Apologies After Preaching: When pulpits become places of spiritual violence.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preaches from the Canterbury Pulpit of the National Cathedral, 31 March 1968.

Controversy has engulfed the National Cathedral this past weekend since Dean Randy Hollerith invited noted Evangelical pastor and author Max Lucado to preach at the Sunday Eucharist. Touted as preaching from the Canterbury Pulpit – something akin to having a worthy national voice – the sermon was in fact recorded from Lucado’s Texas church, but the point was the same; The National Cathedral, Dean Hollerith, and Episcopal Bishop of Washington DC, Marianne Budde, lent their support and platform to amplify Lucado’s voice.

The problem is that many in the LGBTQ+ community had contacted the Dean and Bishop of Washington before Sunday, flagging up Lucado’s statements and sermons about gay persons and noting their concerns. They questioned if it was wise, and indeed hurtful, for the cathedral to be seen supporting someone whose views are so contrary to stated positions of The Episcopal Church and the cathedral – and not least, in the eyes of many, the Gospel. Indeed, TEC underwent schism in its support of the full inclusion in the sacramental life of the American LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, the National Cathedral is the resting place of Matthew Shepard – a young adult murdered in an anti-gay hate crime.

Detectives carry away evidence. Matthew Shepard was bound to a fence, tortured, and left to die in an anti-gay hate-crime on 12 October 1998.

Lucado didn’t say anything anti-gay during his sermon from the National Cathedral. But the context is there – the pulpit, or ambo, as a sacred place of the proclamation of God’s word. And who stands in it, and what they say matters. This episode sent me off reflecting upon the graced responsibility and power of those who speak “in the name of God” and the propensity to slip into, wilfully or accidentally, acts of spiritual violence when preaching. 

The episode at the National Cathedral was an occasion of intentional spiritual violence for many. How do we avoid such occasions? It seems to me that like Eucharistic fellowship, there must also be something like Word fellowship. What are the boundaries of this verbal sharing in God’s word? And what are the boundaries, imposed by our churches, or ourselves, on our own preaching? Who do we set free, and who do we maim and kill with our preached words?

Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (L). Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of the National Cathedral (R).

My local Roman Catholic cathedral has a notorious pastor who almost weekly references sin, homosexuals and divorced persons in his sermons, without qualification or clarification. So often in fact it comes across as throwaway lines about throwaway people. Contrarily the Church of England parish where I serve and share the pulpit took a formal decision to be an affirming parish that accepts into its full life the LGBTQ+ community, in as much as current church law allows. Those who do not share that vision would not be welcomed to preach if it was known. I’ve never preached about gay ‘issues’ per se. In sermons I have spoken of LGBTQ+ persons frequently as welcomed, included, normal, and loved members of the church. It has been noticed, and on a few occasions it has made a concrete healing difference.

But I want to open up the question further. Preached spiritual violence is not simply about the sexual use of our bodies or whom someone loves. It can take on a myriad of forms. Nor do I want to create the impression that, or bring about a situation in which, speaking about any disagreed topic is automatically a form of spiritual violence. Rather sinning from the pulpit is about a matrix of realities and relationships, from the bishop who licenses hers or his clergy and laity to speak in the name of the church, to the quality of theological formation ministers receive, to pastoral judgement, and basic human virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and love. Those of us involved in the art of preaching need constant check-ins with our authority structures, spiritual directors, and consciences, to make sure all these elements are in order and functioning in tandem as they should, lest we become instruments of spiritual violence, and perhaps one day ourselves become the victims.

15 comments

  1. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought that the position of the Episcopal Church was that those who held to the teaching on human sexuality that was, until recently, the official position of that Church were still welcome in the Episcopal Church. Not to put too fine a point on it, but are you saying that my brother, who is one of the handful of Episcopal bishops who holds to the former official position of the Episcopal Church on human sexuality, should not be allowed to preach at the National Cathedral? For that matter, should he be allowed to preach at his own cathedral? I apologize if this takes us too far from liturgical topics, but I am genuinely curious.

