Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Not-a-statement on Ferguson

As a bishop, I am a quasi-public figure, occupying a place on the long arc that eventually bends in the direction of celebrity. Within the constricted world of the Diocese of Springfield, and the slightly less constricted world of the Episcopal Church, and in some bits of Anglicanism beyond TEC, there are lots of people whom I do not know, but who know of me and a good bit about me.

Public figures from time to time make public pronouncements on matters that are either presumed to affect them peculiarly, or about which one might expect them to hold specialized information or unique knowledge, or about which their views might be considered generally significant. A few of my colleague bishops in the Episcopal Church, including the Presiding Bishop, have already “issued a statement” on the situation emanating from Ferguson, MO. It is entirely likely that more such statements will follow.

Mine will not be among them.

It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, feelings, and convictions regarding the tragic death of Michael Brown and the decision of the grand jury not to charge anyone with a crime in connection with his death. I have rather passionate opinions, as a matter of fact.

But that’s just the point: They’re my opinions. The opinions of Dan Martins, private citizen. Not the opinions of the Bishop of Springfield. The Bishop of Springfield has a teaching office, but–and I say this with utter respect and affection for my colleagues who have chosen to weigh in publicly on the situation as it emerges–while my teaching office has a great deal to say about the love of God made known to us in Christ, about the redemption of suffering through the mystery of the cross, about the dignity of every human being, about the reconciliation of those who are at variance and enmity, and about the eventual final triumph of justice and peace, it has nothing to say about whether the grand jury made a correct or incorrect decision, or about the conduct of the St Louis County prosecutor, or about the behavior of law enforcement authorities since Mr Brown’s death last August.

Dan Martins might have some things to say about all these matters, but the Bishop of Springfield does not–and, I will go so far as to say, ought not. Neither Dan Martins nor the Bishop of Springfield has any specialized knowledge about what really happened on that fateful afternoon last August. Fortunately, virtually no one cares what Dan Martins thinks, and that is as it should be, because, while he’s a reasonably smart guy, there’s a lot more that he doesn’t and never will know than he actually does know. A few more might care what the Bishop of Springfield thinks, because he is, after all, a quasi-public figure, a microcosmic celebrity. But pretty much all the Bishop of Springfield is either qualified or authorized to say about this or any other matter of public consequence is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

There’s nothing new in that, and even less that is original. Some might consider it a cop-out. I look on it as my job. Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience can and do hold an astonishingly diverse range of views on matters of public policy and concern. The views of Dan Martins lie within that range. The view of the Bishop of Springfield is more singularly focused, and that is to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the dead, because any aspect of human experience not seen in that light is not really seen at all. The private opinions of Dan Martins pale in significance next to it.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I sticking to it. No statement to follow.

Monday, November 17, 2014

How I (attempt to) stay organized

A discussion on a listserv that I participate in resulted earlier today in a request that I share some of the methods and technological tools I use to stay (somewhat) organized and focused as I go about my work and personal life on a daily and weekly basis. So, what follows is a quick and pointed summary, for whatever it may be worth. I'm going to mention several applications to which I might otherwise be inclined to provide links if I were not trying to be really quick about this. So ... that's why God made search engines.

Most of my work is generated by email, or requires the use of email at some point in the process of its completion. I use Gmail. My diocesan email account is configured to deliver messages into my personal Gmail account. Gmail is rock solid in terms of downtime (i.e. lack thereof), spam prevention (i.e. it is virtually spam-free), and searchability. It allows me to either originate a message or reply to one from either account, as seems appropriate. I am not particularly fond of Google's design aesthetic, including and especially Gmail's. So I have, at various times, experimented with alternatives to the Gmail interface. So far, I have always returned to the interface I don't like the looks of because of its sheer unmatched functionality. Lately I'm auditioning Google's still-in-beta Inbox. It has a couple of features I need for it to acquire before I can put the classic Gmail interface out to pasture, but I generally like it--especially the "snooze" feature, which allows me to kick a message down the road to a time when I will be better able to deal with it.

So Gmail is the foundation of the entire system. The other two critical elements are Evernote and GQueues.

Evernote is the gold standard note application available today. It operates on a "freemium" business model and is very affordable any way you use it. It uses both categories and tags and is completely searchable--not only the notes that you type in, and not only editable attachments, but even graphic files. It is both highly functional and very easy on the eyes. It also plays extremely well with Gmail. There is a Gmail extension called PowerBot that allows me to clip either entire email messages, or just attachments, directly to Evernote, including categorizing and tagging without leaving my Gmail screen. There is also a browser extension (I use Chrome, by the way) that allows me to easily send web content--full pages or portions that I select--into Evernote, retaining hyperlink functionality. Evernote rocks. I mostly use the web version, but there are desktop (Windows and Mac) clients, and iOS and Android apps, so it is usable seamlessly across the array of devices. My goal is to be as paperless as possible, and a Fujitsu ScanSnap digital scanner allows me to scan hard copy directly into Evernote. Correspondence, invoices, and most anything else that lies flat goes that route, and is then disposed of.

GQueues is a task management app designed to play well with Gmail and Google Calendar. At its heart, it tries to be compliant with the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done, which has a sort of cult following. So the program makes it easy to capture ideas about actions and projects right when they occur to me (provided I'm not in the shower, which, alarmingly, is where a lot of important ideas do tend to occur to me!), and have them available when I'm able to do further processing and organizing. There are iOS (and Android) versions of the app, which means I can use my phone's voice recognition abilities to create new tasks on the fly. GQueues supports both categories and tags, handles recurring actions with great flexibility (a non-negotiable for me), and is nice to look at. It also has a Gmail extension that allows me to turn an email into a task almost effortlessly, which means I can immediately kick it out of my email inbox. But here's the best part: GQueues can be configured as a Google calendar, which comes in handy when I do my weekly review (per GTD best practice) on Sunday evening. I go to my monthly calendar view, make the GQs calendar visible (it's usually turned off, for appearance purposes), and then I can drag leftover tasks from the previous week to new dates, turn off the GQs calendar, and forget about those items until their assigned date arrives and they appear in the "Currently Active" "smart queue" that I have created and configured.

