Sunday, November 05, 2006


For nearly the last five years, I have been a fairly frequent poster on the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv (HoBD--sometimes pronounced "hobdee"). I suspect that my involvement there is pretty much behind me now; times have changed. But I continue on my quest for what some have termed the "alpha issue"--that is, the single criterion that can reliably sort those who are (at least) generally happy about the direction the Episcopal Church has been moving ("liberals") from those who are (at least) generally unhappy about it ("conservatives"). For instance, a little over a year ago, there was a long thread about the various sorts of disabilities people can be born with or later acquire, and whether they should be considered tragic, or unfortunate, or in any way signs of the presence of evil in the world. To my fascination, that question, which would not seem to be tied in any way to the controversey over sexuality, was a dead-on accurate reflection of the liberal-conservative divide. Liberals saw disabilities, whether congenital or the result of illness or accident, as God-given, and therefore considered it poor form to assume that a blind person would rather be sighted or a deaf person would rather hear. On the other hand, conservatives saw disabilities as signs of the Fall, conditions that can be presumed to be within the heart of God to heal.

All the attention recently being paid to the investiture of the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the interviews she has given and the statements she has made, have reminded me of my quest for the alpha issue. I don't think I've found it yet, but I have another candidate, a clash of paradigms that enfleshes the chasm that first world Anglicans stare at each other across.

An autobiographical tidbit would be in order here. I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I was raised in an affirmatively Christian home, but it was of an evangelical Protestant variety. While I am hugely grateful for my early Christian formation, it did tend to inculcate a hyper-individualistic perception. We were concerned with how "I" get saved and you "you" can get saved, but there was very little "we" in the mix. Moreover, salvation had an exclusively other-wordly connotation. This present world was pretty much something to be endured on the way to Heaven. By the time I was in high school (mid-to-late 1960s), the evil of racism began to appear on our church radar screen, as did the moral imperative of benevolent engagement with the victims of urban poverty. For the most part, though, passion for social issues (whether liberal or conservative--remember, my evangelical days pre-date the "Christian right") is not in my genes. I have to work at it.

Consequently, my life as an Episcopalian--working on three-and-half decades--has alway been marked by constant chagrin over the public policy resolutions passed by General Convention. It's not only that I disagree with the vast majority of them on the basis of their actual content, which I do. It's that I am opposed to any public policy resolutions as a matter of principle.

There are two reasons they bother me. First, it seems to me that there are precious few concrete political issues about which Christians of good will and an informed conscience cannot legitimately disagree. For church conventions to pass resolutions about such issues creates winners and losers. It fosters resentment, embarrassment, and cynicism on the part of those whose consicentiously held and not inherently unchristian political views are officially trashed by the church they are attempting to joyfully serve.

Second, and more profoundly, such resolutions bespeak a fundamental attitude that I believe is flawed at the core, and this is where the new Presiding Bishop's public comments both make my blood run cold and clarify things for all of us. She speaks of trying to create "God's realm" and helping bring about "God's dream," and then proceeds to describe "God's realm" (formerly known as God's Kingdom) as a world where everybody has adequate food, clothing, education, and freedom from violence. One is tempted to add, "with liberty and justice for all." It's the old nineteenth century Social Gospel dusted off and propped up--you know, the gleaming vision that died a slow death in the trenches of World War I, the one where it's up to us to "usher in the kingdom," to "build Jerusalem" amid the "dark satanic mills" (per William Blake) of industrial and now post-industrial society.

This is, in my ever so humble opinion, a dangerous attitude, at least if one is purporting to speak for any branch or brand-name of Christianity. The scriptures make it clear that the vocation of the Church is to announce the kingdom ("Aslan is on the move") and to model the kingdom ("look at us for a sneak preview of coming attractions"), but that making the kingdom happen is God's work, subject to God's timing and God's methods. There are parables all over the gospels about how the kingdom of God is like something that just happens, with little or no human initiative or involvement.

In this dangerous way of thinking, there is little attention paid to the paschal mystery, the kerygma, because there's no need for it. This is why the classic notions of redemption and discipleship were so lacking from the Presiding Bishop's investiture sermon. The onus is on us, the Church, to "produce" the "realm of God," and to the extent that we fail to do so, our worship, teaching, evangelistic efforts, and the like, are of no avail. They are means to an end, and the end has not been produced.

Ultimately--and this may be my evangelical roots showing--the vision articulated by Bishop Katharine is not only misleading, but terminally boring. There is nothing in it that raises my pulse or makes me want to sing. A yawn is about all I can muster.


Chip Johnson+, SF, CoJ said...

