November 26, 2014

Of Confidence and Confidentiality

Issues of disclosure have been much in the news lately. From the scandals plaguing the Roman Church to the debates about the seal of the confessional in the Church of England, to the concerns about closed meetings of Executive Council, and unpublished bylaws at the General Seminary, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about what things, and when and how and to what extent, ought to be kept under wraps.

One of the common reasons advanced for confidentiality concerns “personnel matters.” But when the personnel matter under discussion is misconduct — in some cases to a criminal level — then confidentiality that allows the guilty employee to find another job in a similar setting amounts to conspiracy, and in the long run serves no one well. Even if it did, that is a road down which no one should want to tread.

Another reason for confidentiality is that being allowed to reveal incriminating information about oneself without fear of it going any farther is essential to the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. The argument here is that few would avail themselves of this ministry without the assurance that what is said will not be held against them. I can understand the pastoral practical side of this, but have been unable to find any dogmatic rationale that supports the notion, particularly given the dominical teaching on the dangers of hypocrisy: that what is said in secret will be made known at length (Luke 12:1-3). The apocalypse is a warning that in the end nothing is covered up that will not be revealed.

Obviously some things do deserve the protection of confidentiality — which at the level of the confessional applies to the act of confession as well as its content. But some things, by their nature, demand public notice. Among these are minutes of meetings, actions taken by boards of directors, and changes made to bylaws. This is particularly the case where the decisions are taken in the name of some larger entity than just those immediately present in the room. Any action that touches a wider constituency ought to be communicated to that constituency.

Above all it is important to distinguish between confidentiality and secrecy. For instance, doctor / patient and attorney / client confidentiality is well understood not to prevent a doctor or lawyer from discussing a case study — with the name of the patient or client concealed.

To apply this to some of the current controversies about publication of actions of church bodies, I have suggested that in part the Chatham House Rule would make good sense in such situations. Under this rule, the subject matter of a closed meeting, and comments made in it, can be shared, but the identity of the speaker and the speaker’s affiliation are not to be revealed. This allows for open discussion of the subject matter without endangering anyone for expressing an opinion that might be controversial.

But in the end, I have no confidence in confidentiality when it amounts to selective secrecy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 23, 2014

The King Is Here

SJF • Proper 29a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory... and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

We come now to the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year — you know our calendar doesn’t quite match up with the secular and civil calendar that starts in January. Our church year starts on the First Sunday of Advent — next Sunday — and so this church year ends this week.

It ends with a celebration that goes in some places by the name of the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a reminder of who our King is, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one under whose feet, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, all things are put in subjection.

Our gospel today shows this our King in action. The Son of Man comes in his glory, sits on his throne, and executes judgment. Talk about an executive order! For this is not just an order, but a judgment; and a chilling judgment it is. For those who are rewarded are not great heroes and martyrs. No, the reward of blessing is given to people who did very ordinary things: who fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who cared for the sick and visited prisoners.

And those who are judged guilty, are not perpetrators of horrible crimes — those who here are sent away into eternal punishment are not mass murders and terrible villains. No, they are people who simply failed to do the same things the blessèd ones did: who gave no food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who shunned the stranger and provided the naked with nothing to wear, who didn’t care for the sick or visit those in prison.

And the reason these two groups of people are judged as blessed or cursed is because those they served or rejected were not just anybody — they were the King himself in disguise.

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We’ve all heard stories about kings in disguise. It is a daring enterprise for a leader to put on a false beard and eyepatch and a humble garment and wander among his subjects. He had best have a strong will and a solid ego, for the things he hears may not be to his liking. Without his crown, without his royal robes of state, a king may be treated just like anybody else — for good or ill depending on who is doing the treating. One of my favorite stories is that of King Alfred, who was hiding from Danish invaders back in the ninth century. He hid undercover for a while in a peasant’s hut. One day the peasant’s wife told him to keep an eye on cakes baking on the griddle while she went out on an errand. With all of his troubles, his mind wandered, and he allowed the cakes to burn. When the woman of the house returned she gave him a ferocious tongue lashing — not knowing, of course, that she was speaking to her king.

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But we don’t have that excuse. We’ve been given the warning of who our King is. Jesus, our King, has told us in words of one syllable that as we treat the least of those who are members of his family, so we have treated him. When we fail to give food to the hungry, when we neglect to give drink to the thirsty, when we don’t welcome the stranger, or fail to give clothing to the naked, when we don’t care for the sick and ignore the prisoners: we are doing it to him.

We at Saint James Church have a number of opportunities, not just as individuals as we walk through the streets day by day, but as a congregation, to honor our Lord’s royal presence among us. Let me just mention a couple with immediate impact in the next few weeks.

First of all, this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and as we have done for the past several years we will have a midday worship service and then serve hot meals to any who come to our door that afternoon; and I invite all of you to come and help in that service and to share in that fellowship.

Second, your vicar and deacon have at our disposal a small fund which comes from the loose plate offering received several times each year. It is called “adiscretionary fund,” and it is used entirely for charity and outreach. When someone off the street comes to the office door and asks for something to eat, or help filling a prescription, or money for the train home to Yonkers, it is from this fund that we’re able to give a fare-card, or a few dollars. Deacon Bill has been using part of his discretionary fund to provide food to the hungry through the Elijah Project: it’s a wonderful and creative way to share, and involves members of the parish in the work of sharing. And believe you me, it is at this time of the rolling year, as the winds grow cold, that more and more people are in need of help. So today’s loose plate offering will be set aside for that purpose, and so I ask you to be generous, helping us to help others in your name. There is an old saying that the ministry of hospitality may lead you to entertaining angels unaware. Believe me, when we serve any who are in need we are not just serving angels, we are serving Christ our King as well.

