Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bring your own brain

I've been challenged recently with a phrase I use to describe the Episcopal Church, as a church where a person doesn't have to check their brain at the door, and I've often wanted to start a "Bring your own brain Bible study".

So I've been thinking how I could explain what I mean by these brain statements to people who have taken offense at them. And it's this:

Once, when I was a seminarian intern, I learned that, where I was serving, the Episcopal priest had the final say in what a passage in the scriptures meant. In fact, that was what Bible study was: the priest teaching about the scriptures and telling people what they meant.

Now, never mind that the same priest had in fact changed his mind on scriptural meaning from time to time. When a parishioner asked me to tell her what a passage meant, and I asked her what she heard in it and what it meant to her, she was adamant, and so was my supervising priest, that it would be my job, as a priest, to tell people authoritatively what a passage means, full stop. Forget what the lay person might hear in the passage.

I call that having to check one's brain at the door. The Bible printed in English for the first time meant that these scriptures were openly available to everyone, not just the ordained. The consequence was surely going to be that lay people would have their own opinion on what scriptures meant, and they might disagree with the official line of the Church. My take is, Good!

Second example, I remember my now late cousin, a Roman Catholic, who was a man, saying that he hoped he never had to listen to a sermon delivered by a woman, because no woman was ever going to tell him how to think. On probing, I found that this what sermons in his RC church were - the priest telling the people how to think. Whether this was what was actually happening, this is what my cousin wanted and perceived he was getting, so he was checking his brain at the door.

As a lay person, long before I even thought about becoming an ordained clergyperson, I was charged with teaching the five session Scripture portion of a 12 week training for lay people preparing to become Lay Readers, which included planning non-Eucharistic services and giving Holy Communion.

After three sessions, I noticed that one man never took part in any of the discussions. I asked if there was anything I could do. He said, Oh, no, please don't misunderstand. I was raised Roman Catholic. We never even got to read the Bible for ourselves. The priests told us what they thought we needed to know. So all this is entirely new to me and I'm just sitting here absorbing it all like a sponge without even breathing much less speaking.

I've never forgotten that.

Maybe there is a better phrase than not checking one's brain, or bringing one's own brain. I use those phrases because there are people out there who are desperate to be released from what they experience not as Christ's freedom but shackles. I'll work on what phrase I might use instead. Meanwhile, liberating the brains of the laity from the prison of being told what to think and believe is what I have been called to do. So I shall, and I will, continue to do so.

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