Friday, December 28, 2007

Come All Ye That Are Somewhat Vexed

Tony Clavier comes at a problem I'd mentioned earlier from a more direct angle:
I only wish the problem with TEC was something to do with liberalism. I caught a bit of a radio talk by the Archbishop of York over Christmas. He said that if the Church of England closed inner city parishes, even if they are sparsely attended, it would cease to be the Church of England and become merely a church for the well-off in suburban areas.

He need only look at the Episcopal Church. More and more as we have retreated from the inner cities and the rural areas we have become a church for wealthy people; people with the money to attend meetings, espouse liberal causes, write checks and love at a distance.
Meanwhile, from TitusOneNine, we have this interview of Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian:
But I would think that, if Jesus came today, the people he would be most interested in dealing with would be homosexuals, racial minorities, people who would be thought to be less than the most upright and righteous people in the contemporary community. If the New Testament is any model, that's where he would hang out.
My job is, to coin a phrase used in the 19th century and adopted much by my old friend, Bill Coffin, "to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." So, in some sense, if the one thing the sermon does is wake you up so that you discover that you don't agree, it's done a good thing, in that respect.
Frankly, it's hard for me to think of anyone more comfortable than a Harvard theologian, or for that matter, the forces at 815 2nd Avenue. And for all the talk of Jesus traveling with minorities, it seems to me that Rev. Gomes' window into the downtrodden is really quite narrow, and that it looks out upon many who are hardly downtrodden at all. Let us start with Peter Gomes himself, who (if Wikipedia is to be believed) is black and gay. A biography from his church's website reveals that he is firmly placed within the firmament of the establishment.

Let us turn instead to the single mother, with children from several men; or the father who finds himself increasingly in the hole; or the retiree faced with the care of her increasingly senile husband. Or for that matter, the family trying to keep their daughters from becoming teen pregnancy statistics, or the sons from make someone else's daughter a statistic. Or a young man started on the road to alcoholism. Or better still (since that should be our churches' core competency, should it not?) those whose hearts do not hear the message of Jesus; or having heard it, heed it not; or having once heeded it, turn away and depart into the thickets of secularism.

I look at my parish, and I do not see a place where the passing middle or lower class traveler is comfortable. We are the very model of a middle of the road upper middle suburban parish. I look at my old parish, and if anything, it seems worse. Of course, I came into the church at that most patrician of institutions: the private boarding school. We knew there who was quite rich, but we didn't necessarily know who was poor. I was on one score not among the latter, for my parents paid the full cost; but on another, we were terribly strapped by the cost, and it killed the possibility of attending one of those elite colleges such as those boarding schools are wont send their graduates to. Even at the University of Maryland I was reduced one winter to making do with a windbreaker. But I was never really poor.

I remember some of the kids at that school who were very blessed to be there, because we were their family. Sons of diplomats in difficult stations, and children of custodial fathers who didn't know what to do with them. And some of us were simply blessed to peek inside the doors of the establishment. Now and again the true patrician families would appear at the school, and they fairly glowed with privilege. Us pretenders knew we would never join their ranks, at least not by dint of effort. And yet some of them condescended to know us. It would perhaps embarrass him greatly, but I have always been grateful that the father of one of my classmates, a man of some importance, knows me by name and speaks to me as though I were the colleague which I am not.

I wish the doors of our parishes functioned as well. Instead I see the same church that Fr. Clavier sees, a church which is greatly uninterested in the suffering of the great bulk of people. The desperate poor are so very convenient: build them a house (but not on one's street), or offer shelter for the night (but not in one's house) or a meal (but not in one's kitchen). Their needs can be kept at a safe distance, and the venturesome can go among them and make the rest of us comfortable and satisfied that they are so attended to. They will be with us always, that we can never fail to be satisfied in our giving. The rest of the country can go hang; after all, for God's sake, they probably vote Republican.

I would remind Rev. Gomes and his fellows that Jesus' first miracle, as recorded by John, was accomplished not in dire need, but at that monument to middle class vainglory, the wedding. Indeed, from the description it could very well be that the host is trying to live beyond his means. And yet Jesus gives abundantly, as though the host's cheap New York State jug wine and meager champagne gave way to grand cru Bordeaux and Veuve Cliquot. Jesus, in the gospels, is friend not only to fishermen, but to Lazarus; he speaks not only to the Samaritan and Syro-Phoenician, but to members of the Sanhedrin.

Christ came not only to save the Bronx, but also Levittown.

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