Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Living History through the Church

Paul Brown
Fifty years later, the 1960s still grab our attention as we observe the anniversaries of a succession of historic events like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. I’m nearing my 50th birthday this year and I trust that that anniversary won’t get a lot of attention. But my father, who is a semi-retired Episcopal clergyman, will soon approach a big milestone of his own: the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary and the start of his career in the ministry. And I’m struck now by how much his life and his work in the church have paralleled many of the major cultural and social changes in our country, and church, in the last half century. 

My dad was raised a Methodist in segregated Birmingham in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His call to the Episcopal priesthood came in part from his student days at the University of Alabama. In 1956 he witnessed an Episcopal chaplain – at the cost of bodily injury – defend young Autherine Lucy, the African-American student who was menaced by an angry mob after seeking to integrate the school. Later, Dad did his seminary field work at Grace Church, Silver Spring, an almost completely white suburban parish in the mid-60s. Now, Grace reflects Silver Spring’s diversity and his son, coincidentally, is on the vestry. 

The churches my father has served in his long career reflect the breadth of the Episcopal experience, from prosperous “establishment” churches in suburban Baltimore and rural St. Michael’s, Maryland, to a diverse, downtown parish and mission in Detroit and his current church in urban Baltimore. He has made cherished friends in all places, but I think he has particularly valued those places that are diverse in color and economic status, either by circumstance or purpose. 

My first memories of the church were observations of him at work. I remember a graveside funeral he performed as a young priest for an American pilot killed in Vietnam. Later, my father recounted the difficulties he had balancing his pastoral duties with his personal – and theological – opposition to the war, and the struggle he had counseling the young pilot’s family as a result. 

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was rector of a church in Lynchburg, Virginia, home to Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. Dad never shied away from the controversies of the day, including the ordination of women clergy and the 1979 prayer book. But he was able to do so, with his native Southern charm and humor, in a way that kept more conservative parishioners in the fold, and as friends. 

In the early ‘90s, my father was asked by his boss, the Bishop of Michigan, if he would discretely perform a civil union ceremony for a lesbian couple in the diocese, well aware that this was breaking new ground for the church and the diocese. He gladly agreed, although it did not go unnoticed in his church which, despite its ethnic diversity, still had many parishioners with traditional, and strongly held, beliefs on sexual identity and religion. 

I never had the same call to ministry that my father had. But my personal faith and my active involvement in the Episcopal Church continue to grow. I thank my father for his graceful example, for demonstrating how one can be a force for positive change without judging or dividing people. I also am grateful that because of his work and that of countless other clergy, we’ve held together as a church while being at the vanguard of a lot of needed changes. It’s been a remarkable 50 years.

Paul Brown is a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring.