Friday, October 04, 2013

Smuggling the Gospel: Lectio Divina on II Kings 19

The Assyrian king Sennacherib is besieging Jerusalem. He boasts of all the kingdoms he has laid waste to; where are their gods, whom they trusted to protect them? King Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem would be fools to believe that YHWH would succeed where multitudes of others had failed. Better that they just surrender and be well-treated in captivity rather than die resisting. Resistance is futile!

Hezekiah takes the written message from the Assyrian king and literally lays it out before YHWH in the temple. "What are we supposed to do now?" he inquires. Through the prophet Isaiah, YHWH's response comes: Stand firm. Do not surrender. Sennacherib thinks he's "all that," but the truth is, he's just a tool. He's been "played" by God and he doesn't even know it. All of his victories have happened because they have been in accord with the purposes of God, but the conquest of Judah is not among those purposes. That night, the Assyrian garrison is mysteriously decimated--185,000 troops just "wake up dead" the next morning, and Sennacherib returns to Nineveh (only to be assassinated by his own sons, we learn from other sources).

We see Jesus, the One Who Saves, the Word of the Holy One, present in this passage in the form of Isaiah's oracle; one might even say, in the person of Isaiah himself, which is hugely appropriate, given the significance of the document that has Isaiah's name attached to it in the development of both Jewish and Christian understandings of messianic deliverance.

The remnant of Christendom, if not Christianity itself, is besieged in the western world by the forces of secularization, manifested in a constantly-morphing dance between antipathy and apathy. The dancers seem to be at the heard of a juggernaut. They say to Christianity, "We have already trivialized you and made you irrelevant. Soon we will bury you, and you will be forgotten. You may as well just surrender and enjoy the dance rather than suffer and die resisting us. Resistance is futile!" Individual Christians and church communities are tempted by this invitation, and suppose they can at least buy some time by appearing to cooperate, by accommodating to the demands of secular society. But this is not a strategy for deliverance; it only prolongs the process of inevitable defeat.

Isaiah's oracle comes to us as powerfully as it did to Hezekiah: Stand firm. Do not surrender. Even now the risen Christ is hitching himself to the coattails of secularization, using the very forces that appear to undermine and threaten Christian faith and practice as tools, as "mules" by which the gospel is smuggled into unsuspecting environments. The invitation to the remnant of Christ-followers in the western developed world is to watch, to be alert, to begin to see how God is acting in the unlikeliest of places, in the very currents and trends that seem to be pulling the props out from under the Christian project.

We do well to remain quietly and confidently vigilant, seeking to discern not only how God is acting, but how we might ourselves learn to be smugglers of the good news that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

House of Bishops Day 6 (Fall 2013)

Morning Prayer: Pretty straight BCP Rite 2, but with Pascha nostrum as the single canticle set to a chant tune with some fairly funky harmonies ... only there was no accompaniment, and the pure melody imparted a distinctly uncelebratory tone to a quite festive text.

The morning session was entitled "Moving Diagonally," to which I must hereby offer a weak protest, since that's the name of my diary blog. I see now I should probably get the term trademarked. There was a panel, coordinated by Jeff Lee of Chicago and including Dan Edwards (Nevada), Diane Bruce (Suffragan, Los Angeles) and Todd Ousley (Eastern Michigan). Bishops Edwards and Bruce presented first, followed by table discussions; then Bishops Ousley and Lee, followed by more table discussions. (There was a break thrown somewhere in there as well.) I won't attempt to summarize what each one said, but the (assigned) theme concerned making lemonade--transforming loss into new opportunities. Each presenter told us a story of an experience of loss in his or her diocesan ministry, and then about an experience of unexpected blessing in the midst of that loss, growing out of that loss.

I find these presentations challenging on more than one level, not the least of which is their actual content. I'm constantly laying our nascent missionary efforts in the Diocese of Springfield alongside the stories my colleagues tell, looking for connection, validation, new insights, and hope. But I'm also continually aware of my outlier status whenever I engage the larger church. I hear talk of mission, but I realize that while, for me, mission cannot mean very much other than evangelization, it means something very different to many if not most of my colleagues in the House. I hear talk of interfaith cooperation, and then I'm aware that many around me might be aghast at a notion that I--along with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I might mention--take seriously: the universality of the gospel, that all people, everywhere and at all times, ought to come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ in the company of the Catholic Church, and be baptized; put baldly, that it is God's will that everyone become a Christian. I hear talk of righteousness and justice, but then realize that, for me, that includes the sanctity of unborn human life and marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, while many around me find those values abhorrent. I should hasten to add that the overwhelming majority of other bishops treat me with utmost kindness and courtesy, and, at times, genuine affection; I have no complaints in that department. And I recognize in them authentic Christian faith and discipleship, despite our profound differences. I honor those who sometimes accuse me and others of "sleeping with the enemy," for not simply writing off most of the HOB as hopeless heretics. But that's not where I am. I couldn't begin to do that. And this is precisely why experiences like the past week are full of what my college psychology professors taught me to name as "cognitive dissonance."

