This is why the altar guild gets paid the big bucks

scissor sisters2The Episcopal Church sure generates a lot of news stories. The latest came after the vestry of Colorado’s largest Episcopal parish voted to leave and join the Church of Nigeria’s North American mission. Associated Press reporter Colleen Slevin had a straightforward story about the move, which didn’t make the Colorado bishop very happy:

Bishop Robert O’Neill rejected the church’s move, dismissing the local leaders and saying the Colorado Springs parish would remain part of the Episcopal Church.

”The fact is people may leave the Episcopal Church but parishes cannot,” O’Neill said in a statement.

The church’s longtime rector, the Rev. Donald Armstrong III, who was suspended late last year, said O’Neill no longer has jurisdiction over the parish.

”He doesn’t have an army. The courts will not interfere in an internal church dispute and the congregation is solidly behind us,” Armstrong said.

Drama! Armstrong’s suspension was a major story in itself. Paul Asay of the Colorado Springs Gazette had a great story a few weeks ago about some parishioners being so angry over the suspension that they had stopped tithing. I wish we could highlight more of Asay’s stories. He mentions that the details of the bishop’s investigation weren’t shared with the congregation. What’s more, a laptop with the giving records of all the parishioners was stolen from the diocese’s accountant. This reminds me of the time my brother was treasurer of his congregation and had a computer glitch that caused annual giving statements to be delayed. I can honestly say I’ve never seen nice Lutherans angrier than the week they found out; the way they looked at my brother you’d think they were bookies and he was a degenerate who couldn’t cover the vig.

The lack of trust in the Colorado story probably stems from Armstrong’s being not just an average rector. He’s been an outspoken opponent of the Episcopal Church and is executive director and a collegial theologian of the Anglican Communion Institute. That group has been critical of Presiding Bishops Katharine Jefferts Schori and Frank Griswold. After the last General Convention, Armstrong backed a parish statement saying the convention had acted in a way to “further strain, and perhaps dissolve, the bonds of affection among the provinces of the Anglican Communion.” Prescient, that. Anyway, parishioners wonder if it was statements and views such as these that led the diocese to suspend the priest. Diocesan backers strongly disagree. But back to the matter at hand.

Senior warden Jon Wroblewski said the parish had fought for a return to orthodoxy within the denomination but has lost hope in reform.

”It’s clear that The Episcopal Church no longer believes in the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. It’s also clear that purported Episcopal values of ‘inclusion’ do not apply to orthodox believers,” Wroblewski said in the statement.

You can go over to the Bible Belt Blogger to get parishioners’ perspective on why they left. Slevin even mentioned that these debates on salvation, truth and sexuality have been raging for decades.

st  john the divineThat leads me to mention a story from earlier in the week passed on by a few GetReligion readers. The mainstream media view of the Episcopal split has been focused on sex, as we’ve noted before. When the northern Virginian parishes left The Episcopal Church, many mainstream reporters focused on the views African primates have toward homosexuality. It was interesting to see the importance placed on that one topic at the expense of all the other views held by African primates or all of the other concerns of the renegade parishes.

So if it’s all about gay sex all the time, some readers wondered why the mainstream media wasn’t paying any attention at all to a particularly odd entry in the Episcopal sex wars.

It seems that Elton John celebrated his 60th birthday on Saturday night inside of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. This would be the same Elton John who just four months ago said he despised religion:

“I would ban religion completely,” he reportedly said, adding, “Organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings, and it’s not really compassionate.”

Now maybe threats of religion-banning are not a big deal to some Episcopal churchgoers, but them are fighting words to others. I would love for a reporter to ask the folks who run St. John the Divine just what in the world they were thinking by having Sir Elton John rent the place out for a party. Maybe they could be asked what kind of message it sends to take money from someone who speaks out against you.

I didn’t see any mainstream papers covering it. The New York Post did, which included this tidbit about what took place on the altar during the bash:

The altar was set up as a stage for the performers, which included the trendy rock group Scissor Sisters, Sting and Paul McCartney.

Altar-performers Scissor Sisters are named — of course — for tribadism, a sex position between lesbians. The lead singer is pictured above. And for what it’s worth, to do a Google Images search for the band is to venture into a part of the Internet where it’s best not to roll down the window. Northern Virginia parishes are asked about every statement made by Peter Akinola in Nigeria. Maybe we could get a simple statement from the cathedral’s dean about whether he thinks there’s any problem with selling out the cathedral for altar performances and bacchanalias.

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  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizle

    Maybe the Elton John cathedral-rental story isn’t getting press because it just isn’t a big deal. Anglican cathedrals were rented to film some of the Harry Potter movies, which some would consider more “evil” than a bunch of gay guys celebrating the birthday of Sir Elton. (I’m sure the party was simply divine, so it seems appropriate that it be held at St. John the Divine. Was Bette Midler in attendance?)

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ Ted Olsen

    This was a nice touch, too:

    [I]n keeping with the religious atmosphere, tables were adorned with silver drinking chalices.

  • Hans

    Darrell said,

    Anglican cathedrals were rented to film some of the Harry Potter movies, which some would consider more “evil” than a bunch of gay guys celebrating the birthday of Sir Elton.

    Are there people who would be offended by the former but not the latter? When I consider all the people I’ve known who won’t let their kids watch the Harry Potter movies, I can’t imagine that any of them would find Brokeback Mountain less “evil”.

    This article does bring up an interesting question. If Elton John is using his money to rent out cathedrals to basically worship himself, and if I buy his albums, am I responsible for this? I guess I should stop recommending his album 11.17.70 (which I just bought and is totally awesome) to people.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I don’t think it’s about whether the bacchanalia is or isn’t a big deal or whether Elton John or Scissor Sisters are or aren’t good musicians — I just think it’s worth a reporter asking the rector about.

    I would freak out of my parish vestry rented out my parish sanctuary for anything approaching a SS concert on the altar — but I am aware that other people have no such qualms. Still, the diversity of opinion about such things warrants more than radio silence.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Also, Hans, if you want interesting questions — how about the fact that I listened to Scissor Sisters *while* writing this post?

  • Stephen A.

    I agree. This isn’t news. Yet, I do remember someone protesting quite vehemently that we discussed that “Disco Mass” a while back, with him saying it was “very rare” and that we were making more out of it than we should be.

    Apparently, twisted gay singers are allowed to perform in TEC churches quite regularly. Well, at least twice that have made the papers, but I’m seeing a pattern.

    And what’s the difference between renting out a cathedral to gay people and selling out to them? Surely it’s only a matter of degree. So again, not really news.

  • Hans

    Stephen A,

    I don’t know if Elton John’s gayness is really the offense so much as is the fact that, as I said before, he’s basically renting out the church to worship and glorify himself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the church is called St. John the Divine. While it may not violate the confession of this particular parish to extend itself to the homosexual community, I’d hope that they haven’t gone so far astray that it’s no violation of their confession to allow Elton John to deify himself in their sanctuary. I know that TEC is a bit fuzzy with theological distinctions, but nobody in it believes that Elton John is God, do they?

  • Hans

    Mollie,

    Considering our present musical preferences, I’m reminded of the great quote from Gareth Keenan in the UK version of the Office.

    “I’m not homophobic. Take a look at my CD collection: Queen, George Michael, Pet Shop Boys. They’re all bummers.”

  • Stephen A.

    Elton as God? I would hope it hasn’t gone quite that far in the TEC, but who knows, really?

    I was actually more concerned with that Scissor Sisters group than him, actually.

    But as I said, this is all par for the course at this point.

  • Dale

    The story about the Colorado parish is yet a further instance of TEC behaving in a self-contradictory manner. In its confrontation with the Anglican Communion, TEC portrays itself as the champion of autonomy, yet in its confrontation with Grace Church, TEC suspends the rector without providing any information to the vestry. How is that respect of local church governance? Why should anyone pay attention to TEC’s cries about the Anglican Communion interfering in its affairs while it is grossly interfering in the lives of its congregations? Does anyone really believe that the investigation of “financial irregularities” is unconnected to the fact that Father Armstrong is a vocal critic of current TEC policies?

    This is about wielding power, and as long as TEC is the one wielding it, TEC is unconcerned about autonomy.

