Friday, July 25, 2008

The Agony and the Ecstasy

What a roller coaster this continues to be -- with ecstatic moments of grace and agonizing moments of disappointment. Forgive me for not writing since our Wednesday evening gathering, but I just needed a rest.

First, one of the ecstasies. The gathering on Wednesday evening was really quite everything all of us had hoped for. I must be general in my comments, to protect the identities of those who were present. I would in no way want to compromise the risk that some took to be there. I was profoundly moved and humbled by those who chose to attend. Certainly, I was preaching to a considerable number of "the choir." But also present, at the personal invitations from some of our American bishops, were many bishops from all over the world -- from SIX continents, I might add. Our time began with refreshments in the courtyard, before moving inside for the program. Some who attended were probably only curious. Many more were deeply interested, and deeply committed to the listening process called for by the last three Lambeth Conferences. Some were cautious, anxious (it seemed) and taking quite a risk (from their peers) to be there -- a remarkable and holy risk-taking on their parts. I was deeply moved by their willingess to attend and listen. This was my first opportunity to meet my foreign counterparts, and of course like my brother and sister American bishops, found this to be a wonderful, sobering and thoughtful experience.

After a presentation by some of our bishops about the polity and practice of electing bishops in our Province, and an introduction of me (via DVD) by laity and clergy of New Hampshire, I spoke. I told them that the one goal I had was that they might recognize the God I know and witness to in my life as the same God they know in their lives. I believe that happened.

During the question and answer conversation, several wanted to express their support, and did so movingly and sincerely, some through a translator. Both bishops and spouses contributed. Others asked good questions and listened intently to my answers. I could not have asked for a more respectful hearing. Comments made during and after the presentation revealed a deep yearning to heal this current divide -- theologically, culturally and ecclesially. The longing for Communion seemed palpable to me. Those who would prematurely announce the demise of the Anglican Communion obviously haven't talked to these folks!

One telling comment, from one of those who had chosen to accept a brother bishop's invitation despite his misgivings, was moved to lament how easy it is to believe what one reads and hears about a fellow Christian, and to find in meeting him that that impression was distorted. He comes from a country torn by internal strife and with more than enough problems of its own, yet found time in his schedule to participate in this effort at reconciliation. Profoundly moving.

I can't really say much more than that, except to say that we'll be doing it again next Wednesday and that we hope that word will travel among the bishops that this could indeed be a productive and holy time for those who wish to open themselves to it. God did, as I had prayed, provide me and those present with the words we needed to communicate our common humanity and our common faith.

I began Thursday morning in prayer with the Franciscans, and continue to feel blessed by their hospitality and their witness. It's a good thing I began that way, because what next befell me was one of the agonies.

Since arriving in Canterbury, I had not yet visited the Cathedral. I went nowhere near the place on Sunday's opening service. The ever-anxious leadership had provided the Cathedral security guards with a large photo of me, posted at the security checkpoints, presumably to keep me from "crashing the gates" of the opening service. No one believed that I would be true to my promise to the Archbishop not to attend.

On Thursday, knowing that the conference attendees would leave early in the morning for London -- for the MDG walk, lunch at Lambeth Palace, and tea with the Queen -- it seemed like a good, low-profile time to make my own pilgrimage to our Mother Church. I told no one of my intentions to attend -- except I had my security person follow the properly courteous protocol of alerting the Cathedral to my visit. I had him also seek permission for a videographer to accompany me on my visit for a documentary to be released sometime in 2010. We were informed that the videographer could NOT accompany me or film me inside the Cathedral. Fair enough. We were told that he could accompany me to the gate onto the Cathedral grounds, and, standing in the public street, could at least film me walking into the Cathedral through the gate's archway.

We contacted Cathedral security to let them know of our imminent arrival, as had been requestd. When we got there, we were met by a gentleman, representing the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, I think. He intercepted me and told me that I could not be filmed walking into the Cathedral (even from the public street outside) after all. The reason he gave took me by surprise, rendering me speechless (an uncommon experience for me!). "We can't have any photographs or film of you entering the Cathedral," he said, "because we want this to be a church for ALL people." Presumably he meant that my being seen walking into the Cathedral would cause others not to want to come.

