Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sexual Mote in Our Eye

Crusty Old Dean spent the last ten years working in ecumenical relations: first as assistant ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, and later as ecumenical officer. Part of my duties involved relations with the Roman Catholic Church. These got tense in 2002, when the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to break in the American Church. I got some feedback from people in the church, and from other ecumenical partners, along the line of: "How can we remain in dialogue with a church that has been so cavalier about its call to protect young persons from sexual misconduct?"

I usually came up with a couple of excuses why. But I never offered what I felt was the most important reason: Because every church, including the Episcopal Church, has failed repeatedly to discipline those who abuse power and commit sexual misconduct. We need to get the sexual log out of eyes.

Case in point: the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has "restricted" (what would have been "inhibited" under the pre-2009 revision of clergy misconduct canons) the ministry of the retired bishop of Olympia: Nearly ten years after telling his diocesan convention he was divorcing his wife (and remarrying shortly after the divorce was final), and nearly five years after retiring as bishop, this judgment was rendered based on allegations of "recurrent marital infidelity" (whether with his current or former wife, I don't know) passed on to the Presiding Bishop by the current bishop of Olympia.

One of the most shameful secrets in the Episcopal Church the past thirty years is the continued, recurrent, and systematic efforts to sweep sexual misconduct by clergy under the table.

Bishop Ed Browning, almost uniformly lauded as the PB who declared "no outcasts," apparently included sexual predators in that mantra. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Bishop Donald Davis, retired bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, were brought to the PB in 1994. The authorities were not contacted. Nothing was made public. Bishop Davis was asked to "resign" from the House of Bishops, seek counseling, and refrain from episcopal actions. This sexual abuse apparently involved abuse of minors. Yet the (justifiable) scorn heaped upon Roman Catholic bishops has done nothing to remove most of the luster from Bishop Browning's reputation.

Bishop Richard Grein of New York falsely accused a priest of financial misconduct, removed her from her post, placed the woman he was having an affair with in her place, divorced his wife, and married the woman he had appointed. A settlement later reached with the diocese of New York paid a financial settlement and agreed to remove any paperwork from the priest's file that had to do with financial misconduct, essentially admitting the charges were not valid. Three ecclesial charges were filed against Bishop Grein but no disciplinary action was ever taken.

As part of my work for 815, I met a lot of people and knew a lot of bishops. Bishop Warner's sexual indiscretions were one of the worst kept secrets in the church. Neither are the whispers of indiscretions here and there about others.

The real new story here is what Bishop Warner must have done to warrant breaking the code of silence.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

Crusty Old Dean has been busy this week. This has been a blessing, because it has distracted me from the epic collapse of my beloved Boston Red Sox -- and I mean epic. Crusty Old Dean is a big fan of Nate Silver from the NYTimes blog, and the master of statistics calculated the Sox' collapse as a 1 in 278,000,000 possibility.

C.O.D. (Crusty Old Dean tires of typing Crusty Old Dean, being self-referential is wearying, except, it seems, for Rickey Henderson) has been busy with the seminary's annual alumni gathering this week. As part of this, noted scholar of religion Diana Butler Bass is on campus. She's giving endowed lectures at our partner school, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, on September 29. On September 28, we had scheduled some time for her with our Bexley hall alumni and students. C.O.D. and the planners were scratching our heads at how to structure this time: we didn't want her to rehash the lectures she would be giving the other day, so what to do?

In the end the organizers decided to have a conversation between COD (who is now going English style and leaving out periods in abbreviations) and DBB (since typing Diana Butler Bass will also be increasingly wearying since it will appear with increasing frequency as this post goes on). COD confesses to feeling a bit like James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio: it was just COD and DBB on the platform, no table, sitting in two chairs, talking back and forth the first 45 minutes.

COD find himself pondering one of DBB's comments, which is in turn one of the main foci of her forthcoming book, "Christianity after Religion: The End of the Church and the birth of a New Spiritual Awakening." As its subtitle indicates, in this work DBB seriously explores the possibility that the church, as it currently exists, will eventually cease to be.
And COD found himself strangely untroubled by that. A couple of reasons, I guess.

