Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Parting of Friends? (not quite)

John Henry Newman's last sermon as an Anglican was entitled On the Parting of Friends. He then left his cure at Littlemore and shortly thereafter was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

This afternoon (if all went according to plan), there was a liturgy at St Patrick's Church (RC) in Fort Worth, Texas wherein a group of former Episcopalians was received en masse into communion with the See of Rome. They form the nucleus of what will in due course (sooner than later, I think) become the first American manifestation of Pope Benedict's provision for "personal ordinariates."

[Factual excursus: These are communities that will exists outside (though in cooperation with) the diocesan structure of the Latin Rite (that is, mainstream Roman Catholicism). An "ordinariate" is akin to a diocese, under the pastoral care of an "Ordinary." A diocesan bishop (in any tradition than maintains the historic episcopate) is always an Ordinary, with responsibility for ordering the life of the local church. In the case of this new structure, the Ordinary may or may not be a bishop. The reason for this anomaly is that the Ordinary may be a married man. While there have been several married former Anglican clergy serving as Roman Catholic priests for a couple of decades now, there is no provision for married men serving as bishops. So these new Ordinaries will have the administrative and pastoral authority of bishops, including seat and voice in the appropriate national Conference of Bishops, but will not themselves be able to ordain other clergy.

The purpose for this arrangement is to allow former Anglicans to retain the "spiritual patrimony" of Anglicanism. What this means precisely is not entirely clear, but it will no doubt include liturgy that has the "look and feel" of the various sub-streams of Anglo-Catholicism, including hymns and other music.]

One of those participating in the Fort Worth liturgy today is a close personal friend of long standing. We began seminary together a quarter century ago this month. Our children played together. We were formed together as priests, and ordained days apart. I gave a preaching mission in his first parish. We served different parishes in the same city for three years. His son took piano lessons from my wife. We broke bread in one another's homes. (Shooting empty beer cans with BB guns on Easter afternoon still sets the bar for me as to how best to observe that piece of sacred time.) He preached at my institution as rector of the parish I served for 13 years in California, and I preached a year later at his institution as rector of the parish he went on to serve for 15 years in Texas. We have taken road trips together just so we could have time to talk, and the conversation was never silent. We have known one another's joys and known one another's sorrows. We have stood at the same altar and presided at the sacred mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood. We have been friends. We have been colleagues. We have been brothers. And I probably haven't told the half of all that could be told. 

We are still friends; that much is clear. I'm also certain that we remain brothers, though the character of that relationship is changed. What focuses my attention today, however, is that we are no longer colleagues. 

So I'm processing some pretty strong feelings today. While today's event is "interesting" to anyone engaged with the Anglican angst of the last several years, for me it's personal. I've known this day was coming for at least two years. So I'm not surprised. And that advance knowledge makes the actual event not one whit less shocking. 

Part of what I feel is joy. One whom I love is filled with joy, and I cannot but "rejoice with those who rejoice," per St Paul's injunction. This is the realization of a vocation he has felt coming on for a long number of years now, carefully and prayerfully discerned. What's not to like about that?

Part of what I feel is envy. This is a little difficult to articulate. I don't wish I had been standing beside my friend today. These are not the conditions under which reconciliation with the See of Rome would seem coherent and compelling for me. But reconciliation with the See of Rome is, in my opinion, a surpassingly worthy objective--certainly for Anglicans, but for all other Christians as well. To be out of communion with a church that has double apostolic foundation is, at best, an anomaly, and the burden of explanation rests on those outside such communion. The organic visible unity of Christ's Body should be at the top of everyone's prayer list.

Part of what I feel is anger. I'm angry toward all the forces that have contributed to making contemporary Anglicanism the fractious mess that it currently is. I am angry that other developed-world Anglicans have named a justice issue where I don't believe one exists, and have advanced a social agenda that a huge minority (at least) of the Episcopal Church (let alone the rest of the Anglican Communion) was not ready for. And I am angry that, with impatience that they see as righteous, some have resisted those developments by resorting to incendiary rhetoric, and turned aside from the agonizing but holy work of staying connected to a church that is still a church, even if it is in grave error. So my anger is bi-directional. Today's events in Fort Worth may have been inevitable; I don't know. But they have certainly been hastened by outside forces, and unnecessarily so.

