Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pointing to Jesus: Toward Understanding the Newtown Massacre

I'm old enough to remember JFK's assassination, the Texas clock tower sniper, Son of Sam, Jonestown, 911, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and probably other horrors that are not now coming to mind. With the exceptions of a presidential murder and a terrorist attack on our largest city and our capital, I can't recall the national attention being galvanized the way it has been in the wake of Friday's killings at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can those who profess Christian faith account for this, or otherwise put it into some meaningful context?

The reason this incident ranks so high on the horror scale is probably because most of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooter were children, and rather young children at that. Anyone who is a parent or grandparent, or can imagine being a parent or grandparent, is pretty much turned into a mass of quivering jelly by the mere thought of what happened in Newtown. It is essentially the sum of all our fears. But that's not the real horror. The real horror is this: Yes, on December 14, 28 innocent people (and I include the shooter in the number, who was an innocent victim of his own mental illness) lost their lives suddenly and violently at Sandy Hook School. But I'm quite certain that at least 28 others, and probably many times over, also lost their lives suddenly and violently on the same day, just in our own country, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Each of those lives was equally precious as the lives lost in Newtown. Each of those victims have people who love them, and whose hearts are broken today. And there will be more tomorrow, and the day after that. Our attention is arrested when such events are aggregated, when they happen in one place and at one time. But they happen every day, and that is the real tragedy. Human beings live under the power of sin and death. Life is nasty, brutish, and short for a great majority of people in this world. That is a fundamental data point of our experience. And delivering us from this power is precisely what we mean by salvation, when we say that God saves us. God's project, as it were, is to bring forth a new creation, one in which perfect love reigns supreme (which itself obviates any need for justice or peace), and every tear is wiped away. 

So when the world asks us, as Christian believers, "Where was God at Sandy Hook School?", there (almost literally) are no words--or, at least, not very many. The best thing we can do is point--as always, pointing to Jesus. We point to Jesus, lying in a feeding trough in a barn as an innocent newborn infant--completely vulnerable, completely exposed--and say simply, "There is God." And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God with us. We then point to the cross, to a naked and bleeding Jesus dying there, still as innocent as the day he was born, and we say, "There is God." And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God for us. 

The only other word we can then speak--or, perhaps, not speak at all, but sing--is an ancient hymn that is preserved in the Eastern liturgies, but some westerners know: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." When used liturgically, this hymn is sung over and over again, at increasing tempo and increasing volume. It is worth singing over and over, at increasing temp and increasing volume. It is precisely what we can say when the horror we confront is untellable. It is what we must say. While the wound is fresh, we cannot say very much more, and we ought not to say anything less.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Another Trigger Gets Pulled

The appropriate expression, I believe, is "shocked but not surprised." The Presiding Bishop's office announced today that it has interpreted public statements by the Bishop of South Carolina as a de facto request that he be formally relieved of the obligations of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, and that she has indeed granted that presumed request, and so, by implication, declared the office vacant. This is one of the chess pieces that needed to get moved into order to clear the way for the erection of a reconfigured "continuing" Episcopal diocese in the low country of South Carolina. How this impacts the adjudication of the earlier charge that he had already long since abandoned TEC by a public renunciation of its discipline by abetting the amendment of the diocesan constitution to remove accession to the canons (not the constitution) of TEC remains to be seen. It does now all seem moot, but--who knows?--maybe the March 2013 House of Bishops meeting will still stake it up.

I have already delivered myself of my deepest thoughts and feelings on this matter in my previous two posts on this blog, so I won't re-plow that ground. Well, maybe just a little:

Bishop Lawrence has, indeed, made it publicly clear that he no longer considers himself an Episcopalian. And as there are clearly people within his diocese who do wish to be Episcopalian, it seems fair enough that the church at large work with them to push the reset button on the presence of the Episcopal Church in that area. But let's be honest: Mark Lawrence "left" the Episcopal Church the way someone "leaves" the top floor of a burning skyscraper: It was a voluntary act, but not one he would have chosen except under the most extremely anomalous circumstances. For any practical purpose, he was pushed.

If the rest of the church had just been able to let the Diocese of South Carolina be what it is, we wouldn't be in this pastoral and constitutional mess. What they did to their constitution left it no different materially than the constitutions of a whole bunch of other dioceses that nobody seems to be picking on. They continued to participate in the life of the larger church, even if they did grumble a bit. But since when is grumbling the unpardonable sin?

Yet, elements within the diocese simply could not abide life in the margin. So they conspired to abuse the Title IV canons on abandonment. The first time, they were unsuccessful, and Bishop Lawrence was exonerated. Then the composition of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops changed and the votes were suddenly there. In the absence of any double jeopardy protection in Title IV, they made it stick the second time. So a small group of disgruntled Episcopalians within the diocese, with an assist from a majority of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, have succeeded in fomenting chaos. The damage they have caused is untellable.

Did they have help from outside? There is no lack of speculation in that direction, but I have no direct knowledge. If they did, though, whoever helped them is equally culpable.

Among the many victims of this disaster are parishes--with their clergy and faithful--who are in theological sympathy with the majority of the diocese, but disagree with the decision to leave TEC, and, in fact, have no desire or intention of doing so. Now they are faced with the distasteful prospect of making common cause with their offenders--those who instigated the apocalypse--or finding some other less unpalatable way forward. There are no "good" solutions. Our only hope, collectively, is to find some that are less bad than others.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Epic Fail

The deed is done. The Diocese of South Carolina has formalized its separation from the Episcopal Church. The world at large will pay scant heed to this, which is appropriate. After all, terror is raining down on the inhabitants of Israel and Gaza--though, ironically, the same fear-based escalation of rhetoric and violence (thankfully, only verbal violence in the church setting) lies beneath both stories.

I'm beginning this post in my head, but I'm going to end it in my heart--or, more accurately, perhaps, in my gut.

Under what circumstances is it appropriate to sever formal institutional ecclesial communion? This is a question I have lived with and struggled with for years turned into decades. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I come at this question from a fundamentally Catholic perspective, which is to say that I understand the Church as an essentially visible organism. Institutional disunity is real disunity. My friends of a more Protestant bent (Anglican and otherwise) are able to be less anxious about schism, pointing to an underlying spiritual unity among believers that smooths out those rough places where we are still at odds with one another at a visible level. Catholics enjoy that luxury to a rather more limited extent.

For better or for worse, my lodestar on this question has been a rather obscure 19th century Church of England ecclesiologist by the name of William Palmer, particularly his 1838 Treatise on the Church of Christ. Palmer sets a rather high bar for justifiable schism. In order to separate oneself in good conscience from the ecclesial body in which one finds oneself, that church must have, in effect, ceased to be a church. And how does a church cease to be a church? By advancing heresy that is substantial, formal, and perduring. This means that a break can't be over a relatively inconsequential theological nicety. And it can't be over the mere presence of error or false teaching in a church, even if that false teaching is expounded at the highest levels of leadership, and even if it is over a question of major theological importance. This is because, by Palmer's standard, the false teaching, to be a matter that justifies schism, must be formal--that is, embedded in the official formularies of the church; namely, the core liturgical sources. But even major formal heresy doesn't "unchurch" a church, according to Palmer, because, in order for that to happen, the major, formal heresy must endure over multiple generations. Only when all three of the tests are met--substance, formality, and duration--does an ecclesial body lose its ecclesial identity, and thereby release its members from the obligation of continued communion.

There is widespread theological error in the Episcopal Church. It is held and taught at the highest levels.  And it is not minor error; it concerns the essence of divine revelation itself, and, most recently, manifests itself primarily in the area of theological anthropology--What is the human person? What is the nature and extent of the "fallenness" of human nature? What is the transcendent significance of the fact that we are created "male and female"? And while I think it's fair to say that actual heresy is not expounded widely, when it is, it is tolerated and its proponents tend to suffer no sanctions.

But ... and this is as important a but as one can imagine ... this major error is not--yet, at any rate--formal. It is material, but not formal. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is not a perfect document, but it is an orthodox expression of the Catholic faith as we have received it in the Anglican tradition. There are authorized liturgical texts that are theologically problematic (Enriching Our Worship, for one, and, certainly, I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing). But these are not core liturgical documents. It is not only possible, but easy, to worship regularly using the texts and rubrics of the Prayer Book in a way that is orthodox by every criterion. It is possible--if a priest wishes to do so--to lead worship, teach, and provide pastoral care in a manner consonant with the tradition of classical Anglicanism in most dioceses of the Episcopal Church.

