Monday, September 28, 2009

A Hymn Geek's Version of Oldies

The Hymnal 1940, which was in the pew racks of Episcopal churches and chapels and cathedrals from 1943 until 1985 (and in some places, long afterward), was instrumental in my transition into the Anglican way of Christian practice nearly four decades ago. I thought to myself then, "If there's a church that actually sings these hymns, I need to be in it." And so I am, even though I was to later learn that some of the hymns that so captivated me as a I played through them on a Westmont College practice room piano during spring break of 1971 didn't actually get sung very much. This particular collection is something of a classic, in my estimation. I don't advocate wholesale return to it, as we have moved on, appropriately, from too many aspects of its milieu. But setting aside the essential problem of anachronism, it's "better" than its successor (the Hymnal 1982), in the way the the venerable Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is "better" than its successors, even though you wouldn't want it to be the only encyclopedia you have access to.

Many years ago I discovered that sitting down at a keyboard (organ or piano) and playing through hymns is not just recreational for me; it' s a form of prayer. So I have incorporated it into my regular prayer discipline. Recently, on one of these occasions, I was working my way through the sections devoted to Ordinations, Litanies, and the Departed, respecitvely.

In the first of those three, I was especially struck by #221, Ye Christian Heralds...

Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim
Salvation in Emmanuel's name;
To distant lands the tidings bear,
And plant the Rose of Sharon there.

God shield you with a wall of fire,
With holy zeal your hearts inspire,
Bid raging winds their fury cease,
And calm the savage breast to peace.

And when our labors all our o'er,
Then may we meet to part no more,
Meet, with the ransomed throng to fall,
And crown the Savior Lord of all.

Yes, it's over-the-top Victorian in its sensibilities, and many today would call it racist. I find the tune (Missionary Chant) quite stirring, but I'm a hymn geek, and most today would find it stodgy. I can't imagine a contemporary occasion in which it would be appropriate to be sung. And I grieve for that fact. Even though this text is in the Ordination section of the hymnal, it clearly bespeaks an occasion of apostolic commissioning that is at the same time more concrete and more generic than simply an ordination. Those being sent with this hymn are heroes--they are putting their lives in danger, indeed offering their lives to be spent, consumed, in their vocation. As was the case with Paul and the Ephesian elders when he took leave of them, it's with the understanding that this is a farewell, not just a goodbye. Only the third stanza, completely eschatological in tone, hints at any future reunion. I wince that what passes for "mission" in today's Church is so anemic, so easy, by comparison.

I also rediscovered, in the Departed section (i.e. funeral music), #224, a text by the inimitable John Ellerton (who is himself worthy of the doctoral dissertation I would write in the parallel universe where I would write a doctoral dissertation):

Now the laborer's task is o'er;
Now the battle dayis past;
Now upon the farther shore
Lands the voyager at last.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

There the tears of earth are dried;
There its hidden days are clear;
There the work of live is tried
By a juster Judge than hear.

There the penitents, that turn
To the cross their dying eyes'
All the love of Jesus learn
At his feet in paradise.

There no more the powers of hell
Can prevail to mar their peace;
Christ the Lord shall guard them well,
He who died for their release.

"Earth to earth, and dust to dust,"
Calmly now the words we say,
Left behind, we wait in trust,
For the resurrection day.

The first tune given is Pax, and it is sublimely lovely, though more appropriate for a practiced choir than a funeral congregation. The text may fall short of the sense of paschal victory that has since been recovered in our funeral rites, but it is solidly realistic, and therefore comforting, in a very pastoral way.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Making Friends with the Imprecatory Psalms

It is part of my Rule of Life to pray the Daily Office according to the form prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer (1979). Tuesday through Friday, and on Sunday morning, I do so publicly at stated times (though, to be sure, the universe of those who might join me on any given occasion is quite small). During Ordinary Time, the lectionary for the Daily Office takes one through all 150 Psalms every seven weeks. The option is provided for certain whole Psalms, and sections of others, to be omitted from this round. If you look at some of these texts, the reason for their permitted (suggested?) omission is intuitively obvious. Here are some verses from Psalms 59:

6 Awake, and punish all the ungodly; *

show no mercy to those who are faithless and evil.

7 They go to and fro in the evening; *

they snarl like dogs and run about the city.

8 Behold, they boast with their mouths,

and taunts are on their lips; *

“For who,” they say, “will hear us?”

12 Slay them, O God, lest my people forget; *

send them reeling by your might

and put them down, O Lord our shield.

13 For the sins of their mouths, for the words of their lips,

for the cursing and lies that they utter, *

let them be caught in their pride.

14 Make an end of them in your wrath; *

make an end of them, and they shall be no more.

Such sentiments certainly cause a Christian conscience a little uneasiness, at least, and probably evoke the "What would Jesus do?" question that was so in vogue a few years ago. Other examples of imprecatory Psalms and portions of Psalms are found at 7, 35, 54, 55, 58, 69, 79, 137, and 139. But the most hair-raising example of sustained petition for disaster to befall one's enemies has got to be 109, which calls down divine fury on even the innocent children of malefactors:

5 Set a wicked man against him, *

and let an accuser stand at his right hand.

6 When he is judged, let him be found guilty, *

and let his appeal be in vain.

7 Let his days be few, *

and let another take his office.

8 Let his children be fatherless, *

and his wife become a widow.

9 Let his children be waifs and beggars; *

let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.

10 Let the creditor seize everything he has; *

let strangers plunder his gains.

11 Let there be no one to show him kindness, *

and none to pity his fatherless children.

12 Let his descendants be destroyed, *

and his name be blotted out in the next generation.

13 Let the wickedness of his fathers be remembered before

the Lord, *

and his mother’s sin not be blotted out;

14 Let their sin be always before the Lord; *

but let him root out their names from the earth;

15 Because he did not remember to show mercy, *

but persecuted the poor and needy

and sought to kill the brokenhearted.

16 He loved cursing,

let it come upon him; *

he took no delight in blessing,

let it depart from him.

17 He put on cursing like a garment, *

let it soak into his body like water

and into his bones like oil;

18 Let it be to him like the cloak which he

wraps around himself, *

and like the belt that he wears continually.

19 Let this be the recompense from the Lord to my accusers, *

and to those who speak evil against me.

Psalm 109 pops up in the lectionary as regularly as all the rest--every seventh Wednesday morning, to be specific. Now, Wednesday happens to be the day when my whole parish staff attends Morning Prayer together, just prior to our weekly (or thereabouts) meeting.

Of course, I would be within my rights to exercise a certain pastoral discretion and omit verses 5 through 19, as they are enclosed in parentheses in the lectionary. But I choose not to avail myself of this option. Every seven weeks, these words of seething hatred cross the lips of five or six of the nicest people I know. We squirm--at least I squirm--but we say them.

It's not often at all that any imprecatory Psalmody makes its way into the principal liturgical experience of most Christians who worship according to the Prayer Book, the Sunday Eucharist. Today (Year B: Proper 20) was a notable exception. In my parish, a singularly sweet-voiced soprano cantor chanted these lines from Psalm 54:

5 Render evil to those who spy on me; *

in your faithfulness, destroy them.

So, the obvious question is ... why? Why are texts that are so opposed to the spirit of "Love your enemies" and "Do good to those who persecute you" even granted admission into the canon of Christian liturgical texts? How is our corporate worship possibly enhanced by forcing ourselves to speak lines that we would never allow to be part of our public prayers?

There is no flip or glib or otherwise easy answer to this question. And therein lies the first clue, I think, to why Psalm 109 and its companions are still in the Prayer Book--precisely because it is hard to have them there, precisely because they are the proverbial skunk at the garden party. We wouldn't voluntarily pray such words . . . or would we? Many years ago I found myself, in the context of the Daily Office, praying one of these passages. As so often happens, my mind wandered as part of it remained dedicated to the text in front of me. Then, as now, I was more engaged than the average cleric, to say nothing of the average layperson, in the soap opera of conflict that has consumed the Anglican world of late. And then, in an embarrassingly lucid moment, I suddenly realized that as I was asking God to curse my enemies, the "enemies" I had in mind were not only fellow Christians, but members of my own church!

This experience yielded a hugely important spiritual insight: It showed me that I was subliminally demonizing my opponents in church conflict. I was thinking of them not as brothers and sisters with whom I had profound disagreements, but as enemies who needed to be vanquished, as minions of evil deserving of God's destructive wrath. I suppose it's possible that I might have come to this realization without the assistance of whatever imprecatory Psalm I was praying at the time. But the fact is, it was the Psalm that shined the light on an important step of spiritual growth I needed to take. The imprecatory Psalms force us to look unflinchingly at our "dark side" (Jungian shadow?), and be brutally honest about what we see. By being invited (or, in the case of my staff, forced!) to speak words that we would not otherwise choose to speak, we are provided with a "safe" release for some toxic stuff that will poison us from inside if we don't get it out.