After lunch, we got down to business. Literally. First there was what we call a Town Hall, where various bishops with various pet projects or causes have a chance to address the House and make their pitch. Among these today was a group calling themselves Bishops Against Gun Violence, trying to drum up enthusiasm for a conference in Oklahoma City next year. Then, for the first time since arriving here last week, we formally convened the House of Bishops for a business session, with the Presiding Bishop in the chair and Roberts' Rules in effect. The most substantive item to be considered in this session was a proposal from the Office for Pastoral Development (Bishop Clay Matthews) that the House call for the drafting of a canonical change to be presented to the 2015 General Convention that would bar diocesan staff members from being elected to the Standing Committees of the various dioceses (and some would extend that ban to General Convention deputations and Diocesan Councils). I spoke against the proposal. While it might be laudable in principle, it can easily invoke the Law of Unintended Consequences in smaller dioceses where the "gene pool" is already pretty shallow. It seems to be in response to a particularly nasty situation that we were not told the details of. Is it not usually bad practice to let exceptions drive policy? And can't the dioceses be trusted to handle this sort of thing at a local level? Nonetheless, the motion carried by voice vote, though not by any means unanimously. We'll discuss it again, no doubt, in Salt Lake City in 2015.

I've been watching in horror as the number of emails demanding some action on my part has risen to about fifty. So I once again skipped the Eucharist so I could begin to make a dent, and I managed to get the total down to forty. We then got together as Class of 2011 bishops and spouses in the room of the Bishop of Wyoming and his wife for a little pre-happy hour happy hour. Again, I am remarkably grateful for the companionship and camaraderie we share as a class. It is something quite precious. That led to the actual happy hour (well, maybe not quite so happy, with $6 domestic beers and $9 glasses of wine), followed by the closing banquet (bison New York steak, no less), at which the members of our class were honored for having completed the three-year College for Bishops training and mentorship program. Yes, the strains of Pomp & Circumstance could be heard humming in the background.

House of Bishops Day 5 (Fall 2013)

After Morning Prayer at our tables (an amalgam of BCP and Enriching Our Worship--sung guitar-accompanied Venite, said Psalm, Office Hymn sung unaccompanied), our morning panelists were introduced: Mary Frances, church planting director for the ELCA; Becca Stevens, a priest of the Diocese of Tennessee who runs a nationally-acclaimed ministry with women recovering from violence; and Tom Brackett, church planting staff member with 815. Their presentations were each quite compelling. From my standpoint as a small-diocese bishop always on the prowl for usable ideas, I thought Pastor Frances had the most red meat to offer. The ELCA process is quite methodical and structured, and I mean "structured" as in "helpful." As I shared with my table group, from-scratch church planting doesn't figure prominently for us in the Diocese of Springfield at present. We are straining toward a more organic approach in which existing Eucharistic Communities take responsibility for mission in their own geographic parishes, and plant satellite communities that are eventually hived off. But we don't have much to show for it yet, because we're in the process of marshaling our resources and laying foundations. By the time any of our work is visible above ground, we'll already have a strong root system.

Topic One in the afternoon was the ecumenical dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church. The members of the bilateral group have put in years of work, and are now wanting to move forward toward a full communion agreement such as we have with the ELCA. They're trying to test the waters as to whether their work is ready for prime time at the 2015 General Convention, or whether in needs to ripen some more yet. I have a passionate commitment to ecumenism. There may be be no more important work that Christians do than to heal the visible wounds on the Body of Christ that undermine our witness to the world. And I also want us to do our work well, and not have a proliferation of "Oops" moments as we live into covenants that we agree to. What I will be looking for from our Methodist partners is some evidence that there is a critical mass of buy-in on this at the grassroots level. It matters little to sharpen our pencils and swallow horse pills in areas like ecclesiology and sacramental practice for the sake of ecumenism when clergy and laity "on the ground" in many Methodist congregations (depending on the area of the country) think and act much more like Baptists than like their Anglican forebears.

Topic Two in the afternoon was the sore subject of diocesan giving to the national church. There is no canonical mandate in this area, and a great many dioceses pay less--far less--than the 19% of diocesan income that is asked for. Opinions--and feelings--are all over the map on this. For a number of complex and long-standing reasons, Springfield is one of the very low givers to the DFMS. What might help move us along is if somebody could calculate our proportional share of the actual cost of running General Convention. As long as we continue to send Deputies and a Bishop, I think I could make a case that we need to at least meet that figure--it's only fair. Beyond that, getting into DFMS program, it becomes a much, much tougher sell.

I played hookey from the Eucharist in order to drive Brenda on a semi-urgent shopping expedition to Whole Foods, of which we are lamentably bereft in Springfield. Later in the evening, we met some old and dear college friends--Brenda's roommate and her husband, now living in Franklin--for dinner on the west end of of Nashville. It's rather amazing for four people who first bonded as college students to sit across a table from one another after four decades of life have intervened, and now be talking about our grown children and growing grandchildren. Rather sweet, actually.

Monday, September 23, 2013

House of Bishops Day 4 (Fall 2013)

I snapped this photo this morning in the parish hall at the church of St Joseph of Arimathea in Hendersonville (TN), where it was my privilege to serve as guest preacher. (Here's the homily I shared with them.) It struck me as emblematic of a current fracas in the Episcopal Church that invites being dubbed UTOgate. (For a summary of the crisis that I think is pretty accurate, though arguably not unbiased, go here.) Parish clergy quickly learn--or not, to their peril--that there are two, usually inter-related, power structures that ought to be deeply respected: the Altar Guild and the Episcopal Church Women (ECW). Whatever the literal truth may be, the perceived reality is that the Presiding Bishop, her staff, and the Executive Council are attempting to sever the 130+ year bond between the Episcopal Church Women and the United Thank Offering. This is a pastoral mess of the first order. It threatens the viability of a ministry that has raised millions and millions of dollars over the decades for some very worthy endeavors. I understand the need for accountability, oversight, and transparency. No argument there. But it doesn't need to be ham-fisted. It's not too late to push the reset button on this, roll it back, and do it right. Why not let the UTO have separate 501c(3) status? What would be lost by doing that? And how would such a loss be worse than the sudden collapse of the UTO?

