The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Politically Correct

We have heard a lot about political correctness recently, mainly from a candidate for President. I suspect, though, that outsiders who look at the Episcopal Church see us as a bastion of political correctness, a place where nice people say nice things to one another and don't rock any boats.

One Episcopal joke (OK—I'm spoiling the punchline) has an Episcopalian missing out on heaven because of using the wrong fork on a salad.

And it's easy to see our advocacy for gay rights and full inclusion of women in leadership as attempts to "go with the flow" and just be nice to one another.

That's not how we do doctrine. Our process for dealing with truth has sometimes been called a three-legged stool, but that analogy doesn't quite work, for it implies that all three legs (scripture, reason, tradition) are equal. Scripture is the overwhelmingly important one, so the analogy should be more like the old-fashioned stool one used to find at lunch counters: one main pillar embedded in the floor (scripture) and a couple of side supports (your legs) that you use to balance yourself. The good thing about the three-legged stool analogy, though, is that it works against the tendency some have to pluck one verse out of the Bible, read it in modern English without discussing its historical context or linguistic background, and apply it as an unchanging rule. Here are a couple of examples to show what I mean:

Women in the church. We often hear, for example, of I Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should keep silent in the church and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says that Paul would not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. But what about all the important women in the Bible, including some who had a great deal of authority? What about the passage that says in the Kingdom of God there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28)? What about our own ancient history in which it was common for Celtic Abbesses to be persons of authority over both men and women? What about the modern missionary movement, which would have been impossible without female missionaries? Obviously, some thinking beyond a one-verse proof-text is necessary here.

Gay people and sexual minorities in the church. Once again, we get a lot of one-verse proof-texting. I'll just point out that the Leviticus "anti-gay" verse (18:22) uses the same language that is used for banning the eating of certain food, that the most-quoted New Testament verse in I Corinthians uses very unusual language that a Greek-speaker would not ordinarily use in discussing gay people, and that, by Paul's time, the real sexual transgressions of pagan society included ritual prostitution (some of it forced) in the worship of pagan deities. Forced temple prostitution is not what happens in the USA. I don't know how much weight we can put on it, but when Jesus healed the Centurion's servant, the Greek might indicate that the servant was actually a young slave who had been bought to be a lover. We certainly know, however, that the early church venerated Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who have normally been assume to be a couple.

Taking the heat for being politically correct

On both of these issues (and on several others, including our advocacy for civil rights and for the rights of immigrants), we have actually lost members who preferred the status quo, and pursuing justice on these issues has involved a lot of study, argument, and prayer, so it's not really correct to say we are advocates "just to be nice." We do these things because (after a lot of soul-searching) we're convinced that God is leading us to do the right thing.

Political correctness and the modern debate

OK—this is the part you thought I was going to write about. I'm old enough to remember when the default pronoun for a situation in which we were discussing generic humanity was "he." In the early days of the feminist movement, we struggled with a lot of silliness (for example, those who would write by alternating pronoun gender, paragraph by paragraph), and a lot of trivial campaigns (for example, the move to change the helper at a football game from "water boy" to "water person" and changing the name of an access hatch from "manhole" to "person hole").

But consider the roots of all this. How many female doctors, after struggling through medical school and residency, had to point out that they were "real" doctors and not nurses? How many divorced men can only see their children a few days a month because the mother is the "real" parent? How many Africans cringe when a Christian preacher makes reference to a heart that is "black with sin" and needs to be "washed whiter than snow"?

There is something basically loving and Christian about moderating one's language so as to avoid hurting or insulting the listener. And this isn't a matter of being spineless, but of standing firm for the truth that in God's eyes, people matter and we have no right to hurt them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Orlando Attack

To recap—especially because these comments might be read some time in the future—the material below refers to a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, June 12. In that attack, over 100 were shot, and more than 50 died.