Nor has such theological error as we have in the Episcopal Church yet met the test of duration. There just hasn't been enough time. So, even if we were in formal error--which I contend we are not--Palmer's conditions, which I have now acknowledged as my own conditions, would not yet have been met, and, indeed, cannot be met within my lifetime, given that I'm in my sixties. So it looks like the Episcopal Church is stuck with me, and I with the Episcopal Church. I suspect that neither of us is always necessarily overjoyed by that fact, but there it is, nonetheless.

It is the aggregation of these considerations that shapes my view of recent events in South Carolina. With the caveat that I am not "on the ground" there, and have the luxury of observing events from a distance, even though I am in complete theological sympathy with the diocese with respect to the enormities inflicted on Episcopalians who swim in the mainstream of the Anglican tradition, I believe the action taken by their special convention on November 17 was not only unnecessary, not only ill-advised, not only a strategic and tactical blunder, but profoundly wrong.

OK, that's my head talking. Now I'm going to attempt to engage my heart and my gut (as much as an INTJ is capable of).

I am in grief, and it only compounds my pain to say what I've just said--in effect, to presume to render judgment--about people who are not abstractions to me, but who represent relationships that I treasure. So I'm going to speak to my friends in South Carolina, while allowing others to eavesdrop: I think I understand, at a feeling level, why you did what you did. I suspect you are feeling a sense of release and freedom today, and an optimistic vision of the future, having sloughed off the oppressive yoke of 815. So I'm here to tell you--your freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is borne by your friends, many who are outside of your diocesan family, but also some within it, who do not wish to take the action determined by the majority. We remain your friends--at least I remain your friend--but our standing in the church you have left is now significantly weaker than it was a few days ago. If the understanding of TEC's polity that those in your diocese have so articulately propounded--namely, that the Episcopal Church has no higher authority within the boundaries of the Diocese of South Carolina than the Bishop of South Carolina--is true, then your departure, ironically, makes it more challenging for the rest of us to continue to contend for that interpretation. (And need I mention that some of us have contended for that interpretation at a personal cost that is as yet undetermined?) The vote of your convention only deepens the chaos and intensifies the polarization that has gripped the Anglican Communion. I know you are people who love and serve the Lord with all your heart, so it is with trepidation, and through tears, that I say to you: I don't think this is of God. I don't think what you have done pleases God. If my language seems indelicate or intemperate, chalk it up to my feeling hurt. Hurt by you. Of course, I believe God is a consummate opportunist, so I expect what you have done will be redeemed, turned into good, somehow and at some time. But is not the fruit of righteousness.

Now I turn my attention in the other direction, and I'm going to use we/us first person plural language, because ... I remain an Episcopalian.

We are immeasurably impoverished as a result of this fiasco. South Carolina is one of our founding dioceses. It is a vibrant and healthy diocese, and the only one to have shown a persistent pattern of numerical growth over a period of several years when the Episcopal Church as a whole has been steadily shrinking. Their departure only hinders our witness to a society that desperately wants to hear a word of hope and reconciliation from the disciples of him who came into this world to break down all dividing walls of hostility. It also further weakens our position with the Global South majority of worldwide Anglicanism. It is tragic in every dimension.

And we ourselves bear the lion's share of responsibility. There are already voices in our midst that are calling Bishop Lawrence a liar. But Mark Lawrence is no liar. I would bet everything that is sacred to me that he took the vows of his ordination to the episcopate in pristine good faith. If the rest of us would simply have left him and his diocese alone, November 17 would never have happened. He inherited an extraordinarily delicate pastoral and political situation in the diocese when he became bishop. Many of the larger and wealthier parishes were already eager to bolt. Indeed, one soon did. Every word that proceeded out of the bishop's mouth was immediately scrutinized by forces representing all points of view, both within the diocese and beyond. In time, the diocese took action to circumscribe its position with respect to national canons that it, in good faith, believed contrary to TEC's own constitution. These actions were eventually used to pull one of the series of failsafe triggers in the whole ugly sequence of events--the certification of Bishop Lawrence as having "abandoned" the communion of the Episcopal Church. Ironically, the very basis for the certification was in fact an attempt by the Bishop and diocesan leaders to do exactly the opposite, to keep the diocese in TEC while throwing a bone to those who were pressing for departure. If outsiders--and fifth column forces within the diocese--had recognized this for what it was and just let it lie ... again, the watershed event of this past weekend would not have happened.

The complaint against Bishop Lawrence that so egregiously abused the Title IV canons on abandonment was filed by a very small group. I don't know any of them, but I can only speculate that they are of a "progressive" bent and felt themselves marginalized in the overwhelmingly evangelical and conservative climate in the diocese. I cannot begin to imagine what they thought they were accomplishing by starting this avalanche. A reconfigured Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina that is theologically in line with the mainstream of TEC? Seriously? From the standpoint of their own narrow self interest, could they have made a more short-sighted move? Then there's the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, the group that received the complaint and determined that it had merit. Their decision defies any notion of common sense, especially given that the same board, though differently composed, had previously exonerated the Bishop on the same charges, based on the same evidence. Title IV is clear that the routine protections to which we are accustomed in secular criminal proceedings do not apply. But there remains in most of us an intuitive suspicion of anything that smacks of double jeopardy.

Many on the starboard side of North American Anglicanism smell a conspiracy here. They imagine the Presiding Bishop, and her chancellor, as master puppeteers, using groups like those in the diocese who filed the charges, and the key players in the Title IV process, as shills for their overarching nefarious agenda of driving out conservatives and quashing all dissent in TEC. I have resisted such conspiracy theories, and still do, and have said as much to those who propound them. But I have to admit that the timing of events keeps me coming back for another look. Even stipulating that the Presiding Bishop's hands were canonically tied once she received notification of the DBB's finding of abandonment, the seeming lack of public anguish on her part while having to carry out a distasteful duty is jarring. And if, as has been implied, this turn of events caught her by surprise (coming, as it did, between two scheduled meetings between her and Bishop Lawrence and Bishop Waldo of Upper South Carolina to try and reach a creative solution), it is astonishing that coordinated actions between 815 and a "steering committee" of "remainers" within the diocese, even to the point of naming a de facto Provisional Bishop, could have gotten up and running so quickly.

So what should we do now? We should ....

  • Resist the temptation to burn bridges. We should inform the Diocese of South Carolina that, just as we did during the Civil War, we are not recognizing their defection. The standard party line from 815 has been "When individuals leave, we mourn but wish them well. When real estate and money leave, we fight to get them back." We need to reverse that, and say, "We don't want your money or your buildings, we want you, and we will fight to get you back. So there will be no depositions and no lawsuits. In the meantime, tell us what we can do to get you to reconsider." In other words, we need to keep a path to reconciliation open. It's what Jesus would do.
  • Own our share of the mess. The marriage canons require that, when a previously-married person with a former spouse still living seeks the Bishop's permission to have a new marriage solemnized in the church, that person must give an account of his or her share in the breakdown of the previous relationship. We owe as much to ourselves, to the people of South Carolina, and to God. There is no innocent party in this transaction. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." We can't control what anybody in South Carolina says, but we can control what we say, and we need to name our collective complicity in the breakdown of this relationship.
  • Minister to those who are left behind by the departure of the diocese. I am given to understand that majorities in somewhere near 20% of the congregations of the diocese do not wish to make the trip out of TEC. Of these, all but a handful are conservative, in theological accord with Bishop Lawrence and the rest of the diocese while in disagreement with recent tactical decisions. Their pastoral needs deserve attention. Perhaps we can enlist the services of bishops in one or more of the neighboring dioceses to take these parishes under their wings as an extraordinary temporary measure. What is clear is that there is not a sufficient residue to justify the pretense of a "continuing" Diocese of South Carolina. Perhaps, with a generous expression of forbearance and humility on our part, and a generous outpouring of divine grace, we can woo the diocese back into the fold. If that happens, these parishes can rejoin their ancestral home. If not, we will need, in time, to redraw diocesan boundaries to take them in and provide for future mission work in the Low Country. But let us forego the charade in which we have indulged in San Joaquin, Fort Worth, and Quincy (Pittsburgh being a signal exception, with a critical mass of "continuers" to provide for continuity and viability). We'll all be happier, and God will be honored. Only the lawyers will be poorer. 
Of course, I don't honestly expect my advice to be taken by those with the power to actually do something creative with the hand we've been dealt. But if we just continue reading our lines from the script, we know the story won't have a happy ending, because a tragic ending is already written into the script! If we want something else, we need to throw the script away and start to improvise. Pray, brothers and sisters. Pray.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Bridge Not Far Enough

The Presiding Bishop has released a pastoral letter to the people of the Diocese of South Carolina. If one wishes to see an olive branch in her words, I believe there is one there to be seen. The first and last paragraphs tilt in a conciliatory direction ... or at least give it a glance. And Bishop Katharine's writing is usually nothing if not clear, which is a virtue in itself.

Inasmuch as its purpose may have been to reach out to the alienated majority of Episcopalians in the diocese, however, the letter falls sadly short. By invoking the standard narrative that "individuals can leave but dioceses cannot," the PB only raises the level of alienation.

It is a word of law when a word of grace is required. It is a judge's letter when a pastor's letter is required. It is written from a safe place by a leader who, in this hour, needs to be out on a limb, in a risky place. It is a document when what we need is a song. It is prose when poetry is called for.

We're about to go off a cliff. The loss of a diocese as large and vibrant (to say nothing of ancient) as South Carolina--and it is the loss of a diocese, however the institutional fragments are picked up post-apocalypse--is calamitous, and will have repercussions communion-wide and beyond. A friend of mine observed that this is how World War I got started--a series of automatic triggers getting pulled, with no one able to summon the imagination to Just Say No.

We need leaders--both the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Lawrence, along with those who advise and support them--who are willing to go off script (which will probably start with asking all lawyers to leave the room), to behave counterintuitively, to act outside of character. We need a Camp David moment, when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin were able to do just that (it should be added, at great personal cost). All the problems of the Middle East did not get solved there, as we know, but there have at least been 35 years of peace between Israel and Egypt. Bold and self-emptying generosity on the part of key players in our current mess will not solve all the problems of the Episcopal Church. But even if all we get is 35 years of peace between South Carolina (and those in others dioceses who stand with them theologically) and the majority of the Episcopal Church, it seems worth taking a few risks.

Let me be blunt: If we cannot get this right, we have no business being in ecumenical dialogue with anyone. And we might even question whether we have any business telling the world we have good news to proclaim. It is the gospel itself that is at stake here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

For the Love of God

UPDATE: I have been contacted by the Presiding Bishop about this. She assures me, after checking with her staff, that no one in her office issued any announcement that the offices of Bishop or Standing Committee have been declared vacant. She does acknowledge that some members of her staff have been working with the steering committee of Episcopalians in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church. She professes willingness to step back from the brink if Bishop Lawrence offers a refutation of the charges of abandonment within the 60 day canonical time frame, and indicates that she intends to communicate that willingness in the form of a pastoral letter before the special convention on Saturday. I share this information in the interest of fairness and truth.

This post is an exercise in futility. So why bother? Because it is sometimes in such moments when truth can be most clearly spoken. There is nothing to lose in being direct, and nothing to gain by being subtle.

The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina has been "a thing" for some years now. The overwhelming majority in the diocese have been dismayed at a succession of decisions and actions taken by General Convention and the administrative leadership at a church-wide level. (I write as one who shares that dismay.) In response, diocesan leaders have taken steps to distance the diocese from the direction of the national church, while maintaining its historic formal connection (South Carolina is one of the original founding dioceses of the Episcopal Church).

Earlier this year, a small group of Episcopalians in the diocese--a handful of clergy and laity who feel themselves at odds with the tenor of the diocese--invoked a canonical process under Title IV of the national canons, those dealing with the discipline of bishops. They accused Bishop Mark Lawrence not  of misconduct, but of abandonment of the communion of the Episcopal Church. Under Title IV, this sort of accusation goes directly to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops (DBB), bypassing the Intake Officer and Reference Panel, which is how an ordinary misconduct charge would be handled. Last month, the DBB, in a formal--and, frankly, inexplicable--canonical step, "certified" Bishop Lawrence's abandonment of the Episcopal Church and notified the Presiding Bishop of its finding. The Presiding Bishop, in a canonical non-discretionary act, "restricted" Bishop Lawrence's ministry until such time as the House of Bishops can render a final decision. This would have to take place at the next regular meeting of the HoB, which is next March, or at a special meeting, and no such special meeting has been called.

Meanwhile, the action of the DBB triggered a failsafe mechanism that the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina had apparently, though not publicly, put in place, such that any action of the national church against the diocese or its bishop would automatically result in the diocese's disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church. and call a special convention of the diocese to take counsel for the future. That convention takes place this coming Saturday.

In a sequence of events that is reminiscent of the tragic beginning of World War I, earlier this week the Presiding Bishop declared the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee in the Diocese of South Carolina to be vacant, and established a process by which the "continuing" diocese would be reconstituted under new leadership. It must not go unremarked that there is absolutely no canonical authority for her to do this. While it might be argued that "new occasions teach new duties" and unanticipated circumstances call for improvisatory responses, the fundamentally rogue nature of Bishop Jefferts Schori's actions remains.

In the Presiding Bishop's defense, there is solid evidence that she had been a good-faith participant, with Bishop Lawrence and Bishop Andrew Waldo of the neighboring diocese of Upper South Carolina, in discussions pointed in the direction of creative avoidance of the impasse that has, in fact, ensued, discussions that were aborted by her receipt of the abandonment certification from the DBB. This reality only compounds the tragic dimension of the situation. How is it that we are so imprisoned by our own juridical processes that charity itself is suffocated?

Tragedy is the only word to describe all of this, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate its scope. South Carolina is a strong and thriving diocese. It has consistently been a statistical anomaly in an Episcopal Church that is steadily aging and deteriorating. All eyes have indeed been on South Carolina, but for the wrong reasons. Rather than arising from suspicion and malice, the attention should be springing from envy and a desire to emulate. Its loss will be no mere statistical blip, and will probably exceed the combined numerical total of the previously departed San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Quincy, and about half of Pittsburgh. For anyone who loves the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, or just loves Jesus, this is an occasion of profound sorrow.

So here's my futility exercise.

To my beloved brothers and sisters in the Diocese of South Carolina, as you meet in convention this Saturday: For the love of God, step back from the brink. Lay aside that which is your right, in honor of him who laid aside everything for us, not counting equality with God something to be grasped. The entire Episcopal Church needs you, but none more so than we who have stood with you in witness to the revealed word of God and the tradition of "mere Anglicanism." I am begging you: Do not abandon us. Let us together be Jeremiah at the bottom of the well, bearing costly witness to God's truth. Let us together be Hosea, faithfully loving those who do not love us back, for the sake of the wholeness of the people of God.

To the Presiding Bishop: Katharine, for the love of God, step back from the brink. Rescind the announcements you have made about the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee being vacant. Give peace a chance. Create space for the seeds of future trust and love to at least lie dormant for a season in anticipation of future germination. When the Confederate dioceses formed their own church in the 1860s, the General Convention, in great wisdom, simply refused to recognize their departure, thereby greatly facilitating eventual reconciliation and avoiding the schism that other American Christian bodies experienced in the wake of the Civil War. You are renowned for your calls for nimbleness and imagination in the face of the challenges our church faces. This is the moment for you to exercise precisely that sort of leadership. The legacy of your tenure as Presiding Bishop will be written in the next three days. Will it be a legacy of juridical gridlock, or bold generosity for the sake of God's mission?

I am reduced nearly to tears, and they may yet flow.

For the love of God.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eve of All Hallows

There's a house a few blocks from where I live, on one of my regular walking routes, where Hallowe'en is the highlight of the owner's year. He puts up his decorations gradually, beginning about two months in advance, in the high heat of summer, with a digital sign that changes daily indicating the number of days left until October 31. The item in the picture here is, in my perverted opinion, his masterpiece, though some might argue for the pirate ship (see way below). I've actually met the guy (the owner of the house, that is, not the one in the picture), and he seems pretty normal, thirtysomething.

