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Thursday, April 22, 2021

A Birthday Reflection

About six years ago, Louie Crew Clay sent me this picture for my birthday (April 21). That's me at General Convention 2006 speaking at the microphone for or against a particular resolution.

I was only first in line because Louie had been watching the proceedings and about 20 seconds before he knew things would commence, motioned for me to run to the microphone.

It takes all sorts of mad skills to be a leader in the church.

Louie said I was his "bodyguard and spiritguard". I earned those titles when Louie and I were traveling around the country - well, Louie was 'traveling' and dragging me along with him - trying to do whatever we could to "Stop the Schism" in something we called "The New Commandment Task Force".

I didn't think we had a prayer of stopping the inevitable departure of those who would not - could not - imagine a church with people like Louie and me in it.

I am remembering a General Convention - it was in the early 2000s, they all start to blur together after awhile - when David Anderson, a priest from Newport Beach, CA who was then President and Executive Director of the ACNA, one of the Anglican dissident groups and later a bishop in it, who came up to Michael Hopkins, then President of Integrity and said, "You guys really mean it, don't you? You're not leaving the church, are you?"

Michael smiled that lovely, gracious smile of his and said, "Of course not." By which he meant it as a blessed assurance. Which David, of course, heard as an evil threat. I knew in that very moment that "they" would leave but not without first building the case that it was because "we" were not leaving and the rest of the church was not going to force us out. (Where have we seen this dynamic before? More on this later.)

So, off we went, inviting ourselves into Episcopal churches all 'round the country, gathering up equal numbers of liberal/progressives, moderate/movable middle, and conservative/orthodox bishops, priests, deacons and laity, in a last-ditch effort to try to find some common ground, to draw the circle large enough so that we could all stay.

The 'orthodox' folks were not having any of it. After a while, I used to joke with Louie that after more than a year of talking and listening, we could probably write each other's scripts.

If he were around today, we'd probably both agree that these are the same people who are part of the political party known as MAGA, whose slogan is "America, love it or leave it" - by which they mean anyone who doesn't subscribe to their theocracy ought to leave. Well, at least in the church, we know how those kinds of ultimatums end.

It's all part of "the power of being victim". For many Christians with a certain understanding of how God works, martyrdom is proof positive of the conviction of your faith and belief.

I was remembering all of this last night when I got a wonderful surprise call from Jack Spong. He said, "I'm going to be 90 in two months. Can you imagine?"

To be honest, I can't imagine myself being my own age. Except for a few aches (but no pains) and some stiffness here and there when I first get out of bed in the morning, I'm in excellent health. I'm not fond of all the wrinkles but I've earned every last damn one of them.

My once 'blue black' hair is becoming grayer and grayer, but thanks to a healthier diet and preparing for pilgrimages, I still fit into the winter-white suit I wore 35 years ago at my priestly ordination and I'm planning another pilgrimage in Egypt ("The flight of the Holy Family" led by Sr. Joan Chittister) in October, God willing and the COVID positivity rate don't rise.

I did hear myself say to Jack, "You know, Barry Stopfel and I met for lunch a few weeks back and we both agreed that, as we look back over where the church was 40 years ago and where it is now, we could not imagine any of it having been possible without you."

And that is the absolute gospel truth. Jack loved and supported each one of us so we could respond to the call of the Spirit to serve the people of God through The Episcopal Church, each in our own unique, authentic vocational way.

I remembered one day when I was working as Jack's Canon Missioner, when I did something wrong. Or, said I was going to do something and then forgot. Or, something. Whatever it was, it wasn't catastrophic but it was enough that Jack called me up to his office. I stumbled and stammered my way through an explanation and an apology.

Jack looked at me and said, "Well, Elizabeth, my job as your bishop is to love you and support you enough to let you make the mistakes you need to make in order to be the best priest you know how to be."

I was astounded by his graciousness and generosity of spirit. That was the first. It wouldn't be the last.

That was not my experience of men in general, but especially men in the church. What Louie pointed out to me about this picture he took is that it's pretty emblematic of how both he and I and other .. "others" . . . mostly felt in the institutional church. Some of us still do, alas, and with good reason.

There's one man - the first one in line - who at least looks like he's listening to me. To no one's surprise, that man would later become a bishop in the church.

But the rest of the men are doing what lots - not all, certainly but lots - of men in the church do when they're waiting for their chance to speak: Posturing.

They did it pretty much without thinking. You don't have to when you possess assumed, unexamined privilege. And, at least at that time, that was about the ratio of ordained women to ordained men in the church. There really is power in numbers.

Both Louie and Jack knew that. They knew the odds women were/are up against. And, they made it their business to make sure that women like me got the love and support we needed in order to be the best priests we could possibly be.

And that, my friends, is how justice gets done. It does not assume that the person being oppressed has the responsibility to saw off their own shackles as they are teaching their oppressor how not to oppress. Rather, it is the ones who use their positions of power and authority to remove barriers and reverse the devastating effects of bias and prejudice.

"When you know better, you do better."

So, today, on this particular birthday celebration, I'm grateful for this picture Louie gave me years ago as a birthday present which reminds me of the way we were then and the way we are now. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to have been part of that journey, that movement to move the church "beyond inclusion' despite the professional and personal costs.

As the old hymn goes, I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now.

I'm deeply grateful for the clarity that opportunity has given my life. Clarity is such a rare gift in the institutional church. I have been blessed to have been in the company of so many amazing people - men and women, lay and ordained - who have had such clarity about the Gospel and their vocation to live it and preach it that they were willing to take costly risks required of 'obedience'. I'm deeply grateful for all of the fellow pilgrims I've met along the way on the road that leads to the line that forms to help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Not too long ago, I was in conversation with a fairly new male bishop in the church who asked my position on something and, after I gave it, sighed and said I was being "pretty strident". I was so glad we were on the phone and he couldn't see me smile.

Strident! He said strident! It had been a long time since I had heard that word or felt so highly complimented. I remember thinking, "Well, kiddo, you still got it."

When I answered the phone last night, I heard Jack say what he always said when he called me on Sunday afternoons, in between his morning parish visitation and afternoon visitation. "Elizabeth Kaeton," he would drawl, "have you preached the gospel of Jesus Christ today?"

And I heard myself say what I used to say to him, "Yes sir, with my whole heart and my whole mind and my whole body and my whole soul and my whole life."

"Atta girl," he said.

May it be so until I draw my last breath on this earth. I am so very grateful for all that has been and enormously excited about what is yet to come.

PS: I just this second noticed what is written on the far wall: Sandwiches. Ha! How absolutely apropos of that time in the church, and that moment at General Convention.


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