I have an interesting relationship to the Church. As a religious under vows, I am bound to Obedience to the Church’s Canons, Constitution, and Creeds. Regardless of whether I agree with them. However, because I am not ordained to Holy Orders, but as a religious bound to a different Rule of Life, I am not bound by oaths of conformity, I don’t belong to the Bishop of my Diocese as Deacon’s do, and I have few constraints on my ability to speak truthfully to the Church without fear of censure. As a religious Brother, I am part of a long line of traditions, communities, and individuals that have often been thorny for the hierarchy of the Church, who freely spoke truth to her powerful “princes” to call them back from willful disobedience to the Gospel.
Generally speaking, I have no problem with those individuals who make up the structures of authority that govern our Church. When it comes to Bishops and Priests and Deacons, I am of the view that Deacon’s do the better work; Priests are generally better prepared for administration rather than pastoral care; and Bishops are…well for the most part I think they’ve fallen so deeply (generally speaking) into the corridors of power that it makes them less Chief Pastors and more like corporate CEOs concerned more with profit margins and restructuring than anything else. And lay people are rarely given any reason to do the hard work of Gospel witness when the clergy do it for them.
There aren’t nearly enough women bishops, and only token LGBTQ representation, regardless of the gifts particular individuals bring. And historically, Bishops have been more inclined to support the status quo rather than entertain any kind of prophetic stance that serves the Gospel mandate.
Recent conversations on Obedience and Prophetic Witness with one of my brothers have caused me to look reflectively at the question of my filial duties to a Church that I love, and the fact that I spend a great deal of time calling out the Church and its institutions for its often blatant disregard for people and communities who are the most marginalized and its role in that continued marginalization.
I have no doubt that those who hold Holy Orders in the Church are largely good people with good and noble intentions. I have no quibble with individuals by and large, although like anyone there are those who I think are good at their jobs and those I think aren’t. But my concern is not with the folks who hold these jobs. It is with the institution and its lethargy; the Church’s blindness about the difference between saying something and actually doing it; the Church’s willingness over and again to tell marginalized people to wait for justice and inclusion and welcome until the Church has suffered through 30 years of study committees. Only to discover that once the Church welcomes and says it includes that institutional behavior changes very little despite whatever legislation it passes and resolutions it affirms. The Church has spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort coddling those who resent inclusion and equality in the Church, always by asking those at her doors to wait. Wait. Wait! And when the tide changes and say women are ordained; or LGBTQ folk are welcomed to full sacramental life; the cultural patterns of the Church take a generation or more to change.
The Church pays little attention to this reality. It becomes institutionally self-congratulatory, but spends so little time outside of its own walls as to make these changes relatively meaningless to those who actually inhabit the margins. Women still confront glass ceilings. LGBTQ folk outside still believe the Church has no love for them. Trans folks still find little welcome and less understanding.
In 1804, Absalom Jones became the first African American priest. It took 70 years for the first African American Bishop, James Theodore Holly. over 100 years later our first female African American Bishop. She received death threats. We just elected our first African American Presiding Bishop. In 2016. And my goodness, how we congratulated ourselves. But, when I point out the Church’s racism, you’d think I was just being irrational.
Women’s ordination began in the 1970’s. In 1989 we elected our first woman Bishop. In 2006, our first female Presiding Bishop. We currently only have 5 diocesan Bishops who are women in the entire Episcopal Church. Women routinely make less than men, struggle to have their ministries recognized, and often are subjected to misogyny in the halls of the Church. Yet, when I point this out, the only people who know what I’m saying seem to be the women.
LGBTQ people? I barely know where to start. Human sexuality and the inclusion of LGBTQ people was discussed for over 40 years before there was really any movement other than empty platitudes. In 1990, a Bishop was accused of heresy for ordaining an openly gay man as priest. He had the charges dismissed after ecclesial trial…six years later. In 2003, we elected our first openly gay bishop. But it took until 2009 to pass a resolution stating that God’s call was open to all. It took another 3 years to include trans* people at all, and begin blessing our relationships. And another 3 before marriage was opened to all. And yet, the Church has little or no understanding of LGBTQ culture. It doesn’t step outside of its walls enough to learn about our identity and our pride. As long as we conform to its expectations, then we’re all good. The Church doesn’t see its homophobia. And it certainly doesn't see its transphobia. It thinks its work is done. When I point out its not done, the Church blusters and pouts.
I often tread a wire, much like the deacons in our Church, between the world and the institution. Trying to be a link between them. But my ministry is not about bringing those outside into the Church, as much as it's about bringing the Church out into the world. To see the actual lives of those whom the Church has historically harmed, and trying to get them to rebuild relationships that aren't dependent upon whether anyone sets foot within her walls. It is not easy work. It is often thankless. And too often, the Church just doesn't get it. But, if I believed the Church *couldn't* get it...I'd simply stop trying. I continue to have faith the Church will catch up.
As a religious vowed to Obedience, my job is to witness to what it means to obey the commands of Christ, to love God and neighbor; to embrace the outcast; reject power politics; to see God as Sovereign rather than the powers of this world, that Scripture reminds us belongs to another less savory Ruler. My job, under Obedience, is to point out the Church's disobedience to Christ's commands and call it to deeper commitment to justice and mercy. That's the witness of religious. What it means to take Christ's teaching seriously regardless of the cost. Even if that cost leads to death, like it did for Jesus and the prophets.
So, if the Church rebels and blusters...ok. But resist as it might, God will win. God will win with the love of souls. And if the Church follows, then it will have served its noble purpose. It will fulfill its promise as the body Christ left for us to do the work of the Kingdom until such time as God in Christ refashions the world and makes all things perfect. But the Church should have a care that it doesn't squander its inheritance by gatekeeping and indifference. By disobedience. By isolation.
I love the Church. But I love God's beloved children more. And witnessing to the love of God in a mad world is the work I have committed to...even when it means doing so because the Church has failed to do so. A painful work when I believe in my heart of hearts that the Church can love this way and too often chooses not to. Love isn't about resolutions, and legislation. It's about action. It's about relationship. It's about risk that those you welcome may actually change you into a greater vision of the Reign of Love that God has in mind. It's not about inclusion for its own sake, but so that those included may bring the fullness of their gifts to the work of healing the world. And the Church can't take up that work when it's still ensnared in the work of wounding.