These are just two concrete and real things you can do to honor our King in disguise as he spends time among us, in the here and now, so that in the day of the great “then” he will recognize us as having treated him as he deserves.

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I mentioned King Alfred a moment ago. Well, a story is told of another English king, George V, who planned to pay a visit to the northern industrial city of Leeds. The town council was very excited, and posted banners announcing the royal visit throughout the city. Multitudes flocked in the streets to celebrate, waving the Union Jack and cheering to the sounds of the brass bands. A children’s school was fortunate to have its schoolyard right on the route of the railway train upon which the king would leave the city. It was agreed and arranged that the children would be outside in formation to greet the king as he went past, and he would wave at them in return. The children were, of course, terribly excited. The great day came and the children were ready to sing their song of greeting. Down the track, out of the long tunnel, the royal train came into the bright sunlight, the engine steaming and chugging its smokestack, the steam whistle loudly announcing the arrival. The train slowed as it came by the schoolyard and his Majesty King George V emerged from the coach at the end of the train and took up his place on the platform where the assembled children could see him. He was dressed as he normally did: in a black morning coat, striped trousers and vest, and a silk top hat. He waved politely to the children with his pocket handkerchief, and then the train picked up speed and he slipped back into the coach. The cheering of the excited children subsided, until there was only the sound of one little girl who was weeping her heart out. A teacher asked the little girl why she was crying. And the child looked up, and through her sobs and tears bitterly complained, “I thought we were going to see the king; but it was only a man in a top hat!” She was expecting to see the king looking as he did in the picture on the classroom wall, with his crown and red robe trimmed with ermine. That’s what she was expecting, but that’s not what she saw.

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What do we expect our King to look like? As we pass by a hungry person on the street do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his crown?” When we see someone cold and shivering in a threadbare coat, do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his regal robe?” When we hear that someone is sick and alone, do we assume, “This could not be our king, for a king would have courtiers and officials to take care of him.” When we see a stranger, do we say to ourselves, “This could not be our king, for where are his ambassadors?” When we hear of a person in prison, do we think, “This could not be our King, for no king would ever be convicted of a crime and sent to prison!”

What do we expect our King to look like? He has told us exactly how he looks. He looks like a man — a man hungry or thirsty; he looks like a woman — a woman far from home and looking for help; he looks like a child — a child sick and alone. For our King is King even without his crown, even without his robe of state; even without his top hat and morning coat! He is our King even when he is hungry, even when he is thirsty, or sick, or naked, or lonely, or in prison. He is even our King when he is nailed to a cross — and he did that for us.

What shall we do for him? He has told us. “Oh, that today, you would hearken to his voice.”+

November 4, 2014

Board Stiff

In spite of a few hopeful signs at the end of October, the effort to resolve the ongoing tensions at the General Theological Seminary have reached another detente. One can hope for movement, and hope has the power to grease gears, but what is needed above all is the greater virtue of charity: an ability to give, even when one believes one is in the right. And my concern is that I and others lack the third virtue of faith that the Board of Trustees is prepared to adopt that posture.

The Board of Trustees' positive move of offering to engage an outside specialist in reconciliation (the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center) was offset by the apparent refusal to provide a mechanism for a permanent neutral ombuds officer to field complaints (presumably from any side), as proposed by the eight faculty who are engaged in a work action — and now without salary. The Board instead proposed that a committee chaired by one of its own members serve in that capacity. This in itself appears to be a rejection of the notion of neutrality — for how can a member of the Board (even of Trustees) be trusted to maintain a neutral pose (that is more than a pose) in fielding complaints against actions of that Board? Given the fact that a subcommittee of the Board dismissed earlier complaints — an action that contributed to the current conflict — a truly outside auditor is needed. There is an old Latin saying, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who will watch the watchers? The saying is apposite to the present situation.

At the same time, the question is fairly raised: What can an ombuds officer do? If the Board is able to ignore the complaints brought to it by faculty and students, what is there to teethe an ombuds office to hold others to action? This is an endemic problem in institutions that essentially operate on a notion of "good faith" and principles of obedience; and if "the fish stinks from the head" and there is no mechanism for replacement of that head, yet another impasse is surely at hand.

It seems, in the long run, as I've noted elsewhere, that a different approach to the governance of the seminary is needed. The original model, in which the Trustees were distant and largely hands-off, confining themselves to assuring the reputation and financial stability of the seminary, and the main day-to-day work both of administration and education were the focus of the faculty (one of whose members annually served as dean in rotation) makes a good deal of sense. Given the abject failure of the current (and preceding generation) of Boards of Trustees in holding up the financial end of things, apart from overseeing the slow parceling off of much of the patrimonial property, it would appear that outside professional help is likely in order in any case.

Finally, I want to add a word rejecting the notion that the day of the residential seminary is over, and that the formation of clergy can be left to distance learning or other models. First, the notion is patently false at the outset: there are perfectly stable (financially and otherwise) seminaries even among the small number of Episcopalian institutions, that continue to maintain an essentially residential model (I think of VTS and Sewanee — the latter of which could hardly be more residential if it tried!); to say nothing of the many secular colleges and universities that do quite well with a residential model.

Second, there is more to the training of clergy than education. The more important part of the training lies in formation: and one formed for service in the community that is the church must have some experience — even if it is only for three years — of the ancient rhythms of that church's life, nourished with daily worship. One of the more shocking revisions of the current administration at GTS was the paring back of the daily round of worship. It is of course completely true that the seminary is not out to create Benedictine monks and nuns — yet the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict, the balance of prayer, study, and work as tools for spiritual and personal formation and education, has stood the test of time in a way any seminary would be happy to match.

In short, there is no simple solution to the problems at General Seminary. But grace and flexibility are essential for any short- or long-term solution, one hopes geared to a future more productive than the recent past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG