Thursday, September 8, 2016

Retired Bishop urges us to "pray with your feet"

Spirituality of the barricades

Most mainline religious communities wallow in stale liturgies and rituals, what he calls theatrics, and have become socially, politically and culturally irrelevant. The dwindling numbers of these congregations rarely leave their houses of worship—which often are little more than social clubs for the elderly or the elites—to join the struggle in front-line communities or in groups such as Back Lives Matter or Occupy. He calls the outreach by most religious institutions largely meaningless, little more than a “patina of social service.” (Chris Hedges’ column, “Pray with your Feet,” speaking with retired Episcopal bishop, George Packard, Truthdig.com, originally posted November 15,2015 reposted August 30, 2016). Packard had joined a “foot protest” against another energy drilling project, near a nuclear waste storage site.

Hedges continues:

It is only the outlaws who will save us. And it is only among outlaws that Packard’s religious faith makes sense. The bishop in his church in the streets, worships surrounded by many who do not consider themselves religious, but who he sees as carrying the spirit and passion for justice and commitment to life that embody the essence of his faith and mine. Spirituality, he knows is found on the barricades.
The “spirituality of the barricades” may be something of an American initiative. Their country, founded and raised on rebellion, continues to see street protest as an integral arrow in its political quiver. Free speech, including even the most venomous speech, constitutes the staple in Trump’s political rhetoric. In Canada, on the other hand, born of smaller conflicts, and raised under a constitution that enshrines “peace order and good government”, we tend to prefer (or at least have for most of our history, with notable exceptions, including the recent physical and verbal protest of the National Energy Board hearing in Montreal) more moderate, less physical and more modest means both of celebration and also of protest. Nevertheless, the question of taking our spirituality to the barricades, where we will inevitably meet and get to know those who fit Packard’s description of fellow protesters, hangs over us.

It was former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Right Reverend Ted Scott, who stood shoulder to shoulder with First Nations people when the logging companies threatened to clear their land. His example, model of leadership and foresighted courage, “his spirituality” to stand with the voiceless, has not found many followers in either Canada or the United States. We did not hear many church leaders complain publicly when Dudley George was murdered at Ipperwash. We do not hear many religious leaders speak publicly when the rivers flowing out of the tar sands in Northern Alberta are flooded with toxins in support of the First Nations communities whose water has been compromised. In fact, we have heard barely a whimper of protest from religious leaders about the literally hundreds of First Nations communities that live under “boil water” restrictions and have for decades. It is, in Canadian parlance, “not seemly” to become so politically vociferous. It would, perhaps, or maybe certainly, outrage the corporate suits who write the cheques that pay for the stained glass windows, the new organs, and the heating bills that keep the pews warm.
And perhaps even retired bishop Packard feels so compelled to join the foot protest following his formal retirement, when the pressure from peers is no longer a major factor in his decision to protest. 

There is a kind of separation, in many religious communities, between the activities of the “church” including the liturgy, the eucharist, the hymns, the church education program, the choir and its rehearsal of the music of Handel’s Messiah, for example, and the activities of the citizen as political citizen. There is a history of community leaders, many of them “deeply churched” who have also been the publishers of local community newspapers. And their editorial judgements have clearly been scarred deeply by their conviction of “not unsettling the establishments” in those very communities, thereby contributing significantly to a “conservative” and one could argue, “passive, resistant and compliant” political culture.

 And there is also a history of church leaders who rise in prominence in local community “respect” simply because they are “good church people” for attending and taking leadership roles in their churches. Many of these virtuous local icons, however, can be found leading protests for justice, although the public knowledge begging for such protests is widely disseminated, and they would have to be living under a rock not to know how serious those issues are, were, and likely will continue to be, without their taking concerted action.

I recall, with disdain, one church lay leader of my acquaintance, who proudly led the “No” campaign on a plebesite to determine whether alcoholic beverages would be served with meals in local dining rooms. That was 1961; as you have already guessed, the “Yes” side won. For decades now, I have waged a personal campaign to reduce both the numbers and the ferocity of the born-again fundamentalist crowd, cloned, at least in my view, as models of the late, and not-so-great Ian Paisley, he of so much infamy as leader of the protestants against the Roman Catholics in the “great troubles” as they have become known. In different space on this blog, the case has already been argued against the perverted theology of one of his clones, the clergy in whose church I was, I am ashamed to admit although long before his arrival, baptized. The church leaders of his “watch” were local businessmen whose reputation only grew after their conversion.

Inspired by Archbishop Scott, I naively ventured off in search of an inner self, thinking that I might be helped by a stint in both seminary and in pastoral relations, considering the obvious and demonstrated need, especially or men at forty-five who have been emotionally shut down since childhood, and who, inspite of working at least fourteen-sixteen hours each day, did not experience the kind of satisfaction and “meaning” they considered worthwhile and achievable. What I found were more conflicts between the “fundies” as they were the known, and the “liberals” as we were insulting dubbed, There were also some cursory looks at both scripture, including Greek and Hebrew, some philosophy of religion, a little psychology of religion, a little church history, some “holy hand-waving” as we called it, and along with a few stints as interns in parishes. There was no course or any attention given to conflict resolution/management, no celebration of the prophetic voice of ministry, no comprehensive examination of the current cultural issues facing both the church and the political culture and nothing even close to resembling the kind of praying with your feet being championed by both Hedges and Packard.