    As for Dame Elton, well, what can be said? My non-liturgical, real-presence-denying Baptist church wouldn’t dream of renting its worship space out to anyone for a birthday party, let alone allow a rock band named for a sex act perform on the altar. How can a church allow that when its concept of the presence of Christ in the eucharist is much more concrete? Unless of course, it doesn’t believe it at all? The fact that the MSM finds Elton John’s shindig unremarkable is surely an indication that it doesn’t grasp the significance of the eucharist and the altar in the Anglican tradition.

    Oh, and I love quote on the cover of OUT: “The fact that three of us are gay is the least interesting fact about us.” Right. That’s why you’re posed on the cover, half out of a diaphonous shirt, mouth agape, with one hand clutching the buttock of an unidentified male.

  • Edward

    I read the original Post article about the party but had no idea until now that “Scissor Sisters” was a meaningful reference to a lesbian sexual act.

    You really can learn a lot from Episcopalians.

  • Hans

    Dale said,

    Right. That’s why you’re posed on the cover, half out of a diaphonous shirt, mouth agape, with one hand clutching the buttock of an unidentified male.

    Kudos on your word choice. “Buttock”, as a noun, is infinitely more hilarious in the singular form than the plural.

  • Stephen A.

    …and I say kudos on Dale’s use of the word “diaphonous.”

    I also didn’t know about the provenance of that band’s name until now. Hmmm. New light is shed on the entire episode.

  • Martha

    In regard to renting out the cathedral to host a party, it makes me wonder about the oft-repeated ‘fact’ we see quoted about the Current Unpleasantness, that the Episcopal Church is the richest single church in the Anglican Communion and so if they either walk or are kicked out, the other churches will collapse for lack of funding.

    How wealthy can they be in fact if they are reduced to selling off churches (Bishop Bennison’s folly in Western Michigan), going to court so as to hang on to every last candlestick and hassock in the parishes that want to leave, and renting out their cathedral for a birthday bash? I know they’re supposed to have fabulous endowments from the departed faithful of long past, but how much money is really in the piggy bank? Taking into consideration that the membership numbers are declining year on year, and we have the Presiding Bishop’s rationale as to why they’re not renewing their numbers by reproducing, so it looks like they’re not attracting new blood (and disposable incomes) into the church to keep up the payments for maintenance of the historic piles and fund the Millenium Development Goals.

    Now that’s a question I’d love to see raised in the next round of “As Canterbury Revolves” instead of parroting the party line that ‘we pay for all of you so you all better shut up and be nice to us!’

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Let me suggest another reason why the Elton John story got a pass: because it’s not church politics, and it isn’t legally actionable.

  • Michael

    Northern Virginia parishes are asked about every statement made by Peter Akinola in Nigeria

    Are they? Because the definitely don’t give many straight answers that I’ve seen reported. You seem to think this isn’t a big issue, but I think most mainstream reporters view Akinola is the elephant in the room. He’s controversial, provocative, and arguably promoting the violation of international human rights. It seems reasonable that those who have annointed his as their leader should be asked about his behavior. Do you not think those are appropriate questions to be asked of people who are helping fund Akiniola’s efforts?

    I think it’s fair to ask the rector of St. John the Divine about the people who rent their space. Lots of big churches–especially landmark churches like St. John–allow people to use the space because frankly it’s expensive to keep a building that large running.

  • http://until.joe-perez.com joe perez

    I would think if there are folks who make a stink about Elton John appearing and if they are willing to go to lengths to express their disapproval, then it would be fair for reporters to report on the actual controversy. Absolutely it should be covered, if it’s a real live issue! But Mollie’s “shame and blame” approach–condemning reporters who fail to manufacture controversy when there doesn’t appear to be one–is a yawner. If a church renting space to a pop star is fair news, then this GetReligion piece is fair criticism.

  • Hans

    Interesting new twist in the Elton John story. Apparently, St. John the Divine’s was not his first choice for where to host the party. Here is a list of the churches that turned him down:

    St. Benedict of the Jets
    Burn Down the Mission Pentecostal Church
    St. Eltonius the Very, Very Gay
    Our Almost a Lady of the Not-So-Perpetual Virginity
    St. Julian the Hospitaller (Elton was most hurt by this rejection since Julian is the patron saint of knights, childless people and musicians who haven’t put out a consistantly good album since 1976.)

    Does anyone know of any other churches that turned down his request?

  • Martha

    Joe, if a celeb bash is news (rather than gossip, which given the simultaneously giggly and awe-struck tone, is what it sounds like to me), then someone somewhere vaguely remembering “Hey, didn’t this guy say religion is bad and awful and terrible and very, very naughty? And his boyfriend is renting a cathedral for his birthday? What’s with that?” might just possibly be a legitimate angle for the story.

    Of course, this would require reporters to remember the details of the last big exclusive they splashed all over the papers (y’know, “Elton slams Pope!”, that one?) but given the mayfly existence of gossip columnists and social diarists, I suppose that’s too much to ask.

    Actually, you’re right: calling the gossip columnists and social diarists ‘reporters’ is inappropriate. But one might expect the real reporters, particularly the religion ones, to be faintly interested in an event which touches upon their area of interest. Particularly when talking about ‘silver chalices’ and ‘performances on the altar’ (which I am fervently hoping meant the sanctuary, which is bad enough, but not that one of the Sisters hopped up on top of the altar and strutted his stuff).

  • bob

    Listen, whatever the event, Episcopalians are just happy to see butts in the seats.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bob–considering the issue that is rending the Episcopal-Anglican churches–what are we to make of your statement that they are “happy to see butts in the seats.”???

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Listen, whatever the event, Episcopalians are just happy to see butts in the seats.

    Only on Sunday mornings. Celebrity birthday parties don’t count for ASA.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Hey Michael:

    When are you Michael and when are you Religious Left Online? Is this simply a different computer? Or is there another blogger under that second name?

    Just wanting to be clear.

  • Michael

    Usually they are separate, but every once in a while–usually be accident–they diverge.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Dale says it best…

    “As for Dame Elton, well, what can be said? My non-liturgical, real-presence-denying Baptist church wouldn’t dream of renting its worship space out to anyone for a birthday party, let alone allow a rock band named for a sex act perform on the altar. How can a church allow that when its concept of the presence of Christ in the eucharist is much more concrete? Unless of course, it doesn’t believe it at all? The fact that the MSM finds Elton John’s shindig unremarkable is surely an indication that it doesn’t grasp the significance of the eucharist and the altar in the Anglican tradition.”

    I mean, Michael/Religious Left Online (dare I say “sock puppet”?) says “I think it’s fair to ask the rector of St. John the Divine about the people who rent their space.” (emphasis mine).

    Silly me…I thought the whole point of having a building dedicated to worship was that it was NOT “their” space, but GOD’S SPACE. Heck I was taught that Churches were “God’s House”. So it really isn’t SJDV’s space to RENT. The rector and the vestry aren’t the landlord, they are more of a property manager.

    Basicly they are booking Sir Elton and his sexually unusuall friends into Jesus Christ’s living room.

    (Assuming of course, as Dale said, they believe in Jesus Christ at all…which seems to be what this fight is all about.)

    In any case, when I saw this all I could think of was that I had seen this before … in the Old Testament… and it didn’t exactly end well then….Sigh…

    I guess this means it is time for someone to give the Assyrians their cue…

  • Dale

    Larry:

    Just a point of clarification–I didn’t mean they didn’t believe in Jesus Christ at all, but rather the indifference to the use of altar area makes it difficult to believe that they take seriously the real presence of Christ in the elements of the eucharist. If you believe that God Himself is uniquely made present in that space during the eucharist, are you going to allow it to be used in off-hours as an entertainment venue?

  • Wendy

    I love Elton John and I positively adore the Scissor Sisters and I’m so pleased that the Episcopalian Church is not discriminating against Gays BUT

    I don’t want our churches rented out for anything not somewhat related to the Church’s interests. It seems disrespectful . . . like touching a beautiful painting with sticky fingers.

  • http://www.southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    Oh my! Y’all … this is just too weird.

    Back when I was 12, my Southern Baptist church had me as the preacher for the annual Youth Sunday.

    In my sermon I said something like: “If we’d put a banner out front announcing that Elton John would be here today … we would not have an empty seat! And yet, God is present and look around you!”

    [I was asked to preach again the following year and, bummer to me, the Preacher asked for me to turn in a written copy of my sermon in advance.]

