I was ordained to the priesthood on a Sunday afternoon: June 7, 1981 at St. Anne’s Mission in Mars Hill, Maine. It was the Feast of Pentecost. I have written about the day elsewhere.
As we approach the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, as well as the season of parsing newspaper headlines for our congregations, I am reflecting on some of my first experiences of conscience and controversy in the Church.
While I was in seminary and preparing for ordination, the Vietnam War was winding down. I can remember fiery sermons denouncing the war. I was deeply involved in the anti-war movement and part of my journey into the Church was provoked by a deep consideration of the moral issues involved in that conflict. But I hated it when I heard a polemical sermon from the pulpit. I believed it was possible to be a Christian of good faith and good will and come to a different conclusion about the war than the one I had. The morality of that particular conflict looks far more complex to me now than it did when I was in my twenties (and it looked complex to me then). In the midst of struggling with a serious moral issue, I had discovered that I was a sinner who needed saving. I did not seek out the Church so that I could hear angry political speeches disguised as sermons. It was very sad to watch congregations become polarized over the war and bleed people from both sides of the controversy.
For the whole of my ordained ministry, one of my constant challenges has been the pastoral care of individuals and parishes suffering from the aftermath of Vietnam War era polemics. In the mostly small parishes that I have served, this has meant the painful absence of persons well known to the congregation. People remember twenty, thirty, forty years later who should be there and is not and the unkindness and hurt behind their leaving.
In 1981, the current prayer book was two years old, and the congregations had been through a long period of trial use, which many found tiresome. They no sooner got used to a liturgy than it was changed. Some who are reading this will be old enough to remember Green Books and Zebra Books.
There was a lot of resistance to the new books among the clergy in Northern Maine. The process of prayer book revision was a very grave business. The clergy were given a date certain to have the ’79 book in the pews, and the old books were to be taken up and put away. The whole business became an issue of the authority of the bishop: Lovers of the old book were branded disloyal and regarded as being theologically and liturgically naïve, unlike the younger clergy who knew all about Hippolytus and were rallied around their bishop and liturgical renewal.
At the same time, the ordination of women had been approved. I remember going as a newly ordained priest to my first regional council meeting. The region had 6 parishes and 6 clergy then, as well as lay representatives from each parish. Three of the clergy were full time and three were part time. Three of the parishes had an ASA of 70 or so. For the rest of us, 25 on a Sunday would have been cause for rejoicing.
I picked up from the lay people during the coffee break how shocked and dismayed they were by how the clergy had discussed the issues of prayer book revision and women’s orders in these meetings over the preceding few years. They were dismayed, not by the fact that any given priest was for or against either the new book or women’s orders, but by the emotional tone of the conversations. They had heard their clergy be hateful and scornful of those with differing views, and it had deeply shocked them. It had seemed to them sub-Christian.
As a young priest, I was in awe of these older men and had great respect for their theological convictions. I didn’t want to hear this criticism. But after all these years the mutual nastiness of the disputes we have in the Episcopal Church emerges as a besetting sin, and I see all too painfully what had so disillusioned these good folk. Scorn and contempt is sub-Christian, and it is a delicious temptation that lies close to hand, especially for the clergy. All of these country parishes had losses over these changes. I think the losses came as much from how the changes were handled and from the character of the talk surrounding them as from the changes themselves.
After eight years of seminary teaching, I am back in a small parish. We struggle to get 50 people on a Sunday morning in a beautiful nineteenth-century church that easily holds 200. I pray through a parish list day by day. On the list are people we never see, but there is a story behind each absence.
Sometimes it has to do with a controversy that swept through the church. Sometimes it has to do with previous clergy refusing to offer the sacrament of baptism or marriage until there was more evidence of Christian commitment. Deep issues of truth and conscience were at stake in all these things. But we feel very deeply the absence of those whose names are known to us and now we miss their children and grandchildren as well. Were they ever to come back all at once the church would be full. In most cases, the hurt is so deep and the estrangement now so hardened by time that such a return is extremely unlikely, even though I continue to pray and look for a pastoral opening.
I think about the controversies that roiled the church into which I was ordained, and I grieve that we could not find a way to handle issues of conscience and theological vision with more charity. I grieve for those who were so distressed and disillusioned by the vehemence of the controversies that they either abruptly left or slowly drifted away. I grieve that those who found themselves conscientious objectors on the losing side of changes, such as the prayer book and women’s orders, could not have been treated with greater respect and kindness. I am sorry more room could not have been made for them. A few bishops made pastoral accommodations for the use of the old prayer book, and it is hard to see the hurt all these years later. I wonder how many grandbabies have been baptized as a result.
Thirty-four years on, I want — in my own ministry as a priest — to be known as a person of integrity who stands on principle. I certainly don’t want to be seen as lax in my administration of the sacraments. I want also to be known as a person of charity who goes the extra mile and turns away wrath with a gentle answer.
There are deep issues of truth and conscience before the church once again. Perhaps they are truly “church-dividing” this time. When the dust settles, I want to have a clean conscience, not only about my stand on the issues at stake, but about how I have treated those with whom I disagree. I want to be able to be proud of the character of my conversation. I suspect that I will be a conscientious objector on the losing side, and I wonder if the younger generation will find a charity and capacity to make room that eluded my generation.
The featured image is from the Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. It is licensed under Creative Commons.