Sunday, January 11, 2015

The "right question" about Bishop Cook and alcohol

I always try to look for the right question.

The right question can lead us down incredible paths of discovery.

The right question can be the first step in breaking decades-long cycles of dysfunction.

The right question can get us into all sorts of trouble … trouble we both fear and desperately need.

The right question is everything.

Since Maryland Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook tragically killed cyclist Thomas Palermo while driving with a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit, all sorts of questions have been asked.

There have been questions about Bishop Cook and her judgment and whether or not she is an alcoholic.

There have been questions about the bishop election process in Maryland and what information should have been disclosed to the electing convention.

There have even been theological questions about the nature of sin and forgiveness.

I have seen countless articles and Facebook posts since that terrible afternoon asking all sorts of questions … good and valid questions. But I have yet to see what I believe is the “right question” … the question I tremble to ask. The question that convicts us all - myself included.

What does this say about us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. Not because I know Bishop Cook – I’ve never met her. But because I know my Episcopal Church.

I know that my own Diocese of Missouri had an active alcoholic as a bishop when I first arrived here as a college student in 1986. His name is Bill Jones. I know there was an intervention done at the end of his tenure and that he lives now in courageous long-term recovery but that our diocese has never truly addressed his alcoholism – or the systems of dysfunction that led us to call him, sustained him and did not magically disappear when he left office.

I know that our own Christ Church Cathedral was serving alcohol at Chapter meetings when I arrived here. I know that consumption of alcohol was a central part not just of Cathedral social events but committee meetings. I also know that when we brought Dale Kuhn from Care and Counseling in to do two sessions with the Chapter and two more with the congregation on the topic of addiction and family systems, there was a great deal of pushback and some people left the congregation.

I know that until we named the power of addiction and family systems head on, the three hallmarks of an alcoholic family system – don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – eerily described a Cathedral congregation that even today still struggles with communications and trust issues and where feelings were often expressed in unpredictable, triangulating and inappropriate ways.

I know that any progress we have made has been from naming our dysfunction and by embracing alternate and healthier ways of being. I also know that we still have a long way to go.

I know that a year ago, I helped preside at the funeral of my friend, the Rev. Doug Nissing. Doug was a brilliant and charismatic priest. He was a loving partner to his husband, Dan. He died at age 52 --literally drinking himself to death. (Hear the Rev. Susie Skinner's excellent truth-telling sermon at his funeral here.)

I know that my experience of General Convention in 2000, 2003 and 2006 was that I had never seen so much alcohol consumed outside of a fraternity house in my life – and that I participated in that consumption. That is was easy to participate. That it was expected to participate. That it was unthinkable to me not to.

I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. If I'm honest, the question I ask myself isn't "how could this happen" but rather "how has this not happened more?" Or maybe even, "how many times has this happened that we don't know about?"

Systems exist to perpetuate themselves. It is a natural part of how human beings function in community. In an alcoholic family system, there is often one “active” alcoholic who is the focal point for the dysfunction … but everyone in the system participates in it and has a role in sustaining it.

When the alcoholic is discovered – perhaps through a tragic event like this – the temptation is to make her the “identified patient.” It's not about us. It's about Heather. It's about Bill. It's about Doug. Their own obvious culpability makes it easy for the rest of us to say that they are outliers  … they are the problem … and not ask the hard but right question. Not ask the question that makes us tremble. Not ask the question that convicts us all.

The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

What does this say about us?

What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus' grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus' saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question -- no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.

There are many questions that Bishop Cook’s killing of Thomas Palermo raises. Good questions. Hard questions. Technical questions. Theological questions.

But I believe there is one question we must ask ourselves if we want a chance to prevent this from happening again … as assuredly it has happened before.

What does this say about us ... all of us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

What do you think?

For an excellent book on addicted family systems and the church read "So You Think You Don't Know One" by Chilton Knudsen and Nancy Van Dyke Platt. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

CCC in crisis: A Gospel awakening we will not waste.

“Never let an economic crisis go to waste.” – The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, Bishop of Olympia.

Bishop Rickel preached these words on my first Flower Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral in 2009. They were true then. They are true today.

