Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cuba Libre


The expression Cuba libre ("free Cuba") began life, according to most accounts, as a political expletive at the time of what Americans call the Spanish-American War (1898) and Cubans remember as the occasion of their independence from Spain. Of course, it is best known now as the name of a cocktail featuring rum, cola, and lime juice. My recent five nights and part or all of six days in Cuba, however, afford me a perspective in which "Cuba" and "free" dance with one another in some interesting ways. What I share below is mostly straight travelogue, interspersed, I hope, with some of my personal observations and reflections, with some summaries thereof at the end.

First, the background: Bishops in the Episcopal Church are grouped into "classes," defined by the year of their election and identified by the year following. Hence, I am in the Class of 2011, which consists of twelve bishops who were all elected in 2010. We all attended three five-day annual residencies sponsored by the College for Bishops, known as Living Our Vows. Several bishops from other Anglican provinces often attend this program as well--most often Canada--and, in our case, we were joined by the Bishop of Cuba, Griselda Delgado. The Diocese of Cuba was, for most of its history (well over a century) part of TEC. When the revolution came in 1959, with the ensuing restrictions on travel and fund transfers, it became impractical to continue the relationship, and the diocese entered extra-provincial status within the Anglican Communion, with primatial oversight provided by a panel of archbishops.) When we completed the three-year Living Our Vows program, the Class of 2011 bishops decided to try and continue getting together annually for continuing education purposes. Last year, we met in Albuquerque, home of one of our number. In the meantime, Bishop Griselda invited us to visit Cuba, and we decided to take her up on her offer. A parish in the Diocese of Wyoming (whose bishop is one of us) has had en established partnership with a parish in Cuba, so there were resources who knew what levers had to be pulled to get us religious visitor visas (this was underway well before the recent thaw in relations between our two countries). So, on Easter Monday, April 6, we all made our way to Miami in anticipation of our departure for Havana the following day.


Tuesday, April 7

I took the 9am shuttle from the Hampton Inn to Miami International and arrived well ahead of our appointed 10am rendezvous in the G Concourse of the North Terminal. A couple of my colleagues were already waiting there, and others straggled in, the last one being the most critical, because he was hand-carrying the copies of the visas each of us would need to be able to board our flight to Havana. We were met by a representative of Cuba Tours, the agency that arranged our trip, who shepherded us through the check-in process of the charter airline Gulfstream, which apparently does business with another charter airline called World Atlantic, which was the livery on our actual aircraft. First we had to hand over our passports, wait around, queue up to check our bags, wait around some more, queue up again to pay a baggage handling fee, wait around some more, and finally proceed to the TSA screening area. Never has there been so much red tape and bureaucracy for such a short flight. Once inside the gate area, we were able to grab something to eat, which was a welcome opportunity. The boarding process was just as inefficient as the check-in process, and by the time we pushed back, it was about 45 minutes past our scheduled 1pm departure. The aircraft was an MD80, and ... let's just say ... it was not a recent addition to anyone's fleet. But, once airborne, the flight was mercifully short, maybe 45 minutes, including taxi time at both ends. It occurred to me that the distance between Miami and Havana is shorter than that between Springfield and Chicago. 

Flights arriving from the U.S. and a handful of other places are directed to a separate terminal at Jose Marti International Airport. Passport control and customs went smoothly, with another representative of the tour company on hand to present us with our actual visas. It was evident immediately that we were in a third world country. The wait at the baggage carousel was inordinately long. Once outside, we were met by our guide and companion for our entire visit, an ebullient and outgoing gentleman named Manuel (aka Manny). He works for a company called Havanatur, which is a government-sponsored entity, though Manny preferred to downplay that detail. He collected us and escorted us to the place where we could exchange the Canadian cash we had brought with us for Cuban Units of Convertibility--or CUCs (pronounced to rhyme either with "cook" or "kook," depending on one's disposition), which are worth 24 pesos (aka "Cuban regulars"). CUCs are in the process of being phased out, but they are convenient for Americans because they convert 1:1 to and from USD. 

