Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bored With the Book of Common Prayer?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (II Timothy 4:3-4)

These verses of scripture certainly can be—and have been—used as a cudgel to beat up on one’s ideological foes, and most often, I suspect, in disputes between professing Christians. It is not my intention to weaponize them once again. Yet, they do mean something, and that phrase “itching ears” has long fascinated me. It bespeaks a propensity—one that all people share, I would say—to look and listen selectively, paying attention only to those data that tend to corroborate our prejudices and bolster our inclinations.

Having itching ears is less of a problem for some sorts of Christians than it is for others. The followers of Harold Camping, having been assured that all churches are apostate, are at liberty to scratch their itch by divesting themselves of their worldly goods in anticipation of being caught up in the air to meet Jesus barely 72 hours from when I write. Others—Anglicans, for example—are by definition accountable to an array of constraints that make treating the itch more of a challenge. We have scriptures, creeds, sacraments, and liturgies that the current generation did not invent, and which all—of whatever stripe of ideology or churchmanship—agree cannot be lightly tossed aside.

Lightly, that is.

From time to time—more frequently now that I am a bishop—I find myself in situations of corporate worship with other Episcopalians. Whether it’s sitting in a pew on a rare Sunday off, or attending a meeting or conference or the like, I have come to expect that what I find when I step into the worship space will probably not be a straight-from-the-book BCP service. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. On occasion, it’s one of the authorized supplemental texts from Enriching Our Worship, but not often. And, of course, there is the unauthorized but widespread informal emendation of Prayer Book language to render it more palatable to various sensibilities (“And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever…”, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord”, “Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel [and Leah]”). But I’m not actually talking about this sort of thing either (although, arguably, it deserves to be talked about).

No, what I have in mind are worship services that are cobbled together not quite on the spur of the moment, but almost. They appear on a printed sheet or booklet, so presumably some amount of thought has gone into them. They’re not exactly confected from whole cloth, because very often they incorporate substantial material from a Prayer Book rite (“Scenes from Morning Prayer,” some of them might be called). But they are almost invariably at a time of day for which there is an appropriate Prayer Book office. So, one wonders, why not simply use what we have? From whence comes the need to tinker?

Two factors immediately suggest themselves. One is a fairly widespread aversion in some quarters to traditional liturgical language that is considered sexist and/or patriarchal and/or insensitive to non-western cultures and thought patterns. The other is a practical concern to integrate worship with the particular objectives or ethos of a conference or retreat.

I wonder, however, whether a major contributing factor, and perhaps the major contributing factor, is simply … boredom. Itching ears. We are an over-stimulated society. We are addicted to constant change. Popular culture (music, fashion, entertainment media) is in a state of continual flux. Technology evolves so rapidly that the cycle of obsolescence keeps getting shorter and shorter. “Yesterday’s news” is no longer a euphemism but a literal descriptor. Should it be a surprise that people who exist in, and are formed by, secular culture would carry their conditioning with them into the councils of the church?

Of course, the status quo is not always worthy of acceptance. The fact that we see so much amateur DIY worship at church functions is indicative of the generally low level of knowledge of the inherent character and telos of liturgy, as well as formation in the praxis of liturgy, even among those who are supposed to be the stewards of the church’s worship (i.e. bishops and presbyters). Mind the (Catechesis) Gap, we might say. Only the gap is more like a canyon.

So it’s an uphill struggle, but, I hope, worth the effort. I don’t expect much to change any time soon. But as we begin to collectively “get it” that we live in a post-Constantinian age, that our mission (yea, our survival) depends on our developing effective counter-cultural strategies and language and intellectual habits, perhaps our liturgical tradition will be more widely appreciated for the anchor that it is. Perhaps it will someday be seen as not quite so boring. Perhaps it will even be known to be balm to our ears.

Friday, May 06, 2011

What's the Buzz About?

My regular Friday prayer time (an adaptation of Ignatian Meditation this week), led me to Luke 3:15: "As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ."

John's preaching is creating a buzz among Palestinian Jews. "Is this perhaps the Messiah?" They were jumping to an erroneous conclusion, of course, as we can see clearly in retrospect and as John tried to warn them even in the moment. Yet, a "buzz" doesn't happen from nowhere, out of nothing. It depends on a pre-existing widespread hunger, a common yearning. In the case of John's contemporaries, it was for a deliverer who would lead them in throwing off the yoke of Roman political oppression and restore Israel to its Davidic glory days. 

The key component in the Church's mission is to emulate John the Baptist, to be an heraldic community, to be creators of a buzz. (In the vocabulary of the Lewisian Narnia metaphor, "Aslan is on the loose!") But if we're to create a buzz effectively, we need to have a deep intuitive grasp of the public hunger, the common yearning, that will support such a buzz, that will give it wings, and let it "go viral." 

