Thursday, November 16, 2006

Truro Leaves: A Personal Sadness

The news is that Truro Parish Church, Fairfax, Virginia, is leaving. I was baptized at Truro and I am sad to see them choosing to leave the Episcopal Church.

Of course, the Truro today probably bears no resemblance to the Truro of the late 1950's, but there is still a connection that is part of my spiritual and family heritage--a connection which is part of what formed and forms my faith--and there is a pang of hurt to see it leave the Church.

The connections seems slight today, but they resonate every day in my ministry and in my prayers and even in my family.

My father was senior warden of that parish when the 'new' church was built in 1957. I was baptized in the Chapel.

My mother was on the Altar Guild there, and she taught me how to care for the altar before I went to seminary. There is a care and a reverence in her work that was instilled in me that goes back her learning the craft of altar work in Truro.

My oldest brother was confirmed there after, he says, he survived "Raymond Davis' Twelve Week Boot Camp." That boot camp prepared him well for the formation process in the Companions of St. Luke, Order of St. Benedict, with whom he recently professed life vows.

When I was in high school, and noodling around with my own expressions of Christianity, I was taken with both the evangelical and charismatic wings of the church, in and out of the Episcopal Church. Going to worship at Truro, when we'd go there on visits in the early '70's, was for my adolescant eyes a wonder. A charismatic Episcopal Church! And a big one, too boot! It was churches like that that kept me in the Episcopal Church.

In 1977, when as a religion major at Drew University I did my junior year abroad at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, it was a wonderful surprise to find myself studying with the Rev. Dr. Raymond Davis (Rector at Truro from 1948-1974), who was himself doing post-doctoral work there. It was during long conversations with him and others that I realized that God was calling me to the priesthood.

When my father was ordained a deacon in 1988 in the Diocese of Connecticut, he spoke of how it was that Truro Church in "low church" Virginia welcomed him, even though he returned to the area (both my parents and most of my family are natives of either the District or Northern Virginia) having studied for the diaconate in the Diocese of Long Island under Bishop deWolfe. No one, or a rare few, ordained vocational deacons in those days, so Pop served as a lay reader, vestrymember and sometime teacher and acolyte master. He spoke of how the church weathered the storms of both suburban growth and all the changes that brought along with the civil rights movement, never losing it's center and grounding in Christ.

Want to hear an irony? When the first women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, it was a long phone conversation with Raymond Davis that convinced my father not to act rashly nor to consider leaving the Church. One of the things that my father said to me years later, as he reflected on his own change of heart about ordained women, was that his old friend reminded him that the Church was bigger than our personal preferences. Pop taught me what Dr. Davis taught him: that God's Spirit is always moving faster than the most conservative among us would like and more slowly than the most liberal would have it.

But it is not just nostalgia that makes me sad for Truro's decision to leave the Episcopal Church for the Church of Nigeria. It is real sadness and disappointment.

I am disappointed that the leadership of Truro Parish Church have predicated their leaving on an oft-repeated and self-fulfilling falsehood: that the Episcopal Church has fallen into some great apostasy. The leadership of that parish have, along with many of their cohorts around the Episcopal Church, have reduced orthodoxy from adherence to the core doctrines of Christianity to a litmus test over the issues of the day. I certainly have no problem that they have drawn from Christ's teaching the implication to go into the world, baptizing and teaching, to care for single mothers and their infants, to reach out to poor and to plant new churches. But they have reduced the great teachings of the church to a series of litmus tests about sexuality and social issues.

One of the signs of this has been the way that this parish's leadership, along with other conservatives in our Church, have chosen to use their power as the largest parish in the Diocese of Virginia to bully and harass a faithful man of conscience, Bishop Peter Lee. This parish and their theological allies had no greater friend, but he did not vote their way in 2003 and they have punished him ever since. Bishop Lee chose to be the Bishop of the whole diocese of Virginia and not just the wealthiest or the largest parishes. Now Truro is taking their marbles and leaving.

I am disappointed that the leadership has justified their schism by claiming authority that is not theirs to claim, and have time and again twisted facts to move their cause forward. It is not surprising that they claim to be following a non-existent diocesan process for breaking away from the Diocese of Virginia, a claim the Diocese has gone to great lengths to clarify.

It is also not surprising, and equally disappointing, that in choosing a rector this is parish leadership had to create their own transition process outside of the canons and norms of the Episcopal Church. After dodging and dissembling Father Minn's ambitions to become a Nigerian Bishop (with the clear intent of gathering the wayward and dissenting parishes of the Episcopal Church under his wing) they want total control to hand-pick their successor.

It is disappointing (and more than a little maddening) that the leadership at Truro cannot bring themselves to live within the bounds of the Windsor Report on Communion while at the same time they berate for allegedly departing from. In terms of the heart of that document, the conservative churches that are leaving are doing more violence to the Windsor Report than anyone.

With all the politics, the secrecy, the dissembling and the exaggeration that have led up to this point, I cannot help but think that this is not so much about faithfulness to the Gospel or to even one theological school within Christendom, but about power. It is about who's right, who wins, and who gets to keep the most real estate.

It is a sad, disappointing, but not altogether surprising turn of events.

The news that Truro is making it official and leaving the Episcopal Church has brought home to me a truth that is at once sad, painful and at the same time comforting. In an odd way, the bad behavior of this parish's leadership has taught me anew an old truth: That our baptisms rest on Christ not in a place or a parish.

This parish that brought so much to my family is long gone. It was a long time ago. My family moved away in 1960, and even the long ties of friendship are long gone--better yet, those long ties are in God's hands, in God's time.

Aside from the fact that no one at Truro today would know any of us from Adam's house cat, the parish my parents knew and loved has very little to do with the parish that is there now. My sense is that if my parents were able to walk through the doors there today, they would be considered too liberal, too catholic, too modern to be welcome there. The parish and clergy that welcomed a displaced Anglo-Catholic with a call to the diaconate and a heart for social justice is no longer there.

The leaders of Truro may choose to leave the Episcopal Church and they will probably talk their membership into supporting them. They will talk of calling, and righteousness, and speak of the somber nature of their decision. But the truth is that they are leading their flock into schism, pure and simple. It doesn't really matter that in my humble opinion, formed by nostalgia, distance and theology, that I think they are throwing a proud and wonderful heritage out the window. In leaving, they will rend the body of Christ and tear at the heart of the church catholic because they cannot envision a church wider than themselves.

It will not just be their loss. If they do leave, they will take with them much that is valuable to the Episcopal Church. But they cannot take away Christ. And I hope and pray that they will find Christ and find a way of living the Gospel that is not predicated on power, division, and politics.

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