We then boarded our comfortable (and comfortably air-conditioned) 40-passenger bus (which left plenty of room for eleven bishops, four wives of bishops, the communications officer of the Diocese of Utah, whose goal was to make a video record of our visit, plus Manny, to spread out in). And those stories you hear about pre-revolution American cars in Cuba? They're all true. I would guess that around 30% of the vehicles on the road date from 1959 or earlier. Many of them appear to be in remarkably good condition, though we were warned not to assume that any of them had a functioning brake system. About half an hour later, the bus deposited us at the Hotel Presidente, about three blocks from the ocean, in the heart of the "modern" (that is, post-1863) section of the city. It was build in the 1920s for a visit by Calvin Coolidge; hence, the name. I assume it's been renovated a couple of times since then, but not particularly recently. It's run by a hotel corporation called ROC--yes, another government entity. The lobby, bar, and breakfast area are quite pleasant in an old-fashioned classy sort of way, but the rooms have not kept pace with the expectations of travelers from the developed world. The place is a dowager, and, in many ways, is emblematic of the country as a whole. 

After some time to unpack, we were met by a representative of the Diocese of Cuba, who led us on foot over what had to be the better part of a mile to the restaurant where we had reservations. It's one of the new private enterprises that have arisen since the strictures of hard-line socialism have been loosened over the last couple of decades (necessitated by the evaporation of support from the now-defunct Soviet Union). The ambience was lovely, but the actual room set aside for our large party was windowless (and therefore airless) and cramped. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time with Bishop Griselda and a handful of her staff members. The food was not horrible, but it was not great. On the whole, it was an auspicious start to our remarkable journey.


Wednesday, April 8

On the bus after breakfast, with our bags packed and checked out of our rooms, for a ride of a few short blocks to the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, located in a tree-lined residential neighborhood that, in its day, was quite upscale--lots of grand homes that are now multi-family dwellings. As it happened, the cathedral was hosting the annual meeting of the Cuban Council of Churches, so we were brought in to be introduced to them, and each of us brought a brief word of greeting. Bishop Griselda showed us around her offices and introduced us to her staff. At one point, I was set upon by two very enthusiastic ladies, with whom I conversed for a bit entirely in Spanish. My ears catch only about a third (I would estimate) of what native Spanish-speakers say, and while I am "fluent" in as much Spanish vocabulary as I know (and, hopefully, in the present indicative tense), my vocabulary is quite limited, so I can't talk very deeply about any particular topic. So, while I can get along fairly well in Spanish talking with hotel staff, bartenders, restaurant servers, store clerks, and taxi drivers, anything more complex is pretty challenging. Nonetheless, I was pleased that I was mostly able to hold my own with these ladies. 

Before long, it was back on the bus, skirting around the harbor and the old section of Havana, and then east about 100 miles to the city (and province) of Matanzas. There we visited the only non-Roman Catholic "mainline" seminary on the island. It was established in the 1940s as an ecumenical venture between Methodists and Presbyterians, and, soon afterward, Episcopalians. The Episcopal Diocese of Cuba continues to maintain a strong relationship with the school. After an extensive tour, we enjoyed lunch in the refectory (a "late" lunch, by American standards--it was around 3pm by the time we sat down) before boarding our bus once again. As we were leaving the area of the seminary, on some narrow streets, we enjoyed seeing a horse and her foal just wandering around freely, the foal constantly trying to find a way to nurse. A couple of my colleague bishops who had spent time living in Italy told me I can now cross Sicily off my bucket list, since, by their lights, I have now "been" there, having been to Matanzas. 


A little further east, and on to a peninsula that veers off into the sea, we were deposited at our lodging for the night in Varadero, which, to our delight turned out to be a beachside hotel. Most of us enjoyed some time walking along the shore and/or in the delightfully warm water on a very warm and breezy late afternoon. A not-too-bad buffet dinner was served by the hotel restaurant. 


Thursday, April 9
On our bus after breakfast a checking out, whereupon we backtracked west for a bit to get of the peninsula that Varadero is on, then turning southeast into the interior of Cuba. In due course, we stopped at the hamlet of Favorito, home of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. If I surmised
correctly, it's a relatively recent plant, and their worship space is a repurposed small house, with which they have done a very good job. The project of interest there is a rain water collection and purification system which they hope will benefit the entire community. They fed us light snacks on the patio, during which I managed a fairly detailed conversation, in Spanish, with a diocesan staff member who was there for the occasion, about, of all things, U.S. presidential politics, specifically the candidacy of Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio. My impression is that Cubans are rather more up-to-speed about most things American than Americans are about most things Cuban. 

We then headed on down the road in the same direction to the nearby village of Itabo, and the Church of St Mary the Virgin. St Mary's is, by Cuban Episcopalian standards, an older structure, dating back to well before the revolution. They have acquired several acres of land adjacent to the church and are operating a sort of mini-farm (including a collection of pigs), where the emphasis is on sustainable practices, and, again, with hope of benefiting the entire community. After touring the area, we gathered in the church for a (probably too long) presentation on the ministry and strategy of, not just the parish, but the entire diocese. By the time they served us a lunch of freshly-caught and wonderfully prepared red snapper in a lovely covered patio, it was already mid-afternoon. 

