Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Age of Anxiety

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church. Birmingham, AL. Feb. 28, 2011.

Historian Johan Huizinga in his study of the late Middle Ages wrote, “We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.” Huizinga’s point is that these are all things that we take for granted: a warm coat, a fire in the fireplace (or for most of us, central heat and air), a glass of wine – in our time these things are the rule, not the exception. We take them for granted. But it was not so for most people throughout most of history, nor is it so for a good two fifths or more of the people in our world today. A warm coat, a warm and dry place to live, enough to eat, much less a glass of wine are the exception, not the rule.

Throughout most of history and in much of the world Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading have a special resonance: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Worrying about having anything to eat and anything to wear is the norm, much less worrying about having a glass of wine or a fur coat.

We enjoy riches and conveniences undreamed of by the richest and most powerful people of human history. On a trip to Israel years ago I wandered through the ruins of one of Herod the Great’s palaces. He had several. The one I was wandering through was just east of the line of hills that divides Israel and Palestine from north to south and just west of Jericho. What was so remarkable about this palace is that it contained several baths. One bath was for hot water; one for lukewarm water; and one for cool or cold water. In first century Palestine, only the smallest handful of the rich and powerful could enjoy such luxury. Today only the smallest handful of people in this country do not enjoy such luxury.

So we would think that the vast expansion of wealth that has taken place over the last few hundred years and especially in the last century would have brought with it a corresponding expansion of happiness and contentment. But we know that it has not.

The poet W.H. Auden called the 20th century the “age of anxiety.” It was supposed to be anything but an age of anxiety. Increasing prosperity was supposed to bring increasing contentment and happiness. We were supposed to be the most contented and least anxious people in the history of the human race. But that has not happened.

We live not only in the age of anxiety but in the age of Prozac and Paxil and psychotherapy. Probably even more than a first century peasant we need to hear the words of Jesus: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” because we worry about these and similar things constantly.

Jesus’ words are echoed by other great spiritual teachers throughout history. Five hundred years before the time of Jesus, the great Indian religious leader, Prince Siddhartha, whom we know today as the Buddha, the enlightened or awakened one, told his followers that the central problem of human life is suffering and that suffering is caused by being attached to things that are transitory.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The odd thing about serving wealth is that it can be very rewarding. Those who throw themselves heart and soul into the acquisition of wealth very often amass great fortunes. But wealth is a harsh mistress. No matter how much people acquire, they rarely seem to have enough. The person who sets her mind to acquire a million dollars in her bank account by the time she is thirty often succeeds, but then she is likely to decide to acquire another million or two by the time she is forty. Furthermore, the service of wealth often leaves very little time for the things that genuinely make life worthwhile: friends and family, work that matters, the enjoyment of art, beauty, and nature, to say nothing of the service of God.

I wonder if you have seen Social Network, the film about the creation of FaceBook that is up for the Academy award for Best Picture. I have no idea how accurate the film is but the story it tells is as old as the human race. The founder of FaceBook is presented as a deeply insecure college student. Rejected by a young woman he has been dating, he throws himself into the creation of an internet-based program that will allow people to connect with each other and so FaceBook is born. The irony of the film, though, is that while the purpose of FaceBook is to connect people with each other, a purpose it fulfills admirably, the founder of FaceBook is presented as a profoundly lonely young man, and by the end of the film he is fabulously wealth but is alienated from every single person in his life. “You cannot serve two masters, for you will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.”

Jesus’ words sound hopelessly idealistic: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

OK, Jesus, that’s all very well and good, but you didn’t have a monthly credit card bill or mortgage payment, you didn’t have to pay college tuition or medical bills. If we don’t take some thought for what we eat or what we wear, where we sleep or how we’re going to get to work, then pretty soon we’ll have nothing to do but daydream about the lilies of the field and birds of the air.

But the irony, of course, is that if all we do is think about what we’re going to wear or eat, or where we’re going to live, then that drains life of all its meaning. So how do we do both? How do we take some thought for our food and clothing and at the same time trust God? Is it possibly to be both responsible and idealistic? I think it is.

Another insight from the Buddhist faith helps me. Buddhism teaches its adherents that they must live neither in the past nor the future but in the present. The present is all that is real. Taken to an extreme, that would be ridiculous. Of course, we must take some thought for tomorrow and be cognizant of the lessons of the past. But what we must not do is let the past empty today of its meaning. And we must not be so caught up in what might happen tomorrow, that we let the glory of this moment slip away.

The story is told of an order of monks so strict that they not only did not speak to women, they did not even look at women. Two monks from the community were sent on a mission to another monastic community nearby. They came to the edge of river, but it was in the spring and the rains had swollen the river, making it almost impossible to cross. Trying to cross the river was a woman with a new born child, but the river was too deep and fast for her to cross. However, one of the monks, violating the rule of his community, carried the woman and her child across on his back. For the rest of the day, the other monk was so angry at his brother for having violated their rule about women, that he would not speak to him. Finally, at the end of the day, the monk who had carried the woman across the river said to his brother, “Brother, you are angry at me for having carried that woman and her child across the river, but I only carried them across the river. You have carried them around with you all day.”

We carry things around with us all the time that we need to leave behind: our anxiety about money, about work, about the state of the world. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. …Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' …your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A short history of the Episcopal Church in Alabama

I don't know who (if anyone) reads my blog anymore, but I thought you might be interested in something I wrote for the profile created by the committee searching for the 11th Bishop of Alabama. This is a VERY short version of the book I hope to complete soon.


In February, 1828, with no apparent coordination, two Episcopal congregations were organized in Alabama. Christ Church, Tuscaloosa, was the first, and then, only two weeks later, Christ Church, Mobile, was launched. (It should be noted, however, that the congregation of the Mobile church had been worshiping as part of a Protestant “union” church with Methodists and Presbyterians since 1822.) The men and women who organized these churches were some of Alabama’s most prominent citizens. Although the Episcopal Church in Alabama has never exceeded 1% of the state’s population, it has consistently been over-represented at the highest levels of the state’s leadership by a factor of 8 to 10 (or even more). Among the prominent early 19th century Alabamians who affiliated with the Episcopal Church were Gov. John Gayle, Congressman William Lowndes Yancey, author Octavia Walton LeVert, and lawyer and newspaper editor John Withers Clay. Although a Baptist, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his Episcopalian wife, Varina, regularly worshiped at St. John’s, Montgomery. In the 20th century, prominent Alabama Episcopalians have included actress Tallulah Bankhead and novelist Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. Just in the 20th century Episcopalian governors served Alabama for 16 years.

The Diocese of Alabama was organized and admitted to the Episcopal Church in January, 1830, when Thomas Brownell, Bishop of Connecticut, presided over the first diocesan convention at Mobile. For the next fourteen years, the diocese would be led by a series of provisional bishops: Brownell, Jackson Kemper (Missionary Bishop of the Northwest), Leonidas Polk (Missionary Bishop of the Southwest), and James H. Otey (Bishop of Tennessee).

Nicholas Hamner Cobbs was elected Alabama’s first bishop at St. Paul’s, Greensboro, in 1844. A Virginian, Cobbs had served several parishes in Virginia before going to serve as rector of St. Paul’s, Cincinnati, Ohio. However, less than a year after going to Ohio, he was elected Bishop of Alabama. Cobbs was industrious to a fault and acquired a reputation for saintliness. At the time of his death in 1861, the diocese had grown to include 39 parishes and almost 1700 communicants. The population of the state increased by 78%, but the communicant strength of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama increased by 164%, a rate of growth never subsequently equaled, much less exceeded.

Cobbs died at a moment of high crisis. On the very day of his death, the state of Alabama voted to secede from the Union. Just a few weeks later the bishops of the Confederate states met in Montgomery to organize the Episcopal Church in the Confederacy. One of the issues before them was the episcopal vacancy in Alabama. In the fall of 1861, Richard Hooker Wilmer, offspring of a family prominent in the evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church (his father had been instrumental in founding Virginia Theological Seminary), was elected the second Bishop of Alabama and led the diocese until his death in 1900. Wilmer was the only bishop elected and consecrated in the Confederate Episcopal Church.

To care for Confederate widows and orphans, Wilmer founded an order of deaconesses that would last until the early 20th century. Wilmer had little sympathy for the North and was an ardent Southern nationalist. When the war ended and Alabama was put under military jurisdiction, Wilmer ordered his clergy not to pray for the President of the United States, and Alabama’s military governor closed all the Episcopal churches in Alabama for a year until President Andrew Johnson rescinded his order.

In the 1870s Wilmer observed that the churches of Alabama’s fertile “black belt” (roughly the region between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery) were declining in membership, and the churches in Alabama’s “mineral region” were growing. This was the beginning of one of Alabama’s most profound socio-economic shifts as the industrial cities of Birmingham and Anniston sprang into being practically over night. When the Elyton Land Company laid out Birmingham, they set aside lots for several churches, including a prime location for an Episcopal Church. On that lot, the Church of the Advent was founded in 1871. In only a year’s time, it went from being a mission to a parish and quickly became the largest parish in the diocese (and today one of the largest in the entire ECUSA).

