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Reflections on the SCP 2012 Conference

October 15, 2012

This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles for the 4th annual Society of Catholic Priests conference.  One of the things that’s great about this and other conferences is the variety of venues and locations; I’ve never been to LA before and what a great chance to go!  We were graciously hosted by the good people of St. Mark’s in Glendale.  The conference began on Wednesday with Solemn Evensong and Benediction, which was glorious.  As the conference has moved away from it’s founding church, Christ Church in New Haven, CT, I think they’ve encountered some logistical problems and some of these showed through but really they were very minor.

The rest of the conference was centered on presentations and worship with plenty of fellowship time throughout.  As you might expect, the worship was angelic and I even had the delightful (though slightly anxious) opportunity to serve at both Solemn High Masses as the subdeacon.  One of things I truly value about this conference is all that I learn.  This role, in that type of service, was not something I had done before and so I had to learn, but that was the beautiful thing about it.

Our presenters at this conference are always erudite, inspiring, and though-provoking, and this year was no different.  Friend of the Society and liturgical scholar, Dr. Derek Olsen, returned this year, and was accompanied by Dr. Charlie Stang of Harvard Divinty, the Rev. Julie Morris of the Abundant Table Project, and our own Society Convener, The Rev. Dr. Bill Carroll.  The topic they were all asked to address (with the exception of Dr. Stang, who “didn’t get the memo”) was “Catholic Social Witness.”

Dr. Olsen led off with a wonderful presentation (the text of which is available at his blog here) on how praying the Daily Office is a key element in helping to form a catholic social conscience through the constant use of the psalms and canticles.  His main points were: (1) the psalms and canticles “define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God;” (2) that “they emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself;” and (3) they “form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes.”

He concludes with this powerful admonition, “Praying the Office just every once in a while isn’t enough. It has to become a discipline. That doesn’t mean that if you miss it once you’re lost or anything, but its power lies in the force of habits. Habits of mind, habits of devotion, habits of thought. That’s what transforms us—patterns of life.”

His whole text is really worth reading, if for nothing else than what he has to say about how the imprecatory psalms (the psalms that call for God to curse others) can also shape us.
Dr. Charles Stang, Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School, presented perhaps the most provocative topic of the week, on something he referred to as “twinning.”  This is a concept wherein ones relationship with Christ becomes so close as to form almost a twin-like relationship.  He presented the idea that in the Gospel of Thomas, some scholars believe that Thomas was actually Jesus twin brother.  (We had to shelve a lot of preconceived notions for this presentation, but that was acknowledged up front.)  It was a fascinating topic, a challenging presentation, but I described it in the end as “interesting in the way something in a store window is interesting.  I’ll look at it for a while, but I’m not going to buy it.”

Mother Julie Morris presented what I thought was the overall most interesting topic, or at least the one from which I took the most ideas away with me.  The Abundant Table project is an Episcopal Service Corps project that grows, harvests, and provides organic vegetables to local food pantries and farmers’ markets.  They are all about organic, sustainable (I don’t like those terms: all food is by nature organic and sustainable describes most food with the exception of manatee steaks and dodo bird breasts, but when I use these words, you know what I am talking about!) and healthy food and cooking and connect all of those ideas to both the gospel imperative to feed the hungry and the Eucharist.
Finally, Society Convener Bill Carroll presented the historical writings of Vina Scudder, focusing on social transformation and the Christian Year.  We spent a lot of time in discussion about the Christian year, mostly lamenting the loss of many of its traditions in the culture.  What I was most interested in was how do we live into that Christian year in an embodied way in out churches so as to teach about its gifts to us without sounding old fashioned.  We didn’t get very far in that discussion, but I am still interested.  This year I will be focusing on how do we make Easter a bigger season in this parish than Lent, as it ought to be.  And I think I’ve got some fun ideas and great things in store.

As I’ve said before, I think the academic quality of the presentations at the SCP conferences is hard to rival in terms of Episcopal continuing education opportunities.  It is always challening, thought-provoking, and serves to bring us back to our call as priests to worship God in the beauty of holiness and to go into the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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