Monday, May 11, 2009

Ah. And So It Begins.

Our synod is assembling later this week, and for  while we thought it might be a moderately pleasant couple of days.  No bishop to elect this year.  The only resolutions we had heard about concerned torture (we're agin' it) and sex (well, okay, the debates are never pleasant, but as we've said before, they do have -- ahem -- a comfortingly predictable rhythm).  

But today's mail brings a delicately worded missive from our bishop, to the effect that

[s]ome members of a former congregation of the Metropolitan New York Synod and pastors who are not on the roster of Ordained Ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have indicated that they intend to participate in our assembly.  This may present some awkwardness in our gatherings ....

"Some awkwardness," indeed.

Sadly, this is no great surprise, at least to close watchers of synodical events.  The case of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Brooklyn has been a thorn in our collective flesh for years, and just lately seems to have caused an infection.  

Briefly, the story goes like this:  typical declining urban congregation can no longer manage its own affairs; is divided into warring camps; one camp requests synodical administration; opposite camp tries to keep this from happening.  For those unfamiliar with urban churches in decline, the level of obstruction may seem shocking.  Pastors sent by the synod to lead worship have been locked out of the building; the self-proclaimed council president moved into the rectory, began paying herself a salary and put a mortgage on the church.  Meanwhile, the building has partially collapsed, and will almost certainly have to be demolished in any case.  Trust us when we say, from long and bitter personal experience, that this is all par for the course.

There have been legal proceedings, all decided in the synod's favor, but the losing side still refuses to hand over the books and records.  And they have been looking for a victory in the court of public opinion instead, by going to the media. There was a sloppy and ill-informed article in the Daily News, and better one (linked above) in a Brooklyn paper.  Check out the "Comments" section, in which locals demonstrate a surprisingly clear-headed picture of what's going on.

There are a lot of issues, legal as well as theological, and we really don't have the space to work them all out here.  At the heart of all this is a terrible truth, which is that the congregation is dead.  Both sides hope only to sell the property.  If the majority faction, and the synod, win out, the profits will support ELCA mission in New York.  If the minority faction wins, the profits will support one woman and her family, as well as the people she hires to do her bidding.

So, since that's the case, let's put some personal details on the table -- stuff that the bishop's letter (okay, his lawyer's letter) tactfully omits.  

The woman behind all this is Muriel Tillinghast, a veteran civil rights activist.  She was also Ralph Nader's New York State running mate in 1996.  Sounds good, right?  Sadly, it is a much-observed fact that the radicals of yesteryear have had three subsequent career tracks:  neoconservatism (like Tillinghast's fellow-SNCCer Richard John Neuhaus); polite leftism (like Obama's much-abused colleague Bill Ayers); and a descent into irrelevance, punctuated by addled efforts to reclaim a former glory, however dubious (like Timothy Leary).  We suspect strongly that Tillinghast has made a jump from the second category to the third.

Assisting her, however, are two "Lutheran pastors" whose involvement in the matter concerns us deeply.  One is George Muenich, who has recently left the ELCA and is now convincing his own small Brooklyn congregation to do likewise.  The other is Norman David, who left the ELCA years ago, and serves a congregation in Massachusetts.  Both men are interfering in the affairs of a congregation to which they have no call, and indeed of a church body in which they have resigned membership.  At the very least, this raises serious canonical issues -- and therefore, legal ones.  Clearly, their self-assigned role is to help Tillinghast do what they themselves have already mastered -- foment schism.  We suspect strongly that they hope to make some money off an eventual real-estate deal, but it is completely possible that both men are simply in it for "pure" motives -- meaning pure self-aggrandizement.

Do we even need to mention that both men have AELC roots?  No, because faithful Egg readers are already aware of our observation that, because the Missouri Synod was created in schism, it has always taught a theology which seeks to justify breaking fellowship (based, we suspect, on a congregationalist misreading of AC7); and that in the AELC, this theology was further distorted by a team of narcissists with keen political skills and lamentable overconfidence in their own parochial education.  So no surprise there.

The question is how to handle these buffoons and their latest effort at self-promoting street theater.  ("Latest," because two of them tried to disrupt a smaller meeting recently).  Here are some possibilities:

1.  Let Them Talk.  A dear but idealistic friend suggests that, despite their utter lack of standing, they should be given some time to present their case at the assembly.  It is, after all, our highest deliberative body, empowered to make decisions which take precedence over those of the bishop or synod council.  

