There have been some recent developments in the Max Lucado debacle at the National Cathedral, which I like to refer to as the Max Meltdown.
And while those developments seem well-intended, they may prove to be too little, too late. These developments include apologies from Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith and Bishop Mariann Budde, as well as a listening session to be held on February 21 at 7:00 PM eastern.
For those not already following the Max Meltdown, the National Cathedral recently had Max Lucado, a prominent evangelical preacher, deliver a sermon via the Cathedral’s livestream. Standing at the pulpit, Lucado spoke about the power of the Holy Spirit.
So far, so good.
But the problem was that Lucado has a long history of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, including claiming that sexual minorities are outside God’s saving grace, and comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality.
The result, not surprisingly, was uproar within the Episcopal church that included not just the LGBTQ+ community, but also many who value diversity and inclusion.
One prominent critic was Jim Naughton, former canon for communication to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW), now a partner in Canticle Communications, who was quoted by the Episcopal News Service:
“I just think this is a staggering display of presumption on their part,” said Jim Naughton, a former canon for communications with the Diocese of Washington who served under then-Bishop John Chane from 2002 to 2009. Naughton, now a partner in Canticle Communications, spoke to Episcopal News Service by phone on Feb. 5.
“Max Lucado does not have any problem making himself heard. He does not need the cathedral, the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral, to reach his audience,” Naughton said. “The issue is whether Washington National Cathedral wants to give its imprimatur to him and wants to extend the prestige of its pulpit. … I find it incredibly disrespectful.”
Warnings of Danger
Nor were Naughton’s comments the only warning that trouble was lurking.
In the run-up to Lucado’s sermon, social media lit up over the topic, with posters on Facebook overwhelmingly criticizing the decision to invite Lucado.
Other notables, including the Rev. Susan Russell, an activist, Episcopal priest, and ardent supporter of equality, also weighed in. “Everyone is welcome in the church, but not every perspective is welcome in the pulpit,” she said.
Nor were Randy Hollerith or +Budde unaware of the looming danger of a Max Meltdown. Indeed, both have acknowledged they got numerous phone calls and emails expressing unhappiness with the decision, which they brushed off or ignored.
Indeed, even as a petition ramped up on change.org, Hollerith tried to hold the line, sending out the following missive to those who contacted him, which basically said, “Thanks for nothing. Now shove off.”
First, I want to thank you for writing to share your thoughts about our upcoming guest preacher, Max Lucado, and for sharing the petition and signatures with me. I value your feedback as a member of our Cathedral family.
I also want to underscore that our commitment to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is unshakable and unchanged. As you know, this Cathedral has long been a beacon for LGBTQ inclusion, and we believe in that because we believe the Gospel calls us to nothing short of full embrace and inclusion. That said, I understand why Max’s earlier statements on LGBTQ issues would cause concern, and I want you to know that I share your concerns. As an ally of the LGBTQ community myself, it grieves me when churches or religion are used as weapons against God’s LGBTQ children.
Let me share why we invited Max to preach. We have to come out of our corners, find common ground where we can, and find ways to live with and see each other as the beloved children of God that we are. We have all grown too accustomed in our silos and echo chambers. In order to start the process of rebuilding, we need to hear from each other.
That does not mean we will always agree. In fact, I don’t agree with Max’s views on LGBTQ issues. We can still hold our convictions and cling to our values in the midst of disagreement. But the work that we cannot ignore is the vitally important task of what Isaiah called “repairing the breach.” That starts, first and foremost, with those with whom we disagree. When we only engage with those with whom we agree on every issue, we find ourselves in a dangerous (and lonely) place. My hope is that all churches and faith communities will find ways to open their doors to perspectives different from their own.
This Cathedral is a house of prayer for all people, proudly so. That means this Cathedral, and this pulpit, are big enough and strong enough to welcome pastors, rabbis, imams, clergy of every faith. It does not mean we agree with everything they might believe, but it does mean that we exhibit and inhabit a sense of open handed welcome.
Again, thank you for writing. I do appreciate it, and I do hear you. I hope you’ll join us on Sunday, and I look forward to remaining in dialogue with you.
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL
Additionally, at the 11th hour, Hollerith pulled Gene Robinson into the fray, with the latter offering a short but impassioned homily in defense of the decision to invite Lucado that centered primarily on supporting the overall mission of the Cathedral. Thus while I, like many, have great affection for Gene Robinson, I saw his defense as one that suggested that the end justified the means.
Hedging from On High
Even after Lucado preached, the initial discourse from Hollerith was a case of too little, too late, wrapped up in a nice shiny layer of clueless arrogance.
On January 9th, +Budde and Hollerith began talking about a “teachable moment” for the church, while expressing regret for the pain that they had caused to the LGBTQ+ community. Backpedaling anyone?
