Friday, June 8, 2012

Where Am I?

The metaphor of a journey is often used to describe our life in Christ. We are often described as a pilgrim people. So the question of "where I am" is perhaps more appropriate than the question of "who I am." How did I come to be preparing for my new adventure at Ascension Memorial Church?

I am one of those rare Episcopal clerics who was actually raised in the Episcopal Church. My mother and father had been married in the rectory of the Roman Catholic parish to which she would have belonged had she been a Roman Catholic. She signed the document in which she promised to have her children raised in the Roman Catholic faith, but my father, a thoroughly lapsed Roman Catholic, had no interest in that. When the marriage broke up within a decade, my mother packed up her three young sons and moved back to the town where she had been raised and on Pentecost in 1950 all three of us were baptized at St. Andrew's Church in Wellesley.

After we moved to Amherst, the Episcopal Church continued to be an important part of my life. Jr. Choir, acolytes and church camp were all part of what formed me as a child and a teen-ager. When, at sixteen, I was overwhelmed with wonder that the girl I was dating actually saw through my mask and still liked me, it was to the curate at Grace Church that I went to discuss how wonderful and confused I felt. Fr. David was wise enough to point out that I was experiencing a little reflection of the unconditional love of God, who knows us perfectly and loves us unreservedly.

Although there was at least one person who thought when I was fourteen that I might one day be called to the priesthood, I didn't experience even a glimmer of a call until I returned to the Episcopal Church after a few years as a member of the Society of Friends. I had become a Quaker because I felt, perhaps mistakenly, that it would be more difficult to be a pacifist in the Episcopal Church during the 1960s. My time as a Quaker helped me to grow, but in the end I d=found myself missing the sacramental life and I returned. It was during the year of my return, spent working for a community organization in Wilmington, Delaware, that I began talking about a call to ordained ministry. Following the advice of the Bishop of Delaware, I returned to Amherst, finished my undergraduate work at UMass and headed to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. 

I have to admit that my studies at ETS were often overshadowed by the war in Viet Nam and the protests here. There was also the matter of my ongoing difficulty with my draft board. I had been granted status as conscientious objector, largely because of the testimony of one of my high school teachers who was an Air Force reservist, but when the order to report for alternative service came, I was in my final year at UMass and had been accepted at ETS. I had already written to the draft board and telling them that I would not be reporting if ordered to, but would instead instead finish up at UMass and enter seminary in the fall. It was a surprise when, two years later, I was indicted for my failure to report. I was, at first, prepared to put up no defense and go off to prison, but I had, by the time the trial was scheduled, met Jan MacLean and we were planning to be married a few weeks before I graduated from seminary. I instucted my attorney to present the best defense that he could and by the time the trial began he had discovered that the draft board had violated several of its own rules in ordering me to report. The case was dismissed and the only regret I had was that it had happened in the judge's chambers and that I missed hearing the judge chew out the Assistant US Attorney for wasting the court's time with such an inappropriate prosecution.

After a summer working as a seminary intern in Pittsfield, Jan and I headed to Oxford, England for a year. Through the generosity of William Coolidge, a member of the ETS Board of Trustess, I was able to spend a year at Balliol College, where Coolidge was what they call an Old Member. Although it was hard for both of us to be away from our families, especially at Christmas, the year at Oxford was wonderful. Both Jan's parents and my mother visited us that year and we got to travel a quite a lot during Oxford Univeristy's breaks between terms. At Easter in 1973, Jan's parents and the two of us worshipped at Iona Abbey, with George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community preaching, beginning a relationship with the Community that has continued for nearly four decades.