Most of what I feel is grief. Something quite precious to me has been changed into a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable shape, so I experience it as a loss. That my friend and I can no longer receive the Blessed Sacrament at the same altar is a reality I can scarcely contemplate. I will get over it. Grace will abound in ways I cannot presently imagine. In the meantime, I will be sad, and my challenge will be to make friends with that sadness and put it at the disposal of the Holy Spirit for the outworking of God's providence.

All will be well. All will be well. All manner of things shall be well. (h/t Julian of Norwich) God is good, all the time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On the Ministry of Bishops: Some Rookie Reflections

I'm just back from my second meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. While in Quito, I observed both the anniversary of my election, and the six-month mark of my consecration. I'm still getting a feel for the culture and ethos of not just being a bishop, but being a bishop in a community of bishops. Those really are two related but distinct things, and I'm a little further along with the first learning curve than I am with the second, though solid progress has been made in the last few days.

While we were in South America, there was a bit of an internet buzz back home over the fact that we were assembled in such a faraway location. On balance, I concur with the skepticism. The airfares were steep, and the travel was inconvenient. For what it's worth, attendance at this meeting was perceptibly lower than when we met last March in North Carolina. That said, the hotel room rate--and we were at a Hilton--was dramatically lower than what we would have gotten domestically, and restaurant meals were downright cheap by comparison. Plus, in a time of crisis in the Diocese of Ecuador Central, I believe our presence there was a beneficial influence.

But the internet buzz was not only about the fact that we were meeting in Ecuador, it was about the fact that we were meeting at all. The criticism goes something like this: "The House of Bishops is only one of the two key players in the governance of the Episcopal Church. Why should bishops get to meet six times during a triennium, while the members of the House of Deputies only meet once?"

If one focuses narrowly on the process that produces legislation that governs the church, this critique may have some merit. It would appear to give the bishops, collectively, an unfair advantage. With only some 130 active bishops, it is already a more nimble body than the unwieldy 900-member House of Deputies. Adding to this the effect of the collegial relationships that are formed and sustained by meeting twice a year, and the fact that either house has an effective veto power over any proposed legislation, it would, in fact, appear that the "junior house" (as some Deputies are wont to call it) has disproportionate influence--some might say, unjustly so.

However, despite the experience of a not inconsiderable number of General Convention "wonks", I think it's safe to say that General Convention is not the church, and the church is not General Convention. There's a great deal of being and doing within the Body of Christ that has nothing to do with the legislative process. Much of that being and doing either requires or is enhanced by the presence of a bishop. This is amply evident at a diocesan level. To the baptized faithful within a diocese, the Bishop is an iconic sign of Christ the Good Shepherd, living and moving and having being among the flock of Christ. One of the lessons I've learned over the last six months is that a good percentage of my job involves just getting out of my car looking like a bishop, and then posing for pictures. Other things I do and say are pretty important, of course, but the significance of just being the Bishop cannot be overstated.

But, just as a diocese, despite possessing within itself the fullness of the Church's being, does not exist in isolation from other local churches that also possess the same fullness, a bishop does not exist in isolation, but is, rather, part of a college of bishops. There is a network of accountability--most of it mutual, some of it hierarchical. For bishops in those dioceses that are ordered by the structures of the Episcopal Church, the collegial character of the office is defined with some precision in the constitution and canons of the church, as well as in the rules and customs of that collegial community.

