Thursday, June 30, 2011

Part II of Sermon: "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

This is part two of a three-part sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County on Sunday, June 26, 2011. Part one can be found here.

There are three basic types of governance in church polity: congregational, presbyterian, and episcopal.

In the congregational model, each local congregation is autonomous and governs itself, without interference from higher church bodies. The local congregation owns its own property, and hires and fires its staff without interference. The most that can happen if it does something that displeases a denominational body is that that body can expel the congregation from the denomination. In this form of church polity, the laity are the ones with the most power.

In the presbyterian model, the governance is placed in the hands of small groups of elders, including clergy and a small body of lay elders in each congregation. Power is often distributed among the different levels, with the decisions of a lower body needing to be ratified by a higher body, and vice versa. The local body of elders call the clergy, but this must usually be ratified by the regional body of elders. Property is usually in the hands of the denomination, although there may be provisions for a church to secede with its property if it votes to do so by a supermajority, with the regional body ratifying it. In this form of church polity, the clergy and lay elders are the ones with the most power.

In the episcopal model, the governance is placed in the hands of bishops, who have authority in a given geographical area. It is the bishop who has the authority to ordain, and to place and to move clergy. The property is usually held by the denomination or by the regional unit of government, with the bishop having a lot of the authority over it. In this form of church polity, the bishops are the ones with the most power.

Many denominations do not have a pure form of church polity, but a mix of two or more of the basic types. In the Episcopal Church, it is sometimes joked that the polity is episcopal as regards the bishops, presbyterian as regards the clergy, and congregational as regards the laity!

There are advantages and disadvantages to all three systems.

In the congregational system, there is a high potential for the involvement of the laity, and decisions are made at the lowest level, so there can be a much greater chance of appropriate response to local situations. On the other hand, when dysfunctional situations arise, there is no denominational official who can step in and intervene and address the dysfunction. It is harder to address both congregations that treat clergy abusively, and clergy who are abusive of their congregations. My own father was very dysfunctional, and was fired by four congregations. It would have been very helpful if someone could have stepped in and made sure that he got the help he needed to address his dysfunctional behavior.

Also, while democracy works great in many situations, it can also lead to a “mob mentality” that inflicts harm on minorities. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is adamantly congregational, regularly votes to demonize lgbt folk.

In the presbyterian system, there is the advantage of governing by the wisdom of those most invested in the church. I have met many committed lay elders in Presbyterian churches, and they are a credit to their denomination. However, the danger can be that the process of governance so consumes the energy of those involved, that there is not enough energy for other aspects of the church’s ministry. In addition, it is more difficult to be flexible on the local level, since unity across the denomination tends to be much more highly prized in this system. And there can be a two-tier system of those with power and those without.

In the episcopal system, there is much more efficiency since one person is making most of the decisions, at least for a given region. And therein lies the rub – if the bishop is a person of great vision and wisdom, she or he can provide great leadership and can lead the church to great things. If not, however, the church suffers from the shortsightedness, mediocrity, or dysfunction of the bishop. I think this system works best in small churches, such as many independent sacramental jurisdictions, where the bishop knows everyone in the church, and when there is an absence of a theology that links the particular denomination with the church as a whole or with infallibility, so that people are free to leave if there is a dysfunctional bishop.

I have seen effective examples of all three types of governance, and disasters in all three. So it is not so much the type of polity that is most important to whether a church is doing its work effectively, but how those who govern use that polity.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Remembering My Mother's Death One Year Later

Today is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She died much as she lived – quietly, avoiding the spotlight, and without fanfare.

My father, in contrast, was a noisy person, always striving to be at the center of attention. He couldn’t even sit still – sitting in a chair, he would constantly shift position, fidget with objects, sigh or whistle or say something, even when alone, so that being in the same room with him one could not help but pay attention to him. Even when he was in his study praying or reading, he did so noisily. Reading his Bible or the many biblical commentaries in his library, he would constantly remark aloud on things he saw in the text. And when he prayed, he prayed aloud, sometimes muttering under his breath, sometimes shouting quite loudly. If he was home, he was making sounds, so that you knew it.

