Sunday, December 31, 2006

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Happy Seventh Day of Christmas.

Christmas is multi-dimensional. There's the very concrete narrative of Christmas Eve, brought to us by St Luke, with the angels and shepherds and animals gathered at the manger. Such concreteness is important; a sacrament, after all, has to have an outward and visible sign. But that aspect of Christmas is surely vulnerable to "Hallmarkization," to being taken hostage by the cult of cute.

So I am grateful for the Christmas that is brought to us by St John, in the mystical prologue to the Fourth Gospel, with light penetrating darkness and the Word becoming flesh. This is the "inward and spiritual grace" of Christmas. It may be more cerebral and theological than the warm and fuzzy nativity scene. But it is also cosmic in scope, and indicative of the grand mysterium fidei--the mystery of faith.

Back in a previous lifetime--aka the mid-seventies--I earned a Master of Arts degree in Music History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. (I was dissuaded from an academic career by an awareness of the role politics plays in such environments, so I opted for an ecclesiastical career instead, which is free of politics. .... Right?) My thesis focused on a capella settings of the Latin Mass composed in the twentieth century. Composers who set out to write a choral setting of the Mass texts have to deal one way or another with the intertial momentum of a great number of formal conventions accumulated over the centuries. One such convention is that when the text of the Nicene Creed gets to et incarnatus est ("and became incarnate"), the music gets simple, slow, and quiet. This mood lasts through, and culminates with, et homo factus est ("and was made man").

For the record, most twentieth century composers who set the Mass dutifully followed this convention. It reflects the same impetus that leads to bowing or genuflecting at these words of the creed, or standing quietly in place when the Angelus bell is rung. It is a response of the heart and spirit, not to the touching story of a harrowing experience for a young mother giving birth under difficult circumstances, or to a cute baby, but to the crushing mystery of the Infinite becoming finite, the Eternal becoming temporal, the Great becoming small, the Wholly Other becoming familiar, and the inaccessibly Far becoming accessibly near. In the words of the ancient Matins antiphon for the First Sunday after Christmas: "While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her swift course, your Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne." The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: Come, let us adore him.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Six Geese A-Laying

Happy Sixth Day of Christmas.

One of the legends associated with the song The Twelve Days of Christmas is that it was originally a piece of coded catechesis for recusant English Roman Catholics in the decades following the separation between the Church of England and the See of Rome. Each of the gift items is said to represent one of the items of Catholic faith and practice. There are some very good reasons, detailed here, why this is probably not true. Nonetheless, it provides a pretext for this Anglican's reflections on the Church of Rome.

Most Anglicans of a Catholic bent get Roman Fever from time to time. I know I do. But I was brought up short this week by the published confession of a prominent Evangelical Anglican, the Very Revd Paul Zahl, Dean of Trinity (Episcopal?) School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. "I could become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat," he said in this interview. Of course, he went on to explain the reasons why he does not plan to do so...but still, this was an arresting line for one who authored a book called The Protestant Face of Anglicanism.

The fact is that Anglicans, consciously or not, perpetually define themselves in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. It is the constant backdrop that we can never really escape. Evangelicals and Liberals tend to respond to this reality by painting themselves a contrasting color, as if to say, "See what we are not!" Anglo-Catholics are generally more chameleon-like: "See how alike we are!" But no matter how you look at it, the Roman Church is the 900-pound gorilla in the ecclesiastical jungle, and all the other animals, of whatever size, have to live and move and have their being in relation to it. (The only ones who seem not to do so are free-church evangelicals, for whom the tag "Christian" means only...well...them.)

One of the things I admire and envy about said gorilla is the lack of theological and liturgical idiosyncrasy at a local level. There are some features of contemporary American Roman Catholic liturgy that make me furrow my brow (more on that in a later post, no doubt), but, in my limited experience, there is a universality about it from parish to parish and diocese to diocese that I find appealing. There's less a sense that the local pastor is imposing his own predilections on the congregation than I find to be the case when I travel around the Episcopal Church. For our Roman friends, the Pope is in Rome. With Baptist, every believer is his or her own pope. But for Episcopalians, it is the local priest who all too often, in my not so humble opinion, speaks ex cathedra about all manner of things that should be beyond presbyteral comptetence.

Over on the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv, there's been a thread the last few days on the proper function of lay Eucharistic Ministers in relation to the liturgical duties of priests and deacons. I'm really concerned by the crazy ideas that are out there on the subject. It's not in and of itself earth-shatteringly important, but it's a weathervane for the sad state of theological and liturgical formation even among the clergy in the Episcopal Church. (And, interestingly, it's not an orthodox/revisionist divide; many well-known "reappraisers" have the right views on the subject--namely, they agree with me!)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Five Golden Rings

Happy Fifth Day of Christmas.

We have no "major holy day" today, beyond being in the midst of a festal season, but we do have a "lesser feast" of more than passing importance. This is the commemoration of St Thomas of Canterbury, aka Thomas Becket. There's a delicious scene from the 1964 film Becket, with Richard Burton in the title role, and Peter O'Toole as King Henry II (a clip is available here, but I do not have the technical smarts to provide a direct link), in which Henry reveals his brainstormed plan to place Thomas--his chancellor, drinking buddy, and whoring partner--in the suddenly vacant See of Canterbury, thinking he would thereby have his own inside man on the throne of St Augustine. Thomas tried to dissuade him. Henry should have listened.

The current axiom among cynical Episcopalians (if that isn't a redundancy) is that, when a new bishop is consecrated, the huddle of co-consecrators that obscures him from the view of the congregation for a minute or two while the actual deed is done actually masks a surgical procedure--the removal of the spine! In Thomas Becket's case, the opposite was the result. He grew a spine, repented of his dissolute ways, and stood up for the rights of the Church in the face of assaults from the Crown. Henry is then said to have uttered the rhetorical question, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Some of his aides apparently took him seriously, and on 29 December 1170, they dispatched the Archbishop in the north transept of Canterbury Cathedral. Pictured here is the shrine now on that spot, which it was my great joy to visit and offer prayers at in April of 2005. (In 1981, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie prayed together at the same spot.)

