The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Stewards of the lapsed

Parable of the talentsThe problem this week seems to be that those daily office lessons keep pointing their fingers at me. Those three slaves and their doings with the master’s money. That one always rubs me raw. I’m always the guy who buried the talent, or whatever, but that’s by default. I’m neither of the others, because it doesn’t seem to be in me to double the master’s dough. So, I must be the burying kind. I can rationalize all I want, but come the ending, there I am standing before the master with little to show for having been trusted.

I think and pray about it in terms of how I seem to have squandered my natural talents, as well as how I’ve squandered my religious vocation. I feel as though I’m always playing a come-from-behind game, wondering what might have been. Achievement. Success. Satisfaction. Whatever, but those are personal issues. I do have a beef with the church about how it handles deposed clergy.

Even a deposed priest, a prodigal priest, is a redeemable asset for the church, but deposition seems also to mean burial. There’s nothing formal about it, but once you’re no longer permitted to practice your vocation, you’re on your own, and it’s not pretty. (This is where I’d like to be set straight by others who have been deposed.)

No one has said a cross word to me since I was deposed; and to be honest, I wasn’t an easy person to deal with. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there was really no place to turn to try to understand my place in the church. Even I was not aware of what I needed, although I managed to stumble into spiritual direction with a fine priest. Psychotherapy helped me readjust to being divorced and financially hamstrung by child-support payments.

So, at the parish level, the church was responsive, but there was no dealing successfully with my diocese, which was painful for my bishop, for me and my family and friends in that diocese. (I had left the diocese to live elsewhere.) My anger became a seething cauldron of resentment that I began carrying around with me all the time. Ultimately, about five years after I was inhibited, I renounced holy orders and ceased to practice my faith at all. It would be eight years before a significant death brought me back to church. Now, I hope my stewardship has improved, but the church’s stewardship of priests who have broken their vows is still, apparently, less than stellar. (Again, I hope there’s someone out there who can disabuse me of this impression.)

What should have happened? The church, as an institution, should have opened the door to a safe place where everyone could talk about their pain without fear. The church should keep that door open, not promising restoration or any such thing, but help in finding a vocational path that will keep a deposed priest’s gifts in play. Just because a priest has squandered fulfilling a call to holy orders doesn’t mean the church should squander its investment — spiritual and financial — in a woman or man to whose priestly vocation it once said “Amen.” The church should provide psychotherapy to deposed priests who need it — and most do — but also spiritual direction specifically aimed at vocational discernment in the spirit of hope and healing. I doubt this happens very often in The Episcopal Church, if it happens at all.

The problem, of course, is that everybody’s too damn mad at the breaking point. The message to deposed priests is, “Just go away and let us deal with the damage you’ve caused.” Make no mistake, too, that deposed clergy usually leave plenty of wreckage in their wake. It’s no wonder that bishops and standing committees are angry at unfaithful priests. Then there’s the bitterness and resentment of the congregation and the priest’s family. No one, but no one, comes away unmarked. I’m not making a case for sweeping any of it under the rug or letting bygones be bygones. I would argue, however, that the church still has a stake in the vocation of deposed clergy, and that it’s poor stewardship to bury those talents without another look.

If God has a mean streak, it’s with people who squander their gifts, or so says today’s gospel lesson (Luke 19:11-27). “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Talk about a kick in the gut. To those who repent, though, the father comes running. The prodigal son has nothing but the love of the father — and that’s probably enough. Everything has been taken away because the son was stupid, but nothing takes away the father’s love.

Deposed priests need to hear that and probably don’t, at least not for a long, sad time. It’s not something that springs to bishops’ lips when things have come to an ugly pass. At that point, it’s more about punishment and trying to take care of the victims. My prayer, though, for bishops and their deposed clergy, is that all eventually hear the words of the father who said, “… this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

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