At a lower level, I could also mention Dropbox, which I use every day--but it could just as easily be Google Drive or iCloud. Dropbox is just what I happened to fall into.

So, since Tuesday morning is the beginning of my work week, here's what will happen when I open up my Macbook over morning tea tomorrow: First I will look at my email (using Inbox), both for new arrivals that need to be converted to tasks, and items from today or earlier that I snoozed until tomorrow morning. Then I will go to my GQueues tab and navigate to my Inbox (my GQs Inbox, that is), where those tasks will be waiting for me. I will process them by assigning a category, perhaps a tag, and a "start" date (that is, when I want to begin seeing them on my radar--in the case of newly-arrived emails, probably the same day). Then I will open my Currently Active category (defined as all tasks with dates of today or earlier) and select some that either must be completed that day, or that I would like to complete that day. These I move into a category called Next Actions (GTD lingo). The system allows me to drag and drop them into a ranked order. This Next Actions list, then, is what drives my work day, apart from scheduled meetings and unforeseeable developments.

One last thought: I am grateful that the nature of my work enables me to integrate my vocational and personal lives. I don't keep two different systems. Tasks and calendars and contacts are all integrated, personal and professional. I realize not everybody can do this, but I sure am glad I can. So I may do "work" stuff while home in the evening, and I may sometimes do "personal" stuff while at my desk in the office. It all evens out.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Making Leadership Concrete

Last month, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) held a public meeting at Washington Cathedral that was live streamed and actually trended on Twitter for a while. One of the most memorable quotes of the evening came from Sean Rowe, Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Bishop Provisional of Bethlehem, and a member of TREC. In response to criticism of the draft proposal to place substantially more administrative responsibility on the office of Presiding Bishop, that it would inhibit the holder of that office from exercising strong leadership, Bishop Rowe offered his observation that "the Episcopal Church is over-led and under-managed."

This was an arresting comment because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom that places a higher premium on leadership than on management. Leadership connotes inspiration, vision, and dedication. Management connotes bureaucracy, pettiness, and mind-numbing attention to detail. I consider myself much more a leader than a manager. Leadership is energizing and fun. Management makes my eyes glaze over. Yet, while I can't speak to what Bishop Rowe had in mind when he made his statement, it immediately rang true with me. Here's why:

When an institution is in crisis, good leadership is necessary, but it's not sufficient. The Episcopal Church is, by any measure, in crisis. We are being engulfed by twin tsunamis: one demographic (rising median age) and the other cultural (dechristianization of society passing the tipping point). To be sure, such a situation demands compelling leadership, leadership that is galvanizing and unifying. But even the finest leadership will fail to arrest the crisis and turn the institution around if it is not accompanied by a plausible strategy and well-executed tactics. This is where I see us woefully under-resourced.

To use a military analogy ... if commanders at a staff level set an objective of neutralizing the enemy's effectiveness in a particular geographic territory, they don't just inform the field officers of the objective and give them a motivational pep talk. They assess the available intelligence carefully, devise a strategy, arrange for supply lines and logistical support, test communication systems, divide the work into discrete tasks and distribute those tasks among the available personnel, having ensured that everyone is properly trained. Then they give the motivational pep talk. The successful execution of the the campaign that follows the leadership talk depends utterly on a host of management details that must be seen to.

It is my observation that, in the church, we have no shortage of visionary leaders who can paint the big picture and call forth the worthiest instincts of the baptized faithful. What we seem to lack are managers who can make the lofty vision concrete--break it down into digestible units, organize those individual digestible units on a large scale, match real, live, fearful and fallible people to the tasks that need doing, train them to the point where they feel confident in their ability to perform as required, deploy them effectively, and assess results in the field, making tactical adjustments as necessary. Unless we make the whole notion of "mission" concrete in some way that resembles this process, it's just talk, and will avail for nothing.

Management is not very often exciting. It is subject to abuse (read: micromanagement). It's not glamorous, and doesn't make headlines, or even--except very rarely--inspire blog posts! But it is absolutely mission-critical, and that we have not focused on it more intentionally is negligent on the part of ... our leaders. (For the record, while I am not exonerating the Bishop of Springfield in this leadership indictment, I'm pleased to say that we are at least pointed in the direction of dealing with the management issue.)

Yes, the Episcopal Church is over-led and under-managed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Living With the End in Mind

Full disclosure: My initial formation as a Christian was in fundagelicalism (a neologism that I thought up, though I'm not the only one to have done so). I discovered the Anglican tradition during my college years in the early 1970s, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a graduate student, in 1975. When I came under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles on that day, the intention of my heart and mind was that I was embracing Catholic Christianity, grabbing onto a golden thread that leads back across time to the apostles and to Jesus, accepting the essential givenness of the faith and laying aside the notion that I had either the authority or the responsibility to read the Bible, pray, and come up with my own theological understanding of any given question. It was a great relief.

Part of the Catholic package is a rather more robust view of the nature and significance of the Church than I had been accustomed to in my youth. In my evangelical upbringing, I was led to think of the "invisible" Church as a spiritual entity made up of of those who genuinely trusted Christ for their salvation, the number of which is known only to God. Institutional structures that bear the label "church" in one way or another are voluntary associations of like-minded individual Christian believers who come together for the purposes of worship, instruction and mutual encouragement, service, and mission. This might be called a low ecclesiology (theology of the Church), but the truth is that, while evangelical theologians have certainly devoted more pixels to the subject than I have just used in my broad stroke two sentence summary, ecclesiology is kind of an afterthought among evangelicals, an "Oh yeah ... " after detailed and sophisticated treatments of christology, soteriology, hermeneutics, and other chapter headings in a systematic theology textbook.

Among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some streams of the old-line Protestant traditions, however, ecclesiology garners proportionally more attention. Details may vary according to brand name and other considerations, but in each case the Church is seen as sacramental--that is, both a sign of and a tangible vehicle for God's redeeming and restoring the fabric of a universe corrupted by sin and death. It's not just a voluntary association, like the Rotary Club or the Moose Lodge, that one can join and unjoin as seems expedient. It's organic--a body, the Body of Christ--a family, a tribe, an ethnicity (read the First Epistle of Peter) into which one is born (most would say, via baptism), marked with the identity and nourished by the life of the risen Christ. I love ecclesiology. The doctorate it would no longer be prudent for me to pursue at my age and stage of life would probably be in that subject. I am grateful to be in a Christian tradition that takes ecclesiology seriously.

