Sometimes religious people do really ugly things. Because I am a religious person and a religious leader, working in a religious setting after being trained in a religious school and living in a religious community, I sometimes get to see ugliness in religion up close.
This week was one of those weeks. And this week’s ugliness went public.
For me, besides the heartache, anger, confusion and sadness that accompanies these times–the thing I struggle with the most is how to talk about ugliness and evil with my friends on the fringes of faith traditions. My non-practicing Jewish girlfriends whom I love dearly and who constantly give me perspective and insight. My friends who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” having tired of religious institutions, or my friends who are vehemently opposed to religious expressions of all kinds. And the dearest of them all, my self-proclaimed “recovering-Catholic” husband who vacillates between lovingly supporting my vocation with pride, and shaking his fists with mistrust.
This week was a fist-shaking kind of week. And trust is at an all-time-low.
Two years ago, my husband and I were living on The General Theological Seminary campus while I was in my second year of school there. Without getting into much detail, two members of the administration used various bully-tactics to skirt around their mismanagement of our money. Jay was wounded alongside me as he a) footed the bill, b) lived in the very community calling our character into question, and c) watched me gingerly navigate threats with little/no recourse. It was an exhausting time, and perhaps the first time the church really broke my heart. I was learning the hard lesson that church leaders are not exempt from arrogance and meanness. The two things that most sustained us were the support and wisdom of my bishop and rector back home, and most especially the love and support of the seminary faculty. In that sense, church saved me from the church.
This week those same faculty who held me up were fired by other administrative figures at the same seminary.
The faculty were “resigned” by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees after communicating their serious concerns regarding the Dean and President of the seminary–concerns that in any other church or even business would require the person in question to be removed for the safety of others until an investigation into allegations was complete. To the outside world, the message communicated is that The Episcopal Church protects those in power, even if that person has reportedly intimidated students and faculty with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and decisions. So again I find myself struggling to explain why religion isn’t a bad thing–why I feel called to this work of ministry–why I feel I can trust the church–why I turn to the church for healing–why I’m not only a person of faith, but also a person contributing to the overall framework of the institution of the church.
So let me say: The Episcopal Church–of which I am a member, a leader, and a representative–is a good and joyful community of people striving to “persevere in resisting evil…proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…serve Christ in all persons…for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being.” This is our baptismal covenant, as found in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s what we promise, what we proclaim, what we are initiated into, and what we expect from ourselves and our church community.
That said, we suffer from the same unhealthy group dynamics everyone else does. Part of my husband’s frustration stems from his belief that leaders of the church should be held to a higher standard–and to an extent, I agree with him. Lots of people do. But that part about “resisting evil” in the baptismal covenant? It’s followed by, “and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Not IF, but WHEN. I think the higher standard many people think of is perfection, when in reality its a willingness to repent and say you’re sorry. Of course the church does not have the corner on apologizing. And note that the covenant I reference is one of baptism–not one of ordination. It is so widely adhered to that we make a point of renewing our covenant in our liturgy at least quarterly.
This week’s ugliness has cracked open some long-time systemic problems. Problems not unique to The General Theological Seminary. My prayer is that the heartbreak we feel will allow for truth’s light to illuminate a way forward–one of repentance, reconciliation, redemption and resurrection.
It’s what we preach. Heck, let’s be the sermon.
And so it is in the hope of Christ that I pray for humility–for myself, my peers, the vulnerable students and the bishops that support them, the faculty, the Dean, the Board–and for their spouses and families that did not “sign up for this” in the same way we did.