Becket was relatively quickly canonized, viewed as a martyr, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major place of pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages, thus providing the inspiration for one of the classics of English literature, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (I still recall the intermittent snickers erupting from my classmates in high school World Literature as we read together, silently but simultaneously, The Miller's Tale, which is on the racy side--at least by 1968 suburban Chicago standards).

Some 836 years later, St Thomas' successor on Augustine's throne, Rowan Williams, is in as much a need of a backbone as anyone who ever donned a miter. He is universally lauded as a theologian and scholar, and is undeniably in possession of a world class brilliant intellect. Not everyone agrees, however, with respect to his political and leadership skills and instincts. Many, on both the right and the left, think he's in over his head. I tend not to be in that camp. His latest letter--well-dissected elsewhere in cyberspace, but particularly here--exhibits idealism, wisdom, prudence, pragmatism, and hope all in one place. I pray for him daily.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Four Calling Birds

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas.

As I mentioned two days ago in connection with St Stephen's Day, it is slightly ironic, and also slightly appropriate, that in the midst of our yuletide rejoicing, blood is shed. This time it's that of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, whose feast we observe today.

The currently-showing film The Nativity Story frames its narrative with this gruesome event (but circumspectly--I don't recall actually seeing any blood, though there was plenty of "Rachel weeping for her children"). As is their wont, New Testament scholars are apt to attribute our knowledge of this barbarism to Matthew's keenness to provide a pretext for the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt, in order to set Jesus up as the "new Moses." But the slaughter of innocent children hits most people at such a visceral level that erudite pronouncements of that sort seem trifling.

That leaves us with a bit of a scandal, related to the age-old question of theodicy, perhaps the single biggest challenge to Christian apologetics: How can a good God allow such awful things to happen? (To quote from Archibald MacLeish's play JB: "If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God.") And to compound the problem, the little boys of Bethlehem were put at risk precisely because of Jesus' presence among them. So does it not seem manifestly unfair that an angel would warn Joseph to get out of Dodge, but not slip a note to the other parents in town?

I'm not going to attempt to solve that dilemma in a blog post. This is the sort of thing where our Enlightenment scientific presuppositions get us in trouble. Being too literal only intensifies the pain. The symbolic and allegorical approach of our Patristic forbears is probably more helpful--at least in making sense of the observance (one hesitates to say "celebration") of the liturgical feast, if not of the event itself. The cardinal principle is that life is sustained only through the shedding of innocent blood. Whatever animals provided full-length clothing for Adam and Eve as they were banished from the garden were the first to learn this. Anyone who buys a pound of ground beef at a meat market should know the same thing. (Not to let vegetarians off the hook: Any fruit or vegetable has had its natural life cycle violently interrupted in order to become food.) The innocents of Bethlehem are a link in a long chain. Every link is ultimately connected to the Lamb of God, who by "his one oblation of himself, once offered" (BCP), takes away the sin of the world and grants us the peace of God by granting us peace with God.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Three French Hens

Happy Third Day of Christmas.

It's also St John's Day--the patron saint of my parish, and a great many others. It's too bad for John that his feast day comes two days after Christmas. Because the season of Christmas trumps most anything else liturgically, even churches dedicated to him are not allowed to transfer the observance to a Sunday, and hardly anybody is up to a proper weekday celebration when they're still worn out from Christmas Eve and everything that went on during Advent.

Fortunately, John himself has sufficient gravitas that he doesn't depend on a liturgical feast day to attract a critical mass of attention.

There's a bit of a divergence, of course, between ecclesiastical tradition and the currently prevailing scholarly consensus about John. The tradition holds that the Beloved Disciple, the Fourth Evangelist, the author of the three short epistles that bear his name, and the Book of Revelation are all one and the same person. New Testament scholars mostly think such a "John" is an amalgamation of several different individuals, all connected with an early ecclesial community that had something of a distinct existence until it was subsumed by the emerging catholic tradition early in the second century. Intellectually, I can track with the scholars, and what they say makes sense. Spiritually and pastorally, however, I'm more agnostic, and choose to "preach" (broadly construed) from the tradition. It is more nourishing than spending energy trying to get people to follow academic arguments that have very few concrete implications for them.

Glory ... light ... life (especially the eternal variety) ... the Good Shepherd--these are just some of the Johannine themes and images that pervade everyday Christian theology and devotion. The Lenten gospels for Year A, texts that formed the core of ancient catechesis, are an excellent "short course" in the essence of the gospel and the meaning of the baptismal mystery: Jesus and Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Man Born Blind, and the Raising of Lazarus.

Appreciating John requires, I think, a capacity to respond poetically. So much of the Johannine literature is poetic in nature, if not strictly in form. Trying to read the first epistle as if it were from Paul can be an exercise in immense frustration, especially for a linear thinker such as myself! This was a realization of adulthood for me; hence, I never saw the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Now I can't not see it.

Holy John, pray for us.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Two Turtle Doves

Happy Second Day of Christmas ... aka Boxing Day ... aka St Stephen's Day (as in when Good King Wenceslas looked out on the deep, crisp, and even snow "on the feast of Stephen"). Probably more than one Christmas sermon included the thought that, as it has been put, "the shadow of the cross falls across the manger." The fact that we celebrate the Church's proto-martyr on the day after Christmas drives that point home with some urgency.

It was a bit of a pared-down Christmas in the Martins household this year. Because of the obligations of adulthood and marriage, two of our children did not make it to Stockton; only our oldest made the journey, flying in from Atlanta, for which her parents are immensely grateful. She was given (not by us) a gift that we all enjoyed this morning--a DVD of Handel's Messiah performed by the choir of King's College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. It's unabridged, and we watched the whole thing. I highly recommend it. The choir of men and boys is crystal clear and precise. The baroque period instruments in the orchestra get their point across (i.e. "this is not anybody's Philharmonic") without sounding quaint or fashionably out of tune. The soloists are superb. Of particular note is the contralto, Hilary Summers. If you have any doubts about who may abide the Lord's coming, or whether he is really like a refiner's fire, hearing and watching her sing will make a believer out of you. The setting is sumptuous (a Dutch church) and the video production well-planned (focus on appropriate performers and appropriate times) and executed. If you happen to go looking for it on, I surely do invite you to do so though my parish website, because St John's will then get a cut!

Thanks to my habit of cruising Anglicans Online once a week, I ran across this video blog that seems worthy of a look just because of the concept: A young Episcopal priest (a rarity in itself) using the cultural vocabulary (technology, music, cinematic style) of his generation to connect with...well...the people of his generation, but not in a way that jettisons the symbols and vocabulary of his (Anglican) tradition. Refreshing. I haven't watched all his entries. It could be that I would find some theology that would make me gag. But I haven't yet. Give it a look.

Just before Christmas, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the spinmeisters more raw material, and they've been busy since. I will weigh in soon, I'm sure. For the time being, I think Brad Drell gets is pretty well right--but mostly because he agrees with my own upstream speculations!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Friendly Fire

Apropos of the most recent blog post before this one, I find myself increasingly concerned by tensions within those quarters of the Anglican world that understand themselves as reasserting the received theological and moral tradition in resistance to the movements of the last several decades to radically reassess and revise that tradition. (If you found that opaque, it's because I'm trying to avoid such unhelpful labels as "conservative" or "orthodox" or "traditional.")

Significant events are occurring with some regularity, and the landscape is constantly shifting. Earlier this month, the Diocese of San Joaquin (full disclosure: my diocese) voted overwhelmingly to prepare the way for separating from the Church-of-General-Convention (aka the Episcopal Church) en route to . . . well, that's not entirely clear, but en route to something else, some other way of being Anglican. More recently, the Virgina secessions have been announced, and the spin doctors are in the red zone.

Whether, and how, all this will reach a tipping point is anybody's guess, and that uncertainty is spawning a fair amount of internecine squabbling. There are those who have already made the break (I hesitate to say "left" because that opens up the question of who's actually "leaving.") There are those who are fully "orthodox" in their faith and morals but have announced that they see no need, and foresee no possibility of a need, to separate from the Episcopal Church. Here one thinks of some of the "Windsor bishops" who are not affiliated with the Network. And then there are those at various points in the middle. I would number myself in this latter category.

As long as everything was theoretical, "reasserters" of various persuasions were capable of making common cause and being of great mutual support. Now that the quantity of "facts on the ground" is increasing at an ever faster pace, people are having to choose sides, make difficult decisions. This leads to strained relationships among friends, and sometimes outright ruptures. Parish communities are split down the middle. Diocesan colleagues find themselves at odds.

My biggest fear, and the Evil One's hope, is that the whole thing will develop a revolutionary psychology. The dark side of revolutions is that they inevitably consume their own. Monsieur Gilloutin eventually lost his head on the device he had invented to prosecute the cause of the revolution. In the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979, two of the early leaders of the Ayatollah's new government were before long executed by that government. The specter that hangs over the Anglican realignment is the potential development of a "more orthodox than thou" revolutionary zeal.

Great will be the tragedy if the Anglican Communion founders on the rock of such misdirected zeal. I am at a loss to suggest what concrete actions might avert such a fate. I can only pray.

Friday, December 22, 2006

It's Not Just in Virginia

In the ongoing drama of the realignment of American Anglicanism, most of the attention over the last few days and weeks has been focused on Virginia, and the 15 congregations (including two of the largest and oldest in the diocese) that have voted to shift their allegiance to the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a mission of the Nigerian church.

Outside the media glare, however, are quiet tragedies playing out, I’m sure, all over the country, that are just as much casualties of the Anglican-Episcopal wars as when there is a clean break. I ran across the following from a parish website. I have a passing familiarity with the place, having had an interest in one aspect of the ministry of one of its previous rectors some years ago, and having worshiped there once on a Sunday when visiting the area. As recently as two years ago, it was a large and vibrant congregation in an urban area of a diocese that has no reputation for being particularly liberal or particularly conservative. What follows is a letter from the Senior Warden. I’ve taken out all the names. Read it and weep. I did.

Lest anyone here missed a few of the turns, let me remind you that a year ago at this meeting, we had five clergy associated with this parish – three full time priests, a vocational deacon, and a priest associate. Our Associate Rector N.N. retired last Christmas, our Rector N.N. and Deacon N.N. left during Lent, our Associate N.N. left this October, and our then Assistant now Interim Rector N.N. will follow this Christmas. With great hope, we hired a new transitional deacon in July, only to have him leave “St Swithun’s” and the Episcopal Church in September – on Rally Day no less. In addition, in early summer we canceled our contemporary worship service, and released two staff members, N.N., our Contemporary Worship Music Director, and N.N. who led our youth. In March, N.N., our long-time Office Manager, retired, and N.N., our Christian Education Director, will depart this Christmas with Fr. N. It has been a heck of a ride.

Our lay leadership and membership were also in transition. The national issues associated with the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions prompted three members of our Vestry to leave “St Swithun’s.” Senior Warden N.N., and Vestry members N.N. and N.N. left us and the Episcopal Church. I transitioned from junior to senior warden on July 1st, and N.N. accepted my former role. Later, N.N. and N.N. were selected to replace two of the Vestry members who left us. Since June, about 70 parishioners have left “St Swithun’s”, with most of those leaving the Episcopal Church. In terms of both attendance and finances, the third quarter of this year was probably the worst our parish has experienced in decades.

This almost literally makes me ill. To see a thriving witness to the Good News of Christ, a robustly healthy parish community, be ripped apart by dissension not because of what’s happening within, but because of varying responses to what’s happening outside the congregation, is heart-wrenching. This is not a “heretics vs. orthodox” parish conflict. It’s a battle between those with very traditional theological views. It’s a firing squad assembled in a circle. It makes me angry with the self-styled “progressives” who have militantly prosecuted their agenda without any regard for the larger ecclesial context. “St Swithun’s” is an innocent bystander in the culture wars. It also makes me angry with many self-styled “orthodox” who are apparently much more formed by the values of American (Protestant) individualism than by the organic Catholic ecclesiology of their Anglican inheritance. Kyrie eleison.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Seventeen Years

There's no particular reason to mark the seventeenth anniversary of anything, except perhaps that it's a prime number, and that should count for something. Anyway, seventeen years ago tonight I was ordained a priest at St Luke's Church, Baton Rouge, Diocese of Louisiana.

Those who know me will no doubt attest that I haven't aged a day.


Over my left shoulder in the picture is the good bishop who did the deed, James Barrow Brown, now retired. I remember him with fond gratitude, because he cheerfully took me in as a homeless deacon, having been more or less cut loose by my originating diocese. The other mitred man on my right is John Maury Allin, XXIII Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who, in fairly recent retirement, was the preacher for the occasion. He was a bit of a giant of the sort they don't make anymore. May he rest in peace. We had the honor of his presence, I recall, because he was related by marriage to the then rector of St Luke's, Charles Jenkins, now Bishop of Louisiana.

The other fellow in the photo was ordained along with me, both of us serving as curates at St Luke's. The last I heard of Jim Anderson was when he wrote me in 1994 to say that he was resigning his ministry and leaving the Episcopal Church. I hope he found what it is he was looking for.

The next day, on the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, I celebrated my first Mass--a liminal moment for a priest. The feeling cannot really be described. I was fortunate to begin my ordained ministry in a large, healthy, and vibrant parish. It was an affirming experience on which I "imprinted," and which therefore sustained me through some less affirming moments as a Vicar and Rector in the ensuing years.

Re-connecting with my sense of vocation-- striking the original match, so to speak--is a salutary blessing as I try to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit in this time of heightened ecclesial angst. Yes, we live in a difficult historical moment, a moment that I am finding demands every ounce of wisdom I might have, and every impulse toward self-differentiation I can muster. But it is all done in the context of, and for the sake of, being a bread-breaker and word-proclaimer to a particular community of Christians who are trying to get through the changes and chances of this life and somehow come to look more like Jesus in doing so. Whatever organizational, administrative, rhetorical, and political tasks I might engage as I fulfill my ordination vow to take my share in the councils of the church, it's all done for the sake of helping people learn to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, to be able to look God in the eye and not be turned to dust.

This is often what makes it possible for me to get out of bed in the morning.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An Honor Never Sought

The blog Stand Firm is hosting the 2007 (first annual?) Anglican Blog Awards. My humble and unworthy offering has been nominated--by whom I know not--in the category of Best New Blog. I would never have dreamed or desired such a nomination, but now that it's out there, I fear being reminded that this blog is even more humble and unworthy than I thought. (You see, I don't have a hit counter mainly because I can't figure out where to put the code, but not having one also spares my ego.) I'm getting creamed out there, folks. At the moment I've got all of two votes and I think I know where they both come from! So, while I don't expect to win, or even not come in last--Anglican TV, the runaway favorite, having all the hi-tech wizardry I know nothing about--I do invite those who may be so inclined to help me hold my head a little higher.


Anyone who has participated on an internet message board has learned that cyberspace is a harshly unforgiving environment. Whatever we write is just out there, and probably stored on an incalculable number of hard drives, ready to be retrieved by ever more clever search engines. Such indelibility leads to a certain circumspection about what one says in the first place. I try to bear that in mind.

The Anglican corner of cyberspace is once again buzzing today, with the announced departure of several parishes from the Diocese of Virginia, representing nearly one-fifth of its total average Sunday attendance. That's a chunk. And it is not an abstraction for me. I served on a General Convention committee with Bishop Peter Lee and had fairly extensive exchanges with (now Bishop) Martyn Minns, who monitored the work of Committee 26 very closely. I have great respect and affection for both men, and it pains me to see them at odds with one another now.

With these "facts on the ground," and with San Joaquin's action earlier this month of releasing the safety and cocking the gun, though not yet pulling the trigger, still hanging out there, attention turns now to the meeting of all 38 Anglican Primates in Dar es Salaam in about two months' time. Speculation is rampant about whether they will allow Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori to even be seated, and whether the Global South Primates (23 of the 38) will prevail in their insistence that Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh be seated, effectively in her stead. Such speculation then extends to whether the Primates, or the 2008 Lambeth Conference, or anybody, will "kick the Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion."

For whatever it may be worth, I place the odds of a Schori-Duncan switch at about 50/50. (How's that for going out on a limb?!) I'm not predicting this, but it will not surprise me if some deal is brokered that puts both of them in the room on some basis. Just what basis I can't say. But it will be messy and ambiguous. We are, after all, still Anglicans.

And precisely because we are all still Anglicans, I have a firmer sense about whether the Episcopal Church will get "kicked out" of the Anglican Communion. It will not happen--not just like that, at any rate. Not by the Primates, not by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and still less by the Anglican Consultative Council, which I believe is operating on borrowed time, and will soon cease to exist or morph into something quite different under the coming Anglican Covenant. Rather, the conditions will be created under which TEC will pull the plug on itself. Lambeth will approve a draft Covenant and send it to the Provinces. The question on the floor in Anaheim in 2009 will be, "Do we opt in?" It will be an up or down vote, and amending the Covenant will not be one of the options. There will probably be another Special Commission and Special Committee, with lots of witnesses and hearings. But when the vote by orders is tallied, the question will fail. The Anglican train will simply keep moving on to the next station, leaving the Episcopal Church behind.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lessons & Carols Afterglow

It was a lovely service, a full church, a great choir, fabulous music, with the measured unfolding of the drama ("The Mystery of Our Redemption, Part I: The Incarnation") in the words of Holy Scripture--from the narrative of the Fall in Genesis to the luminous prologue to John's gospel--taking us right to the place where we need to be in these last few days of Advent.