For many, though, the conversation seemed like a hedging of bets in which church leaders wanted to split the difference, partially acknowledge problems, and keep on truckin’ with a call to discourse. Per the Episcopal News Service:
Last Friday, as criticism began to mount, Hollerith acknowledged those concerns while framing Lucado’s invitation as part of the cathedral’s efforts to encourage openness to different perspectives. He again responded to the controversy in his opening welcome to viewers of the Feb. 7 online service.
Lucado “has said some things in the past about the LGBTQ community that have caused deep pain,” Hollerith said. “I don’t agree with those statements, and the cathedral does not agree with those statements. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings are the beloved children of God just as they are.”
He also announced that Lucado had agreed to join him and others for “a public conversation” about the hurt caused by Christian churches and opportunities for healing. Details about that conversation, including a date, have yet to be determined. (Emphasis added.)
Or as one commenter on social media put it, “This is not a teachable moment. This is a slap in the face.”
Apologies from +Budde, Hollerith
By February 10, facing what was by then a massive storm surge of anger and dismay from persons all across the country, +Budde and Hollerith finally backed away from the defense of the Cathedral’s decision and issued simultaneous apologies.
In doing so, +Budde acknowledged that she had not listened to those who asked the Cathedral to reconsider, adding that she is listening now. And she added that she seeks not offer not just an apology, but to make amends.
Meanwhile, Hollerith apologized for his “mistake,” and said he was wrong, even as he recited something remarkably similar to comments from the Rev, Susan Russell. His remark:
In my straight privilege I failed to see and fully understand the pain he has caused. I failed to appreciate the depth of injury his words have had on many in the LGBTQ community. I failed to see the pain I was continuing. I was wrong and I am sorry.
That sounds suspiciously similar to Susan’s comment:
It is unexamined privilege writ large when straight people don’t even get what they don’t get about the toxic impact on queer people of someone like Lucado in the pulpit. It is a bad decision, a sad day and a huge disappointment.
And while I agree with Susan that neither Hollerith or +Budde even know what questions to ask, I believe there are two key points missing from the conversation.
Mistake? Not So Much
First, I do not believe we are talking about a mistake.
Simply put, a mistake is when we don’t intend to do something.
If I am pulling up to a stop sign, and intend to press the brake, but hit the gas instead, the ensuing accident is a mistake. My insurance company may wind up paying damages, and I probably need to apologize to the other driver, but there is little doubt that I have made a mistake.
If, on the other hand, I am approaching the stop sign and my passenger says, “Hey be careful. There’s a stop sign approaching,” but I ignore the passenger and knowingly tramp the accelerator, only to hear even more fervent warnings, is it a mistake when the inevitable happens and I blast into the intersection, thus causing an accident?
Of course, one may argue that the conduct in question is a mistake in judgment. But when so many voices are sounding warnings, and Hollerith tramps the gas anyway, at some point the question becomes one of character.
Or, as Maya Angelou famously put it, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
As for +Budde, her point about not being the pulpit police is fair, and I expect and hope she has many more things on her plate than to worry about sermons at the National Cathedral. But, as with Hollerith, at some point the sleeping beauty defense simply doesn’t cut it and only adds insult to injury.
Are Amends Even Possible?
The other concern I have is that it is not clear to me that +Budde and Hollerith even understand the extent of the debacle, or that for many, no amends are possible.
To be clear, I don’t oppose trying to make amends. Indeed, a faith-based perspective requires that one try.
But at the same time, all involved need to understand that there are some situations that cross the line into abuse, and in which the underlying issue isn’t one of forgiveness and repentance. Instead, the church’s actions force the victim to take steps to move towards health and wholeness, to protect those they love, and to find peace.
As someone who has heard horrific, homophobic slurs and rejection from family members, I can personally attest that even going to church and forming the relationships of trust and vulnerability essential in a healthy faith community were a challenge. It took me many years to get to that point, and many fits and false starts.
And when I ran into really egregious bad behavior at a previous parish, those gains were more than erased. Indeed, the sense of hurt and betrayal has often felt overwhelming, even though I have tried to learn positive lessons from my experiences.
And so it is with the outrageous decision by the National Cathedral to invite Max Lucado to preach. Just like sexual abuse in the church, there are some situations in which the injured person needs to just walk away, try not to feel disgust, and seek safety elsewhere. Again, this has nothing to do with forgiveness and reconciliation, but instead with safety and survival.
To be sure, there are hints that +Budde and +Hollerith are beginning to understand these dynamics, particularly in +Budde’s apology.
But at this point we’ve already run the stop sign and totaled the car. No amount of apology will ever repair the car, and for many, this will simply prove to be the end of the line in a church that talks a good game, even as it displays incredible incompetence, arrogance, and oftentimes just downright cruelty.
