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.