Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loving the Saints

This essay was written for, and now appears in, the November 1 issue of The Living Church.

I don’t know precisely where “All Saints” ranks on the list of most-popular names for Episcopal churches, but I suspect it’s near the top. Anglicans tend to look on All Saints’ Day with a considerable degree of affection, and W.W. How’s text “For All the Saints” (set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ tune Sine Nomine) is widely popular. Most congregations avail themselves of the rubrical permission to observe this principal feast on the Sunday following, so it is adorned with whatever embellishments local custom assigns to festival occasions.

Beyond that, however, I think it’s safe to say that the saints don’t have a particularly prominent place in popular piety among a great many Episcopalians and other Anglicans. This is no doubt partly attributable simply to indifference and lax catechesis, and partly to an innate reactivity —inbred among Christians influenced by the Reformation tradition—against what some perceive as excess devotion to the saints among our Roman Catholic cousins (“praying to” particular saints depending on the nature of the petition).

In any case, we are spiritually — and, I would dare say, theologically — impoverished as a result. This was brought home to me pointedly in a recent conversation I had with a longtime friend and former colleague, an Episcopal priest who has now become Eastern Orthodox. It was fallout from the recent unpleasantness within Anglicanism that set him on this path — I have never known anyone with as much of an “Anglican soul” as this man — but he has embraced the ethos of his new church family with discipline and enthusiasm. He worships in a parish under the patronage of St. Nicholas of Myra. He told me he has pondered the question of what he would miss most from his short time in Orthodoxy if for some reason he were to return to Anglicanism. (He doesn’t anticipate doing so; this is a spiritual exercise.)

His response? “I would miss Nicholas.”

My friend went on to tell me how the icon of a parish’s patron saint is always placed in the same prominent position in the ikonostasis, the row of icons that screens the altar area in an Orthodox church. From worshiping in that space, receiving Holy Communion week by week under the gaze, as it were, of St. Nicholas, he knows himself to have developed a relationship with the saint. Nicholas is more than just an interesting historical personage to him, more than a hero of the faith whose example is worthy of emulation. He is each of those things, of course, but he is also much more: Nicholas is a member of the family. My friend went on to say unashamedly, “I love Nicholas.”

I have had similar moments of spiritual insight. When I was a seminarian in the mid-to-late ’80s, I often practiced preaching in the graveyard. Though I never got a response from anyone in the “congregation,” I did over time feel like I “got to know” many of them, one of whom was Jackson Kemper, the great missionary bishop who is featured prominently elsewhere in this issue. For more than 30 years now, I have been privileged to worship in communities — as a lay person, a seminarian, and a priest — where the celebration of the Easter Vigil includes chanting the Litany of the Saints en route to the baptismal font. We are, after all, at that moment on the verge of making a new Christian, about as radically presumptuous an act as could be imagined. We need all the help we can get! So we invoke the prayers of the entire Christian family, not only across space, but across time as well. No matter how many breathing human beings are present in the room, I never fail to sense the additional palpable presence of many more than can be seen, joining their prayers with ours as we once again witness the miracle of new birth by water and the Holy Spirit.

What I feel on the way to the font, what I felt preaching in the graveyard at Nashotah House, what my Orthodox friend feels when he’s in the company of St Nicholas, is nothing other than the truth of what we all profess whenever we proclaim our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. These are experiences of the communion (koinonia) of saints. Do we not sometimes gloss over this article of the creed? Yet, of all that we say at that point in the liturgy, these words may be the ones that have the most immediate practical impact on our lives. Both “communion” and “fellowship” can render the Greek word koinonia, but neither one is quite up to the task. Koinonia implies a relationship several degrees deeper and more intimate. It implies a relationship not just of admiration from a distance, but of love up close. How much richer and more satisfying our spiritual experience is when we broaden our horizon to experience the saints not only as heroes worthy of our study and imitation, but as family members whom we include in the circle of our love.

All holy men and women of God, pray for us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On the "Patrimony" of Anglicanism

Brother Stephen is a (Roman Catholic) Trappist monk who is a former Anglican (of the Anglo-Catholic stripe). I posted this link to my Facebook network, but it is, I believe worthy of wider circulation. He writes with what strikes me an uncanny perception of the ingredients than comprise the Anglican ethos ("patrimony," to use the jargon of last week announcement from Rome), and of the spiritual and mental moves that lie in front of Anglicans who may be tempted to respond affirmatively to the "personal ordinariate" schema. I am not myself so tempted, but I'm sympathetic, and I can understand its attractions to those who are.

