Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Gem

This is one of my Christmas favorites, from
the 1959 cantata Hodie by Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Here's the text (the first verse is
anonymous; the second is by the composer's
wife, Ursula Wood Vaughan Williams):

No sad thought his soul affright
Sleep it is that
maketh night;’

Let no murmur nor rude wind

To his slumbers prove unkind:

But a quire of angels make

His dreams of heaven, and let him wake

To as many joys as can

In this world befall a man.

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

O Emmanuel

… and finally:

O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

…and the very familiar:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

It’s been 23 years, but I remember enough of my seminary Hebrew to be able to see each part precisely: “with – us – God”, customarily (and more felicitously) rendered, “God with us.”

For the first time since 1988, I’m not preaching on Christmas (or the eve thereof) this year. I have a homiletically competent (and then some) Assistant who needs the experience, so it just seemed the right thing to do. In thinking back over the preparation and delivery of twenty Christmas sermons, I’m aware that I’ve never taken my cue from the actual gospel reading for Christmas Eve—the familiar account from Luke (that still sounds not-quite-right in anything but the King James translation), with its decree going out from Caesar Augustus and its full-up inn, and its shepherds keeping watch, and its manger and swaddling clothes. This is where the narrative poetry is, and I love poking around in it.

But for preaching? For preaching, I’ve always been inevitably drawn to the cosmically mystical (mystically cosmic?) poetry of the prologue to John’s gospel, which is appointed for the Mass of Christmas morning, and for the following Sunday. At Lessons & Carols this past Sunday night, I read it, and could barely keep my composure. This is the gospel, not of a nativity, but of an incarnation. It doesn’t run the risk of ever being thought of as cute, and I can’t imagine how anyone could ever work it into a children’s pageant. But it is as shattering a piece of literature as has ever been penned. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt (literally, “pitched his tent”) among us.”

In what seems like a previous lifetime, in the early-to-mid 1970s, I was a graduate student in musicology. I wrote a 200-page thesis on twentieth century musical settings (unaccompanied) of the texts of the Latin Mass. In the roughly 500-year history of the Latin Mass as a musical form, certain stylistic conventions became virtually de rigueur for composers of different nationalities and different eras. The strongest of these conventions concerned the section of the Credo (Nicene Creed) that speak of the Incarnation. From et incarnatus est (“and he became incarnate”) through et homo factus est (“and was made Man”), the most complicated polyphony would suddenly slow down and become crystal clear, as if to say, “Listen to this. This is the really important part!”

So, in the years when it falls to me to seek a homiletical Muse for Christmas Eve, I invariably end up asking myself, “How can I explain the Incarnation in some fresh way? What image or metaphor can I use that will get through to somebody who’s maybe never thought about Christmas in this way? What can I say that will at least evoke the shocking enormity of the scandal—the scandal of the infinite becoming finite, the eternal becoming time-bound, the omnipresent occupying a quite definable set of coordinates on somebody’s GPS system, the scandal of the God who made us becoming one of us?"

Emmanuel. With us … God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O Rex Gentium

The penultimate of the Great O Antiphons:

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save us all, the creature whom you have fashioned from clay.

…and its metrical paraphrase twin:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

The Magnificat, to which the seven antiphons are attached in their native environment, is one of the most political texts in all of holy scripture. It speaks of the powerful being cast down and the humble being raised up, of the sated being deprived and the hungry being filled. And of the seven antiphons, this one is perhaps the closest match to the canticle in its political overtones.

To the ears of a 21st century American, steeped since childhood in the values of democracy and egalitarianism, any political system that involves a King (“Rex”) is suspect from the get-go. And if that monarch purports to rule over “the nations,” the problem is only compounded. We are fond of peace, but fonder still of liberty, having witnessed the character of peace that is purchased by the acceptance of despotism.

That said, we’ve got some serious problems, and perhaps ought not to be picky about the form in which help arrives, even if it takes the form of a King. We are, in the words of the collect from four Sundays ago, “divided and enslaved by sin.” We experience this division and slavery in every dimension of our lives. We witnessed it last week in the enmity between developed and developing nations at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. We witness it when an estranged mother and father square off in a courtroom over custody of the child whose parents they are. It’s a pervasive fact of our lives. It’s a political problem, and a political problem needs a political solution.

We need to be “freed and brought together.” And in the providence of God, the vehicle of our liberation and reconciliation is the “gracious rule” of Christ our King. Whatever our political conditioning may be, in our heart of hearts, we know this to be true. Indeed, we yearn for it. As many of us sang two days ago, we know Jesus to be the “dear desire of every nation” and the “joy of every longing heart.” (Hymnal 1982, #66) Unlike the iron grip of tyranny that established the Pax Romana in the first century, which established peace by means of rule, Christ establishes his rule by means of peace. Reconciliation is his calling card (“the cornerstone who makes us both one”), which explains why he is the “Desire of nations.”

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 21, 2009

O Oriens

rectory sunrise And now we come to number five of seven:

O Dayspring, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Righeousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Or, in the familiar parlance of the hymn version:

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

I’m not a morning person. Truth to tell, the most difficult decision I make on any given day is to get out of bed. Still, there’s something compelling about a sunrise. Living on the western edge of the eastern time zone, it’s not hard for even a slacker like me to be up at the crack of dawn. I snapped the picture above out the bedroom window with my iPhone a few days ago at about 7:30 AM, realizing that it was a fragile fleeting moment.

Sunrise is not only luminous, but also numinous. To our primordial forebears, every evening must have been traumatic. They eventually learned that what goes around comes around, but that initial panic over the onset of darkness attached itself to an unsuspecting strand in our communal psychic DNA. So we have a subliminal squeamishness, at least (for some it’s an abject fear), about darkness, and a corresponding relief when that darkness disappears.

One of the skills that one develops in the practice of Christian prayer is to hallow the cycles of time. If every sunset is a trifle annoying because—who knows?—maybe this time it’s permanent, then every time we lay our heads on a pillow and allow ourselves to fall asleep, it’s a risky move, because—who knows?—maybe this time it will be permanent. Every act of falling asleep is, in effect, a rehearsal for the Big Sleep. Since, barring an imminent parousia, it’s an inescapable eventuality, we could probably do with the practice.

But if that much is true for every sunset, then there is a parallel truth in every sunrise. The Monday collect for Morning Prayer cuts to the chase:

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night, and turns the shadow of death into morning …

Every sunrise is a foretaste of “that great gettin’-up mornin’” (I’m obviously married to a choir director). Every time we entrust ourselves to sleep at night and, in fact, do wake up the next morning, it's an anticipation of the resurrection of the body that we proclaim in the creeds. Every time my feet hit the floor as I roll out of bed (always reluctantly), I’ve conditioned myself to sign myself with the cross and recollect my identity as one who has been baptized into the dying the rising of Christ. A little while later, during the Morning Office, these words from the Song of Zechariah cross my lips:

In the tender compassion of our God * the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, * and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Cranmer’s original Anglicization of this text rendered “dawn” as “dayspring.” In the conventional sense, I’m still not a morning person, and that isn’t likely to change. But scratch the surface, and morning is my favorite time ever, because I have been claimed by the Dayspring from on high who has broken in upon us.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

O Clavis David

The fourth of the seven Big O’s:

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open: Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

…and the same thing paraphrased for rhyme and meter:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.

In the summer of 1987, after my first year in seminary, I spent the better part of three months as a chaplain intern at the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. (It was part of wretched exercise called Clinical Pastoral Education, still required of most seminarians across denominational lines.) The patients on my unit were there because they were deemed to be a danger either to themselves or to others. In other words, they were real nut cases: schizophrenia, bipolarity, paranoia, multiple personality, various delusions, and some stuff I’m probably forgetting.

As crazy as they were, however, most of them were able, at any given moment, to interact with one another and with staff members in ways that seemed quite … well … normal. Now, combine that with the fact that some of the staff were pretty crazy themselves, and the situation gets very “interesting.” A neutral third-party observer might have been sometimes hard pressed to distinguish the patients from the staff! The only way to tell for sure was to watch and see who was able to pull a key out of his or her pocket and exit the building.

I, of course, had a key. And I have to say, every time I used that key and left the building, I did so with conscious gratitude. During those three (long) months, it never got routine. I was always aware of how privileged I was to be able to leave the surreal world of the mental hospital unit behind me for a few hours. Ironically, it was in the act of leaving them that I felt the most compassion for the patients, none of whom had asked to be paranoid or suicidal or sociopathic. But there they were, locked in. And there I was, holding a key.

On a more cosmic scale, however, I’m just as much a captive as those mental patients, and the key I used to separate myself from them would be of no avail to me, or to anyone else, in the captivity we all share as human beings. The “prison house” in which we are held is built of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice (greed), and sloth. Its walls are lined with deceit, theft, adultery, and murder, and reinforced with resentment, bitterness, exploitation, and oppression.

There is only one key that can unlock its door—the Key of David, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Anointed One of God, the Messiah. We who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death eagerly—no, anxiously—await the arrival of that Key, the Key who will both liberate us from our captivity and permanently “close the path the misery.”

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

O Radix Jesse

Great O Antiphon number three:
O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship:  Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
or (from the hymn version) …
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
free them from Satan’s tyranny
that trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
The first rendition is perhaps truer to the original Latin (radix=root), but the metrical paraphrase may be more symbolically accurate. Jesse, of course, is the father of proto-messiah King David, and a distant ancestor of Jesus. So Jesus can be understood as proleptically “contained” in Jesse, the one who is his “root,” and because of that “containment,” Jesse can be understood as “an ensign to the peoples” (Isaiah 11:10).
Jesus, then, in the terms of the hymn version of the antiphon, is the “branch of Jesse’s tree.” “Branch” could just as easily be rendered “shoot” or “rod.” The picture at the top of this post—snapped during my visit to the Holy Land last January--is of an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the east wall of Jerusalem. Olives have been cultivated there continuously for at least 3000 years, so the tree in the photo is of the same genetic stock as the ones that stood there in the time of Jesus, and, a millennium earlier, in the time of David. Look closely and you’ll see exactly what inspired Isaiah’s poetic oracle—an old and gnarled trunk (the “root”) out of which springs a younger branch heading straight up (the “shoot”).
This third of the seven antiphons definitely takes the latent sense of urgency implied in the first two and “kicks it up a notch.” The human race is in a world of hurt. Call it what you will—Satan, the power of Sin and Death, tyranny, oppression, exploitation, the White Witch of Narnia—it matters little. And we’re tired of it. We want something better, and we know something better is possible. “Come and deliver us,” we cry, “and tarry not.” The “branch and flower of Jesse’s stem” (Hymnal 1982, #307) is indeed our hope and our salvation.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 18, 2009

O Adonai

The second of the Great O Antiphons:

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.


O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.

If my Baby Boomer generation has trust issues (see one post upstream), we also have issues with authority. We have a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a default inclination to question authority figures and their authoritative statements. So if you want to interest us in God, portraying God as a law-giver is probably not your best angle.

And I’m not only a Baby Boomer, but the product of the vigorous trans-denominational (and non-denominational) evangelical subculture of DuPage County, Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. I cut my theological teeth on the Reformation nostrums of “grace alone” and “faith alone.” “The letter [i.e. the letter of the law] killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (II Corinthians 3:6) Law is so … “Old Testament.” Christians are saved by Christ through faith. What use do we have for the law? We have read Galatians, after all.

So here I am, a Baby Boomer child of “grace and Spirit” evangelical Christianity. What am I to make of a liturgical text that celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses “in cloud, and majesty, and awe”?

Getting past “authority” and “law” in a fruitful way requires what we used to call (back in the ‘90s) a “paradigm shift.” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the answer our parents used to give whenever we asked “Why?”—“Because I said so, that’s why!” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the image of Bull Connor using fire hoses and attack dogs on non-violent civil rights protesters in Selma.

Instead of picturing “authority” as a parent, or a university administrator, or a sheriff wearing mirror sunglasses and a Smoky Bear hat, we do better to picture one who is “a leading authority in her field,” or better yet, an author. God has authority, not because he arbitrarily arrogated it to himself, or because he’s omnipotent and can “smite” anybody who opposes him, but because he’s the Author. He wrote the story. He conceived the plot. He named the characters. He made the props. It’s his theater and his show. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. I may find John Grisham more appealing than Dan Brown, but if I want insight into The DaVinci Code (perish the thought!), it’s Dan Brown that I need to be talking to, because he’s the author of the book.

So, instead of thinking of “law”, then, as a a statute in some criminal or civil or ecclesiastical code, we do better to think of “law” in terms of “the laws of nature.” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A molecule of water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The square root of nine is three. These laws are neither good, bad, nor indifferent. They just are. They mediate reality, and when we understand them, they enable us to bend reality to our benefit.

From this perspective, for the Author to “give” us the Law is a consummate act of love and mercy. It is literally an apocalypse—an unveiling, a revelation. The transaction between YHWH and Moses on Sinai’s height is an emblem of God’s desire for us to have the tools by which to successfully navigate the cosmic reality (that is, both physical and spiritual) in which we live. Per St Paul, the law is not the means of our deliverance from the dominion of sin and death. But it’s not a bad measure of our progress toward that end. It’s an invaluable roadmap of the territory in which we live and move and have our being.

Now bring on Psalm 119. “The law of the Lord is dearer to me than thousands in gold or silver.” (v.72)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Sapientia

Today marks what we might think of as the “home stretch” of the season of Advent, the final run-up to Christmas. It’s the day when, in the great western liturgical tradition, we begin to include the Great ‘O’ Antiphons in our prayers—classically framing the singing or recitation of Magnificat (Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55) at Evening Prayer (Evensong, Vespers).

These texts are veritable treasures of concise spiritual insight. They are compelling expressions of the barely-contained yearning for the revelation of God’s glory and God’s kingdom that is the Church’s corporate formal mood and attitude during the days prior to the feast.

Today’s antiphon is O Sapientia:

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Or, in the form in which we know it from the familiar hymn to which all seven have been adapted:

O come, thou wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.

At one level, wisdom is standard equipment to human nature. The taxonomical name for our species, indeed, is homo sapiens, which might plausibly be paraphrased as “Wise Guy.” It’s part of the mark that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It testifies to the imago dei—the image of Godwhich we all bear by default. We are able to contemplate our own identity, and integrate our past, including the past of our forebears that we experience only vicariously, with the present and the future. This is beyond the reach of the canines and felines that share our homes with us, and even beyond the great apes who are our closest biological relatives.

At another level, however—and obviously—we are anything but wise. The imago dei is severely damaged by the primordial act of imprudence that is represented by the tale of a serpent and a piece of fruit. At this level, wisdom is some dynamic combination of innate gift (have we not all known children who are “wise beyond their years”?) and acquired virtue (itself the product of another dynamic combination of “hard knocks” experience and infused divine grace).

Never has information been as readily available as it is today. Wisdom involves knowing what to do with the information we have. And never, it seems, has wisdom been in such short supply. As a child in Sunday School, I was taught to admire the young King Solomon for choosing the gift of wisdom over the gift of wealth, and reminded that, because he chose wisdom, he was given wealth as well. In middle age, I see the … well, the wisdom of Solomon’s choice ever more clearly. Mine is the generation that said, “Never trust anybody over 30.” Until we all turned 30, that is. Then it was quickly, “Never trust anybody under 30.” And that threshold keeps getting raised the older I get!

Alas, I am lately aware that my world and my country (and, to a lesser extent, my church) are being run by people who are significantly younger than I am. This is scary. I’ve always thought it was the “grownups” who are in charge, and the “grownups” are older than I am. They have the wisdom to know the answers, to be able to use information properly. But the “grownups” are mostly now either pushing up daisies or playing Bingo in Florida.

