Sunday, April 29, 2007
My motive in posting what I did was twofold: First, to express my dismay at the apparent continued fissiparation of orthodox Anglicanism in America, and, second, to reiterate the very important point (in my mind, at least) that we must remain engaged with the way forward as articulated by the Dar es Salaam Communique, and not use the actions of the House of Bishops last month as a pretext for abandoning that path.
I find it wholly amusing that my last paragraph, which was a somewhat random afterthought, has been exegeted as somehow connected with what went before it. There is no connection! (Except in the imagination of my heart.)
Friday, April 27, 2007
Over the past week or so there's been a spike in "intelligence chatter" in the Anglican-Episcopal universe. From the sources I have been able to tap, along with those that have just fallen in my lap, I am reasonably well assured that a sub-group of some five dioceses within the Anglican Communion Network have cooked up a plan to hold hands and jump off the slowly-sinking ship that is the Episcopal Church and swim to . . . well, here's where the intelligence gets sketchy--OK, non-existent.
In order to protect the guilty (and my reputation, should I be wrong), I won't divulge the names of the five dioceses in question (except to say that my own is one of them). But if you are any sort of savant about contemporary ecclesiastical politics, you can probably guess them. In any case, I expect to know more--a great deal more--in less than a week's time. Whether I will be in a position to honorably pass on what I learn in a venue such as this remains to be seen.
I don't expect I'll cause any tsunamis by predicting that I'm probably not going to like the details when I hear them. In the most charitable construction, a move of this sort represents a 'Plan B' in response to last month's resounding rejection of the Primates' Pastoral Council/Primatial Vicar plan by the House of Bishops. A more jaded exegesis sees it as the most radical fringe of the Network exploiting the HOB's ill-advised actions by making a run for something more like they would have wanted in the first place anyway.
Yet, I continue to believe that the course of action that is at the same time most honorable and most fruitful in the long run is to lend enthusiastic support to the PC/PV plan, to cooperate with it in every way--and, of course, to lean heavily on the "Windsor Bishops" to do the same. The voices of respected "reasserters" like Canon Neal Michell of Dallas and the scholars of the Anglican Communion Institute have, I am pleased to say, lined up squarely behind my own!
Most tragically, the initiative that I anticipate hearing about officially next week represents just one more level of fragmentation among conservative Anglicans in America. Our adversaries are going to glut themselves on the news and then ask for seconds. It seems that we just can't hang together. So we're going to hang separately.
One of these days I'll get so depressed by reality that I'll indulge myself and write about my fantasy for a true Anglican Rite in communion with the See of Rome (not just the Anglican Use that is available now.)
Friday, April 20, 2007
Last summer, some seven dioceses of the Episcopal Church requested, in one way or another, a formal relationship with a primate--and therefore an alternate visible connection with the rest of the Anglican Communion--other than the Presiding Bishop. (My diocese--San Joaquin--was one of them.) This request was made specifically to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and generally to the Primates collectively.
In early autumn, the Bishop of Texas convened and hosted a group of twenty or so diocesan bishops who were willing to commit themselves to the principles of the Windsor Report as the best way forward for the unity of the Anglican Communion. The bishops of the seven dioceses that had earlier requested "alternate primatial oversight" comprised a subset of this group.
Then, two months ago, the Primates met in Dar es Salaam. After an agonizing few days--filled with sweat and tears, if not blood--they issued a statement bringing the principles of the Windsor Report to bear on the crisis that has beset the Episcopal Church, a crisis into which the rest of the Communion has been dragged. All of the primates who were present "signed on" (whether literally or figuratively) to this statement, including the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
The seven 'APO dioceses' had been patiently waiting for this event. The news that came out of Tanzania at the last minute on that final day of the meeting was, by most accounts, worth the wait. The Primates set forth a surgically precise plan which provided the 'APO dioceses' with the degree of insulation they required, while preserving the essential institutional integrity of TEC while the Anglican Covenant process plays itself out.
Regretably, a solid majority of the House of Bishops, when they met in March, opted for short-sighted provincialism masked as "self-differentiation." They summarily spurned the Primates' carefully crafted plan for a Pastoral Council and Primatial Vicar. The odd thing in this, of course, was that the bishops were presuming to answer a question that had never been put to them in the first place. The PC/PV requires no assent or cooperation from the HOB to be implemented. It does require the cooperation of the Presiding Bishop in two ways: Consenting to the candidate for Primatial Vicar and delegating to the PV certain of her duties with respect to the APO dioceses. (She is also invited to name two members of the Pastoral Council, but the plan can still go forward without this aspect of her cooperation.)
Unfortunately, and, I presume, much as they hoped and intended, the actions of the HOB have had a chilling effect on much of the initial enthusiasm among "orthodox" American Anglicans for the PC/PV proposal. Many have declared it dead in the water. Nonetheless, I hope not, and I pray not. In this hope and prayer I am joined, at least, by the other members of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of San Joaquin, as our letter of earlier this week indicates.
