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Tuesday, July 31, 2012



  1. The formal rejection of something, typically a belief, claim, or course of action.
  2. A document expressing renunciation.
Renunciation is a very strong word.

I remember, as a child, being enthralled by the story of the Renunciation of St Francis after he heard God's voice commanding him to "Rebuild my church." Francis took the command literally to mean God wanted him to rebuild the dilapidated San Damiano, which is set on a slope outside the southeastern gate of Assisi in Italy.

In order to purchase the materials for the repairs, Francis sold some cloth from his father's shop without permission. The priest at San Damiano thought it best to inform Francis' father, who became enraged.

The legend goes that, on a winter day, Francis' father arranged for Francis to be called out into the town square in order to lambaste him. After this public humiliation, Francis said to his father something like this: "You are no longer my father. God is my father. I give you back my name, all of my earthly belongings, even the clothes on my back." With that, he removed all of his clothing.

Some accounts say he was wearing a basic loincloth underneath; some say he was wearing a hair shirt; still others say that he was naked.

The bishop of Assisi covered him with his cope and, after blessing him, Francis walked off barefoot into the snow to begin his life as a monk.

Even to the romantic mind of a young child, I knew that renunciation is serious spiritual stuff. When the nuns asked, I wondered if I would ever have the courage to "renounce all worldly goods" - renounce everything and everyone I had ever held dear - for the glory of God.

It seemed, even to my child's mind, that there had to be something - a few other steps - in between making God happy and renouncing everything that made you happy.

The other time I heard the word "renunciation" was when a priest was ordained or a nun was professed. They, like Francis, wore black as an outward and visible sign that they, too, had "renounced all worldly goods".

I also heard the word "renunciation" when the situation was reversed - when a priest or nun renounced their vows and left their orders and the convent, usually to get married.

Now, that I could very easily understand.  I mean, you can't be "married" to Jesus and married to someone else, right?

I understood it as a kind of "divorce" so you could remarry - except, of course, that divorce and remarriage was absolutely forbidden in the Roman Catholic Church of my youth.  I understand it is still frowned upon and that you have to go before a Tribunal to "annul" your previous marriage, which had to be determined to have been lacking in certain "essential elements" that were never there when your married.

It was as if the marriage never existed - which, my parents told me, meant that the children from that marriage were now considered "illegitimate". Bastards. How horrible is that? It served as a powerful deterrent to divorce. "What? You divorce so you can remarry? You gotta get an annulment and your children will be bastards? You want that for them? Stay married for the sake of the children!"

I don't know what the Roman Catholic Church does about that today, but I think the stigma lingers. I was approached just the other day by a Roman Catholic couple who asked me to marry them because, one of them was divorced and neither of them wanted an annulment because of "we would never do that to the children".

I think I prefer the active role of "renunciation of vows" than a passive, institutional pronouncement of an "annulment" - and, for Gods' sake, leave the kids out of it.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Basilique Assise,
Of course, priests and nuns who renounce their vows are 'defrocked' or 'laicized'. My aunts who were nuns and uncles who were priests told us of a ceremony they did in the church or convent.

Candles were lit representing each member of the community. Prayer were said and a statement written by the bishop was read and then the candle representing the person who was being 'defrocked' or 'laicized' was snuffed out.

Poof! Gone! Never happened. Never existed. Dead to us. The "essential elements" of your priesthood or religious life were (obviously) not there when you made your vows before God and the community, so you never really existed as a priest or nun.

Remain calm and carry on.

Oh, the mental gymnastics we perform in order to consider ourselves "right" - and, righteous!

I heard the word "renunciation" again a few weeks ago at General Convention regarding A030, which amend Canon III.7.8–10; Canon III.9.8–11; Canon III.12.7(a)–(c); Canon IV.16 for the removal of office of deacons, priests and bishops.

In the past, in The Episcopal Church, an ordained person most commonly renounced his or her vows after a civil or ecclesiastical court trial involving the "moral character" of the person. That was not always the case, of course. Some clergy simply found themselves on another path and couldn't reconcile their priesthood or their Christianity with where their lives were leading them.

