3 In the Beginning
I never intended to become an Episcopal priest and spend the best years of my life in parish ministry. What I intended was to earn a Ph.D. in American Literature from some reasonably prestigious university and then teach contemporary literature at some small liberal arts college while I wrote the Great American Novel. Well, the road to priesthood is paved with such intentions.
John Stasny, was my favorite professor in college—I took seven of his classes in my eight semesters so it could be said that I minored in Mr. Stasny. At any rate, he and Manfred Otto Meitzen, head of the Religion Department (who later died in a motorcycle accident in Branson, Missouri) came to me in my senior year and told me they had recommended me for a 'trial year in seminary' to be paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. All I had to do was go through some interviews and tell the Rockefeller people over and again that I didn't want to go to seminary.
“I don't want to go to seminary,” I told them, “I'm waiting to hear from the University of Virginia and Iowa for graduate school.”
“That's perfect!” Mr Stasny said. (Although he was a tenured professor at WVU, he didn't have a doctorate. I once asked him why and he answered, “Bradley, who on earth would test me?” I had to agree.)
“How's that 'perfect'?” I asked. “I don't want to go to seminary. It's never crossed my mind....”
“Perfect,” said Dr. Meitzen, “just tell the committee that over and over.”
So, just to please these two men I admired greatly, I went to Pittsburgh to be interviewed. I told the committee in a dozen ways and inside out/upside down a dozen more that I most certainly DIDN'T want to go to seminary.
“Great,” they all said, over and again, “that's just perfect!”
So I became a Rockefeller Fellow and went to Harvard Divinity School on the Rockefeller's money, stayed another year and got a degree—an MTS, 'Master of Theological Studies', which, along with $3.75 will get you a small coffee at Starbucks.
Remitha Spurlock, one of the most holy people I ever knew, who was a member of the first parish I served—St. James in Charleston, West Virginia—often said, “God works is mischievous ways.” And so God does—along with the Rockefeller foundation.
You know, after reading the chapter about the Archangel Mariah, why I went back to finish a professional degree and became a priest. But I blame John Stasny and Manfred Otto Meitzen for pointing me toward that all-wrong trip to Harvard Divinity School, where I'd get bitten (as I imagine they thought I might) by the Theology-bug and change all my plans.
I landed at Harvard at the best time ever: 1969. Hell's bells, things were a poppin' in those heady days! In my four semesters, three of them were cut short by a student strike, a faculty strike and a combined student/faculty strike. I was immersed in the chaos I love and thrive in. Ask anyone who knows me—I do best in chaos. And if it doesn't exist, I will find a way to create it.
I was friends with a law student at Harvard named Helen Anderson. She later became a writer about 'law and women' and occasionally had a column in the The New York Times. But in those weird times in the late 60's and early 70's, Helen was a drama queen. The day the National Guard was called out to protect the ROTC building—Harvard had ROTC, amazing—Helen came to my room in Divinity Hall to tell me, “the Revolution is starting and I have nothing to wear!”
I was once down at the Boston Common with Helen and Don, my best friend at Harvard. Helen got a run in her panty hose. Nothing would do
her but go to Jordan Marsh to buy new ones. The young clerk asked her what shade she wanted and Helen said, “how many shades are there?”
“Two hundred and twenty four,” the clerk responded and Helen burst into tears.
“I can't cope with that much pressure,” she cried and headed for the Ladies' Room. Don made the decision for her and got burnt cinnamon, if my memory serves me. Once we delivered them to the bathroom and Helen put them on, it was if nothing had happened. We went to ride the Swan Boats.
I'll try in these musings and reflections and memories to share some thoughts about parish ministry and 'the Church'(that wondrous and schizophrenic institution) but most of what I will write will be about the people who served me more faithfully and well than I ever served them. People are, after all, the real raw material of parish ministry—much of the rest is window dressing and smoke and mirrors. To quote The Rev. Wil B. Dunn, the parson in the comic strip Kudzu, “human relations is my field....”
For the last decade or so of my full-time ministry, I decided not to have an office. I did most all the writing and study I needed to do at home or sitting in the parish library with the door open. I know I probably annoyed the office staff no end by hanging around on the first floor so much, but it seemed to me that what I was 'for' was to be present to the daily swirl of activity of that very busy urban parish. Hundreds of people came through the church doors everyday—the soup kitchen was feeding 300+ a day when I retired, the Choristers were there two afternoons a week, a dance group used the building twice a week, someone was always trying out the McManis Organ, people wandered off the street to take a look and I was usually there to give them a tour of the remarkable building, lots of local groups used our rooms for meetings, and parish members who just popped in always saw me wandering around. That was a good thing. Being around people suited me much more than being in an office doing something that probably, in the cosmic scheme of things, was pretty unnecessary.
