Poetry

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Canon Mary Changes Her Mind

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

 

There once was a church of St. Paul

That could not find an interim to call;

Said the canon, with glee,

“You must kowtow to me

And Nan Chalfant-Walker install.”

 

 

Front doors of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Mt. Lebanon, Pa.

 

 

I have not written many limericks, but I was inspired to write this one by the example of the Rev. Michael Russell, Rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in San Diego, California. Mike regularly writes limericks about the Episcopal Church and posts them to the House of Bishops and Deputies e-mail list. I have much to learn from his imaginative verse.

So, what is this poem about? My church, as mentioned elsewhere, is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. We are currently looking for a new rector (the head clergy person in an Episcopal parish). It is customary for a parish in such a situation to hire an interim rector, a priest to take on the duties of rector while the search for a permanent rector is in progress. The vestry, the board of laypersons that manages the financial affairs of a parish, hires the interim rector with the advice and consent of the local bishop. Engaging an interim rector can be tricky business, as the job of interim is seen as a specialized ministry, and not many priests perform it. Moreover, it makes little sense to spend extraordinary effort on finding an interim rector only to have to mount another such effort to find a permanent rector.

Now to the story behind the poem: St. Paul’s can best be described as a broad-church parish within the very conservative Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Our worship is neither too Catholic nor too Protestant, and we welcome both theological and personal diversity in parishioners, even though we do not always achieve them. Our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan, heads the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, a dissident group seeking to take the Episcopal Church in a more “biblically orthodox” direction. St. Paul’s has regularly opposed its bishop’s agenda, albeit with some reluctance. It is a relatively large and prosperous parish, however, which provides some protection from diocesan efforts to drive parishes to the theological right.

In many dioceses, the bishop would meet from time to time with parishes searching for rectors or interim rectors. In Pittsburgh, Bishop Duncan who seems to spend much of his time working for the Network, is less involved in local matters, so Canon Mary Maggard Hays is the primary diocesan contact with parish vestries. On her visits to parishes, she is usually accompanied by Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven, whose primary function seems to be to provide episcopal gravitas and British charm.

When St. Paul’s first sought an interim rector, Canon Hays recommended the Rev. Nancy Chalfant-Walker, known improbably as Nano (or Nan). Chalfant-Walker is charming, talented, and theologically conservative—right of the St. Paul’s center, but decidedly left of the bishop. The vestry interviewed her and decided that the ideal candidate should have more experience. (Chalfant-Walker had only been ordained a few years, had no experience as rector or interim rector, and had no training in interim ministry.) The vestry finally hired another priest suggested by Bishop Scriven. Not to put too fine a point on it, this priest did not work out well and had to be dismissed after only a few months on the job. Thereupon, the continuing clergy at St. Paul’s, mostly retired priests, collectively and informally began operating as might an interim rector. The long-term viability of this arrangement was unclear. (The oldest priest was nearly 80.) Canon Hays met with the vestry after the debacle of its first interim rector choice and indicated that, after a decent interval, she would have additional recommendations for an interim. She assured the vestry, however, that it could reject any proposed candidate. The vestry, unwisely it seems, waited for Canon Hays to act.

She did so on April 24, 2006, in a meeting with the vestry in which she read a letter announcing that, contrary to her previous pledge—and perhaps even contrary to the canons of the Episcopal Church—the vestry would have to accept the Rev. Nancy Chalfant-Walker as its interim rector. In response to questions from the vestry, Canon Hays admitted her about-face, but she was firm in her determination to impose this particular priest on St. Paul’s.

It seems unlikely that Mary Hays (and, of course, Bishop Duncan) will not get her way. Chalfant-Walker may even do a commendable job at St. Paul’s. Nonetheless, the move is likely to divide the vestry and put a cloud over the work of the rector search committee.

These events are ironic, given that Bishop Duncan and his allies are always complaining about how “liberal” bishops intimidate and persecute their “orthodox” congregations. This surely seems to be a case of an “orthodox” bishop intimidating a moderate—not even a liberal—parish.

May God have mercy on us all.

This poem was written the day after Canon Hays’ visit. I should mention one technical point. I was tempted to render “interim” as “int’rim” in the second line, but this rather unnatural form did not really seem necessary. Syllables “in” and “call,” of course, are to be stressed in either case.

— LED, 4/26/2006

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