Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Monday, September 22, 2008
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.