I once asked the son of a very active Episcopal lay woman what his mom did all the time. “She looks for meetings to go to,” he told me. He was six, I remember.
I think lots of church folks, especially clergy, 'look for meetings to go to' to demonstrate how busy they are. Meetings were, of course, a part of my life, but I didn't 'look for' them. Instead, what I did, at least in the last decade of my full-time ministry was 'hang around'. It suited me rather well, I believe.
Divinity Hall, where I lived for a year, was next door to the Semitic Museum. Harvard, in its infinite wisdom, had leased an office in that building to the CIA for recruiting purposes. Remember—this was 1969—the SDS or even more radical group, found out about the CIA office and tried to blow up the Semitic Museum one night. There were a whole host of firetrucks and other emergency vehicles out on the street and I wanted to see what was going on. There was Dr. G. E. Wright, an Old Testament scholar, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk holding some relic that had been damaged. He was weeping.
G. E. Wright was a renowned person in his field. He was one of the best teachers at Harvard and known far and wide, along with Professor Von Radt from Germany, as a leading light in Old Testament studies. He was also renowned for saying in his lectures: “there are two ways to study the Old Testament. The Von Radt way and the Wright way....” That was always greeted with laughter and applause.
And there he was, sitting on the curb, weeping over the lost documents and artifacts from the explosion, which, by the way, didn't damage the CIA offices at all. In that moment, there on Divinity Avenue, I realized the value of 'the past'. Until that moment I believed stuff in museums and rare book collections was nothing more than 'old stuff'. But seeing this world-wide wide acknowledged, aging man, weeping over the loss of 'old stuff' convinced me forever of the value of history and the 'stuff' history created. And I respected Dr. Wright a great deal from that moment forward.
One of the theology professors at Harvard was Richard Reinhold Niebuhr—son of Richard and nephew of Reinhold. Ralph McGill, another theologian, once commented about Dr. Niebuhr: “what was the boy going to do after all? Drive a cab in San Francisco? Theology is the family business.” (Dr. McGill had, in fact, driven a San Francisco cab for a few year, a vocation he said was a perfect prelude to a life spent talking about God.)
Niebuhr as a strange character to us all. He was a quintessential absent-minded professor. Once he wandered into the lecture hall carrying an armful of fat books, spead them all out, rearranged the order they were in, turned to a particular page in each one, stared at them for a while and drew on the chalk board in wild, cruel, looping lines until he had created what looked like a deformed tornado. He stared at that for a while, at the same time cocking his head to listen to a bird outside the open window singing to the perfect Spring day.
“The Void,” he said, not bothering to look at the 75 or so students sitting in tiers behind him. And then, almost to himself, he repeated, “the Void...” In a moment, he drew a stick figure of a man in the midst of the funnel cloud. He stepped back and said, reverently, it seemed to me, “Homo religiosis.”
He listened to the bird again, closed and gathered his books and left, perhaps to go to his study, perhaps to walk around in the warm April sun. We never figured out whether he just forgot he had a lecture to give or if the bird's song has mesmerized him.
I was walking back to Divinity Hall with my friends Don and Cal, still stunned by what we had witnessed.
“You could ever make this stuff up,” Don said.
Cal asked, “what did that French phrase mean?”
You couldn't have made Cal up either.
Cal was dozing beside me in a New Testament lecture by Dean Kristor Stendahl, at that time, the once and future bishop of Sweden. When Stendahl got started talking about the Holy Spirit, he said, “Jesus promised his followers to send the Paraclete.”
Cal woke up and shook my arm.
“Did he say 'parakeet'?” Cal whispered, ready to write something down.
Another time, in a Stendahl lecture, the Dean said, “within two decades of the crucifixion, the apostles began to peter out.”
He paused for all of us to moan.
“Wasn't that a-Paul-ing,” he asked.
Of all the brilliant, odd folks at Harvard, Frank Cross took the cake. He was an Old Testament scholar who, someone once said, probably dreamed in Hebrew. He made Niebuhr seem focused and alert. The story went like this: one morning Frank Cross got in his car, was thinking about Isaiah or Numbers or something, forgot to shut the driver's side door and tore it off on the tree beside his driveway. The next morning, in his rental car, he did the very same thing. The morning after that, the legend said, he had the tree cut down.