    To expand the scope a bit, would a non-trinitarian–say a Quaker, or a rabbi, or an Imam–be doing spiritual violence by preaching at the National Cathedral if his or her sermon did not touch on the topic of the Trinity? Or it is only topics where a listener’s personal identity is at issue (though I for one consider my trinitarian very much an aspect of my personal identity)? I also think there are a lot of unstated issues at play here about how one thinks about the official stance of churches on a variety of issues.

    1. The group “Living Church” for example adopted the C of E concept of ‘mutual flourishing’…as such, diocesan bishops who disagree with the ordination of women (C of E), or the marriage of same gendered couples (TEC), delegate sacramental authority to another bishop or priest, to do what the ordinary objects too. But the ordinary is bound to delegate authority by the canons of the national church, or face deposition. I think there are real ecclesiological questions about delegating authority to avoid one’s conscious, but it is an Anglican solution, nonetheless. Regarding the situation of preaching at the National Cathedral, Max Lucado had equated same-sex marriage to bestiality and polygamy. That seems of a different tenor, and a different issue than simply affirming ‘traditional’ teaching.

      https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/02/10/washington-bishop-national-cathedral-dean-apologize-for-mistake-of-letting-max-lucado-preach/

  2. Fritz’s questions would also be mine. In addition, speaking as a non-follower of Mr Lucado, some questions … Is his stance well-known within the LGBTQ community? Is it relevant in that he has cost people jobs, relationships, or stated his opinion publicly in some intrusive or abusive way? Gotten into a public fracas about it beyond just close friends or a single opponent? If not, is the outing of information buried deep in the modern internet itself a factor in the dismay? In other words, does every offender need to be outed if, by all appearances, they are not engaged in problematic behavior? Do LGBTQ people care about what random second-shelf celebrities say?

    Take a case of an ordinary person, maybe a public librarian who adheres to an “older” view of sexuality. She doesn’t ban or burn books, however. She doesn’t discriminate against people using the library. She has accepted a gay relative or friend or two. She stocks and even reads books about LGBTQ issues, but just doesn’t agree. And she states a mild opinion in social media to her dozen or so close followers. Where does the line get drawn about drawing a variant opinion out into public view?

    Granted, Max Lucado is a Name. (Otherwise he wouldn’t have been invited at all.) Does he have enough influence to contribute to abuse and prejudice?

    1. I would point you to the episcopal bishop of Washington’s apology in which she shares some of the various letters she received answering many of your questions (i.e., s it relevant in that he has cost people jobs, relationships, or stated his opinion publicly in some intrusive or abusive way? Gotten into a public fracas about it beyond just close friends or a single opponent?). But again, I would want to return to the larger question of spiritual violence. A concept that doesn’t seem to me to be a matter of just a little or a lot.

      https://www.edow.org/about/bishop-mariann/writings/2021/02/10/hearing-those-weve-hurt

  3. “Where does the line get drawn about drawing a variant opinion out into public view?”

    Max Lucado isn’t a public librarian. He’s a best selling author and head Pastor at a mega Church with tens of thousands of followers on line, at the least. I’ll suggest the two cases aren’t equivalent.

    Similarly, Fritz, I don’t know if your brother has sold millions of books and is a constant presence on t.v., with all the influence that that implies, but if not, again, the two cases are not equivalent.

    I don’t think that Lucado is being outed so much as his published work and words are being examined. Lucado published those words.

    When the National Cathedral invited Martin Luther King to preach in 1968 it sent a message. Like it or not, asking Lucado to preach from the same site also sends a message. In this case, I think that message is less clear cut.

    I don’t know enough about Lucado to speculate.

    1. Fair enough. To me, Max Lucado is a name. I don’t attend his church, read his books, or listen to anything he has online. Still, my question stands for the non-1% of our circles.