Now, one chapter in that systematic theology textbook that is likely to be heavily highlighted and underlined by my evangelical friends is the one on eschatology. Eschatology concerns Last Things--the wrapping up of the story, the end of history ("end" being understood in both of its senses; that is, as conclusion/cessation and as ultimate purpose). Wherever I've lived, it's never been difficult to drive around town and find a church offering a "prophecy seminar," or a Bible study on the last book of the New Testament, probably misrepresented as "Revelations," or a screening of a movie from the Left Behind series. I can remember having heated discussions--as a teenager, with my teenage peers; my God, what geeks we were!--over the fine points of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. We would debate the meaning of the Second Death, and the Great While Throne, and ... well, you get the point. Evangelicals may not do ecclesiology, but they certainly do do eschatology.

Anglicans ... not so much. We do say the creeds, of course, which include language about "the life everlasting" and "the resurrection of the dead," and that Jesus will "come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead." But I wonder whether these items often get serious attention in confirmation classes and adult formation programs. And we have in our calendar and lectionary the three Sundays preceding Advent, along with Advent Sunday itself, which form a sort of mini-season that focuses heavily on eschatological themes, though I fear that many (most?) preachers, liturgy planners, and musicians may not pull their weight in shining a light on these themes. And, if you parse the language of our liturgy in the right way, we have a rather high view of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. When the baptized faithful are gathered at the altar, time and space are transcended, and we participate in the Celestial Banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The exquisitely thin veil that separates the living from the dead is pierced, and we enjoy koinonia (which is to say, holy communion) with those standing or kneeling next to us, and with those who have gone before us marked with the cross of Christ. What percentage of our communicants get that dimension of the Eucharist, however, is hard to say.

Still, even with these fairly robust creedal and liturgical linchpins, details are scant. Our biblical hermeneutic does not encourage us to see the text of Revelation as some kind of code that needs to be broken. "Rapture" is not in our vocabulary, so our position on how it relates in time to the Tribulation and/or the Millennium is "none of the above." We tend to just say, in effect, "In the end, God wins. Evil and death are defeated, and God's reign of justice, peace, and love prevails." It doesn't often occur to us to worry about anything more detailed than that.

And, for the most part, in my opinion, that's fine. For the most part. But there is, I think, one way that our tendency to be eschatologically laconic puts us at risk. When I look around my ecclesial environment, I see a default preference for an unreflective realized eschatology. Realized eschatology is the notion that the end of history (this time only in the sense of ultimate purpose) lies not in the future, but in the past. When Jesus announced the inbreaking arrival of the Kingdom of God, he was effectively initiating that Kingdom. The mission of his followers, then, is to continue that process, to "buil[d] Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land"--and every other land, green, pleasant, or otherwise. There is no cataclysmic apocalyptic future event that we need either anticipate or fear. It's up to us to cooperate with God in the construction of the New Jerusalem.

Now, I don't happen to think that realized eschatology offers a coherent--or even interesting, for that matter--account of either the biblical narrative or the gospel hope of Christians. It leaves me feeling very empty ... empty and bored. But it does not deserve to be dismissed casually, out of hand. It has been espoused by some eminent intellectual lights (the formidable New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd, for one). Rather, realized eschatology merits being engaged and taken seriously. But here's my point: So does whatever realized eschatology's opposite number counterpart is, which doesn't, so far as I know, have a commonly-accepted categorical name, so let's call it crisis eschatology, because instead of depending on the world getting better and better, through human efforts in cooperation with divine providence, until heaven-on-earth is attained, it presumes that conditions will get steadily worse until some sovereign and cataclysmic act of God shatters every aspect of reality as we know it and God establishes, without any human assistance, the heavenly Jerusalem, where justice, peace, and love prevail.

So, both schemas resolve into the same happy ending, which is something to give thanks for. I'm not going to argue my preference for the more traditional account. That deserves a book-length treatment, which is beyond my ken. And my concern is not so much over the prevalence of realized eschatology among Anglicans as it is over the unconsidered and reflexive character of that prevalence. Crisis eschatology, even though it is abundantly present in our sacred texts, both biblical and liturgical, and in our hymns, is rarely given a fair hearing in the parish hall or the classroom.

And it makes a difference which model motivates us. In realized eschatology, the mission of the Church is to effect God's kingdom. This places a premium on activities that change the structures of society (and the environment), and success is measured in terms of how solid and lasting such changes prove themselves to be. The enlivening vision is one of ongoing incremental positive change, even if it's two steps forward and one step back. In crisis eschatology, the mission of the Church is to announce God's kingdom, which is evangelization, and to model God's kingdom, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come, in the life of the Christian community. This vision provides ample motivation for social outreach--the amelioration of suffering, the preservation of life--but purely as an iconic manifestation of God's love, not in the hope that conditions in the world will get better and better, because, in fact, they are bound to get worse and worse this side of God decisive intervention, which happens only in God's time and in God's way, the details of which are revealed to no human being. In the meantime, the Church's energy is focused on building authentic kingdom-modeling Christian community, and on calling all people everywhere into that community through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, discipleship, and witness.

We continue to argue and struggle over what faithful Christian discipleship and witness looks like in this world. We don't argue much about eschatology. But I wonder sometimes about how much our fights over sex and marriage and, when we have the leisure, mission, are really proxy fights over eschatology. Perhaps we should move the conversation out into the open.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Three Polarities to be Eschewed

The truth is not always in the middle, and I say this even though, as an Anglican Christian, I hold a preferential option for the via media.  Sometimes truth, light, and life are found only at one end of a spectrum. It happens.

But, by my lights, it doesn't happen very often. The more imminent threat to our social and political discourse, whether in the secular or the ecclesiastical arena, or in the territory where the two overlap, is the tendency of too many to set up camp on one end of a contentious polarity and then go about demonizing those who inhabit the other end. The truth may only rarely, and by accident, be precisely in the middle. But it is almost never completely at either end.

Particularly in recent years, this tendency seems to be on overdrive. We tear our hair out over legislative gridlock at national and state levels, but we need look no further than district lines to see where the problem lies. Whichever party controls a state legislature in a year when the tens column turns is able to draw the map to preserve its own hegemony. Both parties do it; there are no clean hands here. The result is that districts tilt heavily in one direction or the other. You have to be an extremist--that is, inhabit one end of the various political polarities--to get elected in most places. So we end up with legislatures, and a Congress, full of hyper-partisan ideologues who are constantly looking for ways to shore up their position in the next election, controlled by fear of what would happen if they lost power. In the meantime, nothing gets done.

The church I serve, the Episcopal Church, has been rent asunder by polarization and the concomitant spirit of fear over the last decade and longer. Most on the conservative end have decamped to other ecclesiastical domains, most of them to the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America. A great many of them still love to trash-talk TEC, however, instead of really moving on. Self-proclaimed progressives control the enterprise now, and there are scarcely enough in the "loyal opposition" (and that, indeed, we are) to make a noise loud enough to get anyone's attention. (There is some solace in powerlessness, but that's another blog post.) Interestingly, though, even while securely in the driver's seat, my "progressive" friends often seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to ferret out crypto-traditionalists and others who might seek to undermine their hard-won gains. There's a lot of fear ... though I'm not sure exactly what of. The polarization is abetted on both ends.

Polarization is no doubt effective in rallying the troops, but it obscures the truth. There are three polarization narratives out there (among many more, I'm sure) that strike me as particularly problematic:

This polarity pits those who look for a Muslim behind anybody who looks vaguely Arab or South Asian and a jihadists terrorist behind every Muslim, against those whose only hermeneutic of Islam is of a peace-loving "Abrahamic" faith. (It is from the latter group that the label "Islamophobia" comes from, directed toward the former group.) At the first end, the scaremongering is frightfully inaccurate and unhelpful, and leads to such things as the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which the shooter mistakenly identified with Islam. There is overwhelming incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of Muslims living in American have no sympathy whatever with acts of politically or religiously-motivated violence against anyone anywhere.

That said, it is naive and dishonest to deny that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL, depending on how you like to translate Arabic) locate their identity and mission squarely and solely in the teaching and practice of Islam. One can argue that they distort and misconstrue Islam, as many Muslims indeed so argue. But they are not generic terrorists, they are Islamic terrorists. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are valued, it should not be off limits to criticize not only violent acts, but also the avowed motivation of those who commit violent acts--in this case, Islam. Fear mongering and ethnically-based prejudice are reprehensible. I have a small list of Facebook friends who are very close to being blocked for such behavior. But calling into question this or that aspect of Islam is not, necessarily in and of itself, either "hate speech" or bigotry. One need not be either a despiser of Islam or a champion of Islam. Those are not the only options.

This polarity pits those who advocate for inclusion of homosexual behavior and homosexual relationships within the range of "normal" against those who understand sexuality and marriage as innately configured to procreation and the raising of children by their biological parents in a stable family. The activities of Westboro (so-called) Baptist (so-called) Church are only too well-known, and their now-deceased leader, Fred Phelps, was larger than life. To suggest that God "hates" anyone, particularly a whole category of people who share a certain sort of sexual inclination, is absurd and disgusting on its face. Such attitudes need to be condemned loudly and unambiguously. Phelps and all who think and act like him are an embarrassment to all who profess and call themselves Christians.

Equally disturbing, however, is the attempt by some on the "progressive" side to, by rhetorical fiat, eliminate all the territory between their position and that of Westboro Baptist. It's an elegant strategy, really. Stake out the moral high ground by casting (quite successfully, it appears) a narrative that it's all a justice issue on a par with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and, voila!, anyone who opposes you in any way is automatically a bigot on a par with Bull Connor at the controls of a firehose. Anyone not full-throatedly in support of "marriage equality" is consigned to outer darkness next to those who made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus. It's a deft polemical maneuver, and the extent of its success is, frankly, chilling.

It is also complete foolishness. There are any number of rational and defensible positions short of the pole of fully re-defining marriage to include same-sex relationships and still light years away from anything Fred Phelps would have recognized. To not see this is to be willfully obtuse. The ease with which the labels "bigot" and "homophobe" get thrown around and seem to stick should alarm anyone with a sense of decency, let along charity.

"Christian Persecution"
In an attempt to put an edge on the disintegration of Christendom, I have been won't to allude to the statement of the now-retiring Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, to the effect that he expects that he will die peacefully in bed, his successor (now known!) will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square ... all before there is another societal seismic shift, and the Church is restored to a position of leavening influence.

One does not need to scan social media for very long before finding evidence that allegedly points to the "persecution" of Christians--not in the ISIS-controlled parts of the Levant, but right in the heartland of the United States. Valedictorians are forbidden from mentioning Jesus in their speeches, college football teams are prohibited from emblazoning their helmets with crosses in memory of a teammate who died, the evangelical campus ministry Inter-Varsity is "de-recognized" at both public and private universities because they require student leaders of their chapters to actually profess Christian faith, atheist groups sue to have "In God we trust" removed from our national currency ... and the list could go on. Others, usually Christians themselves, off a rejoinder, saying, in effect, "This is not persecution, you wimps! You're just whining because Christianity is no longer privileged like it once was, and now you have to compete in the marketplace of ideas along with everyone else."

Both of these voices are missing something, I fear, in their enthusiasm to make their points. Compared to their brothers and sisters in China and Sudan, to say nothing of Iraq and Syria, American Christians have yet to suffer even a whiff of true persecution. Inconvenience? Yes. About a third of the time, I'm in a hotel room on a Saturday night. In virtually every place, at the breakfast buffet the next morning, I see parents with their children in athletic uniforms, on their way to competitions scheduled for Sunday morning. My heart breaks a little every time I see this. But my achy-breaky heart is nowhere near a persecuted heart. To say otherwise would be to dishonor the Christian children beheaded by Islamic terrorists.