My amazing wife--who doubles the size of our parish choir every year for this event with extra singers from around the community through her sheer musical magnetism--also produces a gem that she is often not even given credit for in the program, and that's a series of notes on the carols that are being sung. I wish there were some literary award I could nominate her for, because, quite apart from the texts and music they describe, they are treasures in themselves. I share them herewith:

Adam Lay Ybounden: A famous and much-set text not only describes the key points of the ‘fall’ in the garden of Eden, but goes on to revel in that disaster as a catalyst for wondrous grace: “Blessed be the time that apple taken was!” Matthew Larkin’s setting for women’s voices evokes swirling and colliding spirit-winds in the cosmos – a primeval sense of redemption activated, even pre-existing the need.

What Sweeter Music: The apex of mystical poetry is surely represented in this Robert Herrick poem, with its winning images of the world awakening to welcome its king. And certainly nothing can compare with the hushed moment of sweet recognition at the center of this work: ‘We see him come, and know him ours’. Masterfully set by the great Anglican composer, John Rutter.

What Cheer?: The traditional English response is ‘Good Cheer!’ The occasion for ‘this good New Year’ is not a calendar one, but the complete joy and sense of all things being made new in Messiah’s birth, foretold in the Isaiah lesson. William Walton musical setting conjures up a village in celebration, with the cheery greeting and response echoing/reverberating among its reveling and delighted inhabitants.

God is with us: a Christmas Proclamation: John Tavener sets a dramatic musical table here with an interacting set of characters. Men begin with the title drone, evoking a sense of the presence of God underlying all of creation. The full choir plays the role of nomadic evangelists. As they wander, proclaiming their message, one can almost taste the dust of a middle eastern desert and sense whether they’ve arrived in the next town or are directly in front of us, by their dynamics. The solo evangelists give the star message, proclaiming the good news of the prophet Isaiah. These three components interact and weave together, with the choir picking up the drone, which rises to an excited pitch that almost drowns out – or at least joins – the evangelists. The final declaration, “Christ is Born!” is punctuated by a new character – the organ – as it speaks a visceral amen from the throne of God.

I Wonder as I Wander: John Rutter arranges this traditional Appalachian carol with his signature, characteristic sweet warmth. Not the only carol to span redemptive time, it connects the birth and foreshadowed death of Jesus, mixing images of the sweet birth of the newborn king with the poignancy of His future chosen sacrifice.

There is No Rose: Robert Young has been described as a “master at keeping 20th century music tasteful.” This lush setting of a traditional text, extolling Mary as the Rose that bears the fruit of the tree of Jesse, hearkens back with chant-like phrases and captures contemporary imaginations with its energy and complex harmonies. Each verse of text concludes with a trinity of Latin phrases.

Corpus Christi Carol: Lullaby carols typically use the sweet “lully, lullay” phrase to portray the effect of a mother cooing to her child. In this carol, that refrain becomes more and more anguished as Mary has a premonition of her Son’s death. The medieval text portrays God as a ‘falcon’, Mary as a ‘maid’, and Jesus as a mortally wounded knight. Her final vision is of a headstone with the inscription “Corpus Christ” (Body of Christ). One can almost sense a heart-broken, fist-shaking Mary sobbing her lullays.

Lux Arumque: Eric Whitacre is an expert in galactic sounds of the human spirit. His glittering, impressionistic effects transform the concept of a well-defined gold ring ‘halo’ into something closer to light’s essence of liquid gold. The overall sound evokes the texture of angels’ wings.

In Time of Softest Snow: John Carter matches the sweet-storytelling of Mary Kay Beall with music that poetically and palpably punctuates the nativity story. Can you feel the ‘softest snow’ on your mittens? Perhaps you’re pushed aside as three kings hurry to the child? Arriving wise men take time to ponder; hearts almost stop at mention of the ‘pure and gentle Lamb’. And then - the striking awe of ‘the great I Am’! The Christmas scene is painted, and we’re drawn in to the action: nativity characters in their traditional places catch our observer eyes and you just might feel the invited singers kneeling in love…under the stage light of ‘the Star’.

Silent Night: What can we say? This is the first time, in our nine years of presenting this service that we’ve included a traditional, recognizable carol – a melody that everyone can hum! Mark Johnson’s captivating setting frames a stacked-up, expansive, universe-reaching middle verse with pure, holy night verses by the women (opening) and then the men (closing). Sheer ‘ah’…

While All Things Were in Quiet Silence: This carol hearkens back to where we began with our first carol. Hints of swirling spirit expand, taking on ever more form and presence in surrounding an unspeakable event – the leaping of The Word from the throne of God. Rorem’s compositional vehicle might be compared to a musical spaceship that, with ever transitioning harmonies, hints at touching down, but only settles at the holy end.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Shameles Plug

For any of you out there in blogland who happen find yourselves in central California this weekend, come on over to Stockton and experience the Ninth Annual Festival of Lessons & Carols at St John's Church. Your soul will thank you.

For those of you who are aficionados of the genre, we do it "Sewanee style"--that is, beginning very much in Advent (with the Palestrina Matins responsory "I Look from Afar") and then sliding in to full-out Christmas by the end (with "Once in Royal David's City").

The choir is serving up an incredibly rich fare, with nothing written before 1960!:

Adam Lay Ybounden (Matthew Larkin)
What Sweeter Music (John Rutter)
What Cheer! (William Walton)
God Is With Us (John Tavener)
I Wonder as I Wander (arr. Rutter)
There Is No Rose (Robert H. Young)
Corpus Christi Carol* (Trond Kverno)
Lux Aurumque (Eric Whitacre)
In Time of Softest Snow (John Carter)
Silent Night (arr. Mark David Johnson)
While All Things Were in Quiet Silence (Ned Rorem)

*my personal favorite--you must check it out!

It's at 6:00 PM. For directions see the St John's website.

Since I sleep with the choir director, I'm obligated to say that it's the best L&C west of the Continental Divide. But even if I weren't obligated, it would still be true!

