It’s been wonderful meeting people in person after having read many of their thoughts online almost daily for some time. I’ve had the opportunity to do this once or twice before, and it still amazes me that I can make friends and sometimes even become part of a community in ways that would take much longer or may not even be possible here at home. I sometimes wonder whether it is a mixed blessing for young people, especially school-age children, because even if care is taken to keep them from communicating with adults or strangers, reliance on cultivating relationships online may mean they lack the experience of doing it in real life or, in terms of romance, reach a level of emotional intimacy much more quickly than they are prepared for. But for an old-timer like myself, who now works alone at a computer all day, this “new” technology is a godsend. It is a great blessing to be able to air my concerns and frustrations, share my thoughts and reflections, with those who have similar interests and, more importantly, those who have greater knowledge or understanding than me. So I am thankful to have spent at least a little bit of time with so many of you, putting names to faces and giving us all a better sense of what each other is about.
The irony of this trip, however, was that one of its greatest benefits for me was that it got me away from the computer for four days and into the real world and away from the constant buzz of Anglican Communion and TEC news and gossip. I love cities – just about all the big ones I’ve ever visited or lived in. I especially like to walk and see people and neighborhoods, even more than sightseeing. I enjoyed the area surrounding Union Square, near my hotel, and wherever else I ventured from there and from other subway stops, ranging from the West Village to Midtown to the Bronx.
The day I arrived, Union Square was full of its farmer’s market and the subway musicians were playing flamenco guitar (well, electric, but flamenco rhythms). Every day was the stream of people everywhere, of all ages, races, national origins, children and old people, and all sorts in between, not to mention the dogs, so many of them, trotting here and there. The air was warm and humid, but often breezy, and the sun shining throughout the day. Trees and grass, plants and flowers, were still in bloom, with people doing their best to make the most of whatever urban outdoors they could find, whether it be children taking their small bikes to the sidewalk or helmeted adults hauling their large ones down and into the subway, headed for who knows where. At night local bars were crowded with baseball fans and others just looking for a place to relax and see people.
Of course my jaunts barely scratched the surface of all that is Manhattan, let alone the entire city. But this was the first I really spent any time in residential areas, even the upscale ones (unless you count walking by places in the upper east side near the museums). All I had seen of Manhattan previously were the stores and theatres in Midtown, Lincoln Center, the museums and nearby sections of Central Park, and enough of downtown to see the site of the World Trade Center and to take the Staten Island Ferry. I still don’t have a feel for the city like I do my native Chicago (which, I’m afraid, will always be my first love, with its distinctive people, the lake, the wind, the extraordinary architecture – NYC Is such a visual bore, by comparison – the theatre and entertainment community (the Goodman, Second City, among others), the Art Institute and other museums, the ferris wheel and the water tables in the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, the lakefront parks and beaches, etc.). But the sights and sounds of the NYC I encountered were wonder enough after so much time in cyberspace.
Walking itself was a great delight. I love to walk but never manage to find enough time for it regularly beyond my dog’s daily needs. It comes as no surprise that it turns out that it’s therapeutic as well. (See Thom Hartmann’s new book, Walking the Blues Away, highly recommended by a friend). I will have to try to do much more of it, to clear my mind and the dense cloud of emotions that often overtake me.
For now, I have had to busy myself with catching up with work and the family, trying to figure out how I can be many places at once, planning around the end of high school soccer season and the beginning of club soccer, church and choir schedules, and whatever it is I can do right now long-distance for my mother. Yet I wish I could find more time to pull together some of the random thoughts I had with all the walking and talking this past weekend.
Many of them had to do with church, which seemed odd to me, even though the impetus for the trip was meeting folks I knew from Jake’s and Mad Priest’s. Although church necessarily is a big part of my life, it’s not something I spend much time thinking about on vacation. But with all the writing and talk of late about people contemplating leaving TEC, on all sides of the divide, I was much more conscious of what it means to me, at times, to be an Episcopalian. I have largely kept quiet online (hard for me to do) regarding the resolution coming from the House of Bishops’ meeting in New Orleans and all the reactions to the various reactions. And I haven’t even read, let alone followed, the latest from ++Rowan Williams (letter to +Howe, etc.). I’m beginning to grasp the depth of what is at stake regarding what is known in shorthand as “GLBT inclusion” – how different it is from other kinds of “justice” issues and why, I think, it is especially important for the spiritual lives and welfare of everyone, but most important how it impacts the lives of GLBTs and their families in ways that go far beyond the issue of who can be a priest or bishop. At the same time, I am torn by my own thoughts and feelings about religion and churchgoing, which tend more towards catholicism, which is problematic but, I think, different from what some call “unity” – the latter striking me more as a political aspiration and wild-eyed hope of mission and evangelism among Anglican churches (in various directions) in different cultural contexts, whereas the former, catholicity, is something quite different, more the notion that we are all the church and one is part because one cannot be anything but a part, so we hang together not because we endorse all that is taught by those in authority but because we all must learn and witness together and work for justice and truth wherever we may be and whomever claims to rule over us.
I guess I could say that I’m experiencing “tension” (which like “listening” and “ambiguity” has become something of a dirty, overused word) between what I think I need and want, personally, from church and what I think it should strive to be as a community and as an institution, for teaching, learning, loving, and giving, in all ways practical and im(practical). My own feelings and experience with church don’t count as diddly squat, of course, but I’m struck by what occurs when I enter an Episcopal Church and feel so much divine (and sometimes human) care and comfort in ways I would not and have not elsewhere. Recently, being in church two weeks ago in the Midwest and this past Sunday in the Bronx, brought me places in thought and prayer I can’t imagine would have happened elsewhere.