Back on the bus once again, we continued in a roughly southerly and easterly direction, arriving eventually at the port city (on the Caribbean side of the island) of Cienfuegos, situated on a large and beautiful bay. Our hotel, constructed just before the 1959 revolution, was a caricature of its own genre, giving off a 1950s bon vivant vibe, with a Latin beat. And so it was emblematic of the sort of juxtaposition that most Americans feel when they visit Cuba in this present moment. The artifacts of the pre-revolutionary American-dominated culture survive and are maintained (again, witness the automobiles!). Yet, the countryside is speckled with hortatory billboards (since commercial billboards are not allowed) extolling the virtues of socialism and trying to sustain revolutionary fervor among the people. 

After checking in and taking some time to get settled, Manny led us on foot, walking along the bay on a gorgeous evening, to the restaurant where we had our dinner reservations. Like most eateries in a mostly tropical climate, the lines between indoors and outdoors were delightfully blurry, and while the food may not have been stellar, the ambience and the company made up for anything it lacked. 



Friday, April 10
Not much to do today except travel, as Cienfuegos was the furthest away from Havana that our itinerary would take us. But first, we stopped by St Paul's Church, right on the main thoroughfare through town. It was only a hastily-arranged visit--they hadn't been expecting us for very long--and there was a service going on when we arrived. As discreetly as we could the sixteen of us filed in, essentially doubling the congregation. At that moment, they were reciting the Nicene Creed, and very quickly it became obvious that they were following the Spanish version of the 1928 Prayer Book. But, after the Sanctus, they continued with the Great Litany and some further intercessions and devotions, never proceeding with the Eucharist itself. I am still in the dark about what precisely was going on, but it was eventually explained to us that this was a general memorial service for the departed, and that they use the 1979 liturgy there on Sundays. We did have a short visit with the priest and his wife following the service.




Then, instead of heading straight up the "national highway" (Cuba's version of an interstate, build in the 70s and 80s by the Russians) northwest back to the capital, Manny took us on an excursion more due west along the southern coast ... to the infamous Bay of Pigs. There were actually three landing points for this ill-fated 1961 expedition of CIA-trained Cuban ex-pats, but there's a museum commemorating "the first defeat of the Yankee imperialists" in the town of Giron, and that's where we headed. After taking our time looking at old weapons and a captured tank and the remains of a shot-down aircraft, we proceeded north along the actual bay, which is beautiful on a picture-book way, with waters made azure by the presence of extensive coral reefs. It's a haven for SCUBA divers and snorkelers. We eventually found the national highway and, in due course (again, later than Americans are accustomed to eating lunch), we pulled over into their version of a rest area/tollway oasis. There was a gift shop, a place to get rum and coconut milk to mix together and drink out of a hollowed-out pineapple, and a cafe. At the cafe, if one was hungry, once could purchase a ham sandwich, a cheese sandwich, or, as you might imagine, a ham and cheese sandwich. Until, that is, they ran out, which they did while we were there. One could also get a can of soda, of the only brand available in Cuba, either in cola or lemon-lime, because ... why would you want anything else? Now it was all quite reasonably priced (OK, darn inexpensive, as was food and drink everywhere we went). But selection and quality are not characteristics that a controlled economy is very adept at producing.


By late afternoon, we were entering the Havana area, and were eventually deposited back at the Hotel Presidente, grateful that we were there for two nights this time, and could enjoy a respite from living day to day out of a suitcase. After an opportunity to settle in, we reported back to the bus for the short ride to Bishop Griselda's Havana residence (she and her husband also maintain their original home in Matanzas), next door to the cathedral. It's an elegant structure, with 14' ceilings, built in the 1940s by Hugo Blankingship, the last American bishop of Cuba. Dinner was prepared for us there (a very nice roast pork), and we were joined by a distinguished guest--the the government's Minister of Religious Affairs, along with one of her staff members. We enjoyed some serious conversation (via Manny wearing his interpreter's hat) before dinner around various ways the government and churches can cooperate for the greater good of Cuban society. Interestingly, the strengthening of marriages was at the top of her list. So, what was once proclaimed to be an "atheist" state is now merely "secular," but with a very benign attitude toward Christians (and the small Jewish community in Cuba; there is no significant Muslim population).