A bit of confusion--confusion leading to consternation--is perhaps engendered by the fact that, when the bishops of the Episcopal Church meet, they meet as the House of Bishops. This may be unfortunate, though there is so much inertial momentum behind it now that changing it is probably not worth the energy it would take to make it happen. The reality is, however, that when the HoB meets apart from General Convention, there is absolutely no legislative business that can take place. No canonical amendments can be proposed, debated, or voted on. Any resolutions that are passed (and they are rare) are strictly "mind of the house," with no binding effect on anyone. Instead, what happens at five out of every six HoB meetings concerns those aspects of a bishop's life and ministry, and the life and ministry of the college of bishops, that are non-legislative. This includes issues of leadership development, ongoing theological and spiritual formation, and teaching. While I dissented from the Pastoral Teaching promulgated by this most recent meeting, I wholly affirm that it is within the purview of the bishops' collective ministry to teach the faithful. Need I even be so explicit as to say that the House of Deputies has no cognate responsibility? 

(Of course, subjects will from time to time be discussed among bishops that may eventually find their way into the legislative process, as was the case this week with regard to structural change. But the same can be said of any of the 50+ CCABs, all of which include priests/deacons and lay persons, to say nothing of any number of informal networks, especially in this internet age.)

So ... bishops are not mere agents of General Convention. They are accountable to a whole panoply of duties and expectations that have nothing to do with General Convention. Look at the ordination vows and examination questions in the Prayer Book, as well as the catechism. Taking a share in "the councils of the church" is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. I do wish we could refer to these assemblies as something like "bishops' meetings." Perhaps then there would be less angst about the disparity of opportunity between the two houses of General Convention. It's been said that TEC is "synodically governed and episcopally led." There is some wisdom in this, I think. The House of Bishops should not try to govern apart from the church's synod (i.e. G.C.), and the House of Deputies should let the bishops do their job, which is to lead.

Nor, it must be added, are bishops really creatures of General Convention. Yes, the life and work of a bishop in communion with the Episcopal Church is defined and described in the canons and in the liturgy. But, as Episcopalians, if we are true to our own heritage and identity, we are quite clear that we don't make any of this up. We are part of the Church Catholic. The structures of church order, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the pastoral oversight (episkope) of the flock of Christ--these are all gifts from God that we hold in trust, as stewards, along with other ecclesial bodies that drink from the same well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It's not often that I indulge in news mongering, but my ears perked up this afternoon when the Bishop of Bath & Well, a guest of this meeting of the HoB, brought his greetings to the house.

First, he addressed the rumor, first appearing in the British press a week or so ago, that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will have resigned within a year's time in order to return to academia. This, Bishop Price told us, will not happen. He told us this emphatically, and without a hint of doubt. One might be forgiven for inferring that he had some inside information.

He then went on to suggest that legislation to enable the appointment and ordination of women as bishops is not necessarily a slam dunk for passage at the coming 2012 General Synod. He attributed his lack of confidence to the peculiarities of the English electoral system, wherein members of Synod are elected by geographic constituencies, and do not represent dioceses or parishes per se. If my memory serves, there have been elections since the last time this question came before the Synod.

Finally, Bishop Price opined as to the status of the Anglican Covenant in his church, observing that most probably do not understand it enough to either be supportive or critical of it, and that, in any case, it may already have served it purpose by provoking discussion around the communion.

For whatever it's worth.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Liberation Theology Revisited

It has been the custom of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops to meet twice a year. At each meeting, a significant component is dedicated to continuing education of some sort. At the meeting I am currently attending, in Quito, Ecuador (the Episcopal Church has several overseas dioceses, including two in Ecuador), the subject of the continuing education is Liberation Theology. We have so far dedicated two afternoons and one morning to it, and we're not finished yet.

Liberation Theology is a term that refers to a discernible school of thought that emanates from the work of several theologians, mostly Roman Catholic and mostly Latin American. It came of age in the 1970s and 80s, waxed for a while, and then waned significantly. It is no longer in fashion--in fact, it has a certain "retro" feel to it--but it is certainly not dormant. Biblically, it is grounded in the strand of Old Testament tradition that gives voice to a God who is thoroughly disgusted with any exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful, with any injustice, with anyone who would be less than materially compassionate toward the poor. One sees it in the Exodus narrative (God rescues an oppressed Israel), the Psalms, and all over the Minor Prophets. If Liberation Theology were to be reduced to a slogan, it would be this: God has a preferential option for the poor.