So this prayer for the wisdom of the Most High to come and take charge is probably more palpably important to me than ever. There’s an awful lot that needs to be “mightily and sweetly” ordered.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

And the Beat Goes On

The news is barely more than a day old and I already feel like I'm Johnny-come-lately by weighing in even now. I'm not sure I have anything original to say on the matter, but, if not, then it's still a chorus that needs to be joined.

The Diocese of Los Angeles elected a second Suffragan Bishop yesterday, the Reverend Canon Mary Glasspool of Maryland. It would be largely unremarkable but for the fact that she is an open and partnered lesbian, and so the event of her election is the next large domino to fall in a chain reaction that was set in motion nearly seven years ago with the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

I have to say at the outset that Mary Glasspool is a gracious and competent woman and I have no reason to doubt that she has substantial gifts for ministry. I got to know her just a bit at General Convention in 2006, when she served as a legislative aide to Special Committee 26 (Inter-Anglican Relations), and she and I shared a brief reminiscence of those heady days just this past July in Anaheim. So there truly is "nothing personal" in anything that follows.

A really telescoped selective history: In 2006, General Convention said, in effect, "Oops, we goofed. We made Gene Robinson a bishop without taking fully into account the effect our action would have on the rest of the Anglican Communion. Our bad. Sorry." (A160). We also said, in effect,"We're going to hold off on doing it again. For a while, at any rate." (B033) Then, in 2009, we said, "Hey, let's get real. We all know that God has called partnered LGBT people to the episcopate before, and will probably do it again. When that happens, we're going to be ready." (D025)

Now, before we formally debated D025, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the convention, in effect, "I really hope you don't do this. In fact, I'm asking nicely: Please don't do this." After we went and did it anyway, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies (aka the Co-Primates) fired a letter off to Dr Williams (who had since returned to Lambeth Palace) earnestly denying that D025 actually changed anything, that it was manifestly not an abrogation of B033. "The moratorium won't be lifted until we actually do something that lifts it," they said (once again, in effect).

Well, "something" has now been done. At least by the clergy and lay delegates of the Diocese of Los Angeles (the diocese in which, for the record, I was confirmed in 1975). Before the moratorium of B033 can be said to have been formally lifted, Canon Glasspool must actually be consecrated, and before that can happen, a majority of the Standing Committees and a majority of the bishops-with-jurisdiction must consent to the election.

It was with these contingencies in mind that Rowan Williams issued a statement only some eleven hours after the election. It is uncharacteristically brief and to the point:
The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.

The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.

The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.
The nub of the matter is this, I believe: The Archbishop is asking--one might even say "pleading with," given his proclivity for British diplomatic understatement--those bodies and individuals with a role in the consent process to withhold such consent, for the greater good of the unity and vitality of the rest of the Anglican Communion.

As one might imagine, Dr Williams has already been excoriated by both the left and the right. The left considers him a quisling, a moral coward, lacking the courage of his convictions, kowtowing to the forces of bigotry and fundamentalism of the worst sort. The right considers him a toothless dog who barks at all the right times (though someone timidly, so as to raise the suspicion that he's not really doing so with conviction), but is incapable of chomping down on an intruder's leg. Lots of talk, but no follow-through.

Sadly, this is a script--both Rowan's statement and the responses to it--that could have been written accurately before the events actually transpired. There is nothing here that is new or surprising. (Even the election itself was a virtual foregone conclusion; if not Mary Glasspool, it would have been somebody else later.) This is why it has all the qualities of few more frames in the slow-motion train wreck that is the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. One may criticize the Archbishop's words and deeds--as indeed many are; Rowan is taking hits from both directions--but he certainly cannot be faulted for lack of consistency. The conservatives who complain, "Great bark, but we'd like to see some actual biting take place" are quite correct in not expecting their worthy opponents to be displaying Canterburian toothmarks any time soon. From Day One it has been Rowan's position that, if any "discipline" is going to take place, it will be exercised by the organic processes of the whole communion, and not by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At present, those organic forces are following a trajectory that will lead to an Anglican Covenant. That is the mechanism by which TEC will suffer any consequences for her recalcitrant behavior. Some may argue that the Covenant will end up as toothless as the Archbishop, and they may well be correct. But for the time being, the Covenant is the next vessel with which the Episcopal Church is on a collision course. If the election of Mary Glasspool hastens that collision, perhaps it is an occasion for gratitude, even among those whose default inclination is to be dismayed by it. We can't start picking up the pieces until the debris stops flying.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Question for Debate

RESOLVED: "Anglicanism is the least religious religion."

From here.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On the Importance of Small Stuff

A sign in the sacristy of a church I once served in says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.”

True enough, I think, when the nerves of a rookie acolyte or Eucharistic Minister (or priest, for that matter) are on edge. But a series of conversations, both on Facebook and in person, over the last several days has got me thinking that it’s perhaps not a maxim we would want to apply universally.

As is often the case, the impetus for deeper reflection came from a source that it in itself of less than eternal significance—namely, the appropriate observance of the season of Advent, extending even to the particularity of what color the candles in an Advent Wreath should be. Nothing over which the blood of martyrs should be shed.

Allow me to wax autobiographical for a bit: I grew up in American suburbia in the 1950s and ‘60s, and in the sub-culture of free-church evangelicalism. Christmas was a pretty big deal—culturally, and in my church, and in my family. Our minds began to turn Christmasward around the beginning of December. Most everybody put up their Christmas tree somewhere near the middle of the month, give or take a few days, and left them up until New Year’s Day or so. In school, we sang Christmas carols in music class, and had some sort of pageant or program, in the final days prior two a two-week recess. There was usually something similar at church, and it was “Christmas” in church on the Sunday before and the Sunday after the actual holiday. (One of my most unpleasant memories is having been made to play “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” on the french horn at a Sunday evening service right before Christmas when I was in the eighth or ninth grade.)

In college, I discovered the great western liturgical tradition, via Anglicanism. In graduate school, I embraced that tradition. Part of that inheritance is the liturgical calendar, and the liturgical calendar begins, of course, with Advent. At first, I surmised that Advent must be a churchy way of saying “Christmastime,” and provided respectable cover for the familiar decorations, music, and festive social gatherings associated with the season. But we certainly weren’t singing carols in church, and it wasn’t all decked out in wreaths and garlands and bows. In fact, it looked rather more austere than usual. And when I snooped around the territory of Advent, I ran into the unsettling imagery of the Parousia (“deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see”) and the in-your-face polemic of John the Baptist. Only on the Sunday right before Christmas did we finally hear about an angel and a virgin, and usually sang “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which, even though in the Advent section of the hymnal,”counts” as a Christmas song in the popular imagination.

In time, I fell in love with Advent. I fell in love with the “begin with the end in mind” first Sunday, and all of its apocalyptic overtones. I fell in love with Isaiah and John the Baptist. I fell in love with the Anglican warhorse hymns of the season: “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding,” “On Jordan’s banks,” “Lo, he comes,” “Creator of the stars of night,” and more recently, “Savior of the nations, come” and “Prepare the way, O Zion.” Of course, “Veni Emmanuel” was already permanently ensconced in my soul, but discovering the Great O Antiphons on which it is based, and actually using them liturgically with the Magnificat at Evening Prayer the week before Christmas, has been an immeasurable boon to my spirituality.

Further investigation yielded the information that the “excruciatingly correct” way for an Episcopalian to keep Advent is to defer putting up any decorations until Christmas Eve day, if possible, and to eschew festive social gatherings to the extent possible without giving offense. Then, after the Mass of Christmas Eve, it’s not only permissible, but virtually required, to “let it all hang out” with festivity—liturgically, decoratively, and socially—for the twelve days that follow (i.e. the actual “twelve days of Christmas”), until Epiphany on January 6, at which time all greenery comes down and is brought to the churchyard, where there is a huge bonfire after the Mass (a sign of connection, no doubt, with the Druid strand in the DNA of Anglicanism!).