What is that hunger for our contemporaries in this society? I don't presume to have a definite answer. Or even a preliminary one. But this I do know: Whatever it is, it's something that we (Christians) share. It's something we already feel. So we would do well to pay some focused attention to our own deepest longings, because therein will be revealed the linchpin to our mission, our capacity to emulate John and point the way to Jesus.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Some Rapturous Responses

So ... did you know somebody is (once again) actually putting a date on the upcoming end of the world, aka Judgment Day? I ran across a guy on the radio a few days ago as I was scrolling through the AM dial on a road trip. Then I saw a billboard. And then I found the website

It's pretty soon, too. Check it out.

Wow. One thing's for sure: Somebody's going to have egg on their face by the time June rolls around. 

As it happens, I got a request from a former parishioner, a student at an evangelical Christian college, to help out with a class assignment requiring that two pastors be interviewed regarding what they believe and teach about eschatology. I thought it might be interesting to share the questions and my responses.

1 .    Please define for me the following terms and what you or your church believes about each: What they are?  When they occur?  Who is involved?

Rapture – This word is not in the vocabulary of the Anglican tradition. It is not found in Scripture, nor in the historic tradition of the Church.

Millennium – This word is not in our theological vocabulary either. We would tend to interpret the details of the Revelation to St John poetically, while embracing the broad theme that “God wins” in the end, and we find our fulfillment in worshiping him eternally.

Kingdom – The Kingdom of God (aka Kingdom of Heaven) is, quite simply, “wherever God rules.” In theory, this is everywhere, though God may allow rebellion against his rule to prosper for a time. In the end, as mentioned above, God wins.

Heaven – In a sense, Heaven is both “here and now” and “then and there.” It exists wherever God’s reign is recognized and welcomed. In every experience of love, forgiveness, and unity, there is a glimpse of Heaven. Ultimately, God’s reign will be fully and universally acknowledged, and the saints of God will know him even as they are fully known. This is Heaven.

Hell – As with Heaven, Hell is both “here and now” and “then and there.” It is a condition marked by the absence of God, the condition of those who persistently reject God’s grace. One might hope that, in the end, Hell will be unpopulated, but it is at least a logical necessity as long as one upholds the notion of free will.

Great White Throne – A poetic term used in Revelation, traditionally not of any theological significance.

Judgment Seat of Christ – An expression that occurs in the Pauline epistles, and since used from time to time in Christian liturgy, denoting the creedal affirmation that Jesus will return to “judge the living and the dead.”

First Resurrection – Not part of our vocabulary.

Final Resurrection – Ditto. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds affirm the “resurrection of the body.” Beyond that, we don’t put too fine a point on the matter.

2.     Which position best describes your church or individual belief about the return of Christ?

Pre-millennial return of Christ             Post-millennial return of Christ

A-millennial return of Christ                Preterit view of the return of Christ

None of the above. The “millennium” just doesn’t figure. We simply believe that Christ will return in glory, that he will judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

3.     Which view best describes your church or individual belief about the rapture of the church?

Pre-Tribulational Rapture                   Mid-Tribulational rapture

Post-Tribulational Rapture                 Pre-Wrath rapture

Partial Rapture

Again, none of the above, for similar reasons. The historic tradition of biblical interpretation and Christian theology sees both “millennium” and “tribulation” as apocalyptic poetry, not as literal realities.

4.     In your view or the view of your church explain in detail the meaning of the following terms:

Day of the Lord—A rich expression that occurs in both the Old and New Testaments that denotes the “end of history,” time as we know it morphing into eternity, or, as C.S. Lewis describes it, the Author bringing down the curtain on the play.

Second Coming of Christ—Closely related to the above, perhaps thought of as the incipient event in the sequence that could be subsumed under “Day of the Lord.”

Sheep/Goat Judgment—A parable in Matthew 25 that talks about the blessings that will occur to those who welcome Christian missionaries and the misfortune that will befall those who reject them.

Millennial Kingdom—Not an expression of theological significance.

Eternal State—Although I might guess what this means, it is not a term I am familiar with.

5.     Do you believe that a person’s or church’s view of the end times has any practical significance in the life of a believer?  If yes…please explain what?  If no…please explain why?

Yes, but probably in a limited sense. One of the cardinal Christian virtues is Hope. A lively faith that, while the middle of the story may be a complicated mess, the story nonetheless has a happy ending, is a major foundation for Hope. For one at peace with God, contemplation of “the end” is hope-filled.

6.     How significant is eschatology to the teaching ministry of the church which you lead?  How significant is eschatology in your teaching in the home?

It is significant at the time of year when it comes to the foreground in our liturgical calendar—namely early Advent and the two or three Sundays prior (i.e. mid-November through early December). Outside of that time, eschatology operates in the background while other themes take turns in the foreground.