Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Night of Change

I've been thinking about change this week. Who hasn't?

Like nearly everyone else we watched the election returns on Tuesday night. We changed our Wednesday morning schedule so that any of the brothers who wanted to could stay up as late as they wished. And a bunch of us did, right through the acceptance speech, in our TV room with snacks and drinks just like everybody else.

And some of us cried, as so many people did (it would be interesting to know what percentage of the American population was in tears on Tuesday night), and we made the noises that were appropriate to whichever candidate we were supporting. A bunch of monks in a TV room watching election returns is pretty much the same as any other group, with all of the hopes and dreads that come with the night of a big election.

For me, as for a lot of people, nothing expresses the spirit of that night so much as the pictures of the crowd in Grant Park in Chicago. It would have been hard not to be moved by those faces - Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and a whole lot more, all screaming their hearts out as they watched the world as they knew it change before their very eyes. And I got to wondering where I have ever seen anything like this before. It seemed completely unique, but deeper down it had overtones of something that somehow seemed familiar.

And then I flashed back to a night in a neighborhood Episcopal Church in New Jersey several decades ago. I was there for an ordination; the ordination of a woman who had been a member of that congregation for many long years. She was being ordained to the priesthood, and it was less than a week after priestly ordination became available to women in our Church, and I was one of the participants in the ceremony.

I wasn't a particularly happy participant, either. I was not yet clear in my own mind whether I thought that the ordination of women was something I could agree with. All the way down to New Jersey I kept thinking: "What am I doing here? I don't even know whether I can say 'Yes' when the bishop asks: ' Is it your will that this person be ordained?'" I tried to wiggle out of it several times, in fact, but she was adamant; she was an Associate of our community and a dear friend of mine and I was going to be there and I was going to be one of the participants.

I did get through it with my integrity and my identity at least mostly intact. And I left the church that night knowing that a whole lot had changed, myself included, and I knew that I could believe in the ordination of women or not believe it, but no matter what I decided or didn't decide, she really was a priest. And a good part of the reason I felt that way was a consequence of looking at the faces of the people who were there.

I was the Bishop's Chaplain that night, so I was one of the first people to receive communion, and then I had nothing to do but sit in a chair in the Sanctuary as the crowd came to the altar rail. And so I saw those people coming for communion and I was moved, and changed, by what I saw. There was a lot of joy in those faces, and I had expected that. My friend was an old and well-loved member of that parish and they were rejoicing with her at the climax of a long, long pilgrimage to ordination. But joy wasn't all there was in those faces; there was something else there that I hadn't been expecting, and that was relief. And in spite of the fact that I wasn't looking for it, that relief was so strong that it couldn't be missed. They were happy for their friend and they rejoiced in her joy, but they were also vastly relieved: relieved that we could finally do this. It was finally real. We were all free to lay down a burden that many of us didn't even know we were carrying. It was right to have this ordination, and many, many people were relieved that it had finally happened.

I saw the same thing in Grant Park. There was great exultation and a lot of celebrating with abandon, and I expected that. What this means to African-American people, I can only dimly imagine. And the faces of the black youth especially, and the old people as well, especially touched my heart. Jessie Jackson in tears. Old ladies jumping and laughing and sobbing. They were looking at a world that was different than it had ever been before. And as I watched, there it was - it was that same look - the look of relief. It was time for this to happen. We have carried this burden too long. For years it has been time to lay this part of our history down, and we had finally done it. Do major changes always come with this sense of relief? I wonder, but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that they do.

Now, what will this change mean, in the end? Without a doubt, it will not mean everything that we are hoping for. The Episcopal Church has not brought in the Kingdom of God in spite of the fact that we have women priests and bishops. But a lot has changed. Business as usual has changed its face, and as time goes on, the way we do our ministry and our worship is changing, as the voice and the presence of the feminine is more and more decisive in the decisions that we make and the lives that we lead.

And the same with our country. As time goes on, there will no doubt be a good deal of weeping to match the exultation of Grant Park on election night. But there's going to be change as well, and some of it will happen in ways that we aren't expecting. Our image of who we are has shifted, and there is no going back on that. And, though Americans don't think a lot about the rest of the world, it's still true that a lot of the world is rejoicing along with those people in Grant Park. Our brother Bernard is Belgian, and through him we get word of how our election has been received in Europe. They are rejoicing and they are relieved, and Tuesday night is going to change them, too.

So here we go, off on the next leg of our adventure. This monastery, and these monks, are looking forward to being part of the pilgrimage, wherever it leads, whatever it brings.

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