I've 'supervised' (so to speak) 20 people preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church. All of them, except the first and last one, are now priests. Ellen--E (who became a well-known novelist), the first seminarian I worked with, was ordained a Deacon in the church, but then, as a protest of sorts because of her fierce commitment to social justice, refused to become a priest. The last one, Frank, is still in the process and will be ordained in a year or so, I pray. He will be a wonderful priest, though he has run into some difficulty—a side effect of the ordination process that badly needs fixing. But don't let me get started on that....
Eighteen priests, a deacon and a priest in waiting, have worked with me over the years. I've gotten to preach at a half-dozen ordinations and have followed the lives of many of them to this day. Thinking about that is similar to thinking about the hundreds of funerals, weddings and baptisms I've been a part of in my 35 years as a priest. It is something that I have only started to ponder since retiring some nine months ago at 63. What a privilege and honor it has been to touch so many people in some way during my being a priest. And, in the case of the seminarians, having touched second-hand all the people they have touched in their ordained ministry. It takes my breath away and humbles me mightily.
I've always sought to be a 'boss' in a counter-cultural way. I've tried to surround myself with people smarter and more talented than I am and then give them their head to do what they do. The only agreement I've had, at least for the last 25 years, with people who work 'for' me, is this: They can have the applause for their accomplishments and I will take any grief for when things go wrong. The buck has always stopped with me. I am constitutionally and genetically designed to be able to accept criticism gracefully and, in many cases, use it to make things better. I have somehow developed the ability to 'roll with the punches' and not take them personally. I wish I could take credit for that stand, but the truth is, it is just the way I am. (One caveat, this ability does not extend to my immediate family—like most everyone, I imagine, my daughter or son or wife can cut me to the quick with a critical word.) And, it seems to me at any rate, that's the way it should be. The person in charge should take the blunt of any attack and let their employees 'shine' when things go well. And, it also appears to me, that strategy results in lots more 'shining' than 'whining'. Just me talkin....
The metaphor I've used over the years with people who, technically, at any rate, “work for me” is that of Crabbing Buddies.
Here's how that goes: over 35 years ago, I learned how to catch blue crab in little inlets of North Carolina. There is simply no way to explain how to do it in words, it is fraught with too many quirks and nooks and crannies. The only way to learn to crab is to put your feet in the water and learn from someone who knows how to do it. Crabbing involves a lot of variables.
In the first place, there is the bait. I recommend chicken backs, either ones you get from the butcher or carve out of a chicken yourself. The first thing you do is tie some twine around the chicken back and lay it out on a banister in the sun for a day or two. You need to get it really rotting. You tie it with twine first because you won't want to touch it with your fingers after the morbidity sets in. When the chicken is ripe, you slide a sinker down the twine and tie it off about three inches above the stinky chicken. Do two or more backs at a time, especially if you're being someone's crabbing buddy. Everyone needs bait.
You need a net on a pole about four feet long and a cooler or two full of ice covering at least two six packs of beer—I'd recommend three six packs. You can always run to the convenience store to get more. It depends on how many people are expecting a meal from your crabbing. Six crabs barely feed a person. Eight each is better. And you get to drink a beer only when you catch a crab. I recommend cans rather than bottles since you don't want to be bothered with a bottle opener. Then put the bait on top of the ice and either walk or drive to an inlet. You need to get there as the tide it turning. The crabs float with the tide and you want them moving. I've always thought that the tide turning to high is better than the tide turning to low. But the point is, have the tide turning.
You need to wear old sneakers since you'll never want to wear them again. You need sun block at the maximum strength allowed by law and a hat that shields your face from the sun. Also, the brim of the hat lets you look into the water to seek the crabs. Sun glasses too, the ones that cut glare so you can actually peer into the water about a foot.
You throw the rotten chicken out as far as your line allows...four feet of line would be enough in most cases. Then you hold the twine and try to distinguish between the pull of the tide and the bite of a crab. There is no way to know the difference without doing it for an hour or so and feeling foolish pulling in the twine when it is just water moving the bait. Eventually, through trial and error, you begin to get the sense in your fingers of what is tide and what is crab.
When you have that sense and feel a crab feeding, you have to start pulling in, slowly enough to let the creature keep eating and fast enough to get it into water shallow enough to net it. It is more poetry than prose, more intuition than knowledge, more 'touch' than 'knowing'. It takes a while to get your finger tips to react in a consistent and accurate way to the feel of a crab feeding. But once you get it, you know it always. Much like the 'balance' of riding a bicycle. Once you find it, you have it. You never forget how to ride a bike or how to know it is a crab on your line.
