Saturday, December 19, 2009

Are We All In?

Are we all in? A question either thought or asked when one is concerned if the family is safely gathered—in a home, a bunker, a shelter, a stable or a mountain cave, even a palace, a corner on a heated grate in the city, or the vehicle that is home when there’s nothing else.

It’s a good question. 

Are we all in?

I am thinking in a spiritual way, thinking of all the diversity of religious practice and story, diversity we need in order to grow, diversity that may provoke conflict and tension, also necessary for growth.

Paradox: the more healthy diversity we have the more resistant to its benefits we get. It’s like those peas your mother said you had to eat to grow—or at least to get dessert.

Hanukkah and Christmas come at the same time of year. Both celebrate liberation with light ( so does Solstice.) We tell of a new start free of war and desecration of precious traditions, places or people. For Jews Hanukkah marks the re-dedication in 165 BCE of the Jerusalem Temple by the Maccabees. The Temple had been destroyed by the Syrians. The Maccabees, the family of Judas Maccabaeus led a religious revolt, fought a kind of guerilla battle from caves and hideouts in rugged lands and ousted the enemy to secure the safety and survival of the
Jewish people.

Hanukkah lasts eight days and today is marked by lighting successive candles or lamps, gifts, parties and special foods cooked in oil, sometimes gifts and games. Hanukkah in Hebrew means consecration—dedicated to a divine purpose, holy.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ-child Jesus. The story-picture is romantic and beautiful: the new young homeless mama and papa gathered in a stable with the newborn babe in a manger mow, surrounded by cattle, sheep, probably a few barn rats and a cat or two—and plenty of stinking manure. But no matter! Angels adorn the scene and stars glitter against the navy blue sky, the brightest shedding light into the humble scene. The sight enchants most Christians, evokes warmth and peace and promise. Liberation, hope. This child can surely heal rifts, melt hard hearts and help the most down and out or dysfunctional among us to make a new start.

Christmas is celebrated today with decorated trees, lights, parties, special foods, and gifts—a time to gather in. Christmas can be lonely for those who don’t have anyone to gather them in. Christmas means Christ Mass, devotional worship dedicated to a divine purpose, holy.

Both festivals gather in all our hopes and fears and tell us to start again, to bring light into inner and outer darkness, to renew even the worst of circumstance with new life and consecrate it all, for it is all divine.

Our little differences and sweet spiritual nuances begin and end in the same place—all consecrated. All holy-days are zoom lenses for divine grandeur.

But Godde is also panoramic, does all of it at once as the poet proclaims. We’re all in!

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mary and Me

I chose for my ordination day the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, officially Mary’s day, but this year, 1988, my day too. I had chosen my day hoping it would fit the bishop’s calendar which takes precedence over all other calendars on earth, or so it seems. I was lucky.

Mary was a woman like me, a mother of children like me. One of her children was Jesus who, according to biblical accounts of his growing up, was more difficult to raise than any and all of my four, the same four who through no fault other than their tender existence, had been the chief reason for my rejections in the ordination process. To sexism, misogyny, gynephobia and other labels, add mother-ism, the irrational fear that your own or someone else’s mother, if given enough liberty, might just take over the world.

The Church exalted Mary, raised her Motherhood to near-divine status, surrounded her with stars and crowns and haloes and called her blessed. Blessed by divine touch she was, however in time the patriarchy of religious tradition and biblical interpretation neutered her and turned her into a virgin, for which there is no clear prophetic substantiation and whose politics of control wasn’t even subtle. They stole her sexuality, her femininity, her courage and stamina, and her alliance with God’s politics. It’s no accident that the biblical mandate for justice, the Magnificat we hear read and sung at Christmas time, is placed on the lips of the woman Mary whom God chose to be a prophet— as well as quite a mother. However, the more heavenly Mary became, the more her influence spread and the more difficult it was for earthly girls, women and certainly mothers to find a place for their humanity in church and culture.

Thought not immune from this disorder, I had grown up Protestant, untaught, so when I went to a Mass with my college roommate and spotted a woman up front—a statue and bad art, yes, but unmistakably female, I had strained to get a better look. Virginity didn’t matter as much to me as it had in high school and motherhood was a distant goal, so I’d fallen in love with Mary and with the liberating idea her prominent presence represented. I could be up front too.

