Saturday, October 31, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Systematic Theology is the discipline of taking that which Christians believe and teach (or, in any case, that which any given systematic theologian thinks Christians should believe and teach) and organizing that material into a coherent whole, a “system.” Pick up most any Systematic Theology textbook, and the first chapter is likely to be about God, generically speaking, or, perhaps, about the basis for human knowledge of God—religious epistemology, revelation, or the like. From there, the “system” might proceed to the specifically Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and then, perhaps, to the person and work of Christ, or maybe to Christian anthropology—the nature of Man, the Fall, the character of sin, redemption, and grace. The concluding chapter is likely to be on eschatology—Last Things, how the story ends. Somewhere in the middle, and probably closer to the end than to the beginning, there will be a chapter on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church (and, depending on the theological perspective of the author, something on the sacraments).
It all seems reasonable enough. There are a great many puzzle pieces that need to be in place before one can make sense of the Church. This methodology has sometimes been styled “theology from above.” It is a deductive exercise, in that it starts with truths that are over-arching and all-encompassing—i.e. truths about God—and reasons downward to matters that are specific and localized, matters like the Church. But it seems worthwhile to pose the question, What if one were to attempt a systematic theology, as it were, “from below”? What if one were to do theology in a manner that philosophers might call “phenomenological,” beginning with the concrete and specific and reasoning from there to the general and all-encompassing? From such a perspective, Chapter I in a Systematic Theology textbook would probably concern itself with the Church.
If you are a Christian (a plausible presumption for the readership of this blog), how did you first hear about Jesus? Was it at your grandmother’s knee? From a Sunday School teacher? A pastor? A friend or neighbor? A radio or TV ministry? From picking up a Gideon bible in a hotel room? In any of these cases, it was some manifestation of the Church that introduced you to Christ. Unless the risen Jesus appeared to you personally as he did to Saul on the Damascus Road, you have the Church to thank for your Christian faith. So from the standpoint of the actual lives of actual Christians, the Church is not an afterthought, a derivation from some more foundational principles. It is our point of connection to the gospel, the indispensable medium in which and through which we have a relationship with Christ.
(I’m about to make some wide sweeping generalizations, which can cause trouble if they’re stretched beyond their usefulness in making a critical point. I’ll try to do my part in avoiding that trap; you’ll have to do yours as well.)
With apologies to chickens and eggs everywhere: Which came first, the Church or the Believer? I believe there is a correct theological answer to this question, and that such theological priority is rooted in and demonstrated by the phenomenological priority asserted above. It’s kind of hip these days among some believers to describe themselves as “Christ-followers” rather than “Christians.” This reflects a certain frustration with the institutional obtuseness of the Church, but in the end, it’s a bogus distinction, a red herring. Every “Christ-follower” first met Jesus through the ministry of the Church. Even Saul/Paul was commanded to seek out the Church in Damascus in order to be relieved of his blindness and be baptized. Even the apostles did not know Jesus apart from the community of their colleagues. There is no such thing as free-lance Christianity. By being connected to the Head, one is unavoidably connected to the Body. (More about that in subsequent posts in this series.)
What I am attempting to enunciate here is a Catholic ecclesiology, which consistently asserts that the Church is in every way (phenomenologically, theologically, and ontologically) prior to the Believer. This notion swims decidedly upstream against a powerful current of American individualism, with roots going back to colonial times, combined with post-modern intellectual relativism and libertinism—a stream that provides congenial lodging for an essentially Protestant ecclesiology. In Protestant ecclesiology, the Believer is prior to the Church. When an individual encounters Christ, that person immediately looks around for others who have had a similar encounter, and forms community with them for purposes of common worship, mutual support and encouragement, and united witness and mission. In this view, “church” is simply a collective noun for an aggregation of believers. The Believer is prior to the Church—theologically and ontologically, at any rate, if not phenomenologically.
In practice, this gets pretty mixed up. There are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the ecclesiological moorings of which are solidly Catholic (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox) but whose personal mental model of the Church (even though they may not have the technical vocabulary to articulate it as such) is clearly Protestant (especially if they happen to be Americans). And there are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the formal ecclesiology of which is squarely in the free-church congregationalist evangelical tradition, but who have intuitively constructed a personal mental model of the Church that is quite communitarian, in fact, quite Catholic.
This theological dissonance is, I suspect, largely subliminal. Most Christians who hold ecclesiological pre-suppositions that are at odds with the ‘DNA’ of their own church are not aware of the disconnect. Yet, if one were to take any given church conflict, and peel back all the underlying rhetoric and substantive argument, that very disconnect would in many cases lie at the bottom of the pile.
I suppose it goes without saying that I am an advocate of the Catholic position, as I have described it. It is not only undeniably true phenomenologically, but if we take seriously the Pauline “body” metaphor, it is manifestly true theologically (more on that to come). Of course, I hold in esteem my fellow-believers from ecclesial traditions that take the opposite point of view. What would perhaps be most helpful all around is if, in our discussions of other matters, we could be more consciously aware of our underlying ecclesiological assumptions. I suppose I would probably also find it helpful if people spoke and acted in ways that are coherent with the formal ecclesiology of the churches of which they are actually members.
Still to come: Part III: The Visibility of the Church, and Part IV: The Unity of the Church.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I feel almost obligated to say something about a “breaking” Anglican story, if for no other reason than that it has shown up on the CNN crawler (and other secular media sources), necessitating a measure of spin control, since secular news outlets invariably get church-related stories really, really wrong, either in the headlines, or in the details, or both. (This, of course, leads me to wonder what else they get wrong in areas where I have no particular expertise or inside knowledge, but that’s another story.)
The Vatican has announced an arrangement by which Anglican Christians may enter into full communion with the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), and do so in groups that maintain their collective identity (like parishes and dioceses). They would then be allowed to continue liturgical and spiritual practices that are identifiably Anglican (such as using texts from the Prayer Book and music from familiar hymnals). Moreover, their clergy could become Roman Catholic priests, and, if married, remain so as they continue to pastor their congregations.
The technical name (and a hugely awkward one, I must say) for the new sort of jurisdiction is “personal ordinariate.” An “ordinary” is a cleric who has a sort of authority that is usually associated with the office of Diocesan Bishop, but may also be held by a Dean (of a seminary) or an Abbott (of a monastery). The personal ordinariates under this plan would be defined by and accountable to each (national, in most cases) Bishops’ Conference. The ordinaries themselves may, in fact, be bishops (though not former Anglicans, apparently) but will in most cases, at least in the near term, be priests (i.e. former Anglicans, probably married) who have the administrative authority and responsibility of a bishop without the sacramental peculiars—ironically, ordinaries who cannot ordain.
The media are treating this announcement as something new—indeed, something shockingly new. The truth is—it isn’t. From early in the papacy of John Paul II, there has been something called the Pastoral Provision in effect that allows married Anglican clergy, after undergoing mutual discernment and screening, to be ordained as Roman priests. There has also been something called the Anglican Use, which permits congregations of former Anglicans to remain stylistically Anglican while jurisdictionally Roman Catholic. There are a handful (well, maybe two hands-full) of Anglican Use parishes in the U.S., and have been for a number of years.
What is different about this new initiative? Two things, mainly: First, it applies worldwide, whereas the Pastoral Provision and Anglican Use were confined to the United States. So the most dramatic impact will no doubt be in England, where there are thousands of laity and hundreds of clergy who have been chomping at the bit for something like this. It comes at a particularly sensitive time politically, as the leadership of the Church of England has been trying to find a way to move forward with consecrating women bishops and still hang on to its Catholic wing, which is more numerous percentage-wise than it is in the Episcopal Church. Will the personal ordinariate arrangement siphon off Anglo-Catholics (who pretty much already worship according to the Roman Rite in toto), and not only make it politically easier to have women bishops but also radically shift the delicate balance-of-power in the church? Time will tell.
