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The Man Who Facilitated My Exit from the Episcopal Church

While searching out the web, I ran across an interesting article in the Lodi (CA) News-Sentinel dated 25 May 1995.  The issue at hand was harvesting the organs of anencephalic babies (not fetuses) for their organ parts, by killing the baby first.

Fr. William A. Sassman, his photo in the 1973 Tartan (St. Andrew’s yearbook.) He was described as “a tireless advocate of Situationalism.”

Not unexpectedly, a local Episcopal minister staked out a position on the topic:

Harvesting the organs from the anencephalics is “a loving thing, saving another baby,” said the Rev. William Sassman of St. Francis Episcopal in Fair Oaks, who formerly taught an ethics course at a prep school in Florida.

And the parents of the doomed child “will ease their grief,’ said Sassman.  “They will know that their child–who is in the hands of the Lord anyway–will be helping another baby to survive.”

My Anglican readers will roll their eyes at yet another Episcopal cleric taking an edgy left-wing position on yet another social topic.  But for me this had a greater impact. About that ethics course:

  • The “prep school” referred to was the St. Andrews School in Boca Raton.
  • The formal name of the course was “Ethical Bases of Conduct.”  His textbook was Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics; his remarks to the newspaper came straight out of that controversial tome.
  • The year was 1972 and I was one of his students.

And the Rev. William A. Sassman, the school’s chaplain, was the one person who had more to do than anyone else with me “swimming the Tiber” before graduating from that Episcopal prep school.  But, as always, a little background is in order.

St. Andrew’s was (and is) an Episcopal prep school.  For my sophomore year there I got elected to the one and only office I ever held in the Episcopal Church: a seat on the student Vestry.  That was the year Fr. Sassman came.  It was a challenging relationship from the very start.  We differed on many things.  The Situational Ethics came later: the first thing he tried to do was get people moving on social action.

The best way to describe this is to let him do so in his own words. The homily below was one he gave in November 2007; it was pretty much the same message he always gave to us.

It’s not a straightforward business to recall the rationale behind my aversion to his idea, but a few things stand out.

The first is that Fr. Sassman always struck me as an optimistic enthusiast about everything he did, and I came up in a world where optimistic enthusiasts were beaten down by the culture.  To adopt his way would have, in my estimation, subjected me to more social pain, and especially after my years in Palm Beach (with stuff like this) I had had enough.

The second is that his social action program struck me as inadequate.  Evidently I’m not the only one who felt that way; in his homily, he makes the analogy of the man who throws starfish back into the sea.  When someone calls his effort out as generally unimportant, his response is that it’s important to the starfish that he saves.

While that’s true, growing up in a culture with a creeping sense of guilt about its own success and material prosperity, just saving “a few starfish” wasn’t going to get the job done.  That was especially true for someone who studied history, and recent history where entire ruling classes were swept away in bloody revolutions.  To address this would take more serious measures than the ones Fr. Sassman was proposing.

As an aside, I wasn’t the only one there uninspired by his idea.  But that may have been a timing issue. Even some of the serious liberals had their doubts.  One of them, who had told my parents the previous year that the geniuses commit suicide, noted that much of his agenda was better suited to a college student group and not to a prep school one.

But I think the one message I got from him that the Episcopal Church had no answers to the serious questions of life.  It’s fashionable in conservative circles to say that liberals are wrong about many things, and they are.  But when you base your idea on the premise that there is no absolute truth–and in many ways Situational Ethics is a “baptised” way to do that–you’re basically empty-handed in helping others sort out the important questions of life.  And in many ways that’s worse than being wrong.

After nearly two school years of this, I found Dante and began my journey to “swim the Tiber” and become a Roman Catholic.  That brought many of the answers I was looking for, especially with the parish priest I had.  I actually made the Profession of Faith towards the end of the ethics course.  It also, indirectly, addressed the social issue problem.  One thing that was becoming clear–if only in an implicit and visceral way–was that the concept of the Episcopal Church, with its lofty demographics, being an agent for either social change or meaningful charity was a nonstarter.  In this case the Marxists were right: the Episcopalians were the problem, something that many social activists like Fr. Sassman (such as Ian Mitchell) didn’t quite grasp.  Roman Catholicism, with its broader income level and ethnic diversity, is in a better place to address this problem, although there are issues there.

An even stronger statement in that direction was made with joining a Pentecostal church.  No where else is it more clear that the preferential option for the poor and the preferential option of the poor aren’t the same.  It’s hard to imagine Fr. Sassman having never encountered that in his time in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, but evidently he never thought that an option.

Today, of course, the time of social action that Fr. Sassman tried to interest us in is almost a form of forced labour among our elites in school.  To a large extent it’s replaced upward social mobility as the goal of the search for significance.  In this respect he has won.

But we also have the fact that, in the intervening years, income inequality has grown.  In that respect I’ve won: it’s important to come up with a game plan for all the starfish and not just the few.  Today we have figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, whose rise indicates that the many starfish are tired of being left on the beach to die.

And medical ethics, which brought Fr. Sassman to the newspapers? Those battles still rage, and now we have the technology to do both serious benefit and damage to ourselves.  It’s interesting that the objection to Fr. Sassman’s situational ethics came not from Christianity but from Judaism:

But Rabbi Lester Frazin of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Sacramento believes that harvesting organs from anencephalic babies while they are alive is cruel and lacks compassion.

Frazin, formerly chaplain at the Dixon (Ill.) State School for Mentally Retarded and Deformed for 13 years, had a child with a neurologically degenerative disease called Tay Sachs.  He removed the child from a Chicago hospital when doctors asked to do research on the child’s brain.

“Experimenting or harvesting organs from living human beings just is reminiscent of Nazi Germany experimentation,” said Frazin.

The line between the most loving thing and the expedient one is finer than people like Fr. Sassman may care to admit, and it’s one we’re going to spend a lot of time walking in the years ahead.

Fr. Sassman’s life has had tragedy of its own.  His son went to prison for securities fraud; my experience in the Church of God tells me that PK’s (preacher’s kids) are either the best or worst Christianity produces.  He experienced divorce and his wife died of cancer.

In his review of my work in his course, he recommended that I take some more logic and philosophy courses in college.  While my pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree did not avail me of opportunities that he (and others) would have liked me to pursue in the liberal arts, I did take a course in logic from the Philosophy Department at Texas A&M. It was there that my professor informed me that “you’re not as dumb as you look!

It’s always something…


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