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Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Sisterhood of Mothers

I've been reflecting, this day, on my mother's life, my life as a mother and the life I lived for the past two weeks at Lambeth.

A dear friend just wrote a note of condolence to me. In it, she said, "I was rather delighted to see, from the comments to your blog, that the image of the sisterhood of mothers welcoming Lydia had come to others as well as to me."

I, too, have been delighted and comforted by this image. My mother has been brought out of the darkness of her human experience into the Light of Truth.

Now, she knows fully what she once knew only in part.

Now, she sees that what she had feared most about my life was what she, in fact, longed for most in her life. Now she is experiencing, beyond her wildest human imagination, love and acceptance for who she truly is, not that of institutional custom and cultural propriety.

While it is beyond my wildest imagination to know the fullness of that eternal bliss and heartbreaking joy, I have known glimpses of what this might be.

A Sisterhood of Mothers also surrounded me when the word came of my mother's death. There were six women living in the house which became our temporary residence while at Lambeth. We came from very diverse places on the theological, political, cultural and ecclesiological spectrum.

I think these differences can best be expressed by something Bette Middler once said: No matter the year, when the Crystal Ball drops on Times Square at New Year's Eve, it's still and always 1950 in London.

Some of the women couldn't understand the need for inclusive language when our community gathered for prayer. They looked at us with odd curiosity when some of us bitterly complained about the high level of male privilege in our group that called itself "The Inclusive Church Network", and how some of the women were actually enabling this behavior.

Not everyone was a biological mother, but everyone was a spiritual mother of the church - lay and ordained. This Sisterhood of Mothers came together in a most magnificent way in the hours of my need after my mother's death.

I am a grateful debtor to the countless ways, the thousands of random acts of kindness which they ministered unto me in my grief and sorrow. Despite our differences, they were the church, loving me unconditionally, giving me the strength and courage to persevere, beyond the expectations of institutional custom and cultural propriety.

In the midst of the emotional roller-coaster ride, this is, in fact, in a peculiar sort of way, part of what I experienced while at Lambeth.

Let me explain.

The model of this conference was decidedly different from all the others. The emphasis was not on resolutions but on relationships. The process was not about making declarations but about deepening dedication to the bonds of mutual affection, despite our diversity, that have always held us together. It wasn't about what was on the surface but rather, that which is contained in the depth - indeed, in the very heart - of the Anglican Communion.

In many ways, the unspoken goal of Lambeth was to place us all into the sacred womb of Mother Church, that we all might drink in and be nourished by the placental waters of our baptismal faith.

While there, we struggled to listen to the voice of God as I imagine a fetus might listen to but not yet fully understand the voices just beyond the womb.

I have an image here of the LGBT Africans and North Americans who bravely told their stories on film and in front of those straight allies and a few conservative reporters who came to listen - and hear - what they had to say.

I asked one ultra-conservative reporter who sat in front of me what he thought of the night's presentation. He struggled to find the words to respond. After a few moments of pregnant consideration, he said a most remarkable thing. He said, "I am just now beginning to hear the complexity and the contours of this issue."

I experienced that statement as an acknowledgment of his emerging awareness that he did not posses the whole Truth.

Another image from Lambeth: while we were yet in the darkness and security of the womb, we squinted our eyes to see the emerging Light, some of us hurt and blinded by its brilliance.

I have an image here of the report of the African woman, the wife of a bishop, who stood up in her group after the dramatic reading in Second Samuel of the Rape of Tamar. She demanded, in a very loud voice, to know what was this abomination that had been read to them. How dare anyone claim that 'this filth' was part of sacred scripture.

When her bishop husband and some of the other brother African bishops heard her loud cries of protest, they joined her. How dare 'this filth' be brought into their sacred space, they demanded to know.

When they had been given repeated enough assurances that this story had, in fact, come from the very scripture they claim to hold as having primacy in their lives, but they did not know, it is reported that more than 100 of them walked out of the room in protest. I can only imagine the pain of their humiliation.

It is a documented medical fact that when one has been blind and then regains one's sight, the first rays of light can be very, very painful.

And yet, it is reported that a few of the Sisterhood of Mothers came among them to talk about the abuse of power as documented in scripture and to talk about how rape is used as a weapon of war in their very own homeland.

It is said that among some of them, at least, there were tears of relief that the truth was finally being told, and the hope of the gospel was revealed like a thousand twinkling stars in the eyes of those who had once sat in darkness and despair.

The one word which fell from the lips of almost everyone on either side and the middle aisle of the Anglican Church gathered at Lambeth Conference was this:


The great high priestly prayer of Jesus before his execution and death on the cross was that "we all be one" as Jesus and God are one.

I suppose it's not surprising that the church-as-institution hears this as a plea for unity in the church and among the Christian churches as they are constituted across the spectrum of Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant expressions of the faith in the Triune God.

Although I can not - will not - speak for my sisters who gathered at Lambeth, on reflection I hear the prayer of Jesus in a very different way.

I don't think Jesus was calling for institutional unity. I do believe Jesus was calling for this:


I hear the plea of Jesus for us to be in close relationships of intimacy. As different and distinct as Jesus was from God and yet the two were one, I do believe the prayer that we 'all be one' means that we be in intimate relationship with each other despite our theological and ecclesiological differences.

