Know Your Neighbor (Nuns and the Roman Catholic Church)

This summer, I am working at a Catholic Hospital.  I was sitting in the office working on a report when, on a whim, I turned to the Sister of Mercy sitting next to me and asked, “How long have you been a sister?”

She seemed a little startled that I would be interested, but she said, “Oh, um, in August it will be 60 years.”

I said, “Wow…that’s impressive.”  I wanted to ask the next question, but I wanted her to know that I was asking it to actually know her thoughts and not to only get a reaction.  I trusted she would err on the side of the former.  Sixty years as a nun and all, I figured that was a fairly safe assumption.

“So how do you feel about this reprimand from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?”

She stopped typing at this, slowly turned to look at me and looked for a long moment before answering, “It makes me very sad.  I was furious when it first came out.  I think it just shows that they don’t know us from Adam’s apple, and I don’t think they care.  But they have all the power, and it just makes me very sad for the church.”

She has given sixty years of her one and only life in service to a church that has come out and said that she is subverting the church by promoting a message that is anti-Catholic.  I cannot imagine what that feels like, and I prefer living in ignorance in that account.

Despite my not ever hearing the idiom “not knowing from Adam’s apple” before, I think her sentiment is clear, and it makes a profound statement.  The Vatican speaks from a position of ignorance where American nuns are concerned.  More than just the Vatican administration’s insistence on desperately clutching at antiquated Earthly hierarchies, this is a profound statement about our lives as Christians.

How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we do not know our neighbors?  I would contend that a big part of the reason, not all, that some of these denominations and churches continue to fight and preach against having women and homosexual people in leadership positions in the church is because they don’t know these people.  People do not go where they are not welcome.  Homosexual people generally do not populate churches that claim they are all going to hell, and women interested in ministry generally do not go to churches that claim it is a sin for them to do so.[1]

I would say that it is infinitely more difficult to claim that Greg[2], your neighbor, the guy who picks your kids up from school when you cannot, who helped you find your lost dog, is going to hell because he is homosexual than it is to claim that homosexual people in general are going to hell.  In the same vein, the Vatican’s administration is afraid of women in the church having independent thoughts that will subvert the church, but they do not know these women or the passion that they hold for the Church or how much it is their face and actions that keep Americans in the Roman Catholic Church.  We cannot love our neighbors if we do not know them.  One does not love a faceless entity or a generic group, for it is impossible to have true love on this level.  We can love the people we know in our day to day interactions, and it is infinitely more difficult to oppress someone whom one knows personally.

I need to be clear; I am pulling for the Roman Catholic Church.[3]  In much of the world, they are still the predominant, if not only, face of Christianity.  I am pulling for them to cut this…nonsense out and get back to preaching the love of Jesus Christ.  The gospel of Christ is not about who is able to preach and lead in the church and whether one can or cannot use birth control.  The Gospel is about the love of God that is available to all people and that we should show to people every day in all of our interactions.  I am pulling for the Vatican administration to get on board because the public face of the Roman Catholic Church is quickly becoming that of a group of old men oppressing women and gay people.  American nuns do not need to be told that the Gospel is about a message of love.  That message has been promulgated by them for a long time, and the administration needs to be following their lead.

[1] Neither is an absolute by any means.

[2] Guy I just made up on the fly.

[3] I am never joining the Roman Catholic Church because I have far too many theological differences with them.