Saturday, April 11
This was a pure tourism day. Manny had the bus take us to the oldest section of Havana, dating back to the early 1500s, on the harbor ("Remember the Maine!--this is where it happened) Our first stop was a cigar store, which also sold rum. I'm not a cigar guy (yes, I know I have friends and relatives who are, but I guess I just must not love them enough), but I did pick up a nice bottle of 11-year old sipping rum. We were told we didn't have to shop around for these things, because prices for the same item are the same everywhere, strictly controlled by the government. The old city is a warren of narrow streets, historic buildings (some restored, some still waiting their turn), elegant but shopworn old hotels, restaurants and bars, museums, churches, and a few shops, though not many, as there is not yet a thriving retail sector in Cuba. We lunched in a privately-owned and very popular restaurant (highly recommended by TripAdvisor), that provided, by my lights, the best meal we had while in the country, without a close second. (My choice was grilled shrimp, served with a variety of grilled hot peppers.) 

We then stopped by an open-air market, with rows and rows of private vendors selling crafts, art, clothing, and accessories. I did a little bit of gift shopping, but the highlight of the time there was a conversation (again, all in Spanish) with a vendor from who I didn't buy anything, but who, when she found out I was from the U.S., peppered me with questions relating to how difficult (or not) it was for me to get into the country, and lamenting that she would like to visit the U.S. but the only Cubans who can get entry visas are those with family already here, and she has none. Then, when she found out I am a bishop, enthusiastically assured me that she is a Christian, and asked me to give her a blessing, which I did. What a joy, on so many levels. 

In the evening, we had dinner at another private restaurant on the other side of the harbor entrance, near the historic Spanish fort that guards the city, and near the grounds of the Cuban army's artillery academy. At 9pm every evening, on the grounds of the fort, there is a reenactment, with actors dressed as 18th century Spanish soldiers, that culminates in the firing of a canon pointed out over the water that forms the harbor. It was quite impressive, and there was a large crowd.


Sunday, April 12


We checked out of the Hotel Presidente and boarded our bus for the short ride to the cathedral. They were graciously hospitable; while the liturgy was entirely in Spanish, the page numbers in the (Spanish) Prayer Book were called out in English in order to facilitate our participation. Bishop Griselda presided, with assistance from two priests (one of whom was the cathedral dean). Our own Bishop Mike Milliken (Western Kansas) preached, through an interpreter. At the conclusion of the service, all eleven of us were brought forward and asked to introduce ourselves and bring a brief word of greeting. I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and gave mine in Spanish. Nobody laughed, so it must have been intelligible. The signing was led by what we would call in this country a Praise Band, the members of which were all quite competent musicians. I was fascinatedly distracted the whole time by a bird that flitted back and forth between the top of the canopy above the grand pulpit, and a clerestory-type window that allowed her access to the outside. I can only surmise that she had a nest inside the church, which brought to mind the familiar words from Psalm 84: "The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts." 

When we were finished with our greetings, it was time to get right to the airport. En route, Manny had the driver take us through some quite interesting residential neighborhoods, reflecting the great wealth that was accumulated in Cuba during the sugar boom of the 1920s. Once at the airport, all went relatively smoothly, though we were amused by the observation that the immigration and customs officials who were female all wore some version of black lace or fishnet stockings with their uniforms, and that the drug-sniffing dog was not a menacing German shepherd but an adorable spaniel, whose handler willingly instructed it to pose for pictures. Once aboard our aircraft, our final Cuban adventure was a half-hour delay on the tarmac while we waited for President Raul Castro's plane, direct from the historic summit in Panama, to land and have him deplane and exit the airport. The delay was about as long as the actual flight back to Miami.



Final Thoughts
Cuban society is amazingly hardy and resilient. It survived and adapted during centuries of colonial subjugation by Spain until 1898, then effective colonial subjugation by the United States until 1959, and now 57 years of Communist rule that has simultaneously increased literacy to an enviable rate and produced such a surplus of well-trained physicians that they are rented out to other countries for cash, and also inflicted the usual consequences of a centralized economy--shortages of consumer goods and a redistribution, not of wealth, but of poverty. Embracing the dual challenge of socialist strictures and an economic boycott by the U.S. is what has called forth the ingenuity leading to the continued operation of so many antique automobiles. Indeed, images of these cars have been absorbed into the Cuban "brand," and appear on all sorts of souvenir items marketed to tourists. Even the image of Che Guevara, a symbol of the most brutal and doctrinaire phase of the revolution, has been thoroughly commercialized, appearing on hats ubiquitously for sale in a variety of places.