Many of my "progressive" colleagues in the House of Bishops seem to be all gaga over Pope Francis. Yes, he has a different personal style than his predecessors. I find him a remarkable man, and am both humbled and inspired by his ministry. He is frighteningly Christ-like. But I also happen to agree with most of his positions on controverted issues. And here's the deal: He isn't proposing any changes in either the theological or moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. None. If I were a supporter of same-sex marriage, or abortion rights, I could find nothing in the Pope's statements that would lead me to hope that a change in church teaching in these areas is imminent. So why the sudden triumph of style over substance? I not only agree with his views, I also agree with the need he has expressed to change rhetoric and reassess priorities. But many of the same voices that are raised in adulation of the Bishop of  Rome still see Episcopalians who share his views as outliers, and benignly and charitably (more or less) consign us to the margins of TEC. Just sayin'. Bit of a mystery here.

The only formal item on the agenda of the House of Bishops today was an evening "Fireside Chat" (the only fire in this case being the computer-generated image of a fireplace projected onto a screen). This is a free-form exchange. The Presiding Bishop usually makes a few opening remarks and then just opens the floor to comments and questions on ... whatever. It's a closed meeting, and is understood to be confidential. So I can't give any sort of narrative account of what was talked about there. I can, however, share my views on various current topics. Let the reader understand.

Earlier in the day, I preached at the two morning liturgies in Hendersonville, at the invitation of their rector, Fr Jody Howard, who contacted me way back in January to nail down this visit. It was a joy to worship with them. Afterward, Fr Jody and his wife Anna took us out to a place called Sopapilla's, which features New Mexico-style cuisine. We acquired a taste for fare of this sort on our vacation in Santa Fe last year. It was scrumptious.

The balance of the afternoon was consumed by lobby conversations with sundry colleagues and spouses, and then a nap.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

House of Bishops Day 3 (Fall 2013)

We began with the Eucharist for St Matthew's Day at 9am. The Bishop of Atlanta presided and Fr Simon Bautistia, one of the HOB chaplains, preached. I really do hate it that I find worshiping at meetings of the House of Bishops more alienating than uplifting. As a good Catholic, of course, I realize that it's not about how I feel. Indeed, if it were about how I feel, I would probably just silently absent myself. But it's not, so I go. Part of the alienation, no doubt, is my responsibility, and I need to own that. But I also need to name my irritation: It's just too laborious. Today the celebrant switched from English to Spanish and back several time--just during the Eucharistic Prayer! Prayer Book rubrics and texts are widely ignored or altered. Our musician, Dent Davidson, has talent oozing out of his pores; he is really good at what he does. But the music is a steady diet of the exotic with occasional smatterings of the familiar as a condiment. I would dearly love to see the proportions reversed: liturgies anchored in the center of the tradition, following Prayer Book texts and rubrics, seasoned judiciously with the exotic. I suppose others would then feel malnourished. What to do?

When we took leave of our spouses and reassembled in our meeting room, we heard first from the Bishop of Southern Ohio, Tom Breidenthal. He delivered a substantive address on the topic, Formation for Mission. It was a sheer delight: solid, rich food for the mind and the soul. It was profound, orthodox, christocentric, grounded in our liturgical praxis, and just plain meaty. He received enthusiastic applause, not just for his prepared talk, but for his extemporaneous responses to questions from the floor for about the next 30 minutes. If I could presume to identify his main point, it would be that mission is not so much something we can prepare for as something we are swept up into--almost involuntarily--in response to an authentic encounter with the grace of God in Jesus. And as a people "on a mission," we are always a people in transit, expelled into the desert in baptism, living on daily manna as we trek through the wilderness, always mindful that we have not yet reached the Promised Land. This meeting is not over yet, but Bishop Breidenthal's talk alone was worth the price of coming.

After a break, and on a rather more prosaic note, we heard a presentation from two representatives of the Church Pension Fund. Mostly, their subject was that beast known as the Denominational Health Plan (DHP). I will be the first to admit that my eyes glaze over pretty quickly when they're presented with spreadsheets and fields of numbers. It's not that I'm incapable of understanding them; I've been known to create a spreadsheet or two myself from time to time. But it takes extraordinary effort not to be terminally bored. Let me just say that I am extremely grateful to the CPG/DHP for what they have accomplished in bringing down the premiums for the Diocese of Springfield by significant amounts two consecutive years now (despite my personal best efforts to drive them higher by having open heart surgery).

Next we heard from Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), which is the Episcopal Church's public incarnation under New York corporation law. This is the infamous '815', the "national church." Bishop Sauls spoke of his desire to reorient the staff culture of the DFMS from a hierarchical model of a "home office" receiving financial resources up the stream and delivering program down the stream, to one of facilitation, connection, and coordination in support of ministry and program that take place at a local level. To push this cultural shift along, he has instructed DFMS staff to shed that moniker in favor of simply The Missionary Society.

