Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Praise of the Daily Office

Coming at the tradition of historic Christianity as I did (from free-church evangelicalism) and when I did (in my early twenties, nearly four decades ago), it is interesting (providential?) that the parish in which I first worshiped regularly as an Anglican was a “Morning Prayer” parish. That was already a dying breed in the Episcopal Church even then, and now it is virtually extinct. We seem to have thoroughly recovered and embraced the ancient norm that the Eucharist is the principal act of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, and this is, in my view, an overwhelmingly positive development. Yet, on a number of levels, I am glad I had the experience of All Saints-by-the-Sea in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s. It is where I first heard “O Lord, open thou our lips.” It is where I encountered the canticles (I remember especially Benedictus es, Domine sung to Anglican Chant in a manner that has been aptly called “Anglican thump”). It is where I first encountered Cranmer’s majestic liturgical draftsmanship, drinking so deeply as it did of the Benedictine spirit that underlies the Anglican ethos.

In time (and elsewhere), I learned that the purpose of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is revealed most clearly when they form the foundation of a person’s (or, ideally, a community’s) daily prayer life. That foundation was eventually laid solidly in my own heart and mind and soul, and by the time I matriculated in a seminary that had monastic origins, it wasn’t that big a transition for me, just an intensification of something I was already accustomed to. More than 20 years after leaving Nashotah House, I still miss Michael the Bell calling the community to prayer.

I was blessed, upon graduation, to become a curate in a parish (St Luke’s, Baton Rouge) where Morning and Evening Prayer were read publicly, at stated times, seven days a week, thus extending the regimen to which I had grown accustomed in seminary. In the three congregations where I subsequently assumed the reins of pastoral care (in 1991, 1994, and 2007), I established this same practice. Much of the time I have been alone. Most of the time I have had one other person with me (usually another staff member, but still…), and occasionally a decent handful of co-worshipers. Unfortunately, my experience in this regard is quite atypical. Hardly any churches (of whatever stripe) recite the offices on a daily basis, a significant impoverishment to our common life, I would say.

As I mentioned upstream a few posts, I’m in the middle of reading a novel about a community of English Benedictine nuns that takes place around 1960. That narrative, to the extent that it wants to be authentic, cannot help but make frequent references to the daily liturgical life of the community, which spent several hours out of every 24 in the chapel, with some of them devoting even more hours to rehearsing for the chapel services. These comments, put by the author in the mouth of the novice mistress, particularly arrested my attention:

“This is our craft,” [Dame Agnes] said, using the word in its highest sense. “The craft of a contemplative religious, and as a good workman, an artist, loves his craft, we must delight in ours.”

I would not suggest that the majority of Christians, who, unlike these cloistered nuns, are “in the world,” can hone the same craft to the same degree of subtle and sophisticated beauty. But I am too formed in the same craft, albeit at a more plebian level, to easily let go of the notion that it is something worth doing more and doing better. For nearly the last two years, I have had a sort of apprentice in practicing this craft. As you might imagine, I have over the years acquired some opinions about “best practices” in praying the Daily Office from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and it has been a challenging and rewarding exercise for me to regularly be made to articulate why these practices are indeed “best.” I may not be a “contemplative religious,” but the daily office is part of my craft too, and it’s a craft in which I continue to delight.

Frankly, I cannot imagine trying to be a priest without these daily spiritual anchors. The practice consumes several hours a week when you add it all up, which is time that one could argue could be spent more “usefully.” But not really. There is no value I could ever place on the grooves that have been worn in my soul by more than thirty years of praying all 150 Psalms, the canticles and collects, the Old Testament narratives and prophecies, the gospel pericopes, and the passages from the epistles, Acts, and Revelation. The Daily Office is certainly not in itself a sufficient rule of prayer. But it is, I am persuaded, for most Christians who hang their hats in liturgical churches, a necessary foundation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wiki Theology

The Los Angeles Times carried a story earlier this week about a conference recently sponsored and hosted by the Claremont School of Theology, the title of which was “Theology After Google.” Here’s the money quote:

Jon Irvine, a 30-year-old Web designer who works with the "emerging church" movement, said the church of the future will have to be less hierarchical and more freewheeling and ecumenical. Using the familiar formula for tracking software changes, he said: "Church 1.0 . . . was always about a big council of big brains getting together and telling you, 'Here, we've gone into a room and we've decreed that you need to believe.' Church 2.0 is more bottom-up. Every man is capable of learning and providing feedback. Church 1.0 is all about creeds and doctrines, whereas Church 2.0 is kind of like a wiki-theology."