Of course, making friends with the imprecatory Psalms also requires the cultivation of a certain amount of sanctified spiritual imagination. Such a process offers us an opportunity to redefine who the "enemy" is. Instead of directing the energy of our hatred--which is very much there, even if sublimated--toward people (individuals or groups), whom we are commanded to love, our hearts can be trained to direct that energy toward Evil in all its dimensions: Cosmic Evil ("spiritual forces of wickedness [stoichea tou kosmou if you're into New Testament Greek]) that rebel against God"), Social Evil ("evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God"), and Personal Evil ("sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God"). After all, these are the three classic renunciations (aka "the world, the flesh, and the devil") that precede Christian baptism. Somewhat in the tradition of lectio divina, we can acquire the habit of "translating" verses of imprecation, redefining the intended target.

I don't know that I will ever absolutely love the imprecatory Psalms. I would probably be much more comfortable ignoring them. And that is exactly why I should not--and, with God's help, will not--do so.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Emerging Secondary Infection

I'm probably the exact opposite of a hypochondriac, but I pay enough attention to medicine as a "popular science" to know that the first bug to bite you sometimes makes it possible for a second bug to bite you, and that the effects of the resulting "secondary infection" are sometimes more damaging than those of the original. Secondary infections are often "opportunistic"; they have no organic connection to the primary infection, but merely use it as a vehicle.

Within the Anglican world of the last several years, the "primary infection" has certainly been conflict over sexuality and sexual behavior, and the consequences have been severe, it not devastating. There is honest question whether Anglicanism as a recognizable current within the Christian river can actually survive very much longer.

But within the segment of the Anglican world known as the Episcopal Church, there is a secondary infection that has emerged suddenly--only in the last several weeks--and is growing virulently. Even though the sexuality debate was the vehicle that delivered it to the scene, it has no organic connection to sexuality or the range of theological positions with respect to sexuality. It could easily have been another issue ("lay presidency" at the Eucharist, for example, or communion of the unbaptized), but just happened to be sex.

What I'm talking about is the tension--indeed, the dilemma--that some are experiencing between their identity as Anglicans and their identity as Episcopalians. Not too very long ago, this would have been an inconceivable dichotomy. It was axiomatic that if you are a member of the Episcopal Church (USA), you are also automatically an Anglican, and if you live in the U.S. and wish to practice Christian religion as an Anglican, the place to do so is in the Episcopal Church. Except perhaps in the first session or two of an Inquirers' Class, it all went without saying.

So what has changed? Two things, mainly: First, the various breakaway chunks (too large to be called "splinter groups")--AMiA, CANA, et al; now perhaps congealing as the ACNA--have quite understandably appropriated themselves the moniker "Anglican" while broadcasting their perception that the Episcopal Church has terminally squandered its Anglican inheritance. So we hear things like, "My parish is Anglican, not Episcopal." This can be said both truthfully and innocently, of course, like a resident of Philadelphia saying, "I live in the United States, not in New York." But it can also carry with it an implication of mutual exclusivity and put-down, like I've heard some say, "I'm a Christian, not a Catholic." So when lay Episcopalians who are not well-informed about their own ecclesial identity hear or read such a remark, they might plausibly infer, "If that non-Episcopalian says she's an Anglican, then I must not be an Anglican." This is nonsense, of course, but it is understandable nonsense.

Second, the rhetoric of the primary infection (sexuality conflict) abets the spread of the secondary infection. It has exposed where people's core sense of ecclesial identity lies. It has revealed that, among those who once casually accepted the premise that "to be an Episcopalian is to be an Anglican, and vice versa", some understood the primary category to be Episcopalian, with Anglican as a nice add-on, while others understood the primary category to be Anglican, with Episcopalian as the necessary add-on if one lives in the United States. Of course, most who hold what would be described as conservative views on sexuality are among those who are most concerned about the strained relations within the Communion, and those who hold liberal views tend to be less concerned. But it's not all that simple. There are some whose convictions on the sexuality debate are agnostic or even "progressive," but who feel their Anglican-ness so strongly that they are led to dissent from the decisions of General Convention. Similarly, there are those whose views on sexual morality lie decidedly on the traditional side of center, but who feel their Episcopalian-ness so strongly that they are not bothered by the potential for broken relations with the Anglican Communion. It doesn't necessarily break cleanly along predictable "party lines."