Earthly and Transcendent

I have read two things recently that I had negative reactions to, the first incensed me and the second disappointed me.  The first is a blog post entitled “Shamscendence” by a political science professor from Baylor University named David D. Corey in which he responds to an Easter video message from the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the second is a blog post by Dr. Peter Berger entitled “Another inconvenient church affiliation surfaces.”  These two are related since I have the same problem with both.
First, let me say that I do have problems with the presiding bishop’s Easter message.  She does not talk about Jesus or the Resurrection in any meaningful terms, and this simply should not happen from any ordained person’s Easter message, much less the presiding bishop’s.  However, let’s be clear, this is a two-minute video.  Rev. Jefferts Schori is not giving a sermon but a homily, a very pointed and specific message, and no one should be expected to give a complete and thorough take on anything in two minutes.
Corey’s argument is misguided at best and asinine at worst.  Corey accuses Rev. Jefferts Schori of not caring about the heavenly or not putting enough emphasis on the heavenly or transcendent.  In his view, the church that is supposed to be saving people’s souls from eternal damnation should not concern itself with solving those people’s earthly, temporal problems. The Millennium Development Goals[1] are meant to be a way to end hunger, poverty, and preventable diseases, and this is something that the church should not concern itself with according to Corey.
Prof. Corey obviously knows very little about theology but a lot about politics. I think Corey’s real beef is that Rev. Dr. Schori was not endorsing the GOP.  Corey is using “theology” to try and reinforce his political views, and in doing so, he corrupts and destroys that theology.
I want to quote my Biblical studies professor and say, “It’s always a dangerous thing when someone pretends to be an expert in a field in which they’re not.” He was talking about Richard Dawkins, but it applies to David D. Corey.In point of fact, he shows his expertise and his ignorance in the same breath. According to the Baylor University website, Corey’s “teaching and scholarship focus on ancient Greek political thought.”[2] His “essay,” or rant as I would prefer calling it, shows his preference for Plato. The Baylor site says he is working on a book about Plato, actually. Corey is quite willing to call out Rev. Jefferts Schori for heresy.  Ironically, however, Platonism is a heresy that he is quite willing to engage in. When the earthly, human life is sacrificed altogether in favor of the “transcendent,” this is heresy, and it is against the teachings of Jesus.

Disappointingly, Professor Berger engages in the same false belief.  I admire Peter Berger a great deal.  His book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, changed my views on religion and how faith works in our lives.  However, he makes an erroneous claim in his blog post.  Prof. Berger is writing his blog post about Jeremiah Wright and Liberation Theology, and he claims, “Where are the liberationists and their sympathizers wrong? Very few New Testament scholars would agree that Jesus’ ‘good news’ was a program of social transformation here and now; it was the proclamation of the coming of a supernatural order in which the reality of ‘this eon’ would be totally transcended.”  Of course, Jesus spoke and thought of the coming Day of the Lord a great deal.  Jesus’ teachings are chock-full of apocalyptic eschatology[3] and to claim otherwise would cause Albert Schweitzer[4] to roll over in his grave.  However, to claim that Jesus did not care about the here and now, people’s earthly lives, and was solely concerned with the coming Day of the Lord is to engage in the very same heresy of Platonism that Corey does in his blog post.
Jesus, who says, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these,”[5] cares a great deal about the lives of people on this Earth and how it is lived.  Jesus, who says “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,”[6] is concerned with how people live their lives in relation to others.  The heart of this is found in Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.[7]  In this parable, the bridesmaids are kept waiting long into the night for the return of the bridegroom.  The wise take oil for their lamps and the foolish do not.  The foolish must go back for oil once night falls, so the wise are invited in when the bridegroom returns in the foolish’s absence.  Yes, the point is the return of the bridegroom, Jesus, and the Day of the Lord that will turn all evil and evildoers on their head, but if we, the bridesmaids, do not keep our lamps trimmed and burning, loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing for the least of these, then it does not much matter.
Corey claims, “Again, the question comes down to what the ‘welfare of the world’ really means. Is ‘welfare’ fundamentally about drinking water and poverty rates, or is there something more—something on a spiritual plane?”  This is a stupid claim, and it makes for very poor discipleship.  What good is it to save someone’s soul only to send them out to die of dehydration, starvation, and preventable diseases?  Absolutely none.  This sort of argument is the nonsense that the rich use to make themselves feel comfortable at night while people starve outside their doors.  The same Jesus who said, “I am the bread of life” also physically fed five thousand people with bread and fish.  The Millennium Development Goals is good discipleship because they are another way of loving our neighbors as ourselves and caring for the least of these.  The Millennium Development Goals are another way for us to keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
The Christian message is one that tells us that “life is more than food and the body more than clothing.”[8]  Transcendence is intimately woven throughout that message.  But the same Jesus who preached over and over again of the Kingdom of God and the Day of the Lord, is also the same Jesus who flipped tables in the Temple because of the injustices done to people through the money changing done on those tables.  Jesus cared intimately for how people lived and the evils and injustices that people had to endure in their lives.  Part of the point of Jesus’ teaching is to prepare people for the Kingdom of God.  To sacrifice all earthly life for transcendence, to say that Jesus ministry did not have a here and now impact, is to miss the Christian message.

