Monday, December 31, 2007

On Taking People at Their Word...

... or giving them the benefit of the doubt, or assuming they have honorable intentions.

In these waning minutes of 2007 (in the eastern time zone, as I write), it occurs to me that if I were to articulate a wish for the new year, it would be for the grace to continue forming the habit of assuming the best about people, particularly those with whom I am not inclined to agree. I want this for myself because it is the same charitable disposition that I wish others would exercise toward me. It is one thing to be disagreed with, and not necessarily a painful thing if I am persuaded that the one who disagrees with me actually understands my position, and that the disagreement is therefore honest, and not rooted in caricature or ad hominen or, worst of all, a "diagnosis" of some illness or character defect on my part.

Sadly, it is my experience more often than not that disagreement, especially in the ongoing discussions on the future of Anglican Christianity in which I participate in various ways, takes the form of rhetorical posturing, exaggeration, blame-shifting, and the ascription of ulterior motives and other such iterations of chicanery. This certainly happens across the great Reappraiser-Progressive / Reasserter-Orthodox divide (no news there), and it happens in both directions on a daily basis. It also happens within the Reasserter-Orthodox "party"--not only between the "FedCon" and "ComCon" camps, but even within them at times. There seems to be a social version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics at work here: Without constant maintenance, the "order" of relationships grounded in trust and charity inevitably disintegrates into the "chaos" of propaganda, spin, over-simplification, and entrenched positions, with everyone feeling like they're the victim of the other side's duplicity.

So, in 2008 (and beyond), I shall redouble my effort to say what I mean and mean what I say, and to expect what I say to be taken at face value. And I shall endeavor to extend the same courtesy to others, friend and foe alike. Our disagreements will, no doubt, continue, and perhaps even widen. But we will all go to sleep with a clearer conscience if we can train ourselves to start with the assumption that our interlocutors want nothing other than God's best for everyone concerned.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Nativity Lullaby

As a genre, the lullaby seems to attract more than its fair share of attention from composers who endeavor to set Christmas texts, and more than its fair share of attention from those who like to listen to Christmas music. (Perhaps the latter explains the former.) Those, like myself, who take a more compelling fancy to the theological red meat of the Johannine prologue and Ephesians 1 at this time of year (per the lectionary today) than to the over-sentimentalized meta-image of the Virgin Mother swaddling and nursing and singing to her offspring simply have to ... well, "get over it" at times, and just go with the flow of feeling evoked by the manger scene.

RVW pays obligatory homage to his lullaby muse with this text by the 17th century poet William Ballet. It is scored for women's voices and a relatively light (by Vaughan Williams standards) orchestral accompaniment, and is surpassingly lovely.

Sweet was the song the Virgin sang,
When she to Bethlem Juda came
And was delivered of a son,
That blessèd Jesus hath to name:
Lulla, lullaby.
“Sweet babe,” sang she, “my son,
And eke a saviour born,
Who hast vouchsafed from on high
To visit us that were forlorn.”
“Sweet babe,” sang she,
And rocked him sweetly on her knee.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Singing Suns and Shining Songs

Next up from the text of the Vaughan Williams Hodie--this from the 17th Century priest and poet George Herbert, whose devotional poetry is possibly the most sublime in the English language (with Donne and Herrick breathing down his neck). Any more commentary than this risks detracting from his art.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.

Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.

I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost_nipped suns look sadly.

Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

God's Choice

The text of the Vaughan Williams Hodie alternates between narration--straight from the Authorized Version of the Bible and sung by unison treble voices--and poetic commentary, drawn from a variety of sources. Today's snippet is from Miles Coverdale, a sixteenth century Church of England bishop who is best known as a translator of the scriptures. His version was the standard English text until the commission appointed by King James I completed its work in 1611. Coverdale's translation of the Psalms found its way into the Book of Common Prayer, and is what you will hear at Evensong in English cathedrals to this day.

This poem presents us with mystery compounding mystery. The Incarnation is astonishing enough just in itself. But to assay the notion that is was an elective procedure taxes the nimblest imagination.

The blessed son of God only
In a crib full poor did lie;
With our poor flesh and our poor blood
Was clothed that everlasting good.

The Lord Christ Jesu, God's son dear,
Was a guest and a stranger here;
Us for to bring from misery,
That we might live eternally.

All this did he for us freely,
For to declare his great mercy;
All Christendom be merry therefore,
And give him thanks for evermore.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity

More from the libretto of Ralph Vaughn Williams' Hodie, the 1958 cantata for chorus, treble voices (i.e. boys), portative organ, and full orchestra (with an impressive array of tuned percussion, in typical RVW style). He uses two excerpts from John Milton's Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity (I have left in the archaic spelling; it's not hard to decipher)--one toward the beginning of the work and one toward the end. I share the first one here and will post the other in due course during the Twelve Days. Look here for Milton's full text; it is well worth slow reading and meditation.

IT was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav'n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around,
The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hookèd Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armèd throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

But peacefull was the night
Wherin the Prince of light
His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Windes with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmeèd wave.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Music geek that I am, I often encounter great poetry through great music. For several years running, my favorite Christmas music is Ralph Vaughn Williams' cantata Hodie, which includes this moving text from Thomas Hardy:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Yet More Ecclesiology (not impoverished)

With his permission, I pass on the following from Fr Tony Clavier, a priest of the Diocese of West Virginia. If you are not aware of his bio, he served for decades at top levels in one of the "continuing Anglican" jurisdictions before--at some substantial cost in terms of prestige, at any rate--he was received into the Episcopal Church in the late '90s. I mention this only to underscore that he has some experience with the search for "purity" in church life.

I'd like to suggest a couple of things:

The first is that we are easily dragged into consumerism and sectarianism, consumerism because we want a church which meets our expectations and sectarianism when we contemplate the other offerings available in our American shopping mall version of Christianity.

This is by no means the first time in which Christians have found themselves in a notably corrupt part of the Church. In comparison with some bishops in the past the Bishop of New Hampshire is boringly moral and the antics the church would wish to wink at, or even privately or not so privately bless, small beer. This doesn't mean that we should sit still for what is happening. Far from it.

However I think we should think it possible that we are not at the end of the story or anywhere near the end of the story. It would be tragic if we put the book back in the bookshelf before reading the next bit in which restoration and revival comes, unexpectedly, from the "edges" as +Rowan puts it, rather than from the center of power. You may even be that "edge".

What makes us so special that we should not find ourselves in this part of the church at this time of suffering? Or perhaps we are special enough that God has called us to witness to the truth in love in such times as these. That's the consumerism part.

The sectarian part is to buy into TEC's self description that it is merely a denomination among many from which we may pick and choose. Perhaps Rome, Western or Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps Lutheranism seem attractive in this bewildering shopping mall version of Christianity. But if TEC is what she once thought herself to be, the Church, locally expressed in mission, then as long as she clings to the bare necessities of what we once called Churchmanship dare we abandon her for something which seems to fill our needs and meet our expectations?

Perhaps I am an old romantic but I look on you all as part of what God is about and doing in his Church in the midst of the years. And I believe that the strategy God would have us adopt is to faithfully preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments in those "places" where the Church locally has settled herself (that's the old-fashioned post-Constantinian aspect of things) and at the same time find ways to network into a deeper and more authentic spirituality (that's the earlier church strategy). I am convinced that when this happens the essential winsomeness of the Gospel, the assurance of Christ's presence and the sufferings of the Spirit's people work together for good. We may not witness an enormous difference in our lifetime. That doesn't matter a bit. And that is all the differentiation we dare attempt for dwelling on that subject too much places us in danger, the danger of an arrogance which is perhaps more destructive than sentimental heresy.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eighteen Years

Somewhere in the middle of this holy huddle is yours truly, with lots of hands being laid on me on this date in 1989, with the unlikely petition to make me a priest in Christ's Holy Catholic Church. (Yes, I was ordained in the era of color photography, but for some reason this one is in black and white.) This evening, per my annual ritual, I will find the VHS record of the event and watch parts of it. I have found it a wholesome practice to periodically remind myself of the identity I allowed to be laid upon me that night, and the responsibilities I still bear as a result.

The bishop who ordained me, about five minutes before this picture was taken, charged me to (among several others things) "take [my] share in the councils of the Church." I seem to have done that much, at any rate, though some might say that I've taken more than my share! I could not at the time have foreseen blogging, but I surely do see this activity as part of my effort to fulfill that charge.

It is of no small significance, however, that when it came time to make promises and take vows, no mention was made of councils and conventions and committees. There was, instead, a great deal about accountability to authority, steeping myself in Holy Scripture, breaking open the love of Christ in Word and Sacrament, working hard and intelligently and cooperatively, living an exemplary life, and (saving the most important for last) praying my guts out.

I said Yes to all this, but I should have known better than to think I could actually do it. So St Paul's words to the Corinthians about "earthen vessels" have always been a comfort to me, because, as he says, such vessels bear veritable treasures, and though I don't feel like a treasure chest, I know that the ministry entrusted to me 18 years ago has borne treasures to people whom God loves and for whom his Son died.

This confidence is what will allow me, after watching a few minutes of video, to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ecclesiology Update

Apropos of my recent post regarding "impoverished ecclesiology," I invite those who are interested to check out this article by Ephraim Radner on the Covenant blog, which, along with the comments that follow, teases out some of the issues I tried to raise more briefly in my own post.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snowed In On Sunday

A priest is supposed to spend Sunday morning presiding at the Lord's Table and proclaiming the Word of God. You can see here how I spent mine today. The Dragonfly and I got back from a trip to Chicagoland about 9 PM last night, having driven the last 60 miles or so of the trip in moderate snowfall at about 45 mph. Predictions were for a couple or three inches of accumulation by morning. That much is possible to drive through, so I made plans to follow my usual Sunday morning routine and then blow off the driveway in the leisure of the afternoon.

Nonetheless, when I rolled out of bed at 6 AM, I immediately took a look out the front door and saw what looked like more than a foot of snow on the ground. So I slipped on some jeans and my new boots and fired up a snow blower for the first time in my life. It was actually kind of fun, and I put the driveway into usable condition in about 30 minutes.

I came inside, showered, dressed, and prepared to leave for church. But then I noticed that it was snowing again, obscuring the fruit of my earlier labor. I got a phone call from our Facilities Manager with the news that several Warsaw churches had posted cancellation notices on TV and radio stations. "Cancel church?!" I exclaimed. I had never heard of such a thing. "We don't do that." A minute later I noticed a car at the end of the block, right where I would need to be turning. It was stuck. The driver got in and out several times, fooling with the snow in order to clear a path. He was not enjoying any success.

Now, I can be very persistent. Dragonfly, who had by this time called the police department for a road condition update, inquired as to how how I intended to travel the two miles between the Rectory and St Anne's Church. "With my head planted firmly in the sand," I replied. (That's kind of an inside joke, but if you know me you can figure it out.) The sight of a stuck car half a block from my house was a stiff dose of realism, and I resigned myself to the reality that the early Mass would not happen, while remaining optimistic about the principal celebration at 10:15.

But it continued to snow. Harder and harder. Soon there was another eight inches on top of the driveway that I had just blown off, and close to two feet on the street. "Welcome to the upper midwest," I muttered to myself, thinking of other places I have lived, where such as thing as the weather preventing anybody from getting to church would be unthinkable. Sure, I've seen wind and rain cut Sunday attendance, but never eliminate it. Dragonfly asked if I wanted to yet alert the media that the 10:15 liturgy at St Anne's Church would be canceled for the day. "No," I replied. "We may not be able to get there, but we'll never cancel it."

She laughed at the apparent incongruity of my statement, as if to say, "What's the difference?" But there is a difference, a very important one. Martin Thornton writes in Christian Proficiency about the "art" of missing Mass on Sunday. Assisting (or presiding, in the case of a priest) at the Eucharist on the Lord's Day is a fundamental Christian obligation (and, I might add, usually a fundamental Christian joy). But sometimes it's an element of rule that is either trumped by a greater obligation (staying home to care for a sick child, for example) or is simply impossible to keep. It was indeed impossible for me or anyone else who doesn't live within walking distance to make it to St Anne's this morning for Mass.

But my sorrow is not that I worked on a sermon, the notes for which still sit on the pulpit/lectern, ready to assist in the preaching of the word for the Third Sunday of Advent. It is not because I and the whole parish have missed Sunday, but because we have missed a particular Sunday. This realization, per Thornton, is part of the "art" of missing Mass. The Third Sunday of Advent 2007 is a unique and unrepeatable event, and I am sad for having missed it. It plays a unique role (as every Sunday plays a unique role) in the rhythm of the liturgical year--in this case, in our communal preparation for the celebration of Christmas. In the economy of Divine Grace, I am certain the Holy Spirit will redeem this loss. But, for now, I feel it. I will not get to sing some of my favorite Advent hymns ("On Jordan's Banks," "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night," "Hark! the Glad Sound," "Prepare the Way, O Zion") this cycle; they'll have to be put back on the shelf until next year.

So, insofar as I can remember, for what is only the fifth time in the last 35 years, I have missed Mass on Sunday. I'm not happy about it. But I hope I've done it "well," in that I mourn not for an abstraction, but for the stillbirth of a unique event.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Impoverished Ecclesiology?

On at least a couple of posts in recent weeks, in writing of those friends of mine who are pointed toward the sundering of our common ties to the Episcopal Church, I have used the expression "impoverished ecclesiology" to characterize one aspect of their position. I have lately been challenged by one of those friends to expand on that thought in some coherent way--or else desist from such language! (He said it sharply, but affectionately.) It seems a reasonable enough request, though I must be brief and paint in broad strokes.

At its root, the ecclesiology to which I subscribe is simply basic Catholicism, which is to say that the Church is inherently a visible entity and not a mere spiritual abstraction. It has a spiritual and mystical dimension, of course, but that dimension cannot in the end be divorced from its institutional dimension. This indissoluble connection between--to borrow Aristotelian categories--the Church's substance and the Church's accidents pertains even moreso when its institutional superstructure misbehaves, and obscures the connection. The Church is always a corpus mixtum, containing within itself both "wheat" and "tares." At times, the tares may even be in the majority, but that does not make the Church anything less or other than what she is--the Body of Christ and the ark of salvation.

A Catholic ecclesiology is thoroughly organic. The root metaphors of the Church's life are biological--body, family, tribe, nation--rather than associative--club, party, company. One does not "join" the Church, one is grafted onto Christ and received into the family. One is born again in the amniotic fluid of the baptismal font where Holy Mother Church, having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, gives birth to new children. Once again, this pertains even when--especially when--the family is dysfunctional, and behaves in ways that not only mask but veritably contradict its true identity. We can't choose our parents; per Cyprian, the Church is our mother if God is our Father. Neither, then, can we choose our siblings, even if they are the blackest of black sheep.

It is a Christian's duty, then, to be faithful to the Church, because there is no other way to be faithful to Christ. There is no access to the Head but through the Body. And the body in question is not an abstraction; it is enfleshed and it is particular. And it may not be very attractive. It may feel alien and off-putting. It may be a source of shame and embarrassment. But, to use a currently overworked expression, "it is what it is." And it is the Church. I don't get to qualify my fidelity to the Body of Christ by insisting that she apply some deodorant before I get too close. If she acts like Gomer, then I've got to act like Hosea.

One may retort, of course, that there is a multitude of institutional manifestation of the Church, and this is patently true. There are at least two, and probably more, bishops within the historic episcopate whose territorial jurisdiction covers the ground on which I presently sit. (And there are hundreds of nearby Christian assemblies who profess no fealty to any bishop anywhere, but are nonetheless, in some sense, ecclesial in nature.) But only one of these bishops is my own, so it is through him and under him that I "do church." I happen to be currently pleased with that arrangement at the most local level, but my bishop, in turn (and I through him), participates in a web of discipline and accountability with other bishops and their dioceses that is institutionally incarnate as the Episcopal Church. It is through that particular web that my connection to Christ and to the Body of Christ is made concrete.

Another implication of a Catholic ecclesiology is what the Benedictine tradition calls "stability of place." This is not an absolute prohibition on ecclesiastical relocation, but, rather, an initial presumption in favor of the relationship one finds oneself in. There are valid reasons to move (at least I hope there are; I was not raised an Episcopalian!), but the default expectation is one of stability--staying home and dealing with the crazy relatives that I didn't get to choose.

