By Roger Ferlo
It’s been a relatively quiet week here at the seminary in Alexandria, where manicured lawns and tree-lined streets place most of us a world and several social classes away from the ramshackle detritus of New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Nonetheless, we pay a lot of attention to New Orleans these days. Several of our seminarians come from that part of the country, and for two years now many of my students and colleagues have spent days and weeks at a time in that broken city trying to help in whatever way they can. So it was unsettling this week, even a little distasteful, to be asked to refocus our attention on the comings and goings of bishops gathered in New Orleans, rather than on New Orleans itself.
I thought I knew better. No good usually comes of this. In my long experience as a parish priest, there have been few occasions more dispiriting to me than these scheduled gathering of bishops. I say this not because I dislike bishops all that much. I admire a lot of them, count not a few as my friends, and most of the time feel rather sorry for them, isolated and misunderstood as they often are. But I find such occasions dispiriting because, in spite of everything I believe and teach about shared power and shared authority, I find myself buying the press’s line that the power and decision-making in the Episcopal Church in the United States are centered in the House of Bishops, and find myself hoping that whatever they decide this weekend down in New Orleans will set everything right.
And I am always proved wrong. There’s no reason to assume that these men and women will be up to such a task. It’s not their job. It’s a job all of us share. That fact underscores one of the ironies of Anglican history. In spite of our reputation in other parts of the Anglican Communion as a prime colonizer of heretical values and American power, the American church goes about its business in a distinctly post-colonial way. We long ago shed our allegiance to meddling foreign bishops. For two centuries our church has invested decision-making authority in a duly-elected bicameral legislature where both the ordained and the non-ordained have equal voice and equal standing. Meanwhile, many other bishops—particularly in post-colonial western and central Africa, and let it be said, in Great Britain as well, that ancient well-spring of colonizing fervor— have embraced hierarchical styles of leadership and authority that would have warmed the autocratic heart of George III. So also have many of their American admirers, particularly those bishops and wannabe bishops who were happy to participate in the quirkily democratic body we call the General Convention unless and until the votes didn’t go their way. To hear them talk, you would think that the Holy Spirit seems to be at work only when matters fall out in their favor. And now people who could not get themselves elected bishops by their own people in their own dioceses are finding ways to get themselves ordained as bishops under the aegis of foreign primates, self-righteously bent on saving me from myself, and re-colonizing a church that had assumed it had ended that kind of extra-territorial interference when Cornwallis surrendered to American troops in the first place.
So I guess it’s hard for me to be too sympathetic to the goings-on down in New Orleans. I have been an Episcopal priest for over twenty years, and an Episcopalian for more than half my life. In all that time, I can never remember signing on to conform to the theological opinions of foreign bishops. My ordination vows were pretty clear. Like thousands of my colleagues in the ministry, I have done my best to uphold the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the word of God, and to conform to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church. I haven’t been very good at it, but I have kept at it. In that I’m in the same boat as everyone else, including the parishioners, priests and bishops who have served as deputies to General Convention over the years, as I did as a deputy from the diocese of New York in that now-demonized year of 2003. We haven’t been good at it, but we have at least been faithful.
So, as I said, thank God it’s been a quiet week here at the seminary in Alexandria. Our first year students have at last settled in, fired up to serve God in this branch of the Catholic church in spite of all these signs of disarray and fracture. These things go with the territory, as any resident of New Orleans might tell you. It was helpful (or was it a sign from heaven?) that the Morning Prayer readings this week were from the opening chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Brave words, these. Who knows where Paul would have positioned himself in the present fracas. If anyone knew about disarray and fracture, it was Paul, and we know that he was never above fomenting a little disarray himself. But he was faithful. That’s all that can be asked of any of us in the end—fidelity to God’s embracing love as we have experienced it in Jesus, and fidelity to each other, members of Christ’s body, wherever we stand or refuse to stand on the issues that divide us. Signing on to this kind of love will get you pretty far, regardless of what the bishops say or don’t say—no matter what political catastrophes seem to lie in store for Christ’s body, wounded and redeemed.
The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).