But ... which way is the arc of history presently bending? If I were a betting man, my money would be on Cardinal George. I'm only two years younger than his successor, so that gives me a bit of pause.  From time to time, still, I lay my hands on teenagers in the sacramental rite of Confirmation. In good traditional fashion, I then give them a token symbolic slap on the face, and remind them, when I can, that this is a sign that the vows to which they have just committed themselves are increasingly likely to get them into trouble before they're my age. I don't think I'm wrong, and I pray for them in advance  of that moment, that they will be strong.

If we can resist the allure of these three polarities, at least, we stand a better chance, I think, both as a society and as a church, of knowing the truth, and finding it liberating.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why I'm Not Going to Taiwan

Every March and every September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church (virtually all the active ones, and a few of the retired ones, at any rate) gather for a regular meeting of the House of Bishops. (The September meeting is dispensed with in General Convention years.) Later this month, the House will convene ... in Taiwan. I will not be there. It seems appropriate to offer an explanation. Indeed, my colleague bishops and the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield deserve an explanation.

The Episcopal Church has, since 1835, been coterminous with an entity called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). Indeed, all Episcopalians are presumed to be members of the DFMS, which is conceptually a very good thing, I would say; the community of the baptized is intrinsically a missionary community. As members of the DFMS, Episcopalians participated in the burgeoning missionary activity from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were giants and heroes in those days, and some of them now populate our calendar of saints.

As part of this general missionary effort, Episcopalians were among those who introduced Anglican Christianity in China. After the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, many Chinese Anglicans escaped to Taiwan, and, in 1954, the Diocese of Taiwan was organized, and admitted into union with General Convention the following year, which felt like a logical move, since they already had so many close ties with Americans. So, even though it is almost completely on the other side of the world, the Diocese of Taiwan remains to this day part of the Episcopal Church. We also have dioceses in Central and South America and in the Caribbean, but these are virtually in the shadow of the Mother Ship. There is also a small convocation of Episcopal churches in Europe, which exist for a variety of historical reasons. But Taiwan is by far a geographic outlier.

The Bishop of Taiwan, the Rt Revd David Lai, invited the House to meet in his diocese, and the Presiding Bishop, presumably in consultation with her Council of Advice, accepted the invitation on behalf of the House. We have known about it for at least the last year and a half. I have attended every meeting of the House since March 2011, the very month of my consecration. I have blogged every day of every meeting, right here at this site. (Indeed, I am acutely aware that this post is the first since the spring meeting six months ago; I hope to remedy that pattern!) I enjoy the camaraderie with other bishops. Valuable things happen at those occasions. Nonetheless, after extended thought and prayer, I made a decision not to attend this Fall 2014 meeting. Here's why:

It would not be good stewardship of the financial resources of the Diocese of Springfield. I have no doubt that the Treasurer and the Standing Committee and the Diocesan Council would have accepted the news of my intention to attend this meeting with no detectable degree of pushback. It's not like we're just too poor for me to go. But it would be considerably more expensive than last year's Fall meeting, which was in a hotel near the airport in Nashville, and the one three years ago (2012 was a General Convention year), which was in Quito, Ecuador. While we are not presently an impoverished diocese, neither are we a wealthy one. It would feel inappropriately extravagant for me to requisition checks to cover airfare and lodging for me to spend a week in Taiwan at this point in the life of the diocese.

The optics are bad. The Episcopal Church is flourishing in a handful of demographic/geographic pockets. In most places, we are slowly dying, like California nut trees in the midst of the extended drought. Dioceses are downsizing their staffing. At least three dioceses have part-time bishops. The median age of our communicants continues to creep upward. There is real doubt as to whether we will be able to sustain ministry in rural areas very much longer. Our infrastructure at a churchwide level is likely to be significantly smaller following the next General Convention. And now, against such a backdrop, nearly a hundred bishops (some with spouses, but, in any case, considerably fewer than would normally attend a regular meeting) are jetting off to Asia for a meeting that could have been held much, much less expensively in any number of locations, both domestic and foreign. It just doesn't look good.

It would abet a polemical narrative about the character of the Episcopal Church. "The Episcopal Church," is, in fact, an alias, a shorthand for the more unwieldy Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The dioceses that originally confederated to form PECUSA were all in areas that were part of the USA. Only a few decades ago, what is now styled the Executive Council was known as the National Council. Despite regular admonitions from certain quarters not to do so, at a local level, Episcopalians still routinely refer to the "national church" in casual parlance. In many of our liturgical forms, we pray regularly for "the President of the United States." Anglicans in other lands are wont to speak of "the American church" when they actually mean TEC. Of course, because Americans once tended to congregate in expatriate enclaves while living in Europe for business or personal reasons, chapels were established in various countries there. Many of those congregations perdure, and are no longer merely serving expatriates, but include many natives of the countries where they are located. Because of our DFMS efforts, we planted churches in Latin America, Haiti, and the Caribbean. The result is that the Episcopal Church is present in some 26 countries (one of which is Taiwan).

This is not the fruit of some grand missionary strategy; it just happened that way. But lately there has been an effort to make political hay out of happenstance. From at least 2006 (I can't remember whether it goes back further), the dais in the House of Deputies at General Convention has been decorated with the flags of all 26 countries where TEC has a presence. In conversation at official levels, the use of the expression "national church" is vociferously discouraged. In the same time frame, the conflict level among (and within) the 39 member provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion has risen markedly. TEC has found itself increasingly at odds with provinces representing an overwhelming majority of the world's Anglicans. I have no direct knowledge of any conspiracy toward this end, but one cannot help but make speculative inferences from the available information, to the effect that there are those who wish to foster a narrative that TEC is indeed, intrinsically and inherently, an "international" church, with the not-quite-implied but deftly suggested corollary that we are somehow thereby less in need of our relationship with the Anglican Communion, that we have the capacity, if circumstances warrant, to become a rival thereto.

As I have said, I have no idea whether there's someone masterminding the construction of this narrative, but I do know that, whether it's accidental or intentional, I cannot in good conscience assist in propping it up. One of the ways the Taiwan meeting was "sold" to the House of Bishops was that, by gathering there, we would be shining a light on the international character of our church. I nearly made my decision on the matter in that moment. We are an American church. That we have foreign dioceses in our own hemisphere is testimony to the missionary zeal of our forebears, but the final stage of a responsible missionary strategy is always to spin off such churches as they mature into self-sustainability. We have already done so with Mexico and Brazil, for example. Rather than exploiting our Latin American dioceses for purposes of TEC branding, we should be focusing on helping them reach the point where they can form a new autonomous (but interdependent, of course) Anglican province. The number of flags on the dais should not be a point of boasting, but a source a mild embarrassment that we haven't done a better job in bringing the missionary cycle to an organic conclusion.

