Who Does It Hit?

MonkI just have to say something good about the Episcopal Church. Not only are most of their leaders rational and open-minded people, but they are also willing to make a stand for what they believe. Yes, a broad generalization, but let me explain.

The Episcopal Church has a “colorful” history. It is basically the Church of England on American soil. Most of the colorful-ness I mentioned comes from the Church of England, though.

For a very long time, over 1,000 years, England was a Catholic country. The priests and bishops of England were directed by and answered to the Pope in Rome. Even legally, members of the clergy could appeal to the Pope on many matters for judgment instead of their own country’s monarch.

Around 1500 when the protestant movement began in Germany, a similar yet quite different movement was happening in England. The Lollards believed that the clergy were not the end-all and be-all of faith and that the laity, the common person, through their own piety, ought to have considerable say in their own matters of spirituality.

This was all very nice, but fairly meaningless until a certain guy named Henry, the King of England, wanted a divorce, but could not get one through the Catholic Church. Interestingly, he was very into being Catholic. He tried for some time to strike a bargain with the Pope yet eventually failed. He then gathered up all sorts of ancient documentation showing that the King is actually the spiritual leader instead of a foreign Pope, then went to work claiming the churches of England as his own. Soon thereafter, he broke any connections between members of the clergy and the Pope, forcing them instead to report to him. So the Pope excommunicated him, separating him for all eternity from the body of Christ.

Naughty Henry. It’s easy to like him for doing all that. And the Lollard movement amongst the people helped make it all possible. It’s not likely he would have succeeded if the people were not wanting this radical separation. And he took advantage of this brilliantly. Unfortunately, he also went on to execute priests that wouldn’t do what he said, shut down most all the monasteries, and claimed all the land and money for himself. This left the poor with a much more difficult time finding food, basically destroyed all the hospitals of the day, and ruined many libraries and institutions of knowledge, craft and art.

But the Church of England was born. And Henry really did like Catholicism. So he made certain the Catholic traditions remained within the Church of England and also made certain that none of these barbaric Protestants would have any say.

Interestingly, a subsequent monarch returned the Church of England to Roman control. Bloody Mary that was, who did quite a bit of killing of people who didn’t like changing back. That is, until the next monarch arrived to snatch the Church of England back from Rome. Poor Elizabeth got herself excommunicated by the Pope, too. And all of this in less than 100 years…

Besides all that, the Church of England is fairly well known for it’s liberal and enlightened stance on many issues. Subsequent years involved many reconciliations with Protestants and splinter groups that transformed the church into a very unique institution.

When the United States declared its independence from England, members of the Church of England were left somewhat in the lurch over here on American ground. If you were a priest or bishop in the Church of England you had to swear allegiance to the English Crown which put you a little at odds with the modern going-ons of the time. So they formed the Episcopal Church which eventually worked in “communion” with the Church of England. Over the years since the initial split during the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church has become even more directly tied to the Church of England.

Always, religious institutions have been political as well as spiritual. I suppose you really can’t help it when you have such profound influence over a large group of people. Even today, the Church of England can create English law, through the approval of the monarch and the parliament, and has its own legal courts.

The Episcopal Church here in the United States also has a governing body. They have taken a somewhat different approach, however. Whereas the Church of England has some very well defined hierarchies and the people within these hierarchies tend to utilize the power granted by their position, the Episcopal Church was set up more on an equal peer basis, tending to make all the major decisions in a committee.

Which brings me to today. For some time the Episcopal Church has ordained women as priests and bishops. I believe that even today in the Church of England you can put forth a motion to remove a woman bishop from authority over your parish. Then here’s where we go a little crazy…

In the 1970’s the Episcopal Church voted to allow women to become ordained priests and bishops. The Church of England followed suit in the 1990’s. In 2003 the Episcopal Church ordained the first gay man as a bishop. And in 2007, the Church of England issues an ultimatum to the Episcopal Church that they must stop this practice and submit themselves to a “parallel” body of governing themselves appointed by Church of England primates.

Today, the Episcopal Church told the Church of England that they had declared their independence from them some time ago and that they have no intention of being subjected to a governing body appointed by the Church of England.