When Wilmer died in 1900 he was the longest serving bishop in the Episcopal Church. Toward the end of his episcopacy he was briefly assisted by Henry Melville Jackson, another Virginia priest who was elected to serve as what was then known as “assistant bishop.” Jackson, however, did not have the strength of character to be an effective bishop and was asked to step down. After Wilmer’s death, the Diocese of Alabama elected their first “native son” to serve as bishop – Robert Barnwell of St. Paul’s, Selma. Barnwell, however, died of a ruptured appendix after serving only two years as bishop.

Following Barnwell’s death in 1902, the diocese chose as their new bishop Charles Minnigerode Beckwith, the General Missioner of the Diocese of Texas. Beckwith was a “muscular Christian” of the Teddy Roosevelt school and an avid outdoorsman. He built a hunting lodge near Fairhope, which subsequently became Beckwith Lodge, the retreat center of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Beckwith, however, had an abrasive and high-handed manner and was involved in an escalating series of conflicts from the very beginning that would eventually cost him his episcopacy.

The final straw was his refusal to let a Montgomery rabbi speak at St. John’s. The rector of St. John’s defied Beckwith and let the rabbi speak anyway. Beckwith responded by having the priest tried in ecclesiastical court, but the court found the priest not guilty, and Beckwith rightly saw this as a vote of no confidence. The bishop agreed to turn over all his episcopal authority to the bishop coadjutor who was to be elected at St. Paul’s, Carlowville, in 1922. Beckwith kept his promise and continued as Bishop of Alabama in name only until his death in 1928.

The newly elected bishop coadjutor, William George McDowell, had been rector of Holy Innocents, Auburn (in effect, the campus chaplain at Auburn), and he quickly won the hearts of the people of the Diocese of Alabama. McDowell displayed a new awareness of social and political issues. McDowell and Birmingham Presbyterian pastor Henry Edmonds, worked quietly (although unsuccessfully) behind the scenes to achieve a more humane outcome in the infamous “Scottsboro case” However, like Bishop Cobbs in the early 19th century, McDowell worked himself to a state of exhaustion and finally his body gave out. In 1938, after visiting Mobile’s Trinity Church, McDowell was too ill to return to Birmingham. He was admitted to the Mobile Infirmary, diagnosed with pneumonia, and died within days.

The young rector of the Church of the Advent, Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter was elected Alabama’s sixth bishop in 1938. Still remembered with a mixture of warmth, awe, and respect by older Episcopalians in Alabama, Carpenter was larger than life in many ways. Standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he had been the Ivy League wrestling champion at Princeton, and he had a large, booming voice, marked by a deep, patrician Southern accent. His enormous hands and his voice made an indelible impression on those he confirmed: “May you daily increase mo-ah and mo-ah in the Holy Spirit…”

In almost every way, Carpenter proved an effective leader for the Diocese of Alabama. He was fortunate in presiding over the diocese during the “baby boom” that followed World War II, a time when almost every religious group in the U.S. was experiencing growth. During Carpenter’s episcopacy St. Luke’s (Mountain Brook), Ascension (Vestavia Hills) and St. Thomas (Huntsville) were founded as missions but quickly became large parishes. Other churches that had long been missions also achieved parish status, such as St. Andrew’s (Tuskegee), and Epiphany (Guntersville); and new missions were founded: Grace (Cullman); St. Alban’s (Birmingham); St. Christopher’s (Huntsville); St. Stephen’s (Huntsville); and St. Matthias (Tuscaloosa).

Among Carpenter’s most significant accomplishments was the founding of a permanent diocesan camp named after his predecessor. A summer camp program for young people had begun under Bishop McDowell, but under Carpenter the diocese took steps to put camping on a firm and permanent foundation by acquiring land in Winston County (near Jasper) and establishing Camp McDowell, sometimes called the “heart of the diocese.” Three generations of young people have attended Camp McDowell and/or worked as counselors. Camp McDowell continues to expand its facilities and program, and it is in constant demand, not only by Episcopalians but also by other groups.

Carpenter’s leadership during the Civil Rights movement is still controversial and disputed, but it seems fair to say that he was more backward-looking than forward-looking during the Civil Rights struggle. On two very significant occasions Carpenter took positions that would paint him and the people he led as reactionaries. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., announced plans to demonstrate in Birmingham during Holy Week, 1963, Carpenter and six other religious leaders urged King to wait. King responded devastatingly in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” pointing out that “to the Negro, ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.” Two years later when King organized the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, Carpenter did everything in his power to prevent Episcopal clergy from participating in the march, which he termed “foolishness.” However, it should be noted that Carpenter had good relationships with black clergy in his diocese; he facilitated meetings between Birmingham’s black and white leadership in his office; and it was on his watch that Camp McDowell was integrated.