While he is certainly, by any definition, a little over the top and around the bend, the difference between him and rest of us is one of degree, not of kind. We find Hallowe'en strangely compelling, even as we disguise our feelings in playfulness, because we find the subject of death hugely compelling. It is the sum of all our fears. Whatever momentary worry we may experience during the course of a day, there is a direct chain between the feeling of that moment and our fear of death.

So how is it that we have come to mock that which we fear? It is, I suspect, a speciation of the same genre from which we get gallows humor. Some of our pre-Christian forebears in northern Europe apparently had an annual ritual in which they lampooned death and everything associated with it, including the spirits of the departed, evil and otherwise. In due course, the Church in the west, as a matter of mission strategy, exploited this observance and baptized it, linking it with the great festival of All Saints (or All Hallows; hence the eve thereof contracted to Hallowe'en).

In this context--the context of a festival in which we celebrate the exquisitely thin veil between the living in Christ and the dead in Christ--mocking death and the symbols of death begins to transcend gallows humor and make some actual sense. The defeat of Death by the resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of all that it means to be a Christian. It is that alone which allows us to negotiate the territory of our primal fears with some degree of grace, and even joy. It is the truth of Easter that makes Hallowe'en possible. If Christ is risen from the dead, then those who have died with him in baptism stand in a pretty good place from which to mock.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On the Efficacy of Prayer

To be clear: I believe that it is the joyful privilege of Christians to pray for "the sick, the friendless, and the needy" and for "those in any kind of trouble" (both quotes are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979). I believe such prayer may and ought to include specific petitions for specific outcomes. I also believe that God can and does act in the lives of those who pray and those who are prayed for in such ways as effect their healing, and that such healings often cannot be readily explained by medical science and may indeed, from a perspective of faith, be classified as miracles.

That said, I must confess that I get a little queasy when I hear language along the lines of "prayer works." 

A screwdriver certainly works to drive a screw. A hammer works to drive a nail. A lawn mower works to cut the grass. There is an evident and expected outcome to the use of each of these tools, provided that they are in good condition and employed under appropriate circumstances by a knowledgeable user. 

Last winter I fell and hurt my knee. A friend recommended an ointment called Blue Emu. I got some and used it and experienced temporary relief from the mild pain in my knee. I reported to my wife, "Wow. It worked!" I now recommend Blue Emu ointment myself. I have found that "it works."

Is prayer a tool? Is prayer something available for us to use, like a lawn mower or Blue Emu ointment? Would we say to someone, "Hey, try praying. If it works, great. If not, move on to something else."? 

These questions are difficult to answer with a flat out No, because it just doesn't feel right to demean something as sacred and precious to so many people as prayer. But it also doesn't feel right to cheapen prayer by putting it in the same category as Blue Emu ointment--just one more thing to try, and see if it works.

I suspect that, if we're going to talk about prayer as a tool, we would do well to think of it as a tool for God's use, not ours. God's pet project is to redeem the universe, and that includes the defeat of pain and suffering, from the trivial to the substantial to the cosmic. Blue Emu ointment is one small thread in the grand tapestry of redemption. Prayer is another one, though, I think it's safe to say, a much larger and more significant one. How all these threads fit together is something we can only catch rare glimpses of from our human point of view this side of Eternity. The virtue of humility, ever an aspirational virtue, seems to call for a certain degree of reticence in our statements about just how God is accomplishing his purposes. 

I shall keep praying. "While I breathe, I pray" (Andrew of Crete in the 7th century, via the magisterial translator John Mason Neale). I shall also keep an eye peeled for "God sightings"--miracles. But I'm still going to be uneasy about thinking of prayer as a tool at my disposal.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Looking Ahead by Looking Back

Matt Marino is an Episcopal priest who does ministry with youth and young adults in the Diocese of Arizona. As it turns out, I met him just this past summer at General Convention in Indianapolis, though the encounter had slipped my mind until he reminded me of it via Facebook message earlier today. I had contacted him on that medium to express my enthusiastic appreciation for a post that appeared on his blog last Sunday. I spotted the link on Facebook early this morning and immediately re-shared there and on Twitter. It's probably not accurate to say that it has gone "viral," but it has been passed around more times than I can keep track of, and always with unalloyed acclaim. I might add that this acclaim has come from an astonishing diversity of places on the familiar ideological spectrum, which I find more than a little bit interesting.

Father Marino's piece is primarily about the poverty of a particular model of youth ministry (and children's ministry as well) that is entrenched in the world of mega-churches and mega-church wannabes. His comments are right-down-the-middle-spot-on. I say that with some degree of verve because I managed to successfully euthanize "children's chapel" in two parishes where I was the rector, and have more recently discouraged the notion of "youth Sunday" in parishes of my diocese. Why? Because the Sunday liturgy is "owned" by all the baptized, and all the baptized, including children and youth, should have a stake in it. That can't happen if they're not there.

What had me doing backflips, however (I speak metaphorically; don't be getting a visual) was this penultimate paragraph:
Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.
Anyone who's heard me give my standard post-liturgical coffee hour stump speech in parish halls across the Diocese of Springfield for about that past year could be forgiven for thinking Matt Marino and I are intentionally singing off the same song sheet. We're not. But it is affirming to see that I'm not the only crazy person who thinks that the post-Christian culture we are presently careening into invites us to look a lot more closely at the practices of our Christian forebears in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. In my moments of immodest self-assurance, I'm tempted to exclaim, "Somebody else gets it!" Of course, I'm fairly certain that I myself have not "gotten" it yet. But ... still.

As I've been pondering the whole challenge of the church's response to secularization (which, with a particular focus, Fr Marino's blog post also ponders), I'm now just about confident enough to say it outright: the Sunday Eucharist is not for visitors or guests in general, and certainly not for "seekers." We need to stop thinking of the Sunday Eucharist as a potential new member's first point of contact with the Christian community. That is a huge horse pill for us to swallow, because it contradicts all of our instincts; it is completely counter-intuitive. But if we look at that horse pill askance, that's a sign that we're still mentally in Christendom, and have not downloaded the new post-Christendom mental map. Making our buildings and services more "welcoming" to visitors made perfect sense in the old order, when not everybody went to church, but most everybody at least had a particular church that they didn't go to. It is close to completely incoherent in the post-Christian world.

The truth is, if a visitor walks into the Sunday Eucharist "cold," with the little or no prior knowledge of Christian faith or Christian worship, and does not find what goes on confusingly boring at best, and quite possibly offensive, then we're probably not doing it well enough! We've probably unwittingly dumbed it down, pandering to perceived "market" sensibilities.

So, yes, as Matt Marino says, the invitation before us is to make the mental shift from "they come to us" to "we go to them." The invitation before us is for our celebrations of the Eucharist to have more integrity and vitality than ever, not so they can be more attractive to newcomers, but so the baptized faithful can be adequately fed and energized for the work of mission and ministry in the world. None of this will be easy. It runs counter to anything most brands of Christian, especially my own, have any accumulated experience or wisdom about. A friend remarked to me today that the advent of the post-Christian era is either a catastrophe or an opportunity. If we deny it, and live mentally in a bygone time, it's a catastrophe. But if we acknowledge it, and gear up for bearing witness to gospel in the actual world we live in, letting go of the privileged status we are still tempted to think is owed to us, it can be a tremendous opportunity.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation ... or, Our Mother In Heaven

This is the shrine in the north transept of the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The image of the Blessed Virgin, the visitor is told, is much older than the cathedral itself (which is from the late 1800s), having been brought to Santa Fe from Spain during the earliest Franciscan missionary endeavors in that region (1ate 1500s/early 1600s).

Brenda and I are just back from a week in Santa Fe. It has not been our ordinary custom to take "destination" vacations--we've tended toward touring, with no more than two nights in the same place--but with the amount of "touring" I now do in my working life, it seemed the year to go to one place and stay put for a while. So we did, and it was great. Santa Fe has long been on my "to go" list, so everything just came together beautifully, and we are very grateful for the experience we had.

At the very helpful suggestion of a neighbor, I picked up a copy of Willa Cather's classic 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, starting it a few days before the trip and finishing it on the plane four days ago while en route home. I can't imagine a better preparation for visiting northern New Mexico than reading this "episodic, nearly plotless" (per Cliff's Notes!) literary treasure. It certainly heightened my spiritual sensitivity as we visited some of the same places that are mentioned in the novel (Bernalillo, Pecos, Chimayo, and Taos, in addition to Santa Fe itself).

One of the tucked away places we were glad we stumbled on was a shrine called El Sanctuario de Chimayo, just off the "high road" between Santa Fe and Taos. Its history and reputation rest on the on the healing ministry of our Lord made quasi-sacramentally available to the faithful in ... of all things ... its dirt. A very elegant (by comparison) Walsingham has its water, and a rather more humble ("folky" might be apt, though not "folksy") Chimayo has its dirt. The whole place, from the architecture of the shrine church to the demeanor of the gift shop clerks, breathes a spirit of holiness and uncomplicated piety. We were there as barely-more-than-accidental tourists, but Chimayo is a place of pilgrimage--like Walsingham, and Lourdes, and Compostela, and many other places. And, like Lourdes, the heart's desire of the pilgrim is relief from suffering.

We all suffer, of course. Even the most privileged and comfortable in this world face the certainty of their own mortality, and wealth is no guarantor of an easy exit when the time comes. Even the fabled "1%" are disappointed and betrayed by loved ones, and have their cherished dreams dashed on the rocks of reality on a regular basis. Yet, there is an added dimension in the suffering of those who are, by any standard, poor, those who are (or were) physically incapacitated and have (or had) no therapeutic recourse simply by virtue of where (or when) they were born. It is the vocation of places like El Sanctuario de Chimayo to absorb that sort of suffering, to take it in like a holy black hole, and, in fact, to retain enough of it to allow the suffering pilgrim to go on living a while longer. These are mysterious places (an unbeliever would deem them fraudulent). Not everybody--the great majority, in fact--gets immediately and miraculously healed as a result of their visit. But some do. And so I think that places like Chimayo and Walsingham and Lourdes have a role in the redemptive economy of God. On this side of Eternity, we don't know precisely what that role is. Or perhaps those of a more "uncomplicated piety" see it more readily. But, in any case, it will become clear bye and bye.

Chimayo, unlike Walsingham and Lourdes, is not the site of a Marian apparition, and it was not my impression that the piety there is heavily Marian. Nonetheless, in any place where the Spanish influence has ever been dominant (New Mexico was part of the Spanish empire from the late 1500s until 1821), it's fairly safe to say that deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin is simply a default part of the religious fabric. So, as I was visiting Chimayo, I was able to make a ready connection with some material from Death Comes... that does focus on Mary. After an unexpected and intense episode of pastoral care for a woman long deprived of the comforts of her religion, the main character, Bishop Latour (a surrogate for the real Bishop Lamy), reflects on his experience:
He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the cross that took away the indignity of suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had in his young manhood. He seemed able to feel all that it meant to her to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth. Old people, who have felt blows and toil and know the world's hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman's tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer. (p. 216)
The Anglican religious culture that I inhabit is pretty Mary-friendly. There is a Marian shrine in the rear of the cathedral nave in Springfield to which I have become quite attached. A parish in the diocese does a splendid annual Our Lady of Walsingham festival, in which a number of local Roman Catholics participate. I pray the Angelus twice daily as part of my regular devotions, and the Rosary on a regular basis. All that said, I cannot but acknowledge that devotion to the Theotokos (as distinguished from acknowledgement of the objective theological significance of Mary herself, her auxiliary role in the economy of salvation betokened by her "Fiat mihi" to Gabriel's message) is pretty much seen as adiaphora, optional. We find it more natural to honor Mary with our intellects than with our affections.

This is, I would suggest, much to be pitied, and not so much for what it deprives us of (though it deprives us of much), but for what it leaves us vulnerable to. Human beings have an instinctive need to connect with the Transcendent Feminine. In short, we need a Cosmic Mother. We are wired such that we will seek out a Cosmic Mother as surely as water will seek the most efficient route downhill. Our pagan ancestors made this connection by way of various goddesses; indeed, with Gaia, Mother Nature herself. More recently, theologians, liturgists, and others within the Christian tradition have sought assiduously to dilute, or, often, to simply eliminate and replace, the traditional language for God that casts God in masculine terms (causing language lovers to cringe because it makes it impossible to use pronouns for God, which results in really clunky diction). Terms such as "Father," "Lord," and "Almighty" are banned. Are they not patriarchal and therefore oppressive to half the human race? Any new liturgical materials produced by my own church since around 1990 thoroughly reflect this perspective. See here (from a post-evangelical who still professes Christianity) and here (from a post-Christian) for some very recent arguments in that vein from what we might call an "ordinary laypersons's" perspective (i.e. they are not formally theologically trained). The next step, of course--a step many have advocated and taken--is to adopt feminine pronouns and imagery when speaking of God. Father and Mother are deemed equivalent and interchangeable references to a Divine Parent who is beyond gender.

Now, this is completely understandable. There is some biblical interpretation out there that is, in my opinion, just plain wrong-headed, and sometimes thinly-veiled misogyny. There are male Christian leaders who have engaged in patterns of serious emotional and spiritual abuse, particularly toward women, and attempted to support that abuse by citing scripture. I don't demean the experience of those who have emerged from that sort of environment feeling wounded, and a bit angry. However, reactivity rarely yields good theology. Anyone with an investment in creedal orthodoxy (which, as a Catholic Christian, I have; those from free church evangelicalism, not so much) and/or the normative character of biblical language (evangelicals back on board now) is going to find the various attempts to "correct"  the tradition with respect to God-language highly problematic.

If we base our theologizing even partly on the notion that what we know about God we know because God has revealed that information to us, not because we reasoned our way to it or just made it up because it felt good, then we have to take seriously the terms in which that revelation is cast. We can't just toss it aside if we're uncomfortable with it. It is something given and something received. We may not always like or appreciate the gift, but there it is, nonetheless. We have to at least wrestle with it, and integrate it into our thinking and devotion somehow on its own terms. And what we are faced with pretty clearly is that, in the Christian dispensation, God is revealed to us in masculine terms. God is masculine in gender. With so much attention being paid now to fine distinctions between "sex" and "gender," it seems apposite to add: not male in sex. God is not a male. But God is masculine. God can be mother-like (the passage where Jesus ascribes to himself the qualities of a mother hen is oft cited), even as I, as a male and a father, am capable of being mother-like, and women are capable, when life demands it, of being father-like. But I can never actually be a mother. God is our Father. God is not our Mother.

Still, we do need a mother. When we are young, that need is quite concrete and literal, and, in most cases, it is satisfied by the woman who gave us birth. As we age, the need becomes more spiritual and metaphorical. As I averred above, we need--indeed, we yearn for--not just "a mother" but Mother, the Transcendent Feminine. This drive has led some--erroneously, I believe--to look for Mom in the wrong place, in the Godhead itself. Wrong, as I said, but not by much. As Bishop Latour observed after his nocturnal encounter with a slave woman in his own church, there is a Kind Woman in Heaven. She is indeed Regina Coeli--Queen of Heaven, "higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim" (Hymnal 1982, #618, v.2). One can rightly quibble, of course, with his attribution of "divine" status to the Blessed Mother, but one can also rightly quibble with the large portion of the Christian world that declines to see itself among the "all generations" in Mary's own rhapsodic outburst that would "call [her] blessed" (Luke 1:48).

Many among whom I live and move and have my being in Christian discipleship and church leadership form part of the gender-bending point of the spear in the evolution of the language the Church uses about God. I honor their passion and the integrity of what they understand as a witness for justice. But I believe they are mistaken. And I suspect that one of the reasons they have chosen the path they are on is because everyone has encouraged them to give Mary an affectionate pat on the head on the Fourth Sunday of Advent and a polite wave on the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (May 31), and her own feast day (Assumption for Roman Catholics, Dormition for Eastern Orthodox, August 15), instead of regularly singing her praises and importunately seeking her intercession on their behalf. We have neglected Our Mother in Heaven, and we are paying the price.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Eighth Legislative Day

No committee meetings on this final day of convention, for obvious reasons. Just a pedal-to-the-medal press in both houses to get through the legislative calendar. This is more difficult for the House of Deputies, which is so large that one wag once compared it to the Supreme Soviet. By midday they were limiting debate to one minute per speaker, and later on agreed "no more amendments" (which effectively kill a resolution this late in the convention). The HoB is a rather saner environment, for which I am grateful.