I quickly identified with Mary because God had asked her to do a hard thing—be an unwed pregnant young girl risking shame and even death for the sake of God’s big new project. It happens all the time in the bible, written as if God said and presto it happened. But I knew better. I knew how to read between the lines. I knew these ancient men and women were real, their stories my story, their experience archetypal, their bodies as vulnerable as mine. I knew because I knew how God could be; I knew because I never forgot my own childhood spiritual experience.

Angel Gabriel or no Angel Gabriel, I had trusted my own annunciation and call to priesthood, which fortunately did not make me pregnant.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Emergence

Where now is the authority? Who says? Where is the plumb line for sound spiritual teachings and practices? Where if you desire can you be fully your human self and experience a dash of the divine as well?

The authority question is the besetting question of every new era.

I have no answers to these question just more questions. In fact questioning and exploring spiritual questions together in groups may be the authority of today in this age of what some call the Great Emergence.

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly and a respected authority herself on religions in America today has written a book called The Great Emergence, in which she defines the phenomenon as “monumental.” Her focus is Christianity in America in a time of reconfiguration of tsunami proportions.

Tickle, an active Episcopalian and author of The Divine Hours on prayer, deftly sweeps through church history to give a panoramic view of trends and developments. How did we get here? Only through history can we understand patterns that lead us to where we now are.

Anglican bishop the Right Reverend Mark Dyer famously quipped that every 500 years the Church holds a giant rummage sale—searching attic treasures discarding what is no longer useful and finding some that have been forgotten and need refurbishing and new life.

We can trace such movements back to the arrival of Jesus and the change of the era (BCE/CE) and the challenge to Judaism, to the Decline and Fall of Rome and the challenge to empire, through the Great Schism of East and West, Latin and Greek brands of Christianity, to the Great Reformation of 1517....and 2000. What is emerging now?

No one can articulate it to a tee. I hear a lot of lament: I can't keep up with the changes. I hear fear: I don't want any more change! And I hear: This is a challenging and exciting time to be alive. Go where the love is.

Historically, each “rummage sale” has issued forth in a more vital form of Christianity, a new way to be a Christian; each one was good; in each “winnowing” the Christian religion was reconfigured not destroyed. The key to such a miracle is that the establishment softened to let in the new. The softer, more supple the structure the more durable.

You can read about this process of softening in the biblical book of Acts in which Jerusalem authorities listened to the experience, stories and testimonies of the followers of Jesus struggling to survive and be taken seriously. Room in time was made, though not without much pain and persecution, but Judaism survived and became stronger. (Yes, the Pharisees!)

You can see this happening now as more and more homosexual people tell their truth out loud in churches, join communities of faith, laugh, love, pray, get ordained, married and serve.

And I marvel at how Christianity in the sixth century spread to northern England and the isles, not to take over but to become integrated with the pagan religions without shedding a drop of blood. No martyrs. Look at the chief symbol of celtic spirituality—the circle. Visit Iona, a small isle off northern Scotland, and see the high crosses, many with pagan symbols down one side and biblical symbols down the other. Side by side.

Tickle maintains that the emergent phenomenon, although complex and in process, is across the boards in American culture. Every institution is rummaging and reshaping. All are being called to soften in order to move into the future in peace with weeping and rejoicing side by side.

We are called. Will we respond?

The Episcopal Church according to Tickle is ideally suited to receive and accommodate this new movement with all its changes. Because, as she says, it’s “like mercury on a counter—not definable.” That is its gift and to some its curse. You just can’t grab that mercury and nail it down even if you crucify it.

Tickle’s own prediction along with other writers and thinkers, is that the process called “the Great Emergence will rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.”

I am keeping watch on a spider as she spins her web. Of course I have named her Charlotte and hear her speaking in the voice of Julia Roberts as she works. I watch. I look for the web each day. In the sun’s light, or the light of our outdoor lamp, the threads shimmer and glimmer, precariously spread across the window pane on the side of our front door. The wind blows fiercely this wintry night. In the morning the web is still sturdy. I clap. I stare at the web’s shape— circular; some strands go up and down, some go across; every one is connected—intimately separate and dependent. In its vulnerability is its strength. I am transfixed by its fragile grandeur.