Now Cuba is on the cusp of major change. First, the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, ending the first gravy train that kept the island nation afloat after Castro's revolution. Then Venezuela, under the leadership of the leftist Hugo Chavez, stepped into the breach for a few years. But, between Chavez's death and the plunge in world oil prices, that font of largesse dried up as well. So it's in the interests of the regime to make nice with the U.S. When the details of the relational thaw are worked out, I expect there will be massive private investment in Cuba. This will inure to the benefit of the Cuban population and lift the whole nation economically. Hotels (and, let's face it, casinos) will be built, and all manner of infrastructure will be improved exponentially. And, in the process, some virgin beaches will be over-developed and blighted by high-rise hotels, and the $2.50 cocktails I enjoyed at the bar of the Hotel Presidente will be a thing of the past. It's all so very double-edged.



Personally, here's my biggest takeaway from the trip: I feel like I got to look fifty years into the future of the relationship between Christianity and American culture, and it was encouraging. In the wake of the revolution, Cuba had its own, slightly premature, moment of "post-Christianity." The constitution proclaimed it an officially "atheistic" state. Religious practice was stigmatized and marginalized. Now, five decades later, this is the trend in American society, though it's rolling out at a rather more deliberate pace. But also, now, the Episcopal cathedral in Havana holds theology classes on Saturdays. They are intended primarily to form their own people in ministry, but the classes are open to all comers. There is a steady stream of university students who attend faithfully. There is an intense curiosity about Christianity (and other faith practices) on the part of a generation of young people who are virtual blank slates, who did not grow up with it, for whom it is a fresh novelty rather than an artifact of cultural baggage. When we met with the government minister for religious affairs--the one who will personally have to approve any visit by the Pope--she referred to "our Lord" and openly prayed with us. She articulated a hope for partnerships between the government and churches to attack Cuba's social ills. Top on her list of these challenges was the need to strengthen marriages and families. Such a thing would be virtually unthinkable in U.S. society at present. But there it is, right in the heart of Communist Cuba. So, as American Christianity continues to enter a bit of a winter season, my visit to Cuba gives me hope that spring will indeed come. Not in my lifetime, most likely, but it will come.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Five

The last day. Everyone pretty much wants to be out of here. We had a little extra time after breakfast before gathering at 10am for Morning Prayer (again, with a selectively emended version of Psalm 97), followed by the only on-the-record-with-Roberts'-Rules business session of this meeting. You can go here for the official press release, which I certify as the truth and nothing but the truth. You may be curious about the item proposed by the Pastoral Development Committee regarding "core values" in the run-up to General Convention. I don't mean to trivialize it, but it's basically "We promise to play nicely." Nothing nefarious; no hidden agendas that I could detect. I do, of course, as you might suspect, generally have a hermeneutic of suspicion. But sometimes things are indeed as they appear.

I did raise a concern--a couple of times, in fact--about the House being asked to vote on things with very little or no notice. Again, it can be a way of sneaking substantive things by under the guise of something routine or innocuous. For instance, the report of the Ecclesiology Committee. To my suspicious eyes, this document had all the earmarks of an attempt to provide cover for TEC's legal arguments in property disputes, with its (erroneous, IMO) assertions about the hierarchical polity of TEC from General Convention downward. So I was relieved when the resolution was merely that the House receive it, rather than commend it. But it did have language about disseminating it throughout the church for further study, which I found problematic, because, whatever the resolution actually says, it would have the appearance and the weight of an action of the House of Bishops when, in fact, only a minority of the bishops have even read it yet. So, after some parliamentary haggling, we appended the word 'Draft' to the title, and removed any reference to dissemination. I felt good about this result, even though I would rather it have gone away completely. After the meeting, I had a good talk with the bishop who is the primary mover and shaker behind this, and I think we understand one another much better as a result. There may even be some cooperation in the offing.

The resolution asking the Presiding Bishop to appoint "an independent commission" is an outgrowth of the recent tragic events in the Diocese of Maryland. I think it might be compared to an NTSB investigation of an airline accident.

We adjourned the business session early enough for some more down time before lunch. After lunch, I had time for another circumambulation of the lake, on what turned out to be another gorgeous day.

The afternoon was devoted to preparation and orientation for General Convention, which happens in late June/early July. We're going virtually paperless this time, with rented iPads being handed out to all bishops and deputies. These will contain an intranet link to whatever business is before the house, with amendments to resolutions made in real time, along with supporting documents. Should be interesting.

