Black Ink columnI am writing all of you as a response to the recent refusal of Bp. Michael Smith to grant me a license to fulfill my ordination vows in the state of North Dakota. The reason he has refused me has nothing to do with my character, nor my skills and gifts of ministry. His reason is that my life partner, whom God has given me to love and cherish is a woman and not a man.
By: Miranda Reiman, Agweek
Holy Week, 2008
To: The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Shori
The Rt. Revs. Michael Smith, Bruce Caldwell, Gene Robinson
Fr. Jim Shannon
Re: Denial of license to fulfill priestly vows in North Dakota
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am writing all of you as a response to the recent refusal of Bp. Michael Smith to grant me a license to fulfill my ordination vows in the state of North Dakota. The reason he has refused me has nothing to do with my character, nor my skills and gifts of ministry. His reason is that my life partner, whom God has given me to love and cherish is a woman and not a man. He has stated that he will only grant a license to a priest who is celibate or married. Since we cannot be formally married, our family is not considered legitimate by the church. In refusing to acknowledge my family and my ordination, Bishop Michael is also refusing to acknowledge my baptism, for in my baptism, I am "Christ's own forever," and the gifts of the Spirit given from that moment on, are, as I understood it, to be honored and blessed. As a baptized member of the Body, I am to be cared for, nourished and the gifts given are to be nurtured by the Body.
Refusal of one's baptism is a serious matter. If a bishop can do this to one, then anyone is potentially at risk. This is why I am writing this open letter to all so that we might begin a dialogical conversation over this matter.
In order to understand the issue at hand, I find it necessary to explain how faithfully I have tried to obey the rules and regulations of the Church, and at the same time remain faithful to my discipleship in Christ Jesus.
In 1998, while working under the supervision of Bp. Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming, where I am still resident, I met the one I knew to be my life partner. As soon as I felt this was confirmed, although not yet "out of the closet," I decided to inform my bishop right away, which I did. We agreed that as the Church stood then, it was not possible for me to continue functioning in the diocese and live an open and free life with the one God had given me. I had to choose to leave the diocese in order to be fully human, which I found ironic, given that to be "fully human, fully alive" is the promise of the Gospel.
I was warned by Bishop Bruce that Bishop Andy Fairfield of North Dakota was rabidly against affirming the full humanity of gays, lesbians and transgender people. However, I decided that I would arrange a courtesy call, as is expected of a priest who moves into a new diocese. I was not going to ask for a license, as I knew the Church had yet to work out this issue. Before I said a word to Bishop Andy, he said in a rude manner, "You know I am not going to grant you a license." In short, he did not see me as a human being; he saw me as an object. Referring to Martin Buber's metaphor, as did Martin Luther King Jr. in his assessment of segregation, I was treated as an It, and the relationship set up between us was "I-It" rather than "I-Thou." This is even more egregious when we consider that one thing Jesus condemned more than any was lack of hospitality towards the stranger. I did not feel God's love that day, and in fact in the years to follow, felt it fade except in the relationship with my partner. The Church was nowhere for me.
Meanwhile, a small group of people who also felt somewhat marginalized by organized religion, formed. In this group, which we call the Potting Shed, I was able to fulfill my priestly promise and do underground what I could not do publically -- share reflections on the Word, break the bread and partake of the blessing. I informed Bishop Caldwell of this. Since it was not an official Episcopal function, he did not think it would be problematic to continue. Except for a few members, the local Episcopal congregation, St. Paul's, kept its distance.
I am an Associate Professor of religious studies at the University of North Dakota with a Ph.D. in Theology from Marquette University. I teach ethics, general introduction to religion and Christian theology and history, among other courses. This is the work I have been doing since 2000. It is very satisfying and I am happy doing this ministry. However, I have been increasingly uneasy with the fact that I am unable to actually fulfill my ordination vows. It seems not only a denial of my gifts, but also does not honor all of those people who saw in me priestly gifts and confirmed them.
This year I was asked to hold a service on Maundy Thursday, perhaps the first of many on campus for students, the Potting Shed community and others who might want an opportunity for a mid-week service that involved teaching as well as liturgy. I decided it was time to meet the new bishop, Michael Smith and talk over this possibility.
I spoke with the local priest, Father Jim Shannon who has been most supportive of me and understands the dilemma I am facing. He went to the bishop for me in order to arrange a conversation between us. I was well aware that the Windsor Report has asked bishops not to ordain openly gay and lesbian people or to bless their relationships until some decision could be made. However, since I was asking for neither of these, it did not seem to me to be a problem. We arranged a possible meeting.
Before I could meet Bishop Michael, I received an email from him stating that I should "not get my hopes up." This crossed my mind as an odd way to begin this relationship. If the Gospel is anything, it is about hope, hope in the midst of the impossible. He continued by saying that he only gives a license to those who are celibate or married. Once again, I did not receive any pastoral care from Bishop Michael, which I have ceased to expect, but in addition, I was not afforded any hospitality, once again, contrary to the Gospel as I understand it. I extended an invitation to the bishop to join us for the Maundy Thursday Eucharist. His response to this was that he already had an obligation, but went on to cite the canonical passage that reminds me that I have promised to be obedient to those in authority over me. This leads me to the next question.
Which promises are valid?
Bishop Michael has clearly been selective in reminding me of my promises at ordination. I also have made this promise:
“As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.
In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.”
(From the ordination service, the Examination…BCP)
The question then became, which promise should I fulfill? I had to think carefully about this before I answered the bishop's warning. After several days of thought and prayer I received what I think is the right answer.
"Obedience" as I was taught to understand it in the context of authority in the Episcopal Church is based on mutual love and care between bishop and priest. This means that both are human to one another, that pastoral care is mutually extended. When this is the case, then obedience simply means, yielding in decisions made from this "I-Thou" relationship. Without love, "obedience" is simply that of a Master-Slave, and thus is condemned by the Gospel whose purpose is to uphold the humanity of all people.
Thus, it occurred to me that to obey the bishop in this situation was not required of me, but to obey the desires of God's people for pastoral care, for the sacraments and for hearing the Word was required of me. Consequently, I have decided to go ahead with the celebration of the Maundy Thursday service to be held at Christus Rex on the campus of UND form 5-6 p.m.. March 20th for the Potting Shed community, friends, faculty and students who desire to participate.
Although I have decided not to obey Bp. Michael, I also want to respect him and the circumstances in which he might find himself. Therefore, I have made the following adjustments in the service for Thursday so that technically, I will not be functioning as an Episcopal priest in "an official position."
Although I was invited by Christus Rex to use the sanctuary in the campus center, I decided to have the service in the living room. Thus, there will be no altar involved, only a simple table.
Although I will be wearing a collar, I will not use an official Episcopal stole, but rather one that was lovingly made for me by the women of St. Andrew's Meeteetse, Wyoming, the parish members who recognized and confirmed my priesthood in 1980.
We will use a liturgy that was written by the Potting Shed community. Although the Book of Common Prayer will be laid on the table along with the bread and wine, it will remain closed throughout the service.
The reading of the Word will be done by all and although I will begin the response to the Gospel, all will be invited to participate in the sermon.
The bread will be baked by two of my brothers who run the Dakota Harvest Bakery and who are members of Potting Shed. Their union was blessed by an officiate of the Lutheran church and they continue to be an inspiration to me. Since this is "gay bread" and not official Eucharistic bread and "gay hands" will be laid on it, no doubt the bread is immune to becoming the Body of Christ except by those who perceive it as such.
The wine has been provided by the Lutherans and is not Episcopal wine.
The blessing will be pronounced by me. However, at that moment, all will lay hands on their neighbor's shoulder, and thus the community will exercise the priesthood of all believers.
I hope these compromises will satisfy all those involved.
May God bless us all, especially on Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave us the one commandment, to love one another as he has loved us.
May the peace of the Lord be always with you.
The Rev. Dr. Gayle R. BaldwinMore from around the web