Wednesday, May 26, 2010


096 Gus' Chair 2 

Today is the (lesser) feast of St Augustine of Canterbury. He was the Roman monk who was sent to England by Pope Gregory (“the Great”) in 597. He established a mission in the kingdom of Kent (the seat of which is now known as Canterbury), re-established contact with the indigenous Celtic church that had been living in isolation for 150 years or so, and became the first Archbishop of the new episcopal see of Canterbury. Rowan Williams, the present incumbent, is the 103rd in succession to Augustine. The chair pictured above sits near the east end of Canterbury cathedral and is known as “Augustine’s throne,” but, I’m told, actually dates only from the thirteenth century (Augustine died in 604, on May 26).

A thousand years (and more) after Augustine, as British imperialism led to colonialism, the church over which Augustine and his successors exercised pastoral oversight grew and evolved into an international family of churches that share the ecclesial ‘DNA’ known as Anglicanism. This family now exists in 39 autonomous provinces, numbering almost 80 million, and with a significant presence on every inhabited continent. It is the third largest Christian communion, behind Rome and Orthodoxy.

It is probably no secret to anyone reading this that the Anglican family is under an enormous amount of stress in recent years. There are powerful centripetal forces at work, and substantial fractures have appeared in the Anglican communion that are widening daily, in direct proportion to the recession of any plausible hope of their being healed. Canterbury itself, including the words and actions of Archbishop Williams, is at the epicenter of this conflict. Some have questioned—or even overtly rejected--the enduring value of Augustine's chair as a sign and focal point of Anglican unity.

I have generally been a supporter of Rowan Williams. He possesses a combination of frightening intelligence and manifest holiness that is the hallmark of not just a good pastor, but a great one. My admiration is not unqualified, and I am among those who are disappointed that he has not responded more quickly to articulate the “consequences” (his word) for the behavior of my own church (the Episcopal Church, of the “mostly USA” variety), which has intentionally veered away from the norms of our communion’s common life. Nonetheless, regardless of my personal opinion of the present occupant of the see, today’s commemoration reminds me of the vital importance of Canterbury as one of the “instruments of communion” for Anglican Christians.

In our creeds, we profess that the Church is “apostolic.” In our baptismal vows, we affirm fidelity to the “fellowship of the apostles.” Yes, without Canterbury, we would still have the historic episcopate (a chain of bishops-in-succession that can be transparently followed back to the original apostles) as a sign of our visible connection to the church that was “born” on the day of Pentecost. But it’s alarmingly easy to reach an abstract and mechanistic understanding of “apostolic succession” that leads to such anomalies as episcopi vagantes—in effect, bishops without churches. A healthy catholic ecclesiology certainly includes bishops in historic succession, but it also includes something more organic and more dispersed throughout the whole community of the faithful, a succession not simply of apostolic bishops, but of apostolic churches. The element of ecclesial security that a connection to Canterbury provides is simply this: the church of Canterbury is a church that is not just old, but was itself established by a church that was founded by not one, but two, apostles: Ss Peter and Paul. Canterbury is the token of the apostolicity of my particular church. Being tied to Canterbury is not magic. It guarantees nothing in and of itself. But, as part of a system of connections and reference points, it is invaluable, and ought not to be tossed aside, even for reasons that, in the thick of present but ultimately passing conflict, appear weighty.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Update on the Pax Nashotah

The sturm und drang of Anglicanism seems quiet of late, but it’s a deceptive calm. It’s not a good kind of calm. The disintegration quietly continues but the contending parties have long since pretty much quit talking to each other. They wonder what the point is. Meanwhile, average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church continues to skydive. The leadership of the Global South appears to be at odds within itself over whether it’s even a worthwhile aspiration to maintain the institutional and organic integrity of the worldwide (Canterbury-based) Anglican Communion. There’s a spat over the incumbency in an American seat on the Anglican Consultative Council. The Anglican Mission in America announced just days ago that it is stepping back from integration into the Anglican Church of North America, a major disappointment for many. And, of course, a week after a controversial episcopal consecration in Los Angeles, the deafening silence from Lambeth Palace drapes like a funeral pall over the hopes of those who long for a communion reconfigured and revived by a documented covenant.