Because I had worked there the previous summer, when one of the priests at St. Stephen's in Pittsfield accepted a call to another parish, I was invited to join the staff when we returned from England. It was during my three years there, serving as Assistant Minister at St. Stepehen's and Priest in Charge at St. Martin's Church, that I began to learn how to become a priest. It is, I know now, a lifetime task, but being mentored by Andrew Wissemann, who later became our bishop, was an incredible gift. Andrew's deep piety and his occassional moments of silliness helped be to understand the importance of taking God seriously, but myself not at all. We are, as friend would later tell me, paraphrasing Paul's mention of earthen vessels, simply crocks.

After leaving Pittsfield in 1976, I served three years as Rector of Trinitty Church in Ware and nine years as Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Southbridge. In both communities I found myself drawn into working for and with those on the margins, helping to start a food pantry and a free meals program in Souithbridge and serving on the town's Housing Authority. The pull of social service and social ministries led to my accepting an invitation to serve as the Bishop's Deputy for Outreach Ministries in the Diocese of Western New York. Working with the various social service agencies supported by the diocese and with various diocesan commissions brought me in contact with people who would be my friends and collegaues for the 22 years we spent in Western New York. When the bishop reorganized his staff, eliminating my position, we decided to stay in Buffalo, where our children had friends and good schools and Jan worked as a school social worker. After a two-year stint as Interim Rector of a suburban parish, I accepted a job as the first Director of the Erie County Commission on Homelessness. For the next six years I worked to bring together the various agencies working to assist homeless individuals and families, try to create an integration Continuum of Care. As always with such efforts, our success was real but limited. We found funding for several new programs and worked to be sure that the "not in my backyard" attitude did not prevent people from getting the help they needed. When it became clear to me that the Commission needed someone else as director, I accepted a jod teaching social ethics and New Testament at a Roman Catholic high school. I had thought about teaching when I was in college and this seemed a good chance to see how good a teacher I could be. I discovered that teaching, especially teaching required courses to less than enthusiastic students, was not nearly as rewarding as I had thought it would be. After two years I declined an offer to continue teaching and wasn't sure what to do next. I had been working part-time in parishes during my years with the commission and while I was a teacher, but my position as Interim Vicar of a mission church ended around the same as my work as a teacher, and I was unemployed for several months. 

In the fall of 2001 I was invited to return to parish work New England, but that would have meant that Jan would have to leave a job she loved. Friends and colleagues in Buffalo were urging me to stay, but no one had any work to offer. Finally, in what as a moment of exasperation, I told the diocesan Deployment Officer that he should stop encouraging me to stay and find me a job. He suggested that I might be right for a parish where a close friend had been rector until he was suspended for misconduct. I thought he was crazy, but agreed to be considered. Having been unsuccessful in their search after several months, the parish's Vestry was willing to consider me. I suspect that what may have convinced the Vestry to extend a call was my asking them at our first meeting to identify what was so good about the parish that they had been willing to meet nearly every week for several months. I accepted the call to serve as interim priest that fall and by the spring there were conversations with the bishop about the possibility that I be considered as a candidate for rector. Given the difficulties of the past year, the bishop said that he was open to that possibility but that the parish needed to develop a profile first. The profile process was a valuable one, one in which I did not participate but observed with interest. A year later, with the profile complete, I was asked if I wanted to be considered as a candidate. I was, but expressed a real concern about about being considered with other candidates. They knew me well after more than a year of working together and it would be difficult to compare me fairly to priests that they had only met during the search process. The Vestry and Search Committee agreed to consider me as the only candidate at first and to move on to other candidates if they decided not to call me. That decision and the later decision to call me resulted in some active members leaving the parish, but most parishioners were very pleased. 

During my years in that parish I continued to be involved in some of the community ministries that I had helped to start while working for the diocese and the commission, especially a community development loan fund and a ministry to homeless families i which the parish had been committed long before I came to serve there. A major focus of my work, however, was on helping the parish move beyond the crisis that had brought me there, the smaller crisis around my call, and the somewhat larger crisis that followed the election of my longtime friend Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Gene's election prompted several active members to leave and, eventually, organize an Anglican congregation in the town. I respected their decision to leave, knowing that they could in conscience remain in the Episcopal Church now that it had a partnered gay bishop. I also became in time friends with the priest who came to serve their congregation. He had been very clear when he accepted the call that he would not criticize me, the parish, the bishop, the diocese, or the Episcopal Church. He wanted his work to be focused on the Gospel and not on identifying the congregation as "not Episcopalian." Although there were still some uncomfortable relationships between members of the two congregations, for the most part we remained friends. While we lost some members that year, we began gaining members over the next few years. Same sex couples found themselves welcomed and others who were in favor of greater inclusion in the Episcopal Church also became active. 

In the fall of 2008 I was invited to take a sabbatical at Episcopal Divinity School. During my semester I became exposed to our school's incredible faculty, auditing courses taught Kwok Pui Lan, Christopher Duraisingh, Norman Faramelli, Ed Rodman, and Ian Douglas. Just as important was the opportunity to get to know the school's students, in many of whose graduations and ordinations I have been privileged to participate. Returning to the parish after the sabbatical, I intended to stay for three years. However the arrival of our first grandchild later that year and a growing sense that it was time for someone else to lead the parish, made it clear to me, at least, that it would be right for us back to Massachusetts sooner rather than later. Bishop Cedarholm suggested when I met with him that few would question our decision to move closer to a grandchild. He was right and Jan and I retired in 2010 and accepted our daughter's and son-in-law's invitation to move in with them in Danvers. It has been a great gift to be able to watch our granddaughter grow, to support our daughter and som-in-law, and to welcome a grandson this past February.

While our family life would have priority, I decided right away to help out some at St. Peter's Church in Salem where one of my classmates, Paul Bresnahan, was one of the priests in charge. A year later when Paul announced his retirement, I decided to look for another community to serve and was almost immediately invited to work at Trinity Church in Topsfield by the parish's rector, Jo Barrett.

Now I am ready to begin the new adventure at Ascension Memorial Church. Although I have often worked outside the parish, I am committed to the parish as the place where much of the most important ministry happens. I am also committed to encouraging all of us, clergy and laity alike, to think theologically. As one of my friends said in a recent sermon, how we think about God, our theology, has a profound effect on how we think about and treat others. For the past few years I have been particularly interested in our understanding of the Atonement, finding the medieval substitutionary understanding of the Cross much less that helpful. Finally, I am committed to an understanding of theology as contextual. We can only think about God as persons raised in and living our own contexts. If I pretend that my context doesn't influence my theology, I am fooling myself and am very likely not to see how my context does influence my theology. Aware of the limitations imposed by my context, I am more likely to look for correction from theologians in other contexts. While I don't intend to turn my sermons into lectures, I hope that parishioners at Ascension will accept the challenge to become more intentional theologians.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A New Adventure

On Sunday, July 1 I will begin a new adventure as I begin four months at Ascension Memorial Church. My friend Brad Clark, who is the rector at Ascension, will be on sabbatical and the parish has asked me to serve as "sabbatical supply priest" while he is away. I am not found of that title, and prefer Locum Tenens, from the Latin for "place holder," but the more pedestrian title is easier to understand.

The sabbatical is being supported by a Lilly Endowment grant and it is intended to to be a time of renewal for Brad and for the parish. During the four months of the sabbatical life at Ascension will not be "business as usual." Although Sunday by Sunday we will continue to celebrate the Eucharist together and the vital ministries in which parishioners are engaged will continue, we will use these months to explore new ways of growing in our understanding of Jesus and of the ways we can share in God's mission of reconciliation.

Brad has decided to share some of his sabbatical experiences on a blog, AMC 2012 SABBATICAL, and it occurred to me that a blog about our experiences at Ascension Memorial Church while I serve in locum tenens would be good. Members of the parish's sabbatical planning committee liked the idea and suggested that I use an early blog post to introduce myself to the parish. That post will follow this one in a few days.