I do recall one homily in the Trinity College Chapel, delivered by Stephen Lewis, formerly leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, and also Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, more recently leading his own foundation working feverishly to stamp out AIDS in Africa. I also recall spending an evening at Holy Blossom Temple listening to the recently deceased Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel. Another memorable evening occurred while listening to Sister Mary Jo Leddy who has spent much of her life and ministry helping refugees from war-torn, disease-stricken, poverty-ridden countries find a new home in Canada.

I was not familiar with the Paul Tillich scathing criticism of churches as fundamentally evil, so fixated on their own survival, growth and reputation until quite recently. However, since graduating and serving inside the church for a decade-plus, I have worked in parishes whose trust account had, in one case, a half-million dollars, without an active parish ministry to the poor, the voiceless, the homeless, all of whom were living within a stone’s throw of the gothic building where people worshipped every Sunday. I have also served in churches where a bare minimum of that “patina of social service’ was considered historic. One such example, was a project to collect soft and cuddly toys, animals to be shipping to war-torn Bosnia, in the late nineties. It was the first such “social justice” ministry undertaken by that small mission for decades if not forever and they proudly told anyone they met the total of some 2000+ stuffed animals were donated, collected and transferred to an agent for shipping overseas. Another act of prophetic ministry I was honoured to witness featured a near-homeless man purchasing unsold and out-of-fashion stock from a shoe retailer for 25cents a pair, and then selling them on the street corner at $.50/pair, and giving the proceeds to the church. The other members of the parish were dumbfounded at the sight of this little project.

There are countless examples of phone calls of commiseration, sympathy, comfort and empathy that are exchanged every day between and among church-goers, most of whom have know each other for decades, if not life-times, as they have clustered close to their ancestral neighbourhoods. However, millions have moved far from their ancestral homes, leaving their circle of neighbours, friends, business and professional colleagues and some have tried to penetrate the strongly gated communities known as parish churches.

“Gated communities” is not a phrase used flippantly. In every church in which I have worshipped or worked, there are gate-keepers, guarding the mostly cultural conventions of that church community, from how to fold the linen for the eucharist, to how to serve the eucharist, to how to collect and count the money, to how to greet and to welcome newcomers….a skill, by the way that can make or break a parish’s future growth.

And future growth, that corporate profit and loss stereotype, underpins every church parish on the continent, if not on all continents. And the way to measure “growth” is the normal corporate method of counting both dollars and numbers of seats in pews each Sunday morning. Churches that are mired in such a superficial “accounting” are, by definition, committing themselves and their futures to the control, the policies and the perspectives of the accountants. Money rules in such a culture, and anyone who think that ministry should be the primary goal is considered “airy-fairy” and out of touch with reality. So it is a very long stretch from a small local parish to a spirituality of the barricades given the fear that, if the people of the parish take a stand,  especially by protesting a local issue supported and sponsored by the establishment, and thereby offend that establishment where the money is housed, that their stream of cash will slow to a trickle or perhaps even dry up, and the church doors will close.

Churches “siamesed” to the corporate establishment in Canada at least include both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. In the United States, the Episcopal church certainly holds a prominent positon in the footings of the U.S. corporate establishment. And, it is from this ‘establishment’ background that Bishop Packard emerges. Most would not think of linking people like Bishop Packard to the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England who fought so vigorously for miners when their working conditions and pay scale were being threatened.

There has been considerable contamination to the concept of the “prophetic voice” of the social gospel, the former having been suborned by the right-wing fundamentalist evangelical churches in the United States. And there is a considerable divide between the ‘christians’ who speak of being “saved” through grace, and those who hold that no one is ‘saved’ unless and until all are free from any of the many shackles both inherent and imposed…and these people are also among those who think one “livs” one’s faith. Praying with one’s feet would be a commendable even honourable way to practice such a faith.

The other difference today from previous decades, and more importantly centuries, (and the churches are stuck in their own history and tradition more than even the academics and the banks) is that we are far more aware of the issues facing the planet, the issues contaminating every stream and river, in each parish, and the evidence of the breakdown in corporate integrity that are snakes in the grass of every family, every town, and every country….whether we like to admit it or not.

Faith and ministry, then, takes on a whole new and different face, meaning and justification. There is a Biblical adage that holds “surrender unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, surrender unto God the things that are His…..and that line is quickly and unshakeably blurring…given the ethic that one’s life carries responsibilities that bridge the public and the private domains of one’s life.

Whether or not Bishops like Packard would even be able to penetrate the conscience of the corporate “suits” whose obsession with corporate profit and personal ambition have no limits, is a far different proposition from the one he is pursuing in “praying with his feet.” And, for the record, the former goal is a subject that ought to be the curriculum of every seminary and theological school on every continent. Seminary postulants need to be guided in the mysteries and the theories of conflict resolution and also in the ministry of transformation, not only of social and economic and political structures, but also of the human heart and mind.

The priests who taught “Liberation Theology” in the fields of South America, basing their instruction and their lives on those passages of scripture that so directed their transformative political theology. Of course, the Vatican objected, fearful that their ministry would offend the political and economic establishment. This is not a new nor an insurmountable conflict.


And the sooner the churches abandon their enmeshment with the corporate culture and its mercenary values and aspirations, the sooner the churches will return to the work for which they were intended. However, once again, let’s not hold our breath waiting for such a metamorphosis. It will take, quite literally and metaphorically, an act of God, for that to happen….and those acts of God will take an army of Bishop Packards and Chris Hedges and thousands of others to being to fruition.

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