I watched, sometimes more attentively at times than others, the two-and-a-half hour webcast last Thursday of The Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) presentation with questions and answers. OK, so it was more questions and re-statements than answers that didn't necessarily address the questions, but I sat by the laptop anyway and listened to what was being said, while following the Twitter chatter about the event on my iPad. Yes, I was that church geeky!
On Sunday, my ears were attuned to the Gospel of Matthew, and the parable of the wicked tenants who were living quite well in the vineyard of their landowner, and beating and stoning those sent to collect for the landowner and finally killing the landowner's own son. The landowner doesn't obiliterate these tenants for their bad behavior and misdeeds; instead, he gives this rich vineyard to others who will tend to it and return to the landowner what is rightfully his.
And perhaps it is this teaching of Jesus that the church, in its efforts to strive to be "nimble," should really be contemplating in the wake of what is occuring during these times of hand-wringing and reimaging. Perhaps it is time to change the way things have always been done and look to different leaders, and not always cut from the same cloth as the last set of leaders. Maybe, just maybe, the church needs to follow God, and not the other way around as it so often seems to feel.
I am talking about seminary and the call to the priesthood. It was about this time last year that I went to Jacksonville with my then rector to see the bishop. I had expressed to my mentor some years earlier that I felt called to the priesthood. She told me, "That ain't gonna happen here," because I am a lesbian and I have a partner. I attempted to avoid this bothersome gut feeling, but to no avail. And so, at the urging of my spiritual director, I told my rector I felt called. "I don't think that will happen, but let me check with the bishop." Check-in occured, answer was "no way," and I went away figuring that would be the end of the discussion. It was not. The inner gut nagging got worse. The reality was hitting me that I would have to leave. I told this to my rector who, again, made a pitch to the bishop to please talk to me. I was granted an audience with the bishop on October 7, 2013. And it ended as all had predicted: the bishop acknowledged that I was a sister-in-Christ, but due to my status as a partnered lesbian, he was bound by the canons of the diocese not to ordain me. Never mind that the larger church has said sexual orientation cannot be used as a barrier to the sacramental priesthood. As with so many things, what happens at General Convention pretty much stays at General Convention because each bishop is allowed to adapt and adopt the approved resolutions to his or her particular context. Read: if the bishop doesn't like what happened, he or she can simply ignore it and keep things as they are. Some bishops are willing to wrestle with the outcomes of GC and will take the time between these triennial gatherings to see how, or if, a major change made at General Convention will work in their context. And some are content to simply say, "No." In the case of the LGBTQI faithful, they'd rather figuratively beat, stone or kill those whom the landowner has sent than to give up any portion of the vineyard's profits to the landowner. And we know what Jesus says is the outcome of that situation.
One of the few moments during the TREC webcast that elicited a cheer from me was when Bishop Sean Rowe, who is the bishop of two dioceses in Pennsylvania, and has, by his own description, spent more than half of his young adult life as a leader in the church acknowledged that there has been an idolization of youth in the church, and that we need to value and acknowledge all the people God has brought to the church. In that statement, I heard the affirmation that there is no age limit, no sexual orientation, no status of any kind that should be the measure of greater or lesser worth to the church. This not only is for the laity; this is also for the ordained. It is the prejudices and the barriers of human origin that bar the fullness that some can achieve in the church. One of my biggest complaints about seminary education is that it is too expensive, especially for the salaries that are offered by most churches for a priest who is still a little bit wet behind the ears. The 19th century model that says the only way to properly form a priest is to have that person go to seminary for three years, uprooting themselves and perhaps their family for three years, and then hope there will be a church who will call you is really not practical in the 21st century of shrinking church and personal budgets. In some places, there is encouragement that priests be bivocational; meaning serve as a priest while holding down another job that helps pay the bills. Many churches these days cannot afford full-time clergy. I certainly get that. And if I am ever ordained, I have no intention of giving up my massage therapy license. But will a congregation accept and understand that their bivocational priest cannot be a full-time rector and able to be at their doorstep or hospital bed immediately when a crisis hits?
The question being asked repeatedly during the webcast was, "What are we willing to sacrifice?" New ways of formation for priests, and new paradigms for the practical workings of the vocation? Good questions to ponder.