Wiki, of course, is a dynamic concept that represents both the best and the worst of how the internet has revolutionized the exchange of information inside of 15 years. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re familiar with Wikipedia, an online reference that is constantly being edited and updated by anyone who believes they have the knowledge to improve any given entry. No permission is necessary and there is no formal oversight. Most of the time, this results in factual and reliable articles. Where the subject is one of current controversy, there is usually an editing tug-of-war. The idea is that, while this will lead to anomalies and imperfections, sometimes of a gross magnitude, over time the forces of the intellectual and academic marketplace will prevail, and the rough places will be made plain.

Mr Irvine’s contention is that, in the church-that-is-emerging, theology will be done in the same way. Rather than creeds or councils (or synods or conventions) or hierarchical authorities deciding the content of doctrine or teaching, theology will emerge from the ground up, fine-tuned by a rich dialectical process the authenticity of which is attested by the sheer number of participants. Without anything so formal as votes by orders (orders?) or concurrent resolutions, everybody will have a piece of the action—at any rate, those with a broadband internet connection.

I’m in a frame of mind where I’m still trying to discern the vector and speed of the puck, so this whole notion catches my attention. And, somewhat ironically, perhaps, wiki-theology seems strangely consonant with a very traditional and very Catholic concept—the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful. Even in the most hierarchically ordered churches, the voice of the hierarchy is understood to be ultimately credible inasmuch as it is also the voice of the entire ecclesial community. A decree of the magisterium, or of an ecumenical council, is formally final, but effectively is concluded with an asterisk: It must still be “received” (a technical term in ecclesiology) by the “faithful” (another technical term pretty much synonymous with “baptized,” therefore denoting the whole body of the Church, not merely those whose piety is exemplary). Moreover, this process of reception is not only horizontal across space but vertical across time; it takes more than one generation to be deemed complete.

Will the latest technology for information sharing be a major factor in any process leading to an expression of the consensus fidelium? Of course it will. Philip Clayton, the principal presenter at the Claremont event, stressed how Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type made the Protestant Reformation not only possible, but, some might say, inevitable. He then suggests that the latest sea change in information sharing technology—i.e. the internet—is bound to have an impact just as cataclysmic. It will bring about “Church 2.0.” (I would say those who use that expression have missed a couple of product upgrades: I would place the release of Church 2.0 in wake of the Edict of Constantine in the early fourth century and Church 3.0 with Luther and his 95 Theses in 1517. [What about the Great Schism of 1054? 2.5, I would say.] So what we’re looking at now is probably something more like Church 4.0. But I quibble.)

But is a technologically more efficient process for achieving and articulating the consensus fidelium tantamount to wiki-theology? Does it obviate the need for (or at least the relevance of) creeds and councils? Does it make ordination obsolete, as one of the Claremont conference attendees suggested? ("’I think things like denomination and ordination are part of the old system of control and domination that has to go,’ [Doug] Pagitt, 42, said…”)

Arguably not, and here’s why: It’s nothing new. I’m not opposed to trend spotting. Remember, I aim to get ahead of the curve on that. But I wonder whether the ecclesial populism espoused by Mr Pagitt is really a sign of a technological tectonic shift as much as it is of the old-fashioned free church evangelicalism in whose water he swims, whether he knows it or not. If you’re already predisposed against hierarchical structures and church order, it’s pretty easy to think that your position is the wave of the future. Is wiki-theology substantively different than the every-man-his-own-pope paradigm in which I was formed as a youth, or does it merely accomplish the same ends more efficiently, and, presumably, with demonstrably more buy-in? I am inclined to think that it’s the latter.

In my musing of last week (linked above) about figurative hockey pucks, I noted the challenging work of discerning the difference between the genuine pearls of our tradition and time bound customs that need to be changed out before their freshness date expires. What is so precious that we must insist on establishing it among those who are joined to our fellowship, and what do we need to be careful not to force on others, even if we are ourselves quite attached to it? I’m a hymn geek, and there are a number of hymns that I find quite lovely, but which are clearly in the latter category. On this Mr Pagitt and I would probably agree. But he and I would part company as soon as we get beyond the first point of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The creeds, the dominical sacraments, and the inheritance of apostolic ministry have already been vetted thoroughly and have settled positions in the consensus fidelium. They are no longer in a process of reception; they have been received. Editing is closed.

