Thursday, June 28, 2007
Do read the whole thing, but here's a teaser:
The Episcopal Church is not an idol, and we must never think it more important than God. But it is being destroyed by bad choices, false choosing from across the theological and political spectrum before God’s address. It is being destroyed by those without patience, willing to create their own churches – churches of innovating doctrine and order, that must have everything now, and cannot work with the Body; churches of immediate purity and conformity to perceived truths, that cannot wait to have their own witness work.and prevail. That is the third point I would make about our future. It’s future in God lies in our patience in God’s patience.
I repeat Pope John XXIII’s well-known prayer that he said each night: “Dear God: it’s your church. I’m going to bed. Good night”. That’s not an abdication of responsibility for the converted life, the life that chooses in Jesus as the Christ of God. It is rather an acknowledgement that the outcome to such a life and such a choice, and such a following, is not ours to manipulate. And if we understand that, we can embrace the fact that the future of the Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion in faith is one where our manipulation disappears.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The current unpleasantness among Episcopalians and other American Anglicans who were Episcopalians until fairly recently is beginning to reach the stage in which the primary bone of contention is property—bricks and mortar, books and chairs, cash and stocks—and the primary venue of the struggle is the civil courtroom. It’s a crying shame, and I am engaging in neither metaphor nor hyperbole when I say that.
Of course, a handful of congregations formerly of the Diocese of San Diego are also being sued, as well as some eleven parishes that broke away from the Diocese of Virginia. The leadership of the Episcopal Church is apparently willing to open the coffers, raid the reserves, and even, according to one report that I have not substantiated, dip into the Church Pension Fund (lowering my eventual pension, perhaps?), in order to finance its legal assault on the steady stream of departing parishes. And one suspects that they will take a dim view of any negotiated settlements that Bishops and Standing Committees may reach with such congregations. After all, important principles are at stake here—principles that clearly trump anything as trivial as common sense, let alone Christian charity.
Though, at a purely visceral level, the sympathies of my heart lie with those who will feel today’s decision as a loss—albeit, perhaps, a temporary one—I don’t actually have a dog directly in this hunt, and it is not my intent here to pontificate on the legal wisdom of the ruling, having surrendered my undoubtedly promising law career in order to major in music nearly 38 years ago as a college freshmen. The whole mess does vex me sorely, however, not simply on its own merits, but for what it says about the way we behave toward one another in the Body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members.
It never ceases to both amaze and frustrate me that the atmosphere is so thoroughly adversarial that we are all starting to believe our own propaganda. Both major “sides” in this struggle have become so polarized that they hear their own hype and mistake it for the unvarnished truth. We have become so guarded in our dealings with our opponents, for fear of being exploited, that we have made ourselves the victims of our own machinations. Rhetoric has completely eclipsed honesty—even honesty with ourselves.
In any political process on a larger scale than a conference room table, it becomes increasingly necessary to reduce the complex to the simple, to make what may be inherently ambiguous seem to be clear.
Everybody does it.
In the war over sexual morality, conservatives/reasserters usually fail to acknowledge that the question is not really as simple and clear as they would like it to be. Now, I will say again for the sake of clarity, I hold a position that can only be described as within this camp. I believe that any genital sexual expression between any two persons who are not a man and a woman married to one another falls short of God’s plan and desire—which is a plausible definition of sin. But—for me, at least—this is a moral inference drawn from the broad witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. It is arrived at with some struggle. There is no single “smoking gun” chapter-and-verse citation to which I can point.
I am confident that the position I hold is the correct one. I believe I am honoring God by advocating for it, and resisting the efforts of those who believe otherwise. Resist—yes; unchurch—no. If a fellow Christian with an informed conscience comes to a different conclusion, and advocates for that conclusion, I do not consider that person my enemy, and I try to take his or her arguments seriously. Moreover, I am acutely aware of that these questions are not theoretical; they concern the real lives of real people. I am not insensitive to the heartache that surrounds these debates. Some have found my expression of sensitivity patronizing at times, but I can only say that it is authentic. It comes from my heart.
Conservatives, on the whole, could stand to show some more compassion and humility in the way we represent ourselves in the struggle.
But liberals/reappraisers have what seems to me an equivalent moral blind spot, an equivalent occasion for hubris, and it’s in the area of property disputes. I understand the reasoning: Individuals may leave the Episcopal Church, but parishes (and, presumably, dioceses, though we haven’t reached that point quite yet) cannot. Again, it isn’t my desire here to argue the merits of the case. I will, in fact, for present purposes, stipulate to the soundness of such reasoning.
What I would like to see more of from my friends across the divide is an acknowledgment that, while the matter may (I stress may) be simple from a legal standpoint, it is morally much more complex, much more ambiguous. When the people who raised the money for a church facility and established a long pattern of using that facility are essentially the same ones who wish to dissolve their association with the Episcopal Church, both common sense and charity say that they ought to be able to do so and retain the property. Sometimes, as we know, the law is an ass. Sometimes it is wiser not to enforce a right that one has.