For APO dioceses, the Primates' plan is still the only viable option on the table--at least, if complete ecclesial anarchy is to be avoided, including the de facto dissolution of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We asked Canterbury and the Primates for help. They listened to our plea and considered what we needed. Then, in Tanzania, they spoke with a united voice. Unless we are to surrender to virtual lawlessness, this is the path on which we must persist, despite attempts at discouragement such as issued from the HOB in March. We must not allow ourselves to become victims of the principle of "delay" and quit doing the right thing just because initial feedback is not positive.
It will no doubt be tempting--and one already hears rumors--for some of the APO dioceses--which, one must remember, are only a little more than half of the 'Network' dioceses, which are, in turn, only about half of the 'Windsor' dioceses, which, in turn, are less than one-fifth of all the dioceses of the Episcopal Church--to rush ahead into a minimalist deal that can be made now rather than the more comprehensive and far-reaching deal that can be made a few months from now if some patience and humility are exercised. Better, in this case, to emulate crafty Jacob rather than hungry Esau.
But we can't do it alone. We need a little help from our friends--friends who may not at present be in the exact same place we are with respect to primatial oversight, but who are close enough to empathize, and realize that we may be blazing a trail that they will one day be reluctantly required to tread thesmelves. We need the Windsor (aka Camp Allen) Bishops to step up and do their part. The Primates, in their Dar es Salaam Communique, gave overt recognition to this group, and tasked them with the responsibility of nominating a candidate for Primatial Vicar to the Pastoral Council. My friends (and some of them are literally my friends): You have a duty to do. Please do it, and do it now. Yes, it will be costly. It will cost whatever "comity" may exist within the House of Bishops. That's a heavy price to pay. But the breakup of Anglicanism is a heavier one. The forces of fragmentation and atomization are powerful, and they cloak themselves in the high-sounding rhetoric of autonomy, democracy, and inclusiveness. Resist them, firm in your faith. Take a deep breath, summon your guts, get yourselves together and name a Primatial Vicar. You'll feel better in the morning.
If you are somewhat musically literate and somewhat familiar with Anglican worship, you will recognize the music. First prize, though, goes to whomever can tell me what the text is. (And I'm already guessing that the last two lines are Gloria patri...)
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
It’s partly an evolution of different kinds of responsibility in the Church. As a theologian and as a teacher for many years naturally I had the liberty to raise certain questions and to express personal opinions on the matter. As a bishop I have to keep people around the table in discussion on this.
Now, I might want to tweak part of this. Keeping "people around the table" is not a sufficient summary of the job of a bishop. But "guarding the faith and unity of the Church" is a pretty good summary of that role, and in the case of a primate, particularly this primate, the emphasis is probably even a little more on unity than on faith. We count on all bishops to guard the Church's faith, but the Archbishop of Canterbury has a particular vocation to the preservation of unity.
But what really makes me want to sing Te Deum about this quote is Dr Williams' acknowledgment that accepting ordination to the episcopate (and I would say this applies equally to the priesthood and the diaconate) carries with it a certain sort of muzzle, a very real restriction on one's freedom of speech. A bishop is by the nature of the office a conservative! The Church needs both priests and prophets. But those ministries are naturally adversarial. There is an order (the Greek taxis applies very well here, I think) that governs their relationship, and part of that order is that priesthood and prophecy are like oil and water--they don't mix very well. The presence of both ensures a creative tension in ecclesial life that keeps us from getting either complacent and stagnant or losing our moorings and drifting away from who we are. Rowan gets it, and that he was able to lay aside one mantle and pick up the other speaks volumes for his character and personal integrity. Color me impressed.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Anyway, these are tense times in the process of communication between U.S. Anglicans. (Duh!) For whatever it may be worth, I find myself fighting a two-front battle, taking hits from both the right and the left. I claim no virtue for that position; it just is. I'd make a terrible politician. I have no inner demagogue to which I can give free rein. I can usually sympathize with more than one side to a question; though, in the midst of that ambiguity, I can also maintain a commitment to what I believe to be the truth. Many of my liberal opponents see me as less vituperative than other conservatives, for which I am grateful--not, I hope, because I have an inordinate need for acceptance, but because I have a genuine desire to be reasonable, charitable, and irenic. Still, I have taken my share of bile from the left. At various times, I been branded a "bigot," a "nazi," and a "neo-Puritan." (Yes, can you believe this Catholic being called any form of Puritan? That's pretty rich.)
At the same time, and perhaps precisely because not all on the left hate my guts, I'm frequently treated with a degree of suspicion by some of my fellow conservatives. They constantly fear that I've gone squishy, perhaps even as a prelude to defecting. I feel pretty safe in saying that if I'm going to be having any clandestine nocturnal meetings to discuss asylum, it's going to be with representatives of the See of Rome, and not with the avatars of mainstream Episcopalianism. But, to tell you the honest truth, I don't plan on going anywhere!