To be more direct, the point here is that we--particularly those of us who are Americans or live in some other vigorous democracy or in a culture which treasures individualism--need to keep vigil against behaving as if the Church were a voluntary association of like-minded believers. There are Christians who believe this way, and Anglicans (speaking historically) have a word for them: Puritans. Today they are known as free-church evangelicals. It strikes me as ironic in the extreme to see Anglicans who loudly profess their adherence to Catholic faith and practice behaving as if the Episcopal Church is just one more "denomination" (yes, I know, TEC itself behaves that way, but that's another story, and on that, see above) that they are free to leave because they think the leadership is roundly messing up on the job (which assessment I fully agree with).

This is why I use the term "impoverished ecclesiology." The fact is, that despite all the detestable enormities of the Episcopal Church, her official teaching and liturgical formularies express the faith and practice of the Catholic Church. She is dysfunctional and rebellious and has literally forgotten herself. But that does not alter who she is. It is possible to lead orthodox worship in the Episcopal Church. I do so regularly. It is possible to teach sound doctrine in the Episcopal Church. I do so regularly, and I know lots and lots of places where it is done. There are thousands and thousands of ordinary Christians in the Episcopal Church who say the creeds without crossing their fingers and do their best to work and pray and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God. To paint them with the broad brush of apostasy and heresy is unconscionable. As long as the core identity of the Episcopal Church is that of the Body of Christ, and as long as she is in full communion with an historic See--in this case, Canterbury--then anyone who already is an Episcopalian faces a formidable burden of proof in justifying why they ought to abandon that church. A decent ecclesiology demands nothing less.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Late San Joaquin Buckshot

The departure of the Diocese of San Joaquin from the Episcopal Church has been the lead story in Anglican cyberspace since the vote was announced last Saturday afternoon. It hits me more personally than it does most others, for reasons that I explained here. With a distance of three days now, I'm ready to do some disparate debriefing.

I would have thought that, if the constitutional amendment passed, it would do so with a narrow margin—2 or 3 votes in the clergy order. As it turned out, the margin was some 12 votes. The number of vocational deacons—each of whom has a special relationship with and affection for the Bishop--in San Joaquin constitutes a real political wild card. If only presbyters had voted, the margin would have been much closer.

I caught the last five minutes or so of Bishop Duncan's after-dinner speech on Friday night, and it's possible that he's responsible for some aye votes. He is a very winsome speaker, quite compelling in a very soft and gentle and humble way. At times, he almost had me! But the mistake both he and Bishop Schofield make, as was pointed out during debate by one of the clergy, is to ignore or downplay the fact that "there are a great many good and godly people in the Episcopal Church." It is a fallacy on many levels to paint the entire Episcopal Church with the broad brush of its most radical members and leaders (including, of course, the Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council). This is precisely what my friends in SJ have done. It's a mistake to do so, but it's a very tempting and understandable mistake.

I like to think that, were I still there, I would have been lined up with the Nays, but to do so would have meant standing alongside those whom I consistently opposed on contested questions for all the years I was in the diocese, and I would have felt tremendous pressure (most of it internal) not to do so. I'm wondering how many others voted more out of response to pressure than out of conviction. And even having voted in the minority, I would, just to keep a paying job, feel pressure to go with the flow into the Southern Cone, and would probably have rationalized my way into doing so.

This is all very depressing and very disintegrating for me personally. I believe my former companions have made a tragic mistake, but at the same time I wish them well. They have an impoverished ecclesiology, but if their action has the effect of nudging the process (whatever that may be!) along a little further, then so much the better. In any case, I hope the significance of the vote margin is not lost on the Presiding Bishop or her staff or on Executive Council (or on the Archbishop of Canterbury, for that matter). The level of alienation toward the Episcopal Church in San Joaquin is astonishing. It was in the Red Zone a decade ago, and has only been escalating since. Even some who voted against the constitutional amendment are thoroughly alienated. Responding to alienation of that sort with blame-casting and clichés ("dioceses and parishes can't leave TEC, only individuals can") and canonical and legal maneuvers will represent a squandered opportunity of monumental proportions. Even the Pope did not excommunicate (i.e. take canonical action) against Elizabeth I and her subjects until 1570—eleven years after she failed to re-affirm her sister's "unqualified accession" to Rome. Maybe '815' can wait that long as well. Will what is happening, now in three dioceses, cause them to "get it"? Hope springs eternal.

As I hope is abundantly clear, as one on the "orthodox" side of the equation, I thoroughly disagree with the decision of my former diocese. It grieves me no end. I cannot see it as in any way righteous or just. Yet, I just as thoroughly affirm their right to make the decision they made, and believe it is one that should be respected. Denial and word games ("individuals have left") are no help, and only delay the happy issue out of our afflictions for which we all yearn and pray. The Diocese of San Joaquin has left the Episcopal Church. It's a done deal, and that's the basic fact that we should all have in mind as we consider what comes next. There are, to be sure, some details to be worked out with respect to those parishes and individuals who wish to remain connected to the Episcopal Church, some of whom will be exercising the promised "period of discernment." But what happened last Saturday is the most significant event in the history of Anglican Christianity since the consecration of Samuel Seabury.

But they haven't just left. They have gone to a particular place--namely, the Province of the Southern Cone. And Southern Cone is a province of the Anglican Communion, in full communion with the See of Canterbury. The Episcopal Church is also a province of the Anglican Communion, in full fellowship with Canterbury as well. As a priest of a diocese of the Episcopal Church, whose bishop has an invitation to Lambeth sitting on his desk, I am also in full communion with both Canterbury and the Southern Cone, and, hence, with my brothers and sisters in San Joaquin. To say that they have departed for "another faith community," as the Bishop of Lexington did in a letter released today, obfuscates and distorts the truth.

Finally, amid the calls for prayer and support on behalf of those in San Joaquin who have been "left behind"--calls with which I concur--let me observe that, metaphorically speaking, the "poorest of the poor" in this whole mess are those who are conservative in their theology and view of Christian morality, but who are nonetheless conscientiously unable to follow the pack to South America. They are by no means eager for the warm embrace of '815,' and are as embarrassed as anyone by the conduct of the mainstream of the church. To whom shall they turn? Who will speak for them?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Letter I Wish the Presiding Bishop Would Write to San Joaquin

Dear Anglican Friends in San Joaquin,

As you might imagine, I was quite disappointed with the vote of your convention to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. The overwhelming margin by which the constitutional change carried indicates a level of alienation from the elected leadership of our church that can only be described as alarming. I realize that the chain of events leading up to this moment is long and complex, but it's not necessary to rehearse that story now. This is simply a moment for acknowledging the sadness of this turn of events. The very heart of our Lord Jesus himself must be broken over our failure.

There is, of course, an honest division of opinion among us over the appropriate place of lesbian and gay Christians in the Church's life and work. You know my own views, and, so it seems, the prevailing view in the Episcopal Church, as indicated by the decisions of General Convention. Yet, I realize that, while your understanding represents a minority position within our Church, it remains a majority viewpoint within the larger Anglican Communion. While differing from those who hold this view, and even while I hope to contribute to its evolution in a more inclusive direction, I nonetheless honor it as normative at this time for all parts of the Anglican family of churches.

I wish you did not feel compelled to take the action you took today. It grieves me that you did. For my own share of responsibility in the breakdown of our relationship, I apologize. I should have been able to do more to dissuade you from reaching the conclusion that you had no other option. It is apparent to me that I and others have not made a sufficient effort to understand your concerns and to concretely demonstrate that understanding.

The history of Christianity teaches us that, while it is quite easy to rend the fabric of unity within the body of Christ, it is maddeningly difficult to repair such a breach. In the hope of repairing the breach that occurred at your convention, I am letting you know now of my resolve to keep the lines of amicable communication open between us. Accordingly, I am directing my chancellor to indefinitely desist from pursuing litigation against anyone in your diocese, or against any of its congregations or institutions. I will, for the foreseeable future, initiate no canonical action against Bishop Schofield, or any of the clergy of the diocese.

This is to say that, with the exception of providing pastoral care and episcopal oversight of a provisional nature to those congregations and members who wish to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church (in the interests of which we trust that Bishop Schofield will work with us congenially), we will simply not recognize your action for the time being. As far as I am concerned, we would love to seat the deputies you elected today when we gather in Anaheim in 2009, and Bishop Schofield will remain on the roll of the House of Bishops.

In the meantime, please know that I would receive very positively any invitation to visit your diocese with no agenda other than to listen. The Episcopal Church has obviously failed you, and I want to do everything within my power to put things right. I believe that the heart of God is passionate about the restoration of our relationship.

Faithfully in Christ Jesus,

s / Katharine

Friday, December 07, 2007

Jesus Saves: A Primer in Soteriology

As I post this, it is on the eve of the momentous San Joaquin vote, and it is probably dominating the radar screen by the time you're reading it. Nonetheless, when the dust settles from that a bit, I invite you to come back and take in what follows. It's another of those old seminary term papers from two decades ago that I came across recently. Eerily, it's perhaps more timely now than it was then, because underlying many of the divisions among Anglicans and other Christians today is a divergence of thought on just what we mean when we speak of Jesus as our "savior"--what is it he saves us from, what is it he saves us for, and how does he do it?

Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved, for your mercy's sake. Amen.
—Noonday Collect, BCP p.107
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation
by thy Nativity and submission to the Law;
by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation . . .
By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat,
by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension;
by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,
Good Lord, deliver us.
--from the Great Litany

The first question to be addressed in any examination of what it means to speak of Jesus Christ as “Savior” is a semantic one. The word, of course, is the customary English New Testament translation of the Greek soter; its cognate soteria is normally rendered “salvation”. A perusal of lexical entries for these words yields a fairly consistent theme of deliverance from an immediate peril, a situation of crisis, with a secondary connotation that any deity, leader, or prominent citizen can routinely be spoken of as a soter.
Reflection on the way “savior” and “salvation” are actually used in the English language today, however, casts doubt on whether the traditional “word study” approach will shed conclusive light on their theological content. We are accustomed to hearing “Ronald Reagan was the savior of the Republican Party in 1980” or “Eliminating mechanical defects will be the salvation of the U.S. space program” or “His academic saving grace is that he can read quickly” or any number of similar constructions. While these uses can, to be sure, be broadly understood as in etymological continuity with their Greek antecedents, they are much more sat­isfyingly interpreted in the context of the Christian culture of the last two millennia. Taking them out of an overtly religious setting only underscores their essentially religious roots. The pervasive influence of Christian thought on the development of our language and culture has effected a semantic shift, a role reversal. When used in a secular sense, “savior” and “salvation” function as metaphors, the literal meaning of which is none other than the person and work of Christ.
Another, perhaps more demonstrative, example of such a semantic shift is the way we use the words “crux” and “crucial” to denote something central and essential. The words are, of course, metaphors based on the centrality of the cross (crux) in salvation history. To understand or explain how Jesus is a savior, then, it is most productive to begin and end with him.
This is not to say, of course, that it is not necessary to “translate” the Church's theological articulation of who Jesus is and what he accomplishes into terms which connect existentially with the men, women, and children to whom the evangelion is addressed. But it nevertheless remains that the “saviorhood” of Jesus is not metaphorical, nor even merely participatory in a generic semantic notion of saviorhood. It is definitive, the source in which all other uses of the word find their meaning. The salvation which is offered to us in Jesus is not “like” being rescued from a burning building or a sinking ship. It is a unique category, which can inform and be reflected in experiences of deliverance.
One further preliminary remark (though not strictly a semantic one): Soteriology is one area of theology where the bounds of Christian orthodoxy are relatively expansive. The Church has always affirmed, in various ways, that “Jesus saves”, but she has never dogmatically defined precisely how. There is, therefore, a certain degree of liberty to be speculative.

One fundamental premise behind naming Jesus as Savior is that there is something which human beings need to be saved from. What is it? This is no incidental question, no mere formality. The way we understand the nature of the “problem” has a significant impact on the way we describe the “solution.” In approaching this question, one is confronted immediately with a deeply-embedded network of images and concepts which has dominated this area of theological inquiry (in the West, at any rate) since the Middle Ages. New Testament passages such as IPeter 3:18 (“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous ...”), 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (... there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all), and Revelation 5:12 (“Worthy is the lamb who was slain. . .”) are the foundation for this network. Its classic articulation is found in Anselm and amply perpetuated in all the traditions stemming from the continental Reformation. The central idea is expressed in several different ways, but is something like this: God's essential holiness is violated by humanity's sin, and this violation of justice inherently demands a compensatory satisfaction. Jesus, who is without sin, provides that satisfaction through his death on the cross. Such, then, is the “scholastic” theory of the atonement, sometimes known as the “objective” or “penal substitutionary” theory. It is, to be sure, not without its problems (which will yet be discussed), but it cannot be casually dismissed, for it is very well-grounded in scriptural and traditional sources.
Perhaps the chief problem with this theory lies in the high degree to which it is subject to caricature; one might call this the notion of Jesus-as-scapegoat. In this way of thinking, Jesus literally takes our place on the cross, enduring the penalty which each one of us, on account of our sin, deserves to suffer. Our sins are imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is considered by God as belonging to us. God's justice and righteous wrath are thereby (somehow) propitiated, and those who are positioned (through faith, sacraments, election, etc., depending on one's theological taproot) to be the beneficiaries of this transaction secure their eternal salvation.
This approach to the atonement, particularly its caricature, presents something of a moral and logical offense. Does it not satisfy God's justice precisely by perpetrating an injustice (the death of an innocent victim)? The sort of God who would be “satisfied” with such an offering is hardly likely to evoke a response of love and affection! Moreover, it is manifestly implausible. By what standard of reckoning can the death—indeed, the “temporary” death—of one man, no matter how innocent, possibly be said to impute righteousness to the entirety of the human race? Plainly stated: It does not make sense.
The problems which we have seen arise from the scholastic theory of the atonement, upon examination, can be seen as related to what is therein implied about the nature of the human distress. What is it that alienates us from God? What do we need to be saved from? The evident implication is that what we need to be saved from is juridical culpability—we are guilty o
having transgressed the divine law. Salvation, in this view, is a forensic transaction in which, by virtue of the vicarious death of Christ, we are adjudged, under the law, to be not guilty. In this conceptual framework, there is a certain reasonableness in the notion of substitutionary atonement. A sovereign God is presumably free to establish his own standards of guilt and innocence with respect to his law. If he is willing to accept the death of an innocent victim as adequate reparation for our infraction, who are we to question?
Although the efficacy of this transaction presumes the presence of sincere faith, it has no particular or necessary connection with the actual moral state of the individual involved. In other words (to indulge in cynicism), it is a legal fiction, a technicality. To be thus acquitted removes my legal culpability, but it does not take away my inclination to transgress the divine law at the first possible opportunity. Herein lies the real defect in the theory: not that it is illogical or immoral, but that it is ineffective. My alienation from God is illumined by but not defined by my legal guilt; indeed, quite the opposite is the case—my legal guilt is rooted in my alienation from God. God may choose to acquit me from my transgression of the law, but does that sort of acquittal truly effect reconciliation? Does it heal the breach that is the sure result of my inclination to sin?
Now it is true that the earliest paradigm for the Christian kerygma was the “forgiveness of sins.” A surface level understanding of this—forgiveness as “wiping the slate clean”—can certainly lead to a benign view of penal substitution. A deeper look, however, yields the realization that forgiveness is not synonymous with mere exculpation. It involves reconciliation of a much more radical sort. Such reconciliation comes to fruition only in the context of real moral change. It follows, then, that any satisfying explanation of the saving work of Christ must include the instrumental means for a lasting metanoia, a permanent re-orientation of the will and affections toward God. For this, we need to re-articulate the nature of the human predicament.

If forensic guilt is not the heart of our alienation from God, but yet forgiveness of sins effects reconciliation, how can we articulate more clearly what we are dealing with? We skirted the edge of a possible answer to this question above in the observation that reconciliation involves some sort of actual movement or change. There is something in the way we are that is not right, something that precludes communion with God. Here the concepts of divine holiness and human sinfulness which are integral to the scholastic atonement theory are pertinent and helpful, but with the qualification that it is our actual state of sinfulness, not sinful acts themselves, which separate us from God. Legal culpability, at this level, is at best merely indicative, and quite possibly irrelevant. Our problem lies in our fundamental habitual disposition. We are unholy. It is not a matter of God arbitrarily or willfully rejecting us on account of our unholiness—there is no element of retribution here—but a sheer incompatibility of being. The holy cannot exist alongside the unholy. This is our problem. The peril from which we require deliverance is our own unholiness. A salvation which offers us “forgiveness of sins” as forensic exculpation without also offering us holiness is, in the end, no salvation at all, but a triviality.
In this light, then, how is it that Jesus is our Savior? In other words, what is it in his “person and work” which results in our being made holy?
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis enunciates a theory of the atonement in which he conceives of Jesus as the “perfect penitent.” In order to be made holy, what human beings need to do is repent, to move “full speed astern” back to God. But the very condition which creates the need –sinfulness—inhibits our ability to do so. Only God has the ability to “repent.” Lewis does not explicitly mention the Trinity at this point, but it does seem that an appreciation for the communitarian dimension of the life of the Godhead aids in understanding the notion of “God moving toward God”. But as God, he has no need to, so his ability is irrelevant to our predicament. God's radical solution to this dilemma is the Incarnation. The incarnate Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, has the ability to repent, and, by virtue of his humanity, the ability to repent effectually. By living a life of unwavering orientation toward God, even to the point of obediently suffering an unjust death, he introduced something entirely new into the human milieu. Through faith and the sacramental life, we may enter into solidarity with this pattern and participate in the divine-human life of Christ. The repentance that we cannot accomplish on our own, we accomplish in solidarity with him.
Lewis's explanation has much to commend it. Significantly, it allows for continued use of the imagery of sacrifice and satisfaction which is associated with the scholastic theory of the atonement and is deeply entrenched in western Christian piety. Yet, it avoids the moral and logical scandal that this theory is susceptible to and deals unconvincingly with the real source of
human angst, i.e. unholiness. In typical Anglican fashion, it accounts admirably for the theological centrality of the Incarnation. In the interest of catholicity, however, is it possible to refine or expand upon the “perfect penitent” theory in a way hich would put it more fully within the context of the other elements of the paschal mystery?
The Swedish bishop and theologian Gustaf Aulen is renowned for an explanation of the atonement which he labels Christus Victor (in his works The Faith of the Christian Church and Christus Victor). Actually, it is his own refinement of what is known as the “classical” theory, which more or less prevailed from patristic times until the high Middle Ages. The governing paradigm for this view is the death of Christ as the culmination of a cosmic struggle between the Divine will and all the forces of Evil. As revealed by his subsequent Exaltation (of which the Resurrection is the primary manifestation), Jesus' death, representing as it does the synthetic fusion of God's love and God's justice, defeats Evil and effects humanity's reconciliation with God. In favor of Aulen, it can be said that Christus Victor puts discussion of the atonement in a cosmic and communitarian context which is not explicitly present in the “perfect penitent” model, but which is a significant motif in the broad sweep of the biblical witness. Moreover, its “classical” roots provide a welcome connection, not only with patristic thought, but with the entire Eastern tradition (to which the categories of the scholastic theory are somewhat foreign). It also attends directly to the Crucifixion/Resurrection (Aulen sees the two as inseparable) without neglecting the Incarnation. Indeed, Aulen seems to consider the Incarnation as, in a qualified sense, “incomplete” until the Crucifixion, inasmuch as the death of Christ is the fullest expression of God's incarnate love. But does Christus Victor—as articulated by Aulen, at any rate—deal with the essential malady of unholiness? To be sure, Aulen does devote considerable attention in his systematic theology to the work of the Holy Spirit, the life of grace, and the progress of the soul toward its end of union with God. But it is telling that he does so in a completely different section than that in which he enunciates his atonement theory. His consideration of the work of Christ is thus not integrally linked with life in Christ. Without suc hconnection, the way is left open for the re-emergence of a forensic interpretation of the divine/human estrangement, and, eventually, an exculpatory salvation that does not really save.
The selection of Lewis and Aulen for specific comment is, of course, more than a little bit arbitrary. When seen as mutually illuminating, however, the two models contain elements which are responsive to the practical nature of the human peril, the mainstream of Christian imagery and piety, and the totality of God's redemptive activity in Jesus Christ. Any coherent approach to soteriology must take serious account of at least these concerns (and, no doubt, several more as well).

As we began with a discussion of semantics, so it seems salutary (pun unintended but serendipitous) to end. The bulk of ecumenical conversation today—at least that which takes place on an official level—concerns itself with, and often seems bogged down in, matters of theological vocabulary. The polemical categories arising in the Reformation seem intractably still with us. Words like “justification” and “salvation” are among the perennial bugaboos. I would not presume to try and cut the Gordian knot, but some reflections specifically in light of earlier observations about the human predicament seem in order.
If the root of human estrangement from God lies in our sin-induced unholiness, then “salvation” lies in being made holy. We are speaking here not of a mere forensic holiness—a legal fiction— but of a fundamental and effectual moral transformation. For this to be accomplished, the imago dei which is fatally distorted by primeval sin, must be restored to perfection. The clear implication here is that salvation, so defined, is a process that occurs over time. It is best understood under the metaphor of organic growth. Strictly speaking, then, to be ”saved” is to be in a state of this process having come to fruition.
While the telos of salvation is the restoration of holiness and union with God, it is nevertheless possible and helpful to identify points and/or phases of particular importance in the process. The beginning of the salvation process (from a Catholic perspective, identifiable with sacramental initiation; other traditions would want to speak of a moment of “saving faith”) seems particularly worthy of note. At that time, a fundamental relationship is established, a trajectory is determined which, if left to its natural course, will result in perfect holiness. Salvation is as yet a hope, for it is not yet fully manifest, but the effectual seed is planted. This initial “moment” of being put “right” with God seems eminently worthy of the label “justification.” There is indeed a proper forensic element here, a sense in which the purely volitional intention of God, regardless of the absolute moral status of the individual concerned (“Just as I am, without one plea ...”), is the operative factor. To be justified is, in effect, to be “rectified”, to be “put right”. It seems that an inordinate amount of confusion and discord stems from the attempt to refer to this initial transaction as “salvation”, thereby investing the word with connotations of “quick fix” legal fiction.
In any case, whether one concentrates on the beginning of the path toward holiness, or on its end, the process itself must not fall by the wayside. The word “sanctification” commends itself at this point as a specific designation for the time-consuming process that takes place following justification. Indeed, quite literally, it means “to be made holy."
If salvation, then, is conceived of as the totality of justification and sanctification, it seems quite pointless to engage in the sort of faith vs. works arguments that seem so vexing even now. One thinks, in particular, of any dialogue involving Lutherans. Justification, so understood, is indeed very much by faith, and not based on works. There is nothing we can do to de­serve or earn it, or even to hasten or prepare for it. Sanctification, on the other hand, while ultimately the fruit of grace, is bound up with concrete acts of cooperation with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Our “works” can have a serious effect on whether the seed planted in justification brings forth the intended fruit.

Monday, December 03, 2007

An Advent Insight

I'm pretty religious about taking my weekly day off, which is Monday. I use the term "religious" in all seriousness; I consider it a holy obligation--honoring the sabbath principle and all that. But one must be flexible, of course, so I took some time out of my day to provide some pastoral care to a parishioner who is going through a very rough patch. The encounter left me sad, because the person is obviously suffering, and there wasn't anything I could do to simply take her pain away, though I suspect that talking about it helped some. Of course, we don't need to look very far to find suffering and misery. People are suffering nearby and people are suffering far away. "In sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe..."--so begins the second stanza of the venerable (and possibly my favorite) Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum.