Patience is then required. You have to keep the tension, which isn't difficult since crabs are ferocious feeders. But if you pull in too fast or lean too far over the water so the crab's stilted eyes see your shadow, then the crab will back away. If that happens, you wait. They are greedy creatures and might just come back to the food if you are patient enough.
There is a whole other set of skills needed to net the crab you've tempted in far enough to see. They move backwards, mostly, so you have to come from far behind them because once the net hits the water they are in 'escape mode' and coming straight down will give you a net full of rotten chicken. Again, it is a matter of 'touch' and instinct, not knowledge and knowing. So, the only way to learn to do this—to crab successfully, is to be calf deep in water with someone who already knows how. And you have to be willing to be sun-burned, in spite of all your precautions, and have your ankles bitten by baby shrimp—yes, Virginia, shrimp can bite—and have three things...patience, patience and patience...and three skills...intuition, balance and 'touch'. That and only that will fill the coolers with crab as the beer is pulled from beneath the ice (always bring a bag for the cans, be environmentally responsible, after all). And, when you put a new blue crab into the cooler and dig down for a beer, remember this, people smarter and more skilled than you have been pinched by a crab claw. Just part of the learning....
So that is how I supervised all those wondrous people. I invited them into the water with me. I showed them, initially, how to do certain things and then I invited them to throw the chicken out, feel for the crab bite, learn to pull it in—not too fast, not to slow—take the net and see if they could do it. Always, I asked them to bring emotional sun block, intellectual sun-glasses and some old clothes. And I also told them what was best for shrimp bits—witchhazel and then baking powder.
Lots of work, sunburn, sweat and too many beers. But the feast is worth it. Nothing like boiled blue crab, poured out on the Charlotte Observer with corn from a road side stand, boiled shrimp from the same stand, lots of butter and beer or really cold white wine. Nothing like that at all.
Parish ministry can be that fulfilling, that wonderful that tasty. It really can be, if you're willing to ruin your sneakers and tend to the shrimp bites—metaphorical, of course. I never imagined I was “supervising” these remarkable young people. I was just trying to keep up. It's like the story of a man riding his horse through a town as fast as he could. “Those are my soldiers up ahead,” he said. “I am their leader and must catch up.”
Some of my relationships remain over time. I got a call years ago when Bern and I owned a house on Oak Island, NC. The gentleman introduced himself as Casper Higgenbottom, or something as unlikely. He told me he was a Fire Marshall serving Brunswick County. He asked if I were the owner of a house on Dolphin Lane. I told him I was, beginning to feel a bit uneasy.
“Well, Mr. Bradley, the damage can be repaired,” he said.
“Damage?” I said, my heart sinking, “what damage?”
“A gas line exploded near your house and scorched the who east wall,” he told me, “but there is good news....”
“What could be good about that?” I asked, sorrowing.
“Well the burn marks look like a profile of our blessed Lord Jesus,” he said, “and several people are interested in buying the property from you or you could use it as a tourist attraction. Lots of Christians in this area....”
After a long pause, I said, “who is this really?”
It was K., one of the first seminarians that worked with me in New Haven. He was in a church in North Carolina and was going to rent a house during July on Topsail Island and wondered if we'd be down that month. We saw K. and his family that summer and a couple of summers afterward until he got a job in another diocese.
B. was a young man from the upper Mid-West who worked with me and K. It is always exciting to have more than one seminarian around. It creates a usually friendly competition and they have someone to complain about me with! Plus, many hands make light work and I have found over the years that seminarians accomplish a great deal of parish ministry in their 10-12 hours a week during the academic year. Besides, one of the joys of having seminarians around is that they see with 'fresh eyes' and usually have bold and innovative theologies. It always kept me on my toes to engage seminarians in conversation about 'what they would do' if they were me and about the 'theological context' of practically anything. Many priests, it seems to me, get bogged down in the 'doing' of ministry and don't attend to staying reflective theologically. That's impossible with seminarians around.
B. was a talented man. More serious and less skeptical than K. They balanced each other well and did a great deal of good work at St. Paul's. St. Paul's was known as, perhaps, 'the most liberal parish in the diocese'. I'm not sure it was, but it was a haven for political and theological liberals. The parish itself did good outreach but, except for one of two activists, most of the dedicated liberals who came there wanted rest from their labors. They were doing the progressive work of God in their lives in many different settings. St. Paul's was a haven for them. A place to take a deep breath and be cared for just as they cared for those they served as teachers, social workers, labor union leaders, medical practitioners and workers in the vineyard of the world's pain and injustice. I've always fretted over the “gas station” image of a parish church—a place to get 'filled up' for the week ahead, for real life. But it is clear to me, looking back, that people who live in 'the real world' need refreshment and nurturing. All churches should seek to do that. Some parishes need to make it a primary ministry.