This past week, I journeyed once again to Nashotah House, my seminary alma mater of 21 years, for Alumni Day and Commencement. I wrote about the same trip last year, and am pleased to report that I picked up the same vibe once again, possibly even amped up a tick or two. My enduring mental snapshot this time includes a thoroughly mainstream centrist TEC bishop walking in procession next to a former TEC bishop who is now, in the official eyes of TEC top leadership, deposed from the ordained ministry. Such details didn’t seem to matter. A Canadian bishop was awarded an honorary degree, the retired Bishop of Rochester (Church of England) preached the finest graduation homily I have ever heard, at Nashotah or elsewhere, a priest from Malawi received an advanced degree, students from the ACNA and the Reformed Episcopal Church got their MDivs alongside their TEC classmates, and alums who have left Anglicanism itself for Rome and Orthodoxy made their spiritual communion and participated with enthusiasm in every part of the liturgies save their denouement.

To paraphrase a question that should be familiar to my Baby-Boomer colleagues: What if they gave a schism and nobody came?

I am very grateful to God for Nashotah House. For a brief shining moment at this time each year, it is an eschatological sign of the answer to that question.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Religion

Sadly, I am fluent in only one language, and will probably go to my grave in that lamentable state. I can carry on basic conversation (as long as everyone speaks slowly) in Spanish or Portuguese, and can credibly give you the gist of a newspaper article in either of those languages. I can read signs (for the most part) in French, and could probably do so in Italian, though I haven’t really tried. A basic knowledge I have of how German works, but scanty my vocabulary is. I’ve picked up a bit of Latin from studying music, and retain a smattering of Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek from my seminary work.

So while I haven’t actually gone deep in any language other than English, my exposure is broad enough to enable me to draw some important generalizations. One of these is that different languages are not just different vocalizations for the objects and actions that are common to human experience. They are different ways of thinking, different ways of perceiving our common experience (which leads one to question how much of our experience is actually common). When Americans (for example) hear someone who is still learning English try to speak it, we find their mistakes amusing, and while we are perhaps likely to chuckle at their errors of word usage more than their errors of syntax and grammar, it is the syntactical and grammatical errors that tell us most clearly that we’re listening to someone for whom English is not a mother tongue, because syntax and grammar are the discernible signs of how the speakers of any given language perceive and process their sensory and interior experience.

So while one may study comparative languages quite fruitfully, doing so leads inexorably to the realization that one is actually studying comparative systems of thought, and eventually to the even deeper realization that one cannot fully comprehend any system of thought except from the inside, by taking the risk of “going native,” surrendering any pretense of objectivity.

But while I am an amateur philologist (in the strict etymological sense of both those words), I am not a linguist, and this post is not really about comparative languages. I’m setting up an analogy, which I wish now to apply to religion, and to “comparative religions.” Just as a linguist learns that one can take objective comparison only so far, and that comparative study is actually likely to yield deceptive results unless one subjectively enters another language and the system of thought that it represents—in other words, that there is no such thing as a genre we can call “language”, of which the various actual languages are mere speciations—so there is no such thing as a genre we can call “religion”, of which the various individual “religions” are mere speciations. Indeed, I think it is arguable that there is no such thing as “religion.” We can speak meaningfully of phenomena known as Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Taoism, or Zoroastrianism, etc. etc., and comparative analysis of these phenomena may be fruitful to a point. But only to a point. Eventually, one hits a brick wall, and in order to fully comprehend Buddhism, one must subjectively embrace Buddhism, from the inside. A non-Buddhist may be able to make some true statements about Buddhism, but can neither fully understand Buddhism nor explain it.

Here’s a glaring example of what I’m talking about. In the late nineteenth century, historical and literary criticism, in tandem with ascendant empiricism, seemed to be setting explosive charges to the very foundations of Christianity. In America, a movement among some east coast Protestant scholars gained momentum in response to these developments. In time, they published a series of articles that affirmed what they called the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (virgin birth, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, to name the big ones). The movement they initiated began to be known as “fundamentalism.” It was not a populist movement in its origins; it was led by learned academics at mainstream institutions. What they professed varied in no substantive way from what anyone who says the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed with uncrossed fingers also professes.

A generation later (mid-1920s), “fundamentalism” went lowbrow, and the movement became known for embracing not just the creedal verities, but a hyper-literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and a six 24-hour day Creation, thus acquiring a patina of intellectual obscurantism and a generally pugnacious spirit. Still, the appellation “fundamentalist” made sense only the the context of Christianity; it was not a phenomenon that anyone would have thought to correlate generically with “religion.”

Fast-forward now to the late twentieth century, and the rise of activist militant Islam. Academics of a “comparative religion” stripe, with the eager cooperation of thoroughly secularized journalists who were largely ignorant of the history of American Christianity, noticed within Islamist quarters the traits of intellectual obscurantism and general pugnacity that they associated with the Christian “fundamentalists” that they believed themselves familiar with, and wasted no time coining the phrase “Islamic fundamentalism.” That they would be so quick to do so, and that the public would consider it appropriate for them to do so, is a testimony not only to their historical ignorance and intellectual laziness, but is clearly incoherent to anyone who has ever made a serious effort to learn another language. There is Christianity and there is Islam, but Christianity and Islam are not only not the same thing, they are not the same sort of thing. Failure to recognize the inherent limits of a “comparative religion” approach leads invariably to a failure to understand either Christianity or Islam.

So, from the perspective of everything I have written thus far in this post, I’m entirely sympathetic with the spirit behind a Facebook group that one of my “friends” announced to the world today that he “likes”: Christianity … It’s not a religion. It’s a relationship. I have effectively disavowed any claim that Christianity is “a religion,” because I’m not sure there is such a thing as “a religion.” And I can certainly affirm wholeheartedly that Christianity is about relationship (not just “a” relationship, actually, but a network of relationships).

But now I’m going to flip, and turn my laser in the opposite direction.

I had a Facebook friend request today from somebody I don’t know. The request is in the holding tank while I discern what to do. We have one mutual friend, someone whom I revere highly, so there’s a good chance this person will get the green light. But when I looked at the profile, I saw under the category of Religion (yes, Facebook apparently thinks there is such a thing) that this person identifies as “spiritual.” He has plenty of company, apparently. “Spiritual but not religious”, some surveys indicate, is the fastest growing self-identifying category, especially among the Millennial Generation (late teens and twenties, at present). It’s cool to be spiritual—that indicates both personal depth and commendable open-mindedness—but suspect to be religious, which indicates narcissistic and closed-minded judgmentalism. (I’m going to leave aside for the time being the whole question of what “spiritual” can even coherently mean apart from the concrete practices that constitute Wicca or Candomble or Confucianism, but it’s a big question.)

Even among many professing Christians, there is an aversion to the term “religion”—hence, the Facebook group referenced above. With some, even “Christian” is eschewed; the new hip label is “Christ-follower.” There’s even a video that parodies the Mac-is-cool but PC-is-nerdy ads: “I’m a Christian … well, I’m a Christ-follower.” Christ-followers are, by implication, SO not religious.

