Nativity

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Collective identity is the root cause of so much that is, and has always been, ugly, petty, foolish and even soul-killing about organized religion: the tribalism, the judgments, the us-versus-them jockeying for position, the holier-than-thou attitudes, the fetishizing of local liturgical practices (“We do it this way but they don’t!”), and all the rest.  These things have contributed significantly to the radical reduction in the numbers of churchgoers nationwide in recent decades; to say that they do more harm than good is an understatement. And yet, in order for a church to make sense as a common entity, there has to be some foundation in common beliefs and values and practices and in a common culture that grows up around them. So good-faith religious organizations and their individual adherents must necessarily and constantly be engaged in a balancing act—always trying to avoid both too much emphasis on collective identity and too little.

I am a cradle Episcopalian, raised in the Diocese of South Carolina and the product of a dozen or so generations of Episcopalians (and, before them, Anglicans) in this diocese. I am also a gay man. In June 2016, I will have lived openly, monogamously and blissfully with my partner, now husband, for 30 years.  My liturgical and musical sensibilities run to the traditional, the extremely traditional even, but I am theologically and socially progressive.  I am from the South but live in New England. So, ambivalence about collective identity is sort of a given for me. In some ways, I feel very tied to my heritage as a child of the Diocese of South Carolina. In others, I feel completely alienated from it. The nostalgia is strong but so are the lingering feelings of anger and mistrust.

The first convention of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, in January 2013, provided me with a rare sense of what it might feel like to leave that ambivalence behind and engage more fully with a sense of belonging.  What I think I have learned, both that weekend and in the months and years since, is that collective identity can indeed provide a glimpse of the divine, but only when it is rooted in inclusion rather than judgment. In joy, rather than self-satisfaction and a false sense of superiority. In love, rather than anger. In hope for the future, rather than idolatry of the past.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the circumstances, the convention did not feel at all like an embattled, us-vs-them event. It felt like the expression of a shared desire to move forward. I was struck by the near-total absence of anger, pettiness, or obsessive attention to what “they” were up to expressed in the many conversations I had with new-found friends.  Instead, I found warmth, humor, hope and joy. Ultimately, what I also found was a collective longing for transcendence, as anyone who saw Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori process down the aisle of Grace Church to the strains of “Highland Cathedral” or saw Callie Walpole place the crozier into the hands of Bishop Charles vonRosenberg will attest.  If Grace Church had levitated above Wentworth Street at those moments, rising on the nearly-tangible, nearly-visible waves of hope and love buzzing through the nave, I don’t think any of us would have been a bit surprised.

In attempting to understand the power of this collective experience, it is important to note that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, those individuals and parishes who elected to remain in the continuing diocese did not do so out of obligation, calculation or convenience. They did not enter reluctantly into a world of indiscriminate inclusion. They did not have their fingers crossed behind their backs. They embraced their choice freely, sincerely and with joy, in full knowledge of its social, political, ecclesiastical and theological implications.  It is that courageous choice itself that serves as the cornerstone of a new and powerful collective identity among the members of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

I would like to underscore the genuine newness of all of this. As a gay man with my share of unpleasant memories and associations, both first- and second-hand, with respect to the Diocese of South Carolina, I see the advent of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina more as nativity that resurrection, more Christmas than Easter. While we are indeed, both historically and legally, the continuing diocese, we are also an organization that is profoundly and significantly unlike any other that has ever existed in this place. I am a member of a minority that was explicitly unwelcome and widely despised in this diocese, and thus have no desire to see previous iterations of the organization resurrected. What I see and feel is the coming-into-being of something broader and deeper, more loving and humble, at once more human and more divine, than anything that has heretofore existed. This new church, which nonetheless retains the resonance of all that is good in its history (see the example of Bishop Guerry), brings brand-new light and life and a brand-new sense of collective purpose, firmly based not only on common concerns for social justice but on the ways in which those concerns are informed by a common theology and the ways in which that theology can best be expressed and enacted by way of liturgy and sacrament. This is neither a repudiation of the church’s past nor a denial of it, and even less a return to it, but rather an expansion of its mission, in ways previously unimaginable. It is a birth.

Soon after I began work on this essay, I dreamed that I was being confirmed, by a woman bishop who looked a lot like Mary Glasspool, in Grace Church, Charleston. The narrative was minimal but the affect was vivid. I awoke with an extraordinary and profound sense of peace.

— Christopher Rivers, Grace Episcopal Church, Hartford, Conn., and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, S.C.