In 2005, during my first and thus far only visit to England, I did attend Evensong at All Saints', Margaret Street, which made Brother Stephen's observations particularly poignant for me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Adventures in Ecclesiology, Part II: The Priority of the Church

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

Check Out My Parish's Redesigned Website

We've just gone live with St Anne's Website 3.0 (it now appears among my links on the sidebar). I can't take any credit for it; it's the work of my multi-talented Assistant, the Revd Craig Uffman, who has labored heroically. Do take a look. I think you will find that it is visually attractive, intuitively functional, and exceptionally well-loaded with content. I'm proud to have it as the showcase window for St Anne's.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Bridge Across the Tiber?

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

Adventures in Ecclesiology (Part I): Prospectus

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

A Shamanic Moment

One of the simultaneously bitterest and sweetest responsibilities of a priest is to bury the dead. I did that, once again, this morning, and, once again, I was amazed at how capable the Prayer Book liturgy is of "bearing the freight" of that sort of occasion. If allowed to do so, it simply does precisely what needs to be done, and I'm so glad I'm not in an ecclesial tradition where funerals have to be invented from scratch each time.

I was particularly struck this morning by something that has never occurred to me before. It has always been my practice to walk in front of the casket all the way out of the church, not stopping at the door and letting the pallbearers go it alone from there, but leading down to the sidewalk and standing by until the door is closed on the hearse. No one ever told me or taught me to do it. It just seems right intuitively.

This is one of those moments of priest-as-shaman. Please, I'm not trying to incite a cyber-riot by suggesting a parallel between pagan and Christian "priestcraft," but ... well ... there's a parallel between Christian priestcraft in this context and what we might call "generic" priestcraft. When I lead the casket all the way out to the hearse, I am exercising priesthood for the sake of the deceased. I am in that moment no longer a teacher, or an evangelist, or a community leader, or a care-giver, and not simply a presbyter in the technical Christian sense. I am a priest, conducting a soul out of this world and through the portal to what comes next. My responsibility during those few steps is not to the grieving family, or other parishioners and non-parishioners present, but to the deceased, represented by his body. When the door of the hearse shuts, then I stand relieved, and turn my pastoral attention once again to the living. The Communion of Saints waves hello to me. "See you again soon," they say, as indeed they will. And someday I'll be the one that another priest escorts to that point and then hands me off to them. So this is good practice.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Slight Momentary Affliction

UPDATE: Thanks to an energetic friend, the link in my "links" sections now leads to a .pdf on GoogleDocs, rather than the blog, since there have been several requests for such. However, if you really like reading it on a computer screen, here's a link to the blog. Another energetic friend is in the process of finding several typos. These will be fixed in due course.

If you were following this blog about 15 months ago, you may recall my announcement that I had finished writing a novel, the working title of which is A Slight Momentary Affliction. Even when I started it, I knew the chances of it being published in the conventional manner were quite slim, and I reconciled myself to the probability that hard copy would gather dust in a closet somewhere, and my heirs would dispose of it upon my demise.

The advent of free hosted blog sites has provided a more attractive alternative. If you're interested, click on the link (eyes right, and a little down) called My Novel.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

De Trinitate

Tonight's regular Wednesday Eucharist at St Anne's was a votive Mass "Of the Holy Trinity." I gave something resembling the following as an extempore homily. Like I said, something resembling...

I certainly can't exhaust the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a brief homily. Volumes have been written on the subject, and they only scratch the surface. The one insight that comes to me--I hope, in answer to my prayers--tonight is to hold up our trinitarian language about God--the language the Christian community uses to talk about God--as a sort of "canary in the coal mine." (This image, of course, comes from the old practice of coal miners, realizing that canaries are more sensitive to dangerous gases than humans, taking a canary down into the shaft with them to serve as an early warning system for potential hazards.)

Even though passages like tonight's gospel from Matthew 28 (the Great Commission) use language that seems compatible with full-blown trinitarian theology, it is a mistake to read that theology back into those passages. The fact is, it took the Church more than 400 years to sort out how we speak of God in trinitarian terms--or, more precisely, how we don't speak of God in trinitarian terms, because this is one area of theology that is done pretty much by elimination: We discerned/discovered ("were told," actually, by the Holy Spirit, but that's a faith statement) that "this" is not how we can speak about God, and "that" is not how we can speak about God, etc. etc. So, whatever is left after eliminating all the demonstrably false articulations of the mystery is what's available to us. That becomes the raw material for our theologizing. And what we are left with is "one God in three Persons": Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of the things our trinitarian language for God reminds us of is that the God we worship is not a concept, not an abstraction, not merely the idea of a Supreme Being. Rather, we worship a particular God. This is something our polytheistic forbears (even our polytheistic Hebrew forbears; Psalm 29 tonight mentions "gods") could see more easily than we can through our staunchly monotheistic lenses. In the Daily Office, we've been reading through II Kings. Recently, we read how, after the Assyrians deported the population of the Northern Kingdom, the settlers sent in to replace them were beset with plagues. The Assyrians just figured they didn't know how to properly worship the (particular) God of that land, so they sent back a priest from among the exiles to teach them how to do it! And when the LORD appears to Moses in the burning bush (tonight's reading from Exodus), he stresses the particularity of his identity: "I am the God of your fathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." It wasn't just any God that Moses was dealing with, not simply a deity, or even The Deity. No, it was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, as St Paul would add, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the God, and no other, whom Christians worship and serve.