--I think that the Church of of Christendom needs to die. For 1500 years Christianity in various ways, shapes, and forms was seen to be coterminous with western culture. At times, this was as a state-sponsored religion, in a variety of places to a variety of forms. At other times, by attempting to assert a kind of moral or cultural hegemony in place of formal establishment (for example the United States). In COD's opinion, this has been a perversion of the gospel, an idolatrous lust for power and hegemony, and I am glad to see it die.

--Christendom has also warped the entire sense of what it means to be a Christian. While we lament the lack of spiritual vitality and authenticity in many of the churches, the reality is that a good portion of Western Christianity has reduced the clergy to being chaplains to the small group of people who venture through the doors of a church. We have turned our call to transform the world into a Ponzi scheme for getting people to serve on committees. We have made the life of faith into paying a weekly premium on one's divine insurance policy. So many of our institutions, from the parish church to the concept of what clergy should do to our denominations themselves are in need of a thorough re-imagining, or they will simply eventually cease to exist because they no longer have any reason to be.

At one point during Q&A yesterday DBB talked about how at times she felt she knew what it was like living in the last days of the Roman Empire, given the gloom pervading many political and religious systems at this time. COD replied, "The Roman Empire falling was the best thing that happened to it. The Empire was unsustainable, had been for hundreds of years, and the collapse allowed the best things about the empire to continue while jettisoning that which was draining and unsustainable."

--COD was untroubled by the concept of "the end of the church" because it won't happen. The church has been through cataclysmic catastrophe and re-ordering: in the first decades following Jesus' death, pummeled in various places by Muslim invasions, Mongol invasions, Communist persecution (the Orthodox Church was persecuted to the brink of extinction by Stalin; Christianity was nearly expunged by Mao; both places are seeing phenomenal revivals in Christianity); devastated by the near collapse of society in the 14th century in the West. Drawing the circle more narrowly, the Episcopal Church in the 1780s and 1790s came very close to either a) not existing, or b) existing in a form that would be nearly unrecognizable. It won't happen because there will be a remnant of the church which will change and adapt to the new circumstances.

That's the good news: the church won't die. The bad news: there's a good chance about 80-90 percent of it will die, just not all of it.

Collapse, Christendom! May your corrupt and rotten hull sink beneath the waves.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September's Coming Soon

Crusty Old Dean interrupted his curmudgeonly grumblings to notice that REM had called it quits after 31 years. It immediately brought to mind one of C.O.D.’s fondest memories, seeing Wilco open for REM at the Hollywood Bowl on a beautiful, clear southern California night. Somebody dressed up at Tony Clifton (rumor spread through the crowd that it was Jim Carrey) and sang along during Man on the Moon, eventually dumping a cup of water over Michael Stipe in a piece of choreographed conflict that would have made Andy proud.

But unlike, say, the breakup of the Fat Boys, this one is sticking with Crusty Old Dean, making me ponder why. Couple of thoughts come to mind.

--They are attached to my youth. I was 14 when I first listened to Murmur, 15 when I snuck out after lights-out at my all-boys boarding school to slip into the TV room in the basement to watch them on Letterman at 1:30 in the morning.

--They just sounded so different: as one of the first generations to have musical taste shaped by MTV, REM helped to shatter the segregated pop music that MTV played from 1981-1984 (admittedly Prince and Michael Jackson helped shatter the segregated part, REM the pop part). Up until REM, music for me was Billy Joel, Blondie, and whatever I heard on local radio or MTV. In a post-Nirvana world drenched with alt rock, roots music, and any number of sub-genres, it’s hard to imagine just how different REM sounded. Mumbling, complex lyrics without a lyric sheet, the jangling Byrds-esque guitar (though I hadn’t yet listened to the Byrds), spare but driving bass-and-drum lines in a world of synthesized drum machines.

--They created community. In the days before the internet, you sometimes thought you were alone or the only one who liked a certain thing. You eventually found the guys at school who eschewed pop and hair metal and were into REM and the Psychedelic Furs and found out from them there was a college nearby which had a stationed that had a guy who had a show on Saturday mornings where he played Husker Du records and you’d tape the show and pass it back and forth.