How much sense does it make to alienate property from those who are using it just to make a point? What gospel value is served by kicking a thriving congregation out of a facility just because it’s possible to do so? Especially when there is no congregation available to go in and repopulate that physical plant with a ministry anywhere near as vibrant as the one that was forcibly removed.
When epithets like "squatters" and "thieves" are hurled at faithful Anglicans in Newport Beach or Oceanside or Falls Church, this is rhetoric gotten way out of hand. I respect my worthy opponents too much to believe that they are so susceptible to their own propaganda. Too many of them are too smart to apply to property disputes the same sort of simplistic moral reasoning that they accuse conservatives of relying on in the sexuality debate.
A little bit of honesty and consistency can go a long way toward helping us all regain our Christocentric balance.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Clerk: "Are you really a Cubs fan?"
Me: "I am."
Clerk (with sympathetic look): "I'm sorry."
Me: "It's OK. There's nothing I can do about it."
Such exchanges with strangers happen often enough that one would think I have some sort of physical disability or malformation that triggers an instinctive impulse toward pity.
Anyway, despite getting walked all over by the Texas Rangers, the Cubs have now done in the presently hapless White Sox twice in a row. I tuned into the end of today's game on WGN ("Superstation") while I ate my lunch. God, how I hate interleague play! It's an abomination. It's perverse. It's sick and twisted and totally wrong. It's the worst thing since the invention of the Designated Hitter rule and, before that, night games.
Am I a conservative, or what? At least I'm consistent!
Here's the thing: As much as I and most of the rest of the known universe associate WGN with the Cubs (seeing as how, for the time being still, they both have the same corporate owner), several White Sox games are also carried on that station. But they have different broadcast crews. When they play each other (may God forgive us all), the venue (either Wrigley Field or "new Comiskey"--don't get me started on corporate naming rights) determines the voices calling the game.
Now, being a "homer" in the broadcast booth--shameless rooting for the team that employs you--is a venerable tradition in Chicago. I came down with my case of Cub fandom during the Jack Brickhouse era, and, professionally competent as he was, he never disguised his loyalties. But these guys who call the Sox games on WGN--I didn't get their names--take it to a whole new level. It left a distinctively bad taste.
I know I'm a dinosaur. Growing up in Chicagoland, it was perfectly acceptable--yea, even the norm--to prefer one team over the other, but to feel benignly toward the one that commanded secondary affection. I preferred the Cubs, but wished the White Sox well, and knew who their players were, and was glad when they won. Now, with this brew straight from Hell called interleague play, a rivalry--even an animosity--has been created where none existed before, and where none need exist.
And so we get these two yahoos on WGN who use first-person plural pronouns to refer to the White Sox and talk trash on the Cubs every chance they get.
Interleague play sucks. Get rid of it.
Friday, June 22, 2007
For those on the “reasserter” side of the Episcopal Great Divide, last week’s meeting of the Executive Council can scarcely evoke any response that doesn’t contain at least a note of cynicism. I’ve already indulged in some of that myself. Upon further reflection, however, I’m wondering whether there may be the trace of a silver lining on this otherwise gray and menacing cloud.
In its formal response to the
Though it now seems eons ago, there was considerable discussion in Anglican cyberspace this past February, while the Primates were still sequestered, about just how to interpret the sub-group report. When it was first released, those in the “progressive” mainstream of the Episcopal Church hailed it as a victory for their side, while beleaguered conservatives, desperately hoping that this Primates’ Meeting would turn out to be their long-awaited vindication, were immediately grief-stricken and began to think seriously about jumping off tall buildings.
In the midst of all the hand-wringing, I offered a more benign (from a conservative POV) interpretation of the document; in brief, conservatives should rejoice that: 1) Lambeth I.10 is affirmed as the de facto “law of the land” for Anglicans, 2) B033 is interpreted as an effective moratorium on the consecration of partnered gay bishops, and 3) the General Convention response on the question of same-sex blessings is deemed wholly inadequate.
As we know, of course, the eventual communiqué was considerably less gentle on us than the sub-group report. Nonetheless, I find it interesting—perhaps even encouraging—that the Executive Council now takes refuge under the wings of this report. What does this imply? Certainly not that they are endorsing the normative authority of Lambeth I.10—that much is made clear elsewhere in the document. And certainly not any intention to walk away from a trajectory of actions that will lead inexorably to the full legitimization of blessing same-sex relationships.
But it does, at least, logically suggest that the Executive Council has now articulated itself as agreeing that there is, in fact, a moratorium in effect on the consecration of partnered gay bishops, that such candidates as may be elected will not receive the necessary consents of the bishops with jurisdiction. Simply by referring to the sub-group report in a positive light, the Council can plausibly be understood as saying, “Yes, we meant what we said in B-033.” Why? Because the sub-group’s positive assessment, which Council now points to as a positive sign, is predicated precisely on such an interpretation.