This was one of those breathtaking moments when you just can't come up with the right thing to say. The rest of the day I thought of all the things I SHOULD have said. Like, "so you mean that I am not included in 'ALL people?!'" Or, "isn't this MY cathedral too?!" Or, "so what am I, chopped liver?!" The moment was so surprising, after having been so forthright in our notification of our visit and going through all the channels to ensure courteousness, I just couldn't come up with anything to say except, "okay," and accede to his wishes.

We were taken to the Cathedral's visitors office, where we were introduced to Theresa, a competent and warm guide who provided me with a wonderful, informative and hospitable tour of the Cathedral. But I simply couldn't shake the feelings engendered by the previous "welcome" a few minutes before.

The Cathedral, of course, has its own voice, and its towering arches, art, altars and promenades tell a wonderful story of Christian witness over the centuries. Three distinct architectural styles attest to its construction over a very long time. Its Augustine's Chair points to the first Archbishop of Canterbury's primacy at a much more precarious time than our own. The ancient nature of this building points to the Church's survivability over time, and I found this particularly moving and comforting, that even through THESE times, God promises to protect the Church such that "even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

As for nearly every other pilgrim, I found the altar at which Thomas a Becket was slain particularly moving. Since I had last been there, some thirty years ago, a modern sculpture had been added above the alter. It depicted the sword, used to accomplish this "murder in the cathedral," broken in the act of doing its dirty deed, flanked by two other swords. The three of them together formed a kind of three-cross Golgotha on which our Lord was slain. An already poignant place, made even more powerful by the work of an artist. I knelt to pray there and found it hard to leave. The witness of the saints, standing firm against the powers of this world, continues to inspire.

Young people, from all over the world, staffing their own version of the Stations of the Cross, implored me to come down to their witness in the crypt of the cathedral. True to my experiences with countless young people "on the Fringe" here, they shake their heads and wonder why the Church is tearing itself apart over an issue that is simply not an issue for them. Their comforting words of support mean the world to me, and in that moment, provided the REAL welcome at Canterbury Cathedral I needed.

Then, we were off to London. Many months ago, I had been contacted by the Cara Trust, a philanthropic organization who has been providing support and services to those living with HIV/AIDS since the early days of the pandemic. They invited me to have tea with them and many of their clients -- now not just limited to gay men, but including heterosexuals, women and especially women of color. What an honor to be asked, and what an honor to accept.

In one of those divinely humorous coincidences, our travel route from Canterbury and through the jam-packed traffic of London took us around Buckingham Palace, just at the precise moment that bishops and spouses were streaming off their coaches and into the Palace, for tea with the Queen. It was delightful to see most of the women wearing fabulous hats, chosen for this occasion. My gaze was caught by Donna Scarfe, wife of the Bishop of Iowa, in a stunning green hat with matching ensemble. Truly fit for a queen!

Upon my arrival at the Methodist church where we were meeting, I was greeted with open arms by those living with HIV. Italian, French, Caribbean, Indian and British human beings infected with a disease that knows no class or nationality, and whose treatment by an inhuman prejudice breaks my heart. But this was not a time to mourn. Pots of tea on tableclothed card tables and a table of delectable pastries gave it a party atmosphere. I was supposed to judge the "best cake" contest, but there were just too many to sample them all and no way to single out the best.
I don't know how tea with the Queen went, but I can attest that west of Buckingham Palace, there was a GREAT tea party going on! At the end, they presented me with a spectacular bouquet of flowers, wrapped in purple tissue that perfectly matched my bishop's shirt. It was a profoundly moving experience, and one that I would not have traded for the world. The view "from the Fringe" continues to inspire, challenge, nourish and console me.

I am now in an undisclosed location, taking the weekend to rest and relax. I'm going to not think about the Church for a few days. I might even take in the latest Batman movie, just to turn my brain off and escape for a little while. A little sabbath time is what I need. I've scouted out a place to worship on Sunday and will meet friends for dinner.

I am well and content. God still seems palpably close. Life is ALWAYS filled with both agonies and ecstasies, and each teaches us something different. One can never be absolutely sure one is doing the Lord's work instead of one's own agenda, but it sure feels like God is here, directing my attempts to witness to God's goodness and love. Praise to God when I get it right, and God help me when I get it wrong.

Thank you for your continuing prayers. I could not be doing this without them.