So, my latest jag on communication--or, more accurately, the abuse thereof--is about self-pandering. Scoring cheap rhetorical points by playing to the home crowd. Letting an ostensible concern for truth or justice mask self-righteousness or self-serving behavior that short-circuits the organic and natural development of events. It happens on both sides.
The favorite catchword of Episcopalian liberals these days is polity. After the Dar es Salaam communique, it was widely argued that the Primates, because they addressed their concerns only to the bishops, just don't understand our polity. The House of Bishops nixed the Pastoral Council/Primatial Vicar scheme because it supposedly conflicts with the polity of the Episcopal Church. This is not only balderdash, it is hypocritical balderdash. Within the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church, the bishops--both individually and collectively--are entirely capable of responding to the conditions laid out by the Primates, both with respect to the PC/PV plan--which could be fully implemented by scarcely even bending, let along violating, our "polity"--and the requested assurances about episcopal consents and same-sex blessings, about which they have not yet officially spoken. They just don't want to! But rather than simply saying that they don't want to, they hide behind protestations of their hands being tied by polity.
And here's why it's hypocritical: If our constitution and canons are the bases of our polity, then why has not every bishop in whose diocese congregations openly invite unbaptized persons to receive Holy Communion had a presentment filed against them? Why has not every rector who uses the miracle of word processing software to emend Prayer Book texts to fit various regnant ideologies, and all without so much as an asterisk in the service leaflet, been inhibited by his or her bishop? When canons are invoked selectively and prejudicially, then the entire process of canonical enforcement is robbed of its integrity.
I could go on about the staggering level of denial that is rampant regarding the level of damage already caused by conservative defections from TEC, and the ruthless, short-sighted, and simply vicious approach to property disputes exhibited by '815,' but this is enough for one late night.
Of course, I have some friendly fire to direct toward my own side of the divide as well. Here the issue is broad-brush polemic that attempts to justify bailing on the institution of TEC by naming it as rotten to the core, full of heretics and apostates, and in the on-deck circle for the grapes of wrath. Our opponents have efficiently milked the ill-considered language of one individual who appeared on the DVD made from last year's ACN-sponsored "Hope & A Future" conference in Pittsburgh, which stated fairly baldly that the Episcopal Church has forsaken Christ, Christianity, and the gospel, and has, in fact, become a counterfeit of itself. Such rhetoric effectively rallies the troops. The only problem is, it's just not true.
I hold to what hope to think is a fairly traditional position (albeit toward the Catholic end of the spectrum, of course), which is that the teaching of a church is to be judged according to its official formularies, particularly its liturgical formularies. Those of us who are still in TEC use the 1979 BCP, I presume, so we can stipulate--not to its perfection, or perhaps even to its excellence (though I do think it is the most excellent example of its genre)--but to its essential orthodoxy. Of course, in many places, certainly in the dioceses that surround my own, there is widespread emendation of Prayer Book texts at a parochial level in ways that vitiate this orthodoxy. But the clear fact is that such practices are wholly uncanonical, unconstitutional, and therefore a violation of the discipline and worship (to say nothing of the doctrine) of ... what? ... of the Episcopal Church! The ubiquity of invitations to the unbaptized to receive Holy Communion, again, is a categorical and unambiguous breach of the canon law of ... what? ... the Episcopal Church!
We can certainly accuse some (OK, many) of the leaders of TEC of selective and prejudicial enforcement of their own discipline; that much is obvious. But, trust me, I can point you to flat-out liberals ("progressives," as they style themselves) who vocally deplore these same practices as much as I do. For that matter, I can point you to flat-out liberals who are as annoyed as we are by the great majority of what proceeds out of the mouth of John Shelby Spong. I would wager that the majority of the members of Integrity say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers, and passionately believe every word of it.
I would invite those who use the rhetoric of division within the Body of Christ--by saying that what we're divorcing from is not really the Body of Christ any longer--to recall Abraham's intercession with Yahweh on behalf of the innocent bystanders who were hapless enough to reside in Sodom, and Yahweh's forbearance: If there were even as few as ten righteous men left in the city, he would desist from destroying it. I am in virtual daily contact with "righteous men" all over the Episcopal Church. Of course, there are hundreds of faithful laity and clergy in the other Network dioceses. But even beyond them, in "mainstream" dioceses, I can give you several places where the triune God is worshiped in spirit and in truth, where souls are fed and disciples are formed. And I can give you the names of real people who live and move and have their being in those places. Some of them (not all, not even most, but some) have what I believe to be mistaken convictions on certain vexed ethical questions, but they profess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead. These are real people. They are not abstractions. I feel wounded when they are dismissed as "Gomer."
