Thoughts on the Episcopal Church
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
of a dozen other practices we label as superstitions when practiced by
I found a pantheon of saints no different from a pagan
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
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
to share the quest, to ask the questions, to feel at home.
And it has to be more than intellectual. Love is
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,
God, I hope we can do better than that.
A few thoughts:
1. Celebrate the Past! I am not ashamed of my orthodox
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
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
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
beautifully." (Creon moaning at the end, "And all my civic
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
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
The fault, dear Reader, is not is our stars, but in our
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
the scene. He is accused of blasphemy. "Why?" he asks. "Because
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.
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.