Then there was Rabbi Katenstein who taught a course called “The Life Cycle in Christian Worship”. All the students were Christians of various hues, 16 different hues among 17 students. All semester we brought in examples of how our particular cult of Christianity celebrated certain aspects of the 'life cycle'--birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, sickness, death, burial, like that. I was the only Episcopalian in the class and thanked the little baby Jesus and whatever God might be for the Book of Common Prayer—1928--because it had all things, even a service for the purifying of women after child birth—something the Rabbi went nuts about in joy. His job, it occurred to me much later, was to teach us Christians how Jewish we really were. Almost every liturgy or ritual we brought up in that class was an opportunity for Rabbi Katzenstein to let us know the Jewish/Jesus roots of all our fanfare and celebrations.
It stunned me. I began, half way through the class to wonder why I hadn't had a bar-mitzvah, since obviously, as a Christian, I was a Jew as well. That class served me well when I invited a Muslim group to make their mosque in a building St. John's, Waterbury owned. Rabbi Katzenstein taught me, in no uncertain terms, that, not only are the hues of Christians not that important, the distinctions between Faiths were not that significant either. God/Yahweh/Ala, thank him for that.
(I just realized, writing this, that all of these great people who taught me so well are probably dead or old, old men. It was nearly 40 years ago and they were all in their 50's when I knew them—except for Dr. Meitzen, who ended his stay on earth outside the Country Music Capitol of the Universe. I'll always hope he had seen some shows before he and his wife died on that motorcycle, rather than thinking they were on their way to see Dolly and George and Garth when they died. It's difficult for me to think of the them as any older than they were when they taught me wondrous things about theology and life. Generations come and go and leave behind valuable things. G.E. Wright, sobbing in front of the Semitic Museum knew that only too keenly. And, as I age, I value the wisdom and the kookiness of those marvelous people more each day.
After my visitation from the Archangel Mariah, I went to Virginia Seminary for two yeas, which meant I had four years of theological education instead of the normal three for ordination. Both EDS I Cambridge and GTS in New York City agreed that I could come for only one more year. They were willing to accept all my credits from Harvard. Virginia Seminary was not so open. I needed two years of field work in a parish to meet their graduation requirements. I made me so angry that I decided to go there and make their lives miserable for two years. Which I did. Well, perhaps not 'miserable', but I kept them on their toes.
That's an exaggeration. VTS is bigger and stronger and has more integrity than you can imagine. I may have annoyed the seminary around the edges, but it hardly made a dent. The truth is, I look back on those two years with gratitude and appreciation. Who I was when I showed up in Alexandria was angry, arrogant, self-centered and profoundly ironic. Whan I left, I was a little less of all that and ready to be a priest. What formed me at Virginia Seminary was the incredible faculty and their commitment to 'making priests'. Virginia never claimed to be a 'graduate school of Theology'. It was a training ground for parish priests. That's what VTS claimed to do, what they did, and what they did quite well.
So, here are some people from VTS:
Charlie taught several things, but he excelled at Liturgics. He began each year of the year long 'Introduction to Liturgy' by handing out what he called “Forty Beastly Questions”. Then he taught to the questions. It was a remarkable approach. We spent two semesters wrestling with the questions Charlie posed.
I remember one that we labored over mightily: What is necessary for baptism to be valid?
The point to this question, as with all the questions, was to struggle with liturgical issues in a way we never had before. 'Baptism', for all of us, I suspect, was a ritual performed in a parish church by a priest after dutifully training and informing the parents and godparents of the child (and speaking seriously with the occasional adult candidate) about the meaning of the sacrament, the history of 'washing' in Jewish practice, the role of parents and god-parents and how to 'speak loudly' when answering the questions asked of them from the Book of Common Prayer.
Charlie wanted us to get way, way past that image to the very nuts and bolts of baptism: “what is necessary?”
“Water and oil,” we said, thinking we'd figured it our, “and a priest and witnesses.”
“Well,” he told us, “what about the baptisms in blood on battlefields over the centuries? Are they invalid?” Some of us were through at that juncture. Charilie's questions never had a 'right' answer, he just wanted us to arrive at an answer we could live with.
But some others of us had to admit we found all that 'battlefield baptism' rather romantic and didn't want to give it up. So, for those of us, the most obvious answer, “water and oil”, didn't work.
“So, how about a priest?” we asked Charlie.