My two cents: Even insiders, who know about the origin of the DFMS in 1835 and its evolution since then, have an awkward time articulating the precise relationship between the DFMS per se, and the prior and more fundamental (but unincorporated) entity known the Episcopal Church. The vast majority of Episcopalians are gratefully unaware that there is such a thing as the DFMS, and most clergy can't think of a compelling reason to make that the topic of the next Rector's Forum. I don't see how this branding change makes anything clearer. It may indeed have the opposite effect by adding another layer of nomenclature complication.

When we adjourned at 12:30, that was it for the day. We entered "Sabbath" time until tomorrow evening. After a lively lunch with my old friend, the Bishop of Northern Indiana, Ed Little, I returned to my room to process emails, grab a good nap, and take several vigorous laps around the perimeter of the hotel property en route to the 8500 step mark on my pedometer.

The evening was set aside for Class dinners. (I am a member of the Class of 2011, which includes all bishops who were elected in 2010.) Our class is currently the largest, with 12 bishops and 10 spouses. We're missing one bishop and spouse at this meeting, but there were still 20 of us to fill a long table at a nearby restaurant. If the metric is how much we all enjoy one another's company, and how supportive we are of one another, then the Class of 2011 is arguably the best class!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

House of Bishops Day 2 (Fall 2013)

After breakfast in the hotel restaurant with our friends Bishop Marty and Donna Field of West Missouri, the work day for bishops began at 9am with Morning Prayer at our meeting room tables, while the spouses headed out for a field trip to Thistle Farms.

We then got into our morning session, which featured four presentations followed by a panel discussion around the themes of justice and reconciliation. The presenters and panelists were Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Hisham Nassar, MD, also of that diocese; Rabbi Steven Gutow, Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and Canon David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Director of Reconciliation. The Diocese of Jerusalem is in fund-raising mode, mostly to help fund their expansive educational and medical social ministry in four countries, mostly among non-Christians, and the presentations were aimed at supporting that project. I was particularly struck by one of Bishop Dawani's slides that quantified the decline of Christian numbers in the Holy Land over the past century. As recently as the end of World War II, Syria was one-third Christian and the city of Bethlehem has a solid Christian majority. Now, for a combination of reasons, there is a danger that Christianity will disappear from the land where Christianity was born. Rabbi Gutow was a compelling advocate for a fearless tenacity in the struggle for reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, and a two-state solution. Canon Porter, who is Scots-Irish from Belfast, brings impressive credentials to his new position on the Archbishop's staff. He ended with the sobering reminder that peace and reconciliation are usual quite costly. Usually, somebody who deserves justice doesn't get it. But embracing that difficult truth is preferable to perpetuating the cycle of violence, and lies at the very heart of gospel ministry.

As I shared with my Table 7 colleagues during our discussion time, I often feel more than a little bit hypocritical as I speak about the reconciling power of the gospel when I operate in an ecclesial environment that is still wounded and bleeding. The smoke may be cleared, but corpses and casualties still litter the field of battle. Whatever side of the Anglican Wars one sits on, there is still tremendous anger, grief, and pain all around. Sadly, there's also a lot of denial and demonization--in all directions. There are essential conversations to be had that aren't even on anybody's calendar yet. There are truths that need to be told, but there's no safe place in which they can be told and heard. The House of Bishops has the capacity to become such a place. But I don't see it on the agenda.

Taking advantage of the fact that I drove here, I got in my car and found some nice fast/comfort food for lunch.

The first part of the afternoon was given over to a report from the bishop members of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, aka TREC. This group has an expansive mandate from General Convention 2012--probably an impossible mandate. We were briefed on their progress to date, and their expectations about how the process will continue to roll out over the next couple of years. We were then given the follow questions for table discussions:

  1. What do you want to hang onto? Let go of?
  2. What is the best possible TEC future? How does TEC look in 10-20 years? What is it known for?
  3. What initiatives are needed for TEC to reach this future state? Where does TEC need to innovate? Where does TEC need to reimagine how it works?  What is your role: As a bishop? As the House of Bishops?
Our responses were tabulated. We will soon be asked to engage questions like these at the diocesan and parish level.

The second half of the afternoon was owned by the House of Bishops Ecclesiology Committee. Most of the bishops were not aware there was even such a thing as an HOB Ecclesiology Committee, and my impression was that most had not read the "primer" on ecclesiology that the committee had prepared and which was shared with bishops barely a week ago. This document sets forth an understanding of Episcopal Church polity that runs counter to that articulated by the Bishops' Statement on Polity, a 2009 document to which I and my Communion Partner colleagues are committed. After some opening remarks by committee chair Pierre Whalon, TEC in Europe, we were turned loose for table discussions. When we reconvened and feedback was solicited, there was a consistent theme of discomfort with the notion--whether set forth historically or theologically--that General Convention has metropolitical authority, that we have eschewed having an archbishop, but that General Convention is, in fact, our archbishop. There were several other technical and historical errors that were pointed out as well. So my sense is that this document has effectively been re-referred to the committee that produced it, and that we will probably hear from them again down the road sometime. 

We adjourned in time to freshen up before coming back together for Eucharist at 4pm, observing the lesser feast of James Coleridge Patteson and His Companions. The Bishop of New Jersey presided, and Stephanie Spellers, one of our HOB chaplains, preached a rather fine homily. We were then all bused to the 28th floor offices of a downtown Nashville law firm for an elegant--and scenic--reception with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. When the reception wound down, Brenda and I ran off with our old friends Bishop Jay and May Ruth Lambert for dinner at the Nashville iteration of the Key West icon Margaritaville. Jay was my parish fieldwork supervising rector while I was in seminary, so we had a lot to catch up on. In the late 1980s, neither one of us would have imagined meeting under the circumstances that brought us together tonight.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

House of Bishops Day 1 (Fall 2013)

We gathered at 9am, with words of welcome from the Presiding Bishop. Then it was time for our customary "check-in" time with our table-mates. Table assignments are shuffled and re-dealth for the first meeting after every General Convention, then remain in effect through the next General Convention. So this is our second meeting with the current table assignments. I am with the Bishops of Missouri, Western North Carolina, El Camino Real, and Northwestern Pennsylvania.

