Monday, May 4, 2009

Church at the Crossroads: Reflections as Gene Robinson Becomes a Bishop

As I've been going through my journals from the past several years, I've happened on a reflection I wrote in June 2003, as Gene Robinson was made bishop. I seem to have sent this to one of the centrist Catholic publications in the U.S., and, as usually happens when I offer those journals pieces for publication, I received it back.

It still seems pertinent, though, and now that I have this blog, I can share these reflections with others without having to resort to the powerbrokers at the center who have never seemed quite interested in the point of view of many of us shoved to the margins because we're gay or lesbian.

Here's my essay:

On June 7, 2003, New Hampshire Episcopalian clergy and laity nominated the first openly gay bishop in the nation, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson. On June 5, at a news conference in Boston, Rev. Robert Hoatson of the Catholic archdiocese of Newark announced that he had been fired the preceding day from his job as director of two Catholic schools in Newark.

Hoatson viewed the firing as retaliation for appearing two weeks earlier at a press conference in Albany, in which he called for legislators to enact more stringent laws protecting children from sexual abuse. A June 5 Boston Globe article quotes Hoatson to say, ''It appears that the crisis is not getting better. I believe it is getting worse, and I am not sure that we have been straightforward and honest with the victims . . . and with society in general.''

Is there any connection between these two stories? I believe there is. They point to two opposing views of what it means to be church in the 21st century. The stories are signposts to two very different futures for the church, futures that depend on and enact two radically different ecclesiologies.

To gay Christians in general and gay Catholics in particular, the moral depths to which some of our bishops appear to have sunk in their (mis)handling of the sexual abuse crisis comes as no surprise. We have known for some years now that a number of our pastoral leaders are capable of being morally bankrupt; we have known that they can lie to the public, use gay (and other) human beings as pawns in political games as though we are subhuman and without basic human rights, and represent themselves as ultimate moral arbiters while betraying the central tenets of Judaeo-Christian morality.

We have seen bishops who have been most intent to protect and promote pedophiles fomenting hatred of gay people through their utterances and through opposition to gay-rights ordinances in their jurisdictions. We know, too, that some of our bishops have their own secrets, and that some of the bishops who have been most vocal about denying gay people basic human rights are themselves closeted gay men.

We have long since discovered that the pastoral leaders of our church are able to look the public in the eye and not tell the truth. We have seen bishops obstruct justice before now. What is happening in the sexual abuse crisis comes as no revelation to us. It is old news.

For some time now, as we have encountered the demonic face of religion in the behavior of many of our pastoral leaders towards us, many gay Catholic have pleaded with the church to be church—to realize the vision of church enshrined in Jesus’s proclamation of the reign of God. We have asked for the church to function as a healing space in a society that savages outcasts of all sorts.

We have called on our pastors to engage us in honest and open dialogue, rather than evading our questions and using image management spin-control techniques to make themselves appear tolerant and compassionate while their actions belie their words. We have begged priests and bishops to remember that the invitation Jesus issues to his banquet table is one issued to all, not merely to the sanctified and prosperous.

Even while we have been putting such questions to our bishops—usually ineffectually, it seems, since we have been conspicuously ignored and treated as though we have no right to expect answers to our questions—many of our bishops have been promoting and protecting sexual predators, using funds donated by faithful parishioners to silence victims with no accountability for their use of these funds, and obstructing justice. The vision of church that emerges from such behavior is a horrifying one. It is a vision of a church more interested in power than in service, in image than in substance.

It is an ecclesiology that betrays, at fundamental levels, the ecclesiology of the Christian gospels. It is a church of clerics against laity, of an elite club that will defend its privileges at all costs, closing ranks if one of its own is under attack. This is a church in which clerical vocations count more than lay ones, and in which Vatican II’s retrieval of the venerable ecclesiology of church as people of God is mocked and rolled back.

The church today stands at a significant crossroads. The nomination of Gene Robinson and the firing of Robert Hoatson represent forks in a road. One fork leads to healing and justice, to a recovery of a vision of church in which all are equally called and equally welcome at the Lord’s table. The other leads to a vision of church in which raw power trumps transparency, in which image management counts for more than living the gospel honestly and forthrightly, and in which the mighty of the world wield greater influence in the body of Christ than do the least among us.

When the fanfare about the sexual abuse crisis is over, which road shall we find that we have taken?