Monday, September 22, 2008

On the Art of Abandoning Hope

I try to hold charity as a default disposition. I try to assume the best about people, and to give every possible benefit of the doubt. I am not inherently suspicious, nor am I easily offended personally (it can be done, but you have to really want to). I try to be irenic and empathetic in my discourse, particularly my public discourse (I do have some unguarded moments among close friends), and particularly when I am engaging those with whom I have strong disagreements. I live up to these ideals with varying degrees of success, something that probably comes as no surprise to you if you are a regular reader of this irregular blog. However, trusted feedback from multiple sources over a sustained length of time tells me that I succeed more often than I fail.

I mention all this in an attempt to set the context for some reflections on what transpired last week in the House of Bishops, and then on the larger Anglican scene. It is probably a good thing (for my soul's health, that is) that I was away from home and without constant internet access when the news broke about the deposition (once again, canonically flawed) of the Bishop of Pittsburgh. Since getting back home on Friday, I've been able to absorb both the news itself and bits and pieces of analysis and commentary. There is little of either that is very surprising—save, perhaps, for the fact that there were indeed 35 bishops who voted No, some prominent "progressives" among them. And even though the raw vote seems overwhelming (87-35-5), when you limit the statistical pool to Bishops Diocesan (i.e. excluding Suffragans, Coadjutors, Assistants, and retired), only a slight majority voted to depose Bishop Duncan. What this disparity means I am not prepared to say, but it is certainly worthy of note.

Anyway, the deed is done—for all practical purposes, at any rate, Bishop Duncan having decamped to the Southern Cone within hours of the vote, and two-thirds or so of his diocese poised to follow him there in a matter of weeks. This makes me angry and sad, on numerous levels.

First, I am dismayed that Bishop Duncan has taken several actions that he has. Now, I should say, I count myself generally among his admirers. I don't know him well, but I've met him and spent time around him on several occasions. I find him humble and prayerful and, frankly, suffused with an inner joy that transcends the rigors to which his vocation of leadership subjects him. In "normal" circumstances, I would be proud to have him as my bishop. But, in the midst of the fray, he has seemed to abet rhetoric that, while intended to galvanize his "base" (to borrow a term from secular political discourse), has also galvanized the opposition by crossing the line into inflammatory polemical hyperbole. I refer particularly to the Choose This Day DVD that received wide circulation some years ago, but which many Episcopalians who consider themselves creedally orthodox, even right-of-center, found wounding and offensive, making it counter-productive to the larger cause that all "reasserters" share. And, speaking of that cause, and as I have made clear numerous times, I lament the decision to which Bishop Duncan has led his diocese. I greatly empathize with the reasons behind it, but believe it does more harm than good in the larger project of stabilizing worldwide Anglicanism in its proper theological and ecclesiological roots.

But the bulk of my sadness and anger is reserved for the Presiding Bishop and those who have attempted to buttress her course of action. No, I'm not a lawyer and I've never played one on TV. But I do read and write English with a modicum of fluency. I know what lots of words mean. I can diagram sentences. And I can spot ambiguity from a mile away. There is nothing ambiguous about Canon IV.9. That the HOB's lawyer-bishops cast aside common sense in order to "find" ambiguity that they could then resolve in favor of the Presiding Bishop's desires is to their shame. So … shame on them. As a result of their work, the best hermeneutical tool for understanding the polity and discipline of the Episcopal Church these days is, alas, Alice in Wonderland, where words mean only what those in power say they mean.

I am also sad and angry—well, mystified might be a more accurate term—at the tunnel vision of the HOB majority. It is actually doing harm to their own cause. Before they took on the Duncan matter, our bishops took some time to bask in the afterglow of the Lambeth Conference, wherein they made lots of new friends and reached deeper levels of mutual understanding with their episcopal peers from other provinces. So it is incredible to me that they cannot see how their action in deposing Bishop Duncan is likely to be interpreted abroad as a pre-emptive purge of an annoying colleague, convicting a man for what he thinks and plans rather than for what he has done (shades of the film Minority Report), yet another example of TEC's "progressive" juggernaut steamrolling all opposition. Even a lowly parish priest in a backwater small town such as myself knows the truth of the maxim "Perception is reality." How can our purple-shirted friends be so clueless?

