Friday, May 8, 2015

The Story of the Refusal of the Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando to Baptize the Son of a Gay Couple: My Reflections

For a variety of reasons, I've been following with some interest the story of the refusal of Anthony Clark, dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Orlando, St. Luke, to baptize the baby of a married gay couple, Rich and Eric McCaffrey. I first became aware of the story a few days ago when Faithful America sent out an email asking people to sign a petition calling on the bishop of the diocese, Greg Brewer, to assure that no priest in his diocese refuse baptism to a child on the basis of the sexual orientation of the parents. The petition states,

At Saint Luke's Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando, they [the McCaffreys] found a community they loved and felt they belonged -- until, at the last minute, the cathedral's dean cancelled their baby's baptism because some members of the congregation objected.

When I signed the petition on 4 May, it was still quite a bit short of its goal of 15,000 signatures. As I write this posting, it has 24,685 signatures. 

A posting by Jon White at Episcopal Café on 4 May entitled "Baptism Debacle in Florida" summarizes the story up to the start of this week. It notes that Rich McCaffrey had shared details of the story on his Facebook page, noting that he and Eric had scheduled the baptism of their son Jack on 19 April, and had understood that Dean Clark was willing for Jack to be baptized. As the Faithful America petition indicates, the McCaffreys are regular participants in the parish life of St. Luke's.

Then on the 16th, Clark informed them that there was "a development" concerning the baptism, and that it had to be called off. McCaffrey's Facebook posting also states that Bishop Brewer was involved in the decision to call off the baptism, though Brewer himself has stated that he knew nothing of it till the decision not to permit this baptism became public knowledge and was being discussed widely on the internet.

As the Episcopal Café summary of the story on 4 May indicates, Brewer is a member of the Communion Partners group, which opposed blessing of same-sex marriages in Episcopal churches at the last General Convention — though the group has not been on record stating that it opposes baptism of LGBT people and their families. A comment by Bruce Garner in the thread following the Episcopal Café story on 4 May states that the Episcopal diocese of central Florida has deep, longstanding problems with discrimination against LGBT folks.

Garner writes, 

All of this begs the long standing issue of the true place of LGBT folks in the Diocese of Central Florida. The previous bishop, John Howe, literally purged all LGBT folks from serving at the altar as EM’s, lectors, and adult acolytes. Unless it has been changed, there was also what amounted to a "purity oath" which only barely managed to veil the fact that it was getting at same sex couples…..if you were married or celibate you were "okay." Never mind that true celibacy is a calling not a restriction.

Garner adds, "I’ve known many of these folks for years and years….and I’m too old and too weary for their continued games with my sisters and brothers." Brewer became bishop in 2012, by the way, after Howe resigned in 2011.

Several days after Episcopal Café broke this story on 4 May, they and the Orlando Sentinel both reported that Bishop Brewer had agreed to meet with the McCaffreys and discuss what had happened to them and their son. By this point, the story had gone viral online. I posted it to my Facebook page on 4 May, and it was discussed with passion by my own circle of friends, who shared it with their networks.

Brewer did meet with the McCaffreys last evening, and today, the Sentinel is reporting that a decision has been made that Jack will be baptized, though details about when the baptism will take place have not yet been released. 

As I say at the opening of this posting, this story interests me for a variety of reasons. There's the theological angle, first of all. As readers of this blog may know, there have been people logging in here persistently to advance the argument that the children of gay couples should never receive baptism in Christian churches.

Parents : sinners; children : punished. 

One of those pressing this argument in comments here (until I finally banned him from commenting after repeated warnings to him that I'd do so if he didn't stop trolling this site to vent hate and not to engage in meaningful discussion) is a right-wing Canadian Catholic man who has now relocated to central Florida. This Catholic fellow, who represents a way of thinking that captures the imagination of a certain slice of Catholics, thinks that permitting gay couples to bring their children to churches for baptism involves the church as a whole in the sin (real or imagined) of the parents — though it has long been the practice for Catholic pastors to baptize children of all kinds of "irregular" marriages of heterosexual couples.

And though Pope Francis himself stated in a homily last month as he ordained 19 seminarians that "it is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it." Children should not be punished for the real or imaginary sins of their parents, and it is not the business of a merciful, pastorally astute church to use the baptisms of children as tools to attack targeted minority groups with accusations of real or imaginary sins: this is what I hear the pope saying in that particular statement.

As Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest, says in an essay yesterday at Huffington Post commenting on the Orlando story, 

[M]y expectation would be that from now on Bishop Brewer will be meeting personally with each and every baptismal family in the Diocese of Central Florida to discern whether or not the parents are active in the church and Christians in the community. Otherwise he will be guilty in 2015 of singling out LGBT parents seeking the sacrament of baptism for their children for the same kind of heightened scrutiny African American voters were subjected to when seeking the constitutional right to vote before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That kind of systemic bigotry had no place in our nation fifty years ago and it has no place in our church today. 
And so the only thing that Bishop Brewer should say to Jack's parents today is how profoundly sorry he is for the fact that he failed as the chief pastor and shepherd of the flock in his diocese to protect his LGBT sheep from the assault of systemic homophobia that raised its ugly head and disrupted their plans to baptize their child into the Body of Christ.

Meet with gay couples presenting their children for baptism to ask probing questions about their fitness to be Christian parents, then meet with all couples presenting children for baptism to ask similar questions, Bishop Brewer. Otherwise, you're singling out gay couples and holding them to a bar to which you are holding no other couples. And that's called discrimination.

Today at Episcopal Café John Chilton has posted a piece noting that an unsigned posting by the Anglican Communion Institute yesterday (this is the group to which the former bishop of Orlando, Howe, belongs) maintains that "an infant of two dads cannot be baptized until The Episcopal Church changes its teaching on marriage equality — or the dads renounce their marriage." Guess which of those two options ACI is proposing.

(And correct me if I'm wrong, but does the Episcopal church, or do other churches, forbid baptism to children of heterosexual couples who have been civilly married, but are not sacramentally married? The McCaffreys have not asked the Episcopal church to marry them. They're asking the Episcopal church, of which they're faithful members, to baptize their son.)

Parents : sinners; children : punished.

I'm interested in this story, as well, because Steve and I lived in this part of Florida from 2006 to 2008 when we took jobs at an historically black United Methodist college, Bethune-Cookman, in Daytona Beach. Given the very ugly prejudice we experienced from some members of the United Methodist Church in that part of Florida in those years — including the UMC bishop of that region, Timothy Whitaker, and a former UMC seminary president working for the college, Rev. Ned Dewire — it does not surprise me in the least to read this ugly story of what has been done to the McCaffreys and their son.

In our years living in central Florida, we looked at a number of Episcopal churches as prospective church homes for us. Without fail, we discovered that each local Episcopal church at which we looked made it exceptionally clear that openly gay people were not welcome in their church — at best, they were grudgingly tolerated.

In both the UMC church and the Episcopal church in this part of Florida (and in other churches), the bottom line is that wealthy right-wing parishioners call the shots. If they object to something like the inclusion of openly gay people in "their" church, that inclusion does not take place — not without great resistance. As Rev. Susan Russell says, this is how this very same constituency once treated people of color in "their" churches and in the world at large.

And it's how they intend to keep treating LGBT people today, until incidents like the online furor that developed when Rich McCaffrey told the story of what was done to him, his husband Eric, and their child by St. Luke cathedral expose the bigotry and force a local media that had long danced to the tune of wealthy conservatives to look at stories it once could easily ignore, before the internet came along.

The copy of Lucas Cranach the Elder's (very Eurocentric) painting of Christ blessing the children, which is held by Wawel Castle in Krakow, has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

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