If It’s Inconceivable, It’s Inperceivable
The Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban, canon to the diocese of Connecticut and one of the most astute persons in the church on the issue of abuse, has a saying that is all too applicable. “If it’s inconceivable, it’s inperceiveable.”
In this debacle, Hollerith was convinced he knew better, even in the face of warnings. Yet at the same time, he himself admits that he didn’t know that Max Lucado has never retracted his hateful rhetoric about the LGBTQ+ community. In other words, he didn’t do his due diligence, yet he insisted on moving forward.
Indeed, Hollerith initially made a thoroughly stupid statement, one that largely contradicts his assertion of the sleeping beauty defense. Per the Episcopal News Service:
Hollerith continued that he understands the concerns about Lucado’s past statements on LGBTQ issues and doesn’t agree with those views, but “repairing the breach” starts with listening to people who disagree.
“When we only engage with those with whom we agree on every issue, we find ourselves in a dangerous (and lonely) place,” Hollerith said. “My hope is that all churches and faith communities will find ways to open their doors to perspectives different from their own.”
Thus, while he may not have known about Lucado’s hate-filled rhetoric at the time the invitation to preach was extended, he certainly knew and professed to understand these issues prior to Lucado’s sermon, even as he clearly demonstrated that he lacked even a rudimentary understanding of baseline questions.
In short, Hollerith and +Budde could neither conceive nor perceive the underlying issues, even in the face of a hurricane of warnings from within the church. And Randy Hollerith’s superficial charm and lack of introspection sound for all the world like the classic narcissistic clergy member, telling folks what he thinks they want to hear.
Healer, Heal Thyself
Ironically, understanding the Max Meltdown is possibly best accomplished by looking at Hollerith’s own words early in this disgraceful chapter in the life of the Cathedral.
Specifically, Holleriths’s comment about being open to other ideas and perspectives is exactly where Hollerith is profoundly lacking:
When we only engage with those with whom we agree on every issue, we find ourselves in a dangerous (and lonely) place. My hope is that all churches and faith communities will find ways to open their doors to perspectives different from their own.
By deciding that he knew better, and that he would lead us ignorant laity into the ways of truth and life, Hollerith closed himself off from the feedback of the faithful. In his comfy office on the Cathedral close, surrounded by sycophants and convinced that he was doing the right thing, there simply was no room in his calculus for other points of view. Yes those viewpoints might warrant a token acknowledgement, but the bottom line is that, in Hollerith’s little world, they carried no real weight.
And while that at first seems surprising in a church that prides itself on the via media, my experience is that it’s all too common. Folks in diocesan offices sit in splendid isolation, hearing only what they are told by other clergy, and utterly clueless about the realities of day-to-day life in the church. And they instinctively surround themselves with empaths, supporters, allies and admirers, thus further building walls of isolation that become nothing more than a Q-Anon style echo chamber.
Even +Budde’s statement that, in retrospect, she should have consulted LGBTQ+ colleagues really doesn’t cut it. Yes, colleagues may share their concerns, but when confronted with the so-called Power of the Purple, or the prerogatives that even in a dying church many Episcopal bishops hold, many whose careers may be affected by the possibility of an irate bishop are going to pull their punches.
Nor does a progressive perspective align with integrity. While I view +Budde’s intentions as good, one has only to look at the years of bullying, dishonesty and deceit associated with progressive bishop Jon Bruno to know that bishops have far too little accountability in the Episcopal Church.
In short, next time the Hollerith and the good Christians of the National Cathedral decide to man the ramparts and start belting out “Onward Christian Soldiers,” perhaps they would be better served by taking a deep breath, looking around, and asking some tough questions. A whole lot more listening is needed, and a whole lot less talking.
And while they’re at it, I am going to offer a suggestion that will be utterly ignored and dismissed, but would be profoundly helpful to the church were it to adopt it. It’s a suggestion that I learned years ago, working at AT&T. Specifically, oftentimes the most helpful people to involve in decisions are our most ardent critics.
Yes, doing so takes the hide of a rhinoceros, many a deep breath and numerous sleepless nights. But these are the people willing to tell us, rightly or wrongly, what we don’t want to hear, but need to hear. They are the John the Baptists, the prophets, the persons willing to speak truth to power. They are the people who shove us out of comfort and into action.
Thus, both +Budde and Hollerith would be well advised to set up an email listserv, bulletin board, chat room, or other quick, easy and safe way to solicit feedback on issues like this. In short, if it touches on hot-button topics like race, sexuality, or politics, there should be a way to solicit feedback and comment, before we have another Max Meltdown.
And in saying that, I do not in any way retract my recommendation that it is time for Randy Hollerith to resign.
What are your views? Is there hope for the future? Or have we just seen the consummate expression of a clueless church, wading into issues about which it has no clue, only to cause lasting harm? And are there lessons here for the church when it comes to racial reconciliation?