Saturday, June 7, 2003

Canon Gene

Well, it’s done. Gene (He’s one of “us,” you know) Robinson is now officially a bishop. And there he is on the front page of the Herald Tribune, mitre and all, about to give a smack on the lips to his partner of many years, Mark Andrew, who I guess will be moving in to the rectory – or wherever bishops live these days. Mark (“Hi, have you met my Lifemate the Primate?) Andrew, along with Gene’s ex-wife, two daughters, his mom and dad and nearly 4000 other people stood, applauded, cheered and whistled, they tell us, when the ceremony was completed. I would have too, if I had stayed in the church. And if I lived in New Hampshire. And had been invited. And could whistle.

Not everybody is cheering, obviously. There’s lots of talk about how this is splitting the Anglican communion down the middle.

That would be a pity, I think.

I have an especially warm place in my heart for the Episcopal Church. When I was eighteen, and looking hard to organized religion for answers, I wandered away from the Congregational Church in which I had grown up, because it did little for the soul. At least for my soul.

I used to go to mass at St. Joseph’s with my catholic friends during lent. I loved the dark cavernous church, the flickering candles on the many altars, the smell of incense which had seeped into the gothic beams and the stones on the floor. In the Congregational Church there were good people, but the focus seemed to be on ourselves, how we looked, how nicely we all spoke to each other, how much food for thought was in preacher’s latest sermon. In the Catholic church, the attention was drawn away from ourselves, up the beams and out the gothic arches, carried on the incense and the upraised hands of the priest holding the Body of Christ.

There are worse ways of growing up than being torn by two cultural solutions in the battle between the head and the heart. Enlightenment reason was my heritage home. I was a white kid of Puritan stock. The Quakers, with their ability to sit for hours waiting for the Spirit to provoke them to comment, the Baptists who were much about water and washing off the dirt of sin, the analytical bible classes where study took us as much to the world of the Jews and the Old Testament and a proper fear of a wrathful God – all these were my tradition lined up for me, from the anti-intellectual fire and brimstone to the thoughtful Christian Scientist, Quaker, Presbyterian or Congregationalist truth claims. So many choices, so many properly protestant voices to listen to, so many communities of believers to join.

I went Lutheran. That way I got to be a tad closer to the spiritual homeland of my grandmother, got to say prayers in German, got to see a Protestant cleric, for a change, deck himself out in brocade and velvet and brilliant color. I got to go to a church that appreciated the value of ritual, without slipping over into the world of the Irish and the Italians, the Poles and the French Canadian “others,” whose views on God I knew, somehow, were not anatomically correct.

I went Lutheran, except that where I went to school in Middlebury, Vermont, there was a pitiful dearth of us – eight or ten of us at most. We formed a student group, and Pastor Dave came over from Dartmouth to do a Lutheran service once a month.

The rest of the time, I got my appetite for ritual satisfied at St. Stephen’s, the local Episcopal enterprise. And so earnest was my desire to participate that I actually went and got special dispensation from the Bishop of Vermont to take communion. He quizzed my Lutheran enthusiasm for a minute or two and then pronounced me worthy.

I had memorized the mass in Latin at St. Joseph’s by going every morning before school. I was a precocious language learner in those days, and it did wonders for my school Latin. But now, in the Anglican communion I was handed what I came to feel was a gift from heaven itself, the Book of Common Prayer, which included lines like the Anglican analogue of the Roman mea culpa: –

We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep,
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
We have offended against your holy laws,
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us...

what’s not to love about this glorious use of the language of God, Shakespeare and the Bible. Never mind the excess of language. Just assume with me that some one of Gene Robinson’s gay predecessors got to write that line in the confessional in his native faggotese. (“There is no health in us,” indeed! Reminds me of my friend Elizabeth, who when some evangelist came to the door of her Jewish household with the line, “Did you know Jesus died for your sins?” responded, “He went too far – they weren’t that bad.”)

Never mind. Excess is delicious, I think. I’m gay. It’s in the genes. And I was at home in that lovely ritualistic communion. It was so Catholic. So English. So pretty.

I left the Church not more than a couple of years later, driven out by the discovery that the Lutheranism I had come to know in America was not at all like the Lutheranism I encountered in Germany. The German Church in Catholic Bavaria had a seige mentality – an island of protestant purity in Germany’s most decadent city. I went on a religious retreat with the folks in my Lutheran dormitory and made the mistake of letting it slip that I had been drinking in the Hofbräuhaus the night before and was ostracized.

Screw them, I thought. I was tired of answering the phone with “Evangelisches Studentenwohnheim in der Arcisstraße, Grüß Gott!” anyway. Too much of a mouthful, this Lutheran business. I found myself looking for an Episcopal Church in Munich. Instead, I found an “Old Catholic” church, something I had no idea existed. After that, I was on a roll, for a while, seeking out all the ways of being Christian that I had never heard of back in the land of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians.

“When it comes to culture and religion,” I asked my graduate seminar in the theory of culture, just recently, “which one is background, which is foreground?”

Not everybody’s idea of an exciting way to spend your time, I grant you. Not everybody gives a hoot about such things. But I do. I really am interested in how religion affects culture and vice versa.

And here we have a delicious example of how culture reigns supreme. In this battle over whether Canon Robinson ought to be where he is, religion is like the candle in a side altar and culture is the cathedral. Whether the Anglican Church will fall apart depends on whether men and women of different cultures can cross their cultural divide. Very little of this issue is religious.

While thousands cheer and hug and kiss and whistle in New Hampshire, the Archbishop of Canterbury is acknowledging that the Bishop of New Hampshire will not be able to take communion in many of the Anglican churches of the world. Nigeria, for example. And Uganda. Laugh if you will, but there are only 2.3 million American Anglicans out of 70 million worldwide. And it’s not just Bishop Kogo of Kenya who has broken his church’s links with the members of their American Anglican family. Canon Harmon of South Carolina is leading a group of Americans who want to cut this limb off the body.

There was a moment during the consecration ceremony when people were invited (you know, like at a wedding when you get to speak or “forever hold your peace”) to object to Robinson’s installation. The Reverend Earle Fox of Pittsburgh got up and entertained the assembly with a graphic list of sexual practices engaged in by homosexuals. He had to be shut up by the bishop presiding over the ceremony.

Don’t you love it? Bishops talking in church about rimming and toe-sucking? Who needs Disneyworld? (And don’t you wonder if there was anybody around to remind the Reverend Earle that somewhere in history there were heterosexuals who once did it standing up?)

This is serious business, folks. Meredith Harwood of St. Mark’s parish in Ashland, we are told, is on record as saying this will not only split the Anglican Communion; it will break God’s heart.”

I gotta tell you, Meredith, the good Christians of the world probably did that already when they stood by and let the Holocaust happen. This won’t even give him indigestion, unless he takes cultural difference seriously.

The Europeans are ready for gay marriage; the Americans are not, but they are, at long last, acknowledging gays should have unfettered civil rights. The Africans are, some of them, now sacrificing children because they have discovered sacrificing goats does not prevent AIDS. Do you think these boys are concerned about whether allowing a good man who happens to be in love with a man named Mark might break God’s heart by wanting to minister to the needs of some New Englanders?

All God’s children looks at things differently.

I’m happy for you, Canon Gene. Blessings on you, your Church, and your loving partner Mark Andrew. I’m happy you’re all sharing the Planet Earth with me today.

June 7, 2003

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