In a more perfect world, we would agree.  But it is our observation that synod assemblies routinely fail to deliberate effectively, for several reasons.  First, because they are not entirely transparent.  Claiming a desire to avoid "micro-managing," as well as low morale, staffers have habitually kept certain kinds of  information to themselves.  The result is that, of 500 people gathered in a room, no more than 75 are likely to know much at all about this case, and only 15 or 20 will have ben fully briefed.

The unfortunate result -- demonstrated over and over in previous years -- is that assemblies, lacking facts, are therefore swayed by emotional appeals, especially when made my silver-tongued orators.  Hence, every discussion of gay people turns into an exchange of anecdotes, and no election of a bishop involves a close look at candidates' track records.

2.  Kick Them Out.  None of the people likely to show up urging a discussion of this matter has any official standing.  Muriel Tillinhast is the "president" not of a congregation, but of a schismatic faction which is recognized neither by the synod nor by the courts.  Norman David and George Muenich are not ELCA pastors; they have neither voice nor vote.

The problem here is that, if things really do go all street-theater, efforts to exclude them could blow up in the assembly's face.  In a worst-case scenario, there are pictures on the TV news of a lovely old black lady being dragged away in cuffs by the Suffolk County police.  (She wins that round.)  But even failing that, there is the likelihood that well-intentioned but ill-informed members of the synod will be so offended by proceedings they cannot understand that they will fear becoming party to a genuine injustice, and cross over to the dark side of the force.  

Still, politely barring them from the hotel might work.  A few picket signs in the parking lot just make them look like screwballs.

3.  Fight Theater With Theater.  If by some bizarre chain of events, any of these nutjobs does get to a live microphone -- or even a dead one -- we could start singing a hymn, really loudly, and drown them out.  While the obvious choices are A Mighty Fortress and Amazing Grace, because we can all sing them from memory, the Egg has a few other suggestions for synod staff who want to be prepared:

  • The Church's One Foundation goes right to the matter, complaining that we are "by schism s rent asunder, by heresies distress'd."  But could we get to the third verse without a lyric sheet?
  • Once to Every Man and Nation has that precious verse about how the Church proceeds "by the light of burning martyrs."  Father A. will be distributing pitch-impregnated torches, out by the summer-camp display booth. 
  • There's also this long-forgotten breviary hymn:
A sin there was in ancient days, 
The Apostle names its name, 
And marks its nature with dispraise, 
The Church's bane and shame. 
Who formed without her factions new. 
Or nourished feuds within, 
Or scorn upon her rulers threw, 
Were guilty of that sin.

But what's the tune?

4.  Pray for Deliverance, and Call an Exorcist.  This seems like the best route.  And while we don't have a synod exorcist, what good is a full-communion relationship with the Episcopalians if they won't lend us theirs?  Paging Merrily Watkins!


Pastor Joelle said...

Wow. Just wow. There's a church a few miles away that some crazy lady from some breakaway Lutheran sect showed up and said "Hire me I'm cheap" when they were looking for a pastor and without much information or ado (or proper procedure) proceeded to lead a congregation that had been in the ELCA and its predecessors for 150 years into being it's own church. And then she proceeded to do a bunch of odd and unLutheran stuff...I thought that was bizarre. This beats that. At least they won't be at our assembly. They never were interested even when they were part of the church.

Father said...

It's all the same stuff, over and over. These same "pastors" apparently make a big deal about how this parish needs to be spared from "what happened to let's-call-it-St. Jack's," meaning a parish I actually served, years ago, and which is now under synodical administration.

Thing is, I know what happened to St. Jack's, and it was certainly not the synod's fault, at least not alone. It's a long story, and there's plenty of blame to go around. But the bottom line is that I've never met a group of meaner-spirited people, and the woman who was running the place by the end (yes, another case of she-moved-into-the-rectory) barely made a secret of the fact that she was doing it all out of self-interest.

And there seems to be a grimy underworld of "pastors" with a sideline as parish takeover artists. One of them got into an LCMS parish here some years ago -- arguably the oldest Lutheran congregation in America -- reportedly after busting unions for the Balaguer dictatorship. That wasn't pretty. I suspect we've got one of those involved in the Brooklyn case, too.

jgk said...

We just want your last assembly on these shores (for awhile anyway) to be memorable!