According to the New York Times:

They said they had a “deep longing� to remain part of the Communion, but were unwilling to compromise the Episcopal Church’s autonomy and its commitment to full equality for all people, including gay men and lesbians.

“If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision,� the bishops said in a statement released late Tuesday night.

I have nothing short of a large hurrah for the Episcopal Church’s decision to stand their ground in matters they have considered honestly, intelligently and openly. They are so committed to their decision that they are risking the fragmentation of their church even within the United States. Although a definitive minority, the more conservative elements of the Episcopal Church have previously threatened to leave the body of the church and were instrumental in encouraging the Church of England to issue their ultimatum in an attempt to see their viewpoint gain more weight within the Episcopal Church.

One of the primary leaders of this internal skirmish is Bishop Robert Duncan. After hearing what his church leadership had to say today, “I’m really thinking through what all this means.�

How Can This Be?

our little primatesUnless you are a philosopher or a drug user, our existence isn’t something we think about very often. The only time most people consider the very nature of their existence is when some horribly traumatic “something” befalls them.

Imagine yourself imprisoned for literally years on end, without ever being told why. Or being told an inoperable blood vessel will burst in your brain at any moment. Imagine watching another person die before your eyes. Really. Take the time to imagine it. Or maybe you have experienced something similar yourself. Remember it, for it seems that only morbidity can cause most people to consider what it is, and what it means, to exist as a being in all that we find around us.

“How can this be happening to me?” This question is interesting. It almost always has a quality of foreboding ill. But, for at least a moment, I’d like to suspend that ill quality and instead take the question simply and exactly as it is, with no hint of imminent doom — I’d like to take that question with only the literal quality of curiosity and wonder:

“How can this be happening to me?”

You sitting there, with the computer in front of you, and the room around you, reading. The people surrounding you that you do, and do not know. The building around you and the electrons moving through it, bringing these words into your mind. The air moving on your skin, and the greater motions of the moving atmosphere outside your walls.

Sitting rooted by gravity on a spherical object hurtling silently around in a vast, unfathomable space. You, and that vastness, comprised of vibrating particle waves, somehow working in concert to manifest on a level we call our consciousness, our awareness — our being.

“How can this be happening to me?”

It’s a loaded question, isn’t it? So many ways it could go. So we close it down, shut it off, bury it, then balance our checkbook. It’s just the way things are. No question.

SpencerYesterday my dad came running into the house shouting with an uncharacteristic anguish on his voice calling for me to come quickly — Spencer was dying. I was barefoot at the stove, absorbed in creating an elaborate breakfast. All I could say was, “what?”

“Come help me – Spencer is dying!”

What does he want me to do, I wondered. Lay hands on the dog and return life? Perform some miracle surgery with kitchen knives and spatulas? But I turned off the fire and followed him outside where Spencer was laying across the two front seats of the car, his body arching stiff, convulsing, with urine on the seat and a puddle of drool running from his mouth, his eyes strangely wide staring up at me helplessly as I approached.

Oh Spencer, I felt. “What are you doing here!?” I asked my dad. “Take him to the vet! I can’t do anything to help!” But by this time, Spencer had somewhat calmed and was trying to get up.

I asked my dad what he had fed him this time — another hot fudge sundae, a Whopper with Cheese, or some fresh mad cow steak? I imagined Spencer buckling under the weight of my father piling upon him the heaviness that the loss of my mother left behind. Then I thought, I’ll blame him for anything.

He went to the vet, spending the larger part of the day under observation and undergoing bloodwork. By the time he arrived at the vet, he was well back to normal. That night he was very happy to be home.

People who have dogs know without a doubt these animals have feelings and moods. I think it is a mistake to attribute too many anthropomorphic attributes to dogs yet I have no doubt they experience emotion. Spencer experiences the world and his own existence in his individually unique dog way. Looking at him, eye to eye, there is a fundamental gap between us that cannot be bridged, yet there is also some essence of commonality which is undeniable and shared. This is the essence of mutuality, whether this mutuality exists between divergent animal species, or the mutuality that exists between the same species.

primate awarenessA biologist named Frans de Waal has been instrumental in finally convincing the scientific world that animals can, at least, experience emotions. For some reason we have always wanted to set ourselves apart from other animal species. One of the many ways we’ve accomplished this is by claiming the emotional life solely for ourselves. We can no longer make that claim. Other animals do, in fact, feel emotion. However, it now seems we might have to give over even more of our special status to the animal kingdom — other animals are demonstrating what can reasonably be described as the beginnings of moral awareness.

