Tuesday, March 15, 2016

2016 Spring House of Bishops, Day 5

The morning was devoted to what we used to call Town Hall, but is now called Community Gathering. The concept is the same: Bishops ask in advance to be recognized to briefly espouse some program or priority that's important to them. There included (but may not be limited to):

  • Theology Committee (Breidenthal, Ohio)
  • Ecclesiology Committee (Franklin, Western New York for Whalon, Europe)
  • Ecumenical relations with United Methodists (Brookhart, Montana)
  • Environmental curriculum (Ely, Vermont with Rice, San Joaquin)
  • Bishops' Pilgrimage to Ghana (Konieczny, Oklahoma with Wright, Atlanta)
  • Recovery Ministries (Bailey, Navajoland)
  • Issues around election of new Federal Ministries bishop (Fr Razz Waff, Chair of Nominating Committee)
  • News/warning about an imposter priest (Waldo, Upper South Carolina)
  • News/warning about an imposter bishop (Field, West Missouri)
  • Beautiful Authority (program for advancing ordained women into more responsible and high-profile positions) (Gray-Reeves, El Camino Real)
  • General Board of Examining Chaplains, (Benfield, Arkansas)
  • Spiritual Writing Workshop (Hollingsworth, Ohio)
  • Communion Partners (Smith, North Dakota)
  • Migration & Human Trafficking (Rice, San Joaquin)
  • Poverty, Racism, & Gun Violence conference (Lee, Chicago with Fisher, Western Massachusetts)
  • Union of Black Episcopalians (Baxter, Retired of Central Pennsylvania)
  • Departure logistics (Canon Michael Hunn)
  • Holy Land pilgrimage (Rickel, Olympia with Beissner, Northern California)
  • 2018 General Convention (J. Fisher, Texas)
  • Flint, MI drinking water (Ousley, Eastern Michigan)
  • Recognition of consecration anniversaries 
  • Recognition of imminent retirees (Lambert, Suff. Dallas; Rivera, Eastern Oregon; Little, Northern Indiana)
Lunch!

We reconvened at 2pm for a formal business session (hence, the photo).

  • Three bishops were elected to the College for Bishops board.
  • Consent was given for admission to the HOB of Mark Van Koevering, resigned Bishop of Nyassa in Mozambique, to serve as Assistant Bishop of West Virginia.
  • Election of one bishop to fill an unexpired term on the Disciplinary Board for Bishops.
  • Report on plans for future HOB meetings this triennium, based on the work we did yesterday.
  • Consideration of a proposed resolution announcing that bishops "reserve the right" to withhold consent for the consecration of bishops elected in processes that did not include a requisite number of women and persons of color. This matter was deferred until the next meeting of the House.
  • Discussion of procedural details for the election of a new Bishop for Federal Ministries (military chaplaincies, federal prisons, VA chaplaincies).
  • Debate over a resolution offered by the Class of 2013. It was amended on the floor, and the adopted version is as follows:
A Word to the ChurchHoly Week 2016 
On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the week and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day, Jesus was raised to life, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season's political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others, There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
 
In this moment we resemble God's children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else. 
We call for prayer for our country, that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

The resolution as amended passed unanimously, which is a rare occurrence.

As per custom, the evening meal was festive--white table cloths, dimmed lights, wine on the tables. But I believe everyone is looking forward to heading home. I know the Bishop of Springfield is.

Monday, March 14, 2016

2016 Spring House of Bishops, Day 4

There was a 9am Eucharist and 5pm "Evening Devotions," but, for reasons already discussed, I did not attend, so there isn't anything I can say about them. I did offer straight-Prayer Book MP and EP from the comfort of my room.

There were plenary working sessions from 10:30 until noon, and from 2:00 until 4:30. The planners, chief of whom I suspect was the Presiding Bishop himself, were endeavoring to elicit a range of thoughts and feelings from the body, and do so with uncommon efficiency, that would allow them to identify themes and priorities that will drive planning for all HOB gathering for the remainder of the triennium (that is, until the General Convention in 2018). The process was led by Bishops Todd Ousley of Eastern Michigan and Mary Gray-Reeves of El Camino Real. It was quite structured and disciplined, which served the end of efficiency. We were asked to ponder the Summary of the Law and connect with what in means for us in TEC in general and the HOB in particular. We were asked to list adjectives that would describe our ideal House of Bishops meeting. We did these and other exercises first as individuals, then in our table groups, then in groups of two joined tables, with result delivered to the podium, soon thereafter appearing on screens arranged by one of these applications that quickly illustrate what words occur most frequently by making them appear larger in proportion to their frequency. 

I won't attempt to give an exhaustive summary (poke around the internet and you can probably find one), but my own subjective read is that there is notable energy and hope around themes of spiritual revival and prayer and generally serious Christian discipleship at all levels. This is encouraging, all the more so because it is out of character for recent gatherings of the House. I cannot but like the trajectory. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. But it's a good start. Whatever else one might say, the great majority of the bishops (virtually without exception, I might even say) are well-intentioned and charitably-disposed Christian leaders. That may not be everything, but it's not nothing. I am grateful.