End of rant. For now. Love to everyone.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
The phone rings.
"St John's, this is Father Martins."
"Uh, is this a Catholic or a Christian church?" The voice sounded like that of a younger woman.
The inflection in her voice led me--all in an instant--to infer that her question was not "either-or" (like "Are you east or west of I-5?"), but could be "both-and" (like "Do you sell Sonys or Toshibas?").
The whole exchanged probably didn't take much more than five seconds. What, upon further reflection, I wish I had said, is "Yes, actually, we're both Catholic and Christian." That would have at least kept the conversation going. What did she want or need?
I'll never know, because, on auto-pilot, and like an idiot, I said, "We're an Episcopal church."
"Okay. Thank-you." Click.
The best case scenario is that she's never heard of the Episcopal Church and thinks it's some weird new-age cult, or a spinoff from Pepsi Cola (of which "Episcopal" is an anagram). The worst case scenario is that she has heard of the Episcopal Church--that she has "read all about it"--and come to the conclusion that it's . . .well . . . some weird new-age cult!
Out of the mouths of anonymous callers...
The Standing Committee of the Diocese of San Joaquin (of which I am a member--that is, both of the diocese and of the SC) has written Bishop Schofield a request to use his influence with the Windsor (aka "Camp Allen") Bishops to fulfill their role in the plan enunciated by February's Primates' Communique by nominating a candidate for the position of Primatial Vicar by June 1st. The Standing Committee, in keeping with the resolution passed by last Diocesan Convention to the effect that the SC, Diocesan Council, and the Bishop work together to develop a plan for maintaining the diocese's relationship of full communion with the See of Canterbury, believes it is both prudent and appropriate for the Windsor Bishops to move forward with the Primates’ structural scheme of a Pastoral Council and Primatial Vicar.
The text of the letter:
Diocese of San Joaquin
4159 E. Dakota Ave.
Fresno, CA 93726-5227
April 10, 2007
The Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield
Bishop, Diocese of San Joaquin
4159 E. Dakota
Fresno CA 93726
Re: Primates’ Pastoral Council & Primatial Vicar
Dear Bishop Schofield,
The Standing Committee of the Diocese of San Joaquin requests you use your influence with other Windsor Bishops to expedite the nomination of a Primatial Vicar to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Primates’ Communiqué from Dar es Salaam, including the pastoral scheme, offers a reasoned and appropriate way forward for this diocese. We believe our best connection with the Anglican Communion is the one being offered by the Primates via the Pastoral Council.
In requesting Alternative Primatial Oversight [APO] last year, we began a process to insure continued recognition within the Anglican Communion. The Pastoral Council and Primatial Vicar as established by the Primates, if implemented in good faith, appears reasonable and prudent for the time leading to the conclusion of the Covenant process. We would urge you, in obedience to the established Anglican authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates’ Meeting, to have the nomination of a Primatial Vicar to the Archbishop of Canterbury before June 1, 2007.
In the Name and love of our Risen Lord Jesus,
s/ Jim Snell+, President
for the Standing Committee of the Diocese
Monday, April 09, 2007
Sunday, April 08, 2007
It's not exactly the Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom, but it's what I have to offer on this Queen of Feasts. (And, no, I don't usually give nine-point sermons.)
Even though we live an ocean and a continent away, I would venture to say that virtually everyone in this church at the moment could tell you who the Queen of England is, and a great many could go on to name several of her relatives, both living and dead. You can hardly buy groceries anymore without seeing their faces splashed all over the tabloids as you wait in line at the checkout. That’s just the thing though: The royal family’s actual significance these days lies more in their entertainment value that anything else, both here and even in the
So, even though the significance of the British monarchy may have been effectively reduced to a matter of entertainment value, one does have to admit that being part of the royal family is still a uniquely privileged lifestyle. It’s a job that comes with a whole lot of fringe benefits, and, yes, some quite peculiar responsibilities as well. Think about it: What must it be like to be born into that family and spend the first, oh, five or six years of your life thinking of your surroundings as completely normal and then have to learn—slowly but surely—how utterly special it is? Most children have to pretent that they’re a prince or a princess, but some actually are! They’re born with an extraordinary identity, and then take years to form an awareness of that identity, to appreciate how extraordinary it is, and then learn to behave in ways that are consistent with that extraordinary identity.
Some of us here today can remember when we were baptized. I can; I was ten years old when it happened. But most among us were baptized before we were old enough to form enduring memories. Yet, in that event, whether we remember it or not, we were given a quite extraordinary identity. I can think of at least nine very special changes in identity that happen to us when we’re baptized:
First, we were adopted as children of the most high God. You know, we toss around the expression “child of God” way too casually. Yes, all people are infinitely loved by God. But not all people are automatically children of God. We become God’s children when we are born again in baptism, when we are received into God’s family.