“Read the rubrics,” he told us. (Rubrics are the little instructions in the Prayer Book. They're called 'rubrics' because in early editions of the BCP, they were written in red. Rubrics and Canons are what govern the Episcopal Church. Another piece of Charlie-Wisdom was this: “never unknowingly break a canon.” He knew that most of us would break more than one along the way—but we should know what we were doing and be able to answer for it if ever asked.)
Well, in the rubrics about baptism, it is clear that a deacon can administer baptism with the sealing in oil to be done later by a priest or bishop. And, in emergencies, any 'baptized person' may do the ritual, if the person recovers, the rest of the service should be done by a priest, omitting the administration of water. So a priest isn't necessary. Any baptized person can baptize. “So”, we raced back to Charlie to say, feeling proud, “all that is necessary is a Christian and the words of baptism.”
He told us to go think about it some more. Would God—the God Charlie knew and loved and we were learning about—would THAT God deny baptism to on of God's beloved children simply because a baptized Christian wasn't present?
That divided the house of those still inquiring about the 'right answer', just as Charlie intended. Some held out from that point on for the need of a baptized Christian for baptism to occur. A few of us were more open to the possibility that Charlie's God, more expansive than ours by a long short, would let a heathen baptize someone in extremis. Charlie had taken away almost everything that made us comfortable with the sacrament—water, priests, oil, Christians. What was left.
“The words said,” we told him, the few of us, fairly panting that's we'd at last solved his puzzle. “You need the words, 'in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We were so delighted to give him the answer.
He smiled and laughed—Charlie was a great one for smiling and laughing. Then he said words to the three of us I think I will never forget and pray to remember always. “So, you're telling me that the Great God Almighty who spread out the universe and created all things, the God who lives and moves and has being in our midst, would deny baptism to someone who desired it because the only person there with him was a deaf-mute Muslim?”
That was the last straw for one of our trio. All the others had already answered the question for themselves in a way they could live with—which was the point of the whole exercise I later understood. Charlie just wanted us to realize we'd 'come down' where we'd 'come down' for a reason. He forced us to look at familiar things so critically, so analytically, that we'd always know 'why' we believed what we believed. But the two of us sought him out at lunch in the Refectory one day.
“OK,” one of us said, “what if the only thing necessary for baptism to be valid is the 'intention' to be baptized?”
He stopped his fork half-way to his mouth.
“We are now way beyond doctrine and dogma and practice,” he said. “We're beyond ritual and rubrics. We in dangerous territory. The Enemy is near.” Then he took a bite. Charlie could say stuff like that and not sound silly.
As he was chewing, I felt we were on the edge of a precipice, looking over a sheer cliff, nothing below us, nothing to keep us from jumping off.
“I'm not saying 'this is the right answer', there being no right answer,not really. The two of us were hanging on every word. “But what if, just what if—and I'm not saying I believe this in any way,” he said, growing as somber, save one other time, that I'd ever seen him, “what if the intention is God's alone?”
My friend and I left Charlie to finish his lunch. Oddly, we never talked about his response to our question. It would have been frivolous and vain to have discussed it and analyzed it and a betrayer to have told others about it. But I know I've pondered Charlie's strange words ever since. They are always in the background of my considerations about theology and God.
“Jump,” the Buddhist masters say, “and the net will find you....”
Charlie gave us 39 other 'beastly questions' and I only realized decades later that the purpose of the questions was not the 'answers' but the 'inquiry' the questions set in motion. And I realized that by then, Charlie's God had become my God—a God that prefers the struggle to the resolution, the wrestling to the winning, the deep wonderings of paradox to certainty and clarity. For that realization, I am forever grateful.
We also did a liturgics practicum with Charlie—we called it 'play church'. We baptized baby dolls, anointed each other for healing, did marriage services for each other (and since there were 15 men and one woman in my section, we participated in same-sex unions long before our time!) buried shoe boxes and had mock Eucharists. When I was distributing the wafers once, Charlie stuck out his tongue at me. Having grown up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the mountain Methodist Church where we hardly ever had communion (and when we did it was sitting in our pews with our little personal crouton and a tiny plastic cup of grape juice) I was startled at his tongue and started laughing.
“Put the wafer on my tongue,” he told me. “Try not to make finger contact with my tongue and then move on....”
The first parish I served was a Black parish. Black Episcopalians tend toward 'high church' where receiving the wafer on you tongue is the norm. So Charlie saved me from enormous embarrassment and endless explanations when, on my first Sunday at St. James, fully half of those coming to communion stuck out their tongues at me.
