With respect

By Marshall Scott

There are some places that I don’t wear my hat.

I wear a large, broad-brimmed black hat. I’ve done so for years. (I’m actually on my second.) When I originally made that choice, my own images were of Jesuit missionaries and Methodist circuit riders.

Of course, other people have other images. I also have a full beard and wear, as the weather requires, a long black coat. As a result, I’ve had other images suggested. Most commonly I’m told either that I look like a rabbi, or Amish, Mennonite, or otherwise Anabaptist.

And so, there are some places I don’t wear my hat. Neither Jesuits nor Methodists are notable these days for their head gear; but Orthodox rabbis and Anabaptists are. And since each group has a lifestyle marked by a distinct discipline and piety (neither of which I follow), out of respect there are some places I don’t wear my hat.

It’s the resemblance to an Orthodox rabbi that can raise the most—well, perhaps not concern, but confusion. Years ago I worked in a hospital that had a health facility on site. I would go in early to work out before starting work. One winter morning I had finished working out, and was starting to get dressed. I pulled out the hat and the coat, and then reached for my work clothes. As I buttoned my black shirt and attached my white collar, a man down a few lockers down said loudly, “Now, wait a minute.”

I looked at him and said, “Yes?”

He said, “I grew up an Orthodox Jew in an Italian neighborhood, and you’ve just messed up all my images of religious professionals.” We talked, and realized he was a former patient. We laughed about images, and not recognizing each other “out of place,” and how the white clerical collar was a shock set against the background of a black hat and full beard.

Perhaps I’m overly concerned. I imagine many folks in any of the various traditions I have seemed to resemble, however unintentionally, would appreciate the sentiment, but not think my concern warranted. Still, it’s important to me to be respectful, and to be clear, at least where I might be confusing, about who I am and who I’m not.

There is a new church body coming in North America. Those who are part of it will call it and themselves “Anglican.” Many of those involved will have left the Episcopal Church, although many others will not have. Many will retain a certain anger about the Episcopal Church, although some will “get past it.” The situation is not really new; there have been “continuing Anglican” bodies for decades; and that’s without considering the Reformed Episcopal Church, whose tenure and reason for separating from the Episcopal Church place them in a somewhat different category. However, new unity and new size will bring them, at least for a while, new visibility. They will be part of the American church landscape for the foreseeable future.

I think that means we have to work out how we will be respectful. That may not be our first inclination. Some harsh things have been said. Some issues will have to be settled by due process that will feel to both sides like durance vile. Some folks on both sides will come to cherish their senses of righteous indignation and justification.

I think those things are painful, but still secondary. We need to determine how, once this is over, we will be respectful of folks with whom we differ, whether or not they are respectful of us. We remind ourselves frequently that we are called to respect the dignity of every human being, even—especially—those with whom we disagree, those who have condemned us. These circumstances may not be as clear (nor as painful) as the right cross of a Roman soldier, but they are our opportunity in our time to turn the other cheek.

Of course, in this case it’s not as simple as choosing to wear or not wear a hat. Part of our regret in all of this is that we share so much in common with many of those who want this new Anglican entity. Critically, we differ on what is essential in the Anglican tradition; but we share that tradition nonetheless. That means that in so many things, from the colors of the church year to the colors of the priests’ shirts, to the very words we pray, we will look so very much alike.

That makes it all the more important for us to clarify who we are and how we will choose to live out the Christian faith and the Anglican tradition in the world. We need to resist the temptation, satisfying as it might seem at the time, to spend our energy reflecting on how they understand the Anglican tradition. We need simply and solely to proclaim how we understand the Anglican tradition, and how our tradition calls us to demonstrate the love of Christ in the world, both before the altar and beyond our walls.

If we are clear enough about what it means for us to be the Episcopal Church and to live out the Anglican tradition as we have received it, we won’t need to do anything else. Specifically, we won’t need to be disrespectful of those whose understanding of the Anglican tradition is radically different. The differences will be clear—differences of mission and ministry, of tenor and teaching. Some will note the differences, and we might well respond, but without the need to be rude.

That won’t always be smooth. My hospital is in the same area as one of the first congregations to leave an Episcopal diocese for an African bishop. Now and again I look in on a person whose record says, “Episcopalian,” but who is part of the departed congregation. When I ask about congregation, the person will tell me, and then say, “Oh, I guess I’m not an Episcopalian anymore.” I will respond that, for my purpose and for the hospital setting, the church political issues aren’t important; but the tone always changes. I do my best to be welcoming, but the person seems awkward, perhaps fearing my disapproval. Frankly, so few of my patients are actively worshipping anywhere, I”m not about to let differences between Christians alter my appreciation of those who do.

And so I’m acutely aware that, in these times of change, we need to figure out how we will be respectful. Some things we may need to “take off” and some things to “put on,” so as to be clear about who we are in the midst of their proclamations of who they are. They may be respectful, and they may not; and for some things it may be years before we can once again talk. In either case, we need to respect their dignity, as individuals and as institutions. It is the Episcopal thing to do, because it is the Christian thing to do.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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