Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

There is an old expression from the days when entertainment starved small town Americans waited for the traveling circus to show up, only to be left flat by the disappointing show: one-tent, one-clown, and a one-trick pony. The one-trick pony was a let down, even for farm kids who spent their afternoons watching summer storms roll through from the porch. Reading reports of the testimony from the General Convention it seems to me that, although we may shrink our structures, we have already shrunk our vision. We have become the ecclesiological expression of the one-trick pony. Our pony is “justice,” and we are in grave danger of riding that horse into the ground.

Our church was once characterized by evangelical and reformed theology, ecumenical dialogue through the Lambeth Quadrilateral, ancient catholic practice, and engagement with the world as a natural outgrowth of the first three. It now appears the pressures of our decline and the narrowness of our seminaries* training have left our laity and clergy unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.”

We seem to be unable to view issues through any lens but the lens of social justice – to the point of public shame. Last night a cathedral dean equated the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite language to the flying of the Confederate flag over Charleston.

Here is a money quote from The Living Church’s coverage, “‘How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?’ asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. ‘Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.’”

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another “hate document,” the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese’ have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures? That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

But I cannot really blame Reverend Mebane. To quote a well-worn expression, “When your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.” When we read the scriptures only through the lens of justice, everything begins to look like a justice issue.  We seem to have reduced ourselves to this one-trick pony. And, dogonnit, we are going to ride that thing until it folds under our weight.

Luckily, and as usual, it is the bishops who ride to our rescue. Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh pointed out, “A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force…” Such as the voices of traditionalists, and those of both our ecumenical partners and the other Anglicans in our world-wide communion.

We are fond of quoting our African brethren’s proverbs in our meetings, so let me suggest one: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If we keep riding our justice hobby horse fast and alone, it will do what horses ridden for too long do: collapse.

We have same sex blessings. That horse is out of the barn. Now, for the love, can we throw a saddle on something else for a bit? The actual mission of the church: the evangelism of the 2/3 of the world who are outside of the faith and the discipleship of the 1/3 inside it, would be a good place to start.


*Biblical languages, systematic theology, historic exegesis are all absent on the Courses of Study I have seen.

The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better


Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.


[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)


I Double-Dog Dare You: The playground predicted TEC/South Carolina problems.

How does a group with so much in common: worships the same God, reads the same Bible, and orders its worship from the same Book of Common Prayer…how does that group end up in such an intractable conflict? Why did South Carolina have such a strong need to put “reactive” measures into place? Why has the national Episcopal Church been unable to tolerate their self-differentiation? The playground offers insight on why the relationship between South Carolina and the Episcopal Church soured…

If you follow the Episcopal blogosphere you have watched us catalogue South Carolina’s offenses and pile-on the snarky follow-up commentary. Harnessed to this finger pointing is a good deal of labeling – on both sides. We lampoon the “good ol’ boy network” in South Carolina…although we know they have women in leadership. In return, I have heard it said in South Carolina that, although men work in our Church Center, the Presiding Bishop, the President of the HOD, and 75% of our Church Center employees are women. But rather than engage in tit-for-tat, what if, for a moment, we give one another the benefit of the doubt and take the mutual critique at face value: Could different ways of relating with one another based in gender be a contributing factor to the current situation?

We know from experience that, when under pressure, humans tend to make reactive decisions and default to old behavior patterns. Institutionally, we are at such a point right now. But what if we rewind to an earlier time-a less polarized time…a time in which we may have learned the behavior patterns we use today? Lets, for a few moments, roll back the clock to elementary school and imagine we are in 5th grade and the bell has just rung for recess…

If you are a boy, you are running to the ballfield, heart filled with hope that you might play well in the game about to form. This is your ticket to social success. Distracting you from your quest is the ubiquitous bully all boys must watch over their shoulder for: A larger, older, kid who will eat your lunch, steal your cap, and find any excuse to harass you. What are your options? Avoidance is usually a bad strategy since a bully’s most highly developed sense is the ability to smell fear from across a schoolyard. The only real option is to act big, puff up your muscles and strut a little – out-rooster the rooster. When the fight comes, come back swinging. After you take a few punches the bully will respect you and move on to another target…usually someone who will not hit back.  At least, that is what tends to happen on the playground if you are a boy.