In our family, the family in which we raised our three children, we actually tried—and, for the most part, succeeded—to live that way. In so doing, we have never been under any illusion that we were not swimming decidedly upstream against the current of not only the secular culture, but the non-liturgical Christian culture as well. Over the last twenty years or so, for whatever combination of reasons (the retail industry being the prime suspect), what used to be known as “Christmastime” has morphed into “the holidays,” and its commencement has progressively invaded all of December, and has, only this year, it seems, broken the “Thanksgiving barrier.” What’s next? Hallowe’en? Labor Day?

Alas, the older I get, the more I discover that the classical tradition is not only ignored, but virtually unknown, even among Episcopalians, even among clergy! We have been assimilated into the Holidays Borg. Hence, my reputation for being the Advent Grinch, or the Advent Nazi.

Is it such a big deal? It is, after all, “small stuff,” when the grand sweep of the Paschal Mystery is considered. The answer is … No … and Yes.

Failure to keep an Excruciatingly Correct Advent will certainly not keep anyone out of the Kingdom of God. It won’t, in and of itself, subtract one gem from anybody’s heavenly crown. And I don’t think Jesus even gives it a second thought (though, I would like to think, party animal that he was while inhabiting this planet in human form, that he might not be above engaging in some playful repartee on the subject).

That said, we do well to remember the purpose of any feast day, fast day, or liturgical season—Advent, Christmas, or the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—or, for that matter, any liturgical practice, discipline, gesture, or posture. They are all tools. They are all means to an end. They are, along with the sacraments, the scriptures, the prayers of the saints, and the communal life of the Church, means of grace that are intended to perfect our holiness, to make us more like Jesus, to fit us for life in the unfiltered presence of God, to enable us to look the Father in the eye and not be pulverized because when he sees us he sees his own Son, into whose image we have been perfectly configured.

As a pastor, it is my duty to keep all the tools sharp, oiled, and in good working order. Some of them are used everyday and are effective with a majority of the souls entrusted to my care. Others are used less frequently, and may work only with a limited number of people. As a pastor, it is my duty to encourage people to make connections between what they do in church and how they live in their homes and in the world, to see a coherence between liturgy and life. Holding up the formative value of keeping Advent and celebrating Christmas in the traditional manner is part of both those duties. Yeah, it’s small stuff. But sometimes small stuff is worth breaking a sweat over.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You

TEC Sign

The shield is cockeyed, which is a relatively recent development, but otherwise it hasn’t changed in decades. I was familiar with it long before I ever imagined I would end up an Episcopalian. It can be found on street corners in thousands of communities across the country (and sometimes it is obvious that they have been left untended for a good many years!). It is probably one of the most consistent efforts at “branding” that could be found anywhere.

Last week an ad was run in USA Today (I apologize for egregiously using the passive voice, but I don’t know who actually ran it; given TEC’s budget woes, could it have been paid for by the national church?) that rang the chimes on the theme of “welcome,” trying to put some meat on the bones, as it were. It’s in the form of a series of “bullet points.” They’re all true. They’re also all an exercise in “spin.” I don’t fault them for that; it’s in the essential nature of advertizing. But it’s helpful to be aware, at least, of the “music behind the words.”

As Episcopalians, we are followers of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This appears to be directed toward recently-former Episcopalians, and those under their influence, who contend that the Episcopal Church has abandoned (formally, materially, or both) the core teachings of Christianity. In that, I agree with the ad; TEC, as a unitary organism, has done nothing of the sort.

The Episcopal Church has members in the United States, as well as in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Haiti, Honduras, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the Virgin Islands.

And Fort Wayne, Indiana has an “international” airport … yeah … technically … in name, at least, though you can’t actually fly to another country directly from there. This is consistent with the message implied by the display of flags from the above-named countries behind the dais in the House of Deputies at the last two General Conventions, and the repeated admonition to banish the expression “the national church” from our vocabulary. It’s true that TEC has congregations in each of those places. But in many of them, you can count said congregations on the fingers of one hand, and have some left over. Plus, they’re small. (Haiti is the conspicuous exception; it is, by number of communicants, the largest diocese in “this church.”) So the import of this bullet point is more rhetorical than substantive. It is a shot across the bow of the Anglican Communion. It is, “We don’t need you to be international; we got your ‘international’ right here.”

We strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect the dignity of every person.

That is, unlike those nasty fundamentalist “Christians” you may have in mind, who are just a bunch of bigoted misogynistic homophobes who like NASCAR and watch FOX news. We’re better than them. We’re really nice … as long as you support your local Public Radio station. (Can I take my tongue out of my cheek yet?)

Seriously, this language comes from the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant, which has a quasi-cult following among those who try to purvey the impression that it is somehow unique among the baptismal liturgies of Christian churches. I have to ask, Is baptism, which is a universal rite of incorporation in the Church, not simply a church, really the place to sing “I gotta be me”? Not to worry though, the reality is that the Baptismal Covenant, when viewed in its entirety, is quite classically Christian, and not in any way uniquely Episcopalian. Shame on us if it were.

The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and traces its heritage to the beginnings of Christianity.

This is manifestly true. For now. But our status within the Communion is, to say the least, a little shaky. We were warned by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he came to Anaheim last July. We chose not to heed his warning. There will yet be consequences that may require someone to use the “strikethrough” formatting code on this bullet point. And given current trends, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the cord by which we “trace” our way to the “beginnings of Christianity” is a steel cable or an ultra-fine monofilament.

Our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and is celebrated in many languages.

Yes, our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and for that I am very grateful. That structure and those traditions feed my soul, and I know many thousands of Episcopalians are with me on this. But is it sufficient to merely “retain” these things, as if they were mere liturgical bric-a-brac that we may choose to “retain,” but can move around or fiddle with, or even melt down and recast, at will? I would sleep better if I were confident that my church was governed by and shaped by and accountable to these elements of our inheritance.

We welcome men and women, married or celibate, to be ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons.

This is another unfortunate attempt to define ourselves by what we’re not rather than by what we are—i.e. we’re not Roman Catholic, a church that does not ordain women or, with some exceptions, married men. Now, I’m on record as supportive of the notion that the Roman church would do well to look more closely at the benefits that a married priesthood would offer. That said, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that we “welcome” into ordained ministry those who also have a vocation to celibacy. We permit them and tolerate them, to be sure, but there is generally a jaundiced skepticism toward celibacy as a possible charism that can greatly bless the Church. Both sides have something to learn, here, I think.

We believe in amendment of life, the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting.

These are wholesome notions and true words. They are the truth. But they are not the whole truth, and in the absence of a context that includes a robust understanding of sin, grace, and redemption by means of the Paschal Mystery, are therefore capable of being sentimentalized and trivialized.

Lay people exercise a vital role in the governance and ministry of our Church.

This is a swipe not only that the Roman church but at other Anglican provinces whose structures of governance are not as directly democratic and egalitarian as ours. Now, I’m generally a fan of democratic processes in church affairs. I don’t know that I would want to trade our system for some other one. But I fear that we run the risk of idolizing it, of acting “just a little bit superior” toward churches that are in the habit of discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in ways other than concurrent majority votes in both houses of General Convention. The apostle Matthias, after all, was chosen in a game of chance! Moreover, I also suspect that we at the present moment suffering a crippling bout of episcophobia—the irrational fear of bishops! It is of the nature of the episcopal office to teach, govern, and lead. We ought not to hamstring bishops from exercising, individually and collectively, the ministry for which they were consecrated. And presbyters, after all, are elders. They are, for that reason, entitled to a presumption of knowing better. That may not always be true, and the consensus fidelium is always the final arbiter. But in the ordinary councils of the church, it is completely appropriate for bishops and presbyters to have disproportionate influence.

Holy Communion may be received by all baptized Christians, not only members of the Episcopal Church.