In its heyday, Liberation Theology was suspect in many quarters on account of the company some of its advocates kept. It was associated with concrete sympathy toward movements of armed rebellion against entrenched political and economic structures, with land redistribution, socialism, and other leftist ideologies and activities. It was therefore criticized for being a mere theological smokescreen behind which to hide an essentially political movement, one that sat lightly toward traditional expressions of piety and worship. In effect, Liberation Theology seemed to be not much other than a new iteration of the Social Gospel movement from the 19th century, to be lacking any substantive eschatological dimension (i.e. its perspective is materialist, confined to this world and this world only).

The presenters we have heard here in Quito this week both confirm all the caricatures of Liberation Theology and at the same time raise some signals that are hopeful as regards the potential integration of its insights into more orthodox and mainstream Christian faith and practice. While some have momentarily indulged in anti-capitalist, anti-corporation rhetoric, they have all categorically disavowed any necessary link between Liberation Theology and either advocacy of or opposition to any particular political party, movement, or economic system. Apparently it's not impossible for a free market conservative to be a faithful Christian!

More helpfully, they have taken some care to locate Liberation Theology within the broad sweep of the Christian tradition, not only biblically, but sacramentally and liturgically. Wednesday's speaker (Don Compier from St Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City) made a serious effort to unpack the notion of incarnation as it is realized in the Eucharist (citing, especially, the work of Charles Gore). Having encountered the risen Christ in the sacrament, having been drawn into the intimate life of the Trinity, the faithful Christian disciple cannot not work for justice and extend Christ's presence in persona Christi in the midst of the poor and marginalized.

In the last question and answer session, I raised the issue of Liberation Theology's eschatological dimension, which seems to be largely absent, at least as it is packaged for general consumption. How does God's "end game" figure into the schema? What will "success", should it ever be achieved, look like? The panelists acknowledged that there is a utopian aspect to LT, which strikes me as very much in line with the vision of the Social Gospel; that is, God builds his Kingdom through progressive human effort, until, finally, injustice, violence, and poverty are extinct, signaling the fruition of the New Jerusalem. In more contemporary parlance, God has a "dream" of a world where justice, peace, and love are the ordering forces of society, and are no longer challenged. The Church's job is to participate in God's activity towards that end. This contrasts with a more traditional understanding that sees the fullness of the Kingdom of God flowing not from persistent human effort, but suddenly, apocalyptically, after a great crisis in which the powers of sin and death will first appear to have triumphed.

So I was heartened to hear our presenters use the language of "eschatological reserve." This notion, as I understand it, and as I would be wont to interpret it generously and irenically, takes seriously the reality that ministry to and among the poor and marginalized, in addition to providing obvious tangible benefits, it important semiotically--for its sign value. It is a sign to all that God has not abandoned them (whether or not he has a "preferential option" in their direction, which I think is a debatable idea), and that there will, in the eschaton, be a completely happy ending to their suffering.

Were I to have the opportunity, one question I would like to press with the proponents of LT, is how they integrate evangelization (of the sort that leads to repentance, faith, and baptism) and personal sanctification into their proclamation of "good news to the poor." Does our encounter with the incarnate and risen Jesus in the Eucharist merely inspire and empower us to "make the world a better place," or does it also motivate us to invite and include those whom we serve into that eucharistic fellowship? As I continue to ponder the ramifications of the rapid advance of the post-Christian era in western society, it strikes me that Liberation Theology may actually presume a Christendom paradigm, in which the Church advocates for the Christian poor in challenge to their Christian exploiters. In such a model, evangelization is not a paramount concern; the cast of characters in the drama are presumed to already be evangelized, to already be part of the community of the altare Dei. But what if this is no longer the case?

