To laity, deacons, priests: Unity is not your vow; be true to your own orders
By Winnie Varghese Posted: 6/1/2006
Here’s the somewhat new thing we’re trying to do at General Convention 2006. We are gathering and discerning per usual and, as a national church, attempting, I think rightly, to weigh the implications of our decision making in balance with the needs values of our international communion.
God help us.
I don’t believe we all are called to share the concerns and restrictions of the “order” of our bishops or archbishops. It is most comfortable when we do. It is least confusing when the message of Christ seems like a clarion call, a light on the hill that is obvious to all of us. But when it is not, which is now and most of the time, we must know, even in our own deliberate and slow-moving body, that we are responsible for living faithfully into our own “order” in the church.
God help us.
If we are to take our orders seriously, our convention will feel like representative, participatory democracy in which the voice of the people decides our governance. That can seem difficult and even contrary to other “orders” in faithfulness to their own vows as they work towards stability or unity, as they have promised to do. Laity, deacons and priests have not taken those as our primary vows. The laity, who constitute the primary order of the church, are to do things like seek and serve Christ in others, loving their neighbor as themselves and seeking peace and justice in the world.
It would mean that as we prepare to make decisions and legislate about our brokeback, closeted and frightened church, the laity are called to be mindful of the implications for the people of their communities and in their congregations, work places and neighborhoods.
Does a bold stand by our national church against the war in Iraq and the possibility of war in Iran, give you support as you proclaim the gospel where you live? Does the consent to a gay bishop or the approval of a rite or pastoral privilege to bless same-sex unions send a message that you think is Christ’s message of love and hope to us? What if that means we have a different church structure into the future? What is worth explaining away? What are you willing to create as the obstacle that keeps people from seeking out your community?
I have a particular location as a priest and chaplain. I am enraged every time a student comes to me and tells me about the abusive “change” therapy he or she has run away from to live on the street, or with friends, to escape frightened parents after coming out as gay, lesbian or trans-gendered. I am especially outraged and saddened because so many tell me they come out in the light of the gospel. Jesus’ message to them has called them to honesty. I am sickened that they come to me afraid that I might be another person who will condemn them because of the public stands of Christian people.
I am afraid for those who seek Christ when we in the church discuss this issue in language so subtle and appeasing to people who will not be appeased. I am disgusted and heartbroken as I attend the funerals or retirements of brilliant priests or bishops who strangely never met their great potential, who drank themselves to death, embezzled or whatever in the beautifully ornate closet of the Episcopal priesthood. Those closets stole their vocations, labor and pension payments and rejected their personhood.
The church international does have to live with the implications of our decisions. I hope that the new thing that comes from this General Convention will take us all to a new creative place. I do hope it does, but we cannot look out into an international community and know we are making these decisions with all of those voices truly in mind.
Here’s hoping we have the courage to vote our orders. We vote our conscience, informed by Scripture, the Eucharist and private prayer. But as the pressing needs of the world press on, let’s not forget, we are in this institution in a particular place, and the radical vision of the gospel and the needs of our place and our people are sometimes all to which we can be truly faithful.
The Rev. Winnie Varghese, Episcopal chaplain at Columbia University in New York, writes for The Witness and serves on the executive council of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
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