And his death was no different. In the hospital, five days before his ninety-second birthday, as I sat waiting for the end, his breathing changed dramatically, and he began to struggle for breath. I called in a nurse, and each of us held one of his hands. I told her something of his life story – how he had lost his first wife in an automobile accident, his first daughter at birth, and how my mother and I nearly died when I was born. I told her of the poverty he endured as a child, one of fourteen children of a mentally unbalanced father whose erratic actions kept the family impoverished. I told her of his religious journey as a fundamentalist minister.

I also told her of his stubbornness. Once, while home at Thanksgiving, as I was preparing to drive my parents down to the Ozarks for the family Thanksgiving dinner, a neighbor’s cat for whom my mother would leave out food was on the carport, rubbing up against my legs and purring. My father, who walked with a cane by that time as a result of strokes, came out to join us, and fell, with his cane going through the window of the screen door, shattering the glass. After my mother and I got him in and settled in his recliner, I put on gloves to pick up the glass, first throwing the cat into our car so he wouldn’t get hurt. But my father, rather than being content with resting comfortably after his fall, insisted on driving himself to some automotive store, after the cat had been liberated, of course, and taking me with him, as if to prove that he could still drive.

Similarly, I told her how, after his doctor told me he had six to twelve months to live, he lived eighteen months – largely, I suspect, to prove him wrong. He drew a breath, and then was silent, and she said, “That was his last breath.” And then he drew what was actually his last breath, and I looked at her and said, with a twinkle in my eye, “You had to issue him a challenge, didn’t you?”

My mother, on the other hand, was quiet. When she was home, her presence did not intrude on my consciousness as my father’s did, and we could inhabit the same space comfortably. She would speak her mind when she thought it necessary, but those times were few and rather far between.

While my father would get restless and get out and drive around town, stopping to gab with his friends in various places, my mother was fairly content to stay home, and she never obtained a driver’s license. (She also never got her ears pierced, and never wore pants.) Once they were in the nursing home, my father would spend as much time in the common areas as possible, having the aides wheel him there. My mother, in contrast, would hide out in her room, refusing the coaxing of the staff to come join in activities.

The night she died, friends of theirs, although my age, took me out to eat. My mother had been unconscious for several days. He was a Southern Baptist minister, and she had been a close friend of my mother’s, both of them regarding my parents as mentors and, in some ways, surrogate parents. We returned to the room, and he prayed with us, and they left. I sat down next to her bed, watching television, and about fifteen minutes after they left, noticed that she wasn’t breathing, and so I called in the nurses to confirm her death. There was no immediate change before she stopped breathing – indeed, although she had stopped not too long before I noticed, I don’t know how quickly I noticed after her last breath. She just slipped away quietly. I remember looking out the window and seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen, with the sky full of pinks, and reds, and oranges.

My Christian faith assures me that she is at peace.

Mary Coldwell Cravens, January 24, 1925 – June 28, 2010

Monday, June 27, 2011

Part I of Sermon "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

I delivered the sermon yesterday, June 26, 2011, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in whose beautiful facilities my own church has the privilege of worshiping on Sunday evenings. The description of the sermon for their bulletin read:

Bishops have been assassinated for liturgies that lasted too long -- fistfights have broken out over the date of Easter -- excommunications galore have been issued through the centuries as people of faith have made decisions about their religious communities. Thankfully, none of these fates await the minister and lay delegation of UUCDC as they travel to Charlotte for the UUA General Assembly! While they are there, Bishop Cravens will reflect on healthy ways religious communities can engage in the holy work they are called to do.

For the reading earlier in the service, from which this sermon draws inspiration if not exactly being an exposition, I chose two biblical passages: Psalm 133 and Acts 2:42-46.

Because the sermon is a more central part of the service in the UU tradition, my sermon was considerably longer than the sermons I usually give, and since there were three distinct sections, I will post them separately (largely because I have not completed committing them to cyber-paper, given the fact that I preach like a Baptist). Here is part 1.

It may seem odd that I am a church polity geek. I love to read blogs by members of various denominations describing the political issues their churches are facing, and I tend to be pretty current in my awareness of those issues in most major (and some minor) religious groups. But I come by it honestly.

I spent a year and a half discerning a vocation to the Atonement Friars, a branch of the Franciscans in the Roman Catholic denomination. During that time, I experienced how that religious institute governed itself, and got at least some exposure to the governance of the denomination as a whole. Before entering, I actually read all of the canons of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law.

Later, I served on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, and served as a Lay Delegate to the Diocesan Convention from the parish, again getting to know much of the inner workings of the Episcopal Church. Also, during that time, I managed to get roped into serving on the board of a Presbyterian parachurch organization as an “ecumenical representative” thanks to the executive coordinator, a friend of mine from divinity school.

About three years ago, with the help of some other members of the jurisdiction of which I am the bishop, I put together the Canons and Policies that govern how we do the Lord’s work church in our own small corner of the church.

But my interest in church polity goes back much further. Given the family into which I was born, I really didn’t have a chance.

My father and eight of his ten brothers were ordained ministers in various evangelical denomination, and one of the remaining two was a lay preacher, and if the other brother had not been killed in battle in World War II, he might very well have preached as well. True story: I memorized my uncles’ names by their denominational affiliation. Uncles Rupert, Luther, and George were ministers in the Church of the Nazarene, although Uncle George resigned when he divorced, and lived out his days as a Southern Baptist layman. Uncles Wilbur, Marvin, and Robert were Cumberland Presbyterian ministers. (Cumberland Presbyterians are basically hillbilly Presbyterians. I come from an Ozark Hillbilly family.) Uncle Ellis ended up as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister as well, after being a Free-Will Baptist minister for a few years. Uncle Vernon, after briefly trying out the Cumberland Presbyterians, became a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in this country. My father was briefly licensed as a Free-Will Baptist preacher, and was ordained a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, but spent most of his career as a Southern Baptist minister, except for a few years during my childhood when he was an Assemblies of God pastor, before returning to the Southern Baptists.

I actually attended my first national church governance meeting when I was three – the Southern Baptist Convention in Denver. My main memory is going to the children’s room and sitting on a box to watch “Jot” cartoons – a church cartoon the Southern Baptists put out. (Not nearly as interesting as “Davey and Goliath”, which I also watched, a claymation program put out by the Lutherans.)

My first serious interest in church polity came at about age 9. My father had decided to leave the Assemblies of God and return to the Southern Baptists. He had a copy of the Manual of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, because a friend of his was trying to recruit him when he found out he was leaving the Assemblies of God (which is also a Pentecostal denomination), and I was fascinated with the history of the denomination and with the rules governing the church. I was also fascinated with the yearbooks of the various Southern Baptist associations and conventions, with their constitutions, bylaws, and statistical tables.

At age 10, my father had returned to the pastorate of a Southern Baptist church, and I had “surrendered to preach” – that is, come forward during an altar call to say that I felt called to become a minister when I grew up. My parents were going to the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City that summer as “messengers”, as the Southern Baptists call their delegates, and it was decided that I, too, should be a messenger, since the church was entitled to an additional one, and they were afraid that the “liberals” were going to take over. I was fascinated with the greetings from Baptist denominations in other countries. I remember singing “How Firm a Foundation” with the tens of thousands of messengers, hearing Billy Graham preach – telling about his experiences in a Communist country, going through all the booths in the exhibitors’ hall. I also remember that one of the votes that was taken was about homosexuality – they overwhelmingly voted to condemn it, with only a few dissenting – who were immediately looked upon with suspicion by everyone else as possibly being gay and definitely not being Christian.

On the way to the convention, we stayed with my Uncle Marvin, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, and was fascinated with the book containing their Confession of Faith and the various polity documents, and requested one, which he sent me later that summer when they went to their own General Assembly.

A few years later, my father decided to return to the charismatic world and did not pastor a church for five years. At some point during that time, we began attending the United Methodist church our next door neighbors attended. I joined, and quickly took to reading the Book of Discipline, the book containing that denomination’s polity. The rule in United Methodism is that the Annual Conferences (roughly like UU districts) and General Conference must be made up of equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates. Each church has a lay delegate for every clergymember serving the congregation. Because there are ministers who are not pastors of congregations, serving in denominational bureaucracy, or chaplaincy, or the like, various annual conferences have come up with ways to make up the difference, and our annual conference let each district appoint two youth delegates, and I was appointed to be one of them for the conference occurring during the summer before my senior year.

