Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Long-Hidden Gems: On Revelation and Authority

Well...I''ll leave it to you whether what follows contains any actual gems. But as I was cleaning out a desk drawer last night I came upon a set of diskettes containing all my academic work from seminary two decades ago. One assignment from Systematic Theology was to write a major essay on Revelation and Authority. The topic was timely then and is perhaps even timelier now; hence I am giving it the light of day in this medium that was unimagined when it was written.

I've done only minor editing--punctuation, capitalization, and the like. Temporal references are left unchanged, and clearly date the work from early 1988. For the same class, I also wrote on Soteriology and the nature of Faith/Belief. When I've had a chance to clean them up, I'll post them as well.

Bear in mind that this is an attempt at serious academic theology. I wasn't writing as a pastor or a popularizer, let alone a blogger! It's a different "voice" than than to which you may be accustomed to hearing from me. For whatever it's worth, it may be closer to my authentic voice than anything else.

In this age of computers we have become accustomed to borrowing words from ordinary discourse in order provide a humane technical vocabulary for the electronic manipulation of information. So it is “meet and right,” perhaps, to borrow some terms back from the computer field in order to give some definition to the scope of this essay. We will be speaking here of “hardware,” the utilitarian, mechanical support structure of Christian theology. It is quite necessary but, except for a select company of theological “hackers,” not very glamorous. It will not save any souls or lead anyone to God. It does, however, make it possible to use “software,” that is, to do the real business of theology: reflecting on and articulating the nature of the divine and the nature of the human and how the two relate to one another.

Having said this, I must now acknowledge that I am one such “theological hacker.” The subjects of authority and revelation, scripture and tradition, were the crucial issues in a significant turning point in my own pilgrimage of faith which took place about fifteen years ago. They have continued to command my attention, in one way or another, since that time. The thoughts expressed here, then, are a current distillation of a long-term and ongoing process. It is an activity that has included wide reading from Hooker to Newman to Gore to C.B. Moss to C.S. Lewis and others. This is to say that, while none of the ideas put forth here are original with me, neither can they, with one or two exceptions, be precisely attributed to anyone else. They are, rather, the synthesis of the interplay between my prior thinking on the subject and the more disciplined reflection that has take place in the past few weeks, given shape primarily by the reading of MacQuarrie's Principles of Christian Theology.

I should add at the outset that what might be called “personal revelation”—a particular intense or illuminating religious experience which seems to the recipient as a message from God—is outside the scope of this paper. We will deal here with “revelation” as it is understood in a corporate, public sense. Suffice it to say that any such personal experience, if it is to be judged genuine, must be congruent with revelation as we will define it.

One further introductory note: Without any explicit statement to the contrary, the sum of what will be said here could be construed to be “apneumatic,” or at least agnostic with respect to the Holy Spirit. Let that not be the case. It is my belief that the Holy Spirit invades and permeates all aspects of the revelatory process, including scripture, tradition, and reason. This should be implicitly assumed throughout.


To speak of revelation in an ordinary semantic sense assumes the presence of four constituents: one who (or which) acts as a revealer, that which is revealed (content), the medium by which the content is conveyed, and one who (or which) receives the revelation. In the simple statement “I read in that paper that Gary Hart re-entered the presidential race” most anyone can intuit the presence of these four elements. In speaking of revelation in connection with religious authority, however, the question is clouded by the fact that “God,” by definition, is in some sense transcendent of ordinary human experience. So while one may be able to articulate the idea of divine revelation ontologically (“from above”), one must first approach it existentially (“from below”). We must begin with our own common human experience as receivers of revelation and work, so to speak, backwards through its mediation and content and finally to the Revealer before we can make generalizations about the process as a whole.

