Tuesday, August 04, 2009

An Age of Irony

It's six days now since returning to green Indiana after three-and-a-half weeks on the mostly brown west coast. The fact that I am back to blogging means that I have pretty much resurfaced; the infrastructure of my life (I am a creature of routine if there ever was one) is back up and running. At a macro level, I am immeasurably blessed and grateful; I love my life. At a micro level, things are ... well ... interesting.

One of the tidbits of reality that was impressed on me at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church is how many lives my "ministry of the word" touches--whether at this venue, or over on Covenant, or on the General Convention listserv (the venerable, and often toxic, "HoB/D"). The number of people who sought me out to thank me for what I do in cyberspace was both surprising and amazing.

My day job, of course, is as a parish priest; I'm rector of an extraordinarily well-resourced (in every way) congregation in small-town middle America. For the most part, my day-to-day pastoral and administrative duties don't intersect much with my life in cyberspace, which, for better or worse, is dominated by the conflicted state of ecclesiastical politics in the Anglican world. In fact, I probably tilt in the direction of shielding my flock from the unsavoriness of church politics and the issues that drive it. The everyday joys and sorrows that I share with my parishioners are, in a sense, much more "real" than the subtleties of the Windsor Process, the balance between the Instruments of Unity, and the tortuous legislative machinations of General Convention.

At times, however--and this is one of them--the planets are aligned such that my worlds collide. And I am thereby learning a great deal about the embedded ironies in our church-political and pastoral landscapes.

All during convention--during my short-lived and ill-fated candidacy for Executive Council, and again as it became clear that I would be, very visibly and vocally, on the losing side of the two major controversial votes--a steady stream of people from the "majority party" approached me and, with great sincerity which I have no doubt was genuine, assured me of their personal esteem for me, that they are grateful for my presence in the Episcopal Church, and that my (minority) voice is one that they value, and that needs to continue to be heard. One evening, after a two-martini dinner rendered my demeanor a trifle less guarded than is my wont, I responded to the effect that, "Yes, I would love to be your token conservative." (That was the evening of the day that C056, the second hammer-blow, was concurred by the House of Deputies.)

But before I got too deep into the pity party, a friend reminded me of the larger perspective--namely, that what is the undisputed minority view on matters of sexual ethics within the Episcopal Church is manifestly the majority view in the larger Anglican Communion, to say nothing of the wider Christian world. So I immediately began to turn the tables on my "progressive" friends, wasting no opportunity to remind them how glad I am I that they're part of the Anglican Communion, how important it is that the majority hear their voice, and how much I hope "we" can find a way for "them" to remain with "us." I got to be magnanimous in victory, and discovered that it felt a whole lot better than being gracious in defeat.

Then (after a vacation interval) I came home. I came home to a parish community that includes the full range of views on contrverted questions--both reactive and reflective, in both directions. This was the case long before my arrival on the scene two years ago, and, from the moment I met them, I have always been impressed by these people for the very reason that the first Christians impressed the pagan world around them: "See how they love one another." Some of the strongest friendships in the parish are across the Great Divide. Somehow we have heretofore managed to live our lives and do ministry and look beyond the divisive issues. It isn't like we've had zero casualties. We've taken some hits, losing a handful of households off our right flank and probably losing the same number off our left flank by simply never gaining them in the first place. But, I am grateful to say, there has been a core that is committed to maintaining unity in the midst of diversity.

That committed core is being put to the test in the wake of the Anaheim convention, and I am veritably bathing in irony as I attempt to shepherd them through it. Some (at least) of my "progressives" (some quite key people in the life of the parish) are on the "winning" side of General Convention, but, I suspect (still haven't debriefed them completely), are feeling deprived of savoring their victory because both their rector and their bishop opposed the big decisions of the convention, and there is no foreseeable prospect of any same-sex unions being publicly recognized and blessed either in the parish or the diocese.

And the irony is this: I find words on the tip of my tongue that are effectively the same as the affirmations my "progressive" friends sent my direction in Anaheim, which, while authentic, I found distinctly off-putting. I see parishioners who are "winners" when TEC is the universe under consideration, but "losers" when that universe is the diocese or parish or worldwide communion, and I (as a local and communion-wide "winner" but provincial "loser") want to tell them how much I value them and their contribution to our mission and ministry (which I do from the bottom of my heart), but I grope and struggle for a way to say as much that doesn't just sound patronizing, because I know all too well what it feels like to hear those words from a position of powerlessness, to feel profoundly victimized.

I am also challenged by the rather more numerous conservative "wing" of my congregation. Part of my response, I think, is to make them aware of the levels of irony that are in play. In the near term, they can take some relief that they have a sympathetic rector and bishop. But they're smart enough to realize that rectors and bishops come and go, so there's only limited comfort I can offer. I also need to gently lead them away from their most reptilian instincts, and help them affirm that we will be a community that welcomes everyone to participate fully in our life together, even as we respect appropriate boundaries on those things to which we will presume to invoke God's blessing.

If, a couple of generations from now, when the remains of the Baby Boomers are inhabiting columbaria across the land, in God's mercy these present wars have become the proverbial "thing of the past," one "take away" I hope our descendants might enjoy is some skill in dealing with their own experience of irony, from whencever it might arise. Knowing how to behave in both victory and defeat, especially when they come at the same time, does not exactly come naturally. I hope somebody profits from our experience.


Bruce Robison said...

Very nice, Dan. Glad to have you back "online." My return from vacation a week ago was similar to yours, as the swirl of whatever it was we were doing in Anaheim was overshadowed by the death of our Junior Warden, two weddings, a baptism, and preparations for the August Vestry meeting . . . . The lobby of the Hilton seems to fade into a more distant memory. But before it's all lost: thank you for the good work you did there, for all you contribute to our common life in your writing for the wider church--and for your friendship.

Bruce Robison

Malcolm+ said...

FWIW, I value your voice enough to include you as one of the limited number of conservatives (at least on "the issue") linked from my blog.

I think you've touched on something very important here, and it has to do with this whole approach of "winners" and "losers."

Whatever the final outcome of the present dispute, if we are approaching this with an eye to "winning" or "losing" - and many on both sides are approaching it in precisely that fashion - then we have already lost.

It isn't, in that sense, "our" Church to win or lose, but rather God's. His Spirit will lead us into all truth, and the present unpleasantness is simply part of the process. And since it is His Church, not ours, we know that, at the end of the day, the Gates of Hell will not prevail. We start to frame it as "winning" and "losing" at the point where we believe that we (rather than He) are in charge of identifying the Gates of Hell.

I commend to you an essay by another blogger-priest from "your side" who, I think, sheds some other useful light on haw this one issue seems to drive us.


Sr. Sarah said...

I just had an interesting discussion with a couple of your parishioners. I proposed that I could see nothing in the Bible that seemed to support that disagreements in the church were primarily intellectual in causation. Therefore, arguing, dialog, conversation, etc. should not help. Seems to me wisdom comes of reverence for the Lord, morality in general, the Holy Spirit. Moreover, seems the conversion process causation isn't focused on those in error (whoever they are) but on God's people praying and humbling themselves (fasting/sacrifice) so that God will heal the whole. I conclude what will help is everyone committing/being encouraged to embrace the struggle to obey on those things they are CERTAIN of, prayer, fasting, Eucharistic worship, sacramental life, etc. I believe that if we sincerely seek the Lord, as best as we know how, the Holy Spirit will bring us into truth.