The rapidity with which the verities—the "old eternal rocks" (per St Patrick)—of the American financial system have vaporized over the past week seems an apt parallel—in a condensed, fast-forward sort of way—to the ongoing meltdown of everything we only recently took for granted about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It is slowly but surely sinking in to this Anglo-Catholic's brain that the Episcopal Church may well not survive. Oh, there will doubtless be an institutional entity by that name long after my bones have assumed the ambient temperature of the surrounding earth. But it will no longer be that which I and many others believed we were embracing when we joined up—that is, a local (national) manifestation of the historic diversity of Anglicanism: grounded in Catholic faith and order, renewed by evangelical fervor, and, yes, maintaining an intellectual capaciousness that allows fuzziness where clarity is not essential. The trajectory of my church is one of growing insularity and isolation—indeed, isolationism, driven by a notion of justice that is so overwrought as to be no longer recognizably linked to the Christian moral virtue of the same name.

Moreover, it must be admitted, Anglicanism itself may not survive. That's a terrifying prospect for me, because I believe myself to have an "Anglican soul," if there can be said to be such a thing. Rome has its attractions, and if I had my 'druthers I would die in communion with the See of Peter without having renounced my Anglican identity. But if Anglicanism were to simply implode as a viable option for one who wants to be a Catholic Christian, I would be truly bereft. I do remain hopeful on this front, but it is good to face reality, and develop the skill of not making an idol of anything, even something as fine and life-giving as the Anglican tradition.

Of this much I am fairly certain: The picture will get darker and more confusing for orthodox Anglicans in the U.S. before it gets lighter and clearer. I can't even in all honesty bring myself to say something encouraging like "This is the darkness just before dawn." The truth is, things can, in fact, get a lot darker than they are now. We can pretty much count on that happening. It is a time for letting go of expectations, not with pollyannish nostrums that a deus ex machina will rescue us, but with a willingness to be conformed to the shape of the cross. A passage from a meditation by the late James Griffiss, priest and seminary professor, seems apt here:

How easy it is for us to be deceived about hope. What we want to believe is that God will work out everything for our good in the end. The way may be difficult; things may get bad at times, but in the end all will be well. And sometimes, indeed, it does happen that way, and we are deceived all the more. We even try to do it with Jesus himself. We interpret his death according to our own understanding and our own idols: God made it alright for him, so he will make it alright for us. And so we avoid the cross and what it says, for it is not too difficult to turn the cross into that which puts God to the test. "I am your son, your chosen one, surely you are not going to abandon me now." We can imagine that Jesus might have said that, might perhaps have thought it, because we have said it so many times ourselves. ... The cross frees us from that temptation, and it is our only hope. ... The cross frees us from the sin of testing, because Jesus died there; it is the end. Nothing is left, nothing on which he or we can depend except the cross, and the cross offers us nothing, not even itself. It offers only the God who led Jesus there and who leads us there to be crucified with him. (From A Silent Path to God.)

Hope that is a Christian virtue is hope that has been smelted in the crucible of the cross. And before we can embrace such true hope, we must renounce the idol of false hope.

In the meantime, how shall we then live? (Here I speak from my own position as a pastor and priest, hoping that what I say can be "translated" by those in other vocations.) Of this much I am equally certain: I am surrounded by people—people in my parish and people in the larger community—who are ravenous for good news in the midst of their fragmented lives, thirsty for the water of life, eager to both receive and give witness to the love and mercy of God in Christ. They are, at most, only marginally interested in the intricacies of ecclesial politics that appear so prominently on my computer screen, and, with occasional exceptions, it is possible to minister to their needs without involving them in those matters. My ordination vows as a priest include "tak[ing my] share in the councils of the Church." I intend to be faithful to that vow, and I see this haphazard blog as part of that effort. But I will also, God being my helper, never lose sight of my calling, equally part of my ordination vows, to be a living and authentic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd to all those who are and will be entrusted to my care.