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Anglican News Day

This is not a news blog. I don't attempt to scoop anyone. And I try to avoid fomenting what seems to me much of the time to be a highly cannibalistic Anglican blogsphere. So, since I neither originate news nor, except incidentally, spread news, I depend on the worthiness of my reflections and comments. Or, from time to time, the worthiness of others' comments, i.e. those that are not generally accessible to the public.

I spoke on the phone today with a good friend of mine, a priest of another diocese, and he read me an eMail message to another, mutual, presbyteral friend, and I thought it so incisive and apposite with respect to the present Anglican angst, that I asked him to send it to me as well, for the express purpose of doing what I'm doing now--that is, sharing it.

But first, the digest. Two items came out today that are of broad interest to Anglicans. The primate of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi, issued a statement re-affirming an earlier declaration that his province is not in communion with the Episcopal Church, that they will take no more money from TEC or entities thereto related, save for those bishops, dioceses, parishes, and institutions that are related to the Anglican Communion Network, that they will send no students to Episcopal seminaries, except for TESM and Nashotah, and--here's the important part--he will join in a request to Canterbury that the Presiding Bishop of TEC not be seated at the Primates' Meeting set for February in Tanzania, and that a bishop representative of the Network be seated in her stead. This gives some further traction to the Kigali Statement issued by the Global South Primates last September.

We also heard today of a meeting between representatives of a large contingent of Church of England evangelicals and Archbishop Williams, wherein His Grace was presented with a list of what amount to demands that British evangelical Anglicans be freed from some of the political and bureaucratic procedures that they feel shackle them in their work and witness and deprive them of a level of power that would be commensurate with their numerical strength. Their demands were articulated in the form of a proposed "Covenant," upon which it is that my friend comments:

I'd grabbed the "covenant" off of the "Mainstream" website before I got your forward and was enthusiastic at the thought that something significant had begun. Maybe it has. Unfortunately, it is in a direction that I cannot go. I've come to realize that all the talk of restoration, reformation, and renewal contrasts deeply with my own conviction that what Anglicanism needs is renunciation, repentance, and return. I could almost say "romanization," but that would imply a dismissal of the Orthodox that I neither intend or believe. It would also suggest a contentment with the way our latin fellowship manages being the church, and that too would be incorrect. RCism is a mess. At least it is Church.

Like all of our protestant kin, we have inherited the tendency of perpetual division and fragmentation. Calls for renewal and reform always mean some form of overthrow of tradition and its divine authority. It always tends to exclusive fellowship centered in the local (formerly congregational). And it always spawns further fragmentation in the next generation. I grew up in what was then seen as an extreme offshoot of that tendency. Now it is rather mainstream, and the newer megachurches have taken over its former market.
Either of today's developments would have noticeably raised the heat under Dr Williams. Together, they cannot be contributing to his peace of mind. Neither do they contribute to my own! Anglicanism is in a high stakes poker game at the moment. Nobody knows exactly who's holding what cards, or who's got the best poker face. In the dead of the night, my blood runs cold with premonitions of the sort of escalating fragmentation that my friend describes. He is a conservative Anglo-Catholic; I dare say, more conservative than I am. So he's no Episcopal Church corporatist trying to get everyone to "stay at the table."

Jesu, mercy. Mary, pray.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Nativity Story

The youth group of St John's made an outing to the cineplex across the street from the church this afternoon to take in The Nativity Story, and they very kindly invited their Rector to accompany them, which I was all too happy to do. I enjoy movies, and I am, by professional commitment if nothing else, a fan of the nativity story, generically construed, so it was a no-brainer.

In my alter ego fantasy world, where I am a film maker (among several other things), I have long fantasized about doing a project of this sort. I don't think it's ever been done particularly well. There are a couple of what I consider worthy efforts that deal with the other end of Jesus' life on this planet--Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's more recent The Passion of the Christ. But nothing of comparable edginess--nothing that I am aware of, at any rate--has been done with the beginning of the story.

I walked into the theater with modest expectations, and was therefore only slightly disappointed. It has been slammed by critics as being essentially a Sunday School Christmas pageant with a big budget and great costumes, and that assessment is not far from the mark. There were some bright spots: Framing the story as a flashback from the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem, and then weaving three distinct strands--the folks in Nazareth, Herod & Company in Jersusalem, and the Magi making their way in from Persia. The musical score, while not outstanding, showed some imagination by just hinting at several classic Christmas carols without ever indulging in a clear and complete statement of any of them. Depiction of village life in Nazareth--particularly life on the edge of economic viability and in constant fear of Roman tyranny--was nicely done. And, like I said, the costumes were great.

Broadly speaking, however, the film is...How shall I put this?...unchallenging. It may as well have been made by Hallmark. It's a harmonized redaction of the gospel material from Luke and Matthew, garnished with a sprinkling of John (from a most unlikely source--one of the Magi commenting on his gift being fit for a God who has been made flesh), then amplified with such creative details as the arranged betrothal of Mary to Joseph (Mary was not pleased) and the way in which her pregnancy was revealed to all concerned.

That said, I have two comments: First, The Nativity Story does no harm. It does not fail to achieve what it attempts, because it doesn't attempt much. If it is not high art, neither is it bad catechesis. I was glad to have our youth group there. Reinforcing the gospel infancy narratives--narratives that will shortly figure prominently in their liturgical experience--and doing so in a dramatic and compelling way, is not a bad thing. As a pastor, I was grateful for it.

But as a lover of the cinematic arts, I was left hungry. And I have finicky tastes. If I'd like to see something that transcends the level of greeting card piety, that doesn't mean I'm looking for something that is scandalous or iconoclastic. I'm not looking for a film that distorts or mocks how Christians have apprehended the biblical story of Jesus' birth just in order to shock, or just because it can be done. No, I am looking for something that is apparently elusive, because I'm not aware of it ever having been done. I'm looking for something that is sympathetic to--or at least respects--Christian piety, but is also imaginatively speculative both in presenting the details that the gospel evangelists do give us and in filling in what they leave blank. In other words, something edgy. I've got a few ideas, but I'll save them for when a producer contacts me!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Interpreting Scripture

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I remain a subscriber--and an occasional (formerly frequent) poster--to the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv. (Bishops and recent Deputies may participate; others may watch as "kibitzers.") Today one of the Deputies--someone whose positions could fairly be characterized as "liberal" on the divisive questions of the day--asked for help in understanding the "traditionalist" approach to the following question: "How do you decide which parts of scripture (Hebrew and Christian) to follow and which no longer need to be followed?"

