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Border Crossings, Part 1: Chain-link Communion

Two images have been haunting me of late. I don’t mean that each has, but rather what one has to do with the other. A Methodist minister helped me see their entanglement; it haunts me.

The first image is a massive fence jutting out from the west coast into the Pacific Ocean right at the friendshippark_fence4U.S./Mexico border; that fence marks the border itself. This fence also sits in a place rather hopefully called “Friendship Park.” First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated that park in 1971 and declared her hope that one day the fence would come down. Imagining a First Lady saying that today is not only difficult politically but also logistically as the Department of Homeland Security has been dismantling the park to build a better fence.

The second image is a religious fence, the kind that marks the boundary between the Eucharistic Table and the altarrail2rest of a church building, where the lay people sit. Not every church building has one of these, but many do, and while the meaning of this kind of fence varies, its message is uncomfortably clear: Access to Holy Communion, just like access to the United States, is restricted.

These two images share something else in common for me. They represent a significant change of heart and mind concerning immigration and Eucharist. Again, I don’t mean a change concerning both, separately. I mean a change concerning both, together.

To be clear, I used to approve of fairly restrictive approaches to both immigration and the Eucharist, and for much the same reason: my appreciation for systems, logic, and law – or more biblically, what Paul described as doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

It made no sense to me that people here in the U.S. “illegally” should have access to health care or education, just as it made no sense to me that the “unbaptized” should have access to Holy Communion. I used to care so much about making sense for multiple reasons, not least these: the urge to manage for fear of chaos and the need to control for fear of scarcity.

I can’t say that I changed my mind about these things at exactly the same moment, but I did so for mostly the same reason: God’s outrageous generosity and scandalous grace.

Think of it this way: “illegal” immigrants are the wrong kind of recipients for services intended for citizens, just as the “unbaptized” are the wrong kind of recipients for food intended for the initiated. Now think about the Hebrew Bible and its exhortations about treating “aliens” in the land with hospitality (Lev. 19:34, among many other references), and think about the Christian Testament and its stories about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-11, among others).

More simply: Christian faith began with stories about Jesus eating with the wrong kind of people. This radical social practice continued with the earliest Christians, who frequently found themselves in jail for disturbing the status quo (Acts 16:19-24, among others).

It’s high time Christians got in trouble again, at both our Eucharistic tables and our international borders. And indeed, at least one Christian minister does both at the same time. When DHS began dismantling Friendship Park, the Rev. John Fanestil, an ordained minister in the friendship_park_communion1United Methodist Church, started crossing construction lines every week at that park, presiding at the Eucharist, and passing the elements of Communion through wire gaps in the fence.

It’s hard to imagine a better image of God’s border-crossing grace than that. And I do think the stakes are high here, as I suggested in my recent book Peculiar Faith:

Imagine someone completely unfamiliar with Christian history. Imagine this person reading for the first time these ancient [Gospel] stories of extravagantly if not wantonly hospitable meal sharing. Then imagine introducing that same person to the institution that preaches from those stories yet regulates and governs who may and may not participate in its shared meals. Would this not seem bewildering? Who could blame such a person for failing to see any connection between the ancient texts and the contemporary institution?

Now imagine someone unfamiliar with American history and politics. Imagine tastatue_libertyking that person to visit the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and reading the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on its pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  Would that person really believe that the statue in New York and the fence in southern California belong to the same country?

All of this has been resurfacing in my thoughts recently for two reasons. First, the 2016 presidential election has already begun and we have to listen to debates about whether people like Columba, Jeb Bush’s Latina wife, “belong” here but not whether folks like Canadian-born Ted Cruz do. And second, alas, this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church narrowly defeated a resolution that would have established a task force to address the question of an “open table” – receiving Eucharist without first being baptized.

That resolution at the General Convention was actually quite modest. Its explanatory text suggested that while the pattern of moving from baptism to Eucharist remains normative, sometimes God calls people into communion in the other direction, from the Table to the Font.

I mean, seriously, of course God can call anyone into Communion in any way God chooses. In fact, there isn’t any “normative” pattern for such calling anywhere in the Bible! Not only do the Gospel writers present Jesus as dispensing entirely with religious rules about shared meals, the Acts of the Apostles depicts the Spirit being poured out rather scary people who weren’t even baptized (Acts 10:44-47 as just one example)!

Thus I’m haunted by that morsel of bread passed through the wires of a chain-link fence – an image rich not only with God’s border-shattering grace but also God’s challenge to borderfriendship_park_communion2-keeping institutions.

Open tables and open borders – why are these so scary? In Part 2 of these reflections, I’ll suggest some reasons why, especially the reasons that used to scare me.

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Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets

That’s one way to summarize the recently concluded 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and apparently the preferred way for no less an American institution as the Wall Street Journal.

Religion can make people a bit crazy. But what exactly is in the New York City water supply that would lead a WSJ writer to describe General Convention as a spectacle of “sheer ostentation” loaded with a “carnival atmosphere”?