Just one more thing I have to thank God and Charlie for....
Finally, Charlie probably kept me from getting expelled from VTS even though I graduated second in my class. My assigned adviser was Reginald Fuller, a renowned New Testament scholar who actually co-wrote one of the best books I ever read, The Book of the Acts of God, with G. E. Wright, who we last saw on the sidewalk outside the Semitic Museum at Harvard. But I hadn't had any classes from Dr. Fuller, though I'd met once morning a week with him and his other advisees at his house for worship. Once, he celebrated communion with us in the living room wearing full Eucharistic vestments. Odd, I thought.
He was the shining light of the few Anglo-Catholic students. One morning a week, chapel was the responsibility of students. The high church students convinced Reggie to celebrate a 'high mass', with incense and bells, chanting and bowing. Back in that day, such carryings-on were not tolerated by the low church folks at VTS. Several students and more than one faculty member walked out rather than be present at such Popish Nonsense. I'd never seen such a thing and stayed throughout, mesmerized by the smoke wafting around the chapel, by the eerie cadence of the chanting, by the exaggerated manual acts of Dr. Fuller.
Anyway, he didn't know me well. He didn't understand my ironic kind of charm. He didn't know I was a serious student whose quips and sardonic way of talking simply announced the seriousness with which I too, my calling by the Archangel Mariah and, I hoped, Charlie's God. Besides, it was my job to make the idyllic life on the 'holy hill' in Alexandria a little more interesting....
Dr. Fuller stopped me in the hallway of Aspinwall Hall, the main building at VTS about half-way through the last semester of my senior year.
“Mr. Bradley,” he said in his Oxbridge accent, “we need to make an appointment to discuss the ordinal.”
I knew fair well that was British-speak for 'the ordination service', something taken very seriously by a seminary committed to producing parish priests. But what I said was flip, ironic, smart-assed and, in the end, stupid.
“The Baltimore Ordinal?” I asked, much to the amusement of the students in the hall around us. I always intended to 'amuse' and poke fun at most everything. I succeeded rather well with all save Dr. Fuller, who turned on his heel, redness rising in his face, and made his way to the Dean's office to describe, in what I am sure was flawless English, my impertinence. Not to mention my arrogance and frivolousness. All of which, I must humbly admit these many years later, was 'on spot', as Reggie would have said. And, as I would have said, 'true'.
To graduate from VTS you had to, obviously, have enough credits and not have committed a felony offense. In addition, you had to have your adviser 'sign off' that you were fit to be a priest. Well, my little, inappropriate joke about the Baltimore Ordinal had hardened Dr. Fuller's heart. He would not approve me for graduation—and, therefore, ordination—without an apology, which, in my Young Turk days of trying to prove to Virginia Seminary that they were fools for making me study two years instead of one, I was not willing to give.
During all this, and after pleas from the Dean to apologize, which I refused--”the man has to know how to take a joke,” I remember saying—I contacted double pneumonia and was in Alexandria Hospital, a few blocks from the campus. Incidentally, I had two room-mates in succession at the hospital die on consecutive nights. The psychiatrist came to see me to make sure I wasn't freaking out and took my request to not have any other room-mates seriously. So, for over a week, I laid in bed, had treatments, sucked up gallons of antibiotic laced saline through an IV and wondered if I would graduate.
All my classmates decided to try out their hospital visitation skills until I put in a request not to allow anyone in except my wife. However, Charlie Price charmed his way through the insulation I thought I had and came to my bedside.
After asking about my health and recovery, Charlie said: “Jim, I hope and pray that some day you will come to a moment, a principle, some issue or another that you will be willing to risk your career, your priesthood for. I really hope that.”
Then, after a pause, he added, “Jim this silly fight with Dr. Fuller is NOT that moment....Apologize, get a new adviser and move on.”
He was absolutely right. So, I did apologize, got a new adviser, graduated and was ordained.
So much I owe to Charlie Price. So much. Even more than that.
Looking back, I feel like an utter fool about the whole Reggie-Gate thing. That is an appropriate feeling since I really, really was a fool.
Mary Ann Mixx
Dr. Mixx as the only woman professor at VTS when I was thee. She was a New Testament scholar and, from all accounts, a superior one. Her presence on campus was an oddity to us all—the only female and, save one other, the only un-ordained professor. Once, sitting at the same table at lunch with her and hearing other students discussing Romans, I got on my “I Hate Paul!” rant. Everyone was initally aghast, first that I would 'hate Paul' and, probably more importantly, that I didn't know Paul was one of Dr. Mixx's passions.