After some further brief words from John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of the host diocese of Tennessee, and Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, who is here as an invited guest, we adjourned to a nearby room for the Eucharist, commemorating the lesser feast of St Theodore of Tarsus, at which the Presiding Bishop was celebrant and preacher. All the liturgies at meetings of the House have, in my experience, tended to be wildly multi-lingual in text and song. Today we jumped between Spanish, French, Creole, Swahili, and, occasionally, English. I understand and endorse the motivation to be hospitable toward those in our midst who are not fluent in English, but I wish we would do so differently. Making every occasion of worship completely polyglot is distracting to the point of annoyance.

We reconvened afterward with our principal guest presenter of the day, the Revd Dr Elaine Heath, a United Methodist cleric and a professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. She is also the founder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, an umbrella organization operating several different projects, all of which attempt to respond creatively to the challenge of a secularized post-Christian cultural context.

In many ways, the vision cast by Dr Heath hits my personal sweet spot. Anyone in my diocese with open eyes and ears has heard me talk about the imperative of making a mental shift from what the theoreticians call "attractional church"--expecting "them" to come to "us"--to "missional church"--where we expect "us" to go to "them." She uses the J-word easily and naturally, and that's something I really like to hear. There is a great deal in the way she articulates her theology that I completely resonate with. I particularly appreciate her use of the translation of John 1:14 that talks about the Word becoming flesh and "mov[ing] into the neighborhood." Reclaiming the incarnational dimension of mission is spot on. So I am more than a little intrigued by what the Missional Wisdom Foundation is up to, and I encourage you to explore their website. To those in the Diocese of Springfield: There are some potential ideas for us here.

 Still, I left the afternoon session with some uneasiness. Dr Heath gave us the following definition of evangelism:
The holistic process of initiation of persons into the reign of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, anchored in the Church, for the transformation of the world.
What do you think? To one who thinks in Catholic terms, as I endeavor to do, "initiate" strongly connotes baptism, and baptism connotes repentance, faith, and conversion. Yet, I heard our presenter offer so many caveats and qualifications, so many assertions of what evangelism is not (coercive, exploitative, etc. etc.), that I was left wondering how she recommends that we actually ... you know ... close the deal. I'm all for doing deep listening and building authentic relationships, but at some point somebody needs to pop the question, "Would you like to become a disciple of Jesus?" ... and then proceed to catechesis and the font. Maybe she gets to that stuff and just didn't have time to today. That could well be.

But my bigger problem is with the last line: "... for the transformation of the world." I get really quesy when I hear the suggestion that "making the world a better place," or "realizing God's dream" is the end product that validates everything we invest into the engine that supposedly produces it -- like evangelism, prayer, worship, spiritual formation, and even social ministries. "Transforming the world" is not the mission of the Church and it is not the point of the Gospel. The biblical vision is not of a transformed world, but of a cataclysmically destroyed world that is re-created, made new. There are foreshadowings of divine redemption in the world we live in; in fact, what the Church is supposed to be up to is modeling in her own life that new world, offering a sneak preview of coming attractions. But it is God who makes it happen, and pretty much without even our cooperation, let alone our help, and after a fearsome crisis of some sort. Read II Peter. Read the gospel parables about how the Kingdom of God comes.

Evensong (of a sort) followed. Then, after some down time, social hour and banquet-style dinner, all very nice. The after-dinner entertainment was singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, a country musician who is actually from Nashville. She was very engaging, and I found a couple of her songs actually quite moving.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Oh Canada

In the domestic economy of my household, it falls to me to do the vacation planning. This year, mostly due to unanticipated open heart surgery, I got a dangerously late start. In early June, I was about to pull the trigger on a one-week rental in the Lake of the Ozarks area in south central Missouri. But, remembering the last two summers in July and August, and how insufferably hot they were, I had second thoughts about booking a place even further south than central Illinois. About that time, I was in the company of one of the newer clergy in the diocese, a priest whom we imported from New Brunswick, and I had a flash: the Canadian maritimes! My Canadian friend assured me that the weather would be quite pleasant there in late July--not much worry of being too hot--so we pointed our search engines in a northeasterly direction.

Eventually we stumbled on a a listing for a "fabulous and comfy converted church" near the Nova Scotia community of Annapolis Royal. Indeed, it turned out to not just be a church, but an Anglican church, St Alban's by name. It was build in 1892 to serve the faithful in the town of Lequille, and we have since learned that it remained a functioning church as recently as 2000. We did all this blind, without so much as looking at a map to see where the heck Annapolis Royal even is before making a commitment. I don't recommend making vacation plans this way, but, in our case, grace abounded.

