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Ecclesial Epistemic Humility

Ecclesial Epistemic Humility


It is dangerous, in the Church, not to fall in line, or as some say “drink the kool-aid” ( a tasteless reference to cult leadership). Today, on the nightly news, there is much being discussed about what is proven or not proven or disproven by science. This is an old conversation. It was not long ago, based on the age of our planet, that the Church had proof that the world was flat, and furthermore that it was the center of the universe and that there was only one universe. One could go on, but you get my point.


We like to believe that there is order and that God not only created that order but manages it. When our prayers are answered, we believe in God. When we are frightened, we believe in God. And when we are disappointed or appalled by some great tragedy, we suddenly need to believe in Satan.  These beliefs help us to feel that we are in a rather less random universe and on a more caring planet – at least more caring than the grey ones out there and more caring than the non-Christian lands. These assurances make us feel better.


For centuries, when there was plague, pestilence, or Viking invasion, we were grateful to see a Bishop arrive with monstrances and gold boxes of bits and pieces of saints.  In a society in which everyone wore brown, the purple and red, gold, and silver of Bishop’s pomp and circumstance was a reminder that God was on the side of Christians and that clergy were the conduit to that power. The sanctuary of Cathedrals and churches was a sign of hope that in this life, we had a safe place to run; and in the next life (if God did not incinerate us for being naughty) we would have a place to rest … peaceful even if rather dull.


Along the way, the Church developed ways to deal with pesky clergy who stepped out of line.  Well into post-renaissance, Archives hold documents that show that Lambeth Palace had two staff on the payrolls of the dungeon whose nefarious job descriptions you can well imagine. And the Archbishop of Canterbury was not alone in having a dungeon in his palace basement. The person in power determined the person in dungeons or burning at stakes.


But something new has happened.  After months of watching clergy on little videos waving their arms around (the iPhone videos on Sundays are usually silent until one clicks on one), alone in churches across the land, one begins to wonder if we need a bit less pomp and rather more circumstance. True, clergy regale me weekly with “how my numbers are up…we had 123 on zoom last night and usually only 63 came to church.’” Hmm. I attend zoom meetings all the time online around the nation for everything from pottery to poetry to politics, and though I am a huge fan, I am also simultaneously shopping on Amazon and surfing new Audiobooks in the panel just beneath the camera’s little green light, so that everyone is sure I am spellbound if they can see me at all.


The “halo effect”, (sometimes called the “halo error”) is a cognitive bias that causes a person to project onto another person or institution, a perception of “good” because of external signs and costumes. And that played a role in our churches every Sunday.  


But now we are at home, and have been for months on end. And will be for months on end. And people are beginning to wonder about their pledges. I had one person call me and ask “Should I pledge this year, or should I spend it on vacation when things get better…a beach perhaps, and a drink with an umbrella.”  Needless to say, it was a dangerous question so I simply asked if they thought God would be on that beach. Yes, a trick answer, but it worked.


Perhaps this pandemic will inspire some epistemic humility for our Church. What if our followers are becoming less righteous about the creeds, dogmas and hocus locus of our church while no less close to Jesus? What if they find other ways to make and keep friends? What if black clergy shirts and purple Bishop shirts just don’t have the halo effect they once had? (Pun intended.)


Maybe I am the only one, but I don’t miss racing around getting dressed up for church.  I don’t miss the music (I have an iPhone with 195 recordings of hymns and a Bose speaker.) I don’t miss the wine and wafer (I have a box of my own and some great sourdough!) I don’t miss the bowing and scraping confessions of sin (I have a spiritual director with a sense of humor – an old, scotch-swilling, cursing, hilarious, brilliant, lay-woman-poet who is wiser than any clergy I have ever met). I don’t miss the pledge (I have a new savings account for a trip to see my family when this pandemic is over.) I don’t miss the stained glass. I have 24 icons on the walls of my 500 square-foot apartment. And I don’t miss the coffee hour (I actually have GOOD coffee and many close friends who socially distance on my massive porch overlooking the Salish Sea through which whales swim).


This pandemic has changed a lot and will change even more, the longer it exists.  And it won’t be the last one. It has changed how I make food. It has changed how I nap. It has changed how little silence I used to be able to enjoy. It has reminded me that I am on a planet of people and am within the one percent whose income is more than $51,000 a year.


The clergy with whom I am speaking (and I get calls from many, I suppose because I am old) are asking, in hushed tones, what will happen to the church and the church budgets. I have no answers for them. But I am aware that having less answers, less dogmas, less righteousness, less diocesan conventions, less canonical oversight of beliefs, less Bishop’s speeches, less pomp and more circumstance is, well, refreshing.


Today is Sunday. I am planning to make a casserole, bake a homemade apple pie, bake some bread, mix a cocktail in a pitcher and have some friends over, six feet apart, to eat and drink and laugh and weep and make political donations, make the debate into a drinking game and discuss our lives – the successes, the failures. We will share life-advice and courage. And when I do that I will wonder… “what would Jesus do if he saw us doing this instead of going to Church?”


