Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing
Marcia Segelstein Gives a View from the Pew
When my husband and I forsook Manhattan three years ago for a charming Connecticut town complete with beach, all that I regretted leaving behind was my church. Beyond its magnificent musical tradition, superb liturgy, and sheer physical beauty, it was truly a place of worship. The worship of God, that is. Little did I know then how unusual that would turn out to be.
Perhaps you’ve already guessed that I’m an Episcopalian. And while I’m well aware that many of our esteemed bishops are, to put it very gently, liberal, I suffered under the misapprehension that even liberal Episcopal churches—and there don’t seem to be any other kind here in the hinterlands—preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. I was mistaken. That gospel seems to have been replaced with the gospel of Political Correctness.
My first visit to the one Episcopal church in my new town left me disappointed. But at least I didn’t walk out muttering “Heretics!” under my breath. That would come later. The priest had been inspired to deliver his sermon wearing a black cape and, as if that weren’t dramatic enough, wandering the aisles. I think there was supposed to be a connection between the cape and a beggar we’d heard about in the Gospel reading. And while it’s possible that not all my synapses were firing that morning, I confess I missed the point. In fact, I thought it was just plain silly. But I was not deterred.
In about ten subsequent visits, the subject of Nicaragua managed to come up in no fewer than three sermons. And, mind you, this was long after Nicaragua was out of the headlines. It was apparently not out of the hearts and minds of liberal Episcopal clergy. One young assistant priest talked about a visit to Nicaragua that had left him acutely (and painfully, to judge by the look on his face) aware of his “whiteness” and his “maleness.” I wondered if this humble servant of the Church, were he ever to run into Jesus, would feel compelled to make him acutely aware of his whiteness and his maleness.
The last straw was the children’s Christmas pageant. The cast of characters included Mary and Joseph, the three Kings, and the shepherds, along with a “single working mom,” a “handicapped person,” and two “Indians.” Once I recovered from the secondary shock of seeing the verboten words “handicapped” and “Indian” in print, I decided enough was enough. Call me churlish, but I just couldn’t take it any more.
I spread my wings and attended services in Episcopal churches in nearby towns, but, alas, I continued to be disappointed. Not only was the preaching uninspired, the liturgy was also lackluster. Reasoning that one out of two would be better than nothing, I called the diocesan headquarters asking where I could find a “high church” liturgy. They had one suggestion.
So it was with a hopeful heart one gray Sunday morning that I walked through the wooden doors of a church that had been founded more than two and a half centuries ago. Diocesan headquarters had been right. Here at last was the Anglo-Catholic liturgy that for me evokes a sense of mystery and awe and is most conducive to humble worship. But something was clearly wrong. The place was practically empty, and the few worshipers there were mostly old. This was in sharp contrast to the other churches I had been to, which were crowded with young families. And the priest was angry—angry that so few people were there on this important day: the day of the annual parish meeting. I left wondering what had gone wrong at this historic church. As I would soon discover, the place indeed had a most interesting history.
It turned out that seventeen years earlier that angry priest had arrived to take up responsibilities as guardian of the parish, that is, to serve as its rector. But when he set up housekeeping in the rectory, parishioners discovered that he had brought along a surprise live-in guest: his male lover. I’m told that the parish at large was upset by this unexpected turn of events. But they were in for even more of a shock when Father’s “companion” (as he is still referred to) turned out to be, by all accounts, not a very nice guy. Parishioners describe him as “confrontational” and “domineering” with a habit of causing ugly scenes with congregants. Apparently on at least one occasion he threatened someone with physical harm in the presence of many witnesses. And, as a former parishioner put it, “Father didn’t take a stand.”
The parish didn’t thrive under Father’s seventeen years of stewardship. People, and their money, drifted away. The rectory (where Father and his companion lived until their deaths from AIDS) was never properly maintained. What was once a beautiful piece of Gothic architecture dating from the 1840s is now slated for demolition. The parish once boasted both an adult and a children’s choir. These days a handful of children attend Sunday school and the adult choir is lucky to have a full complement of parts. The church secretary recently was let go because there wasn’t enough money to pay her. Because the parish is running on a deficit budget, the diocese won’t allow them to hire a permanent rector. As a former insider put it, “They’re broke.”
Under the leadership of a diocese-appointed interim priest, the talk there today is of “coming together.” But there is no acknowledgment that anything went wrong there. And certainly no mention of sin or repentance or forgiveness. One Sunday not long ago, at the request of the bishop, we were asked to focus on prejudice. So the priest used his sermon that day to instruct us not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. More recently we celebrated AIDS Awareness Sunday—again, courtesy of the bishop. “Woe to those who are healthy!” came the admonition from the pulpit that day.
How much more memorable and moving were the words I had heard over the years delivered from the pulpit of my church in the city. There I was admonished to “pray for the wisdom to know God’s will and the courage to carry it out.” I was urged to make a Lenten sacrifice each year, a practice that has become a habit. And one Good Friday, as a result of truly inspired preaching, I got a glimmer of the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love for me and for all of us. It was a revelation that continues to dawn.
My diocesan newspaper reports that at the last General Convention “deputies and bishops . . . expressed the Episcopal Church’s ‘unequivocal opposition’ to any action by local, state or national government to ‘abridge the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy,’ or to ‘limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”’
I wonder if there will be an Episcopal Church left by the time my daughter grows up. Or one in which Jesus Christ is at least mentioned from time to time. The problem doesn’t lie with individual parishes; they’re just toeing the party line, so to speak. The rot is coming from above (or below, depending on your choice of metaphors) thanks to a leadership of wolves in shepherds’ clothing.
I’ve read about a parish in Texas that became Roman Catholic. And, more recently, of a Texas bishop who is planning to convert. Maybe that will eventually be the answer for me—and my daughter. But what about the beautiful traditions that are uniquely Episcopal—the liturgy, the music, the boy choirs? Please, won’t someone start an Orthodox Episcopal Church nearby? I’ll join.
Marcia Segelstein is a freelance writer and full-time mother. Until the birth of her daughter two years ago she was a producer for CBS News. She has been a member of the Episcopal Church for 23 years.
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“Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing” first appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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