I saw her in a hallway a few days later and apologized for my hatred of Paul. I didn't repent it, please notice, but apologized for whatever might have offended her about it. (I wasn't quite the total pain-in-the-ass I claim to have been at VTS!) She waved my apology away, and, instead of saying what most of the professors said when accosted by a student in a hallway: “Well....” while looking at their wrist watch. Instead of that, Dr. Mixx said, “you have any plans for winter term?”
Winter Term was a two week mini-semester after Christmas and before the Spring semester began. There were tedious classes that met every single day for two weeks, too much information too fast, and too much library time all at once for students who had come, long before, to live in Academic time...semesters, not two weeks. I hated the winter term.
“I haven't decided yet,” I told her, delaying as usual, making decisions about classes, or anything, for that matter.
“Do a reading course with me,” she said, “on Paul's letters.”
A 'reading course' was the last refuge of people who didn't really want to go to class. Like me. My heart lept up....
“You want to make me love Paul?” I asked, always suspicious of the motives of people smarter than me.
She laughed. “I don't care one way or the other how you feel about Paul,” she said, still chuckling. “I just thought it would be fun for both of us....”
I was stunned. A VTS professor making a suggestion on the basis of 'fun'! How could I turn that down.
“Me too,” I told her, “I'm always up for some fun.”
Here's what she asked me to do: A. read all Paul's letters and give her a list of the things he said that I hated and have a conversation with her about my list; B. Put the letters in chronological order instead of the order in the New Testament, read them that way, and write a paper about what I learned from the exercise.
The truth is, I only had a faint notion of the reality that Paul's letters aren't in chronological order. So that was a valuable research exercise. What shifted for me as I read Paul in the order of writing was that most of the stuff I hated came in the earlier letters when Paul was harsh and judgmental and boastful. Read in the order in which they were written, I noticed a softening, a mellowing of Paul that I hadn't been able to notice before. As he aged and became certain of what he initially believed (that Jesus was coming back on next Tuesday if not next Monday and that he, Paul would be there to greet him) his tone shifted subtilely. There was more ambiguity, more openness, a new found ability to hedge his bets. That later Paul wasn't the monster I had always experienced.
I still hated him, I told Dr. Mixx in our conversations and my final paper—but not for the same reasons as before. Then, as now, 35 years later, I am sad that Christianity is more “Pauline” than “Jesus-like”. Over the centuries, Paul's thought has insinuated itself into the fabric of the faith and altered the all-embracing, never met a stranger kind of faith Jesus sought to pass along. The church is fussy and strict and patronizing in ways obvious and not so obvious. We are wed to doctrine and swayed by dogma that doesn't have much at all to do with the “suffer the little children to come unto me” attitude of Jesus. When compassion bumps head with canon law, guess which side almost always wins? But what I did learn profoundly is that I need to give Paul a bit more of a pass on things. I considered, back then, what if the letters I have written in my life were all that people knew of who I was and what my trust was in? What I consider now—much more frightening—is what if all that people knew about me was gleaned from going over the e-mails I have written rather than from knowing me face to face?
Horrors! So though I don't yet adore Paul, I cut him a break. And for that I am always grateful to Mary Ann Mixx.
Interestingly enough, something that got me in hot water with the Dean, before the Reggie Fuller Fiasco, was an article I wrote for the “Ambo”, the student newspaper, using the front door of Aspenwall Hall as a metaphor for what was lacking at Virginia Seminary. That door was ten feet tall and solid oak and took a strong person to open. I wrote in my article that it was a “Pauline Door”--a door that represented the rigor and narrowness of Paul. I called for a “Petrine Seminary”, one based on the acknowledged frailties and weaknesses of Peter—the one who doubted, the one who ran away, the one who betrayed. I simply identified more with Peter than Paul.
I got a note in my little mail box in the coffee room to come see the Dean. I went straight to his office and his secretary showed me in. It was morning so he offered tea or coffee. I was wishing it was late afternoon because everything that happened in late afternoon at VTS involved an offer of sherry.
I sat down, sipping my coffee (having fussed with sugar and cream while he fussed with lemon and cream for his tea) and when we were both adequately seen to, the Dean spoke.