The notion of authority is a “hot” topic in the Church today. In some circles the word has taken on a connotation of oppression, of the restriction of personal freedom. I think we must disabuse ourselves of such an understanding, though, and recover a more etymologically grounded sense of authority as simply The Way Things Are, and, more importantly, as emanating from the Author. We tend to apprehend God's authority in the context of the doctrine of Providence, opening up the temptation of ascribing to him malicious intentionality, when we might do better to see it as flowing from the doctrine of Creation. We may have reason to wish the created order were constituted differently than it is, but such wishing will not help us come to terms with it. In any case, no matter how we understand authority, it is axiomatic that to the extent that any revelation of God is authentic, it is authoritative. The question of authority, then, is really one of credibility: What or whom do we trust as accurately conveying the content of revelation?

In the midst of all this, we must bear in mind that revelation is, by nature, not given for its own sake. It has an end, a telos. From a Christian perspective, this telos is nothing less than the salvation of humankind, individually and corporately, along with the entire created order. Underlying this essay is the contention that revelation is rooted in objective truth that is independent of any subjective knowledge. This should not be construed, however, to deny or minimize the salvific intention of God's revelation.

With these considerations in mind, we are now ready to proceed to an examination of the process of revelation “from below.”


(In this section, when I, an individual, speak in the first person, I do so as figuratively inclusive of all Christians, and potentially of all persons.) I first encounter revelation when I encounter a community which claims to bear it. This community, in some way and in some degree, is one of "”faith.” “Faith” is meant here to be understood multivalently: as mental assent or belief (per Aquinas), as total orientation of will and affections (per St. Paul), and as behavior consistent with both. This community, in its life of faith, mediates to me the content of the revelation it claims to bear. The character of this content is such that it provides me with a way of interpreting my own experience, and all of reality, in light of the decisive action of God. Since human language is the necessary medium (at least a necessary medium) for its communication, this content must be expressed, among other ways, in the form of verbal propositions. Now it is (or should be) understood that no proposition must ever be thought to exhaustively convey the reality to which it points. Just as the vocabulary of computer use (“file,” “user friendly,” “menu,” “handshaking hardware,” etc.) is based on analogy with more fundamental human experience, theological discourse is only an approximation and a rather crude one at that, of the reality of God. Moreover, human language is rarely univocal, and every verbal exchange contains an element of translation in which something of the speaker's meaning is lost on the hearer. “We always know more than we can say.” (Michael Polanyi)

It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that all theological propositions are necessarily tentative. This may be the case from God's point of view, but, alas, it is a perspective we do not share. From a hypothetical satellite on a hypothetically clear day, hypothetically equipped with telescopic equipment, one does not need a map of the world; the real thing is plain view. A map, after all, is only a crude analogy. But to someone lost in the Sahara desert, a map showing the nearest oasis is life itself, and is therefore absolutely definitive and authoritative. It is the experience of the community of faith, the Church, that there are some propositional formulations which, while not in themselves adequate, are nevertheless normative. Any other expression of the same truth would be even more inadequate.

The mediation of this content (verbal and otherwise) to me by the community of faith is a manifestation of paradosis, literally in Greek "giving along", or, as it is usually rendered in English, tradition. The tradition I receive strikes a resonant chord in me somehow—affectively, intellectually, aesthetically, or in whatever way. It engages my attention to one degree or another, ranging from incipient curiosity to complete fixation. It is readily apparent, however, that the revelatory content which has been mediated to me is contingent. It is itself a mediation of a mediation. It draws me back, ultimately, to the faith community at the dawn of its existence, when the content of its tradition was first articulated. The community had been called into existence by a decisive act of God and formed by its own reflection on and interpretation of that experience. If the tradition through which I apprehend the revelation can be called a “contingent mediation,” this primary constitutive experience is an “original mediation.”

One of the ways in which the original mediation becomes part of the tradition is through a written record of the constitutive event. The word is used here in a broad sense, referring actually to a series of events between the Annunciation and Pentecost, and, on a secondary level, going back to the call of Abraham, and the initial reflection/interpretation. In time, the Church recognizes certain of these writings as Holy Scripture, as having authority in the sense described above—that of accurately conveying the content of the revelation. It is necessary, however, to refine this assertion in three respects: First, it must be remembered that it was the Church which recognized the Scriptures as such and it is in that context in which they must be understood. They are neither, on one hand, an independent witness which can function apart from the organic faith community, nor, on the other hand, subject to having their authority and credibility compromised by whatever factual errors and historical inconsistencies may be uncovered by critical scholarship. To elaborate, for example: If it can be conclusively demonstrated that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, this does not subject them to decanonization or in any way vitiate their authority. Second, even while Scripture is part of the Church's tradition, it nevertheless stands in a special relation to the rest of the tradition on account of its place in the “original mediation.” It represents the community's initial response to the event which brought it into being, and, as such, becomes part of that event. It is normative. Third, since Scripture is verbal and, at times, starkly propositional, it is subject both to the promises and the pitfalls inherent in any verbal communication.

