The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America begins:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for faith in the halls of Congress. Both houses of the Legislature of the United States of America have chaplains.
Of the fifty two House of Representatives chaplains since 1789, sixteen have been Methodist; fourteen Presbyterian; seven Baptist; four Episcopal; two each Congregationalist, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholic, and Unitarian; and one Universalist. All of them have been men.
Last week, the Speaker of the House took the unusual step of asking the House Chaplain Rev. Pat Conroy, a Jesuit priest, to resign. Chaplains serve a renewable two year term, being appointed at the beginning of the two-year terms of House members. So Rev. Conroy had just under nine months of his current term remaining.
One reason offered for asking the chaplain to resign was an allegation that he was not sufficiently available for pastoral care. But one wonders how much pastoral care is available while the House searches for a replacement.
Some members of the House suspect that one or more of the prayers by the chaplain seemed to challenge the direction of pending legislation. That sermons or prayers might be judged as “too political” will come as no surprise to pastors, as this complaint is all too common in churches. But in a world where every issue is politicized, there are few, if any, pastoral messages that cannot be judged as political or even partisan.
One member of the search committee, Rep. Mark Walker (R, NC), expressed his preferences for attributes in a House chaplain:
I’m looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family… that has some counseling experience… because what’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here.
My concern is that the search team will find a candidate whose pastoral views fit within a particular political agenda. I hope I will be proven wrong, and that the next chaplain will be free to speak in ways that will challenge the legislative body to greater justice and mercy, showing no partiality.
Its is even more likely that the next chaplain will be another man. But if they choose a woman as chaplain, I will be pleasantly surprised indeed.
Whatever the reason for asking the current chaplain to step down, I pray that the next chaplain will be able to minister to all the members of those House of Representatives regardless of their faiths, to speak truth to power, and to speak the truth in love.
Rev. Cindi Knox is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She lives in Joliet Illinois with her wife Mary and two cats Zsa Zsa and Eva.
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