The news appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday that St. Paul’s K Street has gone through a process of discernment and is welcoming women clergy to their altar as well as same-sex blessings. I know with regard to the first that this was a move that had been in process for a while. There had been some discussions a bit ago about M being in residence there, but those did not come through at that time.
Serving on the SCLM has been a good experience in many ways; one is the opportunity to get more involved in church discussions at the broadest level. I get to see and hear things from a different perspective than what I just see in the life of one or two parishes. In particular, I have come away with two strong convictions.
First, the Episcopal Church needs a strong voice within its deliberations that will continue to champion a classical understanding of doctrine and a disciplined approach to the alteration of the church’s discipline. That is, we need advocates who are willing and able to teach the doctrines of the creeds and to champion authentic Christian discipleship rooted in the sacraments and spirituality that have been handed over to us. The church’s discipline—those things that are not doctrine but around which the church orders its common life—needs to be carefully thought through and alterations to it should be backed by solid theology and connections into our core doctrine. A catholic movement within the Episcopal Church ought to be able to make this case with credibility and conviction. It shoud have a clear sense of why we do what we do and be able to speak sensible with those who disagree and those who are undecided.
Second, there are many in the councils of the church who are quick to dismiss anything coming from an “Anglo-Catholic” source as inherently problematic because of an assumption of bias and irrelevance. Almost every time I opened my mouth in meetings or offered a proposal, there were those on my committee who would immediately suggest that my recommendation was somehow anti-women and anti-lay. As a layman married to a female priest, I found this bizarre! Or, alternatively, that what I proposed was of no interest to the broader church because it only addressed the needs of a shrinking “boutique” spirituality that had no connection or application to modern church life. They had slotted me into a mental pigeonhole and, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, were ready to dismiss me beause of biases they assumed I held (but didn’t).
If the catholic movement wants to be a relevant force in the church, if it wants to be listened to, to have its arguments taken seriously, and actually have an impact upon the decisions made by the Episcopal Church going forward, I believe that we need to both enact and communicate broadly three basic principles in our local parishes and beyond:
1) that openly gay and lesbian people are full and welcome members of our communities and should exercise their ministries among us,
2) that women are full and welcome members of our communities and should exercise their ministries among us, and
3) that children are full and welcome members of our communities and should exercise their ministries among us.
Now—I’m well aware that there are those who identify as catholic Anglicans who will take issue with 1 and 2 in light of what has been said above and identify them as changes of doctrine rather than discipline. I disgree and have written about both explaining my reasons in the past. Rather than get stuck rehashing arguments about 1—as the church is wont to do—I’d rather focus on 2 and 3.
The irony, as I see it, is that many of the catholic parishes that I know personally that do the best with 1 fail on 2 and 3.
What specifically do I mean about point 3? Case in point: removing everyone under the age of fifteen from the sanctuary at the beginning of the service and giving them coloring sheets in another room is something very different from seeing them as full and welcome members who have ministries to exercise in our midst. I’ll go so far as to say that any church that holds Sunday School during Mass (catholic or not) is failing on 3. When we don’t allow our children to be in Mass or suggest that they be somewhere else, we have failed. Now—there is a range here. At the parish where we attend now, small children are invited out after the Gospel for a children’s time that extends through the end of the prayers. I have far less of an issue with this because 1) Sunday School happens at a different time—this isn’t the only child-focused education on offer, and 2) it’s quite optional. Many children don’t go out; my children have never felt any pressure to do so.
(This is quite different from one broad-church parish we visisted. They were almost anxious to remove my children from the service when we walked in and were taken aback when my girls refused to go. Then, after the service, a number of adults came up expressing their surprise and delight that the girls were “good” in church…)
I understand that some parishes, particularly those of a more solemn bent, want to minimize distractions and disruptions. I get that some people—particularly those who aren’t parents—don’t want to deal with noise from other people’s kids. Three things: 1) it’s a gathering of the Body of Christ, not a classical concert, 2) parents should have an awareness of when it’s a good idea to remove a noisy child from a congregational situation—shaming them doesn’t help, 3) if your solemnity is so fragile that it can be easily shattered by the mere presence of a child, it’s more likely to be pretence and pretentiousness rather than true solemnity. (If it were true solemnity, the kids would be caught up in it as well!)
My experience, though, is that the kids who are “good” in church are those who are most used to it. Kids who are in church learn—and are taught—how to behave properly in church. They are taught by seeing how others behave, and by being hissed at and prodded by their parents. Trust me: I’ve done it. Communities teach children what is expected. Too—and more to the point—children tend to be far less squirmy when they’re engaged and assisting! My girls always choose to sit up front where they can see what’s going on, but they’d much rather sit in the chancel helping out.
I have no issue with nurseries. There was a certain age between 18 months and 3 when I would often put H in the nursery when I was juggling G, but once G could sit properly by herself and participate, I brought H back in. (Because M is usually in a chancel somewhere, I’m used to being a single pew-parent.) Too, there are some children who have genuine difficulties sitting still and being quiet for whom additional arrangements may be necessary—but these are few and far between.
The reason why this matters is because it ties into both relevance and catholic evangelism. Children are just as moved by deep ritual and sacramental experience as anyone else. If we are unable to preach the Gospel and serve the sacraments to our own children, then we’d be better off packing up the place and shuttering it now.
Another piece here is that when 3 is not done properly, when children are not fully incorporated into the worship and formational life of the community, it inevitably impacts 2 as well. When children are not in the service, those who give care to them—usually their mothers or grandmothers—get marginalized as well. I was once in a parish where the Senior Warden and several other vestry members did not attend Mass or a hear a sermon for months on end. Why? Because they were the women teaching Sunday School which took place during Mass.
How a self-described catholic parish treats female clergy is one thing—and an important thing. But don’t forget female laity either. Don’t congratulate yourself for the occasional woman in the pulpit if you’re keeping a whole lot of others out of their pews each week.
The other thing about parishes where Sunday School happens during the Mass is that Christian formation is usually seen as something just for the children. There is rarely a separate time for adult formation—and everyone is thereby impoverished. Whole community formation is necessary—formation for children, formation for adults, and formation for adults that happens at other times so that those who teach can be informed as well. (No, I don’t want someone who doesn’t grasp the basics of the faith trying to educate my children in it!)
I want to be part of a vibrant catholic community within the Episcopal Church. I want my wife and my children to be full and equal parts of it as well as our gay friends. I want our voices to be heard and taken seriously when the church gathers for councils and decisions. As long as the catholic movement is regarded as a haven for the extreme, regressive, and eccentric, we will neither be heard nor heeded.