Our Bishop, Mark Hollingsworth, has published this excellent response to the massacre. I have only a few things to add:
  • News media and politicians, ever eager to get in the first word, instantly published speculations about the motivations of the shooter. Because of his name and his religion, he was instantly labeled as a radical Muslim terrorist by some. Reality is more complex than that, and his motives might well include self-hatred for his own homosexuality. We just don't know yet because the event is so fresh in our minds. It's only been three days. We shouldn't rush to judgment.
  • Religious figures have rushed to demonize Muslims and gay people as a result of this attack. They should know better. Self-appointed prophets of doom and hatred have little to do with the Christian message.
  • Gun control is a topic which will come up again, and the extremists claim that we should actually have more guns, and that proposed background checks on buyers and bans on military-grade weaponry would not have stopped this attack. They are right, but they miss an important point. Seat belts have been required in cars since 1968. Did the death rate from car wrecks go down instantly? No, because a lot of cars still didn't have them, and there was a lot of public resistance to using them. What we have seen, though, is a declining number of deaths and injuries over the last 48 years as occupant protection became more of a priority and seatbelt use became more universal. It's the same story with guns. Passing laws to control availability of guns, especially of military attack weapons, will not instantly decrease the number of deaths, but it will be the beginning of a process. We have seen resistance to changes that will improve public welfare from tobacco companies, from coal and oil companies, and from gun and ammunition companies. We mustn't let their desires to make money overwhelm our need to live quiet, peaceful, healthy lives.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

MAC and Gun Control

St. Matthew's is part of a group called the Mission Area Council (MAC), seven nearby Episcopal churches who meet to exchange news and plan for such things as outreach and mission. (One of our upcoming projects is to assemble Welcome Kits for refugees—such things as pots, pans, blankets, and household items.)

At our regular meeting last Thursday, we decided to begin a letter-writing campaign to state and national legislators demanding meaningful action to regulate the sale and distribution of guns and ammunition.

The rhetoric you hear from those in favor of gun ownership all sounds as if we must be prepared to defend ourselves against terrorists banging down the doors of our houses and a national government that has lost its mind and is attempting to enslave us. The truth is that guns are a far greater danger to the family of the owners than terrorists or criminals are. So far this year in Ohio, five children and youth have been killed by gunfire and fourteen injured. Numbers for adults would be far higher.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't all Christians hate gay people?

In a word, no.

With all the media attention that's been focused on same-sex marriage and the restroom issue, it would be easy to get the idea that antagonism toward sexual minorities is foundational to the Christian message. It isn't. In fact, Jesus said nothing about such topics, and the New Testament writers only touched slightly on them. (And there are serious questions about the translation of some of the Greek terms that seem so obvious in a modern English translation.)

(It's also worth mentioning that news media focus on sensationalism and conflict because such things drive up their audience numbers. That's how a relatively small number of screaming church members get so many headlines on gender issues.)

Who we are/how we work

Generally, big issues of doctrine and policy are decided in the Episcopal Church from the top down. (Note: This is what "Episcopal" means: We are governed by bishops.) Since 1976, we have been officially committed to the idea that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church." Here is the official statement on our denominational website plus some helpful links.

Within our own Diocese (that's the group of Episcopal parishes in the north half of Ohio), we don't have another official statement—the national one is good enough—but our bishop is on record as a supporter of full equality for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church. As an example, here's his letter to the Diocese, written just after the Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage.

Back at St. Matthew's

Inclusion is such a total non-issue for us (we've been working on it for 40 years!) that you have to be a real Sherlock Holmes to find the LGBT people in our midst. As a congregation, we really do try to practice our denominational slogan: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. Here's the way our Diocese website says it:
You will find us to be old and young, male and female, gay and straight, single, married, divorced, and widowed, white and black, CEO and unemployed, rich and poor.

I realize that this post will probably get some responses, and I welcome them. You should know, however, that when you submit a comment, it will not appear immediately; it will be read by the webmaster before it posted to the blog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What to wear? What to wear?

As I look back over the last couple of blog items, I realize that I'm frequently writing about clothing. Orange to protest gun violence. Red for Pentecost. And when I first walked into an Episcopal church, clothing was one of the first things that caught my eye: all the different robes and colors.