--In their own way, there were a voice for a generation. There’s lots written about how Gen X and the Millennial generation have different view on faith (spiritual but not religious), community, institutions, and organizations. Some of their most haunting songs are about alienation and separation, and utter despair about how to make sense of that (e.g.: Losing My Religion; Texarkana; Half a World Away; What's the Frequency, Kenneth; nearly all of Automatic For the People, and so on). Gen Xers and Millennials are now adults, some of us even middle aged, facing all the same problems others face but without the same array of institutions to help us make sense of them.

I just received a report from the Department of Education telling me I need to file a certain report. I have no idea what the acronym of the report is. Crusty Old Dean is on the case.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Have You No Shame, IRD?

File this under: I know I shouldn't, but...

Apparently the Institute on Religion and Democracy can't pass up an opportunity to keep repeating their particular narrative: liberal=decline. Never mind growth is stagnant, if not falling, in some conservative Protestant denominations and many of the "orthodox" Episcopal dioceses also experienced flat if not stagnant growth. That doesn't matter, because in efforts to instill this narrative, whenever decline occurs in a "mainline" church is it inexorably linked to supposed liberal revisions, whereas declined in "orthodox" institutions always has some kind of secondary reason.

What causes me to bother with IRD are two things:

1) one is the numerous historical errors in this piece, which Crusty Old Dean would gladly enumerate should the demand emerge -- it's OK because I know nobody will ask for them, I have no illusions that anybody reads this. I blog mainly to spare my wife my rantings. OK, one example: the diocese of Pittsburgh was not always an arch-conservative enclave; the diocese of PIttsburgh of Walter Righter's early years was, jn many ways, different from its current incarnation; the author simplistically and glibly draws direct parallels to it as a bastion of conservatism).

2) the fact that they are using someone's death as yet another platform in their endless efforts to repeat their version of history so many times we'll eventually assume it's historical fact because it comes up on google?

I don't deny the essential issues at stake -- that many religious institutions have huge challenges in terms of membership issues. The dynamics of growth & decline are, however, far more complex than the claptrap IRD peddles. And Walter Righter's life was complex as well, and he deserves more than this.

Special GC the Third!

The new Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Stacy Sauls, gave a presentation to the House of Bishops calling for a substantive discussion on how to refocus our structure in order to better our mission work. Here's a link:

To that I say: thank God!

Full disclosure: I served on the staff of the Church Center from 2001-2011, first as Associate Deputy for Ecumenical Relations (2001-2009), then Interim Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (2010), then as Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer.

OK, back to previous comment: thank God! I distinctly remember the last day of General Convention 2006. Up to that point I considered General Convention an annoyance, recalling to mind Churchill's comments about democracy. Yeah, Convention wasn't great, but it beat a lot of other forms of polity. That last day in Columbus, though, I realized that GC was not just an annoyance, but actually destructive to life of our church. I may expand on this more later, but suffice to say leaving contentious issues to simmer for three years (with occasional input by Executive Council and HOB) and then be processed through a labyrinthine legislative procedure a healthy system produce does not.

I teach church history, and part of the equation is in our DNA: some of the core aspects of the Episcopal Church's polity was laid out in 1789. No judiciary or other mechanism to address or interpret complex questions was laid out (unlike some of our ecumenical partners, for instance). No chief executive was imagined. All we got was a legislative structure, designed for a handful of dioceses on the East Coast, meeting every three years and designed for slow, deliberate processes of change (voting by orders, consecutive Conventions to amend Constitution, etc.). The history of the Episcopal Church on the denominational level is the slow, gradual, at times haphazard tinkering and layering upon the 1789 framework (prime example: the development of the office of PB). And for good measure throw in a vision for decentralization and leaving dioceses tremendous latitude.

My only fear is that it is too late, and we should have been having these conversations a decade ago.

On the plus side, we might actually have a productive Special General Convention. We had one I bet nobody could name (1821, in part to deal with a bequest) and one that only people currently in their 60s and 70s could have attended (the contentious 1969 Special GC).