11/06/2006

The Eye of the Beholder.

Many behold, but only some hold on. Only some get fed.

There were as many readings of the Investiture this last Saturday of the Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, as there were viewers. It focused our attention on an amazingly symbolic object made real, incarnated, in the person of the Presiding Bishop, in the moment that clothed (invested) her in her office. That “object” is the often abstract and blurred idea of The Episcopal Church. But for a few moments the Episcopal Church was made concrete and real. For some of us, for me, the Episcopal Church is wonderfully quirky, just a little out of step with everyone’s expectations, and just FINE. And Presiding Bishop Katharine is just fine too.

Neela Banerjee, writing for the New York Times, gave a very evenhanded assessment. She gave central place to the exchanges that “invested” her as Presiding Bishop – the giving of the gifts of The Gospels, Water, Bread and Wine, Oil for healing, and the Primatial Staff. The picture of her receiving the staff from outgoing Bishop Frank Griswold gives as sense of that incarnatinally important moment. (Photo from the National Cathedral webpages).



The moment of the giving of the staff is about as existential as it gets – the symbol of office given from one holder to the next. It is hard not to see in her eyes the sympathy for her predecessor Bishop Griswold, her recognition that for her, and perhaps for the church, nothing will be the same.

In this world of rapid shifts of attention it had a place on the media screen for perhaps twelve hours, by which time it was replaced by the peccadilloes and more serious offenses of a leading evangelical preacher and then by the high crimes of a former dictator. Within twenty four hours, an event to encourage Bishop Katharine in a time of ministry that will include bearing the cross of vilification was replaced by the condemnation of the morally misdirected and an invitation to a hanging.

To quote, Hunter S. Thompson’s observation once again, “there’s a lot of wreckage in the fast lane these days.” The wreckage will continue, and Bishop Katharine will need our very best prayers.

But for a moment, that event, the investiture, captured an important ‘something’ for many of us who saw it as a singular moment in the life of the Episcopal Church.

What did we come to see, and what did we see, in the event, the investiture? I would suggest we came to see the Episcopal Church, to see if it was well or ailing, sound or mad, filled with hope or drowning in despair, wonderfully inclusive or horribly confused and heretical, and each of us came already disposed to see what we would see. Some did not even have to come to see to affirm their own sense of the church. It was enough for them to already believe. Seeing could add nothing to their sense of things.

I ran into Stephen Bates at refreshments after the service. Stephen wrote the very important and good book, “A Church at War.” He had flown in for the Investiture after what I gather was a longer trip abroad. Perhaps that is why his article in the Guardian seemed a bit grumpy. Still, he did allow that there “was a flair, colour and joy to the proceedings that the Church of England so often lacks.” And Bates acknowledged that Bishop Katharine came across with some gusto, commenting that she has “said that those who find her election difficult will just have to get over it.”


Reporters tended to see the whole piece against the back drop of wider divisive issues and did not look upon the event as an affirmation of the good health of the Church. That work remained for several bloggers.

Elizabeth Kaeton, in her article, Home is where the Heart Is, said, the Investiture …

“was a surprisingly emotional event.Bishops, male and female, were openly weeping - a fairly uncommon sight in the Episcopal Church. We're not exactly stiff-upper-lip British, but by and large, neither are we Sicilian by nature.And yet, there we were - all four orders of the baptized - openly weeping for joy.”

Many behold, but only some hold on.

Elizabeth held on, I held on, even good ol’ grumpy Stephen Bates held on. But not all could do so.

Anglicans Online, the stately carrier of things Anglican, has an important essay this week. It is work quoting at length:

“This morning we happened on to a radio programme about the investiture of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA. After a minute or so of description and audio snips from the ceremony, the radio cut to a comment by Robert Duncan, Bishop of Pittsburgh, described as 'part of the marginalized and vocal minority'. The first words from Bob Pittsburgh (as he signs himself) were:

‘I have this sense and this grief that somehow our church has been taken away from us.’ …

What church has been 'taken away' from the Bishop of Pittsburgh? The Episcopal Church of the 1950s, the one in which he spent his young years? The chapel he experienced as a student at Trinity College in Hartford, College in the late 1960s? That church which forbade women deputies to General Convention?

Or an earlier Episcopal Church, where divorce was all but forbidden, except in cases of adultery? Where remarriage was impossible, even for the innocent party? Perhaps the church that was taken away was the atmosphere and ethos of the mid-19th-century Church of England, where marriage to a deceased wife's sister was forbidden and punishable by law? Or the mid-19th century American church that turned a blind eye to the practice of slavery?

That abbreviated litany of 'churches that have been taken away' could be extended nearly indefinitely. Every age has brought change to the church, beginning as innovation, often proclaimed as heresy, and eventually becoming tradition. And it is no less true that each change brings unsettlement and pain. Yet 'the Gospel in the Church' cannot be stagnant, for the Holy Spirit has been pledged to lead us into all truth. Were the church to have remained the same in structure, form, and practices as it was in the first centuries of the Christian Church, would there be a church remaining in this year of grace AD 2006?”

Anglicans Online is on the case.

Many behold, but only some hold on or are able so to do.

The Bishop of Pittsburgh was not at the service. His diocese had its annual convention on that Saturday. But he didn’t need to attend. He already has decided not to hold on, so beholding would have made no difference. It is unclear that anything will grab him and gather him in. Bishop Katharine will try, but he has pledged to work with her only to the end that there be a mutual separation of what he thinks of as two churches claiming to be the Episcopal Church.

But for those of us who were there, who did behold, we saw the Episcopal Church as one, and Bishop Katharine is a symbol of its continued vitality. As I said in a previous essay, “… deep in the center of the activity of giving Bishop Katharine the vestments of grandeur, there will the whisper that what she will really need to put on is the whole armor of God, which in a community such as ours will include the great rallying cry of Mother Jones, not just to criticize, but to organize. It is time to organize for mission again, for justice again, for the wide reach of inclusive love again.”

At the close of the service Presiding Bishop Katharine came to the font that was placed in the center of the nave. She came to greet people who wanted to meet her and get her blessing. When she stood on the platform where the font was placed and people could see her, there were shouts and cries and applause. She touched her hand to her heart, bowed, looked out with a smile, and finally got us to singing the final verse of the hymn. And then as we all milled about she began to receive people: the old, the young, her elders in the episcopate, those in wheel chairs that she came down to greet, thousands of them. Some knelt before her for a blessing, others embraced her, others she knew and embraced first.

Many beheld, and many held on to her, and many will.

4 comments:

  1. this is an excellent and beautiful commentary. thanks.

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  2. Lovely reflection, Mark. Thank you! (And good to see you in DC!)

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  3. Thank you Mark...I saw the webcast here in Central America and felt especially blessed to be a member of the The Episcopal Church no matter where I may *actually* be residing...beautiful and authentic reporting...mil gracias.

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  4. Mark,

    On Saturday night, back in Vermont, I wrote in my blog, 'They can't take her away now.' At that exquisite moment of PB FG handing the primatial staff to PB KJS (with a crack in his voice as he said the formulaic words), symbolising the full transfer of authority, I breathed in deeply (through my tears) and thought those words.

    But now the real work begins. And so do the deep prayers.

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