Was WSJ’s Mr. Akasie writing under the influence of martinis (a fault of my own, which I freely admit) when he described the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church “brazenly” carrying her staff of office? Brazenly, really? Or perhaps it was a martini or two later that led him to describe Bishop Jefferts Schori as “secretive and authoritarian” during her “reign” thus far. (Anyone who knows her – as I do – finds that ludicrous in the extreme.)

Granted, name-calling is actually quite effective – but in grade school. Presumably we leave behind such childish behavior in adulthood, and if not in our personal lives, then certainly in our professional lives and most certainly if we’re reporting news or even commenting on it in the pages of what was once a prestigious newspaper.

The WSJ was not alone in its bizarre spin on the business of the Church in Indianapolis. Bloggers are of course free-range anyway, but some online sites have come to be trusted locales for thoughtful reflection and reporting. Belief.net used to be one of those trusted sites. Alas, that train left the station some time ago.

If anyone needs any further evidence for Belief.net’s demise, the recent screed by its “senior editor” about General Convention should suffice. There we learn that the pioneering action of Convention to include gender identity and gender expression in the church’s non-discrimination canons amounts to an endorsement of “cross-dressing clergy.” (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

If nothing else, the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net make The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon look reasonable and mainstream by comparison. I wrote just recently about Fr. Harmon’s description of the Convention as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” (I will try to resist wondering whether Fr. Harmon paid these other writers to look foolish…)

So, yes, religion can make people temporarily insane. I get it. But here’s what I believe is the real take-away from all this absurd reporting on General Convention: religious patriarchy is shuddering in its last gasps.

I’ve written on this before (here) and it’s not going away. So here are just two more reasons why all of us who care about the gloriously peculiar faith of Christians need to focus our attention on male privilege, and then I’ll add a final Pauline note. (Oh, and don’t miss this great piece from the Bishop of Arizona about similar topics.)

1. Men Aren’t Brazen (Even When They Are)

So when’s the last time you heard the Archbishop of Canterbury described as “brazen”? I might be out of touch with language on the street, but I have never, ever heard the kind of description of a male bishop that Mr. Asakie used to describe the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori:

Bishop Jefferts Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

Where in the world does anyone begin to parse that bizarre paragraph? I would of course love to know what it means to carry a cross “brazenly.” Did this man pass high school English? More to the point: Women are “brazen”; men never are, even when they do exactly the same things.

Still more: why the gratuitous description of our Presiding Bishop’s tenure as a “reign”? That word might well have appeared in stories about the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope or occasionally other male bishops, but not very often.

The Presiding Bishop leaving General Convention (thanks, Susan Russell). Note: no “brazen” staff in hand.

God forbid that women reign over anything.

2.  Men in Dresses Kill Puppies

Ludicrous? Yes. Nonsensical? Yup. But that’s what we get when we combine the Wall Street Journal with Belief.net. Mr. Asakie took great pains to include the resolutions concerning liturgical rites for companion animals in his article (apparently just the attention to non-human animals is enough to spark ridicule, and that speaks volumes).

Meanwhile, on Belief.net, Rob Kerby finds news from General Convention “stunning” and for mostly the same gendered reasons:

The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.

A friend of mine on Facebook said it all (and I paraphrase a bit): “Men who dress like mothers and insist on being called ‘Father’ are objecting to transgender inclusion?” Well, indeed. But that’s not all. Please do not miss that property management and finances are linked in a single paragraph to gender issues: women can’t deal with money. (Oh, I am so glad my mother is not reading this…)

Look, if a supposedly “senior editor” at belief.net equates transgender concerns with “cross-dressing,” we have some issues to discuss, not least would be how men treat all those who don’t “dress” like creatures worthy of care, respect, and dignity – like non-human animals.

The link between misogyny and animal abuse deserves its own blog post, and I’ll do that soon. For now, suffice it to say that the denigration of women and the facile dismissal of the rites for companion animals belong to an important constellation of issues around male privilege.

3. St. Paul Screwed Things Up – Thank God

Don’t even try to create a coherent theology from Paul’s New Testament letters. I think it’s much more fruitful to notice where Paul gets carried away, where he waxes eloquent and crazy. Where he just can’t contain himself because of the wildness of the Gospel and pushes all the known boundaries, his own included. There are many examples of this in his letters. I have Galatians 3:28 in mind right now.

I know that’s overused. It’s critiqued, parsed, sliced and diced to within an inch of its life. But let us try to listen again to Paul’s exuberance: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Just try putting yourself back in first century Palestine, a Roman province, and consider the implications of what Paul wrote. He upended, overturned, dismantled, and dissolved all the basic social and religious distinctions shaping his society.

Whatever that biblical passage might mean for us today (and there are so many things!), surely it’s time to rethink how much energy and time and money is spent on maintaining gender role distinctions – okay, let’s be honest: male privilege. That would actually be a rather modest reading of Paul’s letter, but let’s just start there.

Those of us in Christ would no longer describe women as “brazen” when they do the same thing as men. We would no longer describe gender difference with terms that men use to belittle women. We would no longer abuse non-human animals as if they were women. Actually, we wouldn’t abuse anything at all.

I think that might count as progress. And if Christians actually lived this peculiar faith, journalists might be less willing to look so terribly foolish.

Oh, and lives might be saved, too…

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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”