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.

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Epic Fail: TEC/SC Issues Boil Over

Prelude: I am in grief. The conflict between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national Episcopal church leadership has been brewing for years. The boil-over is like a bad divorce between two people who, in your mind, should have been able to work things out. You love them both and, even though you saw it coming, you keep wondering, “How did it come to this?”  I wrote this post on Wednesday evening. I have sat on it for three days hoping that my grief would subside. It has not.

“I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” –John 17:20-21, NRSV

 Epic Fail. It’s a junior high expression overused to meaninglessness: Dropping a pass. Spilling coffee on your laptop. Tripping in public. Yesterday an actual Epic Fail occurred. The Episcopal Church brought abandonment charges against a bishop actively trying to meet to work out differences. It was my worst day in five years as an Episcopalian.

This is where decades of disagreement over biblical interpretation and human sexuality have left us. If you are not a Christian you are probably wondering why we can’t just treat each other like Christians. If you are a Christian, and especially an Episcopalian OF ANY STRIPE, you will almost surely take issue with what I am about to write.

I write, however, as one who loves his church. Five years ago I walked away from reductionistic evangelicalism to embrace the wisdom of the ancient church, the beauty of liturgy, the soul enrichment of spiritual practice and social engagement as a force for good in the world. As someone who always rejected the small box of fundamentalism, I was enthusiastic to join a church that promised to be a big tent welcoming all to the table. You see, unlike other Christians, Episcopalians were never really a confessional church with long detailed doctrinal statements. We are a CHURCH UNITED BY OUR WILLINGNESS TO PRAY WITH THOSE WE DON’T AGREE WITH, and in what we do believe, we keep it simple – We are a creedal church (the brief Nicene Creed-a large tent with lots of room for disagreement). That room was necessary in England where one church contained Catholics, Protestants and the publicly religious.

If you are not an Episcopalian you probably have no grid in your experience for what a church united around the willingness to pray together might look like. My first Sunday in an Episcopal Church I sat with a friend who worked for our bishop.  He answered for me all the usual questions about the Catholic practice and Protestant theology that characterize us. Then I asked about the political stances of the church. The friend explained that with Episcopalians agreement was not expected. Diversity of opinion was considered a strength, a charism. On one end of the spectrum we had diocese’ that pushed the envelope to bless same-sex couples and, on the other, diocese’ that did not ordain women. As someone with every inclination toward including others, reconciling those in conflict, and whose life’s ministry has been to work across boundaries in ecumenical evangelism, to say I was intrigued by this commitment to comprehensiveness was an understatement.

The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

I have followed things in South Carolina closely, both because of my own wiring toward reconciliation and because I have CLOSE friends on both sides of this issue. I know both sides of this debate well. Both sides have operated in ways that made perfect sense to them in their context and BOTH appear duplicitous and mean spirited to the other. The series of reactions and re-reactions has resulted in broken fellowship.

I realize that there are deep wounds on both sides. I know both sides chronology of what the other side did. I also know that the other side loves God and honestly thinks they are acting in good faith. But do you catch the language? Referring to our sisters and brothers in Christ as sides is tragic. Tragic also is that, in the end, we were the ones who said, “There is a stage leaving town at sundown. Be under it.”

I fear that the “oneness” for which Jesus prayed is going to become defined for us, as in other denominations, as agreement – or at least as the willingness to give the appearance of walking in lockstep with whoever holds the keys of power. That might be the most tragic result of all.

For those not following this situation, here is what appears to have happened in the simplest terms: The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office. Did South Carolina really want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. Did the national church want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. I do not presume to read minds or motives…of either side. I merely grieve.

South Carolina is unlike the rest of the Episcopal church in many ways. But we have a long history of making room for people who push the bounds of our theology, politics and canon law. We had room for Bishop Pike who literally begged our bishops to inhibit him. We had room for Bishop Spong and his version of the old SNL Fluckers skit, “Here’s a new theology I just made up!” Now, sadly, we do not have room for a bishop and the lion’s share of his diocese, that hold a traditional view of marriage. The truth is that we have changed. We moved their cheese.[1] Why can we not give them room to differentiate themselves?

Last night I was in a car with someone who is a key player in our institution. She is a great person who loves God and the church. I cannot describe the sinking feeling in my heart when she said, “We will be a leaner-meaner church now. One that can stop pretending and be who we are.” Well, we will be leaner- by 30,000 Episcopalians. And we will certainly be meaner as we will no longer be held in tension by opposing voices. Is it really a good thing to silence dissent? Will we be able to “be who we are?” I fear that unless who we are is redefined as “a narrow group of Progressive Puritans” then the answer is no. We have been a comprehensive church – A table with room for all. Will that still be who we are? Or is that day passing?

The saddest part of the whole thing for me is the response on the web-organs of our church. Where is the grief in these posts?

The tone on the South Carolina sites is instructive. Their tone is grief. It is not the tone of someone who took their toys and went home.

I do not judge the motives of those on either side. Although this is a very public dispute, there is surely much information that I am not privy to. It is being said that this is what South Carolina angled for all along. I can say that, if this was a conspiracy, it was the greatest conspiracy since the resurrection. I would have to believe that multiple South Carolina diocesan employees including their bishop…in public and private conversations , within and without the walls of their diocesan offices, face-to-face, over phone and text, over years, faked frustration and fear. I think there is a better explanation: We missed it. Us. Them. All of us. We missed one another. They wanted to be different to be sure, but the South Carolina Episcopalians I know wanted to be Episcopalians.

And worst of all, in the eyes of the unchurched, we have all failed in both unity and love.

The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.

But we didn’t. None of us. And that is the shame.

We could have done better. All of us. We could have assumed the best of one another. We could have refused to respond out of fear. We could have made the other make the first move…and the second…and the third. I understand why everyone made every move they made. All around people did their best. Yet today we have an…

Epic Fail.


[1]Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Spencer Johnson, 1998.