Various special interest groups met in designated locations for lunch, which meant that I was with the Communion Partners. Between active and retired bishops, there were nearly 20 in the room, more than we've ever had at an equivalent gathering, including a good representation from the Province IX Spanish-speaking dioceses. There are many ways in which we are uniquely-positioned to be of service to this church, in addition to "having the backs" of those in our own dioceses and others who want to be faithful to the Episcopal Church while also remaining faithful to the theological and moral teaching that the formularies of that church still stand for.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

2016 Spring House of Bishops, Day 3

Mercifully, in view of losing an hour of the night to a time change, the first scheduled activity, other than breakfast, was the 10am celebration of the Eucharist for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The Bishop of Northern Michigan presided and the Bishop of Northwest Texas preached. (The memorable takeaway line from his homily: "Do you have what it takes to lose?") The liturgy was BCPish, to some extent (Eucharistic Prayer C, with predictable addenda--Why, when we find this prayer is too patriarchal, do we think we're improving it by adding Rachel and Leah, but render the other two women who bore children to Jacob invisible by keeping them anonymous?). The real eyebrow-raiser was this putative metrical version of the Nicene Creed (sung to Hyfyrdol in a cut-time meter):
We believe in God almighty, Author of all things that be,Maker of the earth and heavens, Keeper of the sky and sea.We believe in God’s Son, Jesus, now for us both Lord and Christ,of the Spirit and of Mary born to bring abundant life. 
We believe that Jesus suffered, scourged and scorned and crucified;taken from the cross, was buried—true Life there had truly died.We believe that on the third day Christ was raised up from the grave,
then ascended to God’s right hand. He will come to judge and save.

We believe in God’s own Spirit, bonding all the saints within
one church, catholic and holy, where forgiveness frees from sin;
in the body’s resurrection, for the breaking of death’s chain
gives the life that’s everlasting. This the faith that I have claimed.
then ascended to God’s right hand. He will come to judge and save. 
We believe in God’s own Spirit, bonding all the saints withinone church, catholic and holy, where forgiveness frees from sin;in the body’s resurrection, for the breaking of death’s chaingives the life that’s everlasting. This the faith that we have claimed.
There is probably not anything objectionable in what this text includes. The problems lie in what it does not include. With the Nicene Creed, linguistic precision is of the essence of the text; that is its inherent nature. Every word is important. This may be a perfectly fine hymn. It just isn't the Nicene Creed. It really isn't even a paraphrase of the Nicene Creed.

The rest of the day, honoring the Sabbath principle, was lightly-scheduled. The afternoon was free. I
signed up, along with eight other bishops and two members of the Presiding Bishop's staff, for a horseback ride. I've done this two or three times before at Camp Allen and always enjoyed it. It lasted about 45 minutes. It was a beautiful day and I'm really glad I did it.

After dinner, we adjourned to our meeting room underneath the chapel for a regular HOB event called a Fireside Chat. (To evoke atmosphere, images of a fireplace were fed by LCD projectors onto two screens.) The Fireside Chat is effectively an executive session, so there's not much I can say. There was some news shared with us of both a pastoral and administrative nature, and both will be made public in due course--fairly soon, I would suspect. We talked a bit about the recent Primates' Meeting and the upcoming ACC meeting. A couple of other items were raised by bishops from the floor--again, stuff that is likely to become public fairly quickly.

It's the Presiding Bishop's birthday, so we feted him properly back up in the dining area.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

2016 Spring House of Bishops, Day 2

I hesitate to write what will now immediately follow. It will subject me to criticism and will disappoint people. And it's quite personal, not something I think I am morally obligated to share, to think about "out loud," as it were. But I am usually choosing to absent myself from corporate worship at HOB meetings (and, for that matter, General Convention). It is for the sake of my own soul, my own spiritual self-care, that I do this. But there is also an undeniable element of "breaking community" in my behavior, and I completely understand anyone who would want to call me to account on those grounds.

It's complex. I can certainly suck it up and deal with liturgy that's simply not the way I would choose to do it; I do that all the time. This is different, for three reasons. The first two are relatively trivial, and, on their own, would demand that I look past them. The third is more substantive.

The liturgy booklets contain parallel texts in English and Spanish, with the scripture readings also in French. But it's not like there's one whole service in Spanish and the rest in English--or one in English and the rest in Spanish. Celebrants and officiants who can do so credibly tend to jump from one language to the other in mid-paragraph. My Spanish, while not good, is decent. I could hang with it if it were all in Spanish. The jumping back and forth, however, is distracting beyond annoying. It puts me in a foul humor, which is not where I need to be when in worship. (For the record, out of 100+ bishops present, around a half-dozen do not function comfortably in English.)

