A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
Having Gone In Separate Ways
But in public, who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision.
Her conclusion was that any human being lies nearer to the unseen than any organization.
-- E. M. Forester, Howards End
Circumstances conspired to keep me away from General Convention this year. Given the chance, I would certainly have jumped into the fray with the same all-consuming passion that I have maintained for Convention in more than a decade of Church activism. In the accompanying busyness, I might have missed the fact that I simply no longer care.
My heart has left the Episcopal Church.
I never dreamed that I could become indifferent to my Church. Christianity, in one form or another, has defined me and shaped me since my earliest memory. My childhood, thoroughly steeped in old-fashioned Methodist zeal, was filled with stories at my grandmother’s knee: crusading for industrialization’s working poor, abolitionists and the underground railroad, or rescuing poor souls from the evils of dancing, gambling, and drink. During my teen years, my family became Southern Baptist, and I learned to read and memorize scriptures until they were forever imprinted on my brain in the “original, God-breathed, King James language.” (Although these days I often forget book, chapter and verse.) I tried out non-denominationalism in college while simultaneously exploring the Roman Church, and before marriage did a short and initially unintentional side trip with the Disciples of Christ, not at first realizing that they are a separate denomination. As an adult, I settled on the Episcopal Church - older than my Methodist roots, broader than her Roman sister, but still providing that important historical continuity that I missed in my denominational wanderings. The Episcopal Church is the end of my search. Yet, though my roots there are deep, I feel more parched than green.
“You will not need to check your brains at the door” was the enticement that first persuaded me to check out the Episcopal Church. I discovered Integrity, the lesgay justice ministry, almost simultaneously with discovering that one of my dearest friends was gay. An employee of a conservative denomination, he was in agony over the possibility that discovery or self-disclosure would end his job and terminate his life-long ministry. My heart has no doubts about my friend’s true spirituality, and I have seen the evidence of God’s hands on his ministry. Love told me that I wanted to be in this Church, discussing God’s design for human sexuality in a context where gays and straights of opposing convictions engage each other as full and equal members of the body of Christ.
The first time I volunteered at General Convention was euphoric. I walked the great hall of exhibits in awe that this tiny denomination could be so globally involved. I loved the sense of worldwide Anglican communion, and feeling linked to the generations of the Church; past, present, and future, through our history, prayer book, and the apostolic succession. I reveled in the debates, hearings, lectures, and special programs. But after the first few ecstatic days, I did begin to hear divisions and suspicion, exclusive definitions of “truth,” and the groups of “us” vs. “them” forming at every hand. I told myself that such human failings were to be expected, and I believed that we had something stronger holding us together. Following the advice of a dear friend, I put on my asbestos underwear and prepared for engagement. But, defenses aside, I believed we were part of a noble engagement, and that ultimately we were all on the same side.
That year I was a volunteer for Integrity at Convention. But, as a bisexual woman married to a man, I was not the “face” Integrity wants to put before the church. A substantial part of the argument for inclusion is predicated on a lack of individual choice in sexual orientation – “God made me that way, and God doesn’t make junk.” We seem to need to be “just like you in every other way but one.” I began to realize that bisexual women who happen to be married to men simply don’t make the grade, particularly when the man in the relationship was a gender-questioning cross-dresser. “The Church isn’t ready for you yet.” I stayed behind the scenes. No invitations to testify, and on the few instances I was introduced, invariably referred to as a straight supporter of Integrity. I was disappointed, but still sympathetic.
The following triennium, I was elected as an alternate lay deputy from my diocese. On the assurance of my bishop that any alternate who attended the whole of Convention would be seated as a Deputy for at least one half-day, I paid my way and showed up eagerly each day at the credentialing area. But events conspired against me (whether intentionally or not) and I never participated in the great deliberation. Not even an appeal to the Bishop could budge one of the deputies out of his or her seat long enough for me to be able to return to my diocese and say that I’d actually contributed. But, as I faithfully observed the process, I began to feel that it was little more than a joust. Proficient strategists played a testosterone infused game in which the whole object was to unseat the opponent, overwhelm his defenses, discover and attack his weaknesses, and exploit his blind side. The subject of debate seemed peripheral. My mind still tells me that a flawed process is better than no process, but I felt though each consecutive debate as though the animation was slowly draining from both body and spirit.
By my third General Convention, I remember making a serious pitch to my spouse to join me for at least a few days. Also an Episcopalian, my spouse had never been exposed to the workings of the National Church, and I thought the experience would be eye-opening. However, my friends in Integrity were dubious. My spouse was now an open, frequent cross-dresser, seriously pondering hormone therapy and/or surgery to address a life-long gender dysphoria. Integrity friends quailed at the thought of an out cross-dresser, a “guy in a dress,” being linked back with their carefully crafted legislative presence. Again I was told, “The Church isn’t ready for you yet.”