  • Eli

    Favorite line from the post:

    And for what it’s worth, to do a Google Images search for the band is to venture into a part of the Internet where it’s best not to roll down the window.

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  • http://blackphi.blog-city.com/ BlackPhi

    I have to say that I don’t really get Mollie’s point over Elton John’s party. The New York Post article says: “Church officials apparently turned the other cheek to Sir John’s disparaging comments, …”. Jesus’ teaching in, for example, the passage from Luke 6:27 onward is both clear and well-known – you don’t repay enmity with enmity, but with love: it’s supposed to be what makes Christians different. The very idea that his application should have been rejected because of his “fighting words” is weird – are there really Christian groupings that openly oppose this teaching? That would be news.

    There are issues about appropriate uses of the chancel area, about outside events interfering with the liturgical life of the cathedral, and about the appropriateness of using a church building for events from which members of the local community are excluded. But basically these are local religious concerns and I see no reason why the MSM, or its readership, should be interested.

    To be a little unkind: Peter Akinola is relevant to what happens in the news today, Elton John was relevant well over thirty years ago.

  • Stephen A.

    BlackPhi, what the TEC church in question did was the equivalent of early Christians renting out their church to Caligula. I missed the Bible passage that required Christians to bow to the customs and practices of Caesar, or to “bow” to him at all. Can you point me to that one, please?

    And Elton John is still (apparently) an icon in the homosexual community and very much “relevant” in American and British culture, simply beacuse he is still covered in the media. It’s no mystery that this openly gay man’s image is plastered everywhere in pop culture, and why his name hasn’t faded like so many other 70s rockers. It serves an agenda to cover him.

    FYI: Peter Akinola Googled: 123,000; Elton John Googled: 7.1 million; Jesus Christ Googled: 19.1 million

  • http://blackphi.blog-city.com/ BlackPhi

    Stephen, I assume the comparison between Elton John and Caligula is hyperbole; particularly since the early Christians didn’t actually have big expensive cathedrals in Caligula’s day. I don’t see anything in the story that implies that churchgoers were bowing to anyone – they simply rented out an underused space for a party.

    This post, and some of its comments, seem to think the big issue here is homosexuality. Presumably the cathedral involved is on the wing of the US Episcopal Church which actively welcomes gays; so this is hardly news. I’ve seen no news reports which suggest that orgies took place: just a birthday party with live music (it is probably relevant to note that the cathedral is, according to Wikipedia, a major center for musical performances in New York).

    I guess I wasn’t clear about my (probably elitist) distinction between ‘relevant’ and ‘interesting to lots of people’.

    As an ex-pop-star Elton John still has lots of fans: lots of people who are interested in his doings, and presumably like to read about him in gossip columns. But, apart from a brief period after Princess Diana died, what he says and does hasn’t really made a lot of difference (AFAIK) for thirty years or so.

    Peter Akinola may not have so many fans in Google-land, but he provided a focus and a spokesman at the time when more conservative sections of the worldwide Anglican communion decided to fight back against what was widely seen as an increasingly aggressive liberal agenda. His statements and actions continue to have important impacts on the US Episcopal Church, and on the worldwide Anglican communion (and, I think, on the worldwide Church – these issues are not just Anglican). Like him or loathe him, Peter Akinola is news; whilst Elton John is, at most, gossip column fodder.

  • Stephen A.

    “an underused space” That’s a great, if sad, observation of this TEC church, even if unintended.

    And again, I totally agree on Elton’s lack of true relevance, and that the opposite is true of Akinola.

    I guess the bottom line question here (and in other stories) is that many people wonder if a church can “welcome gays” without also welcoming the “gay culture” of self-absorbtion, self-love, and freewheeling sexuality that it brings. This story seems to say “no.” From what I’ve seen online, the group that was invited into this “space” (“sacred” space?) was a celebration of that sexual ethic.

    The reporter would have been better off focusing on those aspects of the ‘culture’ that have apparently been embraced by the TEC, and which are now corroding its sexual morality from within and destroying its relationship with traditional Anglican Christianity.

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    Archbishop Akinola uses his cathedral to consecrate bishops, 20+ this year. And the good Archbishop doesn’t need a course in Critical Thinking 101, which I would recommend for most members of The Episcopal Church. Or at least the prerequiste: Basic Common Sense.


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