“Jim,” he said in his oh-so-sophisticated Tidewater accent (if you aren't familiar with the Tidewater Accent—coastal Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina—you don't understand that it is exactly the accent a Dean of Virginia Seminary should have). “Jim, I am very distressed with your criticism of me in the last issue of the Ambo,” is what he said. His accent made my name sound like “gi-um” and both 'distressed' and “criticism” seemed to have gained a syllable as well. But it is a mesmerizing sound, soothing and soft and sophisticated in the way that mint juleps and magnolias and the architecture of Monticello is sophisticated.
“Dean,” I said in an accent that he would recognize as Appalachian, coal-miner son, trailer-trash, hillbilly, “I wasn't criticizing you, I was criticizing the Seminary.”
He took a delicate sip of his tea. Then he said words, though in one of the most delightful of all American accents, that chilled me to the bones and sinews.
“Jim,” he said slowly, “I AM Virginia Seminary.” Then he went on to explain how such a seeming impossibility could be so.
The accent was lulling me into sleep or compliance. It was like the 'Turkish taffy' the White Witch offered the children who went to Narnia. I was a stranger in a strange land. I put my almost full cup of coffee down on the little table between our two wing chairs. I reached over, interrupting him, to shake his hand.
“Dean,” I said, standing up, moving toward the door of his office, “I'll never do it again. I promise you that.”
Something I know to the depths of my being is this: never try to reason or argue with a man who thinks he's a seminary or any other major institution, for that matter.
Speaking of 'reading courses', I wanted to have one for the last semester of my Senior year. I didn't want to take four classes, as was expected and required. I even had a topic. I wanted to write a paper about the theology of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I took my ideas to the usual suspects—the people I thought would buy into my getting out of a class. None of them wanted any part of it, more I think, because they only vaguely knew who Kurt Vonnegut was than because they didn't think it might be an interesting topic. Finally, I asked David Scott, one of the most conservative of the members of the faculty. And much to my surprise (probably his too) he agreed although he didn't even 'vaguely' know who Kurt Vonnegut was!
So David read five of Vonnegut's novels just so he could talk with me about the writer's 'theology'. Then he read my rather lengthy final paper. I wish I had a copy of it except I almost certainly remember it as more insightful, ground-breaking and brilliant than it actually was....
Here's the thing: a teacher who is willing to read five novels he would have never otherwise read in order to teach and evaluate a student's work—well, I don't know what is more committed to education than that. Reminds me of the character from the Canterbury Tales who would 'gladly learn and gladly teach'. Though we didn't agree on much of anything (besides, eventually, that Vonnegut was a very theological writer!), David Scott won my heart.
(Once in an ethics class, David suggested that masturbation could lead to loss of fine motor skills and most every student in the room dropped their pencils. Even though that actually happened, David had my heart. And God bless his....)
Fighting with Fitz
Fitzsimmons Allison was even more conservative than David Scott. When he left VTS it was to become Rector of St. James in Manhattan, the quintessential 'low church' of New York City. Then he became Bishop of South Carolina. If you know anything about the Episcopal Church, you realize being Bishop of South Carolina is theologically akin to being a bishop in the Global South. South Carolina rather redefines 'conservative' in the Episcopal Church. Fitz was the only other member of the staff besides the Dean who objected to my comparison of the front door of Aspenwall Hall and the theology of St. Paul to my preference for a door that would open easily and the theology to be derived from the accounts of Peter in the gospels.
We began to exchange opinions in the pages of the Ambo. I still have, somewhere, copies of what I wrote and what Fitz wrote in reply and what I wrote in reply to his reply and what he wrote in reply to my reply to his reply. Just like the previous sentence, all of our writings were rather discombobulated and not very interesting. It certainly wasn't up to what a debate between Calvin and Luther might have been like! It was a smart-ass student and an equally, though better educated, smart-ass professor throwing bricks at each others' glass houses. I'm too embarrassed about how lame my words and arguments were to even share them with you. I'm sure, from the perspective of all these years, Fitz would feel the same.
What our disagreement boiled down to was a vastly different view of 'human nature'. But isn't that always so in debates between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, or, as we now call them in the Episcopal Church—Orthodox and Progressive. I was (and am) of the theological persuasion that we human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and just a little lower than the angels. Fitz contended that the whole point of the 'Fall' was true and human beings, not bound by rules, doctrine and dogma were not much above odious little vermin. I exaggerate both our positions, but you get the point.
