It seems meet and right to add my voice to the chorus of Episcopal clergy reflecting on the events of this week. While this week has been a whirlwind of emotions and images, I want to center my reflection on two particular images: one the whole world has seen and one that is perhaps not as well known but is just as important for The Episcopal Church.
Image OneEmbed from Getty Images
So why did the President cross the road?
The immediate answer–which set fire to the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram feeds of social justice Episcopalians across the country–was that President Trump used violence to clear the street of protestors and clergy so that he could have his picture made while holding a Bible in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church that had been damaged the night before.
This publicity stunt was, in my opinion, rightly and swiftly denounced by Bishop Mariann Budde, Diocese of Washington DC. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also entered the conversation with a statement, finding that President Trump’s actions “used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
Like every good punchline, this one works on multiple levels. There is plenty of outrage to be found on the surface of what happened–violently removing peaceful protestors, waving a Bible around for a photo, and blocking clergy from the church the next day–but I think the real message for The Episcopal Church requires us to look at the deeper meaning.
Moments after President Trump declared himself the “president of law and order” he marched across the street to visit a damaged church, but more importantly to visit the “Church of the Presidents.” He went to have his photo taken in front of the church that every president since James Madison has attended, where several were communicants, and where Pew 54 is known as the “President’s Pew.”
Bishop Budde on CNN stated, “What I am here to talk about is the abuse of sacred symbols for the people of faith in this country to justify language, rhetoric, an approach to this crisis that is antithetical to everything we stand for.”
That is the tricky part. The Episcopal Church shares its creation myth with the United States. The two histories are often intertwined in Confirmation classes without much critical reflection, and often with pride.
As much as it hurts me to say, I am not so sure that we can so easily declare that what President Trump did is antithetical to everything we stand for until we have done the work of examining and untangling our own complicated relationship to American power. While President Trump is an extreme example, injustice and abuse of power are engrained in the American system.
There are certainly powerful voices and people within our church doing mighty and holy work to move us towards who we want to be. I hope that The Episcopal Church does not leave this moment too quickly. We need to examine what it means that one of our churches is the “Church of the Presidents.” I hope that we take time to examine what it means to accept our role in the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. I hope we look critically at our role in this country and our relationship to those in power that have created, perpetuated, and are currently violently defending a system that is based on racism, violence, greed, and oppression.
And all this leads to the second image . . .
On June 3, Bishop Mariann Budde and other Episcopal clergy intended to hold a prayer vigil at St. John’s, but access to the church was cut off. This forced the planned vigil into the streets. And that is where things seemed to not go so well.
As Bishop Budde and other faith leaders entered the crowd, the attention shifted from the protestors to the clergy. This shift in focus was not received well by the protestors. In response to this challenge, Bishop Budde sat down and a conversation began. For The Episcopal Church, this image of Bishop Budde seated may be more important than the one of the President.
I have no doubt that Bishop Budde and the other clergy had the best of intentions. I have no doubt that had the vigil been held on the crowds of St. John’s it would have been a moment of beautiful, meaningful liturgy captured by media outlets, and largely meaningless to the crowds of protestors in the streets.
The Episcopal Church, the second whitest church in America, has undertaken the holy work of examining our role as a church in the sin of racism and slavery. We have clergy and laypeople that are doing holy work to bring God’s justice to the world and the Church. But yet we still are still the church of the Presidents, yes, even this president.
When the institutional church was pushed into the streets, it was unprepared. It arrived with all of the privilege of the institutional church, prepared to offer prophetic words, and was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of prophets already speaking.
So where do we go from here?
This is not a time for the church to stay in the pews. We need to be in the streets and in the world. At times we may be invited to speak and to lead. Even if we are not invited into leadership, the church needs to be there to listen and to learn. As we leave the anesthetizing security of our stained glass windows, we should all carry the image of a bishop of The Episcopal Church seated on a street curb listening to contemporary prophets.
I hope that we as a church are not too quick to reduce this moment down to liturgies of repentance and reconciliation. We need to hear and experience the pain of the world around us, and let those voices give us words to pray.
I hope that we realize our enmeshment with American power, historically and at present. I hope that we work to change the American system, while we untangle ourselves.
I hope we do not smooth this all over by comforting ourselves with the words of our Baptismal Covenant:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will with God’s help.
I love these words. I have preached these words. But I also know that we fall back on these words when we feel powerless against injustice.
Maybe in this current season, we should find power in another part of our Baptismal Covenant. As we figure out the role of The Episcopal Church in the present moment, we should go back to the beginning:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.