Tonight the men's club of my parish held its annual ... well, what was it? A "holiday banquet"? "Advent banquet?" (A mega-talented pianist was actually improvising in a George Winston style on the likes of Nun komm der heiden Heiland and other tunes from the Advent section of the Episcopal hymnal!) Goodness knows, but for being perpetually harassed about the proper keeping of Advent by a succession of curmudgeonly clergy, of which I am only the most recent in succession, it would have been openly a Christmas party--at least judging from all the red sweaters present. Anyway...before left, we all sang Veni Emmanuel, which has the advantage of being a right-down-the-middle-of-the-strike-zone Advent hymn that 99% of the general public associates with Christmas anyway, so everybody is happy.

The fifth verse, from the Latin antiphon O clavis David, struck me in a fresh way as I was singing the final line: "...and close the path to misery." (A more literal translation of the Latin might be along the lines of "...and block the hellish way.") It is precisely what I had wished for during my off-the-clock session of pastoral counseling. It is what I wish for whenever I open a newspaper or click on the homepage of my browser. I wish I could close the path to misery for anyone whom I love, or care about even a little bit, or--what the heck--just about everybody. (There is a select short list I would have to work up some enthusiasm for.) I wish I could close the path the everyone's misery.

I can't, of course. And, in an effective sense--it sounds slightly heretical to say this!--God "can't." For him to simply intervene capriciously would violate the very structure of the created universe, not the least important element of which is human free will. But God is, nonetheless, in sorrow about that ancient curse. And although it's not part of the plan for him to intervene capriciously, he has done something much better; he has intervened gratuitously--that is, in a manner full of grace. The trajectory of redemption set in motion by the Incarnation, sealed in the Passion and Resurrection, and brought to fruition in the Ascension, means that the misery my parishioner unburdened herself of on her pastor's day off will be taken up into that gratuitous intervention and woven into a tapestry of healing and restoration that will, before the dust settles, send that ancient curse packing. And close the path to misery.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

San Joaquin On Deck

Pittsburgh did it. Fort Worth did it. Now it's San Joaquin's turn this coming weekend. But there's more at stake this time, because San Joaquin is coming back for seconds. As Bullwinkle said to Rocky: "This time for sure."

According to the constitution of most (all?) dioceses of the Episcopal Church, a proposed amendment to said constitution does not become effective until it is passed on a second reading. At its annual convention last year, San Joaquin approved, by overwhelming majorities in both the clergy and lay orders, the following language for Article II of its constitution:

Article II
Anglican Identity
The Diocese of San Joaquin is constituted by the Faith, Order, and Practice of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as received by the Anglican Communion. The Diocese shall be a constituent member of the Anglican Communion and in full communion with the See of Canterbury.

The previous (that is, still-in-effect at this moment) Article II is all about acceding to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and to the authority of General Convention. For most of the diocese's history, that accession was unqualified, as is required by the Constitution and Canons of "this church" for dioceses that are being admitted into union with General Convention. About five years ago--my memory fails me--that accession was qualified in that the diocese reserved to itself the right to declare null and void any action of General Convention considered to be in conflict with the diocese's own constitution and canons. For whatever it's worth, that prerogative has never been exercised. It may also be worth mentioning that San Joaquin's deputation to General Convention has been seated twice--unchallenged--after that qualifying language was added.

Full disclosure: Prior to a move three and a half months ago, I was for thirteen years rector of the oldest parish in the Diocese of San Joaquin (indeed, the third oldest Episcopal church on the west coast). I was, at various times, a member (and chair) of the Commission on Ministry, a Rural Dean, a member (and chair) of the Board of Examining Chaplains, Secretary of Convention, an instructor in the diocesan school for ministry, coordinator of training and licensing for (licensed) lay ministries, and a member of the Standing Committee (one full term and one interrupted by my move). I also served as an elected deputy to the past two General Conventions. You might say I was involved in the life of the diocese, and while I no longer have a direct stake in the outcome of the impending vote, I have a huge emotional stake. I poured out my life serving the Diocese of San Joaquin, and its bishop, whom I revere and love.

There are many ways to parse the meaning of the proposed new Article II, and the effect of its passage. First, in broad terms, it makes clear the desire and intent of the diocese to be and remain Anglican, and it strongly indicates an understanding of Anglican identity as rooted inherently in a state of full communion with the See of Canterbury. I find this, taken in its plain literal sense, to be greatly encouraging. It states a firm resolve not to be part of any renegade spinoff iteration of Anglicanism led by the Global South, sans Canterbury. Does this guarantee that no one within the leadership or membership of the diocese has a notion of Canterbury being other than of the esse of Anglicanism? No, it does not. But anyone who entertains such a vision would be wise to vote against the proposed change and work on another version that gets it right (and which itself would have to pass two consecutive conventions), because the version on the table firmly commites San Joaquin to playing on Canterbury's team, which is to say, at this point in time, Rowan Williams' team.

Again, reading the amendment in its most direct sense, it does not cut ties with the Episcopal Church. Granted, Bishop Schofield and most of those who assemble in Fresno this Friday understand it as doing so, and the Presiding Bishop and her legal team will no doubt concur. But that is simply not what the language says, nor is it what was intended by those who drafted the language. I can speak with some authority on this because I was one of a group of three clerics who drafted the language and submitted it as a substitute for that which had been prepared by the diocesan staff, under the auspices of the Committee on Constitution and Canons, which, after some initial consternation, accepted the substitute as "friendly." Yes, reference to the Episcopal Church is removed from the proposed Article II, but affiliation with the Episcopal Church is nowhere expressly denied, and it is not implausible ("likely" is another matter--I'm talking plausibility here) that the diocese could pass this amendment and still continue to order both its interal and external life according to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. What I'm suggesting is that adoption of the new Article II is not, in an of itself, a smoking gun. Such evidence of "abandonment of the communion of this church" would have to be found elsewhere, in some other act of the convention or the elected leadership of the diocese (i.e. the Bishop, the Standing Committee, and the Diocesan Council all acting in concert in a way that unambiguously separates themselves from TEC).

One such act, of course, would be for the diocese to accede to some larger direct authority other than the General Convention--like, for instance the Province of the Southern Cone. By all accounts, this is what the Bishop and his inner circle hope will happen. To my knowledge, however, there is no resolution to that effect that has been drafted, vetted, and submitted through channels. Anything that comes before the convention that would formalize an alignment with the Southern Cone will be something that most delegates will not have laid eyes on before their attention is directed to the PowerPoint projection on the white walls of the Eden Community Room of St James' Cathedral. Anything put forward at such a late hour, and without thorough discussion beforehand throughout the diocese, is bound to raise both concern and confusion, which does not bode well for the passage of a resolution that would provide a clear "we're outta here" gloss on the constitutional change.

What would I be doing were I still in the Diocese of San Joaquin? I think I would be actively whipping votes of the 'Nay' variety. Although I reluctantly voted in favor of it last year, subsequent events in the life of the Anglican Communion, viewed in the context of a Catholic ecclesiology that is, I believe, one of the critical elements of our 'Anglican DNA,' lead me to conclude that the most faithful course for an orthodox Anglican (individual, parish, or diocese) in the Episcopal Church is to make an "unqualified accession" to the principles of the Windsor Report and to otherwise bravely and charitably endure the slings and arrows of life in "this church." Many whom I revere disagree with me on this, but so is my conscience formed (and, I trust, informed). But, I would be going about my politicking with a heavy heart. This is really a Lose-Lose proposition either way.

And it's by no means a slam dunk: The motion has to be approved concurrently by two-thirds of the clergy and two-thirds of the laity. I'm not making any predictions, but just counting noses among the clergy, I would be sweating bullets and working the phones if I were the floor manager for this bill. Do not misread me here: The overwhelming majority of both clergy and laity in the diocese are "reasserter" in their theological and moral views. The overwhelming majority--near unanimity here--hold Bishop Schofield in the highest personal esteem and love him for his faithful pastoral care and courageous witness. There is, of course, a small minority of "progressives" in San Joaquin, and they will, one can safely presume, be voting in the negative. But there is also a contingent of both clergy and laity who, while as theologically and morally conservative as the day is long, are not persuaded that cutting ties with TEC is even morally justified, let alone imperative. I doubt there is any active conspiring between these two elements that are usually at odds with one another, but they will form a de facto political coalition that should keep things close, and my own eyes will be glued to Anglican TV when the time comes next Saturday.