I had suggested that a seminary with a 'high view' of human nature—which, coming from a Pilgrim Holiness background, I considered 'distinctly Anglican'--wouldn't need grades because everyone, for the love of learning and enlightened self-interest, would work just as hard without the threat of grades. Fitz contended that just because some people might indeed 'not need grades', the flotsam and jetsam of the student body wouldn't do anything but mess around and not study if there weren't grades to keep them in line.
Well, you can see from that little exchange that our debate wasn't a dialog of Plato. We eventually agreed to disagree, but I look back and thank him both for arguing with me and giving me credit by considering me a worthy opponent for argument.
I still believe I'm right about the being of human beings. Given all the considerations and pains and suffering of life, most people are better than we could otherwise expect them to be. Fits eventually left the Episcopal Church to be part of the movement associated with the ultra-orthodox theology of the Anglican Communion's Global South. So, true to form, he still believed he was right too.
What his gift to me was is the knowledge that people of vastly different views CAN agree to disagree and respect each other in the midst of their disagreements. There's not enough of that around these days in the church, or, for that matter, in the country or in the world. Respecting the integrity of you avowed opponent changes the playing field, makes it a place of honor rather than bitterness and unrequited anger.
As I said, there's not enough of that around these days, anywhere.
Jess, dear Jess
Jess Trotter was the dearest man you can ever imagine—probably more 'dear' than you have imagined or could imagine. He was a deeply spiritual Christian, a social activist of no mean repute and a father or grandfather figure to us all. He was my field work colloquium leader. Field work (which I did for two years at Christ Church, Capitol Hill) was a major part of the theological education at VTS when I was there. I pray it still is. Field work—actually being present to a real life parish or a ministry setting while in seminary—is the anchor that holds a theological education to this world and keeps the students from drifting off into an oh, so fascinating alternative reality of 'God Talk' devoid of what is so in the actual world. In my time as a parish priest, I have supervised 21 seminarians in their field work. Although those 21 young men and women taught me much more than I ever could have taught them about anything, I was responsible for grounding them in the 'real world' of church while they were still comfortably and safely ensconced in the womb that is a Seminary.
There is a great deal I could tell you about Jess. He was a priest and a man who had known great personal suffering. And unlike most suffering—which is mindless and nonsensical—the suffering Jess knew actually was salvific, actually made him a better man, a better priest, a better friend and guide. But beyond all that, he was as wise as a Buddhist Master, as learn-ed as a medieval scholastic, as kind as a loving mother, as gentle as a spring breeze in Alexandria, Virginia. Jess was a mentor, friend and brother to all the seminarians who fell under his spell. I would have sailed the North Atlantic in February if he told me to. I would even go into Washington D.C. And sit on the steps of St. Paul's K Street for two hours and look every person who passed in the eyes if he told me to.
Actually, it was that last thing—sitting on K Street, making eye contact with every person who passed that he suggested to me that I do. “And when you look at them,” he instructed me, “say to yourself these words, 'that is the One Christ died for', and if you can, begin to believe it.”
It is astonishing to me that I have had eleven years of education beyond high school. Eleven years of study, four degrees, and I all of that, the most valuable and useful lesson I learned took place in a two hour span, sitting on some steps of a church on K Street in Washington, D. C. on a May afternoon when I looked hundreds of people in the eye—members of Congress perhaps, federal workers, lawyers and doctors, clerks and secretaries, an insurance agent, several police officers, military folks in uniform, a mail carrier, delivery people, students, children, street people, illegal aliens, drug dealers, a prostitute or two I imagine, people black and brown and white and Asian, people who worked in the embassies around the city, harried mothers, people cheating on their spouses, the unemployed, the elderly, the infirm, people on crutches and in wheel chairs, rich people and poor people, people with every hue of hair and curl and people with no hair at all, a veritable panoply of the wanderers on the earth that is the human race. And each one I saw, I told myself, “this is the one, the very one, for whom Christ died.” I said that so many times, with such hope that I would believe it, that I came to understand the deeper Truth Jess was teaching in his gentle, unassuming way—each face I saw was, in a way beyond all believing, a Face of God.
I owe so many people—many of whom I haven't mentioned—so much from those years at Harvard and VTS. So many to whom I owe so much. But none more probably or more profoundly than I owe Jess.
To this day, like it or not (and often I don't like it!) I cannot look another human being in the eye and not say “This is the One—the very One—for whom Christ died”. And, because I realized what the point of the exercise was, finally, I know each face I see is, without doubt, one of the myriad faces of God, Charlie's God and Jess' God.
Here was Jess' genius, his
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