Even more importantly, the citation of the sub-group report adds an ounce or two of substance to the Council statement’s expressed desire that the Episcopal Church be “in the fullest possible relationship with our Anglican sisters and brothers.” It demonstrates at least a small measure of a realization of interdependence, of listening with “utmost seriousness” to what the other provinces are telling us. It is a baby step back from the sort of absolute General Convention-supremacist position that is so very American and so very injurious to the life of the Communion.
I’m not breaking open any champagne, but neither am I in despair.
A mirage? Maybe. But who knows?
Monday, June 18, 2007
I suspect that the seashore calls out to me--and, obviously, to many others--because it is such an evidently liminal place. It's a boundary between one kind of place and another kind of place, between one kind of reality and another kind of reality. But it's actually not as much a boundary--in the sense of a clearly definite line--as it is a transitional area. As the tide ebbs and flows, the same GPS coordinate can be "dry land" at one time, and "the sea" a few hours later. The beach is its own paradigm--neither land nor sea, but in relation to both. To be happy there, one must be able to get comfortable with such ambiguity, to live by the laws of Dry Land, and also by the laws of The Sea, as the moment demands.
The fluctuating transitional reality of the seashore also enchants us (we who are creatures of Dry Land but--as evolutionary biologists tell us, at any rate--connected to primordial life that once emerged from the sea) with the prospect of change, of adventure. Human beings have "gone down to the sea in ships" (Ps 107) since time out of mind--partly to get places and do things, and partly just "because it's there."
My Plutotian spouse and I find ourselves at a liminal place in our journey together. After thirteen years in California's San Joaquin Valley, we are moving to north central Indiana about seven weeks from now. It's a challenging place to be. Every day is less and less "normal" than the one the came before as we mark a seemingly endless series of "lasts": last time censing the altar at St John's (Trinity Sunday), last meeting as a member of the Standing Committee (two days ago), last time seeing some parishioners before we move, last Sunday for Brenda with the choir, last lessons with her piano students (all over now).
We're trying to force ourselves to spend a chunk of every evening going through the flotsam and jetsam of our large house and mercilessly cull our possessions, not because we necessarily have to (the rectory in Warsaw, Indiana is of very ample size) but because it's good for us to. We're just at that point in our life cycle when our possessions feel like they own us rather than the other way around. In cleaning out the basement, we figure that if we had forgotten something was even there, we probably don't need it.
Of course, I am way over the top in my attachment to routine and predictability in the daily infrastructure of my life. So I find myself spending time on the internet finding out things about the local telephone and utility companies in Warsaw, beginning to decide what bank to open an account in, weighing the Phone Company vs. Cable Company vs. Satellite Dish companies for phone, internet, and TV choices. I was slightly sorry to find out that the refuse and yard waste and recycling situation in Warsaw is somewhat less advanced than in Stockton.
And it should come as no surprise that I'm also in a process of mentally (hard enough) and emotionally (harder still) disengaging from my pastoral and administrative responsibilities in my present parish and beginning to attend to some of the opportunities and challenges that await me in Indiana. It's a matter of gradually transferring energy from one to the other. Leaving and Arriving are endeavors too serious to just let them happen on its own. The whole experience is like death in miniature, with many of the same dynamics, in miniature. I'm trying to do it well--with intentionality and grace. Persuading myself of my own dispensibility is hard work. Persuading some of my flock of my own dispensibility is even harder work!
So this is my time at the beach; this is my time at the seashore. I don't know whether I'm emerging from the sea onto dry land, or leaving dry land for the ocean. Either way, the move will be made, and I'll be in one place or the other. Yet, on a macro level, the entire human experience is one of enduring liminality. We have come from somewhere and we're headed somewhere. "This world is not my home, I'm just apassin' through." Learning to live on the beach is therefore a helpful coping skill.
Friday, June 15, 2007
I'm not impressed with what has come out of the just-concluded regular meeting of the Executive Council. I don't doubt the sincerity of the actions taken and statements produced. I just doubt their wisdom and their effectiveness. Let's take a look at some parts of the statement of response to the most recent Primates' Communique. (First, I'll register my pro forma objection to their even taking up the subject, since the Primates never addressed anything to them. But...whatever.)
Conversations among Anglican sisters and brothers during the past several years have raised important questions of Anglican identity and authority. These questions speak to the nature of relationships among us. We understand the requests made by the Primates from Dar es Salaam in February, 2007 as a good-faith contribution to that on-going conversation.
This is gracious in tone but condescending in content. It fails to take note of the urgency of the Primate's requests and ignores the context in which those requests were made. Yes, this is an ongoing conversation, but it's a conversation in the midst of a crisis, a crisis initiated by the behavior of the Episcopal Church.
Still, the requests of the Primates are of a nature that can only properly be dealt with by our General Convention.
This is positively Kafkaesque! Aside from the fact (forgive me for beating a dead horse) that Executive Council was never addressed by the Primates--only the Bishops were--a response of this sort defies credulity. It sets the whole "conversation" onto an endless loop from which it can never be delivered. Two points seem eminently worth making: First, the statement is just plain wrong. If Executive Council cannot interpret the actions of General Convention, why does it exist? At a diocesan level, Standing Committees and Diocesan Councils routinely interpret the mind of the Diocesan Convention when that convention is not called to order, on a whole range of subjects. Second, the very fact that such a response could be seriously offered reveals the inherent weakness of our (apparently sacred) polity--that is, if only General Convention can authoritatively interpret its own actions, TEC can never be taken seriously as a partner in any endeavor--missional, ecumenical, social, or anything--by any other church. Could there possibly be a more cumbersome way to do business? It would be like the U.S. government trying to prosecute a war, but insisting that every command decision in the field be ratified by a joint session of Congress. Is that really "our polity"? Or is "our polity" actually just a convenient excuse to indefinitely avoid dealing with the concerns of the rest of the Anglican Communion?
Assertions of authority met by counter-assertions of polity are not likely to lead to the reconciliation we seek.
This is probably the truest and most enlightened sentence in the entire statement.
As important as we hold our polity, the questions before us now are fundamentally relational. Our salvation is not in law but in the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Savior; so too with our relationships as Anglicans. One part of this grace is that we, all of us, are bound together irrevocably into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit through the waters of Baptism.
All perfectly true, but the effect is to obfuscate rather than clarify. If it is Baptism that binds us together in Christ, then we are also bound together with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Church of God (of both Anderson, Indiana and Cleveland, Tennessee--take your pick). But we're not having this "conversation" with them, are we? Well, in some cases, maybe we are, but not in a state of crisis, of the imminent meltdown of our ecclesial life as we have known it. Let's keep it real: This mess is between Anglicans, and as pious as it sounds to invoke the theology of baptism, that isn't the field this game is being played on.
We cannot tell our brothers and sisters with certainty what the future holds or where the Holy Spirit will guide this Church.
I am eager to assume that whoever drafted this sentence was not intentionally trying to make it sound hubristic. But it sounds hubristic. Is there more than one Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit going to lead "this Church" one way and lead other churches in the opposite direction? Or is "the Holy Spirit" just a euphemism for majority rule? If we believe any of this, we are pneumatologically challenged.
We can say with certainty that we have heard what some of our sisters and brothers have said about our actions with the utmost seriousness. We have attempted to respond to those concerns sensitively and positively. The sincerity of The Episcopal Church's responses to matters before the Anglican Communion, particularly the responses of the General Convention 2006, have been attested to by the Report of the Communion Sub-Group of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates' Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council.
SPIN ALERT!!!!! The Sub-Group report was, at best, a "conditional pass," or a "pass with concern." It said straight out that General Convention failed to address the requests of the Windsor Report in the area of same-sex blessings. And whatever positive assessment it gave in the other two areas is predicated wholly on the sort of clarifying assurance that both the House of Bishops and now Executive Council expressly decline to give.
The advice of the larger community will continue to find reflection in the actions we take.
How? So far, the advice has fallen on deaf ears. What is likely to change?
We have received from the House of Bishops of our Church a request to decline to participate in the proposed Pastoral Scheme; with an explanation for the reasons our bishops believe that the scheme is ill-advised. We agree with the bishops' assessment including the conclusion that to participate in the scheme would violate our Constitution and Canons. We thus decline to participate in the Pastoral Scheme and respectfully ask our Presiding Bishop not to take any of the actions asked of her by this scheme.
But we take the advice of the rest of the Communion with utmost seriousness. Hmmm.
I could pick at other parts, but my comments would be along the same lines as what I've already said.
One final salvo: Council passed a resolution--authored and moved by the Bishop of Lexington, the resident legal eagle of the HOB--that presumes to nullify any constitutional changes dioceses have previosly made in their own constitutions that have the effect of qualifying their accession to the constitution and canons of TEC. Of course, neither Bishop Sauls nor anyone else expects these dioceses to go "Oh, our bad!" and promptly remediate the offending language in their constitutions. The resolution is by way of jockeying for postion, establishing a paper trail, in future litigation over property.
Well, prudence is, after all, a virtue. But, you gotta hate it when the lawyers are running the show, and decisions are driven by legal considerations rather than...oh, the proverbial "right thing." The irony is that the passage of this resolution, before it ever has a chance to be deployed on the field of legal battle, will have the effect of hardening the resolve of the pertinent dioceses to either maintain or increase the distance they have put (or believe themselves to have put) between themselves and the main body of the Episcopal Church. A little love along the way would have the effect of obviating the need for legal battles. You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
A. The Primate of Kenya announced the impending consecration of yet another American priest to serve as an expatriate (expatriate from Kenya, that is) bishop for American Anglicans disaffected from the Episcopal Church. Who's going to be next to add more letters to the increasingly thick alphabet soup? Uganda? Rwanda? Southeast Asia?
B. A British journalist (one with a reputation in some quarters for not always getting the details right, and drawing misleading inferences from such details as he has) broke a story about a nascent proto-province in North America that might encompass some (not all) the dioceses of the Network, possibly along with the AMiA, CANA, and some of the other "common cause partners," including, curiously, the Reformed Episcopal Church, which broke off from TEC some 135 years ago, primarily over the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (they were against it), which was and is strongly implied in the Prayer Book baptismal rites.
C. These two developments, of course, occur against the backdrop of the regular meeting of TEC's Executive Council, taking place in Parsipinnay, New Jersey (which, appropriately enough, is located within the bounds of the Diocese of Newark). They are working on responses to both the draft Anglican Covenant that is floating around and the February Primate's Communique that was hammered out in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. May I yet again--and yet again to no avail--question why they are answering somebody else's mail? The DeS communique was addressed to the House of Bishops, and to the House of Bishops only. In any case, the heads of the council members are, by all accounts that I have seen, still firmly planted in their accustomed position--that is, deeply in the sand.
I have neither the energy nor the acumen to parse all these events right now. Whatever I say would probably be rendered obsolete by tomorrow's news. I will only flag my deep concern over a trend that I see emerging, a trend that I find more troubling than anything else that has come down the road in my 30+ years as an Anglican. It's the rise of a "Who needs Canterbury?" attitude.
It is an attitude that is alive and well among the liberal Episcopal majority. Ever since the runup to last year's General Convention, there has been an unrelenting, if occasionally subtle, effort to position TEC, for PR purposes, as at the center of its own "international" communion. From bloggers to bishops, the intention has been expressed that, should the choice come down to continued full communion with the See of Canterbury by "throwing our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters under the bus," or doing without Canterbury, they will choose the latter. This attitude typifies the crux of the Anglican conflict between autonomy and interdependence. As a result of the American penchant for autonomy, the rest of the communion is being forced to more clearly define the nature of interdependence. They are doing so in ways that Americans tend to find annoying.
But today's events remind us that conservatives can play the same game. There seems to be an inexorable drive to circumvent the organic processes of the Anglican Communion, regulated--albeit informally and, one could say, haphazardly--by the Instruments of Unity, and confect a solution to our conflicts that the "instruments"--most palpably the Archbishop of Canterbury--will be asked to simply accept. Or not, as it may be. In which case--and here's where I break out into a cold sweat--there will effectively be civil war in the Anglican Communion, a schism that may not have the repercussions of the Great Schism of 1054, but which will be no minor tremor. We will be left with Canterburian and non-Canterburian Anglican churches. Only...will the latter actually be Anglican? Isn't communion with Canterbury of the esse of Anglican identity? Or is it only the bene esse...or, perhaps the plene esse?
Frankly, I find such a spectacle horrific in the extreme. The prospect of choosing between a Canterburian Anglicanism that is "ecclesiologically correct" but otherwise theologically and spiritually vacuous, and a non-Canterburian Anglicanism that is creedally orthodox and spiritually vital, but, lacking an organic continuity with a See that, if not apostolic, is at least ancient, and founded by the bishop of an apostolic See--and therefore essentially just one more Protestant denomination--well...this choice is too terrible to contemplate.
I feel like I have an Anglican soul, but it is a Canterburian Anglican soul. To be bereft of that vital organic link would be to surrender the very core of Anglican identity. I would urge my "reasserter" colleagues to exercise more patience. But I know that too many of them are way beyond the point of listening to such a plea.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Ordained ministry is a complicated vocation-- moreso, no doubt, in churches that hew to a traditional notion of liturgy and sacraments and priesthood. Few would think to address an Anglican cleric generically as "Preacher." Preaching is but one of several professional competencies that a parish priest prays to be blessed with--along with pastoral wisdom and love, teaching, liturgical presiding, administration, leadership, vision, insight into organizational behavior, fundraising, and others.
I have as much fun as any of my colleagues presiding at the Holy Mysteries on the Lord's Day and other occasions. Give me a thurible with hot coals and fragrant incense (hypo-allergenic, of course), and I'm a happy priest. Put the music for the Preface to Eucharistic Prayer D sung to the Mozarabic Tone in front of me, and I'll show how how it's done, baby. Keep those articles and books on organizational behavior and leadership coming; I eat them up. Ask me to hold up a "your time has expired" card in front of the Archbishop of York, and, as I have demonstrated, I'm right on task.
But nothing gets me juiced up like preaching. Maybe it's my Evangelical upbringing...I don't know. All I know is that when the last strain of the Gospel Acclamation walkback music has died away, the only thing I want to be doing at that moment is opening my mouth to preach. I've been a staff priest during my ordained career, and I've had staff priests and deacons. So sharing a pulpit is not foreign to me, and I do it happily. People need to hear other voices than mine. I need to hear other voices than mine. And I certainly need a break from the labor of sermon preparation. But in that moment, in that split second when the Gospel has been proclaimed and all eyes are on the pulpit, I always wince if I'm not the one who's in it.