So, the language of our trinitarian theology--the words we use to talk about God, and, by implication, the words we don't use to talk about God--serves as a boundary, a fence. It reminds us of the particularity of the God who is the object of Christian worship, because, left to our own devices, we will very quickly generalize our experience of God into vague abstractions. I know that, to many, trinitarian theology seems arcane and fussy, something professional theologians may get excited about, but which doesn't have any real impact on the real lives of ordinary Christians. Yet, this is precisely where it functions as the canary in the coal mine, because whenever we get the urge to jump the trinitarian fence, the canary keels over. Church history is full of examples of individuals and groups ignoring or contradicting orthodox trinitarian language. When that happens, nothing but turmoil and schism result. It never ends well.

Of course, ultimately the Trinity is not a doctrine that we must understand, but a God whom we must worship. So let us get on with that job, and worship the glorious and undivided Trinity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

More Dispatches from the Hymnal 1940

Today, in my regularly-scheduled prayer time (yes, I know that sounds a little weird) at the console of the mighty Rodgers, I held a conversation with the Holy Spirit with Hymns 253 through 262 (fr0m the section "Missions") in front of us. It was a time of nostalgia for me. According to one of the characters in the AMC TV series Madmen, nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions a person can experience. It signifies the vestigial presence of an old wound, a bittersweet feeling, the call of a place and time that one yearns to go back to, but can't.

Hymn 254 is "From Greenland's icy mountains...". The text is from the great missionary bishop Reginald Heber (part of whose legacy is that he has several namesakes who went on to distinguish themselves in Anglican ministry--more than any other single person I am aware of). He died at the age of 49 (by definition, prematurely, IMO) while Bishop of Calcutta.

I can remember attending a service in an Episcopal parish in the mid-1970s where this was used as the entrance hymn. It was not unfamiliar to me from my Baptist upbringing, so I did not think it strange. Yet, even then, among the avant garde of missiologists, it would have been considered anachronistic at best, and quite possibly racist. Despite being one of the most popular hymns of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and America, it was eliminated from the Hymnal 1982, and one can scarcely imagine a setting in which it would be used today.
From Greenland's icy mountains,
From India's coral strand,
Where Afric's sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand.
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error's chain.

Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation, O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has 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 nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
Why? Because the paradigm that it assumes is now clearly a relic of the past. Both British and American society are rushing headlong into post-Christian secularism, while the gospel has taken hold and is flourishing by "Afric's sunny fountains," among other places. The image of souls in "heathen" lands "calling" missionaries (per the Madeconian who appeared to St Paul in a dream) from "Christian" countries is no longer even plausible, let alone compelling. There are other objections as well, but let's first look at another of the genre, "Remember all the people...":
Remember all the people
Who live in far off lands,
In strange and lonely cities,
Or roam the desert sands,
Or farm the mountain pastures,
Or till the endless plains
Where children wade through rice-fields
And watch the camel trains.

Some work in sultry forests
Where apes swing to and from,
Some fish in mighty rivers,
Some hunt across the snow.
Remember all God's children,
Who yet have never heard
The truth that comes from Jesus,
The glory of his word.

God bless the men and women
Who serve him oversea;
God raise up more to help them
To set the nations free,
Till all the distant people
In ev'ry foreign place
Shall understand his kingdom
And come into his grace.
These lines are from the pen of Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), a distinguished English priest, liturgist, and advocate for social reform. I don't remember this one from my growing-up years, and I can't say for certain that I have ever been present when it was used in an Episcopal service, though I definitely remember singing it (and chortling while doing so) in the Lutheran congregation in which I sojourned for a while en route to Anglicanism.

The anachronisms present in the Heber text are grossly magnified in this one. It bespeaks a world where it was still possible for something to be exotic, a possibility that information and communication technology has now pretty much done away with. It exemplifies a naive occi-centrism that is now not only very much out of fashion ideologically, but not not even plausible (the "apes swinging to and fro" line makes me laugh still).