The substantive part is that there is nary a service--whether Eucharist or Office--that simply follows the official liturgy of the Episcopal Church, i.e. the Book of Common Prayer (1979). And while a portion of the music for these liturgies is from the center of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, much more of it is from the margins--unfamiliar to most, and sometimes difficult even for a trained musician. Now, I understand that there are authorized alternatives to Prayer Book services, and while I may not sympathize with the reasons for their existence, I believe I understand those reasons. But what we have is generally a mishmash: neither straight and clearly-identified BCP nor straight and clearly-identified EOW. Certain words in the liturgy or the Psalms are just emended unobtrusively to reflect current orthodoxy with respect to gender specificity. I wish those who plan the liturgies could just be more transparent about what we're doing. But what it feels like to me (I'm not imputing this as a motive or intention to anyone) is that I'm being film-flammed in a verbal shell game, with the huckster hoping I won't notice. I do notice.

All this is by way of saying: There was a Eucharist at 9:00 and Evening Prayer at 5:00, and I attended neither. Mixed feelings about that. No one needs to judge me because I already judge myself. (And I will be present at the Eucharist on the Lord's Day tomorrow.)

After the Eucharist, we were on "retreat" time, of which I availed myself to catch up on some emails and take a long, meditative walk.

Lunch was by provinces, so I joined my colleagues from Province V. We were asked to discuss what we would miss if the provincial structure didn't exist. For most of us, it was the opportunity to meet regularly with other bishops from the province!

The afternoon program was devoted to considering the work of racial reconciliation. The Presiding Bishop offered a homily (not technically, but every time he opens his mouth, a homily isn't far behind!) on last Sunday's epistle reading from II Corinthians about the ministry of reconciliation. (I resonated with what he said, because I rang that bell pretty loudly in my own sermon last Sunday.) He introduced four bishops who have been serving on a racial reconciliation task force, and each of them spoke to us briefly. This was followed up by table discussions. It's complex and daunting work because it requires an immense amount of truth to be told, but that telling, to mean anything, must be securely in a context of patient and vulnerable love.

Dinner was with "classes," and off campus. The Class of 2011--the twelve bishops who were elected in 2010--carpooled up to College Station to eat a Chuy's, a Tex-Mex chain. A good time was had by all. I am very blessed to be part of this special group of colleagues and friends. One among us had just had his Canon elected Bishop of Pennsylvania today, so there was both celebrating and commiserating. And, for what it's worth, we heartily toasted our absent spouses.

Friday, March 11, 2016

2016 Spring House of Bishops, Day 1


Here's a shot from Camp Allen (courtesy of Bishop Matt Gunter), near Navasota, Texas, about an hour northwest of Houston, 30 minutes southeast of College Station. The recent pattern has been for the House of Bishops to meet here in March of even-numbered years. It's a large and reasonably commodious facility, and, apart from its somewhat remote locale, works pretty well for us.

The day began with breakfast at 8am, followed by Morning Prayer (one reading, one canticle, mostly BCP-compliant, except for the canticle, which came from a source I'm not familiar with--it was scriptural, though!). We then adjourned to our meeting room below the chapel, where we sit at familiar round tables. The first meeting after each General Convention, there are new table assignments for the following triennium. It looks like I will be spending a lot of time with the Bishops of Southeast Florida, Rochester, San Joaquin, the Suffragan of Virginia, and, just for this meeting, since he's retiring, the Bishop in South Carolina. We spent the rest of the morning doing "check in," wherein we go around the table sharing what's been going on with us personally and professionally,

After lunch, I had a nice phone conversation with my old friend, the Bishop of Calgary, mostly over some Nashotah House-related business.

At 2pm, we were back in our meeting room for a retreat-style meditation from the Presiding Bishop--except, if you know Bishop Curry, there's not very much "meditative" about his delivery! He challenged us to reflect on how--the various ways--Jesus has been in our lives. About 45 minutes later, he sent us out into silence, asking us to return at 4:00. Then we divided into pairs, and shared our "Jesus story"--the fruit of our retreat reflection. What a concept: A bunch of bishops talking about Jesus.

We headed back upstairs for a celebration of the Eucharist, at which one Vice-President of the House presided and the other one preached. Nothing scheduled then after dinner ... which leaves time for things like blogging!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Please Don't Invite Your Friends to the Eucharist: Being Church in an Unchurchy World

This is the text of a talk I gave at a public event at St Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi this evening.

What an honor to be with you here tonight. I've flown in and out of Jackson airport once before, and driven through the city several times over the years, but this is my first opportunity to actually be in Jackson, and I'm grateful for it.

I'm actually going to begin by asking for a silent show of hands on a couple of things. I want to see whether my intuition about these questions is correct. How many of you have heard or said any of the following?

·       Our church is slowly dying. We've got to find a way to get more people through our doors on Sundays.
·       We're losing our young people to the megachurch up the road because they have a rock band providing their music.
·       I don't really go to church, but St Swithun's is the church I don't go to.
·       Episcopal? I've never heard of it? Which religion is that?

