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Louie & Ernest Clay-Crew
Married February 2, 1974


The Church of the Cowardly Lion: Time for a Transplant

The Church of the Cowardly Lion: Time for a Transplant!


by Clark R. West


Two items on one of our church’s blogging news services caught my attention recently. The first was the decision by the House of Bishops Committee on Theology to keep secret, for the time being, the list of members on the panel who have been charged with studying, yet again, the issue of same sex relationships in our church. The second is the apparent decision by bishops and standing committees of our church to deny consent to the election of Kevin Thew Forrester out of concern that his theology may not be orthodox enough for that high office. Though I expressed my dismay over both these decisions over at the Episcopal Café, here I would simply like to push together two recent metaphors that have been given by various members of our church to describe these situations and see where they might lead.


The first, in a playful send-up of the ‘secret’ panel, is that perhaps a good member of that panel would be the cowardly lion, known for his lack of courage. Indeed many among us, myself included, feel that the time for the church to negotiate, plead with, cajole and otherwise impress the global church with our ‘orthodox’ credentials in order to be seated at the table, is over. We must have courage, this image suggests with a touch of irony, boldly going where no church has gone before, authorizing rites of blessing for our faithful glbt members now. Not after another study, but now! Not waiting until we have convinced Canterbury that this can be done in an orthodox manner, but now.


The second image, offered by the theologian and blogger Bill Carroll on the thread discussing Bishop-Elect Forrester at Episcopal Café, is that of an ecclesial body struggling to fend off theological dis-ease and by establishing clear boundaries. Agreeing with the denial of consent to Bishop Elect Forrester, and thinking that this is a sign of the church recovering its ‘spine’ in matters of orthodoxy, he writes: “A living tradition also needs boundaries, just as a living organism needs an immune system to recognize what is a threat to its own integrity.”


Here then are two images of a sick church, which, whatever the diagnosis for the cure, most everybody agrees is truly sick. But that is the question, isn’t it? What is the nature of the sickness, and what is the cure? I myself believe that the former diagnosis (let’s call it the cowardly lion disease) is more accurate than the latter (let’s call it a case of theological mental illness—our theological thinking is all wrong). In overly simplified terms, we might say it is a question of the head and the heart.


Now my own belief is that both these are absolutely necessary to a healthy church. As an academic myself, I value clear thinking, historically informed analysis, and theological rigor. As an ascetical theologian, however, I am aware one of theology’s greatest temptations is to become a head trip, making abstract analyses and blocking its ears to the whisperings of the spirit down below the shoulders. So I am committed to the eastern orthodox ascetical teaching which advises us to let ‘our head sink into our heart.” Furthermore, with the great Orthodox teacher Starets Siloan, I believe we must be willing to ‘keep our minds  in hell, and despair not” (for ‘mind’ here read: thinking heart, not Cartesian disembodied reason).


In this case, it means keeping our theological thinking grounded in the hearts of those who have held hell, trauma, and rejection in their hearts before an often unlistening church. I submit that glbt members know this more than anyone, and so good theology must be willing to listen to the hearts of our brothers and sisters and the love that beats insistently and fervently, longing with a fiery passion to be celebrated in the church, as it already is in the heart of God. When we do that, our theology will perhaps look strange, as it will be coming out of the spiritual geography of hell in the heart, rather than in the pure stratosphere and lofty settledness of abstraction. This is why the theology of the Christian medieval mystics who also were willing to go to hell also looked strange (this willingness was called the resignatio ad infernum in the tradition). Read the poetry of Hadewijch, Mechthilde, Marguerite Porete among many others and you will see what I mean.


Thus I noticed with great interest that Bishop Thew Forrester’s theological position paper was entitled “Approaching the Heart of Faith”, and was especially struck by this language of the heart. He is, as a careful and sympathetic reading of  document will show, rooted in the ascetical and mystical theological tradition, one that has deep resonance in our Anglican tradition (one of the classic works of Anglican ascetic theology is Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality, though of course there are many others). It is a theology of the head and the heart, but with a strong privileging of the latter. But it has a deep conviction, rooted in the scriptures themselves, that the heart is not empty self-indulgent emotion, which is how the opponents of TEC often read us, but  a thinking-heart, ‘which has its reasons’, as Pascal has taught us, odd as those reasons may look to the theological  ‘abstractors’. The heart dreams strange dreams,  and there are indeed ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy’. And in our theology, orthodox though it may be.