Just as Wikipedia can go bad at times, wiki-theology can also go bad. America (and any society where the secular politics are democratic) is a particularly risky environment for wiki-theology. It is distressingly easy for us to transfer our experience of and commitment to democracy in the secular arena to our life in the church, which is not inherently democratic even if some parts of it choose to employ democratic processes in discernment and decision making. It is easy to forget the given-ness of so much of our faith and practice, and entertain the illusion that we can make things up as we go along, decide doctrine by plebiscite, edit the creeds the same way we would edit a Wikipedia article.

If that’s where the puck is going, this isn’t hockey anymore.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Skating Toward Where the Puck is Going to Be

Last week my friend and fellow blogger Nick Knisely (Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix and short-list nominee for Bishop of Kentucky) posted an essay on the speed of technological change viz a vis mobile networking (using the incipient release of the iPad as the springboard for his reflections). He suggested that it would behoove churches (among other societal institutions) to try and get ahead of the change curve in the area of information technology, rather than always bringing up the rear. To illustrate his point, he alluded to legendary professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s response when asked to account for his astonishing performance in the NHL: “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it’s going to be.”

That quote immediately arrested my attention, and I’ve been pondering it for several days. In fact, it’s almost hijacked my thought processes. I have a deep intuitive sense that there is a profound truth here that applies to a lot more than hockey in particular and sports in general. The ability to recognize changing circumstances, adapt to them quickly, and take it a step further by anticipating their implications is, I would suggest, the better part of what distinguishes good and great leaders from mediocre and incompetent leaders.

This is a subject of some importance to me because I am, among other things, a leader. I’m a parish pastor, and I have vestry members and parishioners who look to me for leadership. I’m among a group of leaders in my diocese, by virtue of serving on the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry, and the Examining Chaplains, to say nothing of a stint as General Convention Deputy. And simply on the basis of that last office, I guess you could say that I am—in a broad sense, at least—a leader in the Episcopal Church. Some might suggest that my presence in cyberspace over the last few years also qualifies me for the designation “leader.” While greatness as a leader is obviously beyond the range of my giftedness, I surely do aspire to be a good one, or at least to avoid being an incompetent one.

So what does it look like for a responsible leader to skate to where the puck is going? This is neither a whimsical nor an abstract question. The institutional contexts in which I exercise leadership are in distress. The level of conflict in my parish is not crippling (or even close), but it’s certainly sharper than the kind of background noise an experienced cleric learns to accept as a baseline norm. We halted a precipitous numerical decline that began in the middle of the last decade and continued until my arrival in mid-2007. But in the wake of last summer’s General Convention, there is once again evidence of erosion. My diocese is a demographic microcosm of much of the Episcopal Church—slowly but steadily declining Sunday attendance, slowly but steadily rising median age, fewer and fewer full-time clergy positions, only about a third of our congregations able to afford a full-time priest, and some of them only marginally so. And the Episcopal Church itself, of course, is in numerical and financial free-fall, on a glide path toward institutional meltdown.

None of this is particularly news, or course. As a pastoral leader, the sort of of response I have advocated and tried to implement has included several components:

  • A robust liturgical life that embodies the breadth and depth of our Anglican tradition, leading to the sanctification of matter, time, space, gesture, and action; rich symbolism and vibrant sensory experience. This includes music of a variety of styles, but always done with an unfailing standard of excellence.
  • Engaging preaching that opens up the scriptures, sets forth good news with consistently compelling clarity, and calls people to ever-deepening discipleship and stewardship.
  • Leadership that persistently casts a vision of communal dedication to mission—both spiritual and material.
  • Strong and challenging programs of Bible study and Christian formation, for both adults and young people.
  • Pastoral care that makes no pretense of being a therapeutic milieu, but winsomely leads people, in their hour of need, to a connection with Jesus, their suffering and crucified and risen Lord, the true “Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.”

This is how I attempt to ply my trade, to exercise my craft as a priest. I’ve done it this way for twenty years. It’s all I know how to do with any confidence. At some level, these things define my very sense of self, they are central to my vocational identity. And I’ve been modestly successful with them, relatively speaking. Treading statistical water certainly conveys no bragging rights, but in a larger context of accelerating decline, it is, so to speak, nothing to sneeze at.