Another Romeward jab, since they welcome into full eucharistic fellowship only those whose bishop is a member of the college of bishops who are united in deferential communion with the See of Rome. I support TEC’s communion discipline, though, for pastoral reasons, I think the “all the baptized” invitation needs to be illuminated by the Cranmerian admonition about being in “love and charity” with one’s neighbor, and intending to lead “a new life, following the commandments of our Lord,” etc. Nonetheless, given the underlying ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, their sacramental discipline is not at all incoherent, and I am a little embarrassed to have my church take this kind of a cheap shot in an ad.

We uphold the Bible and worship with the Book of Common Prayer.

Now we’re trying to shore up our street cred both with other Anglican provinces and with the broader world of evangelicalism. But the arrow falls short of the target, I’m afraid. “Uphold”? That can mean virtually anything, which is to say that it means virtually nothing. Something like “stand under the authority of” or “are formed by” may have gotten closer to the mark. As for “worship with the Book of Common Prayer,” that deserves a whole blog post of its own. Stay tuned.

We affirm that committed relationships are lifelong and monogamous.

If there has ever been a more inept attempt to thread a verbal needle, I haven’t seen it. What the author wants to say, of course, is that the Episcopal Church offers liturgical, spiritual, and emotional support for gay and lesbian couples who wish to live publicly in a marriage-like relationship. So why not just come out (I didn’t intend that pun, but it seems apposite) and say it? Well, because it might “scare the horses,” so to speak—i.e. anyone who was fished in by talk of “uphold[ing] the Bible.” Better to let those who know the code recognize what’s being said, and not spell it out for those who don’t. But only at the cost of laughable syntactic awkwardness.

Episcopalians also recognize that there is grace after divorce and do not deny the sacraments to those who have been divorced.

We can’t seem to lay off the Roman Catholics. Perhaps we should dust off that old petition that was once in the Great Litany—“From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities: Good Lord, deliver us.” OK, I agree that there is grace after divorce, and I agree that the Rome’s attempted response to the reality of divorce—i.e. Marriage Tribunals and Declarations of Nullity—is not, shall we say, their finest hour. But this is really a nose-thumbing reply to Anglicanorum Coetibus, saying, “Hey, Bennie, the door swings both ways, ya know.” It’s rather beneath the dignity of my church. And just for the record, Rome doesn’t deny the sacraments to divorced persons, only to those who divorce and then remarry. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it’s important to be accurate when you’re paying for ad space in USA Today.

We affirm that issues such as birth control are matters of personal informed conscience.

Ditto the above. But I have to wonder whether there is an even more deeply encrypted subtext here that is available only to those with “ears to hear”, a subtext that would substitute “abortion” or “reproductive choice” for “birth control.” I personally have high regard for the logic behind Humanae Vitae, but, let’s face it, birth control is widely practiced even among otherwise devout Catholics, and it’s certainly not a subject of any great conflict among Anglicans, even the most conservative. And TEC is, at least as far as Executive Council is concerned, a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). So … I’m just sayin’. But, again, there are those horses we don’t want to scare.

We celebrate our unity in Christ while honoring our differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion.

This is sad in at least two dimensions. First, it’s manifestly not true. In my 35 years in the Episcopal Church, I’ve seen precious little honoring of differences. Instead, we live by the saying, “to the victor go the spoils” (an earlier and more direct iteration of “elections have consequences”). There is rarely grace or magnanimity in victory, only more “attitude.” I have watched diversity dry up and wither in the Episcopal Church. We are becoming theologically monochrome at an exponential rate. Tolerance is in short supply. Some laud this as a sign of increased unity, and it indeed is. Unity inevitably results when dissidents are driven away. But it is unity purchased at the price of size and strength. Instead of being a spiritual department store (as is any church that lays claim to being catholic), TEC has become a specialty boutique on the way toward becoming a novelty kiosk in the back wing of the mall. So the best we can say about “honoring differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion” is that it’s an aspirational statement.

Alas, though, even the aspiration is paltry. Is “work of love” the most we can say about our mission, about our identity, about who we are an what we do? Hey, I’m all in favor of love. It’s hugely important, and needs to be included in anything we think or say about the Church’s mission. But to imply that what binds Christians together is the “work of love” is just … weak. Toothless. Uninspiring. If you substitute “service” for “love,” it’s not any different than what my Rotary club could say. Yawn.

All are welcome to find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

I would hope so. I would think it has ever been so. I hope it will ever be so. What else is new? Is there any church anywhere that would not say the same thing about itself? The only way to make this final point interesting is to begin to take apart that little word—welcome.

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Paris. After two fabulous dinners at restaurants that had been recommended to us by friends, we were on our own that last night, wandering around the area of the Bastille, with our very limited command of the French language. We inquired of one maitre’d, “Parlez vous Anglais?” He brusquely shook his head in the negative. So we moved on. He did not make us feel welcome, presumably because we were Americans, or he didn’t approve of the way we were dressed, or something; we’ll never know. By contrast, at our default dinner joint here in Warsaw, Indiana, if a staff member sees us coming, they open the door for us and greet us warmly. We never fail to feel welcome there. One of the servers, at least, has memorized our drink preferences. So the first dimension of welcome is, Will they let me in the door, and make me feel like they’re glad to see me? This sort of welcome is unconditional (or very nearly so). It demands nothing and presumes nothing. By this standard, I cannot imagine a congregation of the Episcopal Church that would not welcome anybody who is not in that moment literally on fire, or covered in excrement, or brandishing a weapon.

Soon after moving to Warsaw in 2007, I joined the local Rotary club. I was, in fact, recruited, wooed. And I was made to feel welcome. I was made to feel that the other club members were glad I was there. But then I got a phone call: “When can we schedule you to deliver Mobile Meals?” Then I got a bill for semi-annual dues. More recently, I saw in a club email that it was my responsibility to provide the speaker on a certain date. Rotary is a service club, so it stands to reason that I am expected to serve. I do not, because of that expectation, feel any less welcome, but I understand that if I were to persistently decline opportunities to serve (and especially if I persistently decline to pay dues!), my welcome would expire. So there is a second dimension of welcome, and this time there are conditions, expectations. The Church welcomes all, but lays certain expectations on her members. These expectations are spelled out in the liturgies of Baptism and Confirmation. Only for the most scandalous violations of these expectations would a person be formally “unwelcomed” by the Church. But short of that ultimate act of discipline, the ability to exercise leadership or influence is frequently conditioned upon consistent performance of those obligations required of those who would be “in good standing.” (In TEC canon law, this includes a standard of Sunday worship attendance [“unless for good cause prevented”] and working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.) Such expectations do not represent a lack of being welcoming. They are simply part of what it means to be a Christian.

So, when we say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” it seems reasonable that we mean “welcome” in both of its dimensions. At the door, we welcome anyone and everyone. At the table, we welcome those who have made a commitment to Jesus through the vows of the baptism. Into positions of leadership and authority we welcome those who demonstrate willingness and ability to submit with grace to the yoke of radical Christian discipleship. Everyone whom we welcome, in whatever dimension, is expected to change, to grow, to become more like Jesus in every way. Yes, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But to follow him is to take up nothing less than one’s cross on a daily basis, with all the “cross” implies. If the demands of the cross feel uncomfortable, as they invariably will, it isn’t because the church is suddenly becoming unwelcoming.

In the ancient church, candidates for baptism received the sacrament wearing nothing but their birthday suits. It symbolized a radical putting-away of one’s past, and the embrace of a new (and very jealously exclusive) identity, an identity that trumps any other by which one may be tempted to define oneself. It is my hope that the welcome offered by the Episcopal Church is not about making anybody feel good, but about inviting them to a life-changing, identity-changing, pardigm-shifting, mind-blowing encounter with Jesus the Christ, King of kings, and Lord of lords. Anything less would be downright inhospitable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

For a number of reasons which I am not going to rehearse here (but which are, I hope, abundantly clear if you know me at all, or care to surf around upstream from this post), I am not a candidate for the provisions set forth in the new Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. But I am certainly a sympathetic observer. So I first want to say some positive things about this overture from Rome, because it is itself, in my view, a positive thing. Then I want to offer some observations that will be more—what’s the word?—challenging, because, as good as it is, it could still be a whole lot better.

Why am I a “sympathetic observer”? First, because I have a lot of friends and colleagues for whom this is an option that they are looking at very, very seriously. Their decision will affect my relationship with them, so it will affect my life. Second, because I am committed with all my being to the visible unity of Christ’s Church, and I am persuaded that the See of Rome has been given a charism by the Holy Spirit to be the focal point and guardian of that unity. (I am not, obviously, persuaded that submission to Rome is essential, in an absolute sense, to ecclesial validity or even ecclesial fullness, or else I would have swum the Tiber long ago.) So any initiative that is configured toward manifesting a higher degree of visible unity is of interest to me. Third, there is a part of me that is envious of my friends for whom it is a live option. I share their joy (even as I will be grief-stricken when we can no longer share the Eucharist at the same altar). I want it to work for them.

In several respects, the details of the Constitution (and its supporting documents) exhibit a degree of pastoral sensitivity on the part of Pope Benedict that is almost breathtaking. While it is not surprising that there will be no allowance for married bishops, Ordinaries who are former Anglican bishops will be bishops in all but name. It appears that permission will be readily granted for them to wear the “insignia” of episcopal office, which presumably will include miters, rings, and pectoral crosses. The only part of their former job description they won’t be able to take with them is actually ordaining. It is also noteworthy that provision is made for items of governance that are more conciliar than is customary in mainstream Latin Rite dioceses, including what American Episcopalians would recognize as a sort of “Standing Committee,” a body of priests within an Ordinariate whose responsibility it is to act as a check on the Ordinary’s exercise of authority.

There are, of course, some questions and some ironies. Precisely what liturgical materials will be authorized for use? In the Anglican Use, heretofore limited to America, there is a volume that is clearly modeled on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It even has forms in “Rite One” and “Rite Two” language. But even within the Catholic “wing” of Anglicanism, there is a dizzying degree of liturgical diversity. American Anglo-Catholics tilt in the direction (though not exclusively, by any means) of pre-Vatican II ceremonial (i.e. Tridentine), using Elizabethan-era language. Their British counterparts, on the other hand, tilt very strongly (but again, not exclusively) in the direction of essentially emulating contemporary Latin Rite ritual and ceremonial, to the point of using the Novus Ordo word for word rather than any officially authorized Anglican liturgy. (One might plausibly inquire, then, precisely what part of the “Anglican patrimony” they will be bringing with them across the river.) This is a much wider range of practice than is currently possible within the mainstream Latin Rite. I would have to assume that Vatican officials are aware of this, and it will be interesting to see how they ride herd on what can only be described as the “messiness” of Anglo-Catholic liturgical praxis.

As the news of the new Apostolic Constitution broke a couple of weeks ago, speculation was rife that it signified the victory of one section of the Vatican bureaucracy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by Cardinal William Levada, over another, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, in an ongoing internal tug of war. The scuttlebutt was that Pope Benedict, whose previous job was Levada’s at CDF, reached a point where he no longer held out hope for achieving ecumenical rapprochement with Anglicans via the “front door” strategy of official bilateral and multilateral negotiations, concluding that “Anglicanism” is too amorphous to speak with a united voice, and is therefore not a viable ecumenical partner. At the same time, there are (ostensibly) whole communities of Anglicans ready to batter the gates of Rome for admission. Better to make a deal with them and achieve some tangible results than rely on painstaking negotiations with official Anglican bodies that have borne some significant fruit over the years, but which are constantly—and, it appears, hopelessly—undermined by the behavior of one Anglican province or another.

If there is any truth to this scenario, it is difficult to fault the Holy Father. He is passionate about visible unity and is eager for results. He is, after all, in the twilight of his life. But it is worth raising the question, and meaning not a micron of disrespect: Was even this bold stroke too timid? Is Rome perhaps even now squandering an opportunity for a truly game-changing move? One that would stretch, but not undermine, the disciplinary tradition of the Latin Rite?

What are the “liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion” that Anglicanorum Coetibus is intended to help preserve? Is it Cranmerian liturgical draftsmanship? Choral Evensong? Hymns with soaring treble descants? (Or, some have joked, hymns where all the verses actually get sung.) Sarum blue vestments for Advent? If we’re talking about these elements, or others like them, that’s something that I’m sure will be appreciated by those who opt in to the personal ordinariate scheme. But all that does is peel off a stratum of Anglicanism made up of people who are attached to such things and who also are already yearning to be in communion with Rome, to the point where they can no longer stand not to be.

But it’s a move that leaves a lot of unplayed cards on the table, because there are many more—many times more, actually—Anglicans who are very pre-disposed to fall in behind Benedict’s inspiring (and inspired) leadership in striking back at the forces of secularism. There are even some prominent Anglican evangelical voices in this particular chorus, which is really quite astonishing. Even though I write as an Anglo-Catholic, I realize that the “patrimony of Anglicanism” includes the evangelical stream, and I am loathe to make the move into the bosom of Rome without some, at least, of my evangelical brethren (realizing that the most resolute Protestants will likely never come along). Is comprehensiveness a necessary evil that worked for Elizabeth, but no longer serves us well? Perhaps. But it also may be a gem, something we as Anglicans can bring with us, if we are allowed to, as we hold ourselves to a higher degree of accountability to the wider Catholic Church in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome.

Another facet of that gem is a 450 year tradition of a married priesthood (and episcopate) that, on balance, has served us well, fostering a dynamic in the relationship between pastor and people that has a tendency to be health-giving. This does not denigrate the benefits that have derived from the charism of celibacy within the Latin Rite. It does suggest something different, something additional, an element of comprehensiveness. Yet another facet is a tradition of intellectual spaciousness that, to be sure, carries attendant risks, but which is demonstrably an effective force for the sanctification of the faithful by the renewal of their minds. It may not be consonant in every detail with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but, in dialogue with (tethered to?) that valuable document, could represent a channel of divine grace. Another facet of the gem represents the “saints” peculiar to Anglicanism—Hooker, Donne, Herbert, Simeon, the Wesleys, Keble, Underhill, Eliot, Lewis, and others. There would be no need, I suspect, for any of them to be canonized in the technical sense. But for those spiritually formed in Anglicanism, there would need to be some provision for bringing these folks along posthumously. They have been used by God to shape us, and we cannot deny them.

What I, in my fantasies, would like to see—I may as well come out and say it—is a true Anglican Rite Church, alongside the Maronites, Melkites, Ukranians, etc., an Anglican Uniatism. In such a church, the gem that is the Anglican tradition could be allowed to shine in all its comprehensive glory, not just temporarily and partially, but indefinitely, until the Spirit works to bring all the strands of Christianity into fruitful unity. This would include permanent permission to retain a married priesthood. Yet, this church would be anchored firmly to deferential communion with the Roman Pontiff exercising his Petrine ministry of fostering unity among all the faithful in Christ, and thus be protected from evolving in ways that compromise the integrity of the faith. Now, I understand the technical reasoning behind the decision not to move in such a direction, that Anglicanism is a spinoff from the Latin Rite that needs to be reunited with its parent, and not, properly speaking, an ancient church with a patriarchate of its own. That is a completely coherent response. But it is also a failure of imagination, and possibly a deficit in the cardinal virtue of fortitude. The potential harvest of Christian unity is incredibly rich at this moment. But reaping that harvest demands not just a bold stroke like Anglicanorum Coetibus. It demands a leap of faith.