Second, the new arrangement takes something that has been tentative and somewhat fluid and gives it the character of something that is effectively permanent. It takes an anomaly and institutionalizes it. There is even talk of personal ordinariates (presumably, groups thereof) operating their own seminaries. One of the implications is that Anglicanesque (for lack of a better term) parishes would be in the local Latin Rite (i.e. mainstream Roman Catholic) dioceses in which they are geographically located, but only partially of them. The diocesan bishop’s authority will not extend to anything that pertains to the distinctively Anglican character of these congregations. Such matters would come under the purview of the “personal ordinary.”
There are, of course, some unanswered questions. So far, I’ve only seen second-hand reports and announcements, not any official documents that spell out the details, and we know who lives in the details. For instance, are married priests a one-generation “grandfathered-in” deal, or are we looking at an enduring element of an ecclesiastical sub-culture being created? Will the personal ordinaries be permitted to arrange the ordination of married men who have never been Anglican priests? If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then what we are witnessing is the de facto creation of an Anglican Rite within the Catholic Church (despite all Vatican protestations to the contrary) alongside the Melkite (Greek), Maronite (Lebanese) and other Uniate churches. And what effect is this all likely to have on the many, many Latin Rite priests who would dearly love to be married (or married laicized priests who would love to resume their ministry)?
Speaking personally, does this get my attention? Yes, it does, in the same way that a man whose generally happy marriage is going through a rough patch might have his attention arrested by an attractive potential alternative. I believe the See of Rome to be God’s gift for the unity of Christ’s Church, and it would give me great joy to die at a ripe old age in full sacramental fellowship with the church founded by Peter and Paul. It is a prospect dear to my heart. From the day the Bishop of Los Angeles laid hands on me in Confirmation in 1975, I have considered myself, as an Anglican, fully a Catholic, no hyphens or qualifiers. Since the eve of St Thomas’ Day 1989 I have known myself to be a Catholic priest, a Catholic priest who has said Mass well over two thousand times, and has pronounced God’s absolution on dozens of penitent sinners. And it is precisely because I know these things about myself and my ministry that, with some measure of sadness, I do not foresee myself serving under a personal ordinary in an Anglicanesque parish. To do so would require me to say—not in so many words, perhaps, but with devastating clarity nonetheless—that I have never been a priest, that all the Eucharists over which I have presided have been make-believe, and that my absolutions have been mere aspirational hopes. I could never say those things and live with my conscience.
There will doubtless be much more to say on these matters as events unfold.
Monday, October 19, 2009
This is the first of what I anticipate will be a four-part series on how we think theologically about the Church. As all but the newest readers of the blog know, mine has been one of the voices in the chorus of conflict that Episcopalians and other Anglicans have been “singing” for several years. (I’m sure opinions vary on what “part” I sing!) The longer I participate in these discussions and debates, the more aware I am of how often we “talk past” one another because of unspoken assumptions about foundational categories and terms in Christian discourse. It is my further observation that a great many of these unspoken assumptions have to do with the Church. I don’t know whether it will help, but it surely can’t hurt to attempt to bring some of these assumptions into the light of day, to “speak” them, as it were, in the hope that we might thereby move the conversation about the actual presenting issues forward an inch or two.
I will make every effort to aim these remarks toward the hypothetical “seriously-engaged lay person”—i.e. someone who does not have a formal theological education but has more than an “Inquirers’ Class” level of biblical knowledge and spiritual formation, and is willing to do a little bit of intellectual heavy lifting. I am myself, at best, an “educated amateur” theologian (in the best sense of “amateur,” I hope), so I’m scarcely qualified to set my sights higher than that anyway. If you are a professional theologian and anything I say brings shame on the discipline, I beg your forgiveness in advance.
I write, of course, as an Episcopalian, and therefore as an Anglican, and therefore, as I understand the identity and character of Anglicanism, as a Catholic Christian. My ruminations on ecclesiology will be grounded in this identity; I make no pretension to comprehensiveness.
The Greek word ekklesia (hijacked into Latin as ecclesia), apart from its place in the Christian technical vocabulary, denotes those who have been “called out” from something (or some-things) into something else. It is, in this sense, related to our English work “eclectic,” which refers to a collection of items (or a style of collecting items) that would not ordinarily be placed together. What better description could there be of the assortment of people who show up for worship in many Christian congregations on a Sunday morning!