Kyrie eleison.


Martial Artist said...

Dearest Fr. Martins,

Your reference to "the darkness just before dawn" brings immediately to my mind the more ironic, and just perhaps in this instance more likely, version of the adage—It is always darkest just before it turns completely black! Given the occasional applicability of that adage, your speculation that "Anglicanism itself may not survive" just might turn out to be prescient, and not necessarily as far into the future as you surmise.

For me, the absolute lack of moral and intellectual integrity of the Presiding Bishop, her Chancellor, her Parliamentarian, and a majority of the bishops attendant in Salt Lake City (which latter included the Ordinary and Suffragan of my own diocese) was, for me, the clarion call of the Holy Spirit to me. It simply sealed my growing suspicion that the See of Peter was the destination intended for me by our Lord. I had already read half way through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all of which to that point clearly obtained my personal nihil obstat. The biggest single obstacle to my departure is finding the time to draft the letter to my Rector, Vestry and Bishops, informing them of the decision and its causes. At the moment I am deployed aboard a U.S. government hydrographic survey vessel at sea in Alaskan waters, and am working 11 hour days, conveniently divided so as to deny me more than 6 hours continuous sleep in any one attempt. But that is a small obstacle to overcome, and it shall be overcome.

That said, be assured that, even if we end up in different ecclesial communities, I will always consider you my brother in Christ, and the offer of a few good wee drams should you find yourself in Seattle, will stand as long as I do.

Blessings and regards,
Martial Artist

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for this beautiful piece -- it is truly fantastic.

I have an expected quibble.

I am truly befuddled, shocked, amazed, and bemused that you chose the "Choose You This Day" thingy to be offended by! I honestly don't get it.

You say this: "But, in the midst of the fray, he has seemed to abet rhetoric that, while intended to galvanize his "base" (to borrow a term from secular political discourse), has also galvanized the opposition by crossing the line into inflammatory polemical hyperbole."

I'm sure that the DVD *made the progressives in TEC very angry* -- but frankly, that's pretty easy to do, so I don't really worry about that. Besides that, progressives like to fancy that they can be both ravingly revisionist -- *and* all the words that they rightly recognize are popular amongst so many: "catholic," "orthodox," "traditional", etc . . . words which they neatly gut of all meaning and then apply to themselves with ironic abandon.

RE: " . . . but which many Episcopalians who consider themselves creedally orthodox, even right-of-center, found wounding and offensive, making it counter-productive to the larger cause that all "reasserters" share."

Here you seem to be defining the word "reasserter" in two different ways. If you mean by the word "reasserter" "creedally orthodox" but supports all-things-gay, then yes, those folks would find the movie "wounding and offensive" because it rightly points out the real foundational differences that actual reasserters have with them.

But if you mean by "reasserter" how Kendall defines the word .. . . I don't know of one reasserter who found it "wounding and offensive" nor can I imagine why they would, as "reasserters" believe that the foundational, deep, and clear distinctions between them and the TEC progressives that the DVD points out are accurate. I could see "not very artistically done" but certainly not "wounding and offensive".

Finally, I don't think that Bishop Duncan believes it possible that the Anglican Communion will be stabilized "in its proper theological and ecclesiological roots." And once you come to that conclusion that all bets are off about the decisions one makes -- including that of Rome!

Despite those two quibbles, I do love this piece.


Daniel Martins said...

As was my travel last week, perhaps your busy-ness constitutes what one author called a "severe mercy" on our Lord's part. In any case, your departure would be a grievous loss for Anglicanism.