Your Holiness, carpe diem!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Adventures in Ecclesiology, Part III: The Visibility of the Church

From time to time I run across a book, or a TV “infomercial, suggesting that the health of one particular organ or organ system within the human body is the key to overall physical health (nine times out of ten, it’s the colon). Patients present with a disparate range of symptoms, and providers attempt to diagnose and treat according the the symptoms, but, say these books and infomercials, they invariably get it wrong unless they first address the health of … the colon (or whatever).

If we were to apply this mental model to Christian theology, what would be the “colon”? It is at least quite arguable that this key place in the system would be held by ecclesiology. The “presenting problem” may be soteriology (how God saves us) or christology (the person and work of Christ) or pneumatology (the Holy Spirit) or some moral issue (can you think of any off-hand?!) or even hermeneutics (methodology of scriptural interpretation), but the underlying issue may actually be rooted in ecclesiology (theology of the Church). Divergent ecclesiological assumptions lead to divergent conclusions in those other areas, and no conflict in those areas can be effectively resolved without addressing the parties’ underlying ecclesiologies.

One case in point: Some years ago I served on the board of a (Christian) faith-based organization the mission of which was to channel the energy and resources of the Christian community toward attacking the root causes of the multitude of social ills that beset the city I lived in (the usual list: poverty, gangs, drugs, and violence, all feeding off one another). We discussed having a sort of “pastors’ summit” at a nearby facility in order to promote bonding and collegiality among the clergy leaders of the city. This board was dominated by free-church evangelicals—people with big hearts and a tremendous dedication to and love for Jesus, people whom I held in the highest esteem. One of them brought up the idea of having a “communion service” as a capstone to the retreat, an idea that got several immediate “Amens.” It fell to me to suggest that this wouldn’t necessarily be such a great idea. For me, and for others whom we were hoping to include in this event (namely, some of our Roman Catholic colleagues), what for some was a no-brainer was highly problematic. And although very concrete issues of eucharistic theology and liturgical form were at the front of the queue by way of explanation, the real issue was one of ecclesiology: What does the Eucharist and the way the Eucharist is celebrated “say” about the community that celebrates it—namely, the Church—and vice versa?

I am once again going to indulge in a sweeping generalization, cognizant more than ever of the attendant risk in doing so, but confident that the good to be attained thereby justifies the risk. So bear with me.

To some extent, it is possible to sort Christian communities along a continuum, with High Church/Catholic at one end and Low Church/Evangelical at the other. Apropos of the (crude) dichotomy I posited in Part II from last week, the Low Church position is one in which the individual Christian believer is (ontologically if not chronologically) “prior” to the Church. This view makes a sharp distinction between the Church per se and its institutional manifestation. The Church as such is an inherently “invisible” entity. It is comprised of all those who have made a conscious and voluntary faith commitment to Christ—“received Christ as their Savior,” as many might put it. The membership of the Church, then, is a number known only to God, for only God can accurately read the human heart. When individuals have made such a commitment, it is to be expected that they will seek out one another’s company for purposes of common worship, instruction, mutual encouragement, and shared mission. In doing so, they will create institutional structures, both tangible (buildings and bank accounts) and intangible (leadership positions, governing boards, etc.). The word “church” will often be associated with these structures in various ways. But that connection is only incidental. The Church (the invisible Body of Christ the membership of which is known only to God) should never be confused or identified with its institutional manifestation, which is temporal and passing. By this way of thinking, it is not only theoretically possible, but virtually mandatory to make a distinction between a believer’s relationship with Christ and his or her relationship with the Church.

By contrast, a High Church (Catholic) position holds that the Church is in every way (both chronologically and ontologically) “prior” to her individual members. She is an eminently “visible” entity, the “body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members” (from the Catechism of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), thus having an objective measure for discerning membership. If the number is known only to God, it’s not because only God can read the human heart, but because human engineers haven’t invented the right data storage and retrieval system yet! This is a thoroughly organic ecclesiology. The best analogue is not social--the voluntary association, or the corporation—but biological, i.e. the family, clan, tribe. In this framework, it is not so simple to divorce the Church qua institution from the Church qua “mystical Body of Christ.” They may not be precisely one and the same, but they are so interwoven and grown around each other that it is functionally impossible to pull them apart without doing damage.

Both ends of the ecclesiological spectrum, and all points in between, speak of the Church as the “body of Christ.” This is, after all, a pre-eminent New Testament (Pauline) metaphor. It cannot be casually overlooked. But I don’t think it’s misleading to say that an Evangelical will tend to use the expression more as an instructive figure of speech, whereas a Catholic will tend to embrace it as a dynamic reality. If Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members, then to make a sharp distinction between relationship to Christ and relationship to the Church is to risk decapitating the Church! There is no connection to the Head without a connection to the Body. How one behaves toward the Body is how one behaves toward the Head. Loyalty to Christ cannot be prior to loyalty to the Church; they are one and the same. Along similar lines, a dynamic understanding of how Christ is “embodied” in the Church precludes make too sharp a distinction between some abstract ideal of the Church and the Church’s actual (and quite messy and flawed) institutional infrastructure. It is precisely this infrastructure—with is canons and constitutions and covenants, to say nothing of bylaws and Letters of Agreement and everything else--that mediates (incarnates?) the presence of ministry of Christ in his corpus mysticum.

So the next time you’re observing or participating in debate, whether rancorous or civil, within the community of Christians, try digging a little deeper than whatever the presenting issue might be, and ask yourself, “What are the ecclesiological assumptions that each side is making? How do these assumptions, even if unspoken, actually drive the debate?”

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loving the Saints

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

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

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

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

His response? “I would miss Nicholas.”

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On the "Patrimony" of Anglicanism

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

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

Systematic Theology is the discipline of taking that which Christians believe and teach (or, in any case, that which any given systematic theologian thinks Christians should believe and teach) and organizing that material into a coherent whole, a “system.” Pick up most any Systematic Theology textbook, and the first chapter is likely to be about God, generically speaking, or, perhaps, about the basis for human knowledge of God—religious epistemology, revelation, or the like. From there, the “system” might proceed to the specifically Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and then, perhaps, to the person and work of Christ, or maybe to Christian anthropology—the nature of Man, the Fall, the character of sin, redemption, and grace. The concluding chapter is likely to be on eschatology—Last Things, how the story ends. Somewhere in the middle, and probably closer to the end than to the beginning, there will be a chapter on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church (and, depending on the theological perspective of the author, something on the sacraments).

It all seems reasonable enough. There are a great many puzzle pieces that need to be in place before one can make sense of the Church. This methodology has sometimes been styled “theology from above.” It is a deductive exercise, in that it starts with truths that are over-arching and all-encompassing—i.e. truths about God—and reasons downward to matters that are specific and localized, matters like the Church. But it seems worthwhile to pose the question, What if one were to attempt a systematic theology, as it were, “from below”? What if one were to do theology in a manner that philosophers might call “phenomenological,” beginning with the concrete and specific and reasoning from there to the general and all-encompassing? From such a perspective, Chapter I in a Systematic Theology textbook would probably concern itself with the Church.

If you are a Christian (a plausible presumption for the readership of this blog), how did you first hear about Jesus? Was it at your grandmother’s knee? From a Sunday School teacher? A pastor? A friend or neighbor? A radio or TV ministry? From picking up a Gideon bible in a hotel room? In any of these cases, it was some manifestation of the Church that introduced you to Christ. Unless the risen Jesus appeared to you personally as he did to Saul on the Damascus Road, you have the Church to thank for your Christian faith. So from the standpoint of the actual lives of actual Christians, the Church is not an afterthought, a derivation from some more foundational principles. It is our point of connection to the gospel, the indispensable medium in which and through which we have a relationship with Christ.

(I’m about to make some wide sweeping generalizations, which can cause trouble if they’re stretched beyond their usefulness in making a critical point. I’ll try to do my part in avoiding that trap; you’ll have to do yours as well.)