On the way to that abundant grace, however, there were some moments of anxiety. One was when we got around to making air travel arrangements and discovered Porter Airlines, whose fares to Halifax were enough lower than those of the standard brand names that we couldn't just ignore it. Our fear was that it was built on the model of "low cost" airlines that snag passengers with low published fares, but then charge for every conceivable amenity. At first, this suspicion was borne out, as we did have to pay extra to book seat assignments online at the time we purchased the tickets. But on the day of travel, we were mightily impressed: very short check-in line at Midway (and no kiosk to deal with ... straight to a human being), no charge for checked baggage, access to the priority line for security screening, a unique and very classy in-flight magazine, staff in "retro" uniforms, uncrowded seat distribution in the aircraft, and beverages served in real glass. All Porter flights either originate or conclude at their Toronto hub, which is the small island airport on Lake Ontario right in front of downtown, affording a spectacular view on every takeoff and landing. Presently, they only fly the same model of Bombardier turbo-prop on all their routes, but they are negotiating for permission to land jets in Toronto (a "quiet" Bombardier model), and expand their footprint to western Canada, California, and Florida. Three cheers (one-and-a-half each from Brenda and me) for Porter Airlines.

After a substantial layover in Toronto, and a fifteen minute "station stop" in Montreal (spectacularly impressive from the air; so much "waterscape"), we landed in Halifax around 6:45pm, Atlantic time (one hour earlier than eastern). After picking up our rental car, and making a wrong turn onto a freeway after exiting the airport because all of our electronic devices seemed to be on strike, this put us in the driveway of the property manager for our rental around 10pm, slightly frustrated but happy to have arrived. En route, we stopped in the community of Windsor to get something to eat because we'd had no serious food the entire day. We knew we weren't in Illinois anymore because the local McDonald's had a McLobster sandwich on the menu ... and because everybody in the McDonald's was  ... so darn nice. This is a cliche about Canadians, I realize, but all stereotypes have to originate somewhere, and I can see where this one came from. It was our consistent experience during the entire trip.

Actually, Americans pretty much just don't know what to make of Canada. Here was have a geographically vast but sparsely populated country across our northern border, with a culture that seems substantially the same as ours, or, at least, with no greater differences than between the various regions of the U.S. To the attuned ear, they have a distinctive way of speaking English, but they are a lot closer to the U.S. standard accent than either of us are to our mutual British cousins. It's relatively easy for a Canadian to "pass" south of the border, as many have even while attaining celebrity status (Peter Jennings and Michael J. Fox, inter alia). But a bunch of them speak French, and all the official signs are in both languages. And they have learned to think in meters and grams and degrees of Celsius, all of which tend to vex most Americans. Their money is strange, but I found it much easier to get used to than in Britain. They have eliminated paper denominations lower than five dollars, but comfortably circulate one-dollar (the "loony") and two-dollar coins. More recently, that have begun to phase out the penny, rounding cash transactions to the nearest multiple of five cents. All this seems eminently reasonable, and I don't know why we haven't done it yet here.

As I said, we chose Annapolis Royal with no more intentionality than if we had thrown a dart at a map of the maritime provinces while blindfolded. (We would indeed have been delighted if the dart had landed on Prince Edward Island, on account of its Anne of Green Gables associations.) As it turned out, we ended up in what is arguably the birthplace of Canada. The first European settlement in what is now Canadian territory, a French fur-trading outpost just a few miles down the river basin from Annapolis Royal, was established in 1605. This is two years before the Virginia settlement at Jamestown and a full fifteen years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. In fact, the French
A reconstruction of the 1605 French settlement.
settlement was eventually raided, pillaged, and destroyed by a contingent from Virginia, foraging for food during a famine while channeling the spirit of the Vikings who scattered their seed in East Anglia a few centuries earlier, and importing from Europe the ancient and perpetual animosity between the French and the British.

A group of Scots established Charlesfort on the current site of A.R. in 1629 (thus planting the seed for the enduring name of the entire region--Nova Scotia, New Scotland), only to abandon it to the French three years later, who renamed it Port-Royal. As such, it became the capital of the French colonial province of Acadia. But there was constant conflict, with the real estate changing hands several times, for the next 125 years. In 1755, with the British finally in permanent control, and the town having been renamed Annapolis Royal (a combination of the French name and homage to the current British monarch), the French community--the Acadians--were deported. Some of them found their way to the Franco-friendly territory of Louisiana, where they have since become known as Cajuns (a corruption of "Acadians").
Facsimile of Acadian cabin
Having lived in south Louisiana for five years in the late 80s and early 90s, with substantial contact with both Cajun culture and Cajun cuisine, it was fascinating to be in the land they had come from. Nowadays, one tends to associate French Canada with Quebec. It is ironic that the francophone presence is now minimal in the territory where France had its first foothold in North America.

While reading the Toronto Globe & Mail on the plane while en route home, I ran across this op-ed piece that crystallized some of what I felt during our brief Canadian sojourn. Of particular interest was the author's comment about the lack of a dominant coherent narrative of Canadian history ... among Canadians. This came as news to me. Of course, as an American, most anything about Canadian history comes as news. I can recite a few factoids about Canadian politics since World War II, though not enough, but, as a student in suburban Chicago public schools in the 1950s and 60s, I was taught nothing about Canada. Zilch.