What’s been bothering me the last few days, though, is the growing sense that operating in this area of my competence and comfort, even if I do it well, even if I were to do it better than most of my colleagues and peers (a big “if”), is still just skating to where the puck is, rather than to where the puck is going to be. And I have a suspicion that there are plenty more where I come from, that there are a great many Christian pastors and lay leaders who can readily find themselves in the bullet points listed above. If so, we’re all skating toward the edge of a precipice, and Wayne Gretzky has a word for us.

As pastoral leaders, we need to lay hold of a fresh vision for our mandate. This is, of course, where the lights start to get dim, but those of us who are members of a “developed world” western culture can start by really acknowledging that the era of Christendom is over. We’ve been talking about this for decades now, and while we’ve been talking the death spiral of Christendom has accelerated exponentially. Even while acknowledging this reality, we’ve been engaging in largely rear-guard action, trying to cope with and manage the situation, hoping, perhaps, to slow down the process a bit. If we’re going to skate to where the puck is going to be, however, would it not make more sense not to merely accept it, but to embrace it? Rather than trying to hang on to vestiges of cultural Christianity as long as we can, would we not do better to proactively cast them aside? The culture we want to engage is one that only recently was the stuff of jokes: People who really don’t know the difference between Easter and Groundhog Day, art students who would really ask professors why the Louvre holds so many paintings of a mother and child, store clerks who would really tell a shopper, “Yes, we have several crosses to choose from; some are plain and some have a little man on them.” These are not aberrations to joke about; this is our world.

There’s no shortage of ideas about what Christianity 4.0 will or should look like. Brian Mclaren’s A New Kind of Christianity takes on the subject, and is all the rage at the moment. (I haven’t read it yet, only about it.) Walter Russell Mead offers a biting analysis of the mainline church scene in this op/ed piece, which I have read, and partly agree with and partly take issue with. Thinking strategically about how to do church in a post-Christian culture is, as they say, above my pay grade. If I were to forget myself for a moment and transgress the boundaries of my station in life, I might venture the suspicion that it would not require us to jettison the beliefs and practices enshrined in that benchmark Anglican document, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

But, alas, I’m a mere line officer, and must ultimately confine myself to tactics. Mead, in the essay referenced above, posits that all churches will of necessity emulate a model that is drastically less dependent on “professional” leadership than most churches are today, with much more informal and decentralized structures of governance. By analogy, he offers that Americans (and all denizens of western liberal democracies in general) now consult the internet where they once would have phoned or made an appointment with a professional. We take responsibility for gathering our own information and making our own decisions. Cyberspace enables the democratization of information, including theological and spiritual information. We have Wikipedia, so who needs a priest?

Ah, my sarcasm betrays my bias. Mead’s prescription may work for those Christians who are inclined to embrace only the first two of the Chicago-Lambeth 4. But Catholic Christianity (by which I mean, at the very least, those communities that order their life, wittingly or not, according to all four, though I would probably want to put an even sharper point on it than that) is an inherently communitarian enterprise. It is its own culture. It takes seriously St Peter’s declaration that we are a chosen race, a holy priesthood, God’s own people (I Peter 2:9). It has ways of doing things that are not immediately or intuitively clear to the uninitiated. It has a technical vocabulary. It should strive very hard to meet people where they are (and has largely failed to do so, which explains a big part of the mess we’re in), and then it should strive even harder to bring them to a very different place. It’s called evangelization, formation, and catechesis, and if it was once as simple as teaching a child to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (though it never was actually that simple; we just acted like it was), then it is infinitely more complex in the post-Christian world, where art students no longer have a context for understanding the tradition of which they are an extension, and people see the cross as nothing more than an item of jewelry, and they do so not out of rebellion or even intellectual laziness, but out of invincible ignorance.

So a proactive tactical response to the demise of Christendom, by which I mean one that aims at where the puck is going to be rather than where it is, invites us into a delicate dance of discernment: Among those things that we are in the habit of doing and saying (and singing), which are part of our Christian (counter-)culture—the lore and technical vocabulary of our community into which we must form and initiate people—and which ones represent truly excess baggage (what Mead in his essay calls “crap”)? This is difficult, because it’s important that we not err too far in one direction or the other. I was recently in a Facebook exchange extolling the merits of some liturgical music that is much beloved among many American and Canadian Anglicans (Healy Willan’s Missa Sancta Maria Magdalena). We were having a fine time until another commenter chimed in with “This is 2010! Get over it! Time to move to something more contemporary!” (or words to that effect). I happen to love this music, and have eventually taught it to every congregation I have served. But is it part of that sacred deposit of Catholic Christian culture into which we need to form the catechumens from our post-Christian world? Probably not, I’m sorry to say.