Dinner on the last night of an HOB meeting is modestly upscale, and many of the bishops dress up a bit. Lots of bow ties. Not me, though. I just came as I am. What you see is what you get. Looking forward to heading out tomorrow morning on the 11:30am shuttle to the airport in Asheville. Ready to be home.


Monday, March 16, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day 4

After breakfast, I absented myself from the Eucharist (see yesterday's entry) but sneaked back into the back of the chapel in time for the day's retreat meditation from Mark Beckwith, Bishop of Newark. His assigned theme was "Interfaith." That sounded a little odd; "interfaith" is usually an adjective that modifies a noun like "worship," or "relationships," or "cooperation," or some such. He recounted his experience of living as a child in a very Jewish suburb, a very WASP suburb, and then in Japan, where he dabbled in Buddhism. If I understood him correctly, he invited us to be open to finding Christ on the margins of our experience, on the margins of the environments in which we live and work. As per the established pattern, we walked back to our plenary room for table discussions. I have to confess that, while interfaith dialogue and cooperation in certain areas is probably a good thing, as I triage the demands on my time and attention, it's safe to say I will likely never find it to be the best thing or the necessary thing. There's too much else that is more urgent. Or so it seems to me, at any rate.

Following lunch, I had time for a vigorous half-hour walk around the lake, which felt good on another very nice day (after the morning gloom burned off).

The afternoon was devoted to consideration of the report from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). This was done in plenary presentation, plenary discussion, and table discussion, and we spend three and a half hours on it. I have already written a longish evaluative analysis of this document upstream on this blog, which you can find here. I haven't really changed any of my opinions, so I'll simply mention that I got up during the plenary session and reiterated by point from the blog post that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) should not be given an exemption from the plan to sunset all committees, commissions, agencies, and boards (CCABs).

At 5:00 we heard from Sam McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the Church Center in New York ('815'). He took us through a slide presentation on the current state of churchwide ministry and mission.

The time slot after dinner was dedicated to various interest groups, so I hung out, naturally, with my Communion Partner colleagues. CP is dedicated to fostering the highest degree of fellowship possible between TEC and the other Anglican Communion provinces, especially those in the Global South, and advocating continuously on behalf of the Anglican Covenant. We had some strategizing to do as we look toward General Convention.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Three

This being the Lord's Day, with the intention of "sabbath" built into the schedule, there is less to report. The Eucharist was at 10am, with John Tarrant, the Bishop of South Dakota, presiding. Once again, the Theodicy Jazz Collective led the music with great energy, skill, and sensitivity--they are really good--though I still remain unpersuaded that jazz as a genre plays well with eucharistic liturgy. Now, I don't want to sound whiny, but I can't not mention the level to which I was upset by the liturgy itself--ostensibly Rite II from the Prayer Book, but with the text generously emended to exclude masculine pronouns for God, which is the ideological hobgoblin of today's liturgical elite. I can usually take this somewhat in stride on such occasions--ideologues gonna be ideologues--but I had my own little meltdown when we sang Thomas Ken's Psalm paraphrase, the concluding verse of which is the ubiquitous 'Doxology,' and the text of that verse was altered to exclude "him" in the first three lines, and render the Holy Trinity as "Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit" in the last one. I can tolerate a little ideology, but heresy is a tougher pill to swallow, and any evocation of the Trinity that eschews "Father" and "Son" is most likely just that--heresy. I will probably absent myself from the Eucharist tomorrow and Tuesday. It's just not a spiritually safe place for me.

We were then addressed, while still in the chapel, by David Bailey, bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission. His assigned theme was "economics and class," but, as one might imagine, he chose to explore that territory through the lens of his experience with the Navajo people. Bottom line: In addition to upper, upper middle, middle, and lower, there is another class--invisible. And the descendants of native peoples in this land are generally invisible to the rest of us. The invading European-Americans treated them, in a word, shamefully, and largely as a result of that shameful treatment, native populations today suffer from a long list of social ills that is just plain depressing. Sobered by the picture Bishop Bailey painted, we repaired to our table groups to process our experience of and involvement in unjust social structures. My own opinion is that this subject is exponentially more complex and contradictory than most who are reflexively energized by issues of social justice are usually willing to acknowledge.

