Thursday, June 19, 2014

Toward a Hermeneutic of Abundance: A queer response to discourses of parochial scarcity in the Episcopal Church

Eastertide in the Western Church has come and gone. The shift of liturgical season seemed remarkably quick this year, as each Eastertide seems to get shorter and shorter as the years go by.  My liturgical plate during Holy Week was unusually full this year, as was requisite of my duties at Christ Church in Cambridge, MA, and each liturgy leading-up-to and during the Triduum seemed to guide me through the mysteries of our faith in a new way. And here we stand, on the other side of the cross—liturgically, at least.

Yet, I have a secret to share with you: I find myself still standing in that one place we live our entire lives of Christians—within the unsettled fear and doubt of Holy Saturday—and for reasons that may not seem typically discernable. 

Detail of "Church for Sale" by Ed Kohler
Some Rights Reserved. Used under Creative Commons License
This afternoon after church I had the pleasure of serving on an inquirer’s discernment committee under the auspices of the Diocese of Connecticut. Today was our final meeting, so we addressed issues I have, in my own thinking, ignored or tried to ignore; issues that diocesan discernment materials make quite plain, namely the future of the Episcopal Church. I was confronted, due to the language of the diocesan materials, with the reality that the church is getting ready for a number of involuntary changes, the shapes of which are not yet apparent. As numbers seem to dwindle in certain parts of various Provinces, fundamental questions are being asked about what it means to "do" church, and what that could look like in an era that may have significantly fewer parishes. 

Now, I am in no way attempting to tout the falling numbers line that many critics of the Episcopal Church seem to relish. I don’t actually know what these numbers look like, so I am unwilling to make predictions about the future of our tradition. Diocesan discernment materials, however, both in my own diocese and elsewhere, make it clear that the extant parish model is causing significant doubts within diocesan leadership, doubts that are, therefore, all over the ethos of such discernment materials. 

While the discussion we had on this issue was fruitful, prayerful, and eye-opening, the only thought ringing through my mind as I left was "you poor walking anachronism; why couldn’t I have been born a decade earlier?"

The discussion unsettled me in that it asked all of us to asses our vocational goals, and it forced me to really think about what those goals might look like. Yet, not only did our conversation cause me deep distress about the future of my ecclesial vocations—as both a musician and one considering ordination—it struck me in a such a manner so as to remind me of the fears I encountered as I came of age during the recent economic crisis. 

The moment I left home and began my undergraduate studies, the economic situation took its tragic downward spin. Everywhere I looked, whether within the academy, the musical community, or as I searched for part-time work, the ethos was the same, saturated by a gloomy hermeneutic of scarcity. I must admit, even within my own place of privilege as a white male student, this gloom wounded me terribly; to this day I continue to suffer moments of the same absolute terror I experienced nine years ago. This terror has come to figuratively re-closet me—it forces me to keep my hopes and dreams held close, though without the confidence or means to pursue them, lest I lose them forever in the murky seas of scarcity. 

Now, after having discovered something precious and, dare I say, fragile, I fear for its continued existence. When I was seventeen I fell in love with the idea of the liturgy; when I was twenty I began to practice it as a musician at the Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle—it was then that I fell in love with the liturgy itself. It was the liturgy, particularly manifest in celebrations of the Eucharist (celebrations of total abundance in the midst of scarcity) that made Christian theology begin to make sense. The life of the liturgical church transformed Christianity (which I had for years disliked just short of total abhorrence) into a real, truthful, salvific orientation. In that space, in that community, both sonically, physically, and cross-temporally, the Incarnation became something I sought to see in the world around me. Without the liturgy, in liturgical space, and within a tradition that called me into its vast historicity and kaironic community, it becomes more difficult to seek the face of the Risen Lord in the world outside that space. Its very queerness set it apart from everything else in the world around me, and it provided an antithesis to the broader ethos of scarcity. 

While I respect and understand the need to explore what it means to "do" church without the structures we are used to, without sacred buildings, without our Anglican legacy of musical transformation, without choirs, and, dare I say, without full-time clergy (a matter to which many of the newer discernment materials point), I worry that a hermeneutic of scarcity is the only thing propelling us to navigate these ideas. I find it an incredible opportunity to think about what our baptism is really about, yet I find there the same hermeneutic of scarcity which was omnipresent when I came of age. Now, it threatens to engulf that very thing which I love the most—the one thing in the world that makes sense to me as a queer man. 

We—members of the LGBTQ body— have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice much for our place within the Church. As our stories become stronger threads in the tapestry of the Christian narrative, welcomed into the life as fully-recognized members of the Body of Christ, we need to ensure that what we're fighting for survives. We have managed to begin a re-acknowledgement of our tradition's queerness by the virtue of our presence and by the virtue of what Christianity stands for. We fought for a place to worship; now, will we let this uniquely queer space continue to exist? 

While the situation is doubtless different from diocese to diocese, we should begin to ask ourselves what the role our renewed presence within the ecclesial body might look like. While the narratives of scarcity seem to take over, we, as LGBTQ communities of faith, should steadfastly resist them, resounding the Eucharistic hermeneutic of abundance as we continue our work within and outside of the Church itself. We fought (and continue to fight) for a home that was always our home, even if not always dogmatically. Let us make sure the home for which we fought continues to stand—to ensure that our unique, queer, liturgical abundance continues to speak.

Sean R. Glenn Integrity's Diocesan Organizer for Massachusetts. He is a composer and conductor of sacred choral music, and holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Boston University and a Master of Arts in Music from the Aaron Copland School at Queens College. His home on the web is


Bart Bartosh said...

Excellent post, Sean.

Bart (and Tony!)
in El Camino Real diocese

Christian Paolino said...

Agreed, very well-said. Those of us in places where being welcomed can (almost) be taken for granted need to give thanks for the gifts we have received and been given, by working and praying ceaselessly for those (some of them quite close to home) who are not so fortunate. The signs and symbols of welcome must be kept visible and current. The queer high school kids of today weren't alive yet when we started this march, and -- unless we're doing everything we can to tell them about it -- they may never know the unconditional love of God we have been lucky enough to discover.