These happened to be places where at least the priests were progressive theologically (I know little about the parishioners). But even if they hadn’t been, I would have felt much the same. As Elizabeth Kaeton recently wrote describing the thoughts of Ms. Conroy, “I need a place, just one place, at the beginning of my week, where I know who God is and where God is and that there's some semblance of order and control in the universe. Please don't deny me this one hour of illusion. Some days, it's the only thing that keeps me going.” Her thoughts, as well as those of Garrison Keillor’s (the occasion for the post), are very much how I feel about the Episcopal Church, especially in its more Anglo-Catholic manifestations.
I joined the Episcopal Church not, like many others in recent years, because it “stood” for any particular theological point of view or socio-political agenda, but rather because its words, sights, smells, gestures and sounds, in truly Eucharistic-centered worship, is what brought me home to the Christian faith, or at least to the kind of knowledge and awareness of the ever-presence of God and of my need to draw near and listen and pray in humility and wonder, the kind that spurs me to turn my life into something better, however feeble and frustrated my attempts, at times. I left the Lutheran church, where I happily resided briefly (after years of being unchurched and my youth spent with the Methodists), to escape a particular situation of church conflict (that time between a progressive but autocratic bishop and his staff and a faithful congregation who finally found their backbones), not because I thought the Episcopalians were free of such conflicts, not because I thought they were in any way more enlightened theologically or otherwise, but because I just knew it was home in some deep and profound way that reached the core of my being.
From the beginning I have had difficulty with this, knowing that a good part was and is self-centered. I left a Lutheran congregation of people I dearly loved, who were most responsible for bringing me back to any kind of church, who taught me the Eucharist, and who needed all the help they could get in their struggles with the bishop. I had to struggle with whether becoming confirmed as an Episcopalian was really worthwhile and meant something more than just moving across town to a different group of people (whom I also came to love) and their lovely music and liturgy. I thought so, I believe so now, though I am far from bearing the kinds of fruit that I had hoped.
Yet, the Current Unpleasantedness has brought this all to the forefront again. I have previously understood and increasingly understand better why gays and lesbians may experience the Episcopal Church as abusive, especially in light of recent events. I wish they and anyone else who do not feel “at home” as I do to leave and go wherever they can to find their own home (or, as much as it pains me to imagine, go out and keep seeking on their own, if that’s what they need, at least for now). But I would hope that those who stay, of whatever sexual orientation, theological or political views, would understand and accept, to the extent possible, that church has always been and always will be a human institution, peopled by laypeople, pastors, priest, bishops, archbishops and primates (or whatever other kinds are found in a particular denomination or faith tradition), all of whom are fallible. From my perspective, at least, it doesn’t matter how learned the person is, what kind of sacrament or studies have been brought to bear, each and every one is as susceptible to sin and as capable of limited understanding as the next. Those who look to their priests or bishops and to anyone else in the hierarchies as leaders or gurus or even wise men and women are, I think, doing a disservice to themselves and the church.
This is not to say that one cannot or should not work hard to change people’s hearts and minds, to lobby and vote for particular actions and ideas, and to hold persons in positions in authority accountable for what they do and fail to do – indeed, one must do all those things. But to be constantly in a state of disillusion, disease, and even despair over human beings being, well, simply human, as if anything will ever change, other than glacially, even in this age if instant communications, is something I think we should all endeavor to avoid. The Day of Judgment will come, certainly, and we must not tarry or dawdle, but, we, like many of generations before us, may well live our entire lives seeing we, the human race, and the world in which we inhabit, go on much the same as it always has. The church, as a human institution, is not going to change all that much, may even take many steps backward, though one hope it will do some good. It is only church as the Body of Christ that can and will do miracles, that can be counted on.
I don’t begin to know how best anyone should participate or not in institutional churches. Personally, I don’t view even these fallible institutions as something like political parties, where one opts in and out depending on the platform or leaders of the moment. I believe in catholicism, though I do not believe that is should be an idol or warrant support of any church “right or wrong.” But I do think it sometimes requires time and patience to effectuate any kind of long-term changes. I am NOT saying that endless negotiations and waiting are always good strategies or the moral choices called for, but I am saying that, like it or not, sometimes things come slowly, no matter what kind of efforts are made, and that is foolish to place any church on some kind of pedestal, expecting it and its authorities to do any better than people in civil institutions. Certainly we should have all learned by now that the "name brand" does not in any way guarantee the good and the right, let alone the holy and sacred. At best it -- the name of God -- keeps us mindful of what our priorities should be, at worst it is exploited and abused by those who seek power and privilege over others.
Well, I said these were random thoughts, and indeed, they are. I need to let a lot seep and settle for a longer period of time. Maybe in the end I don’t really have anything useful to add to all our conversations, maybe, indeed, my ideas need changing. I read Mark, for one, as a sometimes lone and brave voice trying to call everyone to truth, out of hypocrisy, and away from battles with people who apparently can give little more than more fight. I also have been thinking of the sign I saw in an Episcopal church in downtown NYC that said something like “It costs a dollar for every minute to keep this church operating” (or was it five dollars?). It was a lovely church, no doubt with great history, as is ours and many others. But when do the building costs, the costs of the choirs, organs, and music, the smells and bells, and the priests who are knowledgeable of both liturgy and scripture, come at too high of a cost? Is the future of the true church really the Emergent one, or at least something more like St. Gregory’s as Sarah Miles writes about in Take this Bread? Do many of us want too much our places of sanctuary, can we have sanctuary and mission both, did Christ ever want any of us to “do church” or should we always have found other ways to make and keep community, to love and serve the Lord, our neighbors, and strangers everywhere?
Questions I don’t begin to have answers for....