The most significant work the bishops did was to unite rather resoundingly around the traditional understanding of sacramental order by which Holy Baptism is the gateway sacrament to all the others. We had a resolution from the Evangelism Committee, approved by the House of Deputies by a rather wide margin, that began by affirming the norm of Baptism leading to Eucharist, but concluded with an obliquely descriptive sentence that was clearly (given the entire context of the conversation) intended to provide leeway for the practice of "open table." Not one bishop spoke in favor of this language. Several (including YFNB) spoke against it in very strong terms. Eventually it was amended to remove the final sentence, with everyone aware that, in so doing, we were likely consigning it to "die in the bowels of the House of Deputies" (in the artful extemporaneous language of the Presiding Bishop), and this was passed resoundingly. I could not hear a dissenting vote, though I suspect there may have been a few. This was a happy outcome.

Somewhere around forty of the resolutions passed by this General Convention--a bunch of them on the last day--had to do with "social justice" and public policy issues. I went on record very early in the convention that it is bad practice for us to even consider resolutions like this. Not only does the U.S. government (to say nothing of foreign governments) not care what we think, but, in most cases, we don't have enough expertise to know what we're talking about, and the whole thing is needlessly polarizing in an already contentious political atmosphere in the church. To be more pointed: One could surmise, looking only at these resolutions, that the General Convention is the spiritual arm of the Democratic Party. But ... while the positions themselves are consistently well left of center (for example, support for the Dream Act, support for the Affordable Care Act, support for every aspiration of organized labor, condemnation of the banking industry), many of the voice votes affirming these positions in the HoB was less than resounding. Well less than resounding. My guess is that there was in many cases a majority of effective abstentions, and a lot of eye rolling over how these things clutter our agenda. It's just that very few (YFNB excepted) are keen on going audibly on record against the regnant progressive orthodoxy championed passionately by a relatively small number of enthusiasts on two committees: Social & Urban Affairs and National & International Concerns. If we could euthanize these two committees, we could have shorter conventions that focus much more efficiently on the work we really need to be doing.

A goodly number of other resolution are in the "feel good" category (affirm this, encourage that, commend something else). Most of these are completely non-controversial in their substance, but they're unnecessary. That take up committee time and clog the legislative calendar. Let's find a way to incentivize restraint in this area.

In the area of structural reform--responding to the crisis of ecclesial identity--General Convention spoke with a forked tongue. We passed a bold omnibus resolution on structure. It creates a Special Task Force, appointed by the presiding officers, but then operating outside their participation, control, or even oversight--that will begin the work of re-inventing the governance and administration of the Episcopal Church, and then summon what, for most practical purposes, amounts to a constitutional convention. This is far-reaching and "outside the box." But when presented with a couple of opportunities to unequivocally frost the cake, there was a failure of nerve. The Deputies were up to the task on one of them, passing a resolution that would have removed the requirement that a Presiding Bishop-elect promptly resign office in order to accept the new position, thus creating the possibility for a return to the part-time role that the PB exercised for most of TEC's history. But the bishops balked at this--twice, actually, because of a procedural error. I find this regrettable. Then there was a resolution that, in my mind, would have given the Special Task Force a huge jump start on its work: Eliminate all "interim bodies" (standing groups, known as CCABs, that meet and work and create work for themselves during each triennium), instead empowering the presiding officers to appoint task forces to deal with specific concurred resolutions that call for particular action, and then ride off into the sunset when that work is accomplished. We didn't do it; again, a failure of nerve.

On a personal note, I'm extremely gratified that the resolution I authored--B009--to allow bishops to authorize congregations that request it to use the lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days as it was originally printed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, after an uphill battle in Committee 13 on two separate occasions, was concurred late yesterday by the House of Deputies. This is a small victory, and I would gladly trade it for A049 if given the chance (!), but I walked out of the convention center with a smile.

NOTE: This blog will be going dark for a while. Tomorrow I board a plane for Bangkok, where I will join Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota in representing the Communion Partners bishops at a Global South Anglican conference on mission a networking. When I return a week later, my annual vacation begins, and I will be significantly "unplugging." So it will be at least late August before I post here again. I will continue my diary blog (at least I plan to) while in Thailand.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Seventh Legislative Day

Most of the committees had finished their work before today, but mine met for our full 90 minutes this morning, and then some. I had forgotten that B009 (1979 lectionary), which was voted "Adopt" yesterday by the bishops, needed to come back to committee--more precisely, the deputies on the committee. So I and my colleague bishops had to sit in silence and listen to the debate. There was still strong opposition, which baffles me, but in the end, both sanity and charity prevailed, and the message going to the full HoD will be with a "Concur" recommendation. For this I am grateful.

Then we spend most of the rest of our time considering the resolution on canonically authorized Bible translations. After being passed by the Bishops, the Deputies amended it to include the English Standard Version (ESV), but not without some controversy. Its provenance in the Reformed evangelical tradition makes it suspect to some. Personally, I think it's highly preferable to the NRSV as a text, though I'm not endorsing the notes, introductions, and general critical apparatus. After tortuous parliamentary wrangling, we voted to more the ESV to its own resolution, on which we recommend referral to the SCLM for further study during the coming triennium, and sent the rest of it on to the HoB. Since bishops already have the authority to permit whatever translation they set fit, I'm wondering whether we need to just get rid of any list of "preferred" versions. 

Overall, I'm sensing (or maybe I'm just wishing it--I don't know) a bit more grace and charity from the majority toward those who seem to usually be on the losing end of votes. After all, they got their "big one" yesterday, so they can afford to be benevolent. It doesn't cost them anything. I'm already getting the "we're so glad you're still with us" comments, just like I was getting at this point in convention three years ago.

One of the talking points we made in the A049 debate was that, as a result of its passage, the rate at which the Episcopal Church is already losing members would only increase. Indeed, it's already happening. I have a steady trickle of emails, Facebook messages and status updates, and blog comments that testify to the fact that we weren't just blowing smoke when we said that. Makes the heart sad.

The House of Bishops continued to plow through legislation, always with the warning that, when the question is whether to concur with an action already taken by the Deputies, any amendments or substitutes will effectively kill the resolution, because the clock runs out tomorrow. The big ones were the budget,  and the omnibus structure resolution that was the fruit of very hard labor in committee and passed unanimously in the House of Deputies. We did the same. And we passed the budget too. (I abstained from the latter out of ethical considerations; my diocese is not paying its proportional share of the DFMS program and is not likely to begin doing so during the coming triennium.) Unfortunately, we couldn't bring that same courage and vision to the question of even allowing the option of the Presiding Bishop remaining in charge of a diocese upon election as Primate. Our refusal to do this will make the work of the structure task force that much more complex.

So it's pretty much all now over but the shouting ... and there isn't even very much of that. I have begun to nourish a fond hope that there might somehow (not at convention, but later) be an informal meeting of those who are driving the majority agenda in TEC with those who are finding themselves a disappearing minority. The question at that meeting would be, "What has to happen for you to declare victory and give it all a rest?" I have grown intensely weary of opposing whatever The Next Big Thing is. So let's just fast forward to the end: What does Mission Accomplished look like? And in that scenario, is there a place for people like me? Not as tokens, or near-strangers, but in a way in which we can maintain our full integrity. I really wish for that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Sixth Legislative Day