Anyway, back to B. I preached at his wedding down in Pennsylvania. His bride's parish was in a tony, upper-class suburban community. Her family's Rector did the service and I did the sermon. He was one of what I've always called 'catalog priests'--the kind if you saw their picture flipping through a catalog you would say, “oh, let's get that one!” Tall and intellectual and kind and a charming kind of shy—he was (he was, I thought, talking with him and B. in the back yard of the Rectory because the bride's limo had been delayed by an accident on the Interstate) destined for bigger things. So call me a minor prophet—the priest was later Bishop of Chicago and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church!
So B. was ordained—I was one of his presentors—and he took a job in Connecticut so I would see him at clergy gatherings. Once, a couple of years later, I called him up to get his help on some issue or another—probably having to do with gay folks in some way—and there was a long pause after I told him what I wanted.
“B,” I said. “Are you there?”
“Jim,” he responded, “I'm just not as liberal as you are on these issues....”
I came to find out over the next few years that B and I were on opposite sides of most issues that came before the church. It was truly a revelation to me. For one thing, I must not have listened very well to him in our many conversations. He never hid his opinions, so far as I could remember, but my 'blind side' is that I always think of myself as the 'norm'...from which there is no deviation. This had bitten me many times over the years, thinking whoever I'm talking with must be in agreement with my obviously correct and passionately held opinions. Over and again I've been shown the untruth in my belief, but I continue to make the assumption that everyone supports what I support. Someone once told me when I gave them my “I'm the Norm” explanation that it was curiously naïve of me and not a little charming. Charming or not, I always feel like an idiot. B's final lesson to me was that you don't have to agree with someone to love them and to work with them. That's a lesson I wish I could learn more thoroughly. It's also a lesson that Orthodox Christians and Progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, even Democrats and Republicans could learn, much to the benefit of all.
W was a seminarian for two years at St. John's. I got in trouble with the bishop (not the same one) during her ordination sermon. At the very beginning, instead of the usual “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I said, “In the Name of Yahweh, Jesus and Sophia”. I think I may have told this story earlier, but I'm not sure I said that it was a woman, I am told, who objected and told the bishop, who inhibited me from saying such a thing.
W was a slightly more mature woman, not straight from college to seminary. She was from the spiritual tradition of the Society of Friends when she got bit by the Liturgy bug and became an Episcopalian. I'm not sure we Anglicans understand how powerful the liturgical practice can be to people of a certain makeup. I just read a review the other book The Accidental Anglican which, apparently, chronicles the journey of a fundamentalist Christian to the Episcopal Church. It was the Liturgy that got him, though our theology still is problematic. The message to all us Episcopalians is clear--”it's the Liturgy, stupid!”
Anyhow, W, who was a candidate from Connecticut, a member of the Cathedral congregation in Hartford, was having problems getting through the ordination process. (Don't get me started on that...I've warned you....) She was a good preacher, a superb pastor, an accomplished teacher and liturgist, plus she had a 'support group' who loved her and were devoted to her. Most seminarians didn't trouble much with their support group—which they selected and led—but W was deeply committed to learning all she could from lay folks (much better teachers in priest-craft than priests or seminary professors, by the way) and made the most of her group. They even had a name for themselves—'The W Pack'--and taught her much more than I ever could have about how to be a priest.
The complaint of the committee blocking her ordination was that she didn't have a full-blown “Anglican Spirituality”, which, as far as I can remember, had something to do with her admitting she didn't say Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book each day. Well, that ticked me off no end. Against W's wishes, I demanded a meeting with the bishop and the committee. It was a painful time. They were somehow, it seems to me, suspicious of a Quaker/Episcopalian. Hell, I'm a Pilgrim Holiness/Methodist/ Episcopalian. What could be more suspect that that. What frustrated me was that I knew her best of all and knew what a priest she would be and how badly the church needed priests like her and no one would listen to me.
(I've taken an informal poll of priests I've known, asking them if they were not an Episcopalian, what would they be. Over half have said 'a Quaker”. The two forms of piety seem to complete each other—the deep silence and lovely liturgy seem meant for each other. And you couldn't find a more sane way of making decisions. When the whole gay inclusion question came into the forefront, the Quakers, as I understand it, adjourned their national convention and spent the year in discernment and prayer. At the end of the year they simply accepted GLBT folks as fully part of the Society. Episcopalians have been fighting and splitting over the question for well over a decade. I can't imagine why the Episcopal Church shouldn't be more than delighted to have Friends come to join us, bringing their spirituality with them.)