All this now having been said, I must confess that I did not hear anything fundamentally new in what has been presented to us. I am even hard pressed to see it as all that radical! It can arguably be recognized in what is already going on in my own rather conservative and traditional midwestern diocese, and in the parishes I have served. If the bishops of the Episcopal Church were supposed to have been gobsmacked by ideas that dramatically subvert the status quo in the ministries of their dioceses, I must have not been paying close enough attention.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Inventing the Wheel, Discovering Fire

For my entire adult life (and I just turned 60), I have been passionately interested in the "marketing" of the gospel through and in the life of the church: What can the Christian community be doing to authentically and effectively commend faith and discipleship to those outside its numbers? Until I was around 40, I got to do this as a sort of deck hand and adviser to the skipper--whoever the skipper was for me at any given time. Since then, I've been a skipper. And now, to keep pushing the metaphor, I'm an admiral, with lots of people looking to me for leadership.

So, if I've been intensely interested in the subject until now--and I have been--the intensity of that interest is now in overdrive. 

Of course, I'm not alone. There's a mountain range of published material out there on evangelism and church growth. I've been an avid consumer of that material. I've read books and articles, listened to cassette tapes (see...I told you I've been doing this a while!), attended conferences and seminars, and had innumerable informal discussions with colleagues and parishioners. Anyone familiar with even a fraction of this material could be forgiven for telling me that my task is simply to spend some time reviewing it, poke around cyberspace for some of the most recent developments, and cull out the "best practices." (OK, that's one buzz word--"best practices"--that I'm sort of hoping has a short half-life, but I digress.) 

It makes sense. Why, as the saying goes, re-invent the wheel? 

Here's the problem ... or, actually, there are two problems:

Problem the First--the process of societal dechristianization has finally passed the tipping point. We've known this was coming, of course. It's been gathering energy for around 300 years. But there are signs that the speed of change is now taking off exponentially. Even as recently as my deck hand years, we assumed that we weren't dealing with absolutely cold prospects, but with people who had some basic knowledge of the Christian narrative, which needed only to be awakened, corrected, and nourished in order to come to fruition. Maybe that was true then--I think it probably was--but it surely is not now. (I will grant that there is some residue of Christendom in "Bible belt" pockets, but even these bastions are beginning to give way.) And it's especially not true among young adults--the coveted 18-30 year old demographic. We can spend a lot of angst speculating as to why this is so, and assigning blame, but the reality is there nonetheless. North American (and still less European) culture is no longer predominantly Christian. We can resist this development--angrily and futilely--or we can embrace it and get on with figuring out what it means for the way we "do church." I vote for the latter.

Problem the Second--the fleet in which I'm an admiral is a liturgical and sacramental church. This would have been a handicap even in the absence of Problem the First, and, I would suggest, explains a lot about the history of the development of the Episcopal Church in this country. But with things as they actually are, it's a double whammy. Why? Because it represents such a small segment of those who profess and call themselves Christian and who are also focused on packaging the gospel to get attention in a secular marketplace. (The Roman Catholics are, of course, liturgical and sacramental--and also gargantuan. But, unless I'm missing some critical signs, they are largely relying on the inertia of their present size and not strategically engaging the dissolution of Christendom. They will, IMO, soon be staring into the same abyss that currently confronts the historic mainline denominations, and will confront the Big Box evangelicals once the first generation of innovative leaders dies out.) In other words, those who are doing the research and developing theories and testing theories about evangelism and ministry in a secular culture are distinctly non-liturgical and non-sacramental. 

Obviously, I think this makes them rootless and systemically weak. There are reasons I am not a free-church evangelical! I believe in sacraments and historic church order. I think they're not only nice, but essential. But in the meantime, my rootless and systemically weak evangelical friends are also frighteningly more nimble and more adaptive and responsive to feedback than are the structures of the church in which I serve. They are at the wheel of a ski boat, while the craft I'm driving is a loaded supertanker doing thirty knots. What this means is that the practices that they might find successful in taking the gospel to the denizens of contemporary culture may not work for me. They can't just be adopted wholesale--not, at any rate, without either surrendering some of the core identity of a sacramental and liturgical church, or bending the strategy that I'm adapting so much as to compromise its effectiveness. 