The point is that I am not advocating a fundamentalist sort of “plenary verbal inspiration” doctrine. Only now can I think of approaching (theologically, that is) the Initiator of the whole process of revelation, the Revealer himself. The original mediation leads me to God's definitive action within common human experience (cf. MacQuarrie's notion of “classic” or “primordial” revelation,” p.90). The words of the sacred texts are important because they represent one of the crucial defining characteristics of the sort of divine action that we are talking about. It is public and objectively accessible, which is to say that it takes place in history. The quest for the historical Jesus may be quixotic, but there is no doubt that there was a historical Jesus, that he was born under unusual circumstances, that his manner of life and teaching got him in trouble, that he died, and that his rising from the dead was well-enough attested that many thousands of ordinary rational men, women, and children soon thereafter submitted to torture and death for the sake of that proclamation. God's revelatory action is no mystical, private affair. Again, this is not to deny the validity of mystical experience. The tradition itself affirms the reality of personal divine-human relationship. Strictly speaking, however, this is not revelation. We are speaking here of God-as-Revealer, the ultimate locus of Author-ity, knowledge of whom can be communicated.


We are now in a position to look at revelation ontologically, that is, “from above,” reversing the direction of our inquiry and, presumably, arriving back at our starting point. God, the revealer, acted in human history in a definitive way in the “Christ event.” The experience of this action formed a community, the Church, which immediately engaged in a process of reflection and interpretation. This two-part cycle of action and interpretation can be said to form a unit, a “deed-word event” (I am reasonably sure that I encountered this expression in reading the evangelical New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd, but I am not able to make a citation) which constitutes the original mediation of the revelation. It is recorded in a normative fashion in the form of Holy Scripture.

Since the deed-word event has taken place in history, the community which it formed is also a historical entity, and is more and more temporally separated from its primordial constitution. It continues in time as a living paradosis of the revelation. It does not exist in a vacuum, however, and since human experience does not cease, neither does the process of reflection and interpretation. As a result, succeeding generations who come into contact with the Church experience a doubly-mediated form of the revelation. They are separated not only from God's action, but from the original interpretation of it.

Moreover, the “community” in which they find themselves is not monolithic. The more time passes, the longer the process of reflection continues, the more the resulting interpretation is (to speak in a charitable euphemism) multi-faceted. These “complementary insights” (perpetuating the euphemism) into the revelation create sub-groups within the community, each of which sees itself as the center (or as part of the center) of the ecclesial universe, with the other groups inhabiting a series of concentric circles emanating from the center. This creates an environment in which anomalies are the exception rather than the rule (which is itself an anomaly) and in which the notion of authority—defined as that which credibly mediates revelation—emerges as increasingly important—indeed, as crucial.

To extend our Robin Hood approach to "computer-ese" (stealing metaphors from the thief), one might compare the anomalous world inhabited by authority and revelation to a “bug” in a computer program, a situation in which a program sabotages itself with its own logic. The task of the “de-bugger” is to carefully and judiciously—in a manner akin to that of a surgeon—locate and modify the offending link in the sequence of commands. This is usually accomplished by the intuitive common sense of the programmer, and not infrequently involves being illogical, fighting anomaly with anomaly. Care is always taken, however, to disturb as little as possible the non-offending links in the chain; the “de-bugging” process, illogical as it may be, is performed with the primary objectives of the program consciously in mind.