So, in spite of my intervention (or, perhaps, because of it} her ordination was delayed for a year. Alas and alack. It seemed to snap something in her. I don't know, I just may be imagining that, but she hasn't had the success in the church I thought she would and which she richly deserved. The Process somehow 'broke' her. Literally, since she had no job for the year she had to wait for ordination...and, more profoundly, emotionally and spiritually in some way. It was one of the many cases I've seen where the church as “Institution” overruled the church as “Community” and did damage.
But she soldiers on to this day. I hear from her from time to time and she is still committed to her ministry, her priesthood, as much 'in spite of' the church as 'for it'. God bless her. God bless them all. They deserve it. Really. Good people, trust me on this—good people.
Little M was a gift to me. She grew up and will spend her priesthood in churches that are suburban, mostly affluent and traditional. And, when she was in seminary, a commuter student after her children were almost grown, she made a defining choice to come to St. John's, a funky, profoundly diverse, urban parish. She needed to experience it, that's what she told me when I interviewed her. Such a place would not be her fate or her passion, but she truly believed she should experience it and learn from it. And she did, just as I learned from her.
M is almost terminally 'perky', still is in her role as a Rector of a suburban parish outside the See-city of Hartford. She is 'feisty', I would say. A priest friend of her asked me, early on in M's time at St. John's, “how's it going with M?”
Being inappropriate in most ways, I mistakenly said, “we'll crack her open yet...”
Well, her friend told her what I said and so much of the year she spend with us 'in the City', M was trying to resist being 'cracked open'. I didn't really mean it in a negative way. I merely meant, and should have said, “we'll give her an experience she won't forget.”
She was another of the seminarians I presented for ordination in a Fairfield County parish that reeked of money and influence. The kind of place I feel a little too hill-billy and tongue-tied to be in comfortably. For her ordination, I gave her, as is my tradition, something that was mine. I gave her a large print of Christ/Sophia. It depicts a beautiful, dusky skinned woman, wrapped in a red garment with long black hair and a nose ring, holding a wooden carving of the Earth Goddess. It is an edgy kind of icon, full of paradox and challenges. St. Paul called Jesus “the Wisdom of God”, or, in Greek, “the Sophia of God.” Sophia has been associated over the centuries, with both the second and third persons of the Trinity. So, that's what I gave her, 'little M', the proper suburban woman, always well groomed and dressed byTalbots.
A few years later, I called her because I wanted to borrow the print for a retreat I was leading. She told me to come down and get it. I suspected she would have to go get it in her attic, but when I arrived, the picture was hanging prominently on the wall of her office in this well-heeled parish. I was surprised and told her so.
“I put it here so people will ask about it,” she told me. “And they do. Many find it troubling, but that's not a bad thing. Being 'troubled' teaches us something.”
She smiled at my look of surprise.
“Then I tell them about St. John's and the life and ministry of a place so different from this,” she told me. “That too teaches us something.”
Just as B taught me you don't have to agree about issues to be loving and kind and accepting of each other, 'little M' taught me what I already knew and often forgot, which made it a doubly special teaching.
'Folks are just folks' in the end.
We live in different cultures, different contexts, but in the end, 'folks are just folks' and we theologically trained people should know that, really know it, appreciate it and ponder it and figure out how to make it work.
'Little M', I believe, has figured all that out. She spends her life and ministry in a context and culture I've never known, and in that space, she creates the Truth that 'folks are just folks' for the folks she ministers to.
God bless her, like all the others.
E was the first person I 'supervised'. She was a seminarian from West Virginia who, at the end of her second year of study, was required to spend the summer working somewhere in West Virginia. Since she wanted to minister 'on the margins', coming to an African-American parish in an overwhelmingly white diocese made sense. She also wanted to be near Charleston both because her spiritual mentor—the Rector of St. John's, the big church downtown—was there but also because of her passionately felt need to do advocacy work. E is the only person I ever worked with that made me feel 'conservative'! Her theology was expansive, liberationist and activist. She went far further into social action than I ever did, though many would consider me a model of 'the activist priest' from Paul Simon's Me and Julio, down by the School Yard. E's particular zeal was for saving the mountains from the greed of the coal industry.
There had always been strip mines, though the massive scale of mountain top removal of today would have never been imagined. E grew up, as I did, in McDowell County, a part of the world sitting on the largest bituminous coal deposits in the U.S.