The discernment dance involves thousands of little steps just like that one. Some items are essential. They will seem quite foreign to “seekers” and not make any sense to them. (“The hell you say? No sex outside of marriage?!”) But discipleship is neither seeker-driven nor particularly seeker-friendly, so this is when we trust the Holy Spirit to work on a person’s heart and mind. Other items may be cherished treasures, but will need to be laid aside lovingly (and perhaps indulged in from time to time by those who are inclined to do so—“Choral Evensong with Howells Collegium Regale? Sign me up!”) for the sake of the essential mission of the church.

Perhaps the biggest horse pill we need to swallow is letting go of the notion that Sunday morning worship is our show window to the world, the place where we meet those whom God is preparing to respond to the gospel in our midst. This is such a “Christendom” assumption, and one we need to let go of. Before Christendom (that is, before Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the second decade of the fourth century), the Sunday Eucharist was the last place Christians expected to meet a “seeker.” Might we need to re-engineer the social architecture of our church communities such that potential new members find us and are integrated into various aspects of our common life even before they have ever darkened the door of the nave on a Sunday morning? A great deal of thinking-outside-the-box is called for here.

Honestly, I don’t much like where the puck is going to be. I don’t even like where it is. I much prefer it where it used to be! But I’m wearing these skates and I have this stick in my hand, and it’s my job to get in the game.

Jesu, mercy.

Mary, pray.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Come Fly With Me …

… to the Holy Land, about 50 weeks from now.


Bishop Ed Little is leading a pilgrimage to Israel next year, departing February 21 and returning March 2. I am privileged to be among those assisting him in this effort, and would love to have you join me. Most of the pilgrims will be from the Diocese of Northern Indiana, but the trip is open to anyone.

We will see Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, other towns in Galilee, where he ministered, and take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, which figured so prominently in his life and teaching. We will visit the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and, of course, Jerusalem, the holy city where Jesus suffered and died and rose from the dead. And there’s some great stuff I’m not even mentioning here.

And it’s a bargain—estimated price (pending locking in airfare) is $2,899 per person, including all travel (from Chicago), lodging, and meals. Only taxes and tips will be extra.

I made an exploratory trip a year ago. See here (and then go to the posts that follow) for my reflections at the time. It was a life-changing experience that I am still unpacking in my mind and heart.

If you’re interested, and would like more information, please shoot me an email or give me a call (564.699.3266).

Something Old, Something New

Today is the lesser feast of John & Charles Wesley, Priests. They are claimed by Methodism as founders, though they both died as presbyters in good standing of the Church of England. As a musician, I must confess myself more drawn to Charles. Though he may be the "lesser light" in terms of leadership genius, he is certainly the "greater light" as a poet. So many of his hymn text have wormed their way into my heart, but none perhaps moreso than Love divine, all loves excelling... . There are a number of very fine tunes to which this hymn has been sung. The two best ones happen to be Welsh (serendipitously so, since St David's day was only two days ago): Hyfyrdol and Blaenwen (the latter much more well-known in Britain than here). But I recently ran across this more contemporary setting, which I find really quite moving (and not only because I'm a soft touch for young people's faces while they're singing). The opening conversation with the composer leads to a performance by the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A Lenten Thought

In my cycle of reading, it's time for some fiction. So I picked up a volume that's been sitting on my shelves for a number of years (well ... decades), and been moved from house to house several time, but which I have never read. It's nothing famous, and I don't remember where I got it, except that I didn't buy it new. It's called In This House of Brede, the work of Rumer Godden, published in 1969. The action takes place in an English Roman Catholic Benedictine convent in the late 1950s.

I'm not far enough into this book to know whether it's much good, but the opening lines of the Prologue show some promise:
The motto was 'Pax,' but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. "It is My own peace I give unto you." Not, notice, the world's peace.
Learning to identify the "world's peace," and then repeatedly renounce it, is, I would say, always on the task list of a Christian disciple.