What I did learn was that the United States, by contrast, does have a compelling narrative of its own history: George III was an evil tyrant who mistreated his good-willed subjects in the American colonies (it never occurred to me to wonder about the British colonies in what is now Canada), leading the freedom-loving colonists to, reluctantly, declare their independence and set up the United States of America, a shining beacon of liberty and democracy that is an inspiration to the entire rest of the world. Brier Island (from whence we embarked on a whale-watching tour), a historical marker matter-of-factly refers to the leaders of the American Revolution as "rebels" and indicates that several families on the island yet bear the names of deported loyalists from the 1780s. That may not constitute a coherent narrative of Canadian history, but it is certainly a pretty coherent counter-narrative of the American Revolution!
I have since managed to piece together enough information to understand that historical reality is a little more complicated than the dominant narrative might let on. Neither side can stake an exclusive claim to the moral high ground in the armed conflict that ended in 1783, free of any self-serving motivations. Being in Canada, being in Annapolis Royal, reinforced my perception of complication. After the war, several tens of thousands of colonists who had been loyal to the Crown were re-settled in Nova Scotia. On the wall of the Anglican parish church where we worshiped on the Sunday we were in town, there was a plaque memorializing a priest who led some 500 loyalists from the lower colonies to their new home in Annapolis Royal. On

Nova Scotia is shaped more or less like the head of a hammer, with two large peninsulas extending either direction from its connection to the mainland. The southern and western peninsula is separated from New Brunswick by the Bay of Fundy. (I have to confess ... I am so conditioned to hear "fundy" as a shorthand for "fundamentalist" that it was difficult to resist snickering when I saw commercial signs like "Fundy Electric" or "Fundy Cleaners" or the "Fundy Restaurant" in Digby, where we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of steamed lobster.) The Bay of Fundy is distinguished, due to a combination of geographical quirks, by being the locus of the highest tides in the world. And
Ebbing tide
since the high tide is so high, the differential between high tide and low tide seems exaggerated, and quite dramatic. What is a waterscape when you see it at one time of day is a landscape when you see it a few hours later. This is evident even in Annapolis Royal, several miles up the river basin. When the tide is coming in, the river flows visibly upstream. It's really quite astonishing to see. The force of the tidal cycle is so great that they have built one of the world's few tidal power generating stations there. The ebb tide drives a turbine that adds megawatts to the Nova Scotia electrical grid. And, aside from inconveniencing a few keen-to-spawn fish (for whom alternative facilities are provided), it is very "green" energy.

As I mentioned upstream, our lodging was in a "converted" (interesting re-purposing of religious language) church building. I anticipated feeling a little awkward about this, given that I superintend a handful of buildings that are potentially vulnerable to such a "conversion" sooner than we like to imagine. But I was gratified to find that those who have planned and maintained the makeover have endeavored to honor the building's first use even as they have done an outstanding job providing for its second use, and all without trivializing, cheapening, mocking, or exploiting. Not an easy needle to thread, but they did it.

Yet, St Alban's is by no means unique in its status as a "redundant" church in the area. I was encouraged when I discovered that there is a functioning Anglican parish in Annapolis Royal, and certainly no longer a need for a "chapel of ease"in Lequille, not even a ten minute drive from St Luke's, in A.R. Indeed, the adjacent graveyard, still labeled "St Alban's Anglican Cemetery," is still very much in continuing use, welcoming as new guests Anglicans and others from the entire area. I have seen statistics indicating that, just a few decades ago, the observance of Christianity was higher among Canadians even than the population of the U.S. Judging from the number of church buildings that dot the landscape in the areas where I traveled, I can believe this. But it's safe to say that Canada is now generally further on down the road of post-Christian secularization than the U.S. is, which is pretty far. Probably a third of the buildings I saw that were originally constructed as churches were no longer being used as such. Some had been "converted" along the lines of St Alban's, some were maintained but with no signage or other indication of current use, and some were derelict.

We hope we can return to Annapolis Royal and to Nova Scotia. We didn't get to spend nearly enough time in the Kejimkujik National Park in the center of the southern/western peninsula. We missed the part of Nova Scotia that faces squarely into the majesty of the north Atlantic (though we did have a premium encounter with about six humpback whales in the Bay of Fundy). We also completely missed the city of Halifax, other than the airport. And I have about twenty dollars in Canadian cash that I still need to find an opportunity to spend.

Friday, May 24, 2013

St Paul, A Slave Girl, the Holy Spirit, and the Presiding Bishop

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, delivered a sermon on May 12, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, at All Saints Church in Steenrijk, CuraƧao, which is in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Venezuela. The first reading for that day was from Acts 16, which recounts the experience Paul and Silas had in Philippi, where they cast out a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl, and were then imprisoned at the behest of her traffickers on account of the economic harm the exorcism had caused them. 

This sermon has slowly become a bit of "a thing" in cyberspace over the nearly two weeks since it was delivered. Here's why:
Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God.  She is quite right.  She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.  It gets him thrown in prison.  That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! 
Criticism has been fierce, beginning with all but one of the comments on the ENS website posting of the text.

This is awkward. Because of my position in the system, Bishop Jefferts Schori is not an abstraction to me. She is someone from whom I have sat across a table in several meetings of the House of Bishops. She is someone who sends me a hand-written note on my birthday and the anniversary of my consecration. She is someone who very kindly checked in on me by email while I was recovering from heart surgery, for which I was immensely grateful.

Yet, I feel constrained by the vows I took when I was ordained a bishop--vows that she herself formally required of me--to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God." These vows do not permit me to remain silent, even as I also remain respectful and charitable. And precisely because the Presiding Bishop is a real person to me, someone I will have to once again look in the eye several weeks from now, I'm not saying anything about her that I would not say to her; in fact, I will be sending her a link to this blog post as soon as it's up.