This Sunday we will read of God’s choosing and anointing of the king of Israel. (read Bishop with some power for a change!)  How odd of God to choose David, thought Samuel,  priest and prophet of the church, so mystified by this choice that God had to remonstrate with him, reminding him that God’s ways are not our ways, and that  ‘God looks on the heart.’ God’s love, holding on to David as his chosen one, is indeed a strange love. It can appear to push past all the appropriate boundaries we have laid out for what is right and wrong and we can be puzzled, angered,  and even frightened by its relentlessness.  How, how could God have maintained faith with David after his rape of Bathsheba? This is a real question, and must not be settled by easy gestures of theodicy, which are themselves most often efforts of settledness and abstraction. This questioning of God, as our exemplars Moses, Abraham, and Job did rather blasphemously, is essential to a theology of the heart. We must not allow theology to silence a restless heart’s longings, and it may be that God will indeed, as improbable as it seems, relent. This is what Jacob learned.


So truly God’s ways are not our ways, and we must struggle to resist the urge to keep God’s love at bay when it breaks through our settled forms, norms,  and liturgies. I take it that our decision to consecrate Bishop Robinson proves how important it is to honor that the spirit blows where it will, in spite of us, in spite of orthodoxy.


So, if I were to offer my own diagnosis of the sickness of our church today, I would agree with my brothers and sisters who suggest, in a brilliant theological image, that it is the disease of the cowardly lion which afflicts us more deeply than the dis-ease of doctrinal inadequacies. We have a weak heart, maybe even we’ve lost our heart of courage today in the church, and Kevin Thew Forrester, among others, is insisting that we seek it. We need a new heart created within us, a heart transplant if you will. And in such drastic procedures, ironically enough, it is our immune system’s good functioning (to return to Dr. Carroll’s metaphor) which may be our own worst enemy. Seeing this strange loving heart beating where it has never been,  the body may, for good reasons, seek to reject it. We might call this a reaction of fear, but more charitably we can see that it is a good impulse that simply has not yet registered the true nature of the disease and the gravity of the body’s illness. Nor the miracle of God’s grace, which, as our savior’s rejection on the cross evidences, is itself rejected as a foreign substance to be immunized against.  And in these cases where the New Heart needs to be grafted into the body,  it takes skilled doctors  to suppress the immune system’s natural functioning for a time until the body has begun to accept life, and be transformed anew. In Christ we all have met such miracle cases (Gal. 2:20), so I trust that God rejoices in our ability to relax our immune systems at times, receive a foreign body into our own in order to give us life abundant. Of course this all takes the greatest of spiritual discernment, as mistakes here can be deadly, which is why theological discipline, study, and conversation, among priest, bishops, and especially laity are crucial. Let me conclude with one of these lay voices.


William Stringfellow, one our church’s greatest theologians and an attorney by profession, wrote in his book A Private and Public Faith that he found West Side Story to be a great piece of theology, filled with heart, spirit, and verve. I trust he felt the same way about The Wizard of Oz. Odd indeed to find theology in such places, among the works of untrained laypersons, some in the church, some not. But Stringfellow goes on to show  the truth of his conviction with  brilliant biblical exegesis and a true story from his days working among the courageous hearts of Harlem, where he served as an attorney to the undefendable. (So defending Pike was, for him, a walk in the park!) He writes there that “The Word of God—the same Word uttered and observed in the sanctuary—his hidden in the ordinary life of these boys in gang society and in the violence of the streets which is part of their everyday existence. And so it is within the common life of all the world.” Hidden in their hearts, in our hearts, whether we recognize it or not, thought Stringfellow,  beat the Word of God. Our own work is to march to strange, different drum beat of the divine heart. As did Dorothy--on the yellow brick road with her motley crew of friends whom no one, I trust, would call orthodox!—falling in love irrevocably with her tin man, scarecrow, and cowardly lion. What a crew! What a church! Thanks be go God for her untoward ways and gifts of curious wonder.


Though she may have indeed missed the scarecrow most of all, I trust that she never lost touch with her now not so cowardly lion now brought out of the wardrobe, I mean, closet. Indeed, we are told, he remained forever in her heart.  Amen.






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