Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Vague Guest On A Dark Earth

I think I am going to miss our church when Andrew and I leave Minnesota. I have started to become attached to it, primarily because I have started to become attached to the people who worship there.

Andrew’s parents have worshipped at the church since the time of their marriage, so of course this is the church Andrew has known and loved since childhood.

However, I did not feel welcome in the church when I first moved to Minneapolis, which is a long and complicated and boring story, having more to do with me than with the church or its parishioners or pastoral staff. It took me many months to start to become comfortable there.

Andrew’s mother does a lot of work with the church, serving on various boards and panels and fund-raising committees. She seems to attend two or three meetings a week, on average, most of which are held during the day, happily, and not at night.

Andrew and I are not active in the church in that sense. We do not serve on any committees, or perform a meaningful amount of work for the church. We attend services, mostly. Otherwise we confine ourselves to attending major church functions, such as special holiday events or special family gatherings.

Many years ago, when Andrew was young, the church would conduct frequent church sales, at which parishioners would donate items—mostly white elephant items, I think—for public sale to raise funds.

Andrew would always assist at these church sales and, according to his parents, he would end up buying lots of the white elephant items that had not been sold by the end of the day and bringing them home with him. Apparently Andrew felt sorry for the people whose items had not moved off the display tables, so he bought their junk from them and toted it home. So much junk accumulated in Andrew’s parents’ basement that Andrew’s mother and father finally had to instruct the church pastor not to allow Andrew to buy anything more at the church sales. Getting rid of the stuff was not easy. It could not simply be offered back to the church for the next sale, so Andrew’s parents had to cart the stuff off to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. When I hear stories about the junk Andrew bought at the church sales when he was young, I laugh myself silly. Andrew laughs, too.

In many ways, our church is bizarre. This is because, as a mainstream Protestant denomination, it is largely a microcosm of America. About a quarter of the parishioners are from the Far Left and believe that their personal politics should be intricately intertwined with the church and its mission. About a quarter of the parishioners are from the Far Right and believe that their personal politics should be intricately intertwined with the church and its mission. Sometimes I think the church is almost a political organization more than a religious institution.

Nevertheless, everyone gets along, and the church does much good work: for its parishioners; for the community; and for the world at large (at great expense, the church has its own charitable outpost in Africa, where free educational and medical services are provided to the poor).

The church has also been in the forefront, among all churches in the nation, in the fight against ordination of gay clergy. Not long after I arrived in Minneapolis, the church hosted a major nationwide convention, assembled solely to address this issue, for churches objecting to ordination of gay clergy. I found this to be odd, because so many of the church’s parishioners hold Hard Left views on so many other issues. I also found it to be odd because the church has many homosexual members, all of whom are made to feel welcome. I further found it to be odd because the church is very much an establishment church, with an establishment congregation holding establishment views. None of this made any sense to me at the time, and it still does not make any sense.

It is inevitable, according to Andrew’s father, that the local church will break away from the national organization at some point. The national church, for years, has threatened to sue in the event the local church chooses to become independent, and has threatened to seek to obtain ownership of local church assets (the local church is one of the wealthiest parishes of any denomination in the country, with lots and lots of assets at stake). Andrew’s father says that the national organization, despite its threats, will never actually sue, and that this is because it knows it cannot win in court and, further, because it knows it cannot win in the court of public opinion.

My opinion on the matter is that the local church is wrong to seize national leadership on this issue—for many, many reasons, all of which are far too complex to address here. However, I also recognize that this is, primarily, a non-issue, because there are not large numbers of gay clergy seeking ordination in our denomination nor are there large numbers of our denomination seeking gay clergy. The issue of ordination of gay clergy is a red herring issue, serving as a public point of contention between church headquarters and several church parishes throughout the country that are unhappy with headquarters on other issues, issues having nothing whatsoever to do with gay clergy. The gay clergy issue is simply, in Andrew’s words, the “MacGuffin”, the plot device used to propel other matters into sharp relief.

Andrew’s opinion about the matter is very similar to mine, although he goes a little further than I do in dismissing the importance of the issue. He says that no one in the local church or the national church gives two cents about anyone’s sexual orientation, whether parishioner or pastor, and that the issue carries no long-term significance. According to Andrew, it is only when someone mounts a platform and attempts to inject the issue of sexuality into a forum where it does not belong that anyone tends to get irritated. This is fully consistent with and supports Andrew’s “MacGuffin” argument, incidentally, and I think he is probably right.

Andrew’s father’s views on the issue are slightly different. He says that the fight between the national church and local churches on the issue of ordination of gay clergy is a contest about power, pure and simple, and nothing but power. Local churches have become tired of the pronouncements of the national church. Local churches have much more autonomy than they enjoyed only three or four decades ago, and the national church continues to lose power and influence (including the all-important power of the purse) at the expense of local churches that have learned to flex their muscles. The national church is bristling over its loss of influence, and local churches are bristling over nationwide church directives, which are often viewed as high-handed and out-of-touch. The final result, inevitable according to Andrew’s father, will be a national church that serves as little more than a central clearinghouse for a loose confederation of autonomous institutions.

Andrew’s mother’s views are slightly different still. She contends that the entire church has nothing against ordination of gay clergy, including the local church that has served as vanguard of the nationwide movement within the church. She contends that local church leaders have public views on the ordination issue at variance with their private views, and that this tension between public and private views is the result of a painful soul-searching process that is ongoing and unresolved. Ultimately, she says, the church will come up with some variant of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

When Andrew and I moved to Minnesota in the summer of 2006, these issues were at a boil. At the time, Andrew and I discussed at length with Andrew’s parents whether the family should continue to attend the church. I was diffident, but Andrew and his parents decided, after so many years, that they did not want to leave the church that had become home to them.

It would have been very, very difficult for Andrew’s parents to leave the church. Both of Andrew’s parents had been raised in the Lutheran faith, but they had joined their present church right after they were married because they liked the pastor. They have remained ever since, never returning to the Lutheran Church.

It would have been difficult for Andrew to leave the church, too, because it is the only church (in Minnesota) he has ever known.

I am not as pious as Andrew, and I did not generally attend service the first few weeks I was in Minnesota. After a few weeks, however, I started to attend Sunday Service on occasion, and over time I started to get into it, and I have gone ever since.

There is a sense of community at the church, and a sense of calm and peaceful reflection during service. There is also a sense of order and continuity and comfort in the rituals observed during service, and these rituals are an essential part of any religious observance, I believe. I am happy going to church now, and I look forward to each Sunday morning.

I have made many friends at church, in all age brackets, and I enjoy seeing these friends each week.

I also enjoy watching Andrew’s old Sunday School teachers and Boys’ School teachers come up to him each Sunday and greet him and make a fuss over him and practically pet him. I find this to be charming, and so do Andrew’s parents.

Andrew and I always sit in the same pew each Sunday, next to Andrew’s parents. Andrew’s father sits adjacent to the central aisle. Next to him sits Andrew’s mother, then me, then Andrew. This pattern never varies, unless the rest of the family is in town, in which case Andrew’s brothers and his older brother’s family sit between Andrew’s parents and Andrew and me, oldest to youngest, in order.

Sunday Service has become an inherent part of the week for me, and an inherent part of my life.

I’ll miss the church while we are in Boston.

“As long as you are not aware of the continual law of Die And Be Again, you are merely a vague guest on a dark earth”—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


  1. As for me, I know I'll miss you and Andrew when you move to Boston.

    Wishing you a fabulous weekend.


  2. J.R., I hope you have a great weekend, too.

    We don't really have anything planned, except for tonight, when we will go hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

    Take it easy.