Both the mainstream media and blogsphere, with their insatiable appetite for polarizing headlines, will focus all attention on the one big vote, and herald the result either as something akin to the first shot fired on Fort Sumpter, or a joyful affirmation of fealty (unqualified, of course) to the Episcopal Church. It will, in fact, be neither. Whichever way the vote goes, there will be partings among friends, among those who have labored shoulder-to-shoulder for the cause of the gospel. These partings will be tearful and, at moments, angry. The largest and (heretofore) healthiest parishes of the diocese will be ripped asunder. All will suffer financially, and that even before the pernicious litigation from 815 gets underway (if the Ayes have it). This is all tragic. This is all of the Evil One. Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Long-Hidden Gems: On Revelation and Authority

Well...I''ll leave it to you whether what follows contains any actual gems. But as I was cleaning out a desk drawer last night I came upon a set of diskettes containing all my academic work from seminary two decades ago. One assignment from Systematic Theology was to write a major essay on Revelation and Authority. The topic was timely then and is perhaps even timelier now; hence I am giving it the light of day in this medium that was unimagined when it was written.

I've done only minor editing--punctuation, capitalization, and the like. Temporal references are left unchanged, and clearly date the work from early 1988. For the same class, I also wrote on Soteriology and the nature of Faith/Belief. When I've had a chance to clean them up, I'll post them as well.

Bear in mind that this is an attempt at serious academic theology. I wasn't writing as a pastor or a popularizer, let alone a blogger! It's a different "voice" than than to which you may be accustomed to hearing from me. For whatever it's worth, it may be closer to my authentic voice than anything else.

In this age of computers we have become accustomed to borrowing words from ordinary discourse in order provide a humane technical vocabulary for the electronic manipulation of information. So it is “meet and right,” perhaps, to borrow some terms back from the computer field in order to give some definition to the scope of this essay. We will be speaking here of “hardware,” the utilitarian, mechanical support structure of Christian theology. It is quite necessary but, except for a select company of theological “hackers,” not very glamorous. It will not save any souls or lead anyone to God. It does, however, make it possible to use “software,” that is, to do the real business of theology: reflecting on and articulating the nature of the divine and the nature of the human and how the two relate to one another.

Having said this, I must now acknowledge that I am one such “theological hacker.” The subjects of authority and revelation, scripture and tradition, were the crucial issues in a significant turning point in my own pilgrimage of faith which took place about fifteen years ago. They have continued to command my attention, in one way or another, since that time. The thoughts expressed here, then, are a current distillation of a long-term and ongoing process. It is an activity that has included wide reading from Hooker to Newman to Gore to C.B. Moss to C.S. Lewis and others. This is to say that, while none of the ideas put forth here are original with me, neither can they, with one or two exceptions, be precisely attributed to anyone else. They are, rather, the synthesis of the interplay between my prior thinking on the subject and the more disciplined reflection that has take place in the past few weeks, given shape primarily by the reading of MacQuarrie's Principles of Christian Theology.

I should add at the outset that what might be called “personal revelation”—a particular intense or illuminating religious experience which seems to the recipient as a message from God—is outside the scope of this paper. We will deal here with “revelation” as it is understood in a corporate, public sense. Suffice it to say that any such personal experience, if it is to be judged genuine, must be congruent with revelation as we will define it.

One further introductory note: Without any explicit statement to the contrary, the sum of what will be said here could be construed to be “apneumatic,” or at least agnostic with respect to the Holy Spirit. Let that not be the case. It is my belief that the Holy Spirit invades and permeates all aspects of the revelatory process, including scripture, tradition, and reason. This should be implicitly assumed throughout.


To speak of revelation in an ordinary semantic sense assumes the presence of four constituents: one who (or which) acts as a revealer, that which is revealed (content), the medium by which the content is conveyed, and one who (or which) receives the revelation. In the simple statement “I read in that paper that Gary Hart re-entered the presidential race” most anyone can intuit the presence of these four elements. In speaking of revelation in connection with religious authority, however, the question is clouded by the fact that “God,” by definition, is in some sense transcendent of ordinary human experience. So while one may be able to articulate the idea of divine revelation ontologically (“from above”), one must first approach it existentially (“from below”). We must begin with our own common human experience as receivers of revelation and work, so to speak, backwards through its mediation and content and finally to the Revealer before we can make generalizations about the process as a whole.

The notion of authority is a “hot” topic in the Church today. In some circles the word has taken on a connotation of oppression, of the restriction of personal freedom. I think we must disabuse ourselves of such an understanding, though, and recover a more etymologically grounded sense of authority as simply The Way Things Are, and, more importantly, as emanating from the Author. We tend to apprehend God's authority in the context of the doctrine of Providence, opening up the temptation of ascribing to him malicious intentionality, when we might do better to see it as flowing from the doctrine of Creation. We may have reason to wish the created order were constituted differently than it is, but such wishing will not help us come to terms with it. In any case, no matter how we understand authority, it is axiomatic that to the extent that any revelation of God is authentic, it is authoritative. The question of authority, then, is really one of credibility: What or whom do we trust as accurately conveying the content of revelation?

In the midst of all this, we must bear in mind that revelation is, by nature, not given for its own sake. It has an end, a telos. From a Christian perspective, this telos is nothing less than the salvation of humankind, individually and corporately, along with the entire created order. Underlying this essay is the contention that revelation is rooted in objective truth that is independent of any subjective knowledge. This should not be construed, however, to deny or minimize the salvific intention of God's revelation.

With these considerations in mind, we are now ready to proceed to an examination of the process of revelation “from below.”


(In this section, when I, an individual, speak in the first person, I do so as figuratively inclusive of all Christians, and potentially of all persons.) I first encounter revelation when I encounter a community which claims to bear it. This community, in some way and in some degree, is one of "”faith.” “Faith” is meant here to be understood multivalently: as mental assent or belief (per Aquinas), as total orientation of will and affections (per St. Paul), and as behavior consistent with both. This community, in its life of faith, mediates to me the content of the revelation it claims to bear. The character of this content is such that it provides me with a way of interpreting my own experience, and all of reality, in light of the decisive action of God. Since human language is the necessary medium (at least a necessary medium) for its communication, this content must be expressed, among other ways, in the form of verbal propositions. Now it is (or should be) understood that no proposition must ever be thought to exhaustively convey the reality to which it points. Just as the vocabulary of computer use (“file,” “user friendly,” “menu,” “handshaking hardware,” etc.) is based on analogy with more fundamental human experience, theological discourse is only an approximation and a rather crude one at that, of the reality of God. Moreover, human language is rarely univocal, and every verbal exchange contains an element of translation in which something of the speaker's meaning is lost on the hearer. “We always know more than we can say.” (Michael Polanyi)

It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that all theological propositions are necessarily tentative. This may be the case from God's point of view, but, alas, it is a perspective we do not share. From a hypothetical satellite on a hypothetically clear day, hypothetically equipped with telescopic equipment, one does not need a map of the world; the real thing is plain view. A map, after all, is only a crude analogy. But to someone lost in the Sahara desert, a map showing the nearest oasis is life itself, and is therefore absolutely definitive and authoritative. It is the experience of the community of faith, the Church, that there are some propositional formulations which, while not in themselves adequate, are nevertheless normative. Any other expression of the same truth would be even more inadequate.

The mediation of this content (verbal and otherwise) to me by the community of faith is a manifestation of paradosis, literally in Greek "giving along", or, as it is usually rendered in English, tradition. The tradition I receive strikes a resonant chord in me somehow—affectively, intellectually, aesthetically, or in whatever way. It engages my attention to one degree or another, ranging from incipient curiosity to complete fixation. It is readily apparent, however, that the revelatory content which has been mediated to me is contingent. It is itself a mediation of a mediation. It draws me back, ultimately, to the faith community at the dawn of its existence, when the content of its tradition was first articulated. The community had been called into existence by a decisive act of God and formed by its own reflection on and interpretation of that experience. If the tradition through which I apprehend the revelation can be called a “contingent mediation,” this primary constitutive experience is an “original mediation.”