What happens if you are a girl? A completely different dynamic: The girls gather in complex and nuanced interpersonal activities. On the playground girls tend to be collaborative, social, and aware of one another’s feelings. Being “in” the group is everything. Within those groups the turf wars are just as ruthless as on the kickball field – social Darwinism is at work here as well. But the way it plays out tends to be very different: The socially weak are likely to be left alone. Who is the target? The ones who dare to be different: wear different clothes, talk differently, stand out or stand up to the Alpha girls. If you are a girl, being “different” is at your own peril.

Where, on the boy side of the playground, weakness is the kiss of death; on the girl side differentiation is punished, and weakness is given coveted emotional support.

These playground dynamics are hauntingly familiar. One side, afraid of being bullied plays “look strong.” The other, valuing conformity, is incensed at the self-differentiation. Now, I am not saying that what is going on between TEC and South Carolina is the “battle of the sexes.” Surely this is not a male v. female argument. But it does feel as if a conflict between values with some basis in gender is playing out its script.   Under pressure, when we are all most likely to do what we have previously learned, the group with one set of values is using the strategy they learned for self-defense in conflict. Under pressure the group with feminine values is using our very different collaborative, relational, “conform” strategies that we learned on our side of the same playground.

To the national church, a group in which collaboration and social conformity are the highest values, differentiation and bluster are the ticket to sanction by the larger group. To South Carolina, defiance was just the opposite – their strategy to stay in. Could South Carolina have chosen a strategy that could have caused them to be seen in a worse light by the rest of us, a group whose highest value is playing well with others? Probably not!

But put yourself in the shoes of a priest, parish vestry, or diocesan Standing Committee member living in Charleston five years ago: They are nervous that the faith they have known is being redefined by us…afraid that we have an incrementalist strategy to push a creeping redefinition of both the faith and human relationships on them. (A fear they felt confirmed in, by the way, this summer at General Convention when we added the “transgendered” category to the clergy non-discrimination canon with surprisingly little fuss.) They are afraid that outsiders want to come in and force them to be someone they are not.

So time comes for them to elect a new bishop. And we tell them, “We don’t like your choice, pick another.”

Still walking your mile in their Southern moccasins, imagine the ways their deepest fears are being confirmed: They have theological fears. They have social-order fears. Now we give them a fear of a new Northern aggression to add into this volatile mix.

So they do what most of us would have done: They re-elect the same person.

And that was just the beginning. From there the playground games of dare, re-dare, and “the vaunted double-dog dare,” to quote the classic movie, A Christmas Story, began in earnest.

1. In 2008, after the novelty of making them elect their choice for a bishop twice, Mark Lawrence was made to sign affidavits and theological statements by Diocesan Standing Committees…an unprecedented action to take when consenting to a bishop’s election.

2. At the 2009 General Convention we revised Title IV, the clergy disciplinary process. South Carolina saw it as aimed at giving us the legal cover to attack their bishop, so they change their clause acceding to the canons of the national church (but not the constitution)…putting them in the same boat as (what I have read is 12) other diocese’ – including, strangely enough, the diocese’ of several of those on the disciplinary board charging South Carolina with “abandonment” based on non-accession.

3. In 2010, TEC & SC together lost the Pawley’s Island lawsuit. South Carolina’s largest parish, St. Andrew’s, left on the heels of that decision. SC had other churches asking to leave. The bishop, in an action  to respond to his own people (not us) in 2011 distributed quit-claim deeds saying, “Here, this is proof that we are together out of relationship rather than law.” Since no churches have left since that time, it is a strategy that worked.

4. In 2011 the Title IV Board went forward with nameless/faceless charges against their bishop – they responded with putting into their canons a disaffiliation clause to prevent more of what they saw as “meddling.”