The Christian theologian (which in this instance includes any baptized person who is at all reflective on his or her faith) is at times called upon to be a “de-bugger,” to deal with the
anomalies in the Church's life and in the witness of the tradition. The primary tool in this endeavor is human reason, the critical faculty which can intuit distinctions and categories
that may be sub-verbal (in Polanyi's sense). It must be kept in mind, however, that the function of reason is utilitarian. It is able to critically evaluate the various media which claim to authoritatively transmit the revelation of God in Christ. This takes place with respect both to the “original mediation” and the various “contingent mediations.” But reason must not presume to offer access to the content of revelation itself, much less to the Revealer. It is employed judiciously, and with the telos of revelation consciously in mind. Reason is not itself an authority; it discerns authority.

The ultimate authority, of course, is the Author. God's very ontology, however, is such that we do not share his mind, his essence. This fact creates the very need for revelation, and decrees that revelation is mediated. The task at hand, therefore, is, with the aid of critical reason, to discern what is authoritative, to determine where we are most likely to encounter the mediation of God's revelation. This is a question a good number of brilliant minds have expended a tremendous amount of energy over the centuries trying to answer. There is a real sense in which this is necessary and healthy. Without trivializing the importance and the sincerity of this endeavor, we can suggest a methodology which lends a good deal of focus to it. The manifestation of God's revelatory authority is the community which was formed by it, which is in essence organic rather than institutional, which transcends time, which “gives along” the content of the revelation. Scriptures, creeds, councils, confessions, declarations, encyclicals, pastoral letters and (“as one untimely born”) General Conventions can be of genuine usefulness to the task, but only inasmuch as they are seen as rooted in an flowing out of the organic life of the Church.

Now without a good deal of qualification and nuance, much of the preceding paragraph is a rather naive statement of the obvious. When one is faced with an actual concrete theological issue, trying to discern the mind of the Church is, if one is simple-minded, suspiciously easy, and if one is sophisticated, evocative of despair. It is a telling irony that Vincent of Lerins formulated his famous “canon” as a polemical reaction to one who has come to be recognized as one of the most seminal and (in the west) orthodox theologians in Christian history. So we offer the dictum, “Seek the mind of the Church,” not as a solution to theological quandary, but as the only legitimate starting point in the search.

This is, after all, an essay on revelation and authority, not ecclesiology. But since we have so strongly located the mediation of revelation in the Church, there is an implied notion in the previous paragraph which needs to be made explicit. The Church is an historical entity. Paradosis happens in the context of the passing of time. Even though the “mind of the Church” on any of the controversial issues which she faces today may be impossible to discern, it is quite feasible to generalize about the mind of the Church on the issues faced a century ago. A hundred years from now, the mind of today's Church will be significantly clearer than it is to us now. Even though the expression consensus fidelium may be nearly equivalent to “the mind of the Church,” I would like to suggest a subtle distinction, that is, that the former term is more temporally expansive. An important theological issue is rarely settled within the space of one generation. Indeed, there was a time in the mid-fourth century when the mind of the church seemed quite made up on a crucial Christological question; as Jerome tells us, the world woke up and found itself Arian. This turned out, however, not to be the consensus fidelium.

So the pursuit of the authoritative mediation of revelation is, to put it mildly, elusive. Authority, when it is discerned, must be laid hold of confidently, but humbly, and with faith (in all the semantic richness of that word). In many cases, it is a trans-personal endeavor, because it is trans-generational. As it was with those who worked on medieval cathedrals (enough of computers now!), so it is with theologians: one generation builds onthe foundation laid by another. For any given individual, faith is the assurance that the telos of revelation will reach its fruition. His or her probing of the mystery, moreover, is not wasted effort. Not only does it provide the setting for the working out of one's own salvation “in fear and trembling,” but contributes to the consensus fidelium which will mediate, “give along” the saving content of God's revelation in Christ to those yet unborn.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another One Swims

As one who inhabits the Catholic end of the Anglican theological and liturgical spectrum, I am not unaccustomed to hearing from time to time about an Anglican taking the step--a relatively short one in many ways for an Anglo-Catholic--into what was once referred to as "the Roman obedience." Precisely because I am a Catholic (in my own mind--full-stop, no qualifiers, upper-case 'C', and all that as an Anglican), I always have an ambivalent response to such news.

On the one hand, I am not without sympathy for the concerns that can lead one to just give up on sustaining the notion that the Anglican churches are a full and integral part of the "Church Catholic," no less so than our Roman cousins. There are so many Anglicans who seem hell-bent on contradicting that very notion that one wonders, along with Newman, "What's the point? Why not just join up with what is clearly the mainstream of Catholic Christianity and let all the Evangelicals and Liberals get on with their "private judgment in gorgeous apparel" (per Cardinal Manning, one of the early Tiber-swimmers) party?"

On the other hand, the news of another "poping" is always disconcerting. It means there is one less ally to contend for Catholic truth and order within Anglicanism. But more to the point, it accomplishes piecemeal and individually--by mere attrition, as it were--what an earnest Catholic Anglican always hopes to accomplish overtly and corporately--that is, reunion with the See of Rome. The best construction one can place on the state of affairs since 1532 (0r 1559, or 1570, depending on how you parse the historical data) is that it is a necessary but unfortunate anomaly that needs to be cleared up ASAP.

But never in my 33 years in the Episcopal Church have I witnessed such a steady stream of high profile Anglican conversions to Rome as has taken place in the past several months. No fewer than four members of the House of Bishops--one long retired, two very recently retired, and one incumbent diocesan--have announced their embrace of Roman Catholicism. The latest, just revealed today, is John Lipscomb, recently retired Bishop of Southwest Florida. All four are prominent simply on account of their status as bishops. But they are not mere abstractions to me personally; I know and have interacted in significant ways with all four. Their departures are big news to me. I cannot help but "take it personally."

The news from Southwest Florida came just as I was perusing a thread on the General Convention listserv this morning. The question on the floor was "How does the Church discern new insights from the scriptural witness in the light of the changing circumstances of human existence?" Here is the response I posted:

Plowing through this morning's HoB/D messages in chronological order, I read ******'s queries right after reading the news of Bishop Lipscomb's crossing of the Tiber. Seeing the two in the context of one another gave me an insight (reminding me of something I already knew, actually) that I think is serendipitous. The key word in *******'s question is "we"--i.e. who is the "we" that should be engaged in "redefining what WE understand..."? My observation after some 33 years in TEC, most of that in some form of leadership, is that the "Catholic" strand in our ecclesial DNA is susceptible to a sort of mutation that leads us to see ourselves more as a microcosm of the whole Church Catholic than as a broken fragment of the whole. This mutation shapes (distorts, IMHO) our approach to all sorts of questions, including the articulation of boundaries for sexual morality. Lee Shaw complains in a recent post of what he considered an over-esteem for the authority of Lambeth I.10, reminding us that the Lambeth Conference is not a council charged with defining doctrine. Perhaps not. Yet many of us in TEC act as though General Convention is precisely that. We behave as though GC possesses the authority of an Ecumenical Council, when in fact it represents only a broken fragment of a broken fragment. Now, to apply this insight to the question on the floor: TEC in entirety--let alone as it is represented by General Convention--lacks the authority to undertake change of the sort advocated by "progressives." Any such re-evaluation of the received moral tradition must be undertaken at a much higher level--yes, a level that does not presently exist in any constituted canonical form. This is why, as Bishop Lipscomb points out, the unity of the visible Church on earth should be of paramount concern, trumping other agendas and causes that may in themselves be quite worthy. We are trying to live and move and have our being with our hands tied behind our back. We are incapable of addressing a re-evaluation of sexual morality (among other tasks) until we have addressed the issue of unity.

Friday, November 16, 2007

My Less-than-comfortable Day

By the definition of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, I am an introvert. And I don't pussy-foot around the border; I'm the genuine article. Today was not an introvert's idea of a relaxing day. I will crash hard tonight. But it's the kind of day that makes me know who I am and why I do what I do.