So I took the bait. Originally I intended it to be a private response, but eventually thought my contribution worth sharing, so I posted it to HoB/D, and do so here as well. Subsequently, another member of the listserv told me my answer was "too academic to preach." Oh, well. I hadn't intended it to be a sermon. And it is a little academic, I suppose. But it's an important question, and worth struggling with.

You have posed a fair and legitimate question. However, as you might guess, I have trouble accepting its premise-i.e. that some parts of scripture "still" need to be followed and some parts "no longer" need to be followed, and the question is deciding which parts belong in which category.

The way I look at it is like this: There's a tension between reading scripture as "one book" and reading it as "many books." Since the advent of critical methodology, most in the historic mainstream denominations have emphasized the latter, and we have lots of fun picking things apart, ranging from the "four source" theory of the Pentateuch more than a century ago to the Jesus Seminar in our own time. I really haven't got a problem with this. I find that the insights of critical scholarship often inform my preaching in very positive ways.

Reading the Bible as "many books" leads to judgment questions such as you pose. But we need to maintain the tension. The Bible is also "one book." There is a meta-narrative that runs like a golden thread from Genesis to Revelation. Moreover, both the "Bible-as-one-book" and the unifying meta-narrative are the property of the Church, the community of disciples throughout space and time. The Church, in turn, is a community of mutual accountability. Yes, tradition is dynamic and variegated. But I would submit that there is a discernible core, a center of gravity, in which a consistent and fruitful hermeneutic can be grounded. Different chronological eras and different geographical areas and different sub-strata of piety and spirituality all act as an organic system of checks and balances through which, I would suggest, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth, including the true interpretation of scripture.

Interpreting scripture, then, becomes a matter of "thinking with the Church."

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Mystery of Prayer

I just got an eMail from a friend two-thirds of the way across the country. My friend said, "I remembered you in prayer at Mass." He said it so matter-of-factly that one might be tempted to think he was speaking of something quite trivial, when he was actually telling me something of astonishing significance. He was accessing an untellably powerful mystery, and doing so, somehow, on my behalf.

Some years ago, on a visit to the parish church from which I was launched to seminary many years before that, one of the older saints of that community (every parish has them, I think--usually they're women) told me, almost as casually as my friend's eMail, "I pray for you every day." Every day! I was stunned. I still am, because I don't doubt that she's still doing it.

"Such knowledge is too wonderful for me." (Psalm 139:6) And it would be quite too much to bear, actually, except for the knowledge that it is so not "all about me," but, rather, all about web into which I have been knit (see the Prayer Book collect for All Saints) by the love and grace of God.

I don't pretend to be able to define--or even remotely comprehend--what any of this means. I'm a board member of a fledgling organization in my city that aims to galvanize resources to address some of the weak spots in the social fabric, and do so in the name of Jesus. My colleagues on the board, save one (who is my parishioner!), are all Evangelicals of one stripe or another. They believe in both the necessity and the power of prayer, and, probably not completely realizing what they're doing, they've put me in charge of the Prayer Committee. Now, these are good people, and I truly honor their faith and their dedication. But one of the things I've already begun to challenge them on is their limited notion of what prayer even is. In their universe, it could pretty much be defined as "verbalizing requests to God." Yesterday I suggested that just being together intentionally in God's presence, even if completely silent, with no words to articulate any requests, fully qualifies as prayer. Nobody said I was nuts (well, they were in my conference room, so at least they were polite!), and there were even some "Aha!" expressions.

I don't know whether my friend who prayed for me at Mass tonight asked for anything specific on my behalf. But it doesn't matter to me. What matters is that he prayed for me. And the fact that he did it in the context of corporate eucharistic worship gives it a whole added dimension. And I rather doubt (even hope) that the saintly woman from my home parish is keeping tabs on whether her particular requests on my behalf are being "answered" or not. It is sufficiently humbling, and life-giving, to know that she holds me in her heart when she comes intentionally into the presence of the Holy One, and that, in her doing so, we are both participating in the redemption of the universe.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Feeling Blue

After the momentous convention vote last Saturday, during a break, I was speaking with a lay delegate from another parish, someone who has served both the diocese and the Episcopal Church long and well. She asked, "How can something that's the right thing to do make me feel so bad?" I immediately identified with her sentiment. After the vote was taken, but before the results were announced, I used "personal privilege" to exhort the convention to refrain from any demonstrations when the tallies were made public. Contrary to the report of a popular conservative blogger, the convention indulged me on that one, and I was grateful.

On Monday, I was interviewed by a reporter free-lancing for the Church Times (London). After covering factual matters, he asked me the question that always makes me cringe when I hear a reporter put it to someone else, "How does all of this make you feel?" My immediate response was, "It makes me feel very sad." It still does. I am more acutely aware than ever that I have made myself complicit in something that could turn out to be a huge mistake.

I am also more acutely aware than ever of the pernicious influence in my diocese of what I call "digital thinking," whereby everything is framed into an either/or disjunction. I know this is the digital age, but when it comes to thought processes, the old analog model has a lot to commend it, I think. We are ill-served by rhetoric that casts every Episcopalian as either "Jesus-loving scripture-affirming orthodox" or a "scripture-distorting heresy-spewing apostate." There are countless degrees of gradation between those extremes. To presume to know where the definitive line should be drawn is...well...presumptuous.

(Of course, we are equally ill-served by rhetoric from the left that casts all Episcopalians as either "peace-loving justice-affirming followers of Matthew 25" or "misogynistic homophobic neo-Puritans.")