I have only minor quibbles with your minor quibbles. It's probably an overstatement to say that I was personally offended by "Choose This Day" when it first came out. I did wince a bit, and say to myself, "Well, that's a little over the top." But I recognize the legitimate uses of propaganda and and understand that over-simplification and hyperbole are part of the deal. Yet, over time, I have come to see that others did find it offensive. And I don't mean just for the sake of rhetorical posturing, like an "injured" soccer player, but that it was truly hurtful to people that are not full-blown revisionists by any stretch, and that it actually alienated people who may have otherwise been more disposed to behave irenically toward orthodox Anglicans in North America.

My intent was to use "reasserter" per Kendall's definition, but I can see now that, in context, I was less than clear. So, I agree with you that most of those who found the video offensive would have found anything that emanated from western Pennsylvania offensive, and there's not much one can do about that. But I still maintain that it was counter-productive, needlessly making enemies.

Your point about Bishop Duncan's assessment of "Anglican stability" is well-taken. Obviously, that's one more thing he and I disagree on. And, of course, I realize that *you* and I disagree on where the boundaries are with respect to with whom orthodox Anglicans may fruitfully have discourse, and that difference informs our respective viewpoints.



Anonymous said...

...but believe it does more harm than good in the larger project of stabilizing worldwide Anglicanism.

What would help the worldwide Anglican communion the greatest is for the TEO to die an ugly death...and soon. Ms Shori's foolish actions pushes the organization towards that endpoint.


Malcolm+ said...

FWIW, Dan, I agree with your "trusted feedback from multiple sources over a sustained length of time" that you consistently strive to be fair and reasonable in your discourse and that as often as not you succeed.

In particular, you generally avoid the sort of caricatures all too commonly offered up by both sides. (Of course, all of us find it easier to discern an unfair caricature from the "other" side.)

That's why yours is one of the conservative blogs that rates a link at simplemassingpriest. FWIW.

I'm not surprised that there would be conservatives who were offended by "Choose This Day." I suspect there were also a significant number of conservatives who were not offended, but who thought it was tactically counterproductive.

It has been referenced elsewhere (I saw it at Thinking Anglicans) that, among those who opposed Bishop Duncan's plans for the diocese (I hope that was an even handed descriptor), there was a significant split over the advisability of deposing him - at least at this time.

Anonymous said...

RE: "And, of course, I realize that *you* and I disagree on where the boundaries are with respect to with whom orthodox Anglicans may fruitfully have discourse, and that difference informs our respective viewpoints."

Yeh . . . I don't believe there is any chance of not "offending" "moderately revisionist" people who prowl blogs and watch the Choose This Day video.

I'm actually well able to have discourse fruitfully about lots of things with revisionists in TEC, as long as they aren't *activists*. At the point that they cross over into activism -- as of course I have myself -- we don't have enough in common spiritually speaking to have those conversations productively [although of course -- blog skirmishes are sometimes fun!].

But remember I do agree with you -- progressives found it "wounding".

I personally think that it is almost *never* counterproductive to speak clearly about deep differences . . . unless the person about whom you are speaking is standing right there with a gun in his hand. Then it's counterproductive! ; > )


Anonymous said...

Fr Dan,

You must have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express!

One Saturday evening long ago Bp. Sheridan called about 9pm and asked me if I would drive down to St. Ann's and preside at Mass the next morning. He knows that Wesley's rule, "Be prepared to preach, pray or die on three minutes notice," I had taken for my own. Fr. McCormick was too spiritual with all hose daily offices, etc. I did that for several Sundays.

Brad+ became Canon to the Ordinary, and a good one he was.

Keep serving the people of God who are St. Ann's until our God calls elsewhere. I was led elsewhere.

Bob Maxwell+, ACoK
. . . still ridin' for the brand.

Anonymous said...