    2. Certainly not a best-selling author, but as a bishop in the rather small Episcopal Church his views are well-known. My point was really as to whether the Episcopal Church still wishes to allow divergent views on the issue of human sexuality, and what that would imply as to who might be welcomed into a high-profile pulpit. I would not expect the Metropolitan Community Church, for example, to welcome someone like Lucado, but I thought the Episcopal Church had a different stance.

  4. It seems to me the idea here of “Word fellowship”, is basically asking if TEC can/should define and enforce a requirement to follow its orthodoxy, in those who it allows to preach from its pulpits (actual or metaphorical).

    Now the answer to if it can, is it certainly does have that right, though the structure/governance of TEC is rather deliberately designed to make that difficult to do in practice.

    The answer to if it should is obviously rather more contested, but putting the question back into more old-fashion terminology (such as orthodoxy and discipline), probably makes the tensions which would need to be faced clearer (i.e. between say TEC’s historically more Latitudinarian ecclesiology and its modern anthropology etc etc).

    1. Certainly within Anglicanism it is a difficult question since a diversity of theology exists in one church, or among national churches. What bishops allow to be preached is really a non-issue because of this ecclesial dynamic (at least in the West). Yet, at the same time, canon law is employed in Anglicanism to define the absolute boundaries of polity and discipline. So a bishop may not agree with the defined position of the national church, but is obliged by canons to fulfil the law and practise of the national church as defined – even if in ‘creative’ ways. This type of practise doesn’t relate much to preaching, hence my emphasis upon the discernment of the homilist/preacher, and the employment of virtues in how we speak to those under our pastoral charge.

  5. Again, being asked to preach at the National Cathedral isn’t the same as being asked to preach in Scranton. A message is being sent.

    I’m guessing that it’s “All are welcome”. Or rather, hoping. That invitation was extended to the LGBTQ community and it’s a good thing. Perhaps now it’s being extended to those who have a personal disagreement with that community but who are nevertheless open and tolerant themselves. And that means they should be allowed to preach if their message isn’t straight out judgmental and exclusionary of “the other”.

    Maybe it’s a message against ‘othering’ by all sides. An attempt at establishing commonality and trust.

    I could easily be wrong. I’m not familiar with Lucado at all.

    Preaching across barriers about the fundamentals that we all can agree on is a good thing.

  6. IMHO, it is right and good to question virtue signalling from all angles, esp. vis a vis current beliefs and knowledge. There is a fine line of tension between complicit silence, tacit approval, and approved inclusion.

    Catholicism treads that thread of tension daily around sexual abuse. It is right and good for TEC to question their own slippery slope vis a vis Lucado; not unsimilarly to Franklin Graham being examined. No one is perfect, but which standard(s) of spiritual injury are non-negotiable?

    Blessings on discernment.

    Donna Z.

    1. Thank you for this insight: “There is a fine line of tension between complicit silence, tacit approval, and approved inclusion.” And I might add, between challenge and abuse.

  7. “My point was really as to whether the Episcopal Church still wishes to allow divergent views on the issue of human sexuality, and what that would imply as to who might be welcomed into a high-profile pulpit.”

    Lucado just spoke from a high profile pulpit. Maybe that’s a message in itself.

    By the way, Fritz, I certainly never meant to suggest that your brother the Bishop(!) was in any way insignificant. Or the librarian! I was trying to point towards how famous people with known perspectives become “meaningful” just by appearing in a high profile pulpit.

    Again, I know very little about Lucado; I may be skating on thin ice here.

  8. It is astonishing to me that someone who believes what Christians have always believed about homosexuality is no longer able to voice that belief in the Episcopalian Church, but that is the import of this case.

    1. Many Christian churches might perhaps respond that the ‘always’ no longer stands…just as Christianity shifted away from accepting the ‘always’ of slavery, antisemitism, mysogony (to an extent). It would be very odd to hear a Christian today preaching in favor of slavery, or against Jewish persons (though in some rare cases the later does happen).

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