Second, when we were baptized, we were washed clean from the guilt associated with any sins we had committed up to that time. Now, in the case of a little baby, that’s not a lot. But an older child or an adult comes to the font with a very long list. In the waters of baptism, those sins are erased off of God’s hard drive, and no IT help desk computer geek in the universe can recover the data!
Third, we were marked as belonging to Christ forever. To use a cowboy metaphor, we were branded. We were bought and paid for by the shed blood of the now risen Christ.
Fourth, we were endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, made a home in your heart, and in my heart! Our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We not only bear the image of God in a general way because all human beings are created in that image. We bear the image of God in an utterly special way, because we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, when we were baptized, we received gifts from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who came into our hearts as a gift also came bearing gifts. The Holy Spirit is the true “gift that keeps on giving.” All of us who are baptized have been given gifts that God wants to use for the building up of his Church and the advancement of his Kingdom. Our job, as we grow in our faith, is to discover those gifts and put them to use.
Sixth, we were united with Christ in his death, and also therefore united with him in his resurrection.
Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Jesus’ experience of suffering and death redeemed by resurrection and new life becomes the pattern for our experience as well.
Seventh, when we were baptized, we were grafted and incorporated as member of the Body of Christ, the Church. One of the euphemisms for Baptism is “Christian initiation.” To be baptized is to become a Christian, and to become a Christian is to become a member of the Body of Christ, and to become a member of the Body of Christ is to become a member of the Church because the Church is the Body of Christ, and to become a member of the Church is to become a member of a particular church. It’s all a package deal. It’s part of our identity.
Eighth, we became disciples of Jesus, called to follow him faithfully in every area of our lives, in this world and the next. To be baptized is to commit one’s life to Christ. The way I explain it to children is “Jesus is the boss of me.” I can’t really think of a better way than that to explain it to adults! If the Church is a ship, as it is sometimes compared to, then all who are baptized are crew members, and Jesus is the captain whose orders we constantly await. Any important decision we make, we run it by the Captain first.
Ninth, and finally, when we were baptized, we were destined to share the glory of the risen Christ for all ages. Once again,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. … For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ.
When we join the family, we become heirs of the family fortune.
When a man, woman, or child comes to the waters of Baptism, everything changes. That person is given a new identity. The work of Christian living is to unwrap that identity and live in a way that is consistent with it. Now, maybe you know everything I’ve just told you, and are acutely aware of your baptismal identity in Christ—Praise God! Easter is an opportunity for you to reaffirm you commitment and drink from that well one more time.
But perhaps you were, until today, shall we say, clueless! Maybe you are grasping for the first time through this sermon the utter specialness of your baptized status, your extraordinary identity in Christ. You are like someone who discovers a rare jewel tucked away in the attic of your grandmother’s house, in an old trunk that you never new was there. You’re like John Goodman’s character in the movie comedy King Ralph. (If you’re actually familiar with that move, I’d recommend keeping the information to yourself.) Ralph was a third-rate
Saturday, April 07, 2007
At my desk early in the evening on Holy Saturday, needing to be back here at the church all too quickly for liturgy rehearsal and then the Great Vigil at 8:30, and needing to get a couple of winks of sleep before that. (I can't see starting any earlier, though I notice that the Romans at the cathedral down the block from my house do; it's barely even dark, and darkness is a required element of the Easter Vigil.)
I know it's dangerous for a cleric to completely meld his own spirituality with his professional commitments, but I find that I rarely have a choice. Any way I'm going to get "fed" spiritually is going to happen in and through the practice of my priesthood or it just isn't going to happen. Especially at this time of the year. But I'm OK with that. I'm always busier with details than I would like to be on Holy Saturday. No time for restful contemplation (or substantive blogging). Somehow Easter still happens and I rejoice.
I'm ready to shout the A-word, in about three hours.
Friday, April 06, 2007
The morning's accumulation of eMails and listserv posts brought with it news of the passing from this life, at the age of 92, of the Revd Dr Reginald Fuller, eminent New Testament scholar and longtime professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. If anyone was ever "a gentleman and a scholar," it was Dr Fuller. During my first year in seminary (86-87), he was visiting professor at Nashotah House (adapting admirably to a rather different liturgical ethos than VTS!). His book Preaching the Lectionary (ironically, commissioned by a Roman Catholic publisher and hence conforming to their lectionary) has been a mainstay of my preaching preparation for two decades.
It was Dr Fuller, in his notes for the Good Friday passion gospel (St John), who apprised me of the Latin rendering of our Lord's word from the cross that appears in English as "It is finished"--consummatum est. There's something striking about the Latin, because it can't be mistaken for mere relief that the ordeal is over. It connotes something more like "Done deal." It speaks of an accomplishment, a bargain that has been kept, a business transaction that has been concluded, escrow closed.
But it's a mysterious transaction, a bargain the terms of which cannot be precisely contained by human language. Somehow it makes atonement, bridging the gap between God's holiness and human sinfulness.
