Crusty Old Dean has noticed with interest some of the folderol surrounding who, apparently, may speak to whom in what capacity. This week has seen dueling emails from the Office of Communications of the Church Center, claiming that the President and Secretary of the House of Deputies declined to forward a request from the Presiding Bishop to send a link of a video message from her to their email list. This was followed, in succession, with the President of the House of Deputies expressing dismay that her action would be interpreted in such a way, further pondering precedent for the Presiding Bishop addressing clerical and lay deputies.
This was set against the backdrop of dueling budgetary and financial proposals: one, endorsed by the Presiding Bishop, calling for 19 percent in diocesan asking and budgetary cuts roughly equivalent to 9 staff positions – and another, endorsed by the PHOD, calling for 15 percent diocesan asking and resulting in perhaps 36 staff cuts.
As COD continually notes, (trust me, Crusty Old Dean’s Wife wearies of his pedantic repetition) it bears repeating that we are not only dealing with individuals and current circumstances, but systemic issues. The House of Bishops and House of Deputies have oft treated one another like vampires, to be kept at bay and not permitted entrance unless specifically invited and permitted so to do. COD spent several General Conventions as wrangler for ecumenical guests, everyone from Buddhist monks to Mar Thoma bishops. At one convention, a Roman Catholic bishop saw a former Episcopal priest colleague at a nearby deputation and made to walk from the ecumenical visitors section to say hello. A green-smocked page and COD pounced on the bishop at the same time and COD said, “No one who is not an accredited deputy can enter the floor of the House of Deputies without authorization.” Indeed, the ecumenical duck walk at each Convention had to be authorized in both Houses by adoption of a special order of the day. Joint sessions of the Houses must be adopted by both parties, as must a member of one House to address another. Parliamentary protocol, to be sure, but also part of the DNA of a church one might argue begrudgingly accepted bishops in the 1780s (Crusty Old Dean is up to his elbows in writing a book on the history of the Episcopal Church from 1782-1811; if you need to know why those dates are chosen, read a book on Episcopal Church history) – willing to accept episcopacy, albeit a certain understanding of episcopacy. A novel, daring, and revolutionary understanding of episcopacy and one COD supports wholeheartedly, always exercised in concert with clerical and lay authority. It is our genius and our gift to the church catholic, but its Jungian dark side is a suspicion of episcopal authority, at times clerical authority, that has bubbled here and there in the undercurrent of the Episcopal Church.
But back to the narrative of the past week. Is this what we have come to? Are the parameters of the debate to be defined by some real, purported, or imagined kerfuffle between the PHOD and PB? COD laments that his Irish grandmother’s phrase, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” would be deemed sexist given the gender of both presiding officers because yea verily, knickers are twisted all over.
Is this what we shall discuss at the expense of other, more pressing, and more existential, concerns?
Let us list the problems: a denominational health plan causing great anxiety; 23% reduction in average Sunday attendance in a decade; 58% parishes eliminating or reducing a clergy position, not to mention the overwhelmingly white and elderly demographic of our church against a country that is increasingly religiously and culturally pluralistic. Note: sadly, list is not meant to be exhaustive or inclusive. Faced with another kairos moment similar to that of the 1780s-1820s, when the very existence of our expression of Christianity is in doubt, is this really what we are discussing? What Bonnie and Katharine are saying or not saying to one another?
Disclaimer: Crusty Old Dean has met the PHOD and PB on numerous occasions. COD finds them both to be fine and faithful Episcopalians, truly remarkable persons. It should be clear from COD’s tag line “Let the dead bury their own dead” that COD does not take well to taking sides and rather calls on the church to abandon our pointless partisanship so that we may always be in service of the Gospel. COD is not taking one side or another. Both are at fault, and both need to be part of any way forward.
Crusty Old Dean’s former boss, Frank Griswold, once spoke to beware of “Elijah moments.” He was referring to the time that Elijah fled and sought God face to face. God asked, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah replied Ahab andJezebel sought his life, all had fallen away, and he, only he, was faithful. God asked again, Elijah, what are you doing here? Elijah once more noted his own faithfulness over and against the faithlessness of others. God sternly commanded Elijah to return to do the work he has been charged with, further noting that there were seven thousands others who had not bent the knee to the false God Ba’al. The rebuke here is clear: You are not the only faithful one. Get back and do what I told you to do.
Bishop Griswold spoke of these “Elijah moments” as something we should always be on guard against, seeing them as an opportunity to reflect on our own state of being. We always need to be on guard against thinking that we alone have things right. Instead we should focus not on our own assuredness in our being right, but rather always on what God is calling us to do.
At times COD wonders if we are not at an Elijah moment as a church. Are we going to focus solely on our own individual perceived righteousness and rightness, or that of our particular clique, at the expense of the broader systemic changes that are buffeting us?
Because, like Elijah, the reality is we are all at fault. Despite her dismay that the PB might address deputies, President Anderson has indeed communicated directly to the House of Bishops; giving but one example, an open letter calling on them to discipline one of their own, Charles Bennison – a matter of the House of Bishops on the fact of our polity but one which she felt called, as a President of the House of Deputies, to speak directly to another House. And while it is true in terms of polity that only bishops may call Special Conventions, was it not at best impolitic or at worse denigrating to our baptismal ecclesiology and conferential polity to have the House of Bishops be the first body publicly to discuss a Special General Convention? Could there not have been a way to honor polity but also broaden the discussion?
Our Houses shall rise and fall together, Deputies and Bishops. Groundless or self-serving suspicion, enmity, and characterization of one another from within our Elijah caves on our own Mt Horebs, at the expense of a world so in need of the Gospel that we preach, saddens me to the core. (And you know how serious COD is when he drops his third person snark for first person.)
We risk moving from the Bible to the Bard, as COD is tempted to cry out, at best, like Mercutio,
“A plague a’ both your houses! I am sped. Is he gone and hath nothing?”
or, at worst, letting Oswald from King Lear provide the Episcopal Church’s epitaph:
"O untimely death!"