but save my wife? We have to do better than that. The Church can provide genuine strength and genuine comfort, but faking it is barbaric.

     5. Avoid Moral Absolutes. They exist only in the abstract. In real life, we are rarely if ever confronted by such easily resolved abstracts when concerned with answering the eternal question posed by Socrates: "What is right action?" Our real world problems are all too often Right vs. Right or the lesser of two evils. A Church that presents simple mind- ed answers needs simple minded parishioners. Nor do identical acts have identical meanings. Despite the claim in Casablanca that "a kiss is just a kiss," it has been my experience that kissing my ancient Aunt Agatha is one helluva lot different than... well, it's different. The identical sexual act can be pernicious or salutary. We are extraordinarily malleable clay, and what is custom in one era is anathema in other. For the ancient Greeks and Macedonians to whom we owe so much, bisexual behavior was a norm as John Keegan points out in his marvelous The Mask of Command: "Philip, like any nobleman of the Greek world, took love from both sexes." The fact that I am heterosexual in my behavior is (in my judgement) more a product of my culture than an imperative of my nature or a commandment hammered out by God on a granite word processor. I strongly suspect we do more damage to our fellow human beings by our taboos then do those who choose to break them. In any event, I support loving acts, whatever the form of expression, and deplore those that are basely motivated no matter how well they are clothed in socially approved attire. A Church that focuses on love more than mores will make fewer mistakes in its ministry. Which brings me to...

     6. Put the focus on Love. It's no secret than from the cradle we are taught that our natural selves are unacceptable and that to obtain approval from the gods (initially our parents) we must disguise what we are, fake affection, conceal our bodily functions, and deny our sexuality. A fundamental appeal of the Church has long been that God knows who you really are and He loves you! Fine, as far as it goes. But to couple that with a guilt trip on the one hand and threats of punishment on the other, suggests that love is an earned degree. But that ain't the message as I hear it. Love is not a merit badge to be earned with brownie points for good behavior. Worse, loving is not a commodity that can be exchanged for gratitude. The tough Christian message is that love is not bargained; it is given. Probably that's what makes Christianity so unpopular. The wisdom of the Christian is that loving is the key to the good life, but that life is not of this world, it is inner. A focus on this facet of the Christian message can make the Church experience one of revelation, joy, and the knowledge of Christ.

     7. Drop the Bomb! And what is the bomb? Dangerous as it is to quote scripture, it must nevertheless be pointed out that Jesus told us the facts of life: "We have met the gods and they is us!" Wow! You know the scene. He is accused of blasphemy. "Why?" he asks. "Because you claim to be God," is the reply. And what does a good rabbi do in the face of such an accusation? He quotes scripture, of course. In this case, the 82nd psalm. (John,X,33-36). I don't know why I've never heard a preacher mention that. The implications are tremendous and wonderful! You want God's love? Then love one another. You want God's forgiveness? Forgive yourself. You want this to be a better world? Stop looking over your shoulder. You've got the watch. No passing the buck. No dropping out. And don't be afraid of being accused of "playing god." We're not playing!

     Of course it's frightening, exhilarating, depressing, and marvelous. Like Noah in The Green Pastures we are reduced to saying, "I'se a poor man, Lawd, but I's all I is!" Or as a bishop once said to me at Virginia Theological Seminary where I was attending a workshop and where the question was "How can any man presume to be a priest?"-- "I've know priests to be stupid, alcoholics, thieves, liars, and philanderers. But if we didn't use human beings, who would we use?"

      You betcha, Bishop! You betcha, Jesus. We're the gods. Now let's get on with the job and stop thinking we can let George do it.

     7. Provide a job description. We need go no further than the first five words of the Old Testament: "In the beginning God created." That's the job description. That's what gods do. They change the world, create a future, achieve immortality. Some, as Plato pointed out, do it with their bodies; they perpetuate their seed. Others with their minds. The inventor of the wheel is long dead, but the wheel goes on, the idea is immortal.

It's a tough job. We are not perfect. We are ignorant. But, as Jesus said, "the scripture cannot be broken." "I have called ye gods."

The haunting part of the job is that we must remember that gods create in their own image. That's the hell of it! We can screw up the world, pollute the planet, exploit our fellows, cheat on our taxes -- or make a paradise. It's our future to create.

I'd rather belong to the Church of the gods then sit in a pew wringing my hands while some distinguished looking gentleman in a reversed collar tells me not to worry, The Guy in the Sky will make it all come out like a technicolor movie. Oh really?                                ---

Well, enough. Those are my Seven Keys to the Pearly Gates. I'm not so sure it will bring in the great unwashed or even that I'm on the right track. We live in exciting times. Why not have a Church that meets that excitement with something more than "worn out magic?"

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