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Friday, November 14, 2008

How to change the world: A foggy night of clarity in Princetontown

Did I mention in my previous post how much I love seminarians?

It was a wonderful - albeit thick fog, drizzly rain, horrible for driving - night at Princeton Theological School last night.

About 10 seminarians - mostly Presbyterian freshmen and middlers, most on 'ordination track' but not necessarily 'in process', and two of whom were the student coordinators of the SARC ('Students Affirming Reproductive Choice') - who gathered in one of the dining rooms.

The panel consisted of moi who was more than ably joined by a young, newly married UCC minister who is a field coordinator for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC - of which I am privileged to be the NJ Chapter president), an American Baptist minister in his 60's and his wife who volunteer as Recovery Room Chaplains at their local Planned Parenthood Clinic, and a professional pastoral therapist, Union Grad, now being "Lutheranized" as she put it, for ordination.

There was also a Lutheran seminarian in the audience who has just started working with the ABC pastor as a Recovery Room Chaplain.

We were asked to provide the "Official Position" of our judicatory bodies and a little story about how it is we came to be involved in this work.

I was quite pleased to hear, yet again, the truth that the religious majority in mainline Protestant denominations is solidly Pro-choice.

That doesn't mean that we are Pro-Abortion. Both the Lutheran and American Baptist statements have pages (and pages) of conditions where they absolutely decry the use of abortion - birth control, convenience, etc. Indeed, I was quite surprised that statement from The Episcopal Church was so succinct.

You can find a summary of the various judicatory positions on reproductive rights here (from the National Right to Life perspective and here from the RCRC - click on "What does your religion say?").

The Episcopal Church, as late as 1958, held a strong pro-life position, stating, "Abortion and infanticide are to be condemned." In 1967, the 62nd General Convention of the Episcopal Church supported abortion law "reform," to permit the "termination of pregnancy" for reasons of life, rape, incest, fetal deformity, or physical or mental health of the mother. In 1982, the 66th General Convention condemned the use of abortion as a means of gender selection and non-serious abnormalities.

By 1988, the 69th General Convention had developed a position that stated, "All human life is sacred. Hence it is sacred from its inception until death." The statement goes on to call for church programs to assist women with problem pregnancies and to emphasize the seriousness of the abortion decision. In 1994, the 71st General Convention expressed "unequivocal opposition to any ... action ... that [would] abridge the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of her pregnancy, or that would limit the access of a woman to a safe means of acting upon her decision." In 1997, at the 72nd General Convention, the delegates approved a resolution that did not condemn partial-birth abortions but expressed grave concerns about the procedure, "except in extreme situations."

To a person, every member on the panel tried to convey that

(1) In our experience, the decision to have an abortion is rarely a simple, straightforward matter. Indeed, it is complex and complicated.

(2) Our role as pastors is neither to judge nor make the decision for the woman and/or her husband/family. Rather, our role is to provide a safe place where the woman might explore the reasons for her decision and come to one that is best for her and her particular, unique situation.

As I keep saying over and over again, in 22 years of ordained ministry, I have never - not once - counseled a woman to have an abortion; neither have I ever - not once - counseled a woman not to have an abortion.

My colleagues absolutely agreed with that statement and it seemed to have deep resonance with the seminarians in the room.

(3) Further, our role as pastors is to provide an environment in our churches where, despite what we, personally, may believe, people in our faith community as well as the community at large feel safe to come in and explore their thoughts and feelings about this and any other difficult, complex theological issue or concern.

Indeed, the ABC minister spoke quite eloquently that, after every sermon he preaches about reproductive rights on Sunday morning, he can expect at least two phone calls on Sunday afternoon - either a woman who has had an abortion or is considering one.

The UCC minister reported that he frequently gets phone calls after a presentation or event, while waiting at the airport, from someone who wants to talk with him and ask for prayers.

"I shouldn't have to have anonymous prayer on cell phones," he said with no small amount of passion. "If the church is not a safe place for people to bring their concerns and deep need for prayer, they have failed in their role as a holy sanctuary."

He's absolutely right.

The ABC minister reported that, after his first day of volunteering as a Recovery Room Chaplain at the Planned Parenthood Clinic, he reflected that he had prayed individually with 35 people. "That's more than I do in one day at my church."

I do believe our role is to stand with our people in their own crucified places, just as Mary and the other women wept at the cross of Jesus. As God-representatives, we do not abandon people in their time of need, and we do not tell people what to do with their lives or bring judgment upon them. We stand in solidarity with them in their pain and suffering - emotional, physical or spiritual - and help them find some measure of solace and peace in the justice of God.

Our role is to provide a 'holy sanctuary' - you know, just like the term we use for the church. Sanctuary. Right?

There were powerful, deeply moving stories told and a few tears shed by some of the seminarians. But, it was the tears of one of the seminarians, as we were beginning to leave, that deeply moved me.

At first, I thought something we had said might have touched her own scars in terms of abortion, but I was wrong.

"We don't get to talk like this, here in seminary," she said tearfully. "We aren't used to this kind of practical information and, well . . ." she sniffled, "honesty."