There are, in fact, no proven and reliable "best practices" for evangelization by Catholic Christians in 21st century American culture. And I find that fact simultaneously daunting and energizing. Anyone who does not find being in uncharted territory frightening is probably not sane. By that measure, I am quite sane! At the same time, anyone who does not find being a pioneer exciting may not be fully alive. By that measure, I am very alive! The work we are beginning to take on in the Diocese of Springfield will break new ground. Whether that ground will yield anything--a crop? a gusher?--I don't know. We will probably fail at a lot of things before we succeed at something. But to shrink back from being pioneers is simply to consent to our continued slow death. It's hard to believe that this would please the heart of the God whom we serve.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Pastoral Reflections on the 9/11 Anniversary

This appears as the Bishop's letter to the Faithful in the Diocese of Springfield in the September issue of our  newsletter, the Springfield Current.

Beloved in Christ,
This month marks the tenth anniversary of an event that any American adult, and many youth as well, can recall with vivid clarity. I lived in California in 2001, so it was just after 6am, as I lay in bed on a Tuesday morning thinking about facing the day, when the familiar voice of NPR's Bob Edwards on my nightstand radio calmly announced that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A few minutes later I was downstairs watching CNN as the rest of that morning's horrendous developments unfolded.

Ten years later, what can we make of "9-11"? It has changed our lives in more ways than we can count and for longer than we can imagine. Something as simple as accompanying a loved one all the way to the departure gate at an airport, or meeting them there when they arrive, is a thing of the past. Instead, we have to take our shoes off going through security and remember the 3-1-1 rule for liquids and gels in our carry-on baggage. Thousands have died in the ensuing military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of lives have been adversely affected by those wars.

We now live in constant fear--even if that fear is subliminal--of terrorism. What I personally find most disturbing is not what we know, or what we know that we don't know, but what we don't know that we don't know ... the literally unimaginable. And for that very reason, I take great comfort from the words of one of our Prayer Book collects: "...that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness..." (from the Office of Compline, p. 133)

Of course, in addition to being afraid, we are also angry, even ten years later. We not only suffered the loss of lives and the destruction of property, our national pride was wounded. They went after some potent symbols of American identity: the twin towers, the Pentagon, and, but for the heroism of those aboard United 93, probably the Capitol Building or the White House. I must confess that I have at times pictured those who plot terrorism when one of the imprecatory Psalms comes comes up in the daily office lectionary, such as these lines from Psalm 109: "He loved cursing, let it come upon him; he took no delight in blessing, let is depart from him. He put on cursing like a garment, let it soak into his body like water and into his bones like oil...".

To the extent that we are afraid or angry, then, we do neither ourselves nor anyone else any favors by trying to deny or repress those feelings. We do well to recognize and acknowledge them. Then, as disciples of Jesus, we do well to lay that fear and anger at his feet and allow him to deliver us from them. When I visit the churches of our diocese, the liturgy often concludes with the Pontifical Blessing, which begins with the line from Psalm 124: "Our help is in the name of the Lord." This is the context into which we are invited to place our fear. Then we can take note of the scriptural counsel to avoid letting our instinct for revenge get the better of us: "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord" (Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35). This is the context into which we are invited to place our anger.

Then, having been partially liberated from fear and anger (full liberation does not occur in this world for most of us, I think), we can turn our attention to more constructive endeavors, such as justice, righteousness, and peace. Remember that in classical Christian theology, evil does not exist absolutely in its own right; it is, rather, the absence of good. Perhaps one could also say that evil is sometimes the distortion of good. The motives that lie behind terrorism are invariably rooted in a distortion of good, which, in turn, is rooted in a perceived absence of justice (a form of good). We don't have to agree with the moral assessments of those who attack us. We can legitimately oppose and attempt to thwart their efforts. I, for one, am more than happy to see armed guards at airports and to walk through scanners if any of that helps protect public safety. But we are only being foolish if we blind ourselves to the fact that those who wish us harm think they are doing good and opposing evil. Being open to engaging them on that level might just yield fruit that makes us all feel more secure. If nothing else, it is an act of obedience to the injunction from the Psalmist (34:14): "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it."

Blessings in Christ Jesus,