Fr. Dan,

An inspired picture of TEC and the world we inhabit. I am a cradle Episcopalian, who pastored in a pentecostal church for almost 25 years, then returned 'home' in 1998. What a shock! We survived (my new bride was NOT from a liturgical background, so was not shocked quite so much) the transition back to my home parish in E TN fairly well.
When I retired in 2003 and began traveling to volunteer and camp wherever , we ended up in South Dakota and were called into Mutual Ministry by a mission congregation. To cut to the chase, after reading for Orders for several years, our bishop refused to proceed with my ordination as transitional deacon (I was too conservative and old-line orthodox for him or the mentor priest), so we left and began an Anglican use mission, and took profession vows as a third order Franciscan.
My conflict is between: should we have stayed and fought for right teaching, or should we have left and established another avenue for right teaching?
My heart is heavy, especially after watching the 'installation' three times, trying to find good.
I, too, have followed the threads on the HobDee list for serveral years as a kibitzer, trying to learn the mind of the delegates, in fact, have responded to several of your postings over time.
Dan+, where do we go from here? Is orthodoxy and orthopraxis finished in the Episcopal Church, or is there still a ray of hope?

Anonymous said...

I suppose my comment on Schori's recent sermons--

--marks me for an unreconstructed evangelical merely enduring the world and too heavenly minded to be any earthly good--but there it is.

But seriously, I believe it is simply not possible for the Church to pursue this-wordly "peace and justice" UNLESS it is previously and primarily engaged in evangelization, converting the lost to faith in Christ by the preaching of the cross. ECUSA is trying, but it is dwindling before our eyes, and this year its grand effort for changing the world is reflected in 0.7% of its budget being devoted to the MDGs. The good things for which Schori rightly longs (but of which ECUSA will produce only pale imitations) is the fruit of the Spirit. Good deeds are the FRUIT of the Gospel. If we set out to produce fruit but leave out the Gospel--well, "as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in Me."

plsdeacon said...

Fr. Dan,

While ushering in God's Kingdom is God's task, the task of proclaiming God's Kingdom is ours as well as the tasks listed in Matthew 25. They are God's work - given to us to perform.

All too often, we are given the false dichotomy between Gospel Proclaimation (on the conservative side) and Alleviating poverty and sickness (on the liberal side).

The truth is that alleivating poverty and sickness, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and setting the captives free are all part of, and evidence for, Gospel Proclaimation.

The Strength and Courage to do these tasks comes from the Holy Spirit and they cannot be done and will not be successful in the long term unless we do them in the power of the new Life given to us by Jesus Christ.

Deacon Phil Snyder

Anonymous said...

Fr. Dan,

Admittedly I'm cynical about the current TEC leadership, but I wonder if the MDGs are sort of a 'lowest common denominator' mission goal, in the sense that no one can really argue with feeding the hungry, clothing and housing the poor, etc. KJS and friends may also believe such a goal could help unite the TEC; similar to how people with diametrically opposed theologies can all help in the same soup kitchen.

Any mission statement with even a whiff of discipleship/evangelization would be rejected by the influential Integrity wing, the Father Jake fans, etc, thus is a non-starter. On the other hand, as much as some of the aging boomers would like to relive the frisson of the civil rights movement in the current same sex blessing/marriage issues, and put the TEC at the forefront of that and other progressive causes, the leadership rightly recognizes that this would remove any hope of the TEC remaining in the anglican communion, and probably would put membership into a death spiral. That pretty much leaves some form of the social gospel as a raison d'etre.

Daniel Martins said...

To Chip Johnston--

You ask, "Is orthodoxy and orthpraxis finished in the Episcopal Church, or is there still a ray of hope?" Good question. I would say, not *yet* finished, but heading that direction, and I don't see much evidence that the course is reversible. I say not "yet" because it is still possible to worship in an orthdox manner using the official liturgy of the church, and it is possible to teach, preach, and conduct one's life in a manner consistent with that liturgy without running afoul of canonical discipline, although that is getting iffy. In the long run, however, I tend to see TEC as a provisional entity. There will be a new Anglican Covenant drafted. Lambeth 20008 will adopt it and commend it to the provinces for opting in or not. GC 2009 will choose "not." Then TEC will become "Anglicans Emeritus" and there will be a new Anglican province in America.

To Jean and David Gustafson--

Jean, your comments are plausible, I think. Your theory (MDGs as "lowest common [mission] denominator" in a fractured church) reminds me of Presiding Bishop John Allin's "Venture in Mission" initiative in the 1970s, following the divisive 1976 convention that approved both a new Prayer Book and the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. I don't recall that it was particularly successful at unifying the church. Of course I have no problem with the MDGs. They are worthy goals and rightly command the attention of all people of good will, Christian or not, "people of faith" or not. What gets me worked up is when TEC leaders portray them as the very icon of mission, the measure of the church's faithfulness to its missionary imperative. As David correctly points out (and I suspect Phil would probably agree), they have no meaning *as* Christian mission apart from the presentation of the crucified and risen Christ and an invitation to repentance and faith and baptism.