I know. I remember. I went to a progressive seminary in Cambridge, MA, but I never had an experience like the one I was privileged to be part of last night. Kuddos to the two coordinators of SARC who organized the event, for their courage and bold witness to their own theology. The church, I think, is in good hands.

It may have been foggy outside, but there were moments of real clarity which, I have to believe, deeply affected the lives of 10 seminarians last night.

And they will go forth and touch the lives of hundreds of people in their congregations. And they will go forth and touch the lives of others with the amazing, unchangeable truth of God's unconditional love, and our particular responsibility to return that love, measure for measure, insofar as we are able, with all of God's creatures.

God knows, it's not easy. It takes a certain amount of emotional and spiritual maturity, not to mention bold conviction and no small amount of courage.

In the end, it is love that changes the world. Not judgment. Not restrictive rules and punitive laws. Not pontifical theological statements of "Truth".

God knows, it takes Love. Love that is deep and broad and wide enough to trust the human condition to use our God-given gifts of intellect and reason to do the right thing. Love that stretches its arms out into the hardness of the crossroads of life with a grace-filled salvific embrace that encompasses all of God's creatures and creation.

God knows. God knows, indeed.

P.S. Not all of God's ministers are so loving and prayerful and respectful of all human life. Here's a very sad story here. Read and weep. I do believe Jesus is, even now, weeping.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Elizabeth for an informative and heart felt discussion of a very difficult topic. We are all so sorely sad at the issue of abortion. To meet such a challenge with compassion and without judgment is truly a wonder. I left the RCC for just such lacking. I embrace the Episcopal faith with joy at its more measured and loving position.

Erin said...

Thank you for this post. I worked in Public Policy for a Planned Parenthood affiliate while my husband was in seminary at VTS (actually in the same class as the two seminarians whose picture you posted), and was often asked by people who were unfamiliar with the EC how "that worked". I was proud to work alongside the RCRC and even more proud to be a part of a church that recognized its importance and the overall importance of choice.

Fran said...

Dear Elizabeth- how can I possibly begin to express my gratitude and admiration for this post?

It is so brilliantly done, finding the balance that is so often lacking in conversation about reproductive choice.

This conversation is about to get cranked up and very loudly IMO.

I just wrote this at another blog that had a reference to the priest in South Carolina. (BTW as you know, he is not in any position to deny anyone communion and there are some real issues about him even saying this.)

In any case, what I said was that the RC church is in an uproar, because 54% of Catholics voted for Obama and no shortage of them came from more conservative and "pro-life" bases.

The crazy priests and bishops count on their minions "following" them and this did not fully happen. Hence such strident anger. So not Jesus-y if you ask me.

Anyway, back on topic - I love all that this post represents and I so deeply respect the way in which you always approach this.

Thank you for your voice and other like minded voices in the wilderness of this issue.

Unknown said...

I know of a book that might interest you, actually a couple.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v.Wade by Ann Fessler.

Slut: Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation by Leora Tanenbaum {eye opening discussions on why young girls dont use birth control in this book--among other things}

Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf.

I have written similar pieces, about Why Pro Choice Doesnt Mean Easy Choice. I have had friends who have had the Baby, Aborted and adopted. None of those choices are easy and they all carry consequences.

The World Split Open by Ruth Rosen has some very interesting dialogue about Abortion and Birth Control, though the whole book is about Feminism in the U.S. during this last 40 years.

I dont know what I would do for Seminary. I am not Orthodox anything. But I had tailored my classes in the Liberal Arts to focus on Religious Studies/Current Affairs. They didnt have a regular religious studies major or I would have jumped on it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's really not hard, Once you open your heart, your mind tends to follow.

Magdalene6127 said...

Sent here by Fran, and I'm so glad.

I wish I could have been at the symposium about which you spoke. It sounds like it was Spirit-filled, indeed.

Peace, Mags

Unknown said...

I think sometimes its very difficult for some people to reconcile that when you grant a person freedom, you might not like what they do with that freedom, or their motivations. But if you try to take that freedom away, then what?

One cannot tell a woman that she is free, but then deny her sovereignty over her body. That Bodily Integrity is the most intimate freedom of all.

That speaks not only to Abortion, but to Birth Control, Birth Options, how we define Rape, and Assault, and it speaks to a Woman's Humanity as well.

In the Christian Tradition, your God gave humanity Free Will, knowing that he might not like what humans do with that free will. Why is it then so hard for [some] Christians to pay that gift forward?

Thats rhetorical of course. I really enjoy your blog. Its wonderful to see mindful and reflective leadership in the Body of Christ.

Anothervoicemdf said...

Thank you, friend.

It was wonderful to have you be a part of our event, and I loved reading this beautiful and moving account of that evening at the seminary.

I found this post a week or so ago and meant to respond then but life kept happening. Now I'm finally getting back to you- and I find myself not only enjoying your writing, but seriously in awe of your blogging! At my best, I post once or twice a week, and I've not even kept that up lately, though hopefully I'll start posting again more regularly.

Thank you again. This did my heart good to read.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Matt, thanks for your visit. I confess that blogging has become my new addiction. In fact, if you hear of a good 12 Step Program for Bloggers, let me know, okay?

Looking forward to working with you again in January. In the meantime, I'll check out your blog.