5. In 2012 We tried their bishop on essentially the same charges as the previous year. They activated their disaffiliation clause.

As my brief chronology points out, the actions the diocese of South Carolina took were always in response to what they perceived as threats on our part. Did South Carolina “poke the bear”? Absolutely. Was it in order to quit?  Who can say for certain. But as someone who has been in regular relationship with South Carolina-with their people, at their camp, in their diocesan offices, I too could see what was going on and asked the obvious “departure” question. I asked it a hundred different ways: I asked on the record, off the record, by phone, in person, via text, over beer. You name it, I asked it. And I never once heard, “We want to leave.” All one hundred times I heard, “We have powerful voices who want to leave, but we are trying to do two things: hold ourselves together and stay in the church.” Should you believe them? Ask yourself why Mark Lawrence, the most notoriously traditionalist bishop did not have his name on this summer’s amicus brief’s filed in the departing diocese’ court cases defending the traditional view of the role of the national church. What other reason than he didn’t want to be involved in something to further irritate the national church? It was a perfect opportunity to goad the national church to attack South Carolina. Why not take it?

Sadly, we all acted in very predictable ways. In the end, we did what we know: asked people to prove they desire to be a part of the group by acting like part of the group. South Carolina did what they know: tried to out-rooster the rooster to keep their place on the playground. It has all the makings of a Mars/Venus moment, doesn’t it?

Or as Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

What can we do now? I would hope we could ask South Carolina to the ice-cream social and playground mediation before conventions start being held and lawsuits start flying. Any takers?

I double-dog dare someone.

Ballplayers Doing Brain Surgery: What might have been done in & about South Carolina Episcopalians.

In case you have not been following events between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episocopal Church, here is a short version: South Carolina is very traditional in terms of biblical interpretation and marriage. The rest of the Episcopal Church tends not to be. A conflict, brewing for quite some time, came to a head a week ago when a “letter of restriction” was placed on the ministry of their bishop, preventing him from any ministerial duties during the investigation. This triggered automatic disaffiliation clauses South Carolina had put in place. The accusations involve two old charges that were previously dismissed and a new charge of abandoning the Episcopal Church by giving Quit Claim deeds to the churches in their diocese. The Episcopal Church has canon law saying that church property belongs to the national church, rather than the local body that built it. This seems counter-intuitive to non-denoms, but that is our polity. The whole thing is presumably now headed to court where years of lawsuits will consume millions of dollars given to the work of God. The following is a response to many questions as to “What would you have done?”

Jordan Haynie, Candidate for the priesthood in Fort Worth (and many others) had the following question:

“I do not think the Episcopal Church is as big a tent as we claim to be, nor are we as big as we want to be. But I do not think that is the issue here. Bishop Lawrence and the diocesan convention of South Carolina were making the moves to make it possible for them to leave. How should the Disciplinary Board of Bishops respond to actions like that? What do you recommend?”

Hi Jordan,

Thank you for joining the conversation. I am excited for you in your candidacy to Holy Orders.

I will give you my best shot at where the people I know in SC were coming from. I think it will be instructive as to how we got where we are, and then I’ll attempt my best shot at what I hope I would have done…

I am not a bishop, presiding bishop, or member of the disciplinary board. Asking me to solve this problem is a bit like asking a basketball player to perform your brain surgery. I have neither experience nor training, so I am weighing in on a subject that is far over my head so I wade into these waters with fear and trepidation.

Although I am not someone with authority, influence or power, I am a person whose primary friendships in our church, outside of my own diocese, are in the Diocese of California and the Diocese of South Carolina. My connections are primarily relational rather than theological. I am convinced that the great people I am friends with in the SF bay area would really appreciate the great people I am friends with in Charleston…on every subject minus one. And vice-versa. As my connections are relational, any solutions I attempt would be as well…and would have involved being in one-another’s world.

I did not understand Charleston until ministry took me to South Carolina three times. Because I have spent probably two weeks there, at their camp, diocesan office and with their youth ministers, I understood where they were coming from. Because I am not from there, I understand where we are coming from and our institutional need not to “give away the farm.”