[1] This is what Rev. Dr. Jefferts Schori focused upon in her Easter message.  Read more about it here:

[3] Apocalyptic Eschatology is the theological teachings concerned with the end of the world and coming judgment.

[4] Albert Schweitzer was one of the progenitors of the study of the Historical Jesus.

[5] Mark 12:31

[6] Matthew 25:34-40

[7] Matthew 25:1-13

[8] Matthew 5:25

Leaving United Methodist Church and Seeking Episcopal Reception

In my mind, the Methodist Church was done for me.  I didn’t consciously know it yet, but the United Methodist Church (UMC) and I had just parted ways.  In the Spring of 2011, I finally took a good hard look at the Methodist church and my place in it and there were too many differences for me to have a future in the UMC.  My consciousness rejected this idea for another month or two because I had two terrific Methodist chaplains in college, and I hated the idea of being in a separate church from them.  However, the writing was on the wall, and as much as I would have liked to keep drinking and pretend it’s not, that does not change the writing’s presence.[1]

One of the reasons that I could shed this affiliation so easily[2] was because it was loose to begin with.  As I described in my first blog post, the United Methodist church that I grew up in was Methodist in name only.  My previous church counts little of Methodist doctrine as beliefs that they hold.  True, Wofford College is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, but you would be hard pressed to find that affiliation in the day to day life of the students of the college.  I am still friends with both of my Methodist chaplains from Wofford, and I talk to them often.  As I have noted, these two relationships were the biggest tie to the UMC for me.

I had started the first steps of the ordination process with the District Superintendent’s Office of Florence[3], but this was far, far from a pleasant process.  In all of my dealings with the office, I never actually met the District Superintendent.  Every communication I had with the office was through the secretary who was…unique.  The first time I went to the office, I brought along the documentation they needed to get me started in the process:  my high school diploma, my social security card, proof of my confirmation and membership in a church in the district, and my college transcript.  Upon providing this documentation to the secretary, she looked at me and said, “Now we need proof that you’re literate.”

I stared at her blankly for a moment and said, “…I beg your pardon?”

“We need proof that you can read.”  Upon understanding that I did hear what I thought I was hearing, I looked at her and then pointedly looked down at the documents she was holding in her hands.

“No, no you have to take the TABE test to prove that you can read.”  I left the office and later attempted to call the District Superintendent and speak to him about this.  I never reached him on the phone.  I e-mailed him and got a pointed response that taking the test was conference policy and could not be circumvented, so I took the test.[4]  Needless to say, my enthusiasm for pursuit of ordination dropped off.  My intermittent attempts at e-mailing the District Superintendent were never answered, and I still have not met him in person.