Glad to hear from you on this topic. I've been waiting for your thoughts. As a pregressive conservative (Ok, Sarah, don't laugh), I wasn't all that happy with the Choose this Day video either. It was fuel for the fire of the ire of our worthy opponents. I know my bishop (who voted to depose) was particularly offended by Choose this Day (or else he was told to say he was offended since I doubt he watched it).

Neither side has shown much brains in the strategery department, imho.

Anonymous said...

As a member of a parish that has voted to join Southern Cone (in Canada), I have to ask you, in the present circumstances, how long you think it will be possible to preach the good news? It seems to me that the "all roads lead to god" (and I didn't capitalize god on purpose) philosophy has taken over both TEC and the ACoC. If Anglicanism survives the next few decades as a Christian church, I believe it will be under the auspices of GAFCON.

Jeremy Bonner said...

Dear Father Martins,

Thank you for this most moving piece. It reflects many of my own feelings about the way ahead.

Regarding "Choose This Day," the problem that really stood out was its relative theological brevity (I once put this to Les Fairfield of TESM - who figures in the narrative - and he largely conceded the point).

If one is going to talk about the Reappraiser-Reasserter divide, even in a DVD intended for the ordinary man in the pew, one needs to talk specifically about "Theology of the Body," about John Spong and his impact, about inclusive language and its dangers, about why social justice as an end cannot ever be enough.

"Choose This Day" suffers from the same ills that today affect secular political communication. Since I first saw it I have grown more and more ambivalent about it as a tool, not least because it seems devoted to preaching to the converted.

Anonymous said...

Separation is the overall counsel in Scripture for the purity, health, nurture, protection and survival of the flock and of the Faith/Truth/Gospel... separation is grievous, to be resisted, pled and prayed against, and mourned if it occurs - but in the end, without repentance, it is necessary.

However, with repentance, it need not and should not be permanent.

Anonymous said...

Separation should not be permanent because we are given the ministry of reconciliation and urged by Christ and the Holy Spirit, and Scripture to be one - but we can only be one in spirit AND in truth.

Anonymous said...

RE: " I wasn't all that happy with the Choose this Day video either."

Oh me neither, WG! I though the production values poor and the scriptwriting badly done. Poor narration too.

But I didn't have a thing wrong with what it communicated, which was that the revisionists don't hold the same gospel as the conservatives in TEC.

And of course it "fueled" the ire of your bishop. My word -- anything at all fuels their fire: this blog, other blogs, email newsletters, small group meetings of conservatives, roll call votes, straightforward letters from parishioners, rector search processes, stewardship, clearly worded diocesan resolutions, and on and on it goes.

If it didn't "fuel" their ire, then it didn't communicate.

I mean, if the video didn't "offend" a raving revisionist, then it probably didn't say anything of import.

Beyond all of that . . . once you've gotten to the point where you shudder to offend a revisionist Episcopalian, then you've already decided to sit down and shut up. . . . which is fine I guess . . . that's certainly a person's right . . .

But guaranteed, this very blog "offends" and "fuels ire".

As well it should.


Anonymous said...

Fr. Martins,

One of the few regrets I have in leaving the Episcopal church is never having belonged to a parish with a priest of your caliber - I never really experienced the Anglican way as it should have been practiced. I pray you will be able to continue where you are and protect your flock from the ersatz christianity being peddled and promoted by 815. If you eventually find yourself unable to continue your sacrificial prophetic stance within TEC, please consider other ancient Sees besides that of Rome - Eastern Orthodoxy is a viable alternative, and many former Anglicans have found a home there (including this one).

The comments about 'Choose This Day' prompted me to go find a downloadable version of the video. I would agree that it is a bit over the top and I can hardly see how it would have convinced anyone in the muddy middle - there were other presentations (by Kendall Harmon I think) that did a much better job of revealing and explaining the foundational differences between the average reappraiser position and the orthodox. That being said, the video was far from totally off base.

- Steve