I know (all too well, as does anyone in parish ministry), the practical truth of the saying, "Perception is reality." But some perceptions are plain false, not rooted in fact, and while they need to be dealt with gently and compassionately, in the end they need to be challenged. The truth is, there is no dilemma. There is no "Episcopal or Anglican" disjunction. There is only the "Episcopal and Anglican" conjunction.

Let's look at the Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It speaks volumes:
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy,Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. This Constitution, adopted in General Convention in Philadelphia in October, 1789, as amended in subsequent General Conventions, sets forth the basic Articles for the government of this Church, and of its overseas missionary jurisdictions.
A preamble, of course, is the governing rubric for the entire document; it is the interpretive key that unlocks the meaning of all the follows. So here we have it, plain as day: The core identity of the Episcopal Church is as a "constituent members of the Anglican Communion ... in communion with the See of Canterbury." Anglican identity is not (as they say in Louisiana) lagniappe, an optional extra. It's central, essential. And Anglican identity means being "in communion with the See of Canterbury." So those who assert the unbounded autonomy of the Episcopal Church are mistaken. According to our own constitution (I speak as an Episcopalian), the moment we cease to be in full communion with Canterbury, we have ceased to be who we are. We cannot cast off our Anglican identity without simultaneously casting off our Episcopal identity. In this light, then, the actions of recent General Conventions have put us on a collision course with ourselves. We are like a snake swallowing its own tail; it will lead only to our own demise. We are on the verge of violating our own constitution.

But wait ... there's more. The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer, which is our governing liturgical formulary, says this about our relationship to the Church of England:
It seems unnecessary to enumerate all the different alterations and amendments [between the English and American Prayer Books]. They will appear, and it is to be hoped, the reasons of them also, upon a comparison of this with the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. In which it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require. (emphasis added)
One of the repeated themes of the "Windsor Process" (which is now culminating in an Anglican Covenant) is that communion (koinonia) is the natural limit on provincial autonomy. Some have suggested that this is an unwarranted imposition on TEC from outside, not respecting our polity, not honoring our autonomy. Yet, a careful examination of our own foundational documents leads to the inescapable conclusion that the process is in fact calling us back to who we are, inviting us to remember our identity. The Episcopal Church is a body slipping rapidly into dementia, if not amnesia. It is a secondary infection, to be sure, but its effects have the potential to endure long after the sexuality mess is sorted out. The Anglican Communion is offering us an antidote. The new point of contention is between those who want to receive that antidote gratefully and those who want to persist in a perception that is not grounded in reality.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Report from the Lambeth Seven

"This just in," as they say in the news trade. The originating source is Bishop McPherson, via email to another blogger. I offer it here without comment, but may have something to say in due course.

A Report of the meeting of the Bishops of Albany, Dallas, North Dakota, Northern Indiana, South Carolina, West Texas and Western Louisiana with the Archbishop of Canterbury on September 1, 2009.

As seven representatives of the Communion Partner Bishops, we are grateful to have met with the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss our concern in light of the recent actions of the General Convention and the subsequent nomination of candidates "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on Communion" (General Convention 2006, B033).

At this meeting we expressed our appreciation for his post-convention reflections, "Communion, Covenant, and our Anglican Future," and were especially interested in his statement about whether "elements" in Provinces not favorably disposed to adopt the Anglican Covenant "will be free ... to adopt the Covenant as a sign of their wish to act in a certain level of mutuality with parts of the communion."

Given our commitment to remain constituent members of both the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church, we are encouraged by our meeting with the Archbishop. We agree with him that our present situation is "an opportunity for clarity, renewal and deeper relation with one another - and also Our Lord and his Father in the power of the Spirit." We, too, share a desire to "intensify existing relationships" by becoming part of a "Covenanted" global Anglican body in communion with the See of Canterbury. We also pray and hope that "in spite of the difficulties this may yet be the beginning of a new era of mission and spiritual growth for all who value the Anglican name and heritage."

We understand the divisions before us, not merely differences of opinion on human sexuality, but also about differing understandings of ecclesiology and questions regarding the independence or interdependence of a global communion of churches in discerning the mind of Christ together. However, we also shared our concern that the actions of General Convention have essentially rejected the teaching of 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 as the mind of the Communion, and raise a serious question whether a Covenant will be adopted by both Houses at General Convention 2012.