The deaths of four young girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963, served as a catalyst for passage of the 1964 civil rights act. But it was the death of Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels in August, 1965, that brought home to many Episcopalians in Alabama and elsewhere the potential for violence in the civil rights struggle. A student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Daniels was a native of New Hampshire and a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. Inspired by King’s summons to clergy of all faiths to come and march in Selma, Daniels’ came to Selma in early 1965. He stayed on to help register black voters and tried to build bridges between the black and white communities. In August, Daniels was arrested for participating in a demonstration in Lowndesboro. After a few days in the county jail in Hayneville, Daniels and his fellow demonstrators were released. Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and two young black women walked from the jail to a nearby store to buy cold drinks. At the store Tom Coleman, a state highway department employee, confronted them and aimed a shotgun at one of the young women. As Coleman fired, Daniels stepped in front of the young woman, taking the blast and dying almost instantly. Coleman also fired his shotgun at the fleeing Morrisroe, hitting him in the back. In spite of vigorous prosecution by the Alabama Attorney General, Coleman argued that he had acted in self-defense and was found not guilty by a jury made up exclusively of white men.

Carpenter retired at the end of 1968. He had been in poor health for some time and died less than a year after retiring. George Murray, Bishop Coadjutor of Alabama, (and also a signer of the letter urging Dr. King not to demonstrate) became the seventh bishop of Alabama. More liberal than his predecessor, Murray urged Alabama Episcopalians to find ways to participate in President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. However, Murray’s most significant achievement was to successfully divide Alabama into two dioceses, a project that had been discussed in the Diocese of Alabama almost from the very beginning.

After a long period of study, the Diocese of the Central Gulf coast was created in 1970 out of the lower third of Alabama (below Montgomery) and the Florida panhandle. Murray chose to step down as the seventh Bishop of Alabama and become the first Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast. In Murray’s place, the people of Alabama elected native Alabamian Furman Stough, the rector of Trinity Church, Florence, and a former missionary to Okinawa.

Stough proved to be a bishop of energy, vision, and ambition. He established a companion diocese relationship between Alabama and South Africa’s Diocese of Namibia; he gave his blessing to and helped plan and build federally-supported housing for low income elderly persons (Episcopal Place in Birmingham); and he oversaw the Church of the Advent’s re-designation as the cathedral of the diocese. Stough was also nominated for Presiding Bishop in 1986 but lost to his close friend, Edmond Browning, Bishop of Hawaii. Browning invited Stough to join his staff as director of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund (now Episcopal Relief and Development). However, after a short time in New York, Stough returned to Alabama.

Stough served as bishop of Alabama during one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of the Episcopal Church. In 1976 the General Convention voted to replace the 1928 Book of Common Prayer with a new prayer book and authorized the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Stough ordained Alabama’s first woman priest, Marianne Bogel, a hospital chaplain, in 1977.

In 1989, Alabama’s Bishop Suffragan, Robert Oran Miller, a former United Methodist minister, was elected to succeed Stough. Miller’s episcopacy was not much less tumultuous than Stough’s. Gay and lesbian Episcopalians increasingly insisted on full inclusion in the church. An Integrity chapter, the organization of gay and lesbian Episcopalians, was organized in the diocese in 1991, and the diocese established a taskforce to deal with the AIDS pandemic.

In 1997 Miller announced his intention to retire following the election of a bishop coadjutor. The diocese chose Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr., rector of Christ Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who became the tenth Bishop of Alabama when Miller retired. Parsley’s episcopacy has been characterized by a more intentional and assertive program of church growth by planting new churches in growing communities. In 2006, Parsley became the second bishop of Alabama to be nominated for Presiding Bishop but lost to Nevada bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold the highest position in the Episcopal Church. Also in 2006, the Diocese of California elected Marc Andrus, Alabama’s bishop suffragan, as eighth Bishop of California. John McKee Sloan, a native Mississippian serving as rector of St. Thomas’s, Huntsville, was elected to replace Andrus in 2008.

In The Power of Their Glory (1978), a sociological study of the Episcopal Church, Kit and Frederica Konolige observe, “To a large degree, the Episcopal Church produced . . . America.” The same could be said of Alabama. The Episcopal Church in Alabama began as the church of the planter aristocracy and became the church of the industrial barons. Episcopalians have a distinguished record of leading Alabama and its institutions. For the most part, the Diocese of Alabama has been very well served by its bishops and priests. However, the religious landscape of the 21st century will be very different from the recent past. In some ways, it will be more like the situation Bishop Cobbs faced in 1844; Alabama will be more religiously fragmented, and more and more groups will be competing in the religious marketplace. Once again the Episcopal Church in Alabama will have to win the right to be heard, to organize congregations in groups new to the state, and to commend itself by its commitment to gospel. It would be well for Alabama’s Episcopalians to keep in mind what Bishop Carpenter frequently told those he confirmed:“Remember who you are and what you represent.”