That brought us to lunch, after which we were free until dinner. I used the time for a nap, a long walk around the lake on a beautiful day, and to catch up on some reading. After dinner, we had a standard element in meetings of the House--a "fireside chat." We actually did meet in a room with a fireplace, but I don't really noticing an actual fire. This is a closed, of-the-record meeting, moderated by the Presiding Bishop, about which we are covenanted not to say anything. So I won't.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Two

Following breakfast, the first order of the day was the Eucharist (not much Catholic piety here!). Lloyd Allen, Bishop of Honduras presided, partly in English, mostly on Spanish. The music was provided by a group flown here from Los Angeles as a gift of the bishop thereof, the Theodicy Jazz Collective. They are incredibly talented and accomplished young musicians. I'm very fond of jazz and very fond of liturgy. I'm less sure the two go together, that jazz doesn't have too broad a semantic range to support the work that needs to be done in liturgy. But there were moments when I enjoyed it a great deal.

Following the Eucharist, we remained in our places in the chapel and heard our second "retreat" address of the meeting, by George Wayne Smith, Bishop of Missouri. He spoke of the idea of "home" and how the place that roots us and the place where we live are, for bishops, rarely one and the same, and that chances are that neither place is one about which we can avoid feelings of great ambivalence, which is not inappropriate for disciples of Jesus, because our true and lasting home is in a place we've never even yet been. Yet, we should strive to "go native" in the places where we are placed, to seek the welfare of those places, because that is the very path of our salvation, and the salvation of the world.

We adjourned back to our usual plenary room with more discussion around table groups on the themes raised by Bishop Smith. This might seem tangential to our purpose for being here, but it's not. If bishops are going to successfully engage difficult issues, that process is helped by building up reservoirs of trust and mutual affection.

Lunch took the form of mini-provincial meetings, so I ate with the other fourteen bishops, minus one who is not here, from Province V.

After a short post-mealtime break, we gathered for the obligatory group photo. I don't know how many of are here, but I would guess it's in the neighborhood of 130, so that is no mean feat.

Back to plenary at 1:30, where we got to some of the hard stuff--the report of the Task Force for the Study of the Theology of Marriage. They have, as you may know, proposed changes to the marriage canons that render them gender-neutral, opening the way to full-on same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. My understanding of this issue is no secret. The proposed changes shrink back from the nature of marriage as a social institution that is, in fact, created by God, and is the effective sign of the covenant union between “Christ and the Church” (Ephesian 5:32). We're playing with fire here.
 
We stayed on this task until 4:45. First, 30 minutes of table discussion. Then, well over an hour of "Indaba-style" discussion in groups of about 20, spread over various locations. Then back for another half hour or so of plenary discussion. My contribution, both in the Indaba and the plenary, was along these lines:

Over recent years and decades, we have dealt with issues around sexuality and marriage primarily politically (legislatively) and liturgically. Now, with this task force, we are beginning to deal with it theologically. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it's risky, because it will present us with the temptation to be too clear, too precise. As Anglicans, precision in doctrinal formulations has never been our thing. And that lack of precision is precisely what has very often enabled us to stay together through some very serious disagreements. I am able to be in and serve in this church because of that lack of clarity. Even though many of you do things I think are a little crazy, I can always point to the Prayer Book and say, "This is what my church teaches." But if we opt for excessive clarity at this point in our history, people like me might not have a place left in which to stand. Do not those who want to move the ball down the field in terms of sexuality and marriage already have the tools with which to do that? Might we not perhaps be better served, at this moment, by simply doing nothing? By letting the issue work itself out organically rather than legislatively? Who knows? We may be able to "muddle through" once again. But if we opt for excessive clarity, we are cutting ourselves off from that opportunity.

It's way too early to predict how any of this will turn out this summer, but I can say that I have had positive comments on my remarks from a broad cross section of bishops.

We then spent about 30 minutes hearing from some special guests: bishops from the Union of Utrecht, with which TEC is in full communion. This was followed by brief evening devotions, and dismissal for our "Class" dinners. My class of 2011 is a great group of bishops and spouses. We have become good friends, and I am very grateful for their fellowship.

Friday, March 13, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day One

My first two meetings of the House of Bishops--spring and fall 2011--were tightly packed with mostly passive plenary meetings, with little "down" time. I found it stultifying. Apparently, I wasn't the only one, because each one since then has been substantially more relaxed in its pace--aspiring to a retreat-like ambience, and I was very grateful. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the direction of freneticism. It isn't that anything we're doing is intrinsically not worthwhile. But it does raise questions about whether we're being asked to do too many things and whether the things we're doing are the highest and best use of the aggregate energy, knowledge, and experience assembled in this place. I wish we could walk away from the temptation to have our meetings dominated by themes that are, as it were, "ripped from the headlines," and which we can generally do little or nothing about, while giving short shrift to concerns that our closer to our actual lives, and over which we indeed to have some influence.

