Monday, April 13, 2009
The 'inky-dinky diocese'
When Jim Kelsey, the former bishop of Northern Michigan who died in a tragic car accident a few years ago, was guest bishop in the Diocese of Newark, he joked that many considered his episcopal see 'that inky-dinky (insignificant) little diocese'.
Well, that 'inky-dink' little diocese has certainly become the center of quite a perfect theological storm which many consider of great significance.
Indeed, the reactions have ranged from outrage to hand-wringing anxiety, and in between, there has been a trans-Atlantic trial-in-cyberspace which has included unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo, and personal attacks - mostly submitted anonymously, of course - and outright challenges to the integrity of the process and the candidate it produced.
From where I sit and watch this lamentable spectacle, the 'perfect storm' is made up of one part ecclesiology, one part theology, one part anxiety and, in my opinion, one part revenge.
When he was in the Diocese of Newark, Bishop Kelsey gave a wonderful presentation on the concept of 'Total Ministry' which had energized and revitalized congregations in his diocese.
The idea of 'Total Ministry' is based solidly in the Baptismal Covenant and the Pauline notion of 'the priesthood of all believers'. It is egalitarian in its understanding of authority, and works to empower all the baptized in the mission and ministry of the church.
Many other dioceses - mostly rural and inner city, multiply challenged by small congregations, geography and limited financial resources - have also embraced this concept or adapted it to the particulars of their location.
The newest incarnation of this concept of 'Total Ministry' is that it has been applied to the election of a bishop in Northern Michigan - a process which was carefully overseen by two bishops and a lay theologian who is held in no small amount of esteem in The Episcopal Church.
The process followed the Canons to the letter which produced a slate of one candidate. While this is unusual, it is not unknown. Indeed, the Diocese of South Carolina's last election produced one, albeit, similarly theologically controversial candidate: Mark Lawrence.
However, this is in complete compliance with the Canons of the Church.
Not surprisingly for an innovative process, the slate in Northern Michigan produced an unusual candidate - a man who is well-known and loved by many in the diocese as a deeply spiritual Christian man and a strong, bold leader whose innovative liturgies and sermons challenge fellow disciples to think in new ways about the statements they make about the beliefs they profess about the Gospel of Jesus Christ within the realities of a pluralistic world.
Oh, and if you hadn't heard (says she, with tongue firmly placed in cheek), the candidate also walks the path of the Buddha.
Indeed, he maintains a spiritual discipline of sitting zazen meditation ('sitting' meditation, which is meant to 'open the hand of thought'), and has received lay ordination - which is not to be confused with priestly ordination in the Christian tradition (but apparently is confused with it, none the less).
This is not unusual in Christianity. Thomas Merton, a world-renowned and deeply respected Roman Catholic monk, also walked the path of the Buddha. From my very limited experience, they are highly complimentary spiritual paths, informing each other and calling the follower to a deeper, richer, more mature spirituality.
There is an old saying that, "there are many paths, but one way to God." A certain level of spiritual maturity is required to see that, and alas, therein lies part of the problem.
I won't rehearse the embarrassingly simplistic arguments that have been made of this particular spiritual position, including, on one notorious blog, an entire line-by-line comparison of the Nicene Creed strung together with bits and pieces of sermons and writings of the bishop-elect.
This, combined with unsupported and undocumented allegations, anonymous personal attacks, well-intended but ultimately unhelpful speculation, and all sort and manner of other forms of anxiety, have combined to produce the unseemly spectacle of an electronic lynch mob in cyberspace.
Well, anxiety is one of the clear causes - and, with good reason. The theo-political state of The Episcopal Church is in flux. The extreme Right has left and those remaining on the Right are working understandably hard to hold the line for the 'faithful remnant' of conservative and orthodox brothers and sisters.
The 'movable middle' is predictably sympathetic and well-intentioned and - this is important - much larger at this moment in time as we move forward toward General Convention in July.
Even 'traditionally' progressive and liberal folk are anxious not to appear too 'Left of center' so as not to scare the theological horses any more than they already have.
It's one thing, you see, to have endorsed the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, it's quite another to endorse the election of one who has been unfortunately labeled, "The Buddhist Bishop."
The unspoken but palpable anxiety on the part of some on the Left is that the episcopacy of 'The Gay Bishop' will some how be invalidated or further dismissed by the endorsement of 'The Buddhist Bishop'.