By most accounts, I am a gifted preacher. That would sound boastful, I realize, but for one thing: When I say "gifted," I am speaking absolutely literally. And I don't mean that I have been given the general skills that enable me to prepare and deliver a credible sermon--skills, for example, that I could take with me if I left the practice of priesthood and embarked on a career as a motivational speaker, or a courtroom litigator, or a politician. Many of the same skills apply to both art forms, but I have no conviction whatsoever that I would not fall flat on my face in any of those endeavors.
Rather, when I say that I know myself to be a "gifted" preacher, it is that the gift is given afresh for each individual sermon. I am devout to the point of superstition about beginning the process of preparing every sermon with conscious and intentional prayer. Before I even look at the appointed scripture readings for the occasion, I physically go into the church, light a votive candle, kneel at the altar rail, and invoke God's blessing on this particular sermon. "Let the gift flow, Lord. One more time, of your mercy. One more time, for the glory of your Name, the spiritual nourishment of your people, and the salvation of my soul. One more time, I beg."
Having thus been "dipped" in prayer, from that moment on, I know the process to be "covered" by the Holy Spirit. I then proceed to the work--the craftsmanship--of opening myself to four portions of Holy Scripture as if for the first time, of studying them (or one of them, at any rate) closely, of reading what others have found in those words, of discovering the message--the "one thing needful" that the Lord has laid on my heart this time from a passage that I have probably preached on several times before, of shaping that message into a form that will be compelling, of honing it into particular words and turns of phrase, and finally of making it all oral--making it...well, "preach."
It's hard work. It consumes hours. It feels like a sort of birth-giving. But if not for the the "covering" of prayer, it would just be me, and there's not enough of "me" to make it worthwhile for anybody to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and come to church to hear me.
I won't go so far over the cliff as to say something like "I preach, therefore I am." I have more of a life than that. But I can certainly empathize with
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Whatever one makes of his methods, however, one cannot deny that Boniface was an effective evangelist. He could look Billy Graham in the eye and not have anything to apologize for. Unlike most of those with whom we would these days associate with the title "evangelist" (including Dr Graham), Boniface was a Catholic--that is, a liturgical, sacramental Christian. There wasn't any other kind then. He didn't have a Praise Band, his own drama troupe, or Power Point with a data projector. He had a powerful ministry of the word grounded in a disciplined sacramental life.
Several years ago, when I was serving in another diocese, one of my presbyteral colleagues asked me if I would be interested in putting together a seminar on liturgy as a tool for evangelism. He and I both had Anglo-Catholic proclivities, and he assumed I would be excited about presenting the idea that High Mass-with-an-attitude can effectively fill the pews of Episcopal churches.
To his surprise, I was, at best, lukewarm toward the idea. I've dabbled in enough history to know that, in the era of the greatest missionary expansion in the history of Christianity--that is, the time before the faith became legal in the early years of the fourth century--the celebration of the Eucharist was restricted to the initiated Faithful. Not only were casual inquirers and other wannabes kept away, even catechumens who seriously intended to be baptized were not allowed to even witness the full liturgy. Sunday worship was certainly not the streetfront display window of the Church. There were no marquee signs, no websites, no Yellow Pages ads informing the general public when the Mass times were. It might have gotten somebody arrested or killed!
It is not the function of the liturgy to serve as a tool for evangelism. In trying to make it so, I fear that many churches have succeeding is bastardizing the liturgy and accomplished very little by way of evangelism in return. The liturgy is for the initiated, not for the seeker. It should not be made to bear freight it was never designed to handle.
This morning I ran across this article on Christianity Today's website--an interview with one Simon Chan, an Assemblies of God scholar from Singapore who has written a book called Liturgical Theology--certainly an arresting title for a member of his distinctly non-liturgical denomination. Here's some of the meat:
I think that missional theology is a very positive development. But some missional theology has not gone far enough. It hasn't asked, What is the mission of the Trinity? And the answer to that question is communion. Ultimately, all things are to be brought back into communion with the triune God. Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.
If we see communion as central to the life of the church, we are going to have an important place for mission. And this is reflected in the ancient fourfold structure of worship: gathering, proclaiming the Word, celebrating the Eucharist, and going out into the world. The last, of course, is mission. But mission takes its place within a larger structure. It is this sense of communion that the evangelical world especially needs. Communion is not just introspection or fellowship among ourselves. It involves, ultimately, seeing God and seeing the heart of God as well, which is his love for the world.
In many services today, the dismissal into the world is quite perfunctory. But if you go to an Orthodox service, you'll be amazed at the elaborate way in which the end of the service is conducted. It's not just a word of dismissal—there are whole prayers and litanies that prepare us to go back out into the world.
OK. Color me impressed. This guy gets it. But here's where it really gets interesting:
In the modern age, the free churches are evangelistically successful, but in the broader history of mission that hasn't always been true. Europe was evangelized in the early centuries by missionaries who were certainly not free-church evangelicals. And think of the spread of the Orthodox Church from Russia to northern Africa.