Sometimes I'm in a position—usually either getting a haircut on donating blood—where somebody feels like they need to make conversation with me by asking what I do for a living. Now, when I first began my ordained ministry, back in the late 1980s, in south Louisiana, I would routinely answer, "I'm an Episcopal priest," and that would pretty much work. But our culture has changed; our society has changed. For anyone under the age of 40 or so, I no longer have any confidence that they would even understand that "Episcopalian" is one of an array of brand names by which Christians sort themselves out. So I'll begin to answer that casual question by asking, "Have you ever heard of the Episcopal Church," and if they answer Yes, I'll explain that I'm the bishop who covers the Episcopal churches in central and southern Illinois. But if I just get a blank stare, I'll fall back to the British royal family and, you know, William and Kate's wedding in Westminster Abbey. And if they smile and say, "Yeah, I saw that on TV," then I'll say, "Well that's us. We're that church," and then hope that the young woman cutting my hair isn't looking for a place to get married and thinks that an Episcopal church will let her have potted trees in the nave during the ceremony. But ... if I strike out on the royal wedding question, I really have nowhere else to go. Short of going into a long and technical explanation, which they're not really interested in, because they were just trying to make conversation, I have no cultural footholds, no societal grammar, that I can exploit to explain succinctly what I do for a living. So sometimes I make a joke about “Episcopal” being an anagram of “Pepsi Cola,” and leave it at that.

Now, I realize that, in the deep south, the evolution of our society may not have gotten quite to that point. I'm given to understand that there's still a fair amount of dressing up and showing up for church on Sunday mornings in places like Mississippi. But that's only a reprieve, I’m here to tell you, not a pardon. It's only a matter of time, and probably not very much time, before church affiliation disappears as a routine assumption in southern culture, just like it has in the rest of the country.

The fact is, I would bet that, even right here in Jackson, we could all fan out from this cathedral church and knock on doors asking, True or False: Easter is about Jesus walking out of his tomb, and if he sees his shadow, that means six more weeks of winter ... and the majority would say either True or "I don't know." Fifty or sixty years ago, baptismal certificates were accepted as proof of age for purposes of school registration. Churches and clergy were presumed to be pillars of our society, strengthening the social fabric (and therefore deserving of tax breaks and other courtesies). Now, clergy are presumptively shady characters, and city councils and neighborhood associations consider churches to be leeches on municipal infrastructure and the tax base, a drag on society rather than an asset. Churches now have to compete with organized athletic and other events for the attention of kids and families on Sunday morning. 

What we are experiencing, my friends, is not just a natural cycle, not just a pendulum swing. There is a mountain of evidence—still growing—that we are well into a monumental sea-change, not an organic evolution, but a tectonic shift of the sort that happens only every several hundred years. I would argue that the change we are in the middle of will turn out to be more significant than the Reformation of the 16th century. In fact, we need to go back about 1,700 years, to the early 4th century, to find the other bookend.

Christianity, as you know, began in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. But, precisely because of the Roman Empire, that area of the world was largely at peace, and, by the standards of the time, there was an excellent road system (a better road system, actually, than there would again be in Europe until the 18th century). So Christianity spread rapidly, attracted the attention of the authorities, and soon came under successive waves of persecution, some of it deadly, that would continue for nearly 300 years. But then, Constantine, the emperor, had a vision one night, and Christianity soon became not only legal, but, within a generation, the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, Islam eclipsed much of the Christian world, so the focus shifted to Europe. And, in Europe, for the next millennium and a half, there was what came to be called the Constantinian synthesis, “Christendom”—a hand-in-glove relationship between the church and secular society. They might struggle over which was the hand and which was the glove, but there was no argument over the close relationship. To be a citizen was to be a Christian, and to be a Christian was to be a citizen. 

But, beginning in the 18th century with an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment, the Christendom started to slowly unravel. (One could argue that it actually began in the Renaissance and the Reformation, but, in any case, certainly by the Enlightenment.) In the final decades of the last century, the process of unraveling picked up speed at an exponential rate. The moorings linking western culture to Christianity have come completely undone. Just as ancient paganism found itself engulfed by the rising tide of Christianity, so now the last flickering of Christendom is being doused by the rising tide of ... well, it's hard to say what, precisely, but I'll offer—as a sort of placeholder—secularism and radical individualism, particularly the latter. That's fast becoming the dominant, default intellectual mindset of our culture. Some might want to call it post-modernity, but the upshot is this: the expression, "It works for me," is our society's slogan. Ideologies are evaluated according to their utility, and utility is defined as whatever increases personal autonomy. The majority opinion in the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage drinks deeply from this well in the assumptions it makes about the nature and purpose of marriage.

So, as I see it, we—the is, the Christian community—have three options as we assess the tsunami of "post-Christendom" that is already engulfing us. First, we can deny that it's happening, and treat it as just a phase that our culture is going through, and that everything will get back to "normal" a few years from now, as a natural cycle plays itself out. I might be surprised, but I doubt there's anyone here who would take such a position. I certainly would not. Second, we can resolve to resist it, to stand firm against the barbarians as they proceed with the sacking of Rome. This is the tack taken by most of the so-called "religious right," those who use language like "Let's take back our country for God." I suppose this might result in minor victories in "battles," but we will still lose the war. Finally, we have the option of embracing the change that is already upon us, and seeing it as the greatest missionary opportunity for the Church of Jesus Christ since the Day of Pentecost. As you can probably tell, this is the response that I advocate.