Economic crisis has led us into mission before. Economic crisis led us to partnering with Lafayette Preparatory Academy these past two years, generating nearly $70,000 in annual income and making us contributors in the battle for education equality in St. Louis.

Two Sundays ago, Junior Warden Urlene Branch shared that – even with the income from LPA – Christ Church Cathedral faces a deficit exceeding $150,000 for 2015. Even after all our efforts – generous giving of Cathedral members, more than 100 people and $15,000 in the first year of Friends of Christ Church Cathedral, and the fair-market-value rental of the Bishop Tuttle Memorial Building – we are still in economic crisis.
The time has come to explore new options for sustaining
the old buildings that are increasingly becoming an
unbearable burden for the Cathedral congregation.

In December, your Chapter identified four essential realities:

*Christ Church Cathedral cannot continue to function as it has. Pledging and building income can’t make up this deficit. Endowment draw is already on the high end of recommended. Money reserved from the Pope Bequest for program and staff is nearly exhausted.

*The Cathedral congregation is healthy but overburdened. We are growing in health and numbers … particularly with people in their 20s and 30s. Current staffing is inadequate for growth or even maintenance at current levels. Cutting further is not an option for growth.

*The biggest piece of the burden is our buildings. We have two enormous buildings with decades of deferred maintenance that are increasingly expensive to maintain. The nearly $120,000 we had to spend replacing the Cathedral HVAC system this fall is undoubtably just the beginning of what these buildings require.

*The Cathedral as an institution is an increasingly vital part of civic life. We have relationships of mutual respect and are a source of unity and a force for the common good throughout the region. Our profile is as high and positive as it has been in decades.

Based on these realities the Cathedral Chapter believes the congregation will never thrive and will inevitably decline as long as it is charged with the maintenance of the Cathedral and BTM. In fact, we will continue to decline, eat into endowment and close if the status quo is maintained. 

This is not bad news. This is Good News. Economic crisis has led us into mission before ... and it will once again. That the status quo is unsustainable is a gift because it opens us up to new opportunities to be the church in the city in transformative ways. It opens us up to possibilities of partnership for mission beyond what we have previously imagined.

Our challenge and opportunity as we look toward the 150th anniversary of the dedication of Christ Church Cathedral in 2017 is this:

How do we restructure Christ Church Cathedral to be a thriving presence of the Gospel and force for the common good in St. Louis for generations to come?

After naming these realities, in December, Chapter unanimously passed this resolution:

Resolved, the Chapter of Christ Church Cathedral authorizes the senior warden, treasurer and Dean to meet with Bishop Smith to explore new options regarding the structure of Christ Church Cathedral as congregation and institution to ensure its long-term sustainability and impact.

This initial conversation will happen in the next week or so. There are models out there in the wider church that can help us, and we have people throughout the region -- Episcopalian and non-Episcopalian alike -- who recognize the value and potential of Christ Church Cathedral who are able to be (and some who have already offered to be) a part of this exploration.

Our belief is we can create a new structure for Christ Church Cathedral that will enable the congregation to continue to thrive and grow in the Cathedral home it loves ... and that will enable the wider diocese and St. Louis region to bring their broad resources to bear in creating and realizing a new vision for the Cathedral and Bishop Tuttle Memorial Building that both contributes to making our neighborhood and the region better and is financially sustainable for decades to come.

Working with Bishop Smith and others on this task will be my primary focus as Dean for 2015. The work that Chapter is wrapping up on the strategic plan for the Cathedral congregation will be essential not only for the mission growth of the congregation but in providing a framework for this exploration -- whatever new structure we create will have to support the mission of the church. We are before anything a people called to bring ourselves and the world into deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

There will be many opportunities to talk about this ... beginning with our annual meeting Eucharist at 10 am on Sunday, January 18. I hope you will be there.

It's important to note we have lots of company in this struggle. As society transitions from Christendom to post-Christendom (read the Bishop's convention address about this here), the grand buildings that were the hallmarks of the success of mainline Protestantism are both deteriorating and left to far fewer (and less-monied) people to maintain. We are not alone in this struggle. In fact, we can be not only a partner but a leader in helping the wider church be reborn for new generations to come.

We are in crisis at Christ Church Cathedral. But this is not bad news. In fact it is a Gospel awakening and an exciting call into the future. And we will not let it go to waste.