My feelings about missing the meeting are not unalloyed. While I do not relish trans-Pacific air travel in economy class (having once done Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok and back all in a middle seat), I'm sure it would be interesting to see the land, the people, and the church in Taiwan. I will very much miss the interaction with my colleagues, especially my Class of 2011 friends. And I'm facing in the direction of paranoia that, just because I'm not there, something crucial to my interests, or the interests of my diocese, will come up, and my voice will not be heard. There are no doubt those who will judge me pejoratively for not being there, or for the reasons here articulated why I am not there. So there are risks in my decision, and my eyes are open about those risks. Perhaps I err. But, as they say nowadays, it is what it is. I do hope those who attend have a good meeting. I will be holding them in my prayers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 5

Same morning pattern as that to which we have become accustomed. The retreat meditation was delivered by John Howard, Bishop of Florida. (The Diocese of Florida is one of five dioceses with territory in that state, and is based in Jacksonville.) Bishop Howard, a former lawyer and prosecutor, spoke movingly of singing the Lord's song in the particular alien land known as the criminal justice system, encouraging us to pray and work for a system that is more humane and flexible, more able to temper justice with mercy. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. has a disproportionately high percentage of its citizens living behind bars.

With careful attention to the use of available time, I was able to walk down the main road through Camp Allen all the way to the two-mile marker today, further than I've gone before. This means my walk was four miles, which is my old customary standard. I've been grateful for the amount of exercise I've been able to get while here.

The best and most valuable part of House of Bishops meetings is without any doubt the informal interaction that takes place at meals, evening "hospitality" time, and assorted other moments. We have no peer colleagues in the normal course of our work, so we all treasure the opportunity to be with one another, to build relationships that transcend the variations in theology, ideology, churchmanship, and regional peculiarity that otherwise distinguish and divide us.

The afternoon session began with a set piece called a Town Meeting. Anybody who wants to get on the agenda for a brief announcement (3-5 minutes) can do so. So we heard about the process for electing the next Presiding Bishop, a coming conference sponsored by Bishops Against Gun Violence, a work-in-progress by the Ecclesiology Committee, and sundry other items. None will probably soon forget the remarks of John Tarrant, Bishop of South Dakota, who continually and compellingly challenges the House over issues of economic disparity between dioceses, clergy, and bishops.

After a break, we reconvened in formal session, with the officers of the House on the dais and the Presiding Bishop in the chair, for a business meeting. There were no items of actual substance. We passed a resolution marking the 25th anniversary of the consecration of Barbara Harris, the first female member of the House. We passed resolutions authored by the Bishops of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic regarding issues in their respective countries that we explicated at our Fireside Chat last Friday evening. Then we adjourned and made our way upstairs to All Saints Chapel for our closing Eucharist, at which Jeff Fisher, one of the bishops suffragan of the Diocese of Texas (our host diocese, one of six with territory in the state), presided, and Canon Stephanie Spellers, one of our chaplains, preached. We celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. Personally, I could have used some more liturgical comfort food on such a significant occasion as this, but what would make me feel like I've been to "real church" is simply not the way of these gatherings.

Dinner was in the usual place, but with white table cloths, wine, and an upscale menu, banquet-style. I didn't get the memo about wearing a navy blue blazer, but I did anyway, and was therefore in good company. After dinner, most of us headed back into the chapel for a musical presentation (guitar and vocal) of original songs by John Smylie, Bishop of Wyoming. It was a nice conclusion to our time together.

So we're almost out of here. Those who have early flights out of Houston left tonight for a hotel near the airport. My ride is at 8am and my flight at 11:20. The usual poker games are in full swing a few feet away from me as I sit with my MacBook Pro in the entry area lounge furniture. On the positive side, I really needed the enforced down time from the usual tasks I deal with (although I certainly did continue to engage many of them via email), and, as I've said, have benefited from the extra exercise. The time with colleagues was invaluable, and all the retreat meditations were very much worth hearing. What we did during the plenary sessions was, I have to say, disappointing. Some have called it a waste of time, and while I am not inordinately annoyed by what we've experienced, I don't know that I could muster a case to challenge that assessment. The outside world thinks we talk deeply about important things, but the fact is, we don't talk deeply about anything. We hear reports and talk superficially and briefly about lots of things, but, even then, not about the most important things we should be talking about. Over my three years in the House, we have sometimes skirted the edges of engaging the wrenching divisions this church has suffered over the last decade, but always in a technical and juridical context, and always with much more "reporting" than free-flowing discussion. We talk around and past the really important things, and distract ourselves with a host of secondary and tertiary concerns. We desperately need to find a new model for difficult conversations. There is a reluctance (perhaps a vestige of very difficult experiences of twenty or so years ago) to spend a lot of time in plenary debate, but short and tightly-managed table discussions are not doing the job. There has got to be an intermediate modality that will enable us to safely say very challenging and honest things to one another. We haven't found it yet. I don't know whether enough of us even want to.

Monday, March 24, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 4

Usual morning "retreat" routine. Following Morning Prayer, today's meditation was delivered by my good friend Bill Love, Bishop of Albany. His account of missionary activity in the diocese was invigorating--singing the Lord's song in the alien land of urban Albany/Troy.

Between the meditation and lunch, I got in another hard walk--about three miles this time, I would say. One of the blessings of this time away has been that I've been able to get significant exercise every day. Good for my health.