Five days ago I commented on a radio address by Dean Jeffrey John, in which he expresses his uneasiness with a particular theory of how that atonement happens--a theory which is brimming with scriptural imagery and which has attained the status of standard dogma in some communities influenced by the theology of the Reformation. I am not comfortable with the apparently cavalier manner in which he dismisses the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement. It has been believed by too many Christians for too long, and drinks too deeply from the well of biblical vocabulary, to just be tossed aside. But it has been pointed out to me that he was not preaching a sermon for convinced Christians; he was speaking on a radio station with a demographic of those who are already inclined to be skeptical toward Christianity. In a sense, he was engaging in apologetics, so I am personally willing to cut him some slack on this, even as we all cut St Paul some slack for appearing to embrace polytheism in his speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34).
More to the point, however, I do agree with Dr John insofar as it seems helpful to expand the universe of explanations for how it is that we are saved by what Christ accomplished on the cross. One worthy candidate comes from none other than the Bishop of Rome--before he bore that title and was known more modestly as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. There are lots of other options as well. What strikes me as most important to bear in mind on this Good Friday comes from John "Amazing Grace" Newton: "I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior."
On now to the proper liturgy of the day--which, in highly secularized California, must take place in the evening in order for people to be able to attend, though it would ideally happen in the afternoon. The picture at the top of this post shows the staged desolation of the principal set for tonight's drama, having been prepared at the conclusion of last night's observances. I say "staged" because a post-Easter church can only partially evade the reality that the cross is a sign of victory, an emblem of triumph. As my favorite medieval poet, Venatius Honorius Fortunatus, puts it: "The royal banners forward go, the cross shines forth in mystic glow" (Hymnal 1982, #162).
This inability to ignore the "mystic glow" of the cross is amplified in my parish church, where it is not expedient to have the Altar of Repose in a completely separate space. We use a side chapel altar, but it's easily visible from almost any place in the church, creating a sort of bi-polar magnetic pull for anyone entering from the main doors (see picture below). Now in my thirteenth Triduum in this place, it's finally percolating to my conscious awareness why I have this uneasy feeling in the church every Good Friday. My spirit can't decide whether to focus on the stripped and sparse main altar or the lit and glowing Altar of Repose visible with only a 45-degree turn of the head. Both offer needful reminders of wholesome verities. Ah, I guess I'm back to the need to maintain the tension between the poles and not relax the line, losing both ends in the process.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
I'm going to wash a few feet tonight.
In church, no less. In front of God and everybody.
It's supposed to be twelve sets, to be specific--in token of the twelve pairs that Jesus washed in the upper room--but it hardly ever works out quite that way. Somebody forgets to come, or chickens out, or never responds to the invitation to begin with. That's OK. Jesus didn't hang on to all twelve of his either.
The name of the day--Maundy Thursday--comes from the Latin mandatum, which comes from the words of Jesus in John's Gospel: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you." He washes their feet as an illustration of how this love is to be put into action.
Feet are odd things. They are not the most private parts of our bodies, but neither are they the most public. Unless we're on a beach, they're usually covered in public. So it's not astonishing that there are those who are reluctant (or flat out refuse) to let the clergy wash their feet on Maundy Thursday.
For me, and for the Associate Rector, and for the deacon who will be assisting us tonight, to kneel and tend to the feet of people when we are accustomed to looking at their faces will have an edge of awkwardness. I can't say it's actually humiliating--the action doesn't have the same immediate sign value it did for Palestinian Jews in the first century--but it is certainly symbolically humbling.
And I know it's usually uncomfortable for those who are having their feet washed. It's an experience of heightened vulnerability. Will the water be too hot or too cold? Will it tickle? What will the priest think of the way they clip their toenails? They probably all take great pains beforehand to be sure that their feet don't actually need to be washed!
And for those who are sitting in the congregation, watching it all take place and listening to the choir sing Maurice Durufle's ethereal setting of Ubi caritas et amor, it's also a humbling experience. They got left out. They're not where the action is. Why, the Rector has washed her feet at least twice since he's asked me!
So there's enough humility to go around. If only we could bottle it and save it for the rest of the year for times when it is badly needed!
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
While Tenebrae bears a resemblance to the normal round of Morning and Evening Prayer, it is truly unlike any other service of the year. It's certainly not an upper. You don't leave it whistling a catchy tune. It consists overwhelmingly of Psalms, Psalms, and more Psalms--and mostly the gloomier ones. Aside from three short periods of silent prayer, there is only one actual prescribed prayer, and that at the very end.
