A dozen years ago or so it was well-known that the Albany, New York Episcopal Diocese tended not to ordain women. But I was scheduled to preach the annual Thanksgiving Day service at the Cathedral of All Saints. So, the then-bishop was stuck with me: I was an ordained Lutheran pastor, I had been invited, and there was nothing to be done about it.
In the sacristry (the room where clergy robe up), he didn’t say a word to me. I was still young enough in ministry that his aloof manner rattled me. Preaching a sermon in an unfamiliar cathedral (or any cathedral) from a pulpit as high as the tallest playground slide entirely rattled me. What to do? Nothing, of course.
So I put on my alb (the white robe a lot of pastors wear). I kissed my stole (which a lot of pastors do). I went into the nave (the church) and got on with things.
And well--well apparently, it went all right. Apparently the bishop who wouldn’t speak to me in the sacristry liked what I had had to say from the pulpit.
And I know this because he punched me.
Yes, that’s right. He punched me. He punched me in an avuncular and wholly boys’ club manner. He walloped me right on the spot on my left arm where just the day before I had gotten a tetanus shot. Yeah, so it hurt. But, apparently, I had his seal of approval.
But guess what? Even green and relatively new to this calling, I knew I was a good preacher. I didn’t need his approval or to be validated by being punched.
Recently, the current bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, William H. Love, issued an edict Sunday banning the marriage of same-sex couples in local diocesan churches.
Timing is always everything: Bishop Love has issued this edict just a few weeks before a decision goes into effect expanding the right for gay couples to marry in all dioceses across the country. The Episcopal Church of the United States approved this new, more inclusive view of same-sex marriage in July. Its effective date is the first Sunday in Advent, December 2.
So Bishop Love’s letter is, of course, getting a lot of press.
Just as you may not know what a sacristry is or that a lot of pastors wear white albs, or that they kiss their stoles, or that the main part of a church is called the nave, you also may not know this: In the Bible, there are only a few verses that condemn single-sex relations. Of these, several are specific to coerced sexual contact — not a good thing among straight or gay people, right?
The number of verses that directly exhort followers of God to redress the destructive effects of poverty? Not a scant handful, but many, many, many. I mean it: many.
The number of verses exhorting hospitality to the stranger, the refugee, the widow and the orphan? See above. Many more than any about any kind of sex at all.
The take-away: will Bishop Love’s edict protect the sanctity of marriage — of marriage between any two consenting adults? Well, no. No.
Will it extend the reach of local Episcopal churches to be relevant to the communities in which they were planted to grow, to know and serve? Nyet, again.
But this diocese will be remembered for its intransigence. It will make a name for itself. In the Bible, that is called a “byword.” Perhaps it will be a byword for biblical cherry-picking of scripture. Perhaps it will be a byword for press-seeking.
Or perhaps it will be a byword for people to simply avoid churches — churches of all ilks including those that are inclusive, progressive, biblically faithful and probing churches, such as the one I dutifully and lovingly serve.
I wish I could say to Bishop Love—whose name is so vexing to me—that biblical hubris mixed with press-time may be an enchanting cocktail. And that humility and compassion—though so far less sexy—are our holy calling.