The afternoon session was devoted to ecumenical and religious engagement. The national church officer for such things, the Rev. Margaret Rose, called on a succession of bishops in turn to report on the bilateral ecumenical dialogues that they superintend: Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Swedish Lutherans, Old Catholics, Roman Catholics, and probably one or two that I'm forgetting. (Though I don't think I'm forgetting the Orthodox; I think they weren't mentioned.) This was all report; no discussion. We then turned our attention to "inter-religious" activities. A seminary middler from General Theological Seminary in New York offered a reflection on the critical importance of inter-religious discourse. I have to say, I was not persuaded. But maybe that's just me. This time we did have about 20 minutes for table discussions, wherein we were to share what's going in our own dioceses with respect to this topic. I didn't have much to report, save that I had recently met three self-proclaimed Druids at a New Years Eve party, but since it was a party, didn't press them very hard to share with me what drew them (all raised Irish-American Catholics) to Druidism. While I am passionate about ecumenism, interfaith engagement is, in my mind, one of those "nice" things that will always lose any triage assessment of where to put energy and resources. And speaking of energy and resources, there were certainly more pertinent things we could have done with our plenary time this afternoon. This was a disappointment.

The session ended at 3:30, so I went back to my room to read, but first needed to grab a nap. By the time I emerged from my grogginess, I was just missing the beginning of the Eucharist, so I finally did get around to doing some reading.

After dinner, the item on the plenary agenda was a briefing on the next meeting of the House, which will take place this September ... in Taiwan. Why Taiwan, you ask? Because the Episcopal Church, in fact, has a diocese there, whose bishop faithfully attends every meeting of the House. However, I had already made the decision that I will let them have this meeting without me. I'm certain the Diocese of Springfield would come up with the funds to send me, pretty much without blinking. But I just don't think it's good stewardship of the not-unlimited money we are blessed with. Moreover, I do not wish to be complicit in furthering the narrative that "the Episcopal Church is an international church; we're in 16 countries on four continents." While technically true, that is an incidental and circumstantial reality, not the virtuous fruit of a grand missionary strategy. If anything, it is a vestige of colonialism, and we ought to find it an embarrassment and be taking more aggressive steps to spin off our overseas dioceses into self-sustaining Anglican provinces. As it happens, though, it is politically useful for TEC to have recourse to the "international church" meme. In any case, I don't need to be an accomplice. So ... I didn't go to the meeting, and spent the time in the conference center lobby (alas, no usable wifi in my room) cleaning out about a page and a half of emails. A huge weight is lifted.

I'm ready to go home, but there's one more day.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 3

Not a lot to report today. We observed the principle of sabbath rest, so the only plenary gathering scheduled was the 10am Eucharist. I got a hard walk in between breakfast and then. The weather is noticeably cooler today, but for most of us, it's still warmer than home. After the liturgy, we sat for a retreat meditation from the Bishop of Nebraska, Scott Barker. The theme for all the meditations is from Psalm 137, "singing the Lord's song in an alien land." I could identify with much of what Bishop Barker had to say, as Nebraska, like central and southern Illinois, suffers from a slowly-unfolding demographic crisis, with the demise of the family farm and the depopulation of small towns. But in order to "make room," I suppose, for the retreat meditation, there was no homily at the Eucharist. I felt a little deprived by this. The gospel readings for Lent in Year A are of such uncommon power and compelling clarity. It was by means of these narratives that the ancient church took the hands of catechumens and walked them through the mysteries of baptism and eucharist. My heart wanted to hear the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well be broken open once again.

I took part in two voluntary but substantial meetings during the afternoon. One was among those bishops present who are also trustees of Nashotah House. While the campus community seems healthy and well-behaved, there have lately been some atmospherics among some off-campus stakeholders, so it was good for those of us who are here to take counsel together. The other was with the Communion Partner bishops who are present. We discussed possibilities for a meeting with our Canadian counterparts, and the potential for sponsoring a major conference on mission in a post-Christian environment.

After dinner, I floated between two other impromptu (more or less) meetings: one to further discuss the work of the Task Force on Marriage, and the other comprised of bishops who are seminary trustees. Tomorrow we're back to a rather fuller schedule.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 2

Three years ago, at my first meeting of the House of Bishops, the schedule was relentless, most of the activity consisting of lectures and seminars under the rubric of continuing education. The one following, in Quito, was nearly as grueling. But the powers-that-be must have heard a chorus of complaints, because, beginning with the spring meeting two years ago, with the necessary exception of General Convention the following summer, the pace has been much more humane. Today we gathered for Morning Prayer as we did yesterday, with the retreat meditation this time being delivered by Mary Glasspool, one of the suffragans of Los Angeles. I got a good hard hike in between the conclusion of her talk and regathering at 11:30 for Eucharist (of a sort--the Liturgy of the Word somehow went missing; we began with a hymn and continued with the gospel and Prayers of the People). I had lunch with my Province V compatriots, but we had nothing particularly substantive to discuss. The afternoon was free. I visited for a while with a free-lance journalist who lives in the area and whom I have known heretofore only cybernetically. Then I was able to grab a nap, catch up on some email, and enjoy a nice impromptu conversation with a recently retired colleague before getting changed and heading out to dinner with my Class of 2011 friends. We drove to College Station and had a tasty and economical meal at Chuy's, a regional Tex-Mex chain. On the whole, the day was recreative, which I rather desperately needed.

Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 1

  • Breakfast at 8:00.
  • Morning Prayer at 9:00, with a retreat meditation delivered by Bishop Lloyd Allen (Honduras).
  • Free time in silence (with a designation talking area for extroverts). I took the opportunity to take a long walk through the piney woods and sandy soil beauty of Camp Allen.
  • Lunch at 11:30.
  • 1:00--"check in" at our assigned tables. (We have the same table mates for three years, re-shuffling after each General Convention).
  • Presentation from the Task Force for the Study of Marriage, a group mandated by General Convention 2012 and populated by the presiding officers of each house. I cannot see how anyone can deny that it is heavily stacked. It includes prominent LGBT activists, and not one member who approaches marriage from a traditionalist perspective. Not one. Despite discussions and feedback such as we participated in today, I don't think there's any doubt that the eventual outcome will be proposed legislation that will redefine marriage in the Episcopal Church to remove the "one man / one woman" norm. How precisely they will get to that objective remains to be seen. There was some mention from the task force of changing language in the Prayer Book. In my table group, I tried to make the point that this is a slippery slope on many levels. Since the Episcopal Church was founded in 1789, we have had four versions of the Book of Common Prayer, including the present 1979 edition. Each one has been a thorough revision, markedly different from its predecessor. We have never simply tweaked and tinkered with the Prayer Book in a piecemeal fashion. This tradition was slightly altered a dozen years ago when we (temporarily, supposedly) suspended language in the Ordinal in order to proceed with our full communion agreement with the Lutherans. Then, over the last two General Conventions, we actually did follow the process of Prayer Book revision in order to bring the lectionary for Holy Week in line with the Revised Common Lectionary. Yet, I've heard no one begin to speak of the new "2012 Prayer Book." But the camel's nose is under the tent, and I suspect (fear?) that, if we amend the language of the marriage rite to accommodate same-sex weddings, we will continue down that same path for other purposes, and the de facto liturgical anarchy we currently enjoy across the church will only be compounded. Of course, this is to say nothing of the inherent enormity of changing the marriage liturgy for the intended purpose, which would be a theological, sacramental, ecumenical, and pastoral train wreck.
  • After a break, we heard from TREC, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. This, too, is a creation of the last General Convention. They are only 24 people, the scope of their task is impossible to comprehend, and their work is seriously underfunded. Yet, they are striving valiantly. The two most salient items on the discussion agenda today were, What does the national church have to do that cannot be done at a more local level? and How should the office of Presiding Bishop relate to the governance structure of the church? Re the latter, my personal opinion, for a number of reasons, is that the Presiding Bishop should retain his or her diocese upon election to the primacy, with responsibility for day to day operations at any centralized church office falling to a General Secretary. My sense is that opinion on this was very divided, with some table groups favoring it in the plenary reports, and others opposing it. As the to larger question about subsidiarity, I have some hope for a future that would be less juridical and more informal, less centralized and more networked. But there a lot of oxen lined up to be gored in such a move, and the inertia of the status quo should not be underestimated. The trick will be how to reduce the ability of various stakeholders to propose resolutions to General Convention. My own idea is that standing committees, commissions, agencies, and boards should be forbidden from creating their own work--that is, proposing resolutions that ask General Convention to ask them to do something. We'll see how that one flies.
  • At 4:30 we gathered upstairs in All Saints Chapel for Eucharist, commemorating the lesser feast of Thomas Cranmer. (This is according to the trial use Holy Women, Holy Men calendar; in the still official calendar of the church, today commemorates Thomas Ken). The Presiding Bishop celebrated and preached.
  • After dinner we gathered back in our plenary meeting room for the customary event styled "Fireside Chat." We heard from the Bishop of Venezuela about the recently tense and dangerous political and social situation in his country, from the Bishop of the Dominican Republic on the emerging issue of multi-generation Dominicans of Haitian descent being deprived of their citizenship, from the Bishop of Indianapolis on the disintegration of the social fabric in South Sudan, and handful of other items.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On the Making and Unmaking of Saints

For several years, the Episcopal Church--through the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music at the behest of the General Convention at the behest of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (yes, you read that right)--has been working on revising its calendar of "saints" (with no coherent articulation of just who a "saint" is). The standard sanctoral calendar is found in the volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts (last revised in 2006), but the current trial use volume is styled Holy Women, Holy Men, and has been the subject of a great deal of heated debate.

The SCLM has produced a draft proposal, now called A Great Cloud of Witnesses, and has solicited comments from the whole church. You can see my comment below, but I suggest you look here to get a sense of the context; otherwise what I say will seem a little opaque.

This proposal is certainly a step in a good direction when set alongside HWHM. I would echo much of what has been said upstream: 1) do not include non-Christians or Christians whose ecclesial tradition rejects or knows nothing of the idea of a sanctoral calendar; 2) hold fast to the local observance criterion; 3) reinstate and strictly observe the 50-year post-mortem criterion; 4) simply call the volume what it is--"Propers for Optional Observances" is fine, though I personally prefer just keeping LF&F; 5) eliminate "category satisfying" nominations for inclusion--this is not a "Who's Who."  
All this said, I find myself disappointed that the process has become so politicized, and that there is not sufficient consensus around a sane and tradition-rooted approach to the recognition of heroic and exemplary discipleship and holiness. If I were more confident that the list that will be finally approved would be consistent with the enunciated criteria, I would join my voice with those calling for the retention of proper collects. But that not being the case, the "commons" approach is probably best. But this is a settlement, a compromise, and represents, in my view, a systemic failure. 
I really liked Derek's original proposal. What "Cloud..." does is retain its basic two-tiered concept, but move the bar between Tier 1 and Tier 2 such that only the category of "major holy days" is included in Tier 1. If the question were not so fraught with other agendas, we could expand Tier 1 to include bona fide heroes and exemplars, each with proper lessons and collect, and adopt Tier 2 ("people we should all be aware of"), and appoint common readings and collects. 
Anyway, as I said, a step in the right direction, and probably the best we can do.

I don't know whether I will be reappointed to the General Convention committee that will take on this work, but, in any case, I am probably not finished engaging this subject.

Monday, February 10, 2014

On Bishops Being Bishops (Presiding & Otherwise)

As the Episcopal Church lumbers on toward the next General Convention in the summer of 2015, the atmosphere is thick with confusion and questioning about structure and governance. Just last week, the Executive Council met and considered a controversial revised oversight structure for what is arguably one of the most successful ministries in the history of TEC--the United Thank Offering (UTO). Questions have been raised in various parts of the blogsphere about just who the staff at '815' and its various satellites is accountable to. Is it the Presiding Bishop through her appointed Chief Operating Officer (Bishop Stacy Sauls)? Or it is the Executive Council, which is a steward of the authority of General Convention when the whole body is not in session?

Meanwhile, in the background--but not too far in the background--the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) is revved up in anticipation of its 2015 General Convention deadline. This is the group created by GC in 2012 and charged with the impossible task (and meager resources with which to accomplish it) of coming up with an outside-the-box proposal for reconfiguring the governance structures of the church in view of several ominous indicators of (terminal?) institutional decline.

To add interest to the mix, we'll also be electing a Presiding Bishop. Speculation abounds about whether the current occupant of that office will be among those nominated for the next nine-year term, and whether she will be elected if nominated, but ... we won't know until we know.

So it seems a propitious moment to suggest that a sensible way forward invites us to take a step "back to