(The Rector of St. John's, amazed by E's brilliance, devotion and passion, once said to me, “Jim, can you believe someone like E actually comes from McDowell County?” It was one of those 'what good can come from Nazareth?' statements people who didn't grow up in Appalachia often made. I wanted to shake him and say, “who do you think we are down there, some lesser species of humankind?” Instead, I nodded. “Amazing,” I replied. There's really no point trying to convince people that places like McDowell County are really like all the other rural places around the country. Coal miners are seen as somehow constitutionally inferior—witness the way companies like Massey Energy kill them for their sport...or rather, their profits....)
E and I grew up quite close to each other, in fact. Our parents knew each other. My father had worked in the mines before WWII and E's father was a mine boss of some kind. We both had seen with our own eyes the wanton destruction of some of the most beautiful places on earth. People who find out I'm from West Virginia will often tell me about driving through it on the way to someplace else. And they always comment on the beauty—and the emptiness—of the state. (West Virginia is the size of all of New England, excluding Maine, and has less than 1.5 million citizens. It is a very large, mostly empty place.) And, it is jarringly beautiful. It was a remarkable and humbling privilege to grow up surrounded by the mountains that reached down to the core of life of the planet and up to the vast expanses above. There is something holy about mountains (not a surprise to almost all Faiths since holy places are often on mountain tops).
Strip mining, as it was called in my youth, and what is called 'surface mining' today, abuses, ignores, desecrates all that is subsumed it the Holiness of Mountains. Now, as an old retired guy, I finally resonate with E's outrage and passion and anger. I finally get what drove her, motivated her and consumed her, body and soul.
Here was E's Achilles's heal when I knew her—she was in mortal battle with not only the 'only' real industry of West Virginia but with many of the leaders of the Diocese. I remember being at a Diocesan Convention Banquet and seeing E outside, picketing the event because several coal owners would be there. Her mentor and I talked to her and tried to convince her to come in and eat with the sinners, but she was adamant and disappointed at us for going inside.
“Do you think we should stay outside with her?” I remember asking K, her mentor.
“Let's see what's on the menu,” he said, “then we'll decide.”
E and K were both to the left of me which meant they were on the left wing so far over they might just fall off. But E's purity was not ours. We ate with sinners as she stood outside and protested. “How far to go?” is always the question for those who seek social justice. I think perhaps K and I were missing E's point. Perhaps there is no such thing as 'going to far' in issues of justice. I wrestle with that Angel and ponder the possibility that E tried to teach me what I did not learn.
When there was a movement to keep her from being ordained to the priesthood, K and I pulled in whatever chips we had and got her approved. And E refused the ritual! It mattered not what her two Defenders risked and bargained away in her behalf. She had a shining, diamond hard and rainbow pure 'cause'. She would not be ordained into a church that harbored and supported those who destroyed mountains. After all these years, I'm not sure, but she might have been right. Or, at least Righteous, which is what we are all called to be.
(“Righteousness”, by the way, is not a measure of moral purity in any sense. Abraham was 'reckoned righteous' by God, not by virtue of his 'virtue', but because he entered into a 'relationship' with God. Being Righteous is to be in a 'right relationship' with God. It is a term of 'relationship' not behavior. So many Christians have that so, so wrong. When you are 'in relationship' with someone, even God, then you know each others quirks and faults and brokenness, yet you Love each other. Am I making any sense here? I worship a God of 'relationship', not a God of Law and Judgment. I pray you do as well. And I really believe, with the perspective of decades, that E had a 'relationship' with the God who created the mountains that I did not have and will never have., She was “righteous' in that sense instead of the way we saw her and judged her—a radical with an agenda. E held the hand of the Creator and knew the Wonder of God's ways. I really believe that. Righteousness never leads to good endings, but knowing you will be abandoned by even your closest friends while you hold the hand of the Almighty...well, I know why she stayed away from that banquet that night and refused ordination to the priesthood when it was an open offer to her. Sometimes you meet people who walk backwards and speak gibberish and yet are, in the end, Righteous. Sometimes that happens. It just does. Notice that and ponder it.)
E, I recently found out, now participates in the church in and around Charleston. She's also become a author of historic novels, a couple of which I've read. She even teaches at West Virginia State. It's comforting to know she's there, involved I'm sure in making life unpleasant for the coal companies—especially after the horrifying accident of last year. The problem is, as noble as people like E are, the ones they seek to advocate for—the miners and their families—depend on the coal companies for their livelihood. It's a difficult thing to speak up for those who don't want to be spoken up for, fearing loss of their jobs. But if anyone is up to that kind of quandry, it is E....God bless her....
That's enough for now. I'll return to the seminarians later and tell you a bit more about some of them and the gifts they gave me. Just reflecting on them, remembering them and pondering all that they taught me has brought me that complex and ironic emotion that merges together pride, gratefulness and humility. Not a bad emotion to hang around with for a while.