Another reason for my cutting ties with the UMC is their polity.  In my opinion, the bishops of the UMC have far too much power, and I could not pursue ordination in a denomination that has that much power over its clergy.  Let me explain, while the bishops of the church have power to affect Methodist doctrine and polity, that is not my qualm.  Let us say that I get a job as chaplain of a school that I like.  I enjoy my work there, and I like the people I am around.  A new bishop is elected to the South Carolina conference.  She is someone I have never met or spoken to before, but the day after she takes office, she can look at her roster of clergy and find my name.  She could call me and tell me she needs me to pastor a church in Ninety Six, SC[5], and I would have to go.  I cannot, after investing so much time in my education, make the commitment to potentially be someone’s migratory, indentured servant.  I applaud anyone who has made this commitment, but I cannot and could not do so.[6]

Undoubtedly, however, the biggest qualm I have with the United Methodist Church is their stubbornness in keeping homosexuality as “incompatible” with the church.  The General Conference that took place a few weeks ago and the treatment of homosexual members and allies there confirmed this for me.  I believe that someday I will be ordained, for I do not expect that God will leave me alone on this point.[7]  I believe that ordination is primarily about being a representative of Christ’s love for the world.  Christ died for the salvation of all, and he did not talk about homosexuality at all.  There is no way that I could bring myself to proclaim God’s love as a member of a denomination that proclaims it is not for some people because of their sexuality.  I can’t do it, and I pray for all of those who feel the way I do but have to do so in the United Methodist Church anyway.

Despite my stepping away from the United Methodist Church, I know that I am still Wesleyan.  I am Arminian[8], and I hold with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral[9].  This year I had been worshiping consistently at Berkeley Divinity School’s Wednesday night worship service and dinner.  The original intention was to show a consistent non-Berkeley presence on Wednesday nights in a show of solidarity.  However, the more I came to know it, the more I realized how much I fit in with the “Mother Church.”[10]  The Episcopal Church both ordains homosexual people and celebrates their marriages in the states in which that is legal.  TEC isn’t afraid or wary of intellectual thought.  Indeed, the position of the Episcopal Church is to struggle and wrestle with the Biblical text.  I am also attracted to the diversity of traditions and theology found in The Anglican Communion, for it is the Big Tent that has a place for many in it.  Obviously, the Episcopal Church has its own set of problems, but so far, these are such that I am willing to take them on to get to the good.  I look forward to continue walking the via media[11] and continuing to learn.

[1] Daniel 5:1-9

[2] While it’s true that my leaving the Church was an easy decision, given my loose ties to it in the first place, I imagine that for some members of the UMC who choose to stay–particularly those who are disadvantaged by the Church’s theology–the decision cannot be easy. I admire these individuals for their courage.

[3] District Superintendents are administrators within the Methodist church.  A DS is someone who represents the larger conference the district is located within but can give a great deal more hands on help since the district is a great deal smaller than the conference.

[4] I kid you not; I went to the adult education center in Florence, SC and took the TABE test.  The TABE test, for those who do not know what it is, is a test designed to determine at what level a person should begin pursuit of his or her GED.  I waited to get my test for 45 minutes among a room full of high school dropouts and their angry mothers yelling at them.  I am not exaggerating.  There were no fathers in the room.  Take that for what you will.

[5] This place exists, I promise.  Look it up.

[6] No, bishops do not have this kind of power in the Episcopal Church.

[7] I have rarely experienced God through revelations and epiphanies.  I do not even have a pretty, turn-on-a-dime conversion story to Christianity to tell.  I have experienced the Holy Spirit moving within me as a persistent annoyance more than anything else.  I know exactly what C.S. Lewis was talking about when he spoke of the “hounds of heaven.”  I am pushed, stretched, and annoyed until I do the Holy Spirit’s will, and when I do in the end, I feel the Holy Spirit’s chuckle run through me.

[8] Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian and the progenitor of Arminianism that holds that salvation from Jesus is available to all who will choose and accept it.

[9] The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a methodology for theological reflection that holds that theological conclusions should be sifted through the sieves of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

[10] Despite being the inspiration and thought behind a new movement, John Wesley never left the Church of England.

[11] John Donne referred to the Anglican path as a “middle way” between the Roman Catholic Church and the newer Protestant churches.