September 22, 2008

On Pride and Priests

Regular readers of my blog know that I typically offer my own opinions, rather than directing readers to consider the essays of others. When I arrived at church yesterday, however, several friends asked me if I had seen the op-ed piece on The Episcopal Church in the “Forum” section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I hadn’t, but reading it was the first thing I did when I got home. It was worth waiting for. The essay is called “On pride and priests.” The author is Calvary Church parishioner Conroy D. Guyer. (“On pride and priests” can be read on the Web site of the Post-Gazette here, but I have also reproduced it below.)

I was struck by two aspects of the Guyer piece. First, all the talk about how tragic was the September 18 vote to depose Robert Duncan, Bishop of Pittsburgh, was becoming tiresome. Yes, it was unfortunate that such an action was necessary, but removing this particular rogue bishop should have been done years ago, and the real tragedy is that it was not. Alas, even now, we cannot say, “My fellow Episcopalians, our long ecclesiastical nightmare is over.” Duncan has fled jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church for that of the Southern Cone, is still collecting a salary, is expecting to be returned as a bishop of Pittsburgh after the convention vote on “realignment,” and has even created a blog where angry Anglican leaders can express what a falsly maligned saint he is! Guyer, who clearly has a different view of Bob Duncan, has the courage and good sense to spare us the crocodile tears.

Second, Guyer articulates the moral case against the Duncan program. Usually, it has been Duncan’s allies—the American Anglican Councils and the Global South Primates of the Anglican world—who have claimed the moral high ground, arguing that their agenda is God’s agenda, and therefore not subject to the usual restraints on ethical behavior. Guyer suggests that the “realignment” movement is a product of spiritual pride and a quest for power and money. Guyer calls on the upcoming convention to reject such a program.

I do not expect “On pride and priests” to stop the “realignment” juggernaut, but it is high time that someone attacked “realignment” on its home turf. Read the essay. You likely will not agree with everything Guyer says, but he surely offers substantial food for thought.

On pride and priests

Pittsburgh Episcopalians who vote to secede from the national church will likely regret it, argues communicant CONROY D. GUYER

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote Oct. 4 on whether to secede from the Episcopal Church—the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion—and realign with a more theologically conservative Anglican province in South America. Robert Duncan, the bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese until he was removed Thursday by the Episcopal House of Bishops, has led this movement, both in Pittsburgh and nationally.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed that the desire for power is the central motivation of the human personality. Later this month, the T.S. Eliot play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” will be performed at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Downtown Pittsburgh.

It should be a cautionary tale for the laity and the clergy who will soon vote about whether the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh should remain in the Episcopal Church.

“Murder in the Cathedral” is a play about a 12th century archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who has his own agenda. Becket’s quest for power takes the form of spiritual pride, which becomes his tragic flaw. This tragic flaw is objectified in Becket’s fantasies of martyrdom, with its concomitant desire for power. When the Tempter comes to Becket, the Tempter speaks Becket’s own thoughts to him

… But think, Thomas … of glory after death

… Think of pilgrims, standing in line

Before the glittering jeweled shrine …

And think of your enemies in another place

Power in the form of moral purity does not exist anywhere in this world. There are always the subtexts, the unarticulated desires, the tacit motivations.

While the hidden agenda may remain unclear, one does have an understanding about how an administrator should exercise his power in office. Should an administrator exercise his power in the best interests of his institution, or undermine it? If an administrator feels that an institution no longer reflects his values, should he not resign from it? Does an administrator in the office of a bishop have the right to take a diocese out of its parent organization and give its assets of $43 million to another diocese—maybe one of his own devising or perhaps one on another continent?

(No wonder Mr. Duncan calls ours a diocese of miraculous expectation! Where is the missionary grace? A slogan can cover a vacuum.)

When power is misused, it taints the hopes of those who are no longer with us and who have given money so that the structures and the doctrines of the Episcopal church will be here for future generations. The purpose for which these people have given money is thwarted and their trust is broken. Is this not a genuine ethical problem? Furthermore, are not the higher ethical values of religion sadly compromised in schism? Who has ever read a book about a church schism and concluded that this was the shining hour of faith?

Then too one does question bishops and priests who try to gain power among their flocks like demagogues by promulgating simple, single-issue concepts like their objection to the ordination of women or their disapproval of homosexual practices. What gender can give more compassion to ministry than womankind? Do homosexual desires disappear when they are confronted by the screeds of a preacher or a bishop in a medieval hat? Do these same clergy preach so ardently against the turpitudes of heterosexuals?

An intelligent church needs clergy who display the same understanding of the human mind—its desires and its mechanisms—as a psychotherapist. Science has done more than religion to liberate moderns from the superstitions of the past. Science has given us understanding through description. Intelligent religion can give additional meaning to that description.

Additionally, Jesus himself never spoke about the subject of homosexuality as far as we know. Many clergy have said more about homosexuality in Jesus’ name than Jesus himself ever did.

A third point that needs remembering is that the new diocese will not be a utopia—a place of absolute moral purity. It will be administered by people who, like Archbishop Becket, “follow too much the devices and the desires of their own hearts.” Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The tragedy of man is that he can conceive self-perfection, but he cannot achieve it.”

Sadly, many lunatic acts have been committed by religious people in history—acts that many sincere people lived to regret. Do we learn from history? How quickly the reign of Oliver Cromwell in England lost its purity, and some in New England who supported the witch trials later came to regret their participation in them.

An antidote to mad acts is clarity of thought. One might find a way toward lucid thought if one applies the formula of the English poet, William Wordsworth, to his decision-making process. Wordsworth felt that the genesis of a good poem began in an intense emotional experience, which Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of emotions.” If that intense emotional experience is to find expression in the well-ordered world of art, the poet then must engage in quiet reflection. Wordsworth called this part of the artistic process, “… the recollection in tranquility.”

The clergy and the laity of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh are going to make a momentous decision soon that will affect all of us in a good or a bad way for decades to come. Power will be exercised in the process, with its far-reaching effects. The desire for power for some is a subtext in this drama. Some players in this drama will be looking for rewards more palpable than spiritual.

The body of Christ will be torn. The promise of purity will be corrupted by time, as it casts its shadows. Decisions made in the heat of emotions devoid of reason will lead to madness, and madness leads to regret.

My hope is that the laity and the clergy of the Pittsburgh Diocese of the Episcopal Church will exercise their faculty of “reflection in tranquility” in the days to come.

Conroy D. Guyer is retired from the English faculty at Fox Chapel Area High School and is a communicant of Calvary Episcopal Church in East Liberty. He lives in Greensburg.

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