If so, then they’re missing something quite valuable. Christianity may not be a species of the genus “religion,” but that is not to say that there are not dimensions of Christian faith and practice that are quite clearly religious. The Latin stem in the word “religion”—lig—denotes binding, tying together, unifying, making coherent (the same connotation as there is in “ligature”). There are things that Christians do that not only testify to their identity as Christians, but serve to form them more deeply as Christians. Habits of public worship, private prayer, devotional practices, evangelism, stewardship, study, fellowship with other Christians, and service (ministry)—these are all elements of religion. One can hardly conceive of what it would mean to be a Christian apart from these things. They are what bind us to Christ, to one another, and to our true selves. Religion is an eminently valuable and positive word that we (Christians) should not blithely surrender to the semantic refuse bin. Christianity may not be “a religion.” But to be a Christian is most assuredly to be “religious.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Liturgy and Worship: A Distinction With a Difference

I have from time to time offered the opinion that when Episcopalians and other Anglicans—and Christians in general, for that matter—are finished wrangling over sex, we will resume fighting over the mode and manner of our public worship, a conflict in which, taking a historical view, we have considerably more experience. But there will be a new twist this time. Instead of the Brain-Dead Anglo-Catholics in one corner, and the Snake-Belly Low Evangelicals in the other, it will be organs, hymnals, and choir cottas in one transept glaring across the nave at guitars, microphones, and Power Point projectors in the other.

I’m not in any way suggesting that the sexuality war is over. Sadly, there’s a lot of unexploded ordnance remaining on both sides of the divide there. But we are, I’m sensing, in a bit of a lull—the eye of the storm, perhaps, but a lull nonetheless. There will no doubt be “developments” in the wake of next Saturday’s consecration in Los Angeles, and the operational tempo may pick up. But, for whatever it may be worth, I’ve noticed, over the last few weeks, some ardent conversations being had in Anglican cyberspace on the subject of public worship—from the language and texts we use to speak of God, to the songs we sing when we gather, to the physical mechanics by which we access those texts and those songs. The subject never lies very far beneath the surface.

I’ve got a whole bunch of ideas knocking around my head en route to becoming wise and insightful and erudite observations. But they’re mostly still gelling, not yet ready for prime time. So in this post I’m going to confine myself to a small bit of rhetorical prep work—you know, the tedious process of sanding and putting down masking tape before indulging in the rush that comes from cracking the seal on a can of paint.

The canons of the Episcopal Church state that it is the duty of every member of the church to participate, “unless for good cause prevented,” in public worship on the Lord’s Day. “Worship” is a broad category. It is a genre of human activity that is not even uniquely Christian; Jews and Muslims, at least, have a notion of God and a notion of worship that is sufficiently parallel to what Christians mean by “God” and “worship” that a disinterested observer could be forgiven for concluding that assemblies of Christians and assemblies of Jews and assemblies of Muslims are essentially doing the same thing, just in different ways. I have very little training in either anthropology or sociology, but I feel pretty safe in suggesting that human beings demonstrably have an innate urge to worship. Many have achieved great success in resisting this urge, but the urge is nonetheless there.

The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), which carry the weight of canon law, go even a bit further than the canon cited above (“On the Due Observance of Sundays”). They specify that the Holy Eucharist in particular is “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.” Now, while it may be possible to speak of the Eucharist in abstract terms if our goal is to address the fine points of sacramental theology, sooner of later any consideration of the Eucharist must come to terms with the particular forms by which a particular community in a particular place actually accomplishes the act. In others words, we eventually have to talk about liturgy. There are myriad liturgical forms for the celebration of the Eucharist. Some are highly complex and some are disarmingly simple. Some are ancient and some are recent. Some prescribe every detail and some lay down only the broad strokes and allow a great deal of improvisation. Some are formal and some are casual. One may argue, as some have done eloquently and elegantly, that there is a basic inherent “shape” to the Eucharistic action, but even within the confines of such a shape, the possible variations are virtually endless.