What would "embracing" the secularization of our society look like? Well, for starters, it would look like something that the working title of this talk alludes to: Please Don't Invite Your Friends to the Eucharist. Now, that's an expression that is intentionally provocative. I hope it makes you uncomfortable! I'm going to unpack it a bit presently, but it's clearly meant to be a metaphor for a rather thorough shift in attitude away from an "attractional" stance toward mission and in the direction of an "apostolic" stance. In other words, instead of focusing our attention and energy on trying to get "them out their" to drive to our parking lots on Sunday mornings and walk through our beautiful red doors and join "us in here" for worship, we camp out in their neighborhoods, build relationships around mutual interests, and earn the privilege of talking to them about their ultimate concerns, whatever it is that keeps them up at night, which is the context in which we can credibly introduce them to Jesus. That, my friends, is a long way from business-as-usual for Episcopalians. 

So I would like to tell you a story to illustrate what I'm talking about. It's a story that I shared with my diocese about four years ago. I believe it’s a true story, though I can’t be certain because it takes place in the future. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, Lisa and Jeff live outside of Sharpstown in Jones County, Illinois—check me out, there are no such place names in Illinois; the names had been changed to protect the unsuspecting—about 14 miles from the county seat city of Pinehurst. Jeff works in his father’s retail farm implement business, and will one day own it; Lisa works in a local beauty parlor. They have two kids in high school, which can get a little expensive, so a couple of years ago they found themselves in nearly $50,000 of revolving credit card debt. It seemed that they just weren’t very good at managing their finances. Through one of Lisa’s hairdressing clients, they heard about a series of seminars being held down at the VFW Hall. They were feeling just vulnerable enough that they were willing to accept help from just about any direction, so they attended the meetings.
Doing so not only turned their financial life around—now their debt is less than $20,000, they’re living within their means, and they’re looking forward to actually opening a savings account—not only is their financial life turned around, but they made some new friends who were also part of the group. What Lisa and Jeff learned about halfway through the financial management series was that it was sponsored by St Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Pinehurst. Lisa’s client, in fact, the one who told her about the seminar, is a member of St Gabriel’s.
Now, Lisa’s parents were Methodists when they themselves were kids, and Jeff’s were Roman Catholics. But neither Lisa nor Jeff ever had any experience with any church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, where the religious talk never made any sense to them. But a couple of their new friends from the financial seminar invited them to a come to a group meeting in their home, right there in Sharpstown. There was some good food, good fellowship, some conversation about the big issues of life, and always a short prayer at the end, led by the host couple, Julie and Mark. Jeff and Lisa were a little skeptical at first, but they really liked the people, and found that they enjoyed exploring the spiritual dimension of their lives, which they had never really done before.
After about three months of coming to these week night home group meetings, there was a special visitor. Julie introduced him as Father Cliff, the priest from St Gabriel’s. Over dinner, Lisa and Jeff learned that Fr Cliff actually had a day job as an administrator at Pinehurst High School, and took care of St Gabriel’s in his “spare time.” At the discussion time, Fr Cliff informed the group that he had rented the VFW Hall on every other Sunday night beginning the following month, and wanted to know whether anyone in the group would be interested in joining him for a simple service of worship and instruction—a little music, some prayers, and a time of teaching about the basics of Christian faith, and, of course, some food. For those who continued to be interested, this could lead to baptism. On their way home that night, Jeff and Lisa agree that they would begin to attend those services.  
So they do. And they find that they actually enjoy the experience. Much to their surprise, they begin to pray, on their own, at home. Not too much, but some. They also find that their relationship with their kids begins to be a little less stormy, and is sometimes even a little sweet. Nobody knows quite why, but both parents and kids are happy about it. The kids begin to join their parents at the VFW Hall on Sunday nights.
This goes on for a couple of years. The VFW Hall meetings are now held every week. Their oldest child is now away at one of the state universities. It’s fall, and Fr Cliff begins to gently raise the question: Who feels ready for baptism? By this time, there are over 20 adults in the group, none of whom had any previous ties to a church. To Fr Cliff’s delight, the response is, “We thought you’d never ask!” So the instruction becomes a little more intense. They begin to read more scripture in their worship. By this time, both Jeff and Lisa have each gotten hold of a Bible for their own personal use, so they notice that the passages of scripture that are read are not chosen randomly, but follow a pattern. Some people from St Gabriel’s quietly begin to show up and assist Fr Cliff with the teaching by leading small group discussions. New songs are introduced in their worship—songs with unfamiliar language and vocabulary that the catechists need to explain the meaning of—and the group is taught to give responses to various things the leader might say.
At the beginning of December (or, as the group is told, “Advent”), each of the candidates for baptism is paired with a sponsor from St Gabriel’s, someone who listens to them and prays for them and emails them and talks by phone at least weekly. About ten weeks later, at the beginning of Lent (which Jeff remembers his Catholic grandmother talking about, though he never knew what it was), the 20 candidates solemnly sign their names in a special book that has been prepared for that purpose, as their sponsors vouch for the fact that they have been faithful in attending worship and instruction, and have lived in the world in a manner worthy of a follower of Jesus. Fr Cliff and the other catechists begin to mention something called the Eucharist, though whatever they say about it is kind of vague, and they never teach about it directly. But Jeff and Lisa and their other friends get the distinct impression that it’s pretty important, and that, after they are baptized, it will be a regular part of their experience.
Then, on the night before Easter, a bus appears in the VFW Hall parking lot, which takes everyone to Pinehurst, and St Gabriel’s Church. They’re ushered into the back of the church and given a hand candle. It’s very dark. A lot of scripture is read, and the passages are very long. But the catechumens have heard them all before. It is in these stories that the gospel has been explained to them: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, the Exodus, the Valley of the Dry Bones. Then their sponsors present them to Fr Cliff, who is dressed up in a way they’ve never seen him before! He asks them if they renounce the ways of this world, and if they promise to follow Jesus as Lord. Then the whole congregation says the Apostles’ Creed with them and answers some more questions. Then, one by one, Fr Cliff baptizes them, and pours oil over them—generously—and tells them that they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Then, for the first time, they give and receive the Sign of Peace, and finally, are actively present as heaven and earth are joined and death and life become indistinguishable from one another, and they dine on the Body and Blood of him whose true members they have now become.
The next Sunday, they gather for the Eucharist once again, only this time back in the familiar VFW Hall in Sharpstown. The Bishop is there, somebody they’ve only heard rumors about until this point! He leads them in a discussion about becoming their own Eucharistic Community, and, together, they decide on a name: the Church of the Advent, Sharpstown. And so it goes.
I haven't described anything that I expect will take place precisely as I have told it, so I hope you get the gist. And I'll also try and tie things together here and now, in a more prosaic fashion. This will take the form of five concluding points:

First, the Church we are becoming will no longer be supported by the social structures we were once accustomed to and dependent on. These include a presumptive respect for churches and for clergy, an expected seat at the public policy table, non-taxable property, clergy income that is tax-privileged ... you get the general direction.

Second, the Church we are becoming will no longer be able to assume that those around them in society have a basic knowledge of the Christian narrative that they absorb just by being part of the culture. I want to add here that I consider this a supremely good thing, and pray for the day to be hastened. The day we have some real blank slates to work with, rather than people who think they know what Christianity is, but really don’t, and have therefore rejected a cheap knockoff of the real thing—the sooner that day arrives, our evangelistic task will get a whole lot easier.

Third, the Church we are becoming will be made up of committed, well-formed, disciples who are ready to engage apostolic mission. You have to be a disciple before you can be an apostle, so let's be about making more and better disciples, shall we?

Fourth, in the Church we are becoming, the Eucharist will no longer be our "front door," the entrance to the railway station, but, rather, several stops down a line that includes connection, evangelization, formation, and initiation (that is, baptism). [Incidentally, this will render the current controversial conversation about offering Holy Communion to the unbaptized completely moot, because, as we saw in the story about Jeff and Lisa, people won't even see the Eucharist until they are baptized.]

Finally, the Church we are becoming will not concern itself with conforming to society and culture, or following society and culture, or gaining the approval of society and culture—and still less with being on the so-called "right side of history." Rather, we will be focused on being an alternative society and culture, modeling in our own life together the values of the coming Kingdom of God, and saying to the world, "If you want to know what's comin' down the pike, look at us!" 

It's an ambitious vision, I will grant you. It involves leap-frogging over the last 1,700 years of Christendom and learning some "best practices" from our forebears who knew how to be a church in a non-churchy world. We can't replicate everything they did, of course—their context was pre-Christian and ours is post-Christian—but there's an awful lot we can learn from their experience. In the meantime, let's start building the infrastructure that will relieve the Sunday Eucharist of a duty it was never designed to perform—being our front door, our show window, to the world. Instead, in the spirit of Eugene Peterson's translation of John 1:14, let's "move into the neighborhood" and bring Jesus with us.


Looking to the Rock from Which You Were Hewn: Soundings in Revelation & Authority

This is the text of an address I made to a group of clergy leaders in the Diocese of Mississippi yesterday. The gathering, summoned by Bishop Brian Seage, was intentionally inclusive of both positions in the current debates around sexuality and marriage.

It's a joy to be with you this morning. I want to especially thank George Woodliff and Bishop Seage for the invitation. Even though I have a DEPO relationship with Trinity in Yazoo City, and have had a couple of visits there, Mississippi is still pretty exotic territory for this midwestern boy who's lived most of his adult life on the west coast. Although, my mother was raised in Arkansas, and I passed five pretty happy years in south Louisiana, so I'm not completely naive when it comes to the south. 

