By Fr. John Parker
Last month, I accepted an invitation to give the benediction at the graduation of the Medical University of South Carolina. To be fair, I must say that I am delighted that Colleges and Universities like MUSC are still willing to invoke the Name of God, asking His blessings on those who are to be sent out into the world to practice the work which they have been trained and blessed to do.
Having driven past the intersection of Ashley Avenue and Bee Street hundreds of times and gazed upon MUSC’s beautiful St. Luke’s Chapel (named after St. Luke, the Apostle and Physician, who penned the fourth Christian Gospel and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles), I began to consider what words might be fitting for these medical students. I sat at my desk, reviewing ancient books of Christian prayers, to pen the most appropriate one for those commencing the next step of their professional medical lives this month.
Two days later, I received by mail a most delightful cover letter, thanking me for agreeing to deliver the benediction and inviting me to a number of related festivities. Included with the letter, though, was a distressing memorandum from the Office of the President of the Medical University: “Guidelines for Invocation and Benediction at Public Functions,” guidelines to which I would be required to conform in order to bless the graduates.
The first is reasonable for any public speaker: “Appeal to the larger spiritual virtues that all faiths have in common: love, faith, hope…peace, goodness”. The second is also reasonable, although drips with certain political correctness, “Use inclusive language: forbears rather than fathers…” etc.
The third guideline uncovers the no-longer-hidden danger about which I presently write, what I will name “selective inclusivity”. In a sentence, the Medical University of South Carolina, in its effort to “set a tone of reverence at our public assemblies,” to “bear testimony to [our] richly diverse religious and cultural heritage,” and somehow to make generic and inoffensive any public benediction or invocation, has sanctioned officially, like so many public institutions, one religion over all others: American pop-religion—a tray full of cafeteria-style faith, taking nice sounding ‘religious’ words from this group and that, pleasing to the ear on the outside, but entirely devoid of content at the core. Unlike true ‘inclusivity’, one’s inclusion in the Medical University’s public religious expression is limited to those who will show no conviction at all. Here is the text as written:
“Steer clear of parochial, exclusively defining religious names, concepts, practices, and metaphors. A good rule of thumb to remember is that you come representing the entire faith community, not just your own group. The prayer should therefore not be offensive to anyone, whether Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc. For example, when opening or closing, an inclusive choice would be ‘Holy God, Holy One, Creator, Sustainer,’ rather than ‘Al[l]ah, Jesus, Holy Trinity,’ etc” [bold in original text].
This is not the forum for a dissertation on “exclusively defin[ed] religious names” or even the nature of God’s revelation to humanity, but we must be clear: this inclusivity is actually exclusive. How so, we might inquire? Consider the events as they unfolded: out of concern for the school’s guidelines, I sent my prepared benediction to the Office of the President, wanting neither to embarrass myself or the staff of the Medical University at graduation. On Monday, May 2, I received a polite call from the same office, during which I was un-invited to bless the graduates. The truly Christian benediction (which is the only type of benediction I am authorized by my Archbishop and my ordination to give) is not permitted. Thus, in fact and practice, the Medical University, hoping to display its “religious heritage” and seeking to demonstrate its “pride in…diversity”, actually shows itself to be selectively exclusive.
In truth, the predominant religious heritage of Charleston is Christian. One cannot walk five blocks downtown in any direction without stumbling into the doors, steeples, and belfries of 17th century Christian Churches. Indeed, the heritage of the Medical University, to some degree, is also Christian. Its chapel is not ‘generic’ by any stretch—it is named for a Christian saint, adorned with his stained-glass image and topped with the Cross of Christ. For centuries, these have been the landmarks of a certain faith. Not a generic faith. This faith is now publicly disallowed in at least one of Charleston’s venerable institutions.
Shall we expect doctors to avoid the words “illness”, “sickness”, “disease” or “terminal” in their official and unofficial work? These are hard words, but words which nevertheless reflect a certain reality within the walls of the examining room, the ER, or the ICU. To require a Christian priest to say little more at a benediction than “the Sustainer bids you to peacefully love your neighbor” is effectively the same as asking a surgeon to say to one dying on the operating table, “Don’t worry, everything is nice and dandy.” Doctors, nurses, indeed all hospital personnel need, like all the rest of us who are struggling to live in this dying world, a true, good word—a real benediction in the fullest sense of the term. Who will give it to them?
Within the walls of a hospital, a sterile, antiseptic environment is critical for the care and recovery of patients. But a sterile, antiseptic “benediction” such as required by the guidelines actually requires no ordination to give, is a ‘good word’ to no one, blesses nothing, and ultimately attempts to pigeon-hole faith into a nice, tidy space. In the end, to ask a Christian priest today to bless a gathering in this way somehow is little more than having some person in religious clothing stand in front of a crowd to say a few generic words, hoping to give a tinge of religious legitimacy to our public gatherings. This in no way inspires anyone to live the lives we are all called to live.
I am thankful for the Medical University and its work. I have had the holy responsibility of pastoring, meeting, visiting, and praying with many faculty, students, and patients at MUSC over the years. Nevertheless, on May 20, I will offer my prayer for the 2005 graduates of the Medical University of South Carolina, though in the presence of none of them. In so doing, and with these words, I challenge all of us to consider the dangers of selective “inclusivity”. Slowly, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we are being taught that it is the pinnacle of erudition and public good to believe anything, but it is indeed the nadir, not to mention simply dangerous and offensive, to believe something.
Fr. John Parker is the Priest-in-Charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission of the Orthodox Church in America. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (’01) and his MTh at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (’04). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Benediction prepared for 2005 MUSC Graduation
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Lover of Mankind, Physician of our souls and bodies, who painlessly bore our infirmities, and by whose wounds we are healed,
Who gave sight to the man born blind,
Who straightened the woman who was bent over for 18 years,
Who gave speech and sight to the mute demoniac,
Who not only forgave the paralytic his sins, but healed him to walk,
Who restored the withered hand of a troubled man,
Who stopped the flow of blood of her who bled for 12 years
Who raised Jairus’ daughter to life
And brought the 4-day-dead Lazarus to life
And who heals every infirmity under the sun,
Do now, O Lord, give your grace to all those here gathered who have labored and studied hour upon hour, to go into all the world, and also to heal by the talent You have given to each of them.
Strengthen them, by your strength, to fear no evil or disease,
Enlighten them to do no evil by the works of their hands,
And preserve them and those they serve in peace,
For You are our God, and we know no other,
And to you we send up glory together with your Father who is from everlasting, and your most Holy, Good, and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.