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Sunday, June 17, 2012


Perhaps it's because it's Father's Day and, in exactly 14 days, I will be leaving to attend the 77th Triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, that my thoughts are not so much about 'fathers' as they are about the title "Father-in-God".

“Reverend Father in God, we present unto you this godly and well-learned man, to be Ordained and Consecrated Bishop.”

This formula appeared in the first English Ordinal of 1550 and was repeated in successive Prayer Books for over four hundred years until the 1979 book of the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), which substituted the form of address, “N., Bishop in the Church of God.”

The assumption, of course, is that the language change (including italicizing him for pronouns throughout the BCP) was an acknowledgement of (1) the feminist movement toward inclusive/expansive language and (2) in anticipation of the advent of women priests and (gasp!) women in the episcopacy.

I suspect there was something else afoot. I wonder how much of it was less of a nod to "political correctness" and more of a shift in our understanding of the role of the ordained from a vocational status to a professional status.

In doing so, I think it also provided a subtle shift in the way we think of Church - a movement away from ourselves as a "family of God" with a "father/mother" and the congregation as "the children".

Family of God - one image
There are lots of pro's and con's to the argument about considering the church as a "family".

In the best possible sense, the church as family allows us a shot at redemption from the dysfunction and hurt associated with some of our families of origin.

It expands our understanding of family based on tribe or color and includes absolutely everyone.

In those blessed few families which are "functional" and healthy, it allows us to continue those patterns - or, perhaps, improve on them - in the church.

In the worst possible sense, it allows the dysfunction of our families of origin to continue and, in fact, worsen.  We're "allowed" to treat our "sisters and brothers", yea verily, even our "fathers and mothers" in ways we wouldn't even dare consider in our biological families.

Because, you see, it's not a "real" family. Except, of course, when it is.

I've never understood the Roman Catholic ideal of a celibate man who is "Father" of a non-biologically-based "family" and yet the only "normal" - and in fact, the only model celebrated and honored - is for a man and a woman to have lots of biological babies. Makes my head spin.  

Based on my experience, I tend to fall on the side of this whole idea of "church as family" as not such a good thing. I mean, it's great, theologically and philosophically, but I've rarely seen it work out in ways that are healthy - for congregations or clergy.

The shift away from the vocational status to professional status of clergy has also provided some unhealthy tension to the mix. "Father" (and, it's most often been that) could be afforded a wide berth for behavior that a similar position in the secular world would be seen as incompetence or laziness or arrogant, even "princely" behavior.

Besides, a rector, has life tenure. It's only been in the past decade (or so) that we've instituted a canon (3.9.12) for "The Dissolution of a Pastoral Relationship" - which has been used (and/or abused) more times than you or I would like to imagine, in formal in informal ways.

"Father" (and now, "Mother") can be done away with and banished to the outer darkness - a wicked child's dream. Unless, of course, "Father" (and now "Mother") was the wicked one. 

Right now, as we live through this tension of moving away from this understanding of the church as a "family of God," ourselves as "sisters and brothers in Christ," our clergy as "mothers and fathers" and our bishop as "Father/Mother in God", the possibilities for inappropriate - sometimes downright cruel - behavior seem endless.

Problem is, we are and we aren't - both a family and a corporation. 

I suspect that, until the 'shift' finally settles down, our behavior will also shift wildly. We speak the language of "family" but act as if we are a "corporation". There is either great ambivalence or subtle resistance to the shift. Our reality has not yet caught up with a centuries old mindset. Our behavior often appears schizophrenic.

It can be crazy-making. And, often is.

I have Jack Spong to thank for helping me get healthier about this. Jack was my bishop who was more of a "Father in God" than my own father, but would have never claimed that title for himself. Indeed, he rejected it strongly.

"Look," he said to me once, "I know you have an Anglo-Catholic heart and for the life of me, this very-low-church-southern-boy-turned-bishop can't understand that, but I accept it as reality. I want you to be the best Anglo-Catholic feminist - God only knows what that means - you can possibly be. And, I'll help you try to do that in ways you might not always see as helpful. In exchange, I ask you one thing: please don't consider your bishop as your 'Father in God'. That stuff really disturbs me. It's infantalizing. You be the best you and I'll be the best me and together we'll work it out. Okay?"

Bishop Jack Spong
Here's the deep irony: he couldn't have been a better father if he tried.

From that day on, I never once initiated a mission or ministry and thought to myself, "Hmmm.... I wonder if this will be okay with the bishop". Neither did I concern myself with whether or not this would "be pleasing" to the bishop - even when, as Vicar, my Letter of Agreement clearly reflected the canons and stated that I worked "at the pleasure of the bishop".

It was so liberating to be an adult AND be an ordained person in the church. That didn't diminish the authority of the bishop's role one iota.

And yet, I could always count on my bishop to pick up the phone and call me and say, "I just heard you were able to get ....x.... through the City Council/Vestry/Mayor/Diocesan Council/Standing Committee. Good job! Well done!".

Every now and again my phone would ring and his voice was instantly recognizable on the phone. "Hello, young lady," he'd drawl, "I'm just coming from a wonderful service as St. X and heading over to St. Y for the 4 PM service and I was just wondering if you preached the gospel this morning."

There would ensue a wonderful 10 -15 minute conversation about the gospel that was one part him looking for something new and different to say to this next congregation and one part his absolute love of talking scripture with a fellow Rabbi who also loved scripture.

He may have also just been checking up on me but I never perceived that.  Not once.

I loved the affirmation and the fact that my bishop was thinking of me - not as my "Father-in-God" but as my "Chief Pastor" and colleague in ministry.

I also knew that he had my back in any situation of conflict in the congregation - and, they are inevitable.  He would stand with me, even if he had to take me aside later and say, "You know, you could have said ....x....differently. Next time try this......".

There was no doubt that, if I had screwed up, he'd let me know that, too. And, he would be firm and fair but not unkind and retributive. God knows, I did, and he was. Most importantly, he did it in such a way that I learned from my mistakes.

I suspect I'm the priest I am today for those mistakes made and lessons learned. I am so grateful to have had such a wise "Chief Pastor". 

My favorite image of family
When I started writing this, I didn't intend for it to become a tribute to Jack Spong. He turned 81 just the other day. I guess, as I think about another General Convention without him - which will, God willing, be my last - my thoughts turned to "monitoring" the discussions in the House of Bishops and realizing just how much I miss his voice in those hallowed halls.

I've got more to say about church dynamics in general and Fathers in God in particular but I think, for today - Father's Day - I'll just let this stand.

Here's to those who are or were our fathers - biological or of choice - in our families and in the church. Those who messed up and those who were stellar. Those who provided guidance and those who couldn't lead themselves out of a cardboard box.  Those who loved us and those who couldn't because they couldn't love themselves. Those who were both mother and father and those who could do neither.

They are all reflections of God, who is beyond mother and father and surpasses our human understanding and leads us to peace. 

1 comment:

Muthah+ said...

I would toast, +Jack too but he was never my father in God. Mine was +Ron Haines. But less a father but such a mentor and friend.

I am so glad you fell in with the likes of +Jack. He taught your Anglo/Catholic soul what real catholicism is--it isn't about hierarchy--it is about breathing in and breathing out of a spirituality that is laced with incense but warmed by the heart of God.