In Singapore, we keep very close statistics about the growth of the Assemblies of God, which is currently the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country. We are good at evangelizing, bringing people in, but we have also noticed that many of those people that we have brought into our churches would over time go to more traditional churches and seeker-friendly megachurches. Our net growth isn't really that much, but in terms of bringing people in, yes, we have significant numbers of people being brought into the church for the first time. It may be that in God's providence he is using free churches, Pentecostals, and charismatics to reach out to the world, but I still believe that his aim is to embrace them all within the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
This corroborates a theory I have been nursing along in my own mind for some years now--that the "free churches" seem to have the determination and know-how to do front line evangelism, bringing people to Christ who have little or no prior exposure to Christian faith and practice, but they are not particularly gifted at spiritual formation beyond a certain rudimentary level. The historic liturgical churches, on the other hand--i.e. those with traditional church order and sacramental practice--have a dismal record doing first level evangelism, but manage to steadily skim Christians who have been evangelized and initially catechized by the "free churches," but who are looking for a deeper, richer, more compelling experience of worship and spiritual formation.
I am myself an exemplar of this phenomenon, having come to Christ in the free church evangelical tradition, then, in my early adulthood, been drawn into full Catholic faith and practice, feeling like I have only added a bunch of good stuff, and not lost anything of what I had before. I was an "evangelical on the Canterbury trail" long before Robert Webber made that expression popular. And in my pastoral experience, it still happens. Barely more than a month ago, I presented four adults for Confirmation, three of whom were "swimming the Thames" from the evangelical world. Another of my parishioners--may her tribe increase--walked this same path four years ago (in one of several such wavelets), and has offered this moving testimony to her experience, from which I will offer a snippet:
In an attempt to "sit on the fence" and experience the best of both worlds, I would often run downtown to our current parish and attend the 10:30 mass after the early service at the Baptist church was over. I would slip in and sit near the back. As the mass began I could feel myself being swept up into a larger drama that the church catholic has been reenacting since its inception. I knew I was both observing and participating in something that was so much larger than me and my existence at this particular point in time. I knew that for that moment, I was, quite literally, joining with "angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven." It was the first time I had truly experienced myself as part of the larger body of Christ.
During the mass I was repeatedly touched by the Holy Spirit in ways I can't even begin to describe. Every visit, as the procession of the mass started, the people bowed in reverence at the cross as it was being carried by the crucifer past their pew, and I shivered. These people, with bodies bent, were showing respect for, and giving deference to, the cross of Jesus Christ and all it represented -- not the gold, not the literal piece of metal on a pole, but the sign, the symbol of the very reason by which we are able to even approach the altar of God.
Involuntarily, the tears would well up in my eyes and start to trickle slowly down my face. And then, as it was time for communion, and I observed people from every walk of life line up to accept the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, offered for their sins and mine, the tears would come more freely. By the time I knelt at the altar and crossed my open palms to receive personally "the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven", I was weeping.
I experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist in ways I had never experienced Him before. I found Christ literally present, not merely symbolically recalled. I found myself, with the other members of the congregation, entering into and sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ. We, as a body, were joined with Him as the perfect sacrifice, made acceptable in the sight of the Father.
I already wanted to clone this family a few times. Now that I'm moving to a new parish, I wish I could take a couple of the cloned copies with me to Indiana!In the best of all possible world, the Assemblies of God would learn how to bend their distinctive worship in the direction of the Catholic pattern that Dr Chan alludes to, plus find a way to plug in to the historic episcopate, and Episcopalians and other liturgical Christians would learn to talk about Jesus compellingly to someone who's never met him without making them come to terms with the fullness of the Church's liturgical and sacramental life before they're ready to do so. In the meantime, perhaps our opportunistic God is making lemonade out of the lemons we serve Him, and using each of these Christian communities in the area of their giftedness.
Holy Boniface, pray for us. And can we borrow your ax?
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Here's how it happened: I was a part-time church musician at the time at St Timothy's in Salem, Oregon, and was conferring with the (then) Rector about music for Trinity Sunday, and he casually said something like, "I don't think I'll preach on Trinity Sunday. What can you actually say about so great a mystery." I promptly went...well, not quite ballistic, but something on that trajectory. "What?! You've got to preach on Trinity Sunday. Yes, it's a great mystery--one that people need to be told about!" (I was 27, and had very little respect for authority.)
The next thing I knew, I was in the pulpit on Trinity Sunday. It was memorable. I was eloquent and erudite. I was transparent. I read passages from my personal journal wherein I wrestled valiantly with the mystery of the Godhead. Not since St Augustine's volume from which the title of this humble blog post was ripped off has the Triune God been as elegantly and winsomely explained. You had to be there.
I said the final 'Amen,' sure that most of the congregation was moved to tears, and made my way prayerfully back to the choir in the rear if the church in order to lead them in the singing of the Nicene Creed. I was very pleased with how everything had gone.
Then I looked at my watch.
Listening to a young punk expostulate on the Holy Trinity is an experience that most Episcopalians will suffer gladly. But not when he takes 45 minutes to do it! A sermon of that length skirts the environs of the Unpardonable Sin. I wanted a hole to open up in the floor. People were ultimately kind about it, but they did let me twist in the wind for a while.
My essential message on that occasion, significantly edited in the direction of succinctness, still lies at the heart, I think, of the liturgical observance of Trinity Sunday. Here's the third base-to-home plate portion of my homily from this morning:
So, knowing God as trinity of persons in unity of being is, I hope we can see from these brief reflections, critical to our experience of who God is and what God is up to and how God intends to accomplish his purposes. Yet, even though the theology of the Trinity informs our thinking about God, it is never an end in itself. Thinking correctly about God is important, but it doesn’t get us where we need to go. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is always configured toward the worship of the Trinity. Our celebration of Trinity Sunday is not about the doctrine of the Trinity—it’s about the Trinity. That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s not. It’s huge. Both Isaiah’s vision of heaven and John’s vision of heaven in Revelation are all about worship, both have the heavenly hosts singing “Holy, holy, holy…”. So there’s every reason under heaven for those same words to be crossing our lips as they will in a few minutes, even as we are here and now gathered as a microcosm of the worship of the heavenly hosts gathered around the throne of God the Father, with God the Son standing as a slaughtered lamb who has tasted and conquered death, and God the Holy Spirit energizing the hearts and lips of the faithful to offer hymns of unceasing praise. Only the worship of the triune God keeps us faithful, in a balanced way, to the truth of the triune God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.It was true 28 years ago, and it's true today.
Saturday, June 02, 2007
Since the Anglican Communion Office released the Archbishop of Canterbury's preliminary Lambeth Conference invitation list last month, there have been predictable rants from the liberal end of TEC's House of Bishops over the exclusion of the Bishop of New Hampshire. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori weighed in early with an exhortation to remain calm and to remember than "things could change" in the next eighteen months before the conference. Perhaps this explains why no one on the left that I have been able to spy out has yet advocated a boycott unless Bishop Robinson is invited.
Meanwhile, there have been equally predictable--though, for the most part, fairly muted--expressions of dismay from the starboard side of the ship over the exclusion of one of the bishops of the Church of Nigeria--a bishop whose "see" happens to lie on U.S. soil, and is therefore seen as a rival for the Anglican franchise in these parts. Mentioned less frequently is the exclusion of the sometime Bishop of the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil diocese of Recife, Robinson Cavalcanti, who was deposed by his Primate and House of Bishops, and who, along with some 90% of his clergy and laity, now takes refuge under the umbrella of the neighboring Province of the Southern Cone and Presiding Bishop Gregory Venables. (The Diocese of Recife has since been "reconstituted" by the IEAB, though with the proverbial skeleton crew.)
The Primate of Uganda has announced that his entire bench of bishops will boycott Lambeth if the the majority of TEC's bishops do not have their invitations withdrawn. Curiously, Dr Akinola, the Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria), putative head of the "Global South" group of Primates, has been uncharacteristically reserved in his comments.
This is a great game of chicken. Everybody is jockeying for position, trying to make the other side blink.
The spin doctors on all sides are plying their craft with great fervor. Blah, blah, blah.
But other related stuff is also happening:
Yesterday the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops released a study document aimed at helping their colleagues better prepare to respond to the February communique of the Primates' Meeting in Tanzania. It's nice to know somebody is still paying attention to that document.
Earlier in the week, the Common Cause Partners of the Anglican Communion Network announced an upcoming meeting of bishops who are affiliated with that group--including those who are still heading dioceses of TEC, the bishops of the Reformed Episcopal Church (a group that broke away from the evangelical wing of TEC in 1872, but which seems to have gotten over the particular issues that led to that schism), plus those of the Anglican Mission in America, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (reference above-mentioned excluded Nigerian bishop), and various purple shirts from what has been known as the "Anglican Continuum"--Anglican-like ecclesial bodies formed in more recent decades by disaffected Episcopalians. If it looks like a meeting of a "house of bishops," is it one? If it looks like the seed of a synodical structure, is it one? Can anyone say, "New Anglican province"?
Other things are going on as well, about which I unofficially know nothing and officially know even less.
I need a break. I read the headlines, but I don't have the energy at this time to follow the details, or pretend to offer erudite speculation. And maybe it's just the vibes I pick up in the air, but I have a sense I'm not the only one. I think many of us, on both sides of the Great Divide, have reached the conclusion that nobody can win this game, and any number can lose. We can all lose. It looks like we will all lose.
Morris Udall, an Arizona senator a generation ago, described his Democratic party as "a firing squad assembled in a circle." That pretty well describes the Anglican Communion. It certainly describes the Episcopal Church.
Are there any grownups in the room?