In many ways it was a great experience. I attended all but one of the sessions. I enjoyed meeting other people. I bought some interesting books about worship that are still in my library. But I did miss one session – and I stayed away because it was too painful.

You see, when I was about thirteen, I started realizing that I was gay. Unfortunately, around that time, the United Methodist Church was debating the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy. A bishop in Colorado ordained an openly lesbian minister around 1982, and this caused an uproar in the more conservative parts of the denomination, including East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the conference of which I was a part. That conference, like most of the Southern conferences, and some others, passed resolutions by overwhelming majorities condemning this move and demanding that the 1984 General Conference (they are held every four years) ban the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals”, a ban that, sadly, passed and remains in the Book of Discipline and that has been joined by bans on same-sex marriages being performed by United Methodist clergy or on United Methodist church property.

And, while I remain fascinated by church polity and continue to read – for fun – various things about religious communities and how they make decisions, it’s a very important issue, because people’s spiritual lives are at stake. How religious communities go about their work can have profoundly negative – or profoundly positive – effects on people’s lives.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sermon for Ascension Day

Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

Watching television can teach you a lot of interesting – if erroneous – things.

The most common illness is not the common cold, it’s retrograde amnesia.

Most babies are born in elevators or the back seat of taxicabs.

If you invite Jessica Fletcher to stay with you for a weekend, you or someone close to you will end up murdered.

And there is a whole genre of movies and television shows built on the premise that if parents go away for a trip and leave their teenagers alone unsupervised, a very wild and destructive party will take place in their absence. Sometimes, the damage is repaired before the parents return and the parents remain in the dark, sometimes not. Sometimes, there is a responsible child who objects to the party, but this child’s opinions are always ignored. But regardless, if parents make plans to leave town, you can be assured that mayhem will ensue in their absence.

Today, we celebrate the Ascension. Like the parents in the movies and television shows, Jesus is leaving and is putting us in charge while he is gone. We know Christ is coming back, although we don’t know when, despite the many failed efforts of some to determine the exact date. Some of us may still be here when he comes for the second time – or, more likely, we will go to meet Christ at the end of our lives, when our eyes close in death. In any event, like the teenagers left to their own devices, there will be a day of reckoning to determine how we’ve done with Christ’s house in his absence.

In today’s Gospel, from Luke, we hear the disciples being told by Jesus that they will be “clothed with power from on high” and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations” and that the disciples are Christ’s “witnesses”. We hear similar charges in the other synoptic gospels’ accounts of the Ascension, as well as in the account in the Acts of the Apostles. In John 14:12, Jesus tells the disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

As wonderful as it was for the disciples to have Jesus in an incarnate body with them during his sojourn on earth, it was necessary for their growth into Christian maturity – and OUR growth into Christian maturity – for him to ascend into heaven, so that we might have a chance to do the works he had been doing, and even greater works.

What are the works of Christ’s we are called to continue and build upon?

Jesus came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, and it was not what many expected – a military overthrow of the oppressors who occupied the land. No, building the kingdom of God means loving one’s neighbor as oneself – both the neighbors that are easy to love and the ones who are our enemies. Building the kingdom of God means embracing the paradox that true riches come from being poor in spirit, that the meek shall inherit the earth, and that those who mourn will be comforted. We are called to continue to teach and preach this message, and all of the things which Jesus taught and preached, and to do so both with our words and with our lives.

Jesus also came to heal the sick – both those sick in body and those sick in their souls. We most likely will not have the gift of miraculously healing the sick, but we are called to work to heal the bodies of those who are sick and cannot find healing, to work to heal our communities so that they become places which promote the health and wellness of people in all aspects of their being, and most importantly, we are to work to help people find that spiritual healing that can only come through repentance from sin and turning to God as Savior and Lord.

Most importantly, Jesus gave up his life for us on the cross and was raised from the dead on the third day, so that we, too, might know new life, both in this world and in the world to come. And we are called to offer our lives in sacrifice in union with Christ as well, and to preach the redemption that comes from trusting in the risen Christ.

We have been given a great work to do by Christ as he ascended into heaven. When he comes again, what will he find? Will he find that we have been faithful in doing the works he did, and even greater works? Or will he find that we have trashed his house like spoiled teenagers?