Over the years we’ve heard folks bring up the Five Stages of Grieving regarding what has been happening in The Episcopal Church. I just read Greg Griffith’s comment about that over at T19 and it got me to thinking. What if we pass through five stages to make the decision that we must face the truth.
I might identify the five stages this way: Rejection, Fear, Dealing, Mourning, and Freedom. How can they be translated into the five stages we go through toward the place of decision. In our case, it is making the decision to face the crisis now tearing the Anglican Communion apart. To tell the truth.
Over the many years I’ve been involved in the governing structures of the Episcopal Church, both as an observer and as a participant, I’ve seen these stages at work with colleagues, friends, opponents, and leaders.
Some of these stages, human beings that we are, are blended together. But at the end of the day, we can probably find examples in our life – as well as pointing out examples in others – that we are on a road marked by these signs.
This is the moment when we discover what is really happening inside the Episcopal Church. For different people over the years there have been different moments when one is confronted with that moment when we can’t believe what is happening.
We are shocked.
A General Convention is often a good place to start. If someone goes to General Convention, the best bet is that they going to be in this stage when they get home. For me it was General Convention in Indianapolis in 1994 when I saw a Bishop and his male partner kissing on their way into the House of Bishops. But it could be a sermon preached, a teaching, an article, a liturgical revision, an unanswered phone call – but something, something wakes us up that is so startling, so shocking that we feel that the very foundations of the Church have been rejected. My guess is that our theological opponents, for different reasons, have had their moments of this first stage as well and have stories to tell, revealing the depth of the division. The publication of the Windsor Report – for the orthodox or progressive – was one of those first stage moments.
So, what happens next?
Some people get stuck in this stage and never leave it. No matter what happens on the outside, we are horrified and can’t believe what is happening to our church. Some end right here, throw their hands up in the air and flee. Some never come back, they are the walking wounded, warming pews elsewhere or sitting in front of the TV with the remote. But everyone goes through this stage – the bewilderment that can turn to outrage of what is happening to us and the feeling that little is being done. For the other side of anger is fear. If we don’t just throw up our hands and storm off, then we come to the next stage.
I might call this stage one of engagement or bargaining. It’s time to stop and make a deal – bring everyone together no matter what stage they’re in and make a deal. Or it may be our attempt to “deal with it” and “move on.” For example, we might try to fix it and so engagement begins. We try to bargain our way out. Some start standing for election, some start attending councils and conventions and work legislatively, some come up with plans on how to transform the church from within, some make deals and depart (which doesn’t actually solve the problem – in fact, it can send everyone back to #1). All of these are bargaining, all of these are “Let’s Make A Deal.”
Again, if the church or diocese is not so embroiled in what is happening on the national level, many can remain in this stage for a long, long time. But if one is trying to address what caused the initial “how can this be happening” moment, at some point the bargaining comes to a dead-end. Reality sets in.
I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again. At some point one realizes that the problem is not just theological or philosophical, it is structural. The institutional structures are no longer able to deliver on the mission of the Church. It’s not working. The Church is in decline, loosing membership, and is embroiled in division over foundational issues that continues to worsen. The structure itself contributes to the crisis.
In the recent past, this has meant changing the mission to fit the structures. But then we have to agree to change the mission – and that leads us all back to Stage #1. If one is not able to change the mission to fit the structures, then the evidence continues to mount that division is underway. No deal can be made. It’s a dead end. This leads us either back to Stage #1 (and that can happen over and over for a long time) or to this next stage:
This is the Dark Night of the Soul, the “Good Friday” moment when the realization sinks in that it’s all not working. It’s lonely – friends seem to be in a different stage or no stage at all. It is the stage of immense sorrow and depression. Some people want to avoid this stage entirely and jump right to the last stage, but that appears to make matters worse. It’s really just going back to #3. Some will do whatever they can to avoid this stage, returning back to Stage #1 and starting all over again, anything but to grieve the loss.
