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GOOD GRIEF by Peter Moore


By Peter Moore

At the close of the American Anglican Council’s remarkable conference in Dallas on October 9, as 2,700 Episcopalians prepared to return to their churches and dioceses, I went back to my room and wept. I was not unhappy with the conference. It was an astounding show of support for a biblically orthodox witness within our Church.

Coming when it did - shortly before the crucial meeting of Anglican Primates at Lambeth and the subsequent consecration of V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire - it sent a message. Eight hundred clergy and more than twice that number of laity were prepared to stand firm and joyfully witness to our historic faith and values. So in some ways I was elated. But along with the elation there was something else.

I struggled with the undeniable sense that, while we are strong and vital, we had lost. We lost a thirty-year struggle to prevent the Episcopal Church from going over the cliff.

Now the deed is done. Same-sex blessings will become commonplace throughout the Church, supported by majority vote of General Convention. And a divorced man living in a homosexual relationship is now a consecrated bishop in the Church - by majority vote.

No one can open a newspaper or turn on the TV without being confronted with the stark reality that a major Protestant denomination has done the unthinkable. Will other denominations, with our encouragement, follow?

And so I wept, alone in my room, on my knees, with my bags packed. I am not given to outward displays of emotion, but in the privacy of my room, I realized that something precious had been lost and would never be regained.

I have since discovered that I am not alone. A general grief has come over the Church. Even those who supported the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop coadjutor in New Hampshire now realize that they have opened a Pandora’s Box of problems.

The script of our “play” follows the stages of grief outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in On Death and Dying (Macmillan, 1969). Kubler-Ross found that she could roughly group the responses of people presented with catastrophic news. First there is the “No, not me” stage (denial). Then there is the “Why me?” stage (anger). The third stage is “If you do this, I’ll do that” (bargaining). This is followed by a fourth stage: “It’s really happened” (depression). Finally, there is the “Okay, this is what has happened” stage (acceptance).

Perhaps the stages do not always follow the order that Kubler-Ross outlined, but most health care professionals agree that these are the components of grief at the prospect of dying. More broadly, the stages of grief describe the experience of people who receive catastrophic news of any kind.

General Convention 2003 was catastrophic news to many Episcopalians. “Their Church” had decided against everything they knew to be true about human sexuality. Moreover, it had gone against everything the Church itself had said - and has kept saying - about sexuality ever since the subject became contentious.

And if that weren’t enough, it went against everything the bishops of the entire Anglican Communion had said at Canterbury in 1998, when, by a vote of 526 to 70, the Church made a landmark statement that “homo-sexuality was incompatible with Scripture.” In agreement with that statement were the Pope, the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and the vast majority of Protestants worldwide, including the burgeoning churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The stunning decision to defy world Christian opinion by a tiny body of American Episcopalians at GC 2003 sent shock waves around the globe.

So how do we relate this to the categories of grief?

Denial “No, not us.” We were used to hearing terrible news about a small minority of Roman Catholic priests who were abusing children and youth while the Roman hierarchy looked the other way. But suddenly, we were in the midst of our own sexual scandal. Why were we surprised? For years Episcopalians have been pressured by a small but favored lobby to change the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. At one point, I visited the Episcopal Church Center’s bookstore at 815 Second Avenue, New York. Of several shelves of books on sexuality, not one supported the historic, biblical view!

As a communion, we were in denial. Many churches merely ignored the continued mandates to “study and dialogue” on this issue. Priests refused to talk about it from the pulpit, fearing that it might divide congregations. Adult education classes skirted around the issue. The pro-gay lobby Integrity had spent upwards of $300,000 to push for the affirmation of Robinson and to pass legislation supporting the blessing of non-marital unions, so there had been plenty of advance warning. But most of us chose not to see the obvious. No wonder people were surprised after General Convention.

Anger “Why us?” There is anger throughout the Church. Priests are being accosted at airports by people who are stupefied at the Episcopal decision. All but 10 parishioners walked out of a New Hampshire church at Bishop Robinson’s first confirmation. One bishop, who voted for Robinson, has reportedly received 1000 letters from laity who opposed his decision. Conversely, bishops who voted against Robinson are besieged at open meetings. Dioceses, parishes and individuals are withholding funds from the National Church at an unprecedented rate. One church treasurer laid the key to his church on his Rector’s desk and walked out, never to return. Some priests were told by their bishops that if they went to the AAC conference, they should start looking for new jobs. One bishop disinvited the Presiding Bishop to the consecration of his successor. Another bishop resigned from every committee he was on and called for the resignation of the Presiding Bishop. Building campaigns have been put on hold. Clergy groups on both sides of the issue are gathering to strategize. Some clergy have gone so far as to remove the word “Episcopal” from their church’s notice board.