Our ancient sister, a mother of mysticism, Julian of Norwich, used the term "Mother Jesus." When our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, used this term at General Convention 2006 during her first sermon after having been elected, a fire storm of controversy broke out.

Indeed, three days after this sermon, the rector and vestry of a major church in Texas voted to leave The Episcopal Church, claiming that this, THIS, was the 'last straw.'

I think the Lambeth Conference makes it infinitely clear that while patriarchy is far from dead, the feminization of the church has not only begun, it is making its indelible mark on the church-as-institution.

The Sisterhood of Mothers has awakened from a millennia of slumber to rouse Mother Church into full acceptance of the diversity of God's whole creation which God has declared from the beginning as "good."

Despite the ABC's insistence of a moratoria, the establishment of greater intimacy in relationships among the bishops attending Lambeth will make it more difficult for the incursions of other bishops into other dioceses to continue in the way AMiA, GAFCCON and the ACN have done in the past.

Likewise, it will make it difficult for the North American and (oh, by the way Church of England and other Western European Churches) to ignore and withhold blessing the intimacy of committed LGBT relationships which they have blessed in the past.

While it will 'strain the bonds of affection' which have been strengthened and nourished during Lambeth, when these same dioceses continue to bless the covenants LGBT people make or to consecrate LGBT priests who have been duly elected to the episcopacy, I do believe the call to intimacy which has brought bishops who have 'once been strangers but now are friends' will prevail over the desire for institutional unity.

Indeed, I do believe that we have entered into a time of unofficial but nonetheless de facto 'Reception' the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments and sacramental rites.

And, that gives me hope that was, heretofore, unimaginable to me.

Some of you will dismiss these words as those of a woman who is still in the throes of grief. And, you would be correct about my emotional and spiritual status.

Others of you will worry that I've gone right round the bend and over the side, into The Abyss. Not to worry. I'm right where I need to be: in the process of healing from loss and trying to make sense of it all.

As my brother Mad Priest is of't want to say, "Of course, I could be wrong."

I only know this much to be true: The Realm of God is made of such intimacy in relationships. The church is charged in its mission from Christ Jesus to usher the Realm of God into the reality of our present lives.

My mother now lives in the fullness of this reality for eternity. Thanks be to God.

I have come to believe that the Anglican Communion is in the birth process and the Sisterhood of Mothers are become her midwives, gently guiding us on the path where we might find our way into the mission of Christ; for it is there we may be more intimately and relationally one despite the status of our institutional unity.

Thanks be to God.


Bill said...

Glad your back safe and sound. And writing! I'm convinced that this type of writing is the best therapy.

Organ Builder said...

I've been on the road a bit, so I just realized your mother had passed. I comment very rarely, but always enjoy your blog.

As someone who has lost both parents (to old age) I know it is hard. Please accept my condolences and my sympathies.

When my mother passed (my last surviving parent) I had the vertiginous sense of the passing of generations. There was no one left in whose eyes I would be forever young... There was more than just the simple grief of my mother's passing.

I know there are a thousand emotions ahead of you-some of which will be hard to name. You are in my prayers.


Jane R said...

Thank you. Your powerful words leave me silent and gratefully pondering.

June Butler said...

Some of you will dismiss these words as those of a woman who is still in the throes of grief.

Dear Elizabeth, dismiss your words? Indeed not! Throes of grief or not, these are excellent words. From what I have read of the events at Lambeth, I believe that true listening and hearing took place there, and that many will return to their homelands changed because of the deep listening to the words spoken by their brothers and sisters.

I rejoice with you that Lydia now sees God, no longer through a glass darkly, but face to face, and that she is enfolded in and transformed by the healing love of God.

May God bless, comfort, console, and heal you and your family. May the peace of God that passes understanding keep your minds and hearts in Christ Jesus.


Brother David said...

Mother Elizabeth, I am concerned about the story that you are reporting about the joint session of bishops and spouses regarding abuse.

Not one bishop who blogged about that session that I have read, which is many, has reported the story this way.

They report that a woman of Africa did question the reading and a few bishops supported her question, but that the question was answered and the session continued.

After the session, stewards report that during the first hour a little over 100 people had slipped away from the session - all men, but not one bishop blogger that I read reported it as a walk out in protest.

It was also reported that +Cathy Roskam was severely quoted out of context in the press when she was interviewed after the session and that she publicly apologized and explained what she had said the next time the bishops were all together in session again.

I am not convinced that this event occurred this way and feel you may be promoting a falsehood regarding it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David, I appreciate your concern. I assure you that I spoke with two different people who were in the room at two separate times, and this was the story they told me. There are many reasons why a bishop would not have reported the story in this way. If you know me at all you would know that if I thought there was even a hint of a possibility of promoting a falsehood, I never would have repeated the story.

J. Michael Povey said...

My dear and beloved sister and mentor.

Lord! How I pray that you are right.

Of course, childbirth can be painful/joyful.

Of course the old Fart Bishops will take the Lambeth conversations as law.

But I take heart from your words, and long that your hope will be fulfilled.

My own dear Mother (a tyrant and a joy) died 5 years ago at aged 89,
and I still miss her like hell.


Michael Povey

Cameron Partridge said...

Amen, sister.