In casual conversation, most Christians who have an interest in the subject will find themselves using “worship” and “liturgy” almost interchangeably. But a great many people are apt to do the same with alligators and crocodiles, toads and frogs, ostriches and emus, llamas and alpacas. At one level, such distinctions appear meaningless. If you’re a baby wildebeest hydrating on a riverbank, it doesn’t much matter what species of predatory reptile inhabit those waters; you’d just better be careful. But if you’re a sweater manufacturer shopping for yarn, you definitely want your merchandise to come from an alpaca and not a llama.

I would suggest that, before we can engage in any fruitful conversation on any aspect of either liturgy or worship, or both, we need to acknowledge the distinction between the two.

Worship, as I have posited, is an inherent—some might say necessary—human activity. It can be corporate and it can be private. Not all worship is liturgy. Worship can be very authentic and very powerful—and very emotional—without being liturgy. In the ‘90s I attended a couple of Promise Keepers events. On such occasions, it is the job of a team of musicians to lead a stadium full of men in worship through singing together. I remember being impressed with how masterfully they went about their task, using carefully chosen and carefully sequenced songs to raise the level of adrenalin (and, in that venue, probably testosterone as well!) and then orchestrate a soft landing of quiet reverence before the emcee introduced the next speaker. There was definitely Christian worship going on, facilitated by skilled leadership. But it was not liturgy. Not even in the same neighborhood.

Here’s another very well-done illustration of what I’m talking about:

Interestingly, this is a nineteenth century “standard” workhorse of a gospel song—one which was firmly embedded in the repertoire of my Baptist youth—with both the text and tune preserved intact while being recontextualized with the instrumentation and vocal style of a currently popular musical idiom and some fresh harmonies just discordant enough to be ethereal, used to great effect. This is, I would say, authentic Christian worship, and, again, nothing even close to Christian liturgy.

Liturgy, at its etymological heart, is a job, a task, a service. When the liturgy at hand is that of the Eucharist, it is the job of the gathered community to re-member itself, to put itself back together. And the “self” that it re-members simply by coming together is, of course, the Body of Christ. By proclaiming the Word of God, and by taking, blessing, breaking and giving “the gifts of God for the people of God,” the eucharistic community rediscovers afresh each time its identity as the Body of Christ. It participates—has koinonia, “holy communion”—in Christ.

In order to accomplish this work, the liturgy of the Eucharist bears a particular form and shape that has multitudinous expressions, but an essential character that has been passed on for two millennia. Those who are stewards of the Church’s liturgy (clergy and musicians, mostly) perform their work most faithfully when they allow the liturgy’s own inherent form and shape, its rhythm, pace and momentum, to take the lead in making decisions regarding choreography, use of space, posture, gesture, and, of course, music.

It is tempting, powerfully tempting, for these very stewards to view the form and shape of the liturgy as a sort of flatbed truck on which they can load the freight of various agendas. These agendas can be musical, or pastoral, or catechetical, or aesthetic, or political. They are almost invariably good and proper things, activities and ministries that the Church is rightfully engaged in. But at the moment they are allowed to trump the liturgy itself, to eclipse its proper character and shape, its momentum and flow, they become trespassers, interlopers, invaders.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I would contend that even worship itself can become one of these trespassing agendas. I realize that may seem ludicrous on its face, and I am not in any way suggesting that worship is unimportant, or even of secondary importance. But when the Church gathers on the Lord’s Day, its “work” is not merely to worship in some generic sense, it is to perform the liturgy of the Eucharist, and in so doing, to worship the triune God. Our particular task on Sundays is to offer a certain kind of worship, worship that is disciplined by the liturgy.

Any perceived conflict between worship and liturgy is, of course, an illusion. The liturgy is certainly a vehicle of worship, and a splendid one at that. But its purpose is not merely to serve as a means to the end of worship. It is itself a proper end (though ultimately, of course, a contingent one), compatible with the end of worship, but not identical with it. At some point I will speak again of pipe organs and plainchant and praise bands and Power Point. But in considering those things, it will be essential to recall that while liturgy and worship may be siblings, they are not identical twins.