At the same time we are mindful that General Convention Resolution D020 "commended the Anglican Covenant proposed in the most recent text of the Covenant Design Group (the "Ridley Cambridge Draft") and any successive draft to dioceses for study during the coming triennium" and invited dioceses and congregations to "consider the Anglican Covenant proposed draft as a document to inform their understanding of and commitment to our common life in the Anglican Communion."

Therefore, at this time we make the following requests of Communion minded members of the The Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion:

1. We encourage dioceses, congregations and individuals of The Episcopal Church to pray and work for the adoption of an Anglican Communion Covenant.

2. We encourage dioceses and congregations to study and endorse the Anglican Communion Covenant when it is finally released and to urge its adoption by General Convention, or to endorse the first three sections of the Ridley Cambridge Draft and the Anaheim Statement, and to record such endorsements on the Communion Partners website (

3. We encourage bishops, priests, deacons and laypersons of The Episcopal Church who support the adoption of the Anglican Communion Covenant to record such endorsement on the Communion Partners website.

4. We encourage dioceses and congregations, in the spirit of GC2009 Resolution D030, to engage in "companion domestic mission relationships among dioceses and congregations within The Episcopal Church."

5. We encourage Bishops exercising jurisdiction in The Episcopal Church to call upon us for service in needed cases of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight.

6. We encourage relationships between Communion Partners and primates, bishops, provinces and dioceses in other parts of the Communion, in order the enhance the ministry we share in the life of the Communion.

7. We invite primates and bishops of the Communion to offer their public support to these efforts.

+Mark J. Lawrence, South Carolina
+Gary R. Lillibridge, West Texas
+Edward S. Little, II, Northern Indiana
+William H. Love, Albany
+D. Bruce MacPherson, Western Louisiana
+Michael G. Smith, North Dakota
+James M. Stanton, Dallas

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Taking Counsel

I have had this information for some time, and was never asked to embargo it. Nonetheless, it seemed best to wait until the event was actually in progress. It now is.

Seven diocesan bishops of the Episcopal Church are presently at Lambeth Palace for a brief--but, I'm sure, intense--consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. All seven are members of the Communion Partners, and all seven are signatories to the Anaheim Statement.

I have no inside knowledge of the subjects under discussion, but it doesn't require any eavesdropping equipment to figure out that they're talking about how Dr Williams' "two tier/two track" plan might actually get implemented. More specifically, it is a safe bet that each of the seven is interested in what steps a diocese might have to take to remain on Tier/Track One even as TEC per se is assigned (consigned?) to Tier/Track Two.

The Archbishop's schema is going to happen; of that I am more certain than ever. It will happen too quickly and too decisively to suit the ruling party in the Episcopal Church. It is long since past happening too slowly and too subtly to suit those in what had been TEC's conservative wing, and who are now part of the GAFCON-ACNA axis. But the Archbishop has behaved with utter consistency and coherence since the advent of this crisis in 2003, and there is no reason to think he will deviate from that path now. He will never send the Presiding Bishop an email saying, "The tracks have been assigned. You're in #2." He will say something like, "Here's the Anglican Covenant. Churches that adopt it as their own will remain in full communion with the See of Canterbury."

The General Convention, of course, will never do so. In time, the consequences of that decision will be seen in the form of invitations to Primates Meetings that never reach 815, and registration materials for the Anglican Consultative Council that never make it to TEC's chosen delegates. It will not come with a bang. It won't even be a whimper. It will simply be the sound of silence.

The wild card in the mix, of course, is the ACNA. Despite the word "Anglican" in their title (and on the signs in front of their churches), it could be plausibly argued that the ACNA, technically, is not Anglican. Not yet, at any rate. But they are aligned with GAFCON, which represents the overwhelming majority of the world's actual Anglicans. So they are part of a matrix that is capable of putting immense political pressure on Lambeth Palace. I suspect the seven bishops and Dr Williams are discussing this fact as well.

So I pray ... and wait ... and pray. Like my bishop (one of the seven, of course), I have neither an intent nor a desire to separate from the Episcopal Church. I also have neither an intent nor a desire to be in anything less than full unhindered communion with the See of Canterbury (read: Track One). There is, admittedly, some tension between these twin commitments. I am looking for a way to honor both of them, and have hope that the next step in such a way is having a light shined on it by what's happening in London right now.