I have a parishioner who's in high school who is really a remarkable young man. He's done a lot for me, so you could say I 'owed' him. But I'm also genuinely fond of him, so agreed to donate most of my morning to driving a van full of theater props from the local high school to one of the local elementary schools, where his theater class was putting on a one-act version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Did I have a whole list of pressing items on my to-do list back in the parish office? You bet I did. But I would not have traded the experience of watching this group of twenty-some young people act--yes, with varying degrees of ability, but every one of them with passion and dedication. And watching the response of the elementary school kids in the audience was equally precious.

No sooner had I gotten to the church office than it was practically time for me to leave again (after dealing with a few emails) for my noon Rotary meeting. Yeah, you read that right--Rotary. For thirteen years in Stockton, I resisted pressure to join Rotary. To quote Austin Powers, "It's just not my bag, baby!" But all the wise advice I have access to tells me that a member of the clergy in a small town should join a service club, so that's what I'm doing. Hard for an introvert--trust me. I sat next to my Presbyterian counterpart from down the street and we talked a little shop before the formal program started.

When I got back to the office, there was a phone message from a man whose wife died last night. He's not a parishioner, but once had a connection to another parish in this diocese. He wanted "last rites" for his wife. Technically, it's a little late for that, but I agreed to meet him and his two sons later at the funeral home for some prayers around the body of his wife.

Then I had a scheduled meeting with a man who is about to be ordained a deacon--tonight, at St Anne's. When went through some liturgical choreography--both for tonight and for our future working relationship--and then sat down literally behind the altar and discussed youth ministry, in which he has long been involved, and which will be a continuing element of the gifts he shares with this community.

I was barely finished with that meeting when a copier salesman arrived. I know what you're thinking--but we had an appointment. We're far enough into the selection process for our next piece of major office equipment that it was time to arrange for a "test drive," whereby they bring in the machine and let us use it for a week before making a final decision. We got several details ironed out.

Then I was off to the funeral home. The deceased was a war bride--a German girl who, at age 17, married an American G.I. who was in her country as part of an occupying force. They were together for nearly 59 years. A couple of months ago, after a long while with difficulty walking, she was diagnosed with advanced leukemia. The end came more quickly than expected--not even time to go through the hospice care phase--but she was in great pain, so it was a blessing. Last night, at home, after asking her husband to fix her a bowl of soup, she died in his arms. A week or so ago, she had thanked him for giving her a good life. Such utter sweetness. What a privilege it is for me to be allowed in to a moment like that in someone's life. With her husband, her two sons, and a longtime friend, we gathered around her body and offered the final prayers for the dying--yes, a few hours late--from the Prayer Book.

Now I'm trying to get this posted before the rehearsal for tonight's liturgy begins. Miles to go before I sleep, but it will be rest indeed.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On the Wisdom of Submitting to Corrupt Authority

I hope you have made it a habit to check out the communal blog effort at which I am a contributing writer. Last night I posted this piece there by Greg Walgenbach, who was a student in a class I just finished teaching in my former diocese of San Joaquin. Greg has an M.Div. from an eminently respectable institution, so he's no theological slouch. I encourage you to check out his fine work. Here's a snippet to whet your appetite:

David is grieved at the death of God’s anointed and punishes the offender. His response is penitence at the death of his King and beloved friend, Jonathan. It is the glory of Israel, and hence God’s glory, that is tarnished. Despite his corruption and tyranny, Saul’s death is an occasion for mourning and penance—because he was the LORD’s anointed..

How much greater the mourning now that we serve the Anointed Lamb that was slain, the Son of David who calls not for retribution but for us to love our enemies, who bids us take up our cross and follow him! How much more are we called to be a people who submit to God’s authority given in the shape of the Church and her practices! Such submission is radical for it must trust God’s presence—even in the dark, in His judging absence, as space for the Holy Spirit’s work. We are called, in Reinhard Hütter’s phrasing, to “suffer divine things.” We do so perhaps even knowing that the ‘divine things’ might include suffering and temptation at the hands of malevolent spirits.