  • Dismayed in the morning committee meeting when my resolution to authorize use of the 1979 lectionary came up for debate and was soundly defeated--sent to the HoB with a recommendation to "Discharge: Acted on in a Previous Convention." Where's the love?
  • This was the day the bishops were allowed on to the floor of the House of Deputies for a joint session in order to hear the co-chairs of Program, Budget, & Finance present the proposed budget for the triennium. I'm not a numbers wonk, and I've only been following the process of budget formation (politically charged) rather than paying much attention to the budget itself. So I don't have much to say. They suggest it's balanced. Of course, this depends on the strength of the income projections, which can be a big "if." No, a huge one.
  • The House of Bishops was once again a legislative machine. But we did manage to get all in a twist over a proposed canon on what to do when a bishop and a diocese find themselves in an unhappy marriage. We were in the midst of debating a proposed amendment to a proposed amendment to the main resolution when the whole thing got tabled until we could have private conversation about it at the beginning of the afternoon session. It was then given to an ad hoc task group to cut the Gordian knot and come up with a fix that we can consider tomorrow. The issue in question is precisely what class of bishops (all, active, diocesan being the categories), and under what circumstances (by mail, at a physical meeting) can vote when the question is forcing a bishop to resign.
  • To my delight, when my lectionary resolution came to the floor, I spoke from my heart, and the committee's recommendation was reversed, by a very comfortable margin. Now it goes to the House of Deputies.
  • A fairly hefty percentage of bishops and deputies are prone to Israel-bashing. So I was pleased that, owing to the hard work and strategizing of a handful of bishops and deputies, the most offensive resolutions on the subject of Middle East peace were cast aside, and the one we passed is very fair, in my opinion, to the interests of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Of course ... it's not like anyone cares what this convention thinks on the subject.
  • We also concurred with the deputies on the resolution concerning the Anglican Covenant, which is: We can't decide. Of course, I would have liked an unequivocal Yes. But a great many others would have liked an unequivocal No. So I'm claiming this as a victory.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Fifth Legislative Day

I have closely followed every General Convention since 1976, and I have attended every General Convention since 2003 (making this my fourth). In every one of them, there was some major issue (always related in one way or another to sex or sexuality) about which I and those I hang out with in this church have been highly anxious about, fearing dire consequences if a certain action was taken. And every time, the feared action has been taken, wounds have been licked, and, most of the time, the dire consequences have, in fact, ensued. And somehow I still am where I am--actually, with a much more entrenched "insider" role than I ever would have imagined--and it's only on odd-numbered days (or is it even? I can't remember) that I can coherently explain why.

Today, that event for this General Convention happened. The House of Bishops voted (by roll call, 111 to 41, with three abstentions) to authorize the use of a standard liturgical form for same-sex marriage. The House of Deputies is certain to concur. I believe this is a huge mistake, on several levels. It's not scriptural, it's not traditional, and it's not reasonable. It's an ecumenical nightmare and an inter-Anglican train wreck. I'm very sad about it this evening. My sadness is not as profound as it was in prior years with their events. I'm kind of used to it now, and I'm able to shake off the sting a little more readily than I once could. But I'm still sad.

Yes, it's a dark cloud. But there is a silver lining. It could have been worse. In the Committee 13 debate this morning, we were able to greatly strengthen the language that not only gives bishops the authority to prohibit use of the rite in their diocese, but offers both clergy and laity concrete safeguards to protect them from retribution or canonical impairment because of this position on same-sex marriage--in the case of clergy, refusal to preside at this rite. I have been abundantly clear in the Diocese of Springfield that this form, or anything like it, will not be authorized for use.

So now we await the dire consequences, which are sure to come. The Episcopal Church will quietly lose more members (or sometimes noisily). The majority of the Anglican world will distance itself even further from us. Ecumenical relations will grow still colder. The lives of Christians who live on the frontier with Islam will be placed in even greater jeopardy. And, somehow, God will remain faithful beyond anything we can ask or imagine.

We did a few other things today as well, most of them relatively meaningless. More public policy statements, unfunded mandates, and "requests" that dioceses and congregations encourage this and advocate for than and study the other thing, which will actually get done ... virtually nowhere. That's the reason they all pass on overwhelming voice votes, because all bishops realize that they are completely at liberty to utterly forget about these resolutions the minute they get up from the table when the house recesses.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Fourth Legislative Day

When we gather like this to make Eucharist, we offer all that we are and have for this work.  That little exchange that starts, “lift up your hearts,” is about entering another reality – some old translators put it, “hearts aloft!”  Get moving!  Go cross the frontier between heaven and earth – boldly go where Jesus has gone before – and invite others to go with you to help build the world that God intended at creation.   
So – mortals, prophets – stand up!  God is sending you to a rebellious house, full of impudent and stubborn folks.  As the prophet Pogo said, “is us.!" Your job is to go and say, “Listen up – here’s the deal, God’s got a better world in mind, and you are needed to help make it happen.”  And once you’ve started the conversation about good news, keep moving, keep showing and telling the world what God’s dream looks like.
We heard these words near the conclusion of the Presiding Bishop's homily this morning at the principal General Convention celebration of the Eucharist. It was not bad liturgy, as hotel ballroom celebrations go. The music was consistently wonderful. I was surprised and grateful that it was straight Prayer Book, with nothing doctored. Eucharistic Prayer C was used, which is certainly not my favorite, but at least the text used was right out of the book, without the tweaking of that prayer that is so ubiquitous these days.

That sermon, though. 

I can track with the PB's zeal for a mission-driven church. I share her evident interest in paying attention to society as it heads down the road of secularization. She has a gift of being able to put a compelling rhetorical flourish on her thoughts. But I am saddened by her underlying missional vision. It is way too tame, way too earthbound. 

The parables of the summertime "green season" are rife with reminders that we do not "make it happen." We don't even "help" God make it happen. "God has no hands but ours" is pure theological claptrap. We are not responsible for bringing in God's kingdom; God is responsible for bringing in God's kingdom. Our job--the job of Christ-followers--is to announce the kingdom, to model the kingdom in our common life, and to ride the wave of what God is doing. 

But God does not in any way depend on us, much less need our "help." There is no number of resolutions we can pass, no amount of money we can budget, no number of programs we can initiate or organize, that will hasten the progress of the Kingdom of God one second. The good news is that neither is there anything we can do, or fail to do, that will retard that progress one second. 

Our job is probably also to get past ourselves and our own self-importance ... especially at places like General Convention.

In other news ... 

The first hour of the House of Bishop's legislative session this afternoon was devoted, as has been our custom, to private conversation. I can reveal what went on there today, because the House voted to make it public. I personally moved a mind-of-the-house resolution that affirms Bishops Ohl, Talton, Price, and Buchanan as the legitimate bishops of the Episcopal Church dioceses of Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Quincy, respectively. This motion carried on a unanimous roll call vote. And it is in no way inconsistent with the amicus curiae brief that seven of us recently signed. My sense is that this has significantly lowered the thermostat in relations between the bishops. What effect it might have on the Title IV complaints remains to be seen. But I am hopeful.

Our legislative calendar was short. There's a small disconnect in synchronicity between the work of the committees and the work of legislation. It does seem that we could get through convention much more expeditiously if we eliminated the committees on Social & Urban Affairs and National & International Concerns, which constantly ask convention to make statements about things we don't actually have any influence over, and "call on" dioceses and parishes to do a bunch of things that the vast majority of them will never even hear about, let alone do. What will it take for us to get unstuck from the 1960s? Probably the death of a bunch of baby-boomers. I'm not volunteering.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Third Legislative Day

Less committee time, more legislative time. That's the point we've reached in this convention.

Committee 13 heard testimony on B009, Authorize Use of the 1979 Lectionary. There was one "expert" witness who showed up to testify against it. He was given five minutes--more than double the usual allotment. All he did was put forward a rationale for the Revised Common Lectionary, but this seemed pointless, as B009 does nothing to challenge the official status of the RCL. As the author of the resolution, I was given equal time. I characterized it as an act of pastoral charity. We won't have an opportunity to debate it in committee until Monday.

We then spent the rest of our time discussing the details for tonight's hearing on A049--in effect, a rite for same-sex weddings.

The House of Bishops was a legislative machine. I made my stock speech once on the folly of passing resolutions that speak to public policy on matters about which Christians of good will and an informed conscience might legitimately disagree. I then proceeded to vote No several times--on issues ranging from statehood for the District of Columbia to advocacy for the Affordable Care Act. I was, of course, on the losing side each and every time. If I were in charge, we would dissolve the Committee on Social and Urban Affairs. IMO, they just clutter the docket with a secular political agenda.

