Thursday, August 06, 2009

What is a Generous Pastoral Response?

Bill Carroll has written an essay worth giving a read: How Generous is Pastoral Generosity?. He is commenting on the Liturgies for Blessings resolution from last month's General Convention. He specifically focuses on the fourth resolve of that resolution:

Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church

Here's part of Bill's thoughts:

...At the same time, however, all of us (not just bishops) need to acknowledge that we have, as individuals and as a Church, fallen short of the mark and that we have waffled about whether we really mean it when we speak of a “full and equal claim.” If anyone has been generous these thirty years and more, it has been the LGBT faithful, who have endured from the Church they love a spectrum of pastoral care ranging from spiritual violence and rejection, on the one hand, to ambivalent and fickle tolerance, on the other, with an occasional outbreak of Kingdom hope here and there to sustain them on their wilderness journey...
If we are honest, most of us will admit to the truth in that statement. I know that I stand convicted by it. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to play a role in the blessing of a couple, one of whom I consider a valued friend. In the end, I didn't do it. Why? Because I feared the consequences. More specifically, because I feared repercussions from at least three bishops that would be implicated by that action in one way or another.

Am I blaming the bishops? Partially. In the end, the decision was my own, and I take responsibility for it. But the guidance from the bishops whose authority I have been under also played a role. As an example, here's a paraphrase of the directive I have received from at least two bishops:

Clergy will not perform same sex blessings, but I do expect them to provide the best pastoral care possible to all baptized members.
As you can imagine, that leaves a few of us scratching out heads. Is this a subtle way of stating the Church's version of "don't ask, don't tell"? Does this mean we can do what we think is best, but don't tell the Bishop? Or does it mean we can do everything except sign the marriage license?

This kind of directive places the local clergy in a very difficult position. As Bill points out in his essay, " cannot be generous in discharging a duty. One is either being faithful and upholding one’s vows, or one is not..." If we are to offer the best pastoral care possible, one would assume that means, at the bare minimum, offering access to all the sacramental rites to all the baptized.

I am very fond of my bishop, but I think it is time for us to be honest about something we often avoid, for fear of offending the members of the junior House. Bishops are indeed a blessing, but they can also be a bane.

As an example, consider Jim Naughton's live blog of the debate over the Liturgies for Blessings resolution in the House of Bishops. Here's the bit that draws my concern:

...Then a bit of a blockbuster, Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania, (the youngest bishop in the House) supported by Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona want the resolution discharged (killed.) Rowe says legislation doesn't work. What he offers sure plays to me as a sweeping attack on the House of Deputies authority. Smith says the bishops should do a pastoral letter. (Maybe it is just the fact that I am helping hte House of Deputies with media, but this seems disrespectful of the Deputies.... Another attempt to disenfranchise them for the governance of their church.) Most of the debate seems to be going against it.

The Bishop of Hawaii, Fitzpatrick, speaks in favor of discharge, as does Doyle of Texas.

it is very hard for me to see this as anything other than an attempt to assert the authority of the bishops and the bishops only on this matter.

Rowe asks for a roll call on the discharge vote. This feels like an effort to run out the clock. What possible reason can there be for getting this vote on the record. It is of no lasting significance.

Halfway through, the move to discharge is losing 42-19. The vote isn't over, but 55 no votes are already in, so I'd say the move to discharge fails. Final now 42-94-1, the motion fails.
Do you see what happened there? About one third of the House of Bishops wanted to kill the resolution. Not amend it, but kill it. What's going on there?

There were a few different dynamics happening within the House of Bishops, I think. The first one is that I suspect many of our Bishops are becoming more and more aware that the nature of their authority has shifted. Rarely do we encounter the "Prince Bishops" of yesterday. If the Bishop wants something done, he or she will have to make their case, usually before numerous groups. And they can expect to be challenged on every front. Most likely this shift makes a few Bishops a bit uncomfortable, which results in stunts like the one above. Thank God that attempt to assert their authority was defeated. If it had passed, and C056 died on the floor of the House of Bishops, the outrage that would have resulted would have further weakened their authority.

Now for the second dynamic that I think was at work here. Some time ago, someone who has been around the Church for some time made an observation that I found to be quite insightful. They noted that the "career track" (Anglo-Catholics are free to translate that into "vocational path") of your typical Bishop is that they serve as a curate, then rector or vicar of a small congregation, then rector of a large parish, and then are elected Bishop. This isn't true for all Bishops, of course, but I think if you surveyed the current House, you'd find that it is pretty much the norm.

The problem with this model is that in many cases, it means that those we call as Bishops have never created anything new! They inherited the work of those who went before them, but, with the exception of a few subtle changes, did little to rock the existing boat. "New" and "innovative" meant trouble. When they become Bishops, they continue to be wary of "change." That's why you see few (if any) church planters or other known risk takers among our Bishops. And this inclination to "play it safe" is a serious stumbling block when it comes to being faithful to our call as servants of God, who daily risks much for our sake.

To give the Bishops credit, they did pass this resolution. Now that it is in place, I would pray that the time of "double talk" has ended, and our Bishops will speak clearly and boldly on the subject of offering a "generous pastoral response" to all our baptized members.


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