Much about Holy Week is "right-brained"--symbolic, imagistic, poetic--but Tenebrae is nearly exclusively so. The Psalms, of course, are poetry. If one is attentive to the Psalms, the Responsories, and the Readings (from Lamentations, Hebrews, and a treatise by St Augustine), one can tell that the overall theme is the passion of our Lord, but it's never laid out in a direct expository manner (as it will be, for example, in the Liturgy of Good Friday). It is glanced and glossed and alluded to in a way that demands our imaginative participation. You have to know the cues, and be able to read the signs. To a passive or uninstructed observer, Tenebrae is perhaps the dullest, most meaningless sort of "church" imaginable.
Whatever visual drama there is is quite minimalist. At the beginning of the service there are fifteen lit candles on the altar. After each Psalm, an acolyte gets up and snuffs one of the candles. Eventually, only one remains. After the final prayer, the Officiant places that candle out of view after which a loud noise (usually a sacristy door slamming) makes everyone jump. (This represents the earthquake and the darkness as Jesus hung on the cross.) Then the lone "Christ candle" is quietly replaced in its original position, and the service is over.
At a contemplative devotion like this one's mind is permitted to wander. Resistance is futile. As we prayed through Psalm 88--possibly the biggest "downer" in all of Holy Scripture--I flashed on the mind-numbing variety of immense suffering that human beings endure every day. There are vast numbers of people for whom Psalm 88 provides a voice. And during the Song of Hezekiah (from Isaiah 38), with its plaintive lament about Hezekiah being struck down in the "noonday" of his life, I thought of a friend from an earlier chapter of my life who died of cancer this week--at about my age, so certainly in the noonday of his life.
And now the Triduum, that on which everything else hangs.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
David Ould wrote (in part):
I don't know about you, but the idea that I should, somehow, have to contribute myself to my eternal status is a terrifying thought. Luther tried it and it drove him to despair. It is the common complaint of those who view the Christian life as one of constant work - no wonder Roman Catholics speak of guilt. And the notion of "saints" who have done more than the rest of us and so gain more love from God is thus appalling. We are all saints if we trust Christ and what He has done for us, not what He enables and empowers us to do for ourselves - as though there were something we could add to His majestic and finished work.
I don’t particularly relish the thought of being the turd in the punchbowl here (to extend David Ould’s use of Luther’s metaphor), but I find this essay troubling on more than one level. I have neither the time nor the energy to take it on in detail, but I will quickly observe that it seems to be based on a caricature of Roman Catholic teaching drawn from de-contextualized popularizations. If the author had chosen to engage extended passages from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, his arguments might carry more heft. I will also point out my own contention that Catholics and Evangelicals are ultimately talking about the same thing when considering the mystery of our salvation, but use technical vocabulary (grace, faith, mercy, justification, sanctification, inter alia) in different ways, leading to great confusion and strife. In brief: Catholics approach salvation from the perspective of Sanctification (actual righteosness) and hence emphasize the necessity of cooperating with Grace, while Evangelicals approach salvation from the perspective of Justification (forensic righteousness, per Ould), and therefore emphasize the gratuitous character of God’s mercy. Both are, to use a cliche, correct in what they affirm and on shaky ground in what they deny. But in a less substantive but nonetheless important “process” vein, this piece makes me yearn for the days when this was all Anglicans had to fight about! It’s the classic High-Low, Catholic-Evangelical battle. I’m not making light of any of it; it covers some astonishingly disparate theological and spiritual territory. But we somehow (for the most part, the REC schism in 1872 being a notable exception in the U.S.) managed to maintain institutional unity. In this present darkness, Catholics and Evangelicals within Anglicanism see fit to make common cause against the “broad church” party run amok, and rightly so. But what David’s observations on JPII’s prospects for early canonization also demonstrate is that, should we weather this storm together, we will still have each other to keep life interesting.
A bit of autobiography is perhaps relevant: My original Christian formation was very much in the Evangelical tradition. I "accepted Christ as my personal savior" at the age of six, and talked about that as the moment when I was "saved." I was baptized, after a public confession of my own faith, when I was ten. I don't deny or disparage any of that. In fact, I believe more about those events now than I did then, not less. But in my early twenties, I embraced Catholic Christianity (via Anglicanism and, yes, the Episcopal Church), and an accompanying soteriology (the "theology of salvation") that I find much more satisfying and coherent than the one on which I was raised.
Forensic justification--imputed righteousness--is a wonderful gift of grace. I believe in it. In fact, I believe that every time I preside at the Eucharist and elevate the host and the chalice after the words of institution I am leading the congregation in "pleading Christ" before the Father: Look on us not as we are, but as we are becoming in your Son--placing the blessed Son of God between our sins and their reward.
But being justus isn't enough as long as I am simul peccator. My problem isn't so much that I sin today and need forgiveness; it's that I'm going to sin again tomorrow and the next day. I need to be made really righteous before I can say with full assurance that I am "saved." That's where the Catholic tradition, with its emphasis on Grace infused through the sacraments, with an ascetical praxis that is designed to produce concrete growth in holiness, is so much more helpful.
Sunday, April 01, 2007
I am always energized by the principal liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Attendance is invariably good, plus we combine the two best-attended services into one, so the church feels packed, and there's nothing that warms a parish priest's heart quite like a packed church. In California, we're fortunate to have access to a virtually limitless supply of palm branches (palm trees are a prevalent volunteer "weed" in my neighborhood), so we let ourselves go overboard in decorating the church; the picture at the top of this post only tells part of the story. We involve the children of the parish in some high-visual impact ways during the procession from the Guild Hall, down the sidewalk, and into the church. Our music director hired some string players to help accompany the chorus "Behold the Lamb of God" from Messiah as the offertory anthem. For some reason, the Taize chant "Jesus, remember me" that we sang during communion was particularly moving this year. I like Palm Sunday.
Of course, the power of the experience is built into the very structure of the rite. We begin in a party mood, outside of what we consider sacred space, in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Cued by hand bells, we sing "Hosanna in the highest" several times while the palm branches are being distributed. The ancient hymn traditionally associated with this occasion, "All glory, laud, and honor" is set to a stirring tune that is easy to sing. And who doesn't love a parade? The people enter the church, still singing, but now accompanied by a majestic organ.
Then, just as our festivity feels like it's hitting a peak, we are gobsmacked by the Holy Week collect that talks about "the way of the cross" becoming "the way of life and peace." We sing Psalm 22 with the repeated refrain, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We read the Passion narrative (from Luke this year) in a semi-dramatic fashion, with different parts assigned to different voices. The same lips that were shouting "Hosanna" a few minutes earlier are now shouting "Crucify him!" It's a case of liturgical whiplash.
So now we enter Holy Week, with our thoughts focusing on the cross of Christ. On Friday, we'll read the Passion again, this time from St John's version. Earlier today I ran across this item concerning some remarks made by the Dean of St Alban's, the Very Revd Jeffrey John. (Dr John, you may recall, was designated to become Bishop of Reading in 2003, but was persuaded by the Archbishop of Canterbury to decline the appointment in light of the controversy raised by the fact that he is in a long-term partnered relationship with another man.)
You can read the piece for yourself; I won't quote from it extensively. But Dr John challenges the notion that theologians call the "penal substitutionary atonement," which understands the death of Jesus on the cross as the offering of an innocent victim on behalf of sinful human beings, satisfying the just wrath of a holy God. Jesus dies on the cross, so those who put their faith in him are spared the natural consequences of their sins--eternal separation from God. Of this, Dr John says, "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they were a monster." He believes Christian preachers should emphasize themes of "love" and "truth" as they pertain to God, and lay aside any notion of "wrath" or "punishment."
As you might imagine, I believe it was both a theological and a pastoral mistake for Jeffrey John to make these remarks. But I also need to acknowledge that I am not without a good degree of empathy for his position. The fact is that the penal-substitutionary view is only one theory of the atonement (how it is that we are saved by what Jesus did). It draws on an abundance of scriptural imagery to flesh it out and give it heft. Its primary classical exponent is St Anselm, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the Twelfth Century, but it was picked up by the Reformers and has been a mainstay of Evangelical theology, both Anglican and otherwise.
But there are other equally biblical and equally plausible theories of the atonement, and to the extent that this may be Dean John's point, then he indeed has a point. As C. S. Lewis wisely observes in his classic Mere Christianity, none of the possible theories can alone account for the mystery of the atonement, and none have ever been declared official dogma by the Church. In fact, they need one another, even though they cannot be neatly reconciled, and appear to contradict one another in certain ways.
As for the love of God versus the wrath of God--this is just one in a long series of polarities that comprise the truth of the gospel. (Just to name a few: God is one and God is three, Jesus is divine and Jesus is human, salvation requires faith [Paul] and salvation requires deeds [James], prayer is "art" and prayer is "craft," faith is individual ["I believe"] and faith is communal ["we believe"]). The object of the game is to maintain the tension in the line between the two poles, the two ends of the spectrum. The temptation is always to resolve the apparent contradiction in favor of one and at the other's expense. This is precisely how we fall into error, into--yes-- heresy.
The wrath of God is not an appealing concept, and one can make a case that it has been overblown at some times within the tradition of Christian preaching and catechesis. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can cast it aside. Quite the contrary; it is the difficult parts of the faith that demand our closest attention and deepest struggle. If the historical development of Christian thought shows us anything, it is that we do the truth no service by resolving apparent contradictions too hastily or too cleanly. Deep truth--meta-truth--emerges from a sustained struggle, earnest wrestling, with notions that appear to be irreconcilable.
Jeffrey John's mistake is not in calling us to a richer understanding of the cross of Christ than the penal-substitutionary atonement, viewed in one dimension. It is in yielding to the omnipresent temptation to relax the tension between the poles. When that happens, both ends collapse.