Some day it will blow away completely. And Charlotte? She or her look-alike will make a new pattern in a new place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Religious Feminism

We just entered Advent, a new church year and “the year of the priest” according to hierarchical decree in the Roman Catholic Church.

I am a priest of the Anglo-Catholic variety, Episcopal, and a Christian feminist who suspects, with a dash of surety, that this year of the priest is a campaign slogan designed to recruit men, young ones, for the all-male priesthood, currently suffering from short supply. Women need not apply or consider themselves in any way included in this effort unless they want to be sideline cheerleaders.

However, it seems that the Spirit is calling women anyway. World-wide there are over 100 Roman Catholic (RC) women ordained under the auspices of RCWP (Roman Catholic Women Priests) and more in the process.

They are forming communities; they are ordained from both canonical and non-canonical communities; their bishops are pastoral not administrative; they utilize a consensus model of decision-making and democratic processes. "Our goal is a new model of ordained ministry in a renewing Roman Catholic Church," according to Bridget Mary Meehan, Bishop of Southern Region, RCWP, former Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister.

These women priest communities, yes, like parishes, rent space and the ordained women do what priests do. They’re growing.
Adversity and opposition from on high gets press and helps them grow.

Who said feminism was dead? I am the cheerleader, sending prayers, money and all my heart their way.

Some women in American culture wonder about feminism and about young women feminists. They are out there. My daughter is one of them although she falls now into the mid-life category. These women are concerned with justice, with equality and equivalence for women in all our institutions. They have made changes in their homes and their workplaces. It’s still uphill.

Our government and international organizations have recognized the plight of women the world over. Awareness of oppression, torture, stonings, violence of the most horrific kind and unjust laws that sancitify violence against women has increased.

In this country domestic violence is rampant and increasing. Sexism may have an even stronger hold on American patriarchal culture and church than any other -ism.

I am a Christian feminist. That means that because of my religious faith..............

I serve on coalitions that work on prevention of violence against women and educate my parish on that and similar liberation issues.
I harass my congregation about inclusive language, especially for Godde who I believe has no gender. The congregation is loving and listening and some I imagine converted, including some men.
I spell the divine name Godde, softer and open-ended. I don't change it because I don't usually change names by which I am introduced to someone. A woman parishioner just asked me why we don't spell it that way in the church bulletin and prayers. I told her we haven't gone that far—yet.
I preach and teach and write books about Jesus’ feminist politics.
I understand the bible as sacred literature, more devoted to story than history, giving us universal stories and characters who continue to give meaning and shape to our own relations and self-understandings;
I direct a group of women who present a dramatic rendering of the biblical women who came to the burial tomb of Jesus on Easter morn. The women play themselves; they share their personal stories of new life and resurrection. People cry.
I understand Godde as a spirit of goodness embedded in all creation, all flesh—male, female and combinations thereof.
I celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday. I am a woman’s body at the altar.

Roman Catholic women who feel called to serve Godde as priests think that their church’s stance goes beyond simple injustice. Jamie Manson writes in the National Catholic Reporter ( “But what is, for me, most exasperating about this searing opposition to women’s ordination, is that it is a rejection of faith in the power of God to work in our world. By banning women from serving as priests, the church is saying that God simply cannot work sacramentally in the body of a woman.” This is not only against traditional church teaching but places limits on divine activity. Many admire Rome for its consistency but isn’t that the “hobgoblin of little minds”? (Walt Whitman)

It’s always about sex. My goodness, Rome has invited Anglicans who are discontent about full sacramental inclusion of practicing homosexuals (male ones) to join them. They offer to ordain even Henry Eighth breakaways as long as they have male anatomy. Anyone but a woman with breasts.

For this feminist the soul of the Christian religion is body—embodiment.

Today I hear myself whisper thanks to Godde for mucous. Odd. But for someone like me with lung disease mucous excretion means an end to incessant, exhausting and futile coughing. Why thank Godde for a natural human bodily process? Because it’s a process in which the Godde who connects heaven and earth, human and divine is present—intimately so.

And if this my faith is not so? Then I will grieve deeply, for Godde will become distant, clothed in male anatomy only, and no longer a divine feminist.