This is a the moment when we give up. It seems to be the lowest point of all and friends can seem few. It’s about 2:30 p.m. on Good Friday and the disciples are in hiding.
Often people do try to move through this stage as rapidly as possible and so we start to see happy talk come from those who have escaped from the institutional structures on one hand and those who have gone back to Stage #3 on the other.
Stage #4 is the No Man’s Land of the Stages, the stage we all want to avoid. But it is possibly is the most important stage of all because in this stage we do give up, we relinquish our rights, we fall on our knees, we give up.
At that point, Someone Else can step in. We dare Him to show up. We beg Him to show up. We fear He will show up. At some point, if we are serious about truth, it is at Stage Four that we will all meet each other again, at the Communion Rail or the Court Rail or down at the Bar. If we make it through Stage #4 without running away, or skipping away as the Happy Victorious, or lost in the Slough of Despond, we find ourselves faced with the door to the fifth stage. It’s a locked door, by the way, as C.S. Lewis found out, but it is locked on the inside.
If we take our key and open the door what we find is that this isn’t the victorious stage we thought it would be (and so we might be tempted to go back to #4 or worse – back to #1 – been there, done that, got the t-shirt).
This is not despair either (though it may feel like that sometimes). This is the stage when we have all walked through the Dark Night of Soul and met fellow pilgrims on the road (and who we find on the road can be the biggest surprise of them all). The ability to go back through the stages over and over and over again has grown wearisome. This is the stage of relinquishment, where we’re ready to face the truth and walk our talk. No more happy-clappy press releases, no more posturing, no more threats, no more passive-aggressive tactics, no more denial, no more rage, no more lies and spinning and wishful thinking.
The most important ingredient that is now present, however, is the one ingredient that is missing through all the other stages and it is the one ingredient that can define best what stage we are in. If this ingredient is not present in all who are present, not just the invited, but the reluctantly invited, then we are not at the fifth stage. That ingredient is trust.
In a real journey toward truth-telling and Truth-seeking, which are quite rare indeed, we may find ourselves surprisingly at the fifth stage. We are as surprised as anyone else. Pride got lost along the way. Transparency is what we expect of ourselves first. We can see the unexpected. The fire has refined us and not destroyed us, though we do carry the scars. We are set free, really free, to do the right thing. Trust breathes life into our hearts to take risks, to be innovative, to examine the soundness of the structures, to have faith based on truth and not wishful thinking. We are free to do the right thing, as God sees fit to do through us. We can throw furniture, but not each other. We are like the Velveteen Rabbit. We have become real. “For it is for freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote to the Galatians. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” We are free to speak truth in love and wait on the Lord.
And the reason we trust is not because we all have found ourselves trustworthy, we trust because we trust the Lord and He makes us trustworthy. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” Proverbs tells us. Well, this is the stage where that trust meets the road.
There is a famous picture that has become one of the most historical moments in a process toward peace and it was what propelled a certain rock singer to prominence on the global stage. The story behind that photo, on how those people came to that moment is a century-filled story of people walking through these stages, getting so far only to turn around and start over again. The three men in the photo risked it all. Right now it appears they have entered into some kind of fifth stage – but only time will tell. For now, they are indeed on the road.
That is the question – we seem to celebrate being in Stage 2 or Stage 3 and then are bewildered to find ourselves in Stage 4 and ready to toss in the towel, only to have another incident come up and we wake up and fine ourselves back in Stage 1. It seems quite possible that this could go on for years and years and it will until trust is restored.
And how is trust restored but through a commitment to Truth. Then we will know the truth – and then what? The truth will set us free (John 8:32). In the meantime, we keep watch and we pray.
Father, I don’t ask you to take my followers out of the world, but keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, and neither do I. Your Word is the truth. So let this truth make them completely yours. I am sending them into the world, just as you sent me. I have given myself completely for their sake, so that they may belong completely to the truth.-John 17:15-19