With apologies to chickens and eggs everywhere: Which came first, the Church or the Believer? I believe there is a correct theological answer to this question, and that such theological priority is rooted in and demonstrated by the phenomenological priority asserted above. It’s kind of hip these days among some believers to describe themselves as “Christ-followers” rather than “Christians.” This reflects a certain frustration with the institutional obtuseness of the Church, but in the end, it’s a bogus distinction, a red herring. Every “Christ-follower” first met Jesus through the ministry of the Church. Even Saul/Paul was commanded to seek out the Church in Damascus in order to be relieved of his blindness and be baptized. Even the apostles did not know Jesus apart from the community of their colleagues. There is no such thing as free-lance Christianity. By being connected to the Head, one is unavoidably connected to the Body. (More about that in subsequent posts in this series.)

What I am attempting to enunciate here is a Catholic ecclesiology, which consistently asserts that the Church is in every way (phenomenologically, theologically, and ontologically) prior to the Believer. This notion swims decidedly upstream against a powerful current of American individualism, with roots going back to colonial times, combined with post-modern intellectual relativism and libertinism—a stream that provides congenial lodging for an essentially Protestant ecclesiology. In Protestant ecclesiology, the Believer is prior to the Church. When an individual encounters Christ, that person immediately looks around for others who have had a similar encounter, and forms community with them for purposes of common worship, mutual support and encouragement, and united witness and mission. In this view, “church” is simply a collective noun for an aggregation of believers. The Believer is prior to the Church—theologically and ontologically, at any rate, if not phenomenologically.

In practice, this gets pretty mixed up. There are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the ecclesiological moorings of which are solidly Catholic (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox) but whose personal mental model of the Church (even though they may not have the technical vocabulary to articulate it as such) is clearly Protestant (especially if they happen to be Americans). And there are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the formal ecclesiology of which is squarely in the free-church congregationalist evangelical tradition, but who have intuitively constructed a personal mental model of the Church that is quite communitarian, in fact, quite Catholic.

This theological dissonance is, I suspect, largely subliminal. Most Christians who hold ecclesiological pre-suppositions that are at odds with the ‘DNA’ of their own church are not aware of the disconnect. Yet, if one were to take any given church conflict, and peel back all the underlying rhetoric and substantive argument, that very disconnect would in many cases lie at the bottom of the pile.

I suppose it goes without saying that I am an advocate of the Catholic position, as I have described it. It is not only undeniably true phenomenologically, but if we take seriously the Pauline “body” metaphor, it is manifestly true theologically (more on that to come). Of course, I hold in esteem my fellow-believers from ecclesial traditions that take the opposite point of view. What would perhaps be most helpful all around is if, in our discussions of other matters, we could be more consciously aware of our underlying ecclesiological assumptions. I suppose I would probably also find it helpful if people spoke and acted in ways that are coherent with the formal ecclesiology of the churches of which they are actually members.

Still to come: Part III: The Visibility of the Church, and Part IV: The Unity of the Church.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Check Out My Parish's Redesigned Website

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Bridge Across the Tiber?

I feel almost obligated to say something about a “breaking” Anglican story, if for no other reason than that it has shown up on the CNN crawler (and other secular media sources), necessitating a measure of spin control, since secular news outlets invariably get church-related stories really, really wrong, either in the headlines, or in the details, or both. (This, of course, leads me to wonder what else they get wrong in areas where I have no particular expertise or inside knowledge, but that’s another story.)

The Vatican has announced an arrangement by which Anglican Christians may enter into full communion with the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), and do so in groups that maintain their collective identity (like parishes and dioceses). They would then be allowed to continue liturgical and spiritual practices that are identifiably Anglican (such as using texts from the Prayer Book and music from familiar hymnals). Moreover, their clergy could become Roman Catholic priests, and, if married, remain so as they continue to pastor their congregations.

The technical name (and a hugely awkward one, I must say) for the new sort of jurisdiction is “personal ordinariate.” An “ordinary” is a cleric who has a sort of authority that is usually associated with the office of Diocesan Bishop, but may also be held by a Dean (of a seminary) or an Abbott (of a monastery). The personal ordinariates under this plan would be defined by and accountable to each (national, in most cases) Bishops’ Conference. The ordinaries themselves may, in fact, be bishops (though not former Anglicans, apparently) but will in most cases, at least in the near term, be priests (i.e. former Anglicans, probably married) who have the administrative authority and responsibility of a bishop without the sacramental peculiars—ironically, ordinaries who cannot ordain.

The media are treating this announcement as something new—indeed, something shockingly new. The truth is—it isn’t. From early in the papacy of John Paul II, there has been something called the Pastoral Provision in effect that allows married Anglican clergy, after undergoing mutual discernment and screening, to be ordained as Roman priests. There has also been something called the Anglican Use, which permits congregations of former Anglicans to remain stylistically Anglican while jurisdictionally Roman Catholic. There are a handful (well, maybe two hands-full) of Anglican Use parishes in the U.S., and have been for a number of years.

What is different about this new initiative? Two things, mainly: First, it applies worldwide, whereas the Pastoral Provision and Anglican Use were confined to the United States. So the most dramatic impact will no doubt be in England, where there are thousands of laity and hundreds of clergy who have been chomping at the bit for something like this. It comes at a particularly sensitive time politically, as the leadership of the Church of England has been trying to find a way to move forward with consecrating women bishops and still hang on to its Catholic wing, which is more numerous percentage-wise than it is in the Episcopal Church. Will the personal ordinariate arrangement siphon off Anglo-Catholics (who pretty much already worship according to the Roman Rite in toto), and not only make it politically easier to have women bishops but also radically shift the delicate balance-of-power in the church? Time will tell.

Second, the new arrangement takes something that has been tentative and somewhat fluid and gives it the character of something that is effectively permanent. It takes an anomaly and institutionalizes it. There is even talk of personal ordinariates (presumably, groups thereof) operating their own seminaries. One of the implications is that Anglicanesque (for lack of a better term) parishes would be in the local Latin Rite (i.e. mainstream Roman Catholic) dioceses in which they are geographically located, but only partially of them. The diocesan bishop’s authority will not extend to anything that pertains to the distinctively Anglican character of these congregations. Such matters would come under the purview of the “personal ordinary.”

There are, of course, some unanswered questions. So far, I’ve only seen second-hand reports and announcements, not any official documents that spell out the details, and we know who lives in the details. For instance, are married priests a one-generation “grandfathered-in” deal, or are we looking at an enduring element of an ecclesiastical sub-culture being created? Will the personal ordinaries be permitted to arrange the ordination of married men who have never been Anglican priests? If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then what we are witnessing is the de facto creation of an Anglican Rite within the Catholic Church (despite all Vatican protestations to the contrary) alongside the Melkite (Greek), Maronite (Lebanese) and other Uniate churches. And what effect is this all likely to have on the many, many Latin Rite priests who would dearly love to be married (or married laicized priests who would love to resume their ministry)?

Speaking personally, does this get my attention? Yes, it does, in the same way that a man whose generally happy marriage is going through a rough patch might have his attention arrested by an attractive potential alternative. I believe the See of Rome to be God’s gift for the unity of Christ’s Church, and it would give me great joy to die at a ripe old age in full sacramental fellowship with the church founded by Peter and Paul. It is a prospect dear to my heart. From the day the Bishop of Los Angeles laid hands on me in Confirmation in 1975, I have considered myself, as an Anglican, fully a Catholic, no hyphens or qualifiers. Since the eve of St Thomas’ Day 1989 I have known myself to be a Catholic priest, a Catholic priest who has said Mass well over two thousand times, and has pronounced God’s absolution on dozens of penitent sinners. And it is precisely because I know these things about myself and my ministry that, with some measure of sadness, I do not foresee myself serving under a personal ordinary in an Anglicanesque parish. To do so would require me to say—not in so many words, perhaps, but with devastating clarity nonetheless—that I have never been a priest, that all the Eucharists over which I have presided have been make-believe, and that my absolutions have been mere aspirational hopes. I could never say those things and live with my conscience.

There will doubtless be much more to say on these matters as events unfold.