Climbing Down

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to guides and mentors who are both supportive and challenging. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

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Can We Do Better?

Be the person who breaks the cycle.
If you were judged, choose understanding.
If you were rejected, choose acceptance.
If you were shamed, choose compassion.
Be the person you needed when you were hurting,
not the person who hurt you.
Vow to be better than what broke you—
to heal instead of becoming bitter
so you can act from your heart, not your pain.
~ Lori Deschene

I began writing this reflection in Holy Week, a time of intense spiritual scrutiny as we accompanied Jesus in his final days. The above words from Lori Deschene echo poignantly Jesus’ summons to live into another way, to relate to one another in another way than the adversarial model of the world with winners and losers. “One of you will betray me,” Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:21—33). Only one betrayed Jesus? Yes, Judas did, but so did Peter, and all his other friends who ran for cover, more concerned about saving their own skin than reaching out to their Lord in his time of need. I’m afraid that all of us betray Jesus, all the time and in all places. I see it most painfully among well-meaning Christians, especially when we disagree on moral matters.

Anglicans in particular have a special duty to take Jesus’ summons seriously as we stake our unique contribution to Gospel discipleship on the quality of our relationships, our bonds of affection. Paul Avis articulates this well in his book The Vocation of Anglicanism: “Anglicanism seeks to hold together (often otherwise polarizing) truth together in theology and practice in order that it may hold people together. (It does this by claiming) to be catholic and reformed, episcopal and synodical, universal and local, biblical and reasonable, traditional and open to fresh insight.” (pg. 182)

In a month’s time we Canadian Anglicans are heading into a most challenging General Synod (GS2019) with the motion to change the definition of marriage up for a second reading and subsequent vote. For those cherishing a traditional understanding of marriage, Jesus’ summons to relate differently is betrayed when regarding supporters of same-sex marriage as apostates and heretics, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Supporters of same-sex marriage betray the same summons of our Lord when regarding opponents as enemies and homophobes, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Both sides dismiss the good faith in the other. Both dismiss the primacy of conscience in the other. Both relate from a place of judgment and fear, anger and pain instead of trust, acceptance and compassion. Then, in an uncanny look in the mirror, both become eerily alike in their worst behaviours.

Acceptance in Christ runs deeper and is qualitatively distinct from approval and agreement. Jesus brought a new way of belonging and relating to God and, by extension, to one another. That new way challenges us all to love radically in faithfulness to our God. This becomes particularly important in matters of deep disagreement. In his book A Letter to My Congregation, Ken Wilson writes:

The demands of acceptance require us to maintain a relationship of honour and respect with those with whom we may ardently disagree. We accept the fact that our convictions (…) differ, and those with whom we differ hold their convictions, as we do, unto the Lord. Inasmuch as this is not easy for us, we commit ourselves to bearing it as part of the disciple’s cross. We don’t agree to disagree by diminishing the importance of the question (…) We recognize that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive for integrity and unity. Violating one’s conscience, even when it is mistaken, can do harm to that integrity. (…) We must respect the measure of faith a person has received without attempting to persuade them to act against it. (…) We practice this form of acceptance by recognizing that each of us stands or falls, lives or dies, unto the Lord, trusting that the Lord is able to make even us wretched sinners stand. We ruthlessly practise the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we can. (pg. 114/115)

The question of same-sex marriage is a salient one in all Christian denominations. Even Roman Catholics are not off the hook, despite what Rome says. Not only is the conversation among thoughtful Catholics going on “under the table,” so to speak, but Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people are steadily migrating to more welcoming churches, most notably the United Church and Anglican ones. As the discussion on the subject in a recent ARC Canada meeting pointed out, we are very much in this painful conversation together. A unique illustration of this togetherness is the fact that ARC Canada was invited to contribute a submission to the Anglican Church of Canada’s Marriage Commission on the ecumenical implications of a changed definition of marriage between the two churches. This was likely a first; inviting an ecumenical partner to weigh in on an internal ecclesial discernment and decision-making process on a controversial subject is still rather unprecedented.

If our difficult conversations are truly Spirit-led, modelling a way not of this world, as Jesus summons us, all of us need to practice restraint, suspend suspicion and labeling, and refrain from holding others in contempt. Trusting one another, presuming good faith, embracing instead of excluding – all this might feel like too heavy a cross to bear for proponents of both sides of the question before us. It will feel like dying to ourselves. It will involve relinquishing the need to be right, resisting the temptation to use our pain as a weapon of mass relational destruction.

My heart goes out to those who feel caught in the ecclesial cross-fire on marriage. I share respect and compassion rather than judgment and scorn to all. What if it might be too soon in the cultural, religious and anthropological process of appropriating the Christian implications of same-sex attraction to come to definitive conclusions? Those whose lives are directly affected, who live in this in-between, liminal, space need a robust spirit of ruthless honesty and healthy humility, a healed inner constitution and a mature engagement drenched in faithful patience for the masses to catch up, esp. in our churches.

Can we vow to be better than what breaks us? Do we take seriously Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Can we muster the courage to appreciate that the Holy Spirit can draw us together in a powerful unity, despite very diverse perspectives and convictions? Only then do we offer a valid alternative to a world mired in polarization and controversy.

Pope Francis has said that, long before dogma and doctrine, truth is a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity. This is my heart’s desire as we move into GS2019. Please pray for us all.

“We must love them both:
those whose opinions we share
and those whose opinions we reject,
for both have laboured in search for truth,

and both have helped us in finding it.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

A shorter version of this reflection was published on page 6 of the June 2019 issue in the monthly newspaper The Saskatchewan Anglican.