Nevertheless, "renunciation of vows" has usually been closely associated with a "failure" of some sort.  Right or wrong, there has always been an inherent judgment associated with the word which is, at the very least, unpleasant.

Resolution A030 removed the word "renounce" from the canons and replaced it with an "expression, in writing, be released and removed from the ordained Ministry of this Church, and from the obligations attendant thereto, including those promises made at Ordination in the Declaration required by Article VIII of the Constitution of the General Convention....".

The back story of this resolution, as I understand it, has to do with all of the unpleasantness surrounding The Great Schism in The Episcopal Church. When bishops, priests and deacons began their Great Exodus to The Global South, they were required to renounce their vows. And, when they didn't, the Presiding Bishop declared that it was so.

Now, *normally* - and I use the word advisedly because schism is not *normal* - when a bishop, priest or deacon was called to another part of the vineyard in The Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion, all that was required was a "Letter Dimissory" from one bishop to another.

However, because the Boys from the Global South like Bena, Duncan, Iker, et. al, wanted it both ways - to have episcopal authority in The Episcopal Church while at the same time building a new 'parallel' church that was more 'orthodox' and 'pure' (read: no girl or LGBT cooties) - that, by necessity, had to change.

As I say, renunciation is a very powerful word. Howls were heard all around the communion. The Presiding Bishop has a "scorched-earth approach to her opponents in TEC". She's a horror and a bully and a witch with a capitol "B".

No, boys. She's smart. Very smart. Smarter than you think she is and, in fact, smarter than you.

I know. The truth hurts, But there it is.

What does hurt, however, is when good priests, exemplary clergy, are now called to serve in another part of the Lord's vineyard in the Anglican Communion, a Letter Dimissory will no longer suffice. What's sauce for the "orthodox" goose is sauce for the "liberal" gander.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 – 11 January 1494)
So, these good, exemplary, faithful clergy were made to "renounce" their vows in The Episcopal Church in order to work in other parts of the Anglican Communion not associated with The Great Schism. Like, Canada and England and France and....well, you get the picture - anywhere but the Global South where "orthodoxy" reigns supreme.

So, we changed the wording of the canons.

Renunciation is a very powerful word.

I personally think that when you are part of schism in the church, renunciation of vows is entirely appropriate. Indeed, I think it's noble and honorable and has tons of integrity. However, this leaves even the schismatics off the hook of association with judgment or moral failure or character flaw.

I still think there's got to be something in between making God happy and giving up everything that makes you happy, stripping you bare naked in the middle of winter in the middle of the town.

In the story of St. Francis, after he takes off all his clothes, the bishop puts his cape around Francis. I was always - still am - deeply touched by that image. I maybe missing something in the subtly of the legal language, but perhaps the change in canons is an attempt to do "cover the shame" and blunt the judgment of those whose journey in faith leads them to another path in another part of the Vineyard.

It's not as gentle and kind as a Letter Dimissory but not as awful and an Annulment of Marriage or the Defrocking or Laicizing of Clergy.  No bastard children and no candles snuffed out as you leave, as if you never existed.

It's a little coverage to the spiritual and emotional nakedness experienced when you walk barefoot in the snow to a new part of the Vineyard.

Sometimes, the institutional church, for all of her foolishness and penchant for mediocrity, does some good things. This, I think, was one of them.


marthe said...

The trend toward schism parallels the polarization in politics because both are systems based in a reliance on "command and control" of the social order rather than on the realities of faith and individualism (respectively) ... The Church struggles when it is a means of social control rather than response to God; democracy fails when it serves the elite rather than the people. Sadly, both are currently reliant on a patriarchal model that is essentially flawed and those who see that flaw flee the sanctuary, flee the political parties, and sometimes "do their own thing" in equally flawed cults and conspiracy driven splinter groups ... all of which manage to devalue life in their own ways ... not what any god worth knowing had in mind in creating - the creating being what we best imitate, not any particular "image".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Marthe. I especially enjoyed the parallel you articulate between religion and politics.