One of the ways in which the original mediation becomes part of the tradition is through a written record of the constitutive event. The word is used here in a broad sense, referring actually to a series of events between the Annunciation and Pentecost, and, on a secondary level, going back to the call of Abraham, and the initial reflection/interpretation. In time, the Church recognizes certain of these writings as Holy Scripture, as having authority in the sense described above—that of accurately conveying the content of the revelation. It is necessary, however, to refine this assertion in three respects: First, it must be remembered that it was the Church which recognized the Scriptures as such and it is in that context in which they must be understood. They are neither, on one hand, an independent witness which can function apart from the organic faith community, nor, on the other hand, subject to having their authority and credibility compromised by whatever factual errors and historical inconsistencies may be uncovered by critical scholarship. To elaborate, for example: If it can be conclusively demonstrated that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, this does not subject them to decanonization or in any way vitiate their authority. Second, even while Scripture is part of the Church's tradition, it nevertheless stands in a special relation to the rest of the tradition on account of its place in the “original mediation.” It represents the community's initial response to the event which brought it into being, and, as such, becomes part of that event. It is normative. Third, since Scripture is verbal and, at times, starkly propositional, it is subject both to the promises and the pitfalls inherent in any verbal communication.

The point is that I am not advocating a fundamentalist sort of “plenary verbal inspiration” doctrine. Only now can I think of approaching (theologically, that is) the Initiator of the whole process of revelation, the Revealer himself. The original mediation leads me to God's definitive action within common human experience (cf. MacQuarrie's notion of “classic” or “primordial” revelation,” p.90). The words of the sacred texts are important because they represent one of the crucial defining characteristics of the sort of divine action that we are talking about. It is public and objectively accessible, which is to say that it takes place in history. The quest for the historical Jesus may be quixotic, but there is no doubt that there was a historical Jesus, that he was born under unusual circumstances, that his manner of life and teaching got him in trouble, that he died, and that his rising from the dead was well-enough attested that many thousands of ordinary rational men, women, and children soon thereafter submitted to torture and death for the sake of that proclamation. God's revelatory action is no mystical, private affair. Again, this is not to deny the validity of mystical experience. The tradition itself affirms the reality of personal divine-human relationship. Strictly speaking, however, this is not revelation. We are speaking here of God-as-Revealer, the ultimate locus of Author-ity, knowledge of whom can be communicated.


We are now in a position to look at revelation ontologically, that is, “from above,” reversing the direction of our inquiry and, presumably, arriving back at our starting point. God, the revealer, acted in human history in a definitive way in the “Christ event.” The experience of this action formed a community, the Church, which immediately engaged in a process of reflection and interpretation. This two-part cycle of action and interpretation can be said to form a unit, a “deed-word event” (I am reasonably sure that I encountered this expression in reading the evangelical New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd, but I am not able to make a citation) which constitutes the original mediation of the revelation. It is recorded in a normative fashion in the form of Holy Scripture.

Since the deed-word event has taken place in history, the community which it formed is also a historical entity, and is more and more temporally separated from its primordial constitution. It continues in time as a living paradosis of the revelation. It does not exist in a vacuum, however, and since human experience does not cease, neither does the process of reflection and interpretation. As a result, succeeding generations who come into contact with the Church experience a doubly-mediated form of the revelation. They are separated not only from God's action, but from the original interpretation of it.

Moreover, the “community” in which they find themselves is not monolithic. The more time passes, the longer the process of reflection continues, the more the resulting interpretation is (to speak in a charitable euphemism) multi-faceted. These “complementary insights” (perpetuating the euphemism) into the revelation create sub-groups within the community, each of which sees itself as the center (or as part of the center) of the ecclesial universe, with the other groups inhabiting a series of concentric circles emanating from the center. This creates an environment in which anomalies are the exception rather than the rule (which is itself an anomaly) and in which the notion of authority—defined as that which credibly mediates revelation—emerges as increasingly important—indeed, as crucial.

To extend our Robin Hood approach to "computer-ese" (stealing metaphors from the thief), one might compare the anomalous world inhabited by authority and revelation to a “bug” in a computer program, a situation in which a program sabotages itself with its own logic. The task of the “de-bugger” is to carefully and judiciously—in a manner akin to that of a surgeon—locate and modify the offending link in the sequence of commands. This is usually accomplished by the intuitive common sense of the programmer, and not infrequently involves being illogical, fighting anomaly with anomaly. Care is always taken, however, to disturb as little as possible the non-offending links in the chain; the “de-bugging” process, illogical as it may be, is performed with the primary objectives of the program consciously in mind.

The Christian theologian (which in this instance includes any baptized person who is at all reflective on his or her faith) is at times called upon to be a “de-bugger,” to deal with the
anomalies in the Church's life and in the witness of the tradition. The primary tool in this endeavor is human reason, the critical faculty which can intuit distinctions and categories
that may be sub-verbal (in Polanyi's sense). It must be kept in mind, however, that the function of reason is utilitarian. It is able to critically evaluate the various media which claim to authoritatively transmit the revelation of God in Christ. This takes place with respect both to the “original mediation” and the various “contingent mediations.” But reason must not presume to offer access to the content of revelation itself, much less to the Revealer. It is employed judiciously, and with the telos of revelation consciously in mind. Reason is not itself an authority; it discerns authority.

The ultimate authority, of course, is the Author. God's very ontology, however, is such that we do not share his mind, his essence. This fact creates the very need for revelation, and decrees that revelation is mediated. The task at hand, therefore, is, with the aid of critical reason, to discern what is authoritative, to determine where we are most likely to encounter the mediation of God's revelation. This is a question a good number of brilliant minds have expended a tremendous amount of energy over the centuries trying to answer. There is a real sense in which this is necessary and healthy. Without trivializing the importance and the sincerity of this endeavor, we can suggest a methodology which lends a good deal of focus to it. The manifestation of God's revelatory authority is the community which was formed by it, which is in essence organic rather than institutional, which transcends time, which “gives along” the content of the revelation. Scriptures, creeds, councils, confessions, declarations, encyclicals, pastoral letters and (“as one untimely born”) General Conventions can be of genuine usefulness to the task, but only inasmuch as they are seen as rooted in an flowing out of the organic life of the Church.

Now without a good deal of qualification and nuance, much of the preceding paragraph is a rather naive statement of the obvious. When one is faced with an actual concrete theological issue, trying to discern the mind of the Church is, if one is simple-minded, suspiciously easy, and if one is sophisticated, evocative of despair. It is a telling irony that Vincent of Lerins formulated his famous “canon” as a polemical reaction to one who has come to be recognized as one of the most seminal and (in the west) orthodox theologians in Christian history. So we offer the dictum, “Seek the mind of the Church,” not as a solution to theological quandary, but as the only legitimate starting point in the search.

This is, after all, an essay on revelation and authority, not ecclesiology. But since we have so strongly located the mediation of revelation in the Church, there is an implied notion in the previous paragraph which needs to be made explicit. The Church is an historical entity. Paradosis happens in the context of the passing of time. Even though the “mind of the Church” on any of the controversial issues which she faces today may be impossible to discern, it is quite feasible to generalize about the mind of the Church on the issues faced a century ago. A hundred years from now, the mind of today's Church will be significantly clearer than it is to us now. Even though the expression consensus fidelium may be nearly equivalent to “the mind of the Church,” I would like to suggest a subtle distinction, that is, that the former term is more temporally expansive. An important theological issue is rarely settled within the space of one generation. Indeed, there was a time in the mid-fourth century when the mind of the church seemed quite made up on a crucial Christological question; as Jerome tells us, the world woke up and found itself Arian. This turned out, however, not to be the consensus fidelium.

So the pursuit of the authoritative mediation of revelation is, to put it mildly, elusive. Authority, when it is discerned, must be laid hold of confidently, but humbly, and with faith (in all the semantic richness of that word). In many cases, it is a trans-personal endeavor, because it is trans-generational. As it was with those who worked on medieval cathedrals (enough of computers now!), so it is with theologians: one generation builds onthe foundation laid by another. For any given individual, faith is the assurance that the telos of revelation will reach its fruition. His or her probing of the mystery, moreover, is not wasted effort. Not only does it provide the setting for the working out of one's own salvation “in fear and trembling,” but contributes to the consensus fidelium which will mediate, “give along” the saving content of God's revelation in Christ to those yet unborn.