–Charles LaFond is a poet, novelist, fundraiser and potter on Whidbey Island where he lives with his dog Sugar ona cliff by the Salish Sea.


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Robert Droste

A few years ago, I met and had the chance to work with Charles (I doubt he would remember me). It was a very good experience. That’s why I’m surprised by this post, as the Charles I experienced was an awful lot kinder than this.

There are always ways to make a point without belittling, taking a superior attitude or indulging in plain old meanness (“hocus pocus,” “clergy waving their arms around,” and “bowing and scraping,” for example).

Unfortunately, what he has done here is to treat with real contempt those who find something meaningful – a feeling he obviously does not share. While his version of “house church” sounds lovely – and where he lives is beautiful – why can’t both have exceptional value? Why ridicule either, when different people experience God in such different ways?

While it is important to find an “epistemic humility,” the way to get there is decidedly not by ridiculing those who formed him, loved him and gave him so much – and continue to. This is a case where Charles’ kindness was sacrificed to cleverness – or cynicism or, if you will, just plain snark. I’m sorry to see that.

Lexi Snider

I am so starved for the beauty of holiness, transcendent music, incense lifting communal prayers that I would risk my life for the eucharist rt now, to be in The Presence with others. Shame on you C.L. for shaming those things and those of us who miss them from the depth of our souls.

Stewart Clem

There are many problems with this essay, as others have already noted. But perhaps the most startling is that neither the author nor the editors of Episcopal Cafe seem to be aware of how incredibly privileged the author’s viewpoint is. I am embarrassed to imagine anyone reading this who has lost employment or has been struggling to pay the bills during the pandemic.

Bruce Cornely

I find articles such as this tasteless and not at all helpful. It basically says (as I read it) that the pomp and majesty of worship is not needed, beautiful buildings are not need, and priestly clergy are not needed. I believe, and it has been my experience, that my life is improved and more firmly grounded and directed by experiencing a bit of God’s majesty in worship coupled with the realization that God’s way is significantly different from our way.

In answer to her final question, what would Jesus do if he saw her socializing on the Sabbath rather than worshiping, I believe that Jesus, in His compassionate way, would join the group and teach them about the Sabbath and invite them to worship the God that made all of this possible.

On the downside of the pandemic, more time is available to relax and do little, or socialize properly distanced, but as an up-side there is more time to say the Daily Office, sing or read hymns and Scripture, and thank God that we are protected by His grace even if we become infected, and the threat of death need not be so fearsome because He is there at the end with our beginning.

On a similar note, I find very little in the Episcopal Cafe worth consuming and as inspiring as an hour-old banana split left of my table by an indifferent waiter. I really wish it was more helpful rather than attempting to be theologically “ahead” with big words describing little thoughts.

Someone wrote: TEC is in a bad way.

Yes is it; I agree wholeheartedly, but it is because is has strayed from majesty of God and resorted to entertainment and magazine article sermonettes. The Episcopal Church needs to tighten its cinture and return to Scriptural worship with order and consistency rather than the please-all approach which has something of offend everyone. Pandering must cease. Before I was confirmed I was TAUGHT about the Episcopal Church and why it believed what it did, and why it worshiped as it did, and then expected to make a decision to become a part of it, not to sign up and then try to make it fit my personal pleasures. Our leaders seem to have fallen in the mud and discovered how fun it is to play in.

Gretchen Pritchard

For the record, the writer is a male priest. It’s mystifying to me that the (male) writer of this comment should somehow assume that this post was written by a woman, especially since it is quite easy to check the by-line, and the name “Charles” is not gender-ambiguous.

Bruce Cornely

Humble apologies. I read so many such letters and news stories that I tend to skip the byline. My assumption that the writer was a she was the cooking reference at the end. i didn’t catch the he was a priest. I should have known. Those of his ilk are one of the big reasons the church is in so much trouble. Glad he’s retired!

Mary Davenport

The church is surely changing, as it has always changed, as it will always change. Indifference to corporate worship, the beauty of holiness, and what the author is pleased to call “hocus pocus” is hardly a new development. At 35, I have spent my adult life as the oddball in my peer groups because “going to church” is important to me.

Personally, I think it’s considerably more edgy and radical to invest in people and communities, even during an eight-month stretch when they’re not directly serving my needs, than it is to retreat into solitary splendor, cheered though it may be by a spiritual director who drinks AND swears. (Heavens to Betsy, as my grandmother would say.) What exactly is innovative about capitulation to late-stage capitalism? What exactly is gained by taking your toys and going to play by yourself?

So much about the church is garbage. I’m not going to argue with that. But Jesus doesn’t tell you to go love your abstract neighbor as you imagine them from the solitude of your massive porch overlooking the sea. Jesus tells you to love the person in front of you, as they actually are. I don’t think congregations are the only structures that can make this possible, but they sure are terrific places for learning to love as Jesus loved, empty ritual and all.

Last point: I’m so glad that your career in the church has left you in a comfortable financial situation! Thanks for encouraging people to make sure that won’t be a possibility for future generations of ministers who aren’t giving up on the institution 🙂

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