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Sunday
May042014

So Who Taught the Episcopalian Lady Sailboat Theology

I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be.

And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, "I'm sorry, but I never could read one of those things."

"Give it to your husband or your minister to pass on to God," I said, "and, when God finds a minute, I'm sure he'll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand."

She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed.

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he can see what God is Doing...

The above quote is from Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle, among other things, is a critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular. However, you shouldn’t assume that Vonnegut didn’t like Jesus. As he said in God Bless you Dr. Kevorkian: "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Semon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."

For me the interesting bit in the Cat’s Cradle quote is the part that says the Episcopalian lady from Newport, Rhode Island believes God likes people in sailboats better than people in motorboats, never mind how God feels about people who can’t afford boats. The symbolism is clear. People in sailboats are posh. People in motorboats are working class. People without boats are, well, I dread to think.

Let’s assume that the Episcopalian lady is a good person, and if she is, we really must ask where she learned about sailboat theology. She didn’t pop out of her Episcopalian mother believing in sailboat theology. She certainly didn’t learn it from Jesus, or more accurately from the people who wrote the four gospels about Jesus. I know the people who created and believe in prosperity theology would disagree with me, but I’m going to go out on a limb anyway and say that she definitely did not learn sailboat theology from Jesus. So where did she learn it?

There’s a church in Rome called The Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, or St. John Lateran for short. It is, of course, the Pope’s church. Among the many interesting and beautiful features of the church I want to highlight two. First are the huge magnificence bronze doors. The doors were taken from the Roman Senate, the Curia on the Forum Romanum. The second is the utterly beautiful gold ceiling of the basilica. Both the doors and the ceiling must say something about the church’s relationship to money, power and the state, but let’s concentrate on the gold ceiling.

Descriptions of the basilica emphasize proudly that the gold is real gold leaf and not paint. It is rarer, however, to read about where the gold came from. In fact, it came from Central and South America where state sponsored expeditions stole the gold from the peoples who lived there. It’s also worth noting that in addition to stealing the gold, the invaders enslaved and murdered the peoples of Central and South America. And when I say murdered, I mean murdered approximately 95% of the population. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is covered in stolen gold which is covered in genocide.

I know this because I visited Rome with my friend Gerry. Gerry is somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist and he likes to visit churches when  he travels.[1] I spent a good deal of my life in churches and so tend to avoid them when I travel, but he’s a friend so I happily go along. Gerry does extensive research before visiting a place and it was from him I first learned about the doors and the ceiling. As we sat in St. John Lateran looking up at the gold ceiling he was overwhelmed by the beauty and I by the offence. To Gerry the church is an artifact and to me, hopefully, a living representation of faith. I also told him that given its origins the gold ceiling would be an offense in any building, but in a church it was outrageously offensive. I told him that a church with political doors and stolen gold ceilings dripping in suffering and murder is not a church of Jesus Christ. It is a church of the world, and a very particular part of the world. It may do a lot of great things. The ceiling may be beautiful and the doors strong. But it’s not a church of Jesus Christ. It is a church that teaches and represents sailboat theology. The only possibility for redemption for such a church is to dismantle the ceiling.

At some point in the life of St. John Lateran men, and I’ll go out on another limp here and insist it was men, made a decision to accept the gold from the state and adorn their church with it. It didn’t just happen. It wasn’t an accident. It was a decision. And I would say that today it is utterly impossible for the men of the church to dismantle the ceiling, sell the gold and spend the money on something that might be less offensive to Jesus than theft and genocide. That decision will never be made.

It’s not that we render unto Caesar, we climb under the covers with Caesar. Why? Well, the relationship benefits us. We may get a great ceiling. We may get a better chance at lottery funds. We may get an exemption from laws making it illegal to discriminate against woman and LGBT people (though interestingly not against people of colour). We may get an exemption from paying certain taxes. And we may get an invitation to the Queen’s garden party.

I would suggest that it is impossible for us to not accept the invitation to the Queens garden party. After all, our leaders get to rub shoulders with the powerful and prestigious and to reject such an invitation would ostracise us. And while we don’t discriminate against women, it is nice not to be held legally responsible for those among us who do discriminate against people in the LGBT community. And what idiot would even suggest we refuse exemptions from paying taxes? We’d go bankrupt. And who can blame us for taking lottery money? It’s pretty much the only source of funding out there. Never mind that it is a form of gambling that takes money disproportionately from the less well off. I think on these points we can all agree. But perhaps we could at least admit that we’re a long way from Jesus and that all these things have practical, theological and relational implications. Nothing is neutral.

Now, I’m not against institutional organisation. All movements either die or become institutionalised, though I have for years believed there is a use by date on institutions after which they misplace the founding reason for their existence. Also, I bet some of you are thinking I’m being a bit hard on the poor old church that, after all, has to live within the world. I myself have always said the church has to live within the world, though deciding which part of the world seemed rather important to me. I bet some of you can give me examples of local churches without gold ceilings that find sailboat theology offensive, and I would have no problem believing you. Hell, I’ve visited a lot of them in more countries than I can remember. Here’s the thing though. When Gerry and I were sitting in St. John Lateran he said that the beauty of the gold ceiling compensated for its history. I said that, while I was moved by the beauty, it could never compensate for its history.[2]

I find myself in the position, and I’m not alone, where the good bits of the church no longer compensate for the bad bits. For years I did my best to work on at least some of the good bits while challenging at least some of the bad bits. But looking back, it seems not a lot has changed. And while, I didn’t make the decision to accept the gold and adorn my church ceiling with it, looking in from the outside, it sure seems like I’m willing, if not happy, to leave it where it is. The words collusion and culpability come to mind.  

So what to do? Here are five suggestions to get us started.

  • Admit that we are not the church of Jesus Christ and probably are not capable of being the church of Jesus Christ. We are the Church of the World which more than not embraces sailboat theology.
  • We must begin dismantling the ceilings.
  • We must recognise that people looking in are very capable of seeing the often times big gap between our rhetoric, that which we tell the world about who we are and what we believe, and that which we actually do in the world.
  • It’s unrealistic for us to think that the institution that taught the Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island about sailboat theology can save her from sailboat theology. If she can’t save herself, she will have to seek help elsewhere.
  • Finally, we have to realise that the Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island is, either alone or with others, saving herself from the Church of the World. 

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

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[1] My friend Gerry could be a victim of sailboat theology, if he actually cared. Some of my evangelical and fundamentalist friends find it difficult accepting he is a decent human being, but either way it doesn’t really matter. They are saddened by the knowledge that he will suffer in hell for all eternity. My liberal and progressive friends have no difficulty at all accepting he is a decent man, but are saddened because true happiness and peace escape him, even if he does not realise it. Right or left, it doesn't matter. They know better about Gerry than Gerry does himself.
[2] As Gerry and I continued talking and after his reading American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David Stannard, Gerry too came to consider the gold covered ceiling as inappropriate.

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