Robin Williams famously commented that one of the ten best reasons to be an Episcopalian is that the church year is color-coded. (We're currently in the beginning of the long teaching cycle of the Ordinary season, so the color is green.)

One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of a church notice (probably fictional) that had a list of things one couldn't wear: No sandals, no shorts, no athletic wear, no earrings on men, etc. The Facebook post says, "Join us for our opening hymn, 'Just as I am.'" That item might be fictional, but I know of two different churches in town that turned away teenage visitors who were wearing T-shirts with rock band names. (What a great message to send to kids who are interested in learning about Jesus!)

On any given Sunday at St. Matthew's, you'll see a lot of people who are dressed up. Women no longer wear hats and gloves (that was part of my childhood culture), but you'll normally see me in a dress shirt and jacket. You'll also see Bob in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals. Lots of T-shirts in the summer. (We're not air-conditioned.)

So what?

One of the interesting things about the Episcopal Church is that we're very reluctant to tell you what to do, especially on what we'd call "peripheral" items. (T-shirt or tie? Long hair or short? Beard or not?) We tend to be very minimal in life-style rules, even rules that some would call "essential" to the matter of being a "respectable Christian" because those rules distract a person from the essential material of following Christ and doing good to our neighbor. What did Jesus say about smoking? About being gay? About transgendered people using public restrooms? Nothing? Really? Maybe those concerns aren't part of the core Christian message after all.

That's why I can wear my tie and jacket while Bob wears his Hawaiian shirt, and we never really ask whether our clothing says anything about our faith.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wear Orange on June 5

I have a lot of experience with guns:
  • Years ago, a man with a gun forced his way into our house and robbed us at gunpoint.
  • When I lived in the West End of St. Louis, we had a pretty standard strategy when rival gangs would have a shoot-out on our street. It didn't include calling the police. They didn't like to show up until things had cooled down.
  • Early in my teaching career, I assigned a paper on the topic "A day I would like to change" and a student wrote about the time he found a gun in his father's bureau and accidentally shot his brother.
  • Another of my students commented that he came from New Jersey, so several of his friends had been shot to death.
  • Yet another of my students had to drop out of school to take care of his family after his brother had been shot dead.
  • My wife was nearly killed because the neighbors were using a field for target practice and had not mentioned it to anyone.
  • One of my childhood friends tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot himself to death with a rifle.
I don't have a lot of warm, happy, fuzzy memories that are connected with guns.

Unfortunately, my experience is far too normal in the USA. Most of us can name friends or family who have been victims of gun violence, and too often it is the simple, sad story of a child who finds a gun and is playing with it when the gun goes off. (American children are nine times more likely to be victims of this sort of accident than children from anywhere else in the world.)

Because of this, I really applaud the recent Episcopal initiative Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Just wearing orange to church on June 5 will not solve anything, but it's a beginning. We begin by raising the awareness of our friends and neighbors.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why Wear Red for Pentecost?

The post below is copied from the website of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. It's a good post, and I didn't think I could improve on it, so here it is in its entirety:

This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost is the is the day on which we remember the story given to us in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.
The story goes:
  • 40 days after the resurrection (which we celebrate at Easter) Jesus ascends into heaven (which we celebrate on Ascension Day)
  • But before he ascends, Jesus promises that he will not leave us “comfortless”, but will send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and to guide us, to guide the church.
  • Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit descended on the people gathered. (note: Pentecost is an ancient Jewish festival of the harvest, the name of which translates from the Hebrew as The Festival of Weeks. This festival is referred to in Exodus chapters 23 ad 34, and in Deuteronomy chapter 16)
In the Book of Acts, the story is told:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
So… on The Day of Pentecost in the church year, fifty days of Easter and ten days after the Ascension, the clergy wear RED vestments to signify the work of the Spirit. It is also a custom in many churches for the people in the congregation to wear RED on the Day of Pentecost as well. We wear RED to remind us of the fire of the Spirt.

In addition, a congregation with many dressed in RED is colorful.

And perhaps most of all, it is fun.