I'm going to get started by just acknowledging and naming the elephant in the room, pretty much so I can earn the privilege of not talking about it directly. We're here, ultimately, because we as a culture, and we as the Anglican Communion, and we as the Episcopal Church, and you all as the ordained leaders of the Diocese of Mississippi, have developed quite a case of acid reflux over issues of sexuality and marriage. There are transcendently significant and important matters at stake, we all seem to believe—for some, a pretty clear gospel imperative of justice and human dignity; for others, a pretty clear gospel imperative of fidelity to the witness of sacred scripture and the testimony of the generations of Christians that have exercised stewardship of the Good News of Jesus before the baton was handed off to us. Now, as I've said, in my remarks right now, I'm not going to address the issue of sexuality and marriage. However, this is not by any means an effort to "talk around" or otherwise evade a difficult subject, but, rather, to "talk under" it, to dig down to the roots of of our intellectual habits and our theological assumptions, the taproots and wellsprings that eventually inform and shape the various places where we stand, politically and strategically and emotionally and spiritually, in regard to the elephant in the room.

The working title of my talk is Looking to the Rock from Which You Were Hewn: Soundings in Revelation and Authority. The first part, you may realize, comes from Isaiah 51:1 "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug." My hope is that my reason for choosing that particular snippet of scripture will become self-evident by the time I'm finished.

Please indulge me, first, a small bit of autobiographical detritus, if you will. I do this not to be narcissistic or spiritually exhibitionistic, but simply to be efficient. Telling some of my own story simply seems to quickest way to get to the nugget of what I want to leave you with, to stimulate your thinking with.

I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I was raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, in the figurative shadow of the iconic Wheaton College, in a free-church evangelical environment that had a Baptist accent. It was imprinted on me at a very early age that all doctrine is derived from Scripture, and Scripture alone. If you can't back it up with the Bible, then don't bother even saying it. However, I don't recall ever being offered very much by way of a coherent, disciplined, and consistent hermeneutical eye through which to read the pages of the Bible. Simply by the absence of anything more robust, we were left with a very loose and hyper-individualistic hermeneutical approach. Scripture means pretty much whatever you think it means after praying about it sincerely. It's a good idea to talk to the pastor, or one of the elders, of course, but, bottom line, it's between you and the Holy Spirit.

When it came time to choose a college, I wanted to go to a Christian college that could be called by any name except Wheaton, because, you know, familiarity breeds contempt. So I ended up at what some refer to as "the Wheaton of the west," that is, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Westmont was then and remains now in the center of the very tradition in which I was raised, the culture of free-church evangelicalism. Yet, while there, and as an overt result of being there—though I'm not sure it was necessarily by Westmont's design—I encountered something much wider. I encountered Catholicism. I encountered the broad mainstream of historic Christianity. The primary way I discovered Catholicism was by majoring in music and being required to study music history, and, in that context, being required to learn a good bit about the historic western Catholic liturgy. To pass tests, I had to know the meaning of such terms as Kyrie, Credo, Gradual, Motet, Anthem, Agnus Dei, and the like. At first, I was suspicious of it all as, you know, too Catholic. In time, however, the direction of my suspicion was reversed, and I began to see cracks in both the worship and the theology of the tradition in which I had been formed. Now, I also took a required one-semester course in Christian doctrine during my junior year, and, in that course, I was exposed to the debates about Christology and the Trinity in the first four centuries, and to the various councils and creeds that grew out of those debates. Without realizing it, I was developing a biblical hermeneutic that was a little more sophisticated than just “whatever seems good to the Holy Spirit and to me” ... at the moment. 

In the spring of my junior year, I was corresponding—yes, by good old-fashioned snail mail—with a church friend from my high school years who was attending one of the other "not-Wheaton" institutions, a place in Deerfield, Illinois that now goes by Trinity University. I was beginning to share with him some of the journey I was on by way of discovering creeds and liturgy and sacraments and all that good stuff. The subject of the Eucharist came up, and my friend said, in a way that would be utterly natural and predictable given how we were both raised, "I haven't yet thought through my view of communion." My view of communion. Now, I should add, just by way of some context, that, about a year before this exchange of letters, I'd been through a bit of a dark night of the soul. I knew that, as a Christian disciple, it was my duty to be ready to bear witness to Jesus, and to my faith in him, to anyone who asked, at pretty much a moment's notice. But I despaired of ever being able to do so, almost to the point of tears, because I had not "thought through my theology of” … anything! So I felt like I could never be either a credible or an effective witness to the gospel until I was able to write my own multi-volume systematic theology—you know, to channel my inner Thomas Aquinas! And so, here I was, post-crisis, carrying on this correspondence with my friend, and seeing his words "my view of communion," and smacking my head and saying to him—only, actually, just to myself—"What the hell are you thinking?! What does your view of communion have to do with anything?" 

In that moment, I think I realized, at least subconsciously, that I had turned a hugely important corner. I had become a Catholic Christian. It was still three years before I would come under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles in Confirmation, but there was no turning back. I realized that I don't have to develop my theology of anything! It is so blessedly not about me that I can exhale and let go of the burden. Why? Because the Church is the steward of Christian doctrine, and my only job is to gratefully receive the Church's doctrine through paradosis—the Greek behind the word "tradition," and evoking the image of a baton being passed from one runner to the next in a relay race. Being a Christian disciple is not about developing my own multi-volume systematic theology. It's about remembering the rock from which I was hewn, the quarry from which I was dug.

So now, moving in the direction wrapping things up for the time beings, I'm going to lay down six markers that I believe flow naturally and consequently from the foundation that I hope I have just laid by means of that little vignette from my young adulthood. 

First, this: For a Christian, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the unavoidable fundamental data point of any and all theological discourse and speculation. One of my favorite quotes is from the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, who, in his systematic theology, defines God this way: "God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt." Let that sink in for a bit. I suspect it's fairly non-controversial among those in this room, and I don't mean to belabor the obvious. But it underlies what comes next, so I needed to get it out there. Theology—including, ultimately, the theology of marriage—flows from Christology, and Christology begins, not in the pre-existence of the logos, or in the incarnation, or in the teaching or healing ministry of Jesus, or even at the cross, but at the empty tomb, with the phenomenological manifestation of a sovereign, revelatory, act of God, on God's own initiative, in the time and place of God's own choosing.

Second, and therefore, revelation is the "operating system" of all Christian theology. Think with me about the difference between your computer or your smart phone's operating system and the actual applications that you use on your computer or smart phone or tablet. The operating system may not often call attention to itself—in fact, I hope it seldom calls attention to itself (which is why I switched from Windows to Mac!), but if you try to run an app—like check your email or access your calendar or compose a document—and there are kinks in your operating system, you will not have a very happy day. Similarly, you may not think consciously about the details of God's self-disclosure, God's self-revelation, as you try to parse a difficult pastoral or ethical issue. But if you try to do theology outside the context of revelation, the "app" will fail. Human beings do not and cannot intuit or find God. We would know nothing of God's character or how we as human beings fit into the design and meaning of creation apart from God's voluntary and unilateral self-disclosure. We cannot pretend to discern the mind of God or the will of God on any question that might vex us without attending carefully to what God has already disclosed on the subject.

Third, it is the whole Church—the Church Catholic, across not only space but time—that is the steward of God's revelatory self-disclosure. No fragment of a Church that is simultaneously one and divided can trump or bully the other fragments with its own idiosyncratic understanding of what Christians should believe or how Christians should live. We see God's revelation clearly only when we see it together. This revelation that we see together is primarily located in sacred scripture—those documents that ordinands in the Episcopal Church are required to publicly affirm as "the word of God." And I would suggest that the Anglican tradition also holds up and affirms the historic creeds and councils of the undivided church as inescapable touchstones for understanding the revelation of God. At the very minimum, four of these ecumenical councils are on the canonical list, but, as a card-carrying Anglo-Catholic who is the bishop of a biretta-belt diocese, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that the correct answer is actually seven!

My fourth marker (out of six, I will reassure you): The content of revelation must be rearticulated afresh for each generation. Intellectual habits and categories, vocabulary, thought patterns, cultural grammar, poetic sensibilities—all these things change and evolve, and it is the Church's mission-driven responsibility to find new and compelling ways by which to speak of the good news of Jesus and the revelation of God in holy scripture and the sacred tradition of the Church. In doing so, however, we do well to be mindful, and resist the constant subliminal attempts of secular culture to hijack the content of Christian revelation and exploit it for its own purposes. 

Number five, and in close tandem with number four, the content of God's revelation must be embraced afresh by each generation. So, it's the Church's job to always find fresh articulations of revelation for each generation, but it's each generation's responsibility to receive and come under the authority of that revelation. No one has a license to reinvent the Christian narrative, or custom-design it to suit any norms or assumptions that are exterior to Christianity itself. We are stewards of and accountable to God's revelation. As I discovered, to my great relief, as a college student, I don't either have to have or get to have my theology of anything. I receive what the Church hands on to me, which the Church, in turn, has received from God. 

Finally, number six: The Church's stewardship of revelation is exercised in humble and patient communion. St Paul exhorts us, as he writes to the Ephesians, to be eager to maintain "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And when he writes to the Corinthians, he gently takes them to task for their impatient and thoughtless behavior toward one another on the occasions of fellowship meals: "When you come together to eat ... wait for one another." This is not easy. Reaching consensus is a much more daunting challenge than orchestrating a simple up-down majority vote. As Americans, we are culturally conditioned to political processes that produce up-down majority votes. That's certainly an efficient way to dispatch with a mountain of pending business, and there's an apparent egalitarian fairness about it. The rules are clear, and the process is relatively transparent. But I'm not sure it's necessarily the most Christian way of going about the Church's business, especially when core elements of the faith are at stake. Rather, we are to wait for one another.


Well, I suspect that this should at least stimulate your thinking and, hopefully, some discussion, so I'll quit here.