After initial housekeeping-type issues, the morning session began with a welcome from the Presiding Bishop in which she explicated the theme of the gathering: Fostering a culture of curiosity, compassion, and courage in Christ. I'm just the messenger here; draw your own inferences. In point of fact, the theme is racism and race relations, but one could be forgiven for not guessing that from the way it's articulated.

We then did the standard thirty minutes of "check-in" at our table groups, briefly sharing what's been going on with us personally and professionally. We stay at the same tables for the three years following each General Convention, so there's some continuity in our narratives. Following check-in we came back together for Morning Prayer (Psalm and canticles sung, plus a hymn), the homily taking the form of an extended meditation from the Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright. His aim was to stimulate our thinking around our experience of and/or participation in racism, broadly construed. Next up was the Revd Eric Law, a priest of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Executive Director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a leadership training project. Fr Law took us through some exercises intended to prepare us and equip us for respectful conversation over difficult issues. I will only say this: He is not an INTJ. Then, of course, we had table-group discussions of some questions Bishop Wright had prepared for us that pertained to his meditation.

We broke for lunch between noon and 2:00. After eating, I used the time for picking away at the steady onslaught of emails and text messages.

The afternoon was devoted to a project called Traces of the Trade, the centerpiece of which is a documentary film of the same title, a quite compelling piece of work, which we viewed. We were led in this by a married couple named Dain and Constance Perry. The film and the accompanying presentation laid upon, with some awkwardness and pain, the extent to which New England, so often lauded as the seedbed of abolitionism, nonetheless prospered economically in the 18th and 19th centuries as a direct result of the slave trade. Even those who do not personally commit evil nonetheless often enjoy wealth and privilege that were amassed as a result of social evils like slavery, and are therefore implicated in that evil, in ways both numerous and subtle. There was about 30 minutes for those who wished to to briefly share with the whole group something of the experience of or entanglement in racism.

For a number of reasons, I chose not to attend the 5pm Eucharist (I wasn't the only one), and use the time to be in touch with Brenda, and keep picking away at those emails.

We had an evening session from 7:30 until 8:45 or so. The focus was on the events of the last few months emanating from Ferguson, MO. Appropriately enough, Bishop Wayne Smith of Missouri facilitated this time.

I didn't speak during the time to do so in the afternoon session. Here's what I might have said had I done so: My mother was raised in Arkansas during the height of the Jim Crow era. I'm old enough to remember de jure segregation: waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and the like. I observed the stereotypical brand of southern racism firsthand. The n-word was not foreign to my experience, but it was foreign to my own working vocabulary. My parents were repentant of the racism of my mother's upbringing. I was brought up in an anti-racist household where there was a great deal of sympathy for the civil rights struggle in its late-1950s/early 1960s incarnation. To me, at that time, the chief end of the movement, the manifestation of justice, was a truly color-blind society in which people would be judged, paraphrasing Dr King, by character content rather than skin color. I was committed to this aspiration. Had I been a few years older, I may have been in Selma.

And that's why I was disturbed in the mid- and late sixties, when the civil rights struggle took on a harsher, more militant, and occasionally even violent dimension. When elements within the black community adopted language like "honky" to denote whites, I was crestfallen. When cries for affirmative action and reparations emerged, it seemed to contradict everything about the earlier idealism. Even later, when racism came to be defined not as irrational prejudice or invidious discrimination, but as the mere exercise of unearned white privilege, I was skeptical trending in the direction of disgusted.

A great deal has happened since all that, and the situation is very complex. I don't pretend to have any answers, easy or otherwise. But, as a Christian, and a pastor, who endeavors to think theologically at odd moments, my frustration is that the Church seems to not be able to break loose from the stale polemical categories of the secular conversation on race and race relations. We are so immersed in the post-modern radical individualism of western culture, which is the source of the regnant politics of personal identity, that we have forgotten how to think like Christians. In baptism, we are given a new identity: Christian. It trumps, and transforms, and eventually supersedes any other identity by which we might be tempted to define ourselves. We are one in Christ, not in some other racial or ethnic or national group or gang. This is the fundamental gospel social paradigm. The ultimate solution to racism is not reconciliation between races, as such, but, rather, evangelization, and subsequent acceptance of Christian identity as so far eclipsing all other categories as to render them virtually moot. I realize we are a long, long way from attaining this. I just wish we were a little more intentionally aiming at it.