Such a reading of Scripture offers strange comfort. It leaves little room for gloating. David’s immediate struggle was ended; yet that ‘victory’ was painful. Yet it does allow us to see Christ’s presence in the structures of authority in the Church, even the corrupt ones. It is this grace that prepares us to see that we were and are complicit in the very structures of authority that killed the Anointed One, Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Public Nakedness

OK, now I have your attention, right?

But, as you might guess, I'm "playing" you with the title of this post. And the fact that I can do so is precisely the point of this very incisive article. (I'm sure that most of those who look at this blog are also avid readers of Titus 1:9, so I'm doing this for the three or four that aren't.)

Here's a teaser, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

Reams have been written on the differences between Islamic and Western societies, but for sheer pithiness, it's hard to beat a quip by my former colleague, a Pakistani scholar of Islamic studies. I'd strolled into his office one day to find him on the floor, at prayer. I left, shutting his door, mortified. Later he cheerfully batted my apologies away. "That's the big difference between us," he said with a shrug. "You Westerners make love in public and pray in private. We Muslims do exactly the reverse."

At the nub of debates over Muslim integration in the West lies the question, What's decent to do in public--display your sexuality or your faith? The French have no problem with bare breasts on billboards and TV but big problems with hijab-covered heads in public schools and government offices. Many Muslims feel just the opposite. As my friend suggested, Westerners believe that prayer is something best done in private, a matter for individual souls rather than state institutions. In the Islamic world, religion is out of the closet: on the streets, chanted five times daily from minarets, enshrined in constitutions, party platforms and penal codes. Sexual matters are kept discreet.

As I am finding out more and more, the pocket of America where I now live is lagging a bit. The post-Christian era has yet to acquire significant traction in these parts. Overtly Christian prayer at all manner of public events hardly raises an eyebrow. And I have yet to see any bare breasts on billboards. But I have no doubt that we will catch up.

But on another level, small-town Hoosierland is right in the mainstream. Sure, you can still mention Jesus while giving an invocation at a community foundation luncheon, but ask anyone in the buffet line and you will get near unanimous agreement that religion is essentially a private matter, and if you walked into a co-worker's office and interrupted an obvious time of prayer, it would be nearly as awkward a moment as opening that person's bedroom door at the wrong time.

Does the Islamic world actually have something to teach us?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Singin' the Center Field Blues

I'm inherently suspicious of those who claim to be centrists. We all tend to presume, I think, that the center is the moral high ground, populated by those who are too intelligent to perceive reality wholly in binary terms, or so filled with divine love that they can see the nugget of decency in every person and the kernel of truth in every idea. And the center is in the political high rent district: Anyone who can frame the debate so as to cast themselves as "moderate" (thereby casting their opponents as "extreme") has a palpable advantage.

So, as the battles and skirmishes of the Anglican ecclesiastical wars unfold with sustained drama, it is with some alarm that I find myself precisely in that territory where I have never had any wish to be--in the middle. It is the result of no plan, it is the fulfillment of no desire, on my part that I am a known knuckle-dragger on the HoB/D listserv and among "progressive" bloggers, and as one who keeps company with "Vichy collaborators" in the conservative evangelical corner of Anglican cyberspace. Of course I should add: caveat lector--just because I take fire from both directions doesn't give me extra moral capital to spend. I could still be entirely wrong!

While we await the Archbishop of Canterbury's final (well...not final perhaps, but next, at any rate) word on whether the House of Bishops' work in New Orleans a few weeks ago is an adequate response to the Primates' Dar es Salaam communique of last February, stuff is still happening. This weekend, the convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted by a more than decisive (if perhaps less than overwhelming) margin to amend their constitution in the direction of severing ties with the Episcopal Church. No real surprise here; we all knew it was coming. Next month, my former diocese of San Joaquin will hold a similar vote--only this one will be on the second reading, and could therefore be construed as actually "pulling the trigger." (Although...it should be pointed out that, interpreted in strict grammatical terms, the language of the revised Article II, while it removes specific references to TEC, does not categorically initiate a separation therefrom. Of course, Bishop Schofield plays his cards extremely close to the vest, and I suspect that even some of the elected leaders of the diocese are not yet aware of what he has in mind by way of future provincial affiliation.) Quincy, while appearing to have stepped back just a bit from the brink, is still poised to bolt, and Fort Worth shows all the signs of leaving.

