Sunday, September 13, 2009

Long-haired, Freaky People Need Not Apply

Carl Jung calls it synchronicity. Sometimes defined as a ‘meaningful coincidence’; a confluence of events that draws one’s attention to an underlying truth or significance. I’d bristled briefly at the rather generous description of my home parish as an ‘impartial community’, eschewing discrimination, exclusion, judgment – of ‘those not like us’ – as the centre piece of our rector’s homily this past Sunday. Hopefully enough in tune with my own antennae twitches to identify the source of the ‘Oh really?’ reaction, I’d attributed it to a ‘well that may be a stretch’ conclusion. But that was before this week’s new and improved ad for this particular church in our small-town rag.

As web mistress for the parish, my wife had invested considerable energy this past week in dressing up a ‘60’s GM product (I’d see it as a heavily chromed, gas-guzzling, Buick or Cadillac) of a website, as a vehicle a little more contemporary, a little less ponderous, and something that ‘gets you where you want to go’ without all the attendant glitter and arriving today (versus, whenever the site would load up). A toss-in was the sub-header: ‘in the heart of Stratford’. I can assume in recognition for her efforts, this week’s announcement of Sunday services in the local newspaper borrowed (more or less) from the site’s new clothes with an invitation to join us at the Parish of St. James’ – the heart of Stratford.

A bit of history at this point. This particular church, populated by this particular congregation has often been, somewhat disdainfully viewed as the ‘church on the hill’ and ‘out of reach’ of the broader population of Stratford. Rather like a snobby club with particular standards of membership and a vetting process that sometimes suggests that ‘long-haired, freaky people need not apply’ (to paraphrase). Rightly or wrongly in its take on the parish, the effort has been expended from within over the years to soften this reputation, to have it seen as more accessible and more (boy, I struggle with this word) welcoming, and less ‘exclusive’.

Like most things Freudian, the slip’s the thing. Drop a preposition and (I hope not, but) the underlying reality starts to surface.

But I’m getting ahead. The other bit of scary data arrived in my email early this Sunday morning. As a newly minted lay reader (and Anglican, for that matter), I was on tap for the BCP at 9:00. Lifers might recognize 1st Corinthians 1 as one of Paul’s little castigations against arrogance, self-satisfaction, celebration of human ‘excellence’ – in favour of humility and such like. Cautioned to be fully familiarized with the ‘unpronouncables’ (those tongue twisters of names and places) and caught substantially off guard a few months back with what passes for biblical porn (an account of David’s vile behaviour and lust; not to mention Bathsheba’s having recently endured ‘that time of the month’) – all because I hadn’t previewed the reading, I scanned this one pretty carefully for hidden potholes. I stopped mid-bagel.

The self-same theme leapt off the page: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . .” and so forth. Let me see, how does that inclusiveness dance go again. Sounds unsettlingly like us and them to me, if that’s not too many pronouns in one sentence – but we are trying to be inclusive!

My wife argued eloquently that the passage required a metaphoric reading; and that Greeks and their ilk were merely symbols of folks of the time that hadn’t yet got it. That this was not a barefaced identification of an in-crowd, and that if you’re not with us, you’re agin’ us. Unfortunately not sufficiently eloquently to allow me to stand at a lectern and voice the substantive opposite of an issue that I feel is at the root of the jaundiced eye that’s turned toward organized religion and perhaps Christianity in particular by the hoards that are departing for less fundamental shores.

Dress it up anyway you want. Statements given the weight of a ‘reading of the word’ can and will be heard by a huge majority of folk in the pews as a literal truth. Endorsement of an attitude that continues to segregate, differentiate, discriminate; to validate a belief that ‘we’ve got the inside track’ to wherever. It’s just too appealing to be soothed with the balm of ‘you’ve got it right’ – and everybody else doesn’t – to question the inherent contradiction that presents when one moves forty feet across the chancel from lectern to pulpit and (literally) speaks out of the other side of one’s mouth. Over there, we’re judgmental, exclusive, partial; over here we’re welcoming, inclusive, impartial. Sorry, doesn’t work for me.

When we start to understand that there are any number of ways of skinning the spiritual cat; that those that don’t drink at the same trough are not just Greeks and Jews in waiting for the only true path to someplace; and that living Buddha might just be hyping the same stitch as living Christ – maybe we can get on. Until then, the old label of hypocrisy is as well-fitting a shoe as inclusiveness. When we can describe ourselves as being in the heart of Stratford – and not the heart of Stratford, typo, oversight, or no – maybe we can get on.

David Howard

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