  • We defeated a resolution that would have restricted the votes of various categories of bishops who are not active diocesans when a matter involves the allocation of funds. I voted with the winners on this one.
  • We rejected funding (if my notes are correct) for the General Board of Examining Chaplains, despite the fact that their existence is canonically mandated, effectively killing the General Ordination Exams.
  • We agreed to a slow phase-in of the mandatory requirement that parishes and schools provide pensions plans for lay employees.
  • We passed a resolution that affirms our continued full-communion with the ELCA, but calls for more focused attention to two issues on which our paths diverge: lay presidency at the Eucharist and the nature of diaconal ministry.
  • We reaffirmed our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals
  • Rather to the consternation of anybody in the room who is involved with theological education, we narrowly passed a resolution that tasks the Standing Committee on Ministry Development with some rather unwieldy and intrusive oversight work in connection with the seminaries and other formation programs.
  • We had long debate, with several attempts to amend, of a resolution that seeks to increase the pressure on dioceses (like Springfield) that pay less than the full asking from the national church. Eventually, with a push from the Presiding Bishop, it got re-referred to committee for further work.
  • We passed, on second reading, a constitutional amendment that will remove the House of Deputies from the consent process for bishops elected within 120 of General Convention, and send everything to the Standing Committees. This is now in the hands of the Deputies.
These are just some of the highlights. I'll mention one more: A059 passed. This is the one that amends the Prayer Book (thus requiring passage at two successive conventions) in order to fix the discrepancy between the lectionary for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week as printed in the back of the Prayer Book since 2006, and the readings set forth on the actual pages where those rites are found. There is much confusion about this, and I fear that many of my colleagues did not understand what we were doing. I'm certain that many on Committee 13 did not. Maybe somebody would like to carry this water in the House of Deputies.

At the beginning of our afternoon session, there was another hour of private discussion regarding the complaints from the Bishops of Fort Worth and Quincy stemming from the amicus brief that I and several other bishops signed. The rules of the house prevent me from saying anything more about that here, but I believe things are headed in a positive and helpful direction.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Second Legislative Day

We're settling into a routine now: Early morning committee meetings for two hours, break for Eucharist, 90 minute legislative session, break for lunch, two hours back in committees, 30 minute "passing" break, two hours in legislative session. Some committees then have evening meetings. It's grueling, and this introvert of heading toward tilt.

Committee 13 heard testimony on proposed liturgical rites having to do with animals, honoring God in creation, and forms for daily prayer that would serve as a more accessible alternative to the Prayer Book offices. If I remember correctly at this late hour, I believe we proposed authorizing the animal and creation material for use, but leaving them in the custody of the SCLM for "perfection" before the 78th General Convention in 2015. We're still working on the Daily Prayer material, having gotten the impression that the SCLM doesn't really want it back. So we've farmed it out to sub-committees, thinking that we're probably going to have to wordsmith this one on our own at this convention.

The House of Bishops began to sink it's teeth into resolutions sent over by committees, and the teeth were sharp. I think we may have voted to reject more resolutions than we voted to adopt. This included a week in May to honor "older Americans," and funding for meetings of the SCLM. The general angst about re-structuring is driving this newly-found frugality, I believe. Stay tuned. This may yet get interesting.

We also consented to the consecration of eight new bishops-elect, who were then welcomed into the house have given seat and voice.

At the beginning of the afternoon legislative session, there was an hour in private session devoted to discussion of the tensions arising from the amicus curiae brief that I signed in April, along with several colleagues. Earlier in the day, the amici met to agree on the text of a letter explaining our collective position. (I don't have an electronic copy and am not yet aware of its existence on the internet, so I'm unable to provide a link.) Rules of the house prevent me from saying very much more about a private session, but I think it's safe to say that the matter is not yet resolved. I can also say that everything was done with courtesy and civility.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the response of the amici to the letter from Bishops Ohl and Buchanan.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The First Legislative Day

Toward the beginning of every General Convention, the initial focus of energy and time is in committee meetings. Every resolution has to be reviewed by a committee before it arrives at the "house of initial action." So there isn't much to do in the legislative sessions because the committees haven't had a chance to create very much work for them yet. As time goes on, the proportion shifts. Committee meetings are shorter and less frequent, and the legislative sessions begin to feel like marathons. Today is known in General Convention parlance as the "first legislative day." Both houses met, indulged in some formalities that make sense only because that's the way we've always done it, and are a manifestation of bygone eras in the church's life. And we began to actually act on some resolutions. Tomorrow sometime, we in the House of Bishops should actually begin to receive messages from the House of Deputies (and vice versa), and our action will be to "concur" (or not), thus formally enacting legislation (or not).

The committee on which I serve--Committee 13 on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Worship--spent its time in two major areas. One combined the intent of two resolutions and call for the creation of a special Task Force to produce a study on the theology of marriage, and to include in that study guidelines for churches in states where same-sex (we actually changed it to "sex" from "gender") marriage and/or legal domestic partnerships are recognized. I spoke against this resolution, and voted against it. In the abstract, I would be enthusiastically in favor of producing a theological study of the sacrament of Christian marriage. But it is evident to me that the conclusion is all but foregone, and this is simply a vehicle by which the ultimate goal of those proposing the resolution can be delivered, which is recognition of marriage as a compact between any two consenting adults, regardless of sex (or gender, depending on how one understands it). I which we could just be honest about that rather than going through a charade.

The other issue was the sanctoral calendar. The current project in that area, Holy Women, Holy Men, is really a train wreck. I proposed a rather drastic substitute resolution that would have pressed the reset button and just allowed us all to take a collective deep breath and not do anything at this convention. My proposal elicited some interest and sympathy, but was defeated rather handily. Then somebody else proposed another substitute, which was eventually adopted, and this is what we are reporting out. It keeps HWHM in trial use, but reaffirms the already-enunciated criteria that have been effectively ignored in the compilation of the list of "saints," and removes the language about producing a final product available for "first reading" in 2015. This is certainly a better result than the original resolution. But unless the SCLM begins to "get it," I'm skeptical about the chance of meaningful change.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Piecemeal Prayer Book Revision

Maybe I'm paranoid. Or perhaps not.

In 2006, General Convention adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (slightly tweaked) as the official lectionary of the Episcopal Church for celebrations of the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and Holy Days. Apparently, the constitution specifies that, which the body of the Prayer Book is part of the constitution, and therefore takes two General Conventions to amend, the lectionary, while for the sake of convenience bound with the Prayer Book, is not actually part of it, and can therefore be amended by resolution at one convention. And that's what we did.

Except ... it seems to have escaped everyone's attention that the section of the BCP labeled Proper Liturgies for Special Days sets forth scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Paschal Triduum. So Prayer Books printed since 2006 manifest an inherent conflict between the lectionary as printed in the back of the book (RCL) and the readings in Proper Liturgies for Special Days.


So, along comes the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music with the solution: Resolution A-059, which proposes revising the Book of Common Prayer to fix this anomaly: swap out the RCL lections for the ones printed presently in the body of the book. This is presented without concealment as Prayer Book revision, which is a constitutional change, and therefore requires two readings at successive conventions.

This afternoon, Committee 13 (Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Church Music) considered A-059. Now, quite apart from my general lack of fondness for the RCL, which I have not hidden, I have a deep concern about the process being followed here. In the history of the Episcopal Church, the process for Prayer Book revision has been reserved for ... actual Prayer Book revision. And there have been only four, beginning with the original 1789 model. We have resisted the temptation to "fix" it bit by bit, piecemeal. 

Until now. Proponents of A-059 insist that this is a one-time deal, an inelegant but necessary patch to take care of an unforeseen development. Color me skeptical. The machinery of Prayer Book revision could well turn out to be an addictive drug for those with access to the controls. If this one works, it won't be too difficult shoot up one more time, and then once more, and in a handful of triennia, we could have a substantially different Prayer Book. The liturgy for Marriage would probably be the first to go, but it wouldn't be the last.

To my dismay, though not to my surprise, my efforts were to no avail, and A-059 was referred to the House of Bishops (customarily the "house of initial actions" for all matters liturgical). But there's more. Instead of being sent over merely with a "recommendation to adopt," it will arrive tomorrow morning in the HoB as part of something called the Consent Calendar, which is a time-saving device to dispatch resolutions that are thought to be non-controversial and will not elicit debate. This means it won't even get discussed. In order to remove the resolution from the consent calendar, I will need to find two other bishops to join me in asking for such, and then it would require a majority vote of the house. That would enable us to at least talk about it, but I'm not optimistic. 

If any Deputies are reading this who share my concerns, you also, by the rules of the HoD, have an opportunity to remove it from the Consent Calendar and give it a fair hearing. But you will need to be vigilant, and ready to pounce on the microphone stand just at the right moment.