Monday, July 2, 2012

Preparing for GC 2012: Please Avoid the Extremes

Sweating in gold vestments for the Feast of the Ascension
Having grown up in Florida, I don't consider myself to be a wimp when it comes to hot, humid weather, but last Sunday, even I was really uncomfortable.  I stood at the altar inelegantly swabbing my head and neck with the handkerchief I had secreted in the cuff of my cassock, while the choir intoned the Sanctus-Benedictus magnificently over me, sweat cascading off my head and face onto the heavy green dalmatic. I could feel my heart racing and fluttering from the dehydration, which I tried to address by furtive sips from a small glass of water on the gradine.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the extreme heat made me feel fragile, reminding me that, in the end, human beings are vulnerable creatures with physical limitations.  Of course, I soldiered on, finished the mass with no problem, and guzzled a bottle of Gatorade immediately afterward.  I then apologized to our sacristan, for I had sweated through all of my vestments, except that heavy green dalmatic.

Ever since this heat wave began, I've been thinking about the fact that human beings don't do well in extreme conditions:  extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme stress, extreme indulgence, extreme abstinence, extreme selfishness, and even extreme consumerism.  Human beings are creatures that thrive in the temperate zone between the extremes.  When we fail to do so, bad things can happen.  We can collapse from heat exhaustion.  Or we can get frostbite.  Or we can develop diabetes through overeating.  Or cirrhosis of the liver from drinking too much. Or skin cancer from too much sun.  Or apathy to human want by too much instant gratification.  And then I realized that the Church doesn't do well with extremes, either.  As a Church news junkie, I've been reading all the postings and articles on the Episcopal Church's upcoming General Convention in Indianapolis, and they concern me.  People are understandably loaded for bear on a number of controversial issues.  Their intentions are undoubtedly good, but the rhetoric is at times so rigid and unyielding that it makes me worry about what relationships may suffer.  I may not be an Episcopal Church insider or politico, but I still care how we all treat each other.

"Judge not, lest ye be judged."
Last Sunday, I stood before the congregation and chanted the lesson from the Gospel of Luke that immediately follows the Sermon on the Plain.  This is the text in which Jesus advises his disciples to be merciful as God is merciful, asking them, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"  Jesus warns us of the danger of adopting an extreme position with regard to others, inflating their shortcomings while minimizing our own.  I have witnessed some Anglo-Catholics condemn anything the deviates from their own understanding of the faith as ignorant, Protestant heresy; and on the flip side, observed Low or Broad Church Episcopalians deride Anglo-Catholic theology, ceremonial or vesture as ridiculously fussy or outmoded.  Both positions are extreme and hurtful.  They are caricatures that disrespect the integrity of the people to which they are directed.  Most importantly, they don't lead to Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God, either here on earth or in some other, unimagined reality.

A broad cross-section of seminarians in the Episcopal Church.
My blog posts are not usually political or polemical, but in this instance, I feel it's necessary to draw attention to the problem of extremism of both the liberal-progressive and conservative-traditional varieties in the Episcopal Church.  Extreme positions make the Church fragile and vulnerable, and this has been weighing on my mind a lot, particularly since I started seminary.  There is a rigidity in extreme positions that cuts off any possibility of listening to the other by dismissing their concerns as trivial and unworthy of respect.  I know I've been guilty of it too, of ignoring the log in my own eye.  But I'm trying to be better.  As I walked through the Philadelphia Museum of Art a couple of weeks ago with a clergy friend, he said to me, "Ethan, you're a social progressive and a theological moderate, and that's not a bad thing."  I thought, "that's pretty accurate, but that means I usually upset people on both ends of the spectrum."  That's not so much a complaint as an acknowledgement that I try to live somewhere in the middle where I can have relationships with most people, and hopefully, gain some insight into and respect for what's important to them, even though I sometimes fail.  I don't know if that qualifies as the Anglican via media or "the middle way," but I'd like to think we could still aspire to practice its spirit in the Councils of the Church, including those in the weeks ahead.

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