Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sex. It's Always About Sex. Except When It Isn't.

So there was Father A., sitting at his desk wondering whether he would have a quorum at his council meeting, when the phone rang.  It was a fellow-presbyter whom we'll call Mr. Slope. (You know -- like the chaplain in Trollope, whose style of churchmanship is so unlike that of our own hero, Mr. Arabin, "fellow of Lazarus, late professor of poetry at Oxford, and present vicar of St Ewold.")

We have a delicate relationship with this fellow Slope.  It shouldn't be mistaken for friendship, because it is not; it is rather a determination to remain civil, despite our profound disagreements on everything not covered by the Augustana.  Scratch that; by everything not covered by the first four articles of the Augustana.  (If it were a friendship, Father A. would feel no particular obligation to be civil.  One of the privileges of real friendship is the right to badger mercilessly.)

Anyway, he called, and we talked about this and that.  Then Father A. asked some innocent question -- Missed you at the synod assembly?  Aren't you on such--a-committee? -- to which Mr. Slope gave the offhand reply, "Oh, we're leaving the ELCA."

Ah.  What is one to say to such a thing?  The little fellow in the penguin suit asked a few polite questions.  Slope is dragging his congregation into one of the Lutheran micro-denominations, over what he calls "matters of Biblical interpretation," but which are not.  They are theological convictions regarding sexuality, which are certainly related to hermeneutical matters, but extend far beyond into other things. 

Father A. politely observed that this was not a step he favored -- "I won't bother telling you how bad an idea it is," he said quietly.  To a friend, he might have been more blunt:  Thou charlatan!  Thou coward! How can you cut your people off from their church and its ministries this way?  How can you cut yourself off from the church in which you were nurtured, educated and to which you have bound yourself by solemn vows?  Is a disagreement over genital matters more important to you than the integrity of those relationships?  To a friend, he might have said, You know, I recall playing a game of pick-up ball, once, on the playground.  [Already a lie, but one says these things for rhetorical effect]  I thought I was playing well, but I lost anyway.  And you know what I didn't do?  I didn't take my ball away from the other guy and run home to play with myself.  

And then, as the conversation meandered -- Silesian children's revivals, anybody? -- Father A. asked a few questions.  Casting about, somewhat desperately, for a topic that would not involve vituperation, he thought of a mutual colleague, located up in Slope's neck of the woods, who is well-known for his intense conservatism on matters by no means restricted to sexuality -- and who, if rumor is to be believed, has reached one of those junctures in ministry at which he could use a friend.

"So, what about Padre Falangisto?  You guys ever talk about this stuff?"

"Him?  Eww, no.  I -- uh -- I used to go to Bible studies, but they were all full of liberal @*##$%*!.   So we never see each other."

This was clearly non-responsive, since Padre F. has no use for liberal @*##$%*!  Heck, the man petitions small colleges to re-name the liberal arts.  So your humble correspondent tried again:  "But, you guys, I mean, uh, you've got stuff to talk about."  In truth, we wondered if our old friend the Padre might not also be shopping for a micro-denomination.

And then it all came out:  Questions about the poor fellow's high-handed pastoral style, complaints about the size of his vestment closet, and all the usual tawdry arguments over Victorian divisions of the Church.  ("Why, he walked right up to me and said that Pietism is the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity!"  Clearly untrue -- Pelagianism, anybody? -- but we had to chuckle as we imagined the conversation, two zealots squaring off, red-faced and huffy).

Later, though, we started to wonder.  How much of the schismatic urge is really about the supposed matters at stake -- sex, primarily, but also the pension plan, the quota system, the Episcopalians -- and how much is really about a gut-level sense of not feeling at home in your own church?  The rage of Caliban, not seeing his face in the mirror?  And, in that last category, how much of that sense is rooted in reality, and how much in the personal neuroses of the faithful, and especially of the clergy who lead them?

We aren't proposing an answer here, nor do we think there is an easy one.  But the question seems worth asking, doesn't it?


Pastor Joelle said...

It happened again. I started writing a long response and then I took it over here

What is it really about?

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

It goes the other way too. A retired pastor I know told me yesterday that a local church called a "pastor who isn't boring" and so was kicked out of the synod/denomination. This pastor graduated from the same seminary as my daughter.

I looked on the ELCA website church finder, and, yes, that church has disappeared. But there is a church still listed that hasn't had services in over 30 years. An empty church is still "in" and a living church is now "out."

Father said...

Hmm. Don't know about this particular case, of course, but I have to wonder. So far as I know, no church gets kicked out of a denomination for calling a pastor who isn't boring. (Although I do try to be extra-dull, just to protect my congregation).

They DO get kicked out for calling a pastor who doesn't meet the denomination's criteria, which aren't restricted to educational credentials.

If you call a Baptist pastor, for example, and that over your bishop's strong objections, are you still an Episcopal church? Logically not. You've gone a different route, and your denominational affiliation needs to reflect as much.

Pastor Joelle said...

We had a church in our synod that called a pastor who was not ELCA - they were in the disciplinary process (it takes a while - like I commented on my blog - usually the congregation in question refuses to go through the process, and then claim they were "kicked out") and the pastor had a history of sexual abuse and wreaked havoc in the congregation and since he was accountable to no one, getting rid of him was a real hassle.

Accountability is a good thing.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I agree that accountability is a good thing. In this case, the non-boring pastor is an graduate of an ELCA sem and was ELCA, but left, and is under the bishop of some other country, maybe in Central America. [third hand info, only.] My ELCA pastor thinks well of him. So now he is serving two ex-ELCA churches here, churches that were only being served by fill in pastors for quite awhile. I understand that the one church left the ELCA over the laying-on-of-hands-by-Episcopal-bishops issue.

What irks me about some Christian groups is that it takes more "work" [or "works"] by a potential member to join than to get into heaven. Apparently there are similar hoops to jump through to get into an denomination by a church, but leaving is easy and getting kicked out is easy.

Anonymous said...

You know, sometimes I think all this protesting stuff is just a matter of youthful inexperience. For example, I used to be uneasy about the idea of ordaining people with two X chromosomes. Now that I am married to just such a beautiful doubley X'ed singly ordained personage, it all looks very different like. So, as I matured, slowly - slowly - the Lord stirred up in me the spirit of wisdom and understanding. Perhaps, your discussion partner will mature and have a similar experience of gaining in wisdom and understanding. web