/ HierCon / Church /
I’m narrating stories illustrating the thesis (Ivan Illich’s) (and mine) that society’s institutions militate against the Christian ideals we’re supposed to embody: that we support vertical hierarchies, authorities, secular as well as sacred, while pretending to embody horizontal cooperation, love … The main part are my school experiences; but my church-related memories are also damning: damning to the society.
I tell a series of Presbyterian stories, here’s the background:
My sister and I were sent to sunday school at the church around the corner. We were out of the house, our parents could sleep till noon: or eleven, or attend church themselves still having had extra time to recover from Saturday night’s party. When I was an infant we lived withink NY’s five boroughs. My godfather was bishop of Brooklyn for the Anglican Church, he baptised me.
But now, in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, we seemed to be “Presbyterian.” Let’s assume for a moment that we know what “Anglican” means: how: what does “Presbyterian” mean?
I didn’t know till I was eighteen or so, though I’d been confirmed in this same Presbyterian church that had controlled my sunday schooling. I’ll come back to that in a moment (except to say here that presbyter means something like “elder”: a church run by senior males.)
My sunday school teacher was Mr. Dade. I loved him. Mr. Dade had two sons in my class: both in my sunday school class and in my public school class: same two boys (actually, one was in my class, theother was in the class behind, a “year” younger). I had no such thoughts at the time but now I realize that the church had no requirement to confirm the Presbyterian orthodoxy of its sunday school faculty. Mr. Dade I came to realize was a strict Calvinist. He believed in the Elect. He believed, or said he believed, that he himself was among the Elect. Under his guidance I convinced myself (and maybe God convinced me too) that I too was among the Elect (though eventually I came to see that I am among the Elect and Mr. Dade was Not among the Elect!)
(I loved Mr. Dade in another respect too: he and Mrs. Dade were accomplished square dancers: and Mrs. Dade, in her country outfit, was a wonderful picture of beautiful womanhood: almost a peer to my own mother!) (Mr. Dade was short; she was not! slender, graceful. She didn’t tower over him, but she did reach an inch closer to the ceiling.)
So: there I was: a christened Anglican, attending a Presbytian brain wash, administered by a strict Calvinist.
Mr. Dade told us stories of his own childhood, tipping over outhouses on Holloween, but still: there was no doubt: committed sins had nothing to do with being Saved! Whew! That was good news for the rest of us, sinning left and right, easier all the time.
Except that it is not possible among any religious I’ve ever met to discuss “sin”; to lecture on sin, top down, oh, yes: that’s easy.
As a child I loved Mr. Dade, I loved sunday school. I also loved to attend the regular adult church. The kids were told bible stories and protestant propaganda from 10 AM till ten to 11. At 11 the adults assembled in the main church for the regular service. Two hours was deemed to be a lot for a kid to sit through, kids weren’t expected to attend the adult service. (I no longer rememeber what we were expected to do instead: if parents were picking us up and taking us home, when were they supposed to attend services?) But I liked the service. Sometimes I wanted to sit for two hours straight. I gradually came to understand: this part is the bible reading, this part is the collection, this part is the announcements, and this long part is the main part: the sermon …
I was a member of the junior choir. I loved it every year when Easter rolled around and we got to sing Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus. I loved it when the bass sang, “And he shall reign for ever and ever.” I was able, a little bit, to follow the polyphony: everybody iterating the same thing, a little offset from each other. So:
My sunday school teacher had predicted that I’d have trobule with my faith when I was eighteen “and went to college.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t see any danger to my faith. I’ve told this part before, but the fed censored everything, so pardon me if I repeat. (How come you didn’t stop the fed from censoring me?)
So: I loved Easter. I loved all the services, particularly the Easter service: the church full of lillies, the choir at full strength, a little Handel on tap … So: 1957 or so. I’ve had at least a semester of Columbia, and I’m sitting in the church for the Easter service, alone, I don’t remember where my mother or sister were, and the Reverend Harry Matthias (see my Pastor story) is delivering his Easter sermon. I’m expecting something about life, rebirth … resurrection … mercy; Mathias is giving us an illiterate’s diatribe against Existentialism: only he’s referring to Jean Paul Sartre as Gene Paul Sart! no attempt to Frenchify it. (I endorse Americanizations now, but I didn’t then.) Matthias was driving me crazy! (So maybe Mr. Dade was right after all!)
So: I plucked a hymnal from the book sleeve on the back of the pew before me. I recalled that a manifesto of what we Presbyterians believed was printed in the front of every hymnal: it was about time that I glanced at it.
Yoiks! It was all straight orthodox John Knox! Predestination with a big dose of paternalism: the male congregation elders being accepted as holy and wise. Knox never met our elders! (I’ll tell about one or two of them separately: one is important to the pk biography: Mr. Krauss worked for the phone company and it was to him that I outlined my proposal for an internet in 1970, asking for Ma Bell’s patronage.
So: Matthias was droning on about “Sart” and despair! Existential candor is despair? And Knoxism was alientating me by the sentence. I realized: I had no business in that church. Matthias was offending me, Presbyterianism was offending me.
I’ve attended Presbyterian services since. There was a Presbyterian church across Broadway from Columbia with a famous minister. And I’ve appealed to other Presbyterian rectors as the accompanying stories tell: being betrayed in 100% of the cases. (But then I’ve been betrayed in my appeals to pastors from every sect I’ve appealed to.) (Then again I’ve come to reconsider my role to be parallel to Jesus: getting betrayed by the Temple of Jerusalem. God didn’t send his messengers to help us, but to damn our leaders!
I sometimes wish that Jesus’ betrayal had satisfied the quorum. But if God wants to refresh the betrayals in generation after generation, I guess I’m happy after al to have cooperated, whatever the personal inconvenience to me. I no longer even care if God saves me: I’m glad to have been a player whatever the outcome.