So I'm singing the blues today. I find it impossible to be a single-minded partisan on any corner of this conflict. There's a piece of me everywhere. I'm quite literally disintegrated.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Convention

Well, we did it. Here's the language of the new Article II of our diocesan constitution if it passes next year on a second reading:

The Diocese of San Joaquin is constituted by the Faith, Order, and Practice of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as received by the Anglican Communion. The Diocese shall be a constituent member of the Anglican Communion and in full communion with the See of Canterbury.

I proposed an amendment that would have added the following material after "The Diocese of San Joaquin": ", in organic continuity with the ecclesial life of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,". My intent was to enable us to lay claim to our heritage as Episcopalians, to not surrender that identity to the Church-of-General-Convention. I did not make my case persuasively enough. It was perceived, I think, as an attempt to weaken the main motion, a back door into being under the thumb once again of "the national church." Such is the level of ire and disgust against the enormities of General Convention, Executive Council, and '815,' that even acknowledging where we've come from was a non-starter. To my disappointment, my amendment was roundly defeated.

When it came time to debate the main motion, here is what I said:

"Right Reverend sir, I rise to speak in support of the motion that is presently before the convention, but I do so reluctantly, and with a heavy heart. I believe we are doing the right thing at the wrong time. The Episcopal Church is a sinking ship. The senior officers have run it into an iceberg. They are in denial about the extent of the damage, but there are plenty of junior crew members who realize that she has taken on water to a point that most probably cannot be reversed. Yet, big ships sink slowly. The engines have quit, but the power is still on, and many of the passengers are dancing the night away in the ballroom, or are peacefully asleep in their cabins. If the crew members, who are awake and alert and know the danger, abandon ship now, what will become of those innocent passengers? They will perish. Now, we can blame the officers on the bridge, who elected not to sound an alarm. Or we could assess the situation with clear eyes and realize that we have some time before the fateful moment when the bow rises into the air and the entire hulk sinks into the depths. And we could use that time to allow the passengers to see what danger they’re in, despite what they hear from the bridge. These are the very passengers that I believe our Lord Jesus looks on with compassion, because he sees them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It is this Christ-like vision that I wish we had been able to see our way to embracing.

Nonetheless, even though it’s the wrong time, it is the right thing. The ship is going to sink. Rescue operations do need to be underway. I am open to discovering that God is calling the Diocese of San Joaquin to be in the forefront of that rescue effort. There are some very concrete signs I will need to see before I would vote next year to pull the trigger on all this. No one should interpret support now as a guarantee of support later. But we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that in due course. Thank-you."

I was not surprised that the amendment passed, but I was surprised by the margin. It carried by well more than three-quarters in the clergy order, and by
88% among the laity.

Also...for what it's worth...I was elected to the Standing Committee.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I love the lexical flexibility of the German language. Compound nouns can pop out of nowhere as the need arises. (My favorites are heilsgeschicte, weltanschaung and gesamtkunstwerk.) At this present moment in my life, however, realpolitik is the most relevant. For whatever reason, I associate this term with the foreign policy stance of the Nixon administration under the guidance of Henry Kissinger. It denotes a pragmatic approach to complex issues and relationships, driven by what can happen--what will work--more than by what should happen. It is non-ideological. Whoever said "politics is the art of the possible" was thinking along the same lines.

During the next couple of days, I'm going to be engaged in some heavy-duty church politics, as the Diocese of San Joaquin gathers for its 47th annual convention. (It's really the 95th, I should think, since San Joaquin was spun off from the Diocese of California in 1911, but it was a Missionary District until, if my math is correct, 1959. My own parish of St John's in Stockton, founded in 1850, ante-dates both the dioceses of San Joaquin and California.) I'm running for Standing Committee, and the budget is a highly contentious issue. But the elephant in the living room, of course, is the proposed amendment to our diocesan constitution that intentionally neglects to make any reference to our being a diocese in union with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. That's why we're going to have our proverbial fifteen minutes of fame this Saturday as the eyes of the Anglican world will be focused on the humble Eden Hall of the humble Cathedral Church of St James in the very humble city of Fresno, California--about 125 miles down the often humble California Highway 99 from where I live in Stockton. (What's the largest city in the country that is not situated on an Interstate highway? Yup, that would be Fresno.)

Whatever happens in the big vote on Saturday morning, it will not be ideal. This is hard for me to accept, because I am by nature an idealist. (It comes with my INTJ wiring.) For every waking moment, my default mode is to be driven by ideology. But there is no ideal outcome to what's in front of us as a diocese. It's a matter of finding the least problematic solution. It's a matter of finding what will work--for us, for who we are, for this time and this place. Not what should work. Not what might work in some other diocese. Our task is to find a very pragmatic way through our particular circumstances. Our task--my task--is to practice realpolitik.

If I were to vote my ideals on Saturday, I would vote against the proposed constitutional amendment. This is the wrong time for us to be considering this question, and if given the chance, I will say as much on the convention floor. But I'm not in control of events, and the fact is, now is when the matter is before us. So...what to do?

The Episcopal Church, I am convinced, is a sinking ship. It has taken on more water than can plausibly be pumped out. It's a "sunk ship floating." My assessment, though, is that it's sinking at a rather leisurely pace, and that it's not an unsafe place to be for another three years or so, when the General Convention of 2009 fails to opt in to the Anglican Covenant. However, the prevailing consensus in the Diocese of San Joaquin seems to be that the bow is going to rise into the air and the entire hulk plunge to the bottom of the sea any time now, and we'd best be gettin' off while the gettin's good. I don't believe that to be the case, but this is not a hill I feel compelled to die on. We are going to do what we're going to do. And if this is what we're going to do, then I want us to do it well. And doing it well means putting up as united a front as we can, because we are going to have God-only-knows what hurled at us before we've even left the cathedral parking lot on Saturday afternoon.

Realpolitik dictates that I vote 'aye' on the motion to amend the constitution of the Diocese of San Joaquin.