So, from whence comes my nostalgia? First off, I enjoy the tunes (Missionary Chant and Far Off Lands, respectively). But I realize that my growing fondness for all-things-Victorian as I advance into my dotage is an anomaly, and not widely shared. Beyond that, however, I miss the unashamed passion for evangelism that is present in these hymns. Strip away all the intimations of cultural imperialism, and what shines through is an honest and fervent conviction of the universality of the gospel. The mysterium fidei is honest-to-God good news for all people in every place and in every time. There is no hint of forcing it on anyone; despite all the attempts at constructing a counter-narrative to the great era of European and American missionary endeavor, we're talking about genuine heroes here. (Reginald Heber lost his life to the exotic climate and micro-fauna of India more than to anything else.) They purveyed the gospel through acts of love and gentle persuasion. And there is certainly no hint of syncretism or universalism of a different sort--no "I'll take my road and you take your road and we'll meet at the peak." That era understood that to know Christ is to live in light and to not know Christ is to live in darkness, and they were passionate about bringing people to know Christ.

In fact, according to the Hymnal 1940, at least, mission is virtually synonymous with evangelism. It's a great thing to dig wells and build schools and make micro-loans to people in developing countries, but all that is an adjunct to mission, not mission itself. Mission is when you are in a position to say to someone, "May I tell you about Jesus?"

We need some new missionary hymns that don't make us laugh (though I think I won't like the tunes nearly so much as the old ones). But perhaps we need to first recover a passion for worldwide evangelism. A little resurrected Christian triumphalism wouldn't be such a bad thing now, would it?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

An Annoyed Rant...

...against the Revised Common Lectionary.

I'm trying to be a good sport about this. I really am. I was opposed to its adoption, single-handedly stalling it on the floor of the House of Deputies in 2003 and failing to do so when it was brought up again in 2006. (No always means 'No for now' while Yes means 'Yes forever'.) But there's no core theological or moral principle at stake here (not at long as we have the two track option for the first reading, at any rate), so, per my ordination vows, I use the ****** thing.

But as I begin to prepare my homily for All Saints Day (which actually falls on Sunday this year), I am reminded how, the more I use the RCL, the less I like it. Let me count the ways (the ones that affect me right now, anyway):
  • 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?

I am left wondering whether the framers of the RCL even understand what All Saints' Day is, what its history is, and how it relates to the following day (All Faithful Departed in the BCP, known popularly as All Souls). Have they fallen into the trap of conflating the two (along the lines of the para-Christian Latino observance of El Dia de los Muertes)? Do these lections contribute to the blurring of the appropriate distinction between November 1, when we honor the heroic holiness of those from whom we are inclined to request prayers on our behalf, and November 2, when we remember more ordinary departed Christians for whom we are more inclined to offer prayers on their behalf? The readings from Wisdom 3 and Revelation 21 seem more fitting for the latter than for the former.

Anyway, back to sermon prep. I must play the hand I've been dealt. I will actually come up with a sermon based on these readings.


The Holy Spirit is always faithful in my homiletical ministry, I have found. But I'm not a happy preacher at the moment.

Keep Moving ... Nothing to See Here

Anglican cyberspace is abuzz this morning with the release of a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Central Florida Bishop John Howe, which is in response to a request from the leadership of that diocese for Dr Williams to more specifically outline a process by which dioceses may adopt the Anglican Covenant even if the provincial church of which they are a member fails to do so. The Archbishop commends Central Florida's endorsement of the three sections of the covenant document that are presently actionable, and then adds that, technically, only provincial churches of the Anglican Communion can adopt the covenant. The reason is that, at present, it is the Anglican Consultative Council that "owns" the covenant, and that body is constitutionally capable of dealing only with its own members, which are the 38 provinces of the communion.

This news is being spun--on both the hard left and the hard right--as a setback to the initiative of the Communion Partners and the signers of the Anaheim Statement. It is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It's not even news, since this is precisely what the Archbishop told the seven CP bishops who visited him a month ago. Dr Williams is just stating the facts, as dull as they may be.

He is also being utterly consistent with his previous words and actions. (Rowan is nothing if not consistent.) In order for the covenant process to have any integrity, the document must first be offered to the provincial churches. I believe a good case can be made that the Episcopal Church has already materially rejected the covenant in advance of its promulgation by General Convention's adoption of B025 and C056; I have made that case myself. But it has obviously not yet done so formally, and it is on formalities that we must stand in situations such as this.

By rejecting the covenant, as I believe will happen in 2012, TEC will, per the Archbishop's consistent schema, be relegating itself to the second Track/Tier of Anglicanism--that is, "associate" status. It is only when that happens that the actions of dioceses such as Central Florida (with others to follow, I have no doubt) enter the game. There will then be a solid basis on which Rowan and the other Instruments of Communion to recognize "endorsement" as de facto "adoption," and maintain the fullest sacramental communion with endorsing dioceses (and, one hopes, parishes that are under the non-geographical oversight of bishops from endorsing dioceses). The Archbishop's letter to Bishop Howe pretty well says as much. You don't even have to dig between the lines; just moving a few leaves and twigs will suffice.

This letter is not a "development," and is nothing for anyone to stress over.