Add that together with a now defrocked Muslim priest and a newly appointed, widely known pro-choice (which for me, is to choose life) Dean of an Episcopal Seminary and you have proof positive that The Episcopal Church really is going to hell in a hand basket.
No one wants that, right? So, someone has to be 'sacrificed'. Northern Michigan, it would seem, has provided the perfect 'sacrificial lamb'.
Which leads me to yet another reason for this 'perfect storm':
Remember the horrible witch hunt of Bill Clinton? That was, in many a political analyst's view, clearly and carefully orchestrated by Right-wing Republicans as pay back for the forced Nixon resignation over Watergate.
Of course, Mr. Clinton, himself, provided enough collateral scandal to feed the scandal-hungry masses for weeks and months, but he was certainly no different than most politicians in power on both sides of the aisle, and his 'crimes' in no way rose to the level of Mr. Nixon's. Which is what made Mr. Clinton such a good candidate for the counter-attack.
I believe that a piece of the unconscious dynamic in the Right-wing reaction to the Northern Michigan election process has to do with pay back for the lack of consents to the first election of Mark Lawrence as Bishop of South Carolina.
And, payback, as they say, is a b***h.
To be perfectly honest, Forrester's Christology is way too low for me, and I find his doctrine of God a little higher than I'd like, and while some of what he has written makes me wince, it is all 'within the normal boundaries' of the Spirit of Anglicanism.
Then again, my Christology is way too low for the likes of, say, Matt Kennedy and his is way too high for me - which is part of the reason he left TEC for The Anglican Diocese of Kenya.
Oh, that and the fact that my sexuality renders me 'ontologically insufficient matter for ordination'. To others in that same camp, my gender has the same effect.
I also understand Forrester's penchant for liturgical innovation. I love the stuff myself and do so, like Forrester, with the authorization of the Diocesan Chief Liturgical Officer - that would be the bishop.
Here's the thing: When Bishop-elect Forrester gets the required consents from bishops with jurisdiction and Standing Committees, he will be held accountable to 'the doctrine and discipline of TEC' at a much higher standard than he is now as a priest.
Indeed, if he does not 'guard the unity of the church' or teaches doctrine that is antithetical to the standards of Anglicanism, he will be deposed - like Duncan, Iker, et. al, before him.
It's just a simple as that.
Does that mean that we shouldn't raise questions? Of course not. Questions should indeed be raised, but not innuendo, unsubstantiated allegations and anonymous, personal, ad hominum attacks.
Bottom line, for me: If there's room enough in the House of Bishops for Breidenthal, Gulick, and Wolfe there's room enough for Robinson, Chane and Forrester. They will hold each other accountable, as will the people of the Diocese of Northern Michigan.
It's about trust, which, in this Age of Anxiety, is a scarce commodity. However, we are not the 'church catholic' we profess in our Creeds because we are monochrome and march, lock-step, to the same beat.
We are catholic because we are interrelated, not joined at the hip.
The Diocese of N. Michigan is not the Diocese of Newark, which is not the Diocese of Alabama, which is not the Diocese of Texas, which is not the Diocese of Vermont.
And, the Dioceses of The Church of England are certainly not those of TEC. Bishops are, of course, appointed in the CofE, which is as foreign a concept to me as our elections must seem to some of them.
We are united but we are very, very different. A palm tree growing in the moist, sandy earth of the Central Gulf Coast would not transplant in the rich, dark, cold earth of Maine. Neither would a Northern Pine of Vermont transplant well in the soil of Arizona.
Same Planet Earth. Different soil.
Same one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Different dioceses.
Hopefully, we are mature enough adults and have sufficiently grown into 'the full stature of Christ' to understand and accept these differences.
We're all just 'inky-dinky' dioceses, until we do something out of the ordinary, something that challenges our understanding of the gospel, especially when it involves sexuality or gender or carries us to the interface with other world spiritual disciplines and practices and systems of belief.
Then, we're just easy fodder for the religious blogs and pundits whose appetite for this sort of thing is a bottomless, fiery pit. It's no accident that Hell is described in this way.
It's all done in the precious name of Jesus, of course, that inky-dinky Rabbi from the inky-dinky region of Galilee, in an inky-dinky town of which, you may remember, it was asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46)