To call Bishop Jefferts Schori's exegesis of Acts 16 "strained" or "eccentric" is too mild. It is utterly bizarre. But others have done an adequate job fisking the sermon. I'm going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones.

As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition, particularly the authority of sacred scripture. There are interpretive roads that are open to others--outsiders looking in--that are properly closed to bishops (and, by extension, to priests and others who preach and teach). In Acts 16, the author (presumably Luke) portrays Paul and Silas as the good guys, the slave girl as the exploited victim, and her "owners," along with the demon that possessed her, as the bad guys. What Paul did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, was to liberate an oppressed person. There is a homiletical treasure trove available here without disturbing this essential dynamic. To stray outside it only tortures the text. And I suspect that Bishop Katharine's concern that we recognize the image of God in one another could have been well-supported by the readings for Easter VII without so straying.

One of the great temptations for either a theologian or a pastor is to be original. It's a tonic to the ego. Under the right circumstances, a theologian can get away with it. St Paul certainly did! A pastor, by contrast, eschews originality. A pastor, a bishop, is a relay runner, handing along (para-dosis, the root of "tradition") the baton to the next runner, the next generation. Originality is not compatible with that job description.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Three days ago the Presiding Bishop's office released the text of the Accord reached between nine bishops--of which I am one--and those who filed charges against us last June under Title IV, the clergy discipline canon. In January, representatives of the Complainants and Respondents came to Richmond, Virginia, where we were joined by a professional mediator appointed by the Presiding Bishop. This document is the result of the process begun at that meeting, and is named in the canon as "conciliation." All the parties have agreed to it, the respondents are indemnified from future action in the matter, and the case is closed.

"Conciliation" is a bizarrely inappropriate word to describe what has happened. Going into the January meeting, we bore no ill will toward our accusers, and welcomed the opportunity to meet them face to face and talk things out. Today, I think it's safe to say that all nine of us are processing some degree of anger and are feeling substantially alienated from those who brought the charges against us. We feel manipulated and victimized. We are nowhere near happy about this outcome, even though we stand by our decision to accept the Accord.

Some have accused us of cowardly capitulation. I can understand this reaction. If someone had shown me the agreement I signed at the time the charges were made known, I would have rejected it out of hand. So some explanation is in order.

The rhetorical tone of the Accord is certainly derisive and hostile toward the Respondents. We come off as downright obsequious. This abusive tone is something we made a considered decision to swallow for the sake of putting the matter behind us. But it is vitally important to make a careful distinction between the tone of the document and its substance. In particular, please note that ...

  • We admitted to no misconduct or any form of wrongdoing. The Accord contains no "finding" of guilt on our part, and the Complainants signed it!
  • We reaffirmed our belief in the assertions of our amicus brief. We continue to believe that the polity of the Episcopal Church as characterized by the 2009 Bishops' Statement on Polity is true and correct. We have not in any way backed away from this position. Yes, we acknowledged that it is "likely a minority view." Indeed, it probably is at this time. But this does not make it any less true.
Some have expressed consternation that we acknowledged that we are subject to the Dennis Canon. Why the dismay? It's a canon, and all clergy are subject to all the canons. We acknowledge that at our ordination. This does not mean the amici endorse or like the Dennis Canon. The matter at hand doesn't even have anything to do with the Dennis Canon. This was no concession at all.

We have also been criticized for our laudatory language toward the bishops and other leaders of the "continuing" dioceses. First, see above re what the obsequious tone buys us. But also note that the language is identical to that of two resolutions passed by the House of Bishops, the second time at last July's General Convention, where the amici who were present there joined in the unanimous vote. I don't recall hearing any criticism for that vote then, but it's exactly the same as what we have said in the Accord.

We also agreed not to file any more briefs or affidavits until General Convention considers the question of bishops filing briefs and affidavits. But this is entirely moot. We have made our point about the polity of our church in Texas and Illinois courts. Those points are now matters of public record. There is no more reason for us to intervene as we did to protect the truth about TEC's polity and interests of our own dioceses.

When a corporation is sued by a disgruntled customer or former employee, its legal counsel often advises the management to settle out of court, even though they believe the lawsuit is frivolous or otherwise unjust. To take it to trial would be time-consuming and costly, even if it resulted in exculpation. Reaching a settlement is nearly always offensive at an emotional level, but is often the right thing to do when considered rationally. This is the position the amici were in. If we had declined to sign this accord, the chances are that the matter would have been taken to the next level--a hearing leading to a finding. We would have had to retain legal counsel, at great expense. The process would have voraciously eaten time and energy, preventing us from providing the kind of godly leadership and pastoral care to the flocks committed to our charge. And there was no guarantee we would prevail at trial. We may well have been subject to suspension and/or monetary fines, which would also have hampered our ministry and the life of our dioceses even more. 

So we opted to cut our losses and live to fight another day. We did not compromise on anything of essential importance. We intend to keep the conversation about polity alive in the councils of the Episcopal Church. We do feel battered and wounded. This has been a demeaning experience. We are dismayed that some we would consider friends feel like we have let them down. We face the future with faith and hope, even as we realize there will continue to be obstacles and difficulties in the witness we believe ourselves called to bear.

(I use the first person plural pronoun a lot in this post. Actually, I only speak for myself, though I am fairly confident my colleagues would agree with how I have characterized the matter.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Now See This

This is a message from several ordained and lay leaders, mostly younger (which is exciting), that is worthy of consideration. I can't sign since I'm a member of the group to whom the letter is directed. But I encourage signing.