I was on phone or text with friends during each of their “troubling” decisions. I can tell you that my diocesan friends in SC: a) wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church (unlike the four departing diocese’), b) were convinced that they were being attacked by the larger church, c) had voices in their midst that wanted to depart and d) were making their moves thinking they had both insured protection for their place in the church and maintained their own internal unity.

To the outside world, it was Tom Ferguson’s slow motion accident in the print shop he wrote about the other day on Crusty Old Dean. I could see how what they were doing made sense to them as a way to insure their continuance in the church…and that it would have the exact opposite effect with the rest of the church. Then I would talk to our people going to meetings to respond to SC and beg them to give room. We would then respond in equally predictable ways to insure our position was protected. In the end, like Tom as a teen in the print shop, I am too removed from the levers of power for my opinion to have any influence whatsoever. Unlike Tom, I do not think this was the way it is supposed to happen. I am not enough of a Calvinist I suppose – I think we all missed it. All of us.

People keep saying to me, “This is exactly what they were angling for.” There were those voices in SC. I do not believe Bishop Lawrence was one of those. I may be completely wrong. But if I am, he and his staff are the best liars I have ever met. What motive would they have had for being dishonest with a youth guy from Arizona…on multiple occasions over a four-year period?

Jordan, you asked what I would have done. I would have risked everything for unity. I think that was actually what the Quit Claim deeds were for a bishop whose rectors said, “We are with you because you will sue us.” Put yourself in his shoes for a few moments: Pawley’s Island had already gone against the diocese – making them the one diocese in which the courts have not sided with the us. I cannot imagine doing what Bishop Lawrence did, but bishop’s are under pressures that people who do not work in bishop’s offices do not see. What I was told was that Bishop Lawrence made an attempt to keep his diocese together on collegial bonds rather than canonical ones-which is the diocese’ understanding of what the courts in SC have said they wouldn’t uphold anyway. Like I say, I do not think I would have done what he did, but I my experience of bishop Lawrence is that, like my bishop, Kirk Smith, he is a straight-shooter. He was quite willing to say things to me he could assume I would not agree with.

I choose not to read motives into people on either side. I find it uncharitable. What is public is that Bishop Waldo and Bishop Lawrence were in dialogue with the Presiding Bishop. That was why I used the counselor’s office analogy in my previous post.

I tend to give bishops the benefit of the doubt – mainly because I work for one. I watch my bishop daily balance the needs of the larger church, the needs of congregations, the needs of individuals and what he is convinced is his proper response to the call of God. Being a bishop is complicated and he does the best he can as a follower of Christ, utilizing his experience and wisdom. And in that complexity, someone’s felt needs are usually thwarted. Win-win is often hard to achieve in a world of scarcity. So I give grace in my assessment of bishops.

I am not a Presiding Bishop either, so I want to be charitable with Katherine as well. None of us know the pressures that she is under institutionally. I do hope that I would have had the patience to let the attempts at reconciliation with Bishop Waldo work themselves out before presenting the restriction letter.

So, if I were bishop I hope I wouldn’t have given the Quit-Claim deeds…and I might have lost all of my cardinal parishes. If I were presiding bishop I hope I would have let the reconciliation process go on-in which case, I am sure that there are institutional needs of the larger church being met in the timing of the charges that we are not privy to…and I would guess I would have had a high price to pay for that action as well. If I were on the disciplinary board I hope that I would have looked at what was going on, asked questions, listened, expressed understanding as to the pressure the bishop was under. I then would have pointed out our ability and right to step in, then affirmed their right to differentiate. I would have asked the bishop what SC could do to show good faith that they wished to remain with us. I would hope I could have started with the assumption that we are on the same team…and remember that most bishops don’t really want to be congregationalists and ask more questions and then ask for them to throw us a bone…specifically to use more care in their language and to begin giving to things in the national church they could support in good conscience.

Would any of this have worked? I do not know. Maybe not. I’m just a basketball player. You are asking for brain surgery and that is way above my pay grade.