The stories could be multiplied. My own phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from distraught friends. Seminarians are wondering how they can pledge to obey the “doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church” when they are ordained. The catastrophe we dimly feared, and denied for a long time, is upon us; and we cannot ignore it any longer. And so we blame others. We blame them for poor theological training, poor preaching and teaching and poor leadership. We rant about the “cultural captivity of the Church.”

We fail to see that we all have a share in this problem. Perhaps it was our own inactivity, our own failure to read up on the subject of human sexuality, to be active in the political life of our Church or congregation and our own lack of courage to speak up. We suppose that, as long as things don’t change too much over at St. Swithin’s, we’ll be okay. What happens way up there in New Hampshire needn’t bother us all that much, as long as our children and grandchildren are still taught the Bible. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and we will all eventually be affected.

A few years ago, when Canon Gene Robinson was right-hand man to the bishop of New Hampshire, he spoke to 500 co-ed teenagers at St. Paul’s School in Concord. In his talk, he spoke about how sex is a gift of God, and that God wants us to use this gift whether with friends of the same sex or friends of the opposite sex, as long as we do it safely. He closed his address with the words: “Share your love with your friends. Use a condom.” Was one of your children or grandchildren among those 500 impressionable teenagers?

One church leader published a manual for “churches in conflict.” It recognized the problem that congregations are divided on many issues, especially sexuality. Its solution is a series of parish discussion groups, carefully choreographed, whose basic premise is the assumption that the only thing we must all agree NOT to be is “right.” Being right, says the manual, is the beginning of all our problems. Well, that’s one way to ensure the outcome - and a highly manipulative one at that.

Bargaining “If we do this, you’ll do that.” Perhaps if we withhold monies from the National Church, you’ll provide “alternative Episcopal oversight” to our parish. Perhaps if we get the Archbishop of Canterbury on our side, you’ll let us leave with our church property. Perhaps, if we have a series of open meetings, and hear all sides of the issue, we can just “agree to disagree agreeably” and life will go on as usual. This bargaining stage doesn’t last. Things move inexorably to the next stage.

Depression “Okay, this is what has happened.” Eventually, people become depressed over the state of things and sink into a quiet, sullen or unhappy mood. Depression may lead to exploring other churches, regretting a donation to the most recent building fund, avoiding the subject or even serious doubt. One clergyman recently wrote me that he had abandoned “anachronistic Theism” and thought that anybody who believed the Bible to be the Word of God was worse than crazy. He said that if he still thought that theism and believing in the Bible as the Word of God were essential, he’d declare himself a non-Christian immediately.

“The Church is under judgment” is a phrase I am hearing from an increasing number of thoughtful folk. Such a thought (whether right or wrong) emerges quite naturally when one is depressed. Grief can also include an inability to make decisions, listlessness and tiredness and a sense of ennui. The idea that what happened cannot be changed leads to a time of quiet withdrawal, and sadness.

Acceptance “This has really happened.” The blinders are off, reality has set in, things won’t change. One might as well cut one’s losses and move on. The liberal end of the Church is counting on this stage leading to a resumption of business as usual. Conservatives are less sanguine. With many looking for exit strategies, and many already gone, the prospects for the great surge in membership that Bishop Robinson’s supporters guaranteed us would happen with his consecration seem dim. People will still go to church, no doubt, and still put their money in the plate. But deep down there will be a sense that something wonderful, something precious, something life-giving has been lost. We will have to move on.

Here’s an acronym I’ve seen for the work of grieving: TEAR

T = To accept the reality of loss E = Experience the pain of loss A = Adjust to the new environment without the lost object R = Reinvest in the new reality

Perhaps, as we comfort one another, we can help one another get through this difficult period. Change and hope are part of our faith. Resurrection follows death. We must remember that around the world the Church is growing as it has never grown before. Believers are faithful under persecution. As one young priest wrote me: “My faith is still intact.”

Grief can be good, if it forces us to reevaluate where we have come, and where we are going. I, for one, am grateful for the tears I shed in Dallas. I have a smile on my face today.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Moore is Dean, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry

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