That was the year I decided to testify about the inclusion of “gender and sexual orientation” in a resolution against hate crimes. I spoke of what it feels like to be bisexual and the spouse of a cross-dresser, and to experience threats and harassment from people who would harm us. I related instances where my partner had been stalked or threatened. I also spoke of how we face hostility and suspicion in our parish, when what we crave is acceptance and refuge. In Church too, we have received anonymous, accusing letters, and requests to either go back into the closet or leave. Since we didn’t leave, some of our accusers did, making sure the door slammed on the way out. I wanted the people at the hearing to feel what it is like to be different and shunned, both in society and in the Church. But, I didn’t realize what I sounded like to my audience – how completely I failed to connect – until I read what Andrew Carey wrote about my testimony in the Church of England Newspaper the following week. He joked that in marrying a cross-dresser I had answered the conundrum of “How can a bisexual possibly be monogamous?” and said that my testimony had provided a “truly comic moment” in the day’s deliberations. Whatever else we have experienced in work, family, and society, only in our Church have we been dismissed as the comic relief!
Between that General Convention and this, something happened so gradually that it only dimly figured in my awareness. Yet, the impact has been so great that I can only say that the Church and I have gone in separate ways. I have lost the ability to care what the Church says or does as an institution. I still believe. I still practice. My mind still says that there is relevance and that there will someday be progress. But my spirit is seeking the Spirit, the unseen that moves finite life towards an experience of the infinite, and I no longer look to my Church. Even the process of writing this article is difficult. My thoughts come to the surface as through molasses. I don’t know if I care enough to attempt explanations. This is an institution I once loved, but I can’t quite remember why. I want to spend my time and energies where I have seen, and see in others, transcendence, community, and transforming energy – where love is.
It’s not just the Church. What I can’t find are God’s fingerprints at the institutional level, in any institution. Still, I expected God’s Church to be different. I am confused. I know, at one level, that organization, rules and governance are necessary. But, I yearn for the life of the Spirit that I only encounter in people who live fully and resonate individually to a cosmic, foundational vibration. There is no question when I meet such a one. These people light up the world around them, love completely, give prodigally, and draw spiritual seekers (like me) homeward – lights in the window to a weary traveler. I meet them in the Church, certainly, but I haven’t found that I meet them more often in Church than out of it. I find spirituality as often in places where Church is never named as I do in the places where I have been taught to seek it.
For example, I recently found this vibrant essence of life in a place where all mention of Church was absent, by design and perhaps by necessity. As my spouse and I continued to travel together in the realms of transgender and transsexuality, we looked for others who share similar journeys and could shed some light on our way. It is no coincidence that we found transcendence at a convention named Esprit, because the Spirit of life and love fills this weeklong refuge for transgender and transsexual individuals. As one friend observed about the participants, “the joy in their hearts is palpable throughout the convention.” The convention, being another imperfect organization, had the usual organizational problems and politics. But, the attendees I met intoxicated me with their spirit. This was a community eager to engage life, to encounter others with open arms, and to live life honestly and openly. They persevere through confusion, major life changes, multiple hardships, and occasional grave loss. Interest in spirituality was everywhere, with many seminars on personal growth, meditation, helping others and giving back to the community, and reaching out to friends and family to build bridges and restore relationships. But, where could one bring in any mention of organized religion, except to hurt and condemn? Not even the MCC or Unitarians welcome transgender folks with open arms. True, they might welcome a transsexual who is comfortable in a new gender role. But the presence of people you can’t quite pin down, who might appear in one gender role or another and any given time, remains beyond the comfort level for almost any religious institution (at least in the West). We are simply not ready or willing to investigate, on such a visceral level, what it might mean when we affirm, “in God there is neither male nor female.”
I would have loved to invite these new friends to my Episcopal Church, and perhaps they would have been welcomed and loved in some parishes, at least by some in the community. But, I can’t think that inviting friends into a Church that will treat them primarily as subjects of discord, disagreement, and study would be an act of love. Nor can I believe that they need the Church to seek and find the truth. They have already found it, and their lives are full of the Spirit of life – the Spirit I call God.
And there you have it. I am ashamed of my tendency to wince when I cross the threshold of a church, but I nevertheless have learned to arm myself and prepare my defense against emotional attack. I still believe. I will remain within the Episcopal Church, as long as she’ll have me. I still seek to serve God in our Church, and hope to find all of my spirit’s longings within the context of my Christian heritage. But, I won’t lie about who I am, how I feel, and where my striving has led me, even when it brings pain and divides me from the Church I once loved. Thus, not without some regret, I find myself looking beyond the institution, to inspirational people wherever I find them, whose spirits sing and draw me into some profound harmony. When I find that my searching has led beyond the margins, where my Church dares not go, even there my heart follows.
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