Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Was Not Angry Since I Left Wisconsin

Crusty Old Dean will be unveiling his Lenten discipline shortly, which means major changes for the blog. Fear not, though, COD is not going silent for Lent, is not taking any kind of respite or hiatus. If anything, he plans on being crustier, but bringing the crust in a different way -- kind of like when you go to Canada and everything seems the same but not quite the same.

However, COD will be postponing the unveiling of the new COD for another day or two. Believe it or not, COD found himself recently speechless. Yes, it happens rarely. But imagine what it must take to render COD speechless!

Backstory: COD spent the last 5 1/2 years in the great state is Wisconsin. The diocese has been dealing with a difficult situation where a church, St Edmund's, joined with a schismatic Anglican group and attempted to leave the diocese, while keeping its property. Eventually, they lost their legal case all nearly all these groups do, and recently vacated the building.

But not without writing before leaving, apparently in charcoal, several Hebrew letters on the stone altar, which could be translated as "No Glory" or "The Glory of God has departed." (Hebrew is not like a Western language and does not have similar tenses or grammatical constructions, so this kind of ambiguity is possible.) They also left the sanctuary lamp - the red lamp often hanging in a church lit to indicate the Sacrament is reserved - upside down on the altar, meaning, in a literal sense, that the sacrament is not reserved at that very moment. Or, in a broader sense, meaning Christ is not present there. The outgoing rector claimed this had nothing to do with making any kind of statement to the diocese when it took over the property again, but was part of the closure and leave-taking the congregation needed to do. Which, of course, is complete and utter nonsense. If it has nothing to do with diocese, then why not clean up the property after you leave it? It has everything to do with sending a message to those they consider apostates and impure.

Crusty Old Dean's fellow priest of the diocese of Milwaukee, Fr David Simmons, wrote about this at his blog, which can be found here, including actual photos of the graffiti left behind.

At this point, COD would have assumed there were few things could possibly leave COD speechless. And he has seen some crazy stuff in the nearly 20 years spent as a lay and ordained professional in the church -- death threats, sexual harassment, financial misconduct, you name it -- but this is something else. One group of Christians defacing a place of worship and indicating that God was no longer present after they had left.

And all of this, ostensibly, over the question as to whether gay and lesbian persons are capable of being Christians. I should say I think this is the case, because it's not as if Wisconsin is the West Hollywood of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Steven Miller is not on the liberal wing of the church; partnered gay and lesbian persons may not be ordained in the diocese of Milwaukee and clergy may not preside at same sex blessings. So their beef, apparently, is largely with a church that tolerates inclusion anywhere, a sort of bizarro re-interpretation of Dr King's words that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere. Apparently, for the true Christians of the ex-St Edmund's, tolerating a gay Christian anywhere is a threat to "real" Christians everywhere.

The whole incident reminded COD of something I have long sought to forget, something which will haunt me, probably, all of my years (once again, breaking character and using first person shows COD being serious). Several years ago I agreed to help out a Lutheran colleague of mine and serve on very short notice as part-time interim pastor of two yoked Lutheran churches in a small Wisconsin town. They had had a pastor on a term contract, and a week earlier had voted on whether to call the person whom they had had on contract as a settled pastor. This was a two-point parish, it had two different congregations worshipping in two different churches about 10 miles apart, a relic from the days before cars when there would be a church for the townfolk and a church for the farmers. One congregation voted to call the pastor permanently; the second narrowly, by a handful of votes, voted not to call the person.

The pastor resigned, and my friend asked me to come in and serve as interim pastor on short notice. I agreed, wanting to help him out of a jam, and arrived the Sunday after this vote was taken.

While at this congregation, I began to notice that the situation on calling the pastor was part of a much deeper conflict, years in the making. A previous pastor had walked out, taking 2/3rds of the people with him, and founded an independent Lutheran church a mile down the road. The ostensible reason was that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tolerated homosexuality, which was an abomination in the eyes of God, even though, of course, the official policy of the ELCA at that time was that partnered gay and lesbian persons could not be ordained. Again, toleration anywhere is a threat to purity everywhere.

If only it were that. If only the story ended there and these hatemongers were able to create their pure fantasy ecclesial dystopia. But no. I was preparing for first communion class, as part of my duties as pastor, and to help in my preparation looked over the file which contained previous years of first communion curricula. This was a Lutheran church which practiced the usually Catholic practice of having children aged 7-8 be instructed in what communion is before receiving it. Children, mind, you, 7-8 years old. As part of this, in a previous year, the pastor before me had asked the children to describe what communion meant to them on a sheet of paper -- they could write something, or draw, or do anything they'd like.

One of the sheets of paper had the following words on it, written in a clumsy child's hand, in the space to describe their understanding of communion: "God is not here."

I was confused by this, wondering if it was in the wrong place, if this was really some other kind of project which was misfiled. So I showed it to the parish secretary and asked her if she knew what it was about. She got visibly upset -- tears started to form in here eyes -- as she told me, "The pastor who left told all the children in Sunday school before he left that those who remained here were not Christians because we would not go with them, because we tolerated what was evil in God eyes. And he told them all to come to Sunday school one last time and tell us that."

This is one of the few times in my life I ever wanted physically to hurt someone in the church. I wanted to find that pastor, so outraged was I at him peddling his hatred in such a manner. He was nowhere to be found, of course -- being the true coward that he was, he retired a year after splitting the congregation and founding the breakaway parish and moved away, but not after helping to destroy a community.

I suppose the truly sad thing is that I was not terribly surprised to hear what the people at St Edmund's had done, desecrating their house of worship simply because they could not have it. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Solomon and two women who came to him with a living child and a dead child. Both claimed the living child. One woman claimed the other's baby had died and she had switched the living with the dead child; the other woman denied it. Solomon told his guards to cut the living baby in half with a sword, giving one half to each. One woman agreed; the second said no, give the child to the other woman -- and by doing so proved herself the child's mother, since she would rather see the child be given away than hurt. I was also reminded of the scene in Henry V, when the French slaughter the young teenage pages in the English army out of fury and spite that they have lost the battle, prompting Henry to shout, "I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant!"

All too often people can act like that mother who would rather both children dead, so twisted and warped as she was by grief at the loss of her own child.

Unable to accept a world that does not think exactly as they do, the people of St Edmund's not only ripped a community apart, but defaced the house of God that they considered themselves to be the rightful owners and stewards of. A sad testimony to what grief, hatred, and insularity can do.

I'd like to add I don't think all conservatively theological persons in the church are small-minded hatemongers -- far from it, I have met plenty of faithful, committed, and thoughtful persons who would probably be considered conservative theologically. And I have told several of them personally that the continued refusal or reluctance or cowardice to call out and denounce the actions of the reactionaries among them only serves to de-legitimize them as well. Crusty Old Dean personally refuses categories of liberal or conservative -- I am surprisingly liberal on some things and conservative on others -- and has little patience for those are willing to claim those who disagree with them are not "real" Christians or Episcopalians or Jews or whatever.

Crusty Old Dean is preaching today. It's Ash Wednesday, something I've celebrated my entire life, since there never really was a time I didn't go to church. I've preached on Ash Wednesday about 10 times in the past 15 years. It's hard to find a fresh perspective sometimes on readings which are so familiar. My sermon this year is on the reading from the prophet Joel. It would seem Joel doesn't have good news to announce -- the day of the Lord is coming, full of darkness and gloom and blackness, a day unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Yet in the midst of that there is hope: It is not too late, even now, to return to the God who is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.

Even now, it is not too late, as much of Christianity careens towards irrelevancy, throttled by its structure, accommodated to the class and racial caste systems of society, reflecting the petty bigotry of its cultures: even now, it is not too late, Joel tells us. May it be so.

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