Dr. de Waal has shown that primates demonstrate characteristics traditionally attributed only to humans, such as empathy and even a modicum of social justice. They will console each other in times of distress and even influence any hoarders of food to share with others more equally.

Philosophers have argued that a sense of morality is firmly based upon reason. Philosophers have also argued that a sense of morality is fundamentally based upon emotion. Avoiding the whole distinction between ethics and morality, we have observed primates demonstrating both emotion and the capacity to reason, so is it a stretch in the least to say that these primates certainly have the necessary basis to develop a moral sensibility and, in fact, that it seems this development might be a natural progression?

However, no primates other than humans exhibit religious inclinations. Most of us are aware of our lives, and seek, at least, to find meaning and comfort for our life’s eventual and inevitable end. We have also constructed a good deal of rigmarole to keep us occupied and reassured in the meantime.

I have to ask, does religion help us discover greater truth, or does religion keep us from finding greater truth by providing pre-packaged answers and ways of thinking? I wish I could ask Spencer his opinion.

But our society is far more complex than anything else reflected in the primate world. The people, their hierarchies, desires for more than just food to survive, the caring for each other, the killing for abstract reasons, the need for perfectly sculpted hair that frames our face perfectly.

The notion of perfection. The assumption of the One Absolute Answer. The forces that draw us onward, rather than just simply existing.

After a while, over a few centuries, it becomes difficult to re-connect our awareness back into the world of the immediate experience of our existence, as it happens. We have become very much caught up in the abstractions we have constructed, and give validity to, that we affirm to be as solid as the earth we walk upon.

This is something we all know, though. We cannot help it. We carry on along the abstract paths we have created, or more often, the paths others have made available to us. We pop religion like a pill to keep us from swinging too wildly up or down. Then we start it all over again with our children. And then we die.

But what have we felt along the way? What experiences have transformed us, and how have we shared this with others? Have we kept all of ourself locked away inside, only exhibiting those parts of ourselves in line with a social construct? Have we chopped off our arms and legs to fit inside the box we want? Have we watched others being destroyed while silently telling ourselves that it’s not me doing it? What is this program that’s running so far beyond our control? Or is it that we simply just can’t be bothered?

That’s something I have to ask these strongly religious people, in particular. Not the ones who direct the dogmatic processes — they are little more than banana-hording apes. I would ask this of the common ape: “How can this be happening?”

Strangely, even philosophers avoid delving into the ultimate prima facie. Not for lack of interest, but rather because doing so takes us into a place where reasonable-ness breaks down. We can only go so far back before we reach the barrier of the first instance, like the singularity from which all matter and energy sprung.

it's always somethingOur adherence to the structures we have created over time elevate us, yet in some ways remove us from the more basic experience and understanding of ourselves. Our truly amazing achievements have distanced us through the distraction of a million little things, from the basic human experiences we are all aware of to one degree or another, and that we all cherish. We often sacrifice both ourselves and the others around us mercilessly to further some abstract cause, even when we know that cause is not justifiable. We work psychological magic upon ourselves to rid ourselves of the responsibility for our actions, and our inactions.

Nearly everyone I’ve met considers it wasteful or strange to try exploring that which lies beyond or outside the reach of the constructs we have manufactured collectively for ourselves. In one sense they are right: we are forever connected to the terms and ideas that have shaped us as we evolve.

But is it not something else that drove us, originally, to consider ourselves in terms of the creatures around us? Is it not something else that brought us together in mutuality to achieve something greater for all of us? Is it really so crazy to still respect, and to honor this primordial leap?

And when do we say, and at what point do we realize, that many of the abstractions we have created are more in the interest of themselves, rather than for we people who continue them? When can we say that it’s time for another great leap? Or does it just happen?