This all makes me very sad--at times, nigh unto terminally depressed. And there is some real longitudinal context for my melancholic state: I have spent thirty years or so watching a steady stream of bright, devout, gifted, energetic clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Church reach their own personal omega point and jump ship--mostly to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. Each individual departure has been grieved and then absorbed and compensated for, and life has gone on. But when I stop to mentally list and count the names, I cannot help but think to myself, "Dear God, if we still had all those people, we may actually be able to make a difference." I'm probably wrong about that, but I feel it anyway.

So, yes, the news from Pittsburgh makes me sad, and I'm fairly certain the news from San Joaquin a month from now will make me even sadder. These are my friends we're talking about here, my theological homeys. These are people I have labored with side-by-side to try and keep the Episcopal Church true to its own theological and moral self. We have largely, so far, failed, and now they are giving up. On one level, I don't blame them. I share their sense of frustration, if not the conclusion of despair that they have reached. I cheer for them inwardly in their public rhetorical volleys with the powers-that-be at '815.'

But I also believe that they are gravely mistaken, and I pray for them to turn back and forswear their foolish ways. What was once a movement configured toward maintaining a vibrant orthodox Anglican ecclesial presence in North America has morphed into something else entirely. I was present, as a voting delegate, when the Anglican Communion Network was birthed. My signature is on its founding document. I stand by what I did then. I would do it again. But I fear that the Common Cause Partnership will turn out to be nothing more than a bastard child of the ACN. The trajectory of the CCP bends clearly in the direction of true schism--that is, a breach within the Anglican Communion--the establishment of an "Anglican-like" ecclesial body that will no longer be in communion with the ancient See of Canterbury, such communion being the sine qua non of Anglican identity. The impetus toward such a move is rooted in an impoverished ecclesiology, a myopic historical perspective, and a simple lack of the Christian virtues of patience and charity.

Even so--God help us--those holding the reins of power in the Episcopal Church seem to be hell-bent on abetting the realization of what they claim are their worst fears--though one wonders. When helping people who have been through divorce prepare for a second marriage, a wise priest will invite them to articulate honestly their own contribution to the breakdown of the former relationship. Casting all the blame on the former spouse is not an acceptable answer. The inability to name and own a share of responsibility for what went wrong is a prima facie sign of immaturity and denial (and therefore lack of readiness to enter into a new marriage). From the Presiding Bishop (witness her most recent letter to the Bishop of Pittsburgh) on down to my leftist friends on the HoB/D, the pervasive level of denial is astonishing. They either don't get it or won't get it--I don't know which--but they are certainly not seeing or acknowledging their own contribution to the breakdown of relationships at a macro level in the Episcopal Church. They insist on shifting all the blame on to the disaffected minority. They rigidly enforce the letter of canon law when it suits their interests, not realizing that, in so doing, they are biting their nose to spite their face. Rather than attempting to understand their opponents--"getting inside their heads," so to speak--they demonize and ridicule. They habitually squander opportunities for reaching out to their opponents in reconciling ways. Have they never heard the aphorism, "You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar"?

So it's an awkward place in which I find myself. My friends are abandoning me (thinking me foolish at best, and possibly disloyal, for not joining them). My adversaries smile and tolerate me, perhaps because I'm a pretty nice guy, but more likely because they know I'm not in a position to do them any harm. They will let me cast my 'Nay' vote because they know the 'Ayes' will have it when the tally is in. Oh, I don't yet have an Elijah-complex. I know there are plenty who have neither left for Moab nor bowed the knee to Baal. But it's getting lonelier all the time.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

All Saints' Day

Yesterday was the Eve of "All Hallows"--today is the feast itself. I have written something over at Covenant that I commend to your attention.

While, you're over these, DO NOT MISS this luminous reflection on the practice of prayer by a guest contributor. You will be blessed beyond description, especially if you are a performing musician.