This is the word that, in English translations of the New Testament, is rendered “church.” The English word, interestingly, is also traceable (through several layers) to Greek, but not to ekklesia. Rather, it is apparently derived from kyrios—lord—hence, “of the Lord.”
In the New Testament, we find three discernible shades of meaning for ekklesia. It can refer to a gatheriing of Christians assempled for a specific purpose, such as we read about in I Corinthians 11:18-19
For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
It can also refer more generally to specific congregation of Christians in a particular location (e.g. Corinth, Philippi, or the “seven churches” named in the first part of Revelation).
Finally, ekklesia can have a universal meaning, referring the totality of those who are united with Christ in the Paschal Mystery. This would seem to be what St Paul had in mind when he (or the pseudonymous author, if you prefer) wrote in Ephesians about marriage being a reflection of the relationship between Christ and “the Church,” or when Jesus in Matthew’s gospel instructs his disciples to “tell it to the Church” when they have a grievance against a fellow disciple that has not been amenable to resolution through more discreet means.
Of course, from these relatively simple New Testament origins, the layers of meaning attached to “church” have gotten deeper, richer, and more complex over the decades and centuries. Appropriately, then, “ecclesiology” is that branch of Christian theology that devotes itself to studying and articulating the mystery that is the one holy catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed. It lies beneath many of our current conflicts. In the essays that follow, I hope to shed a little light on the subject. I hope to post them at roughly one week intervals, though “real life” may always trump that aspirational schedule.
Tentatively, Part II will focus on The Priority of the Church, Part III on the Visibility of the Church, and Part IV on the Unity of the Church. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Friday, October 02, 2009
From Greenland's icy mountains,From India's coral strand,Where Afric's sunny fountainsRoll down their golden sand.From many an ancient river,From many a palmy plain,They call us to deliverTheir land from error's chain.Can we, whose souls are lightedWith wisdom from on high,Can we to men benightedThe lamp of life deny?Salvation, O salvation!The joyful sound proclaim,Till each remotest nationHas learnt Messiah's name.Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,And you, ye waters, roll,Till, like a sea of glory,It spreads from pole to pole;Till o'er our ransomed natureThe Lamb for sinners slain,Redeemer, King, Creator,In bliss returns to reign.
Remember all the peopleWho live in far off lands,In strange and lonely cities,Or roam the desert sands,Or farm the mountain pastures,Or till the endless plainsWhere children wade through rice-fieldsAnd watch the camel trains.Some work in sultry forestsWhere apes swing to and from,Some fish in mighty rivers,Some hunt across the snow.Remember all God's children,Who yet have never heardThe truth that comes from Jesus,The glory of his word.God bless the men and womenWho serve him oversea;God raise up more to help themTo set the nations free,Till all the distant peopleIn ev'ry foreign placeShall understand his kingdomAnd come into his grace.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
- Gone is the familiar and beloved passage from Ecclesiasticus 44 ("Let us now praise famous men ...") that has been part of the Prayer Book liturgy for All Saints since 1549. Not just from this year of the cycle, but from all three. It's not there anymore. That disavowal of our tradition makes me sad and angry.
- Instead, in this Year B, we have another familiar passage from the Apocrypha--Wisdom 3:1-9 ("The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God..."), often used at funerals and at a handful of lesser feasts and votive Masses. This is not an altogether implausible choice. However, in conjunction with the other readings, one can see it as part of a package that falls short of the mark of a robust theological illumination of the meaning of the feast.
- The second reading is from Revelation 21 (New Jerusalem, God dwelling with humankind, no more tears). This is a passage of hope and comfort, but what does it say about the heroic hagioi ("holy ones") who have come through the Great Tribulation and whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and who cast their crowns before the One seated on the throne? In other words, how is it an All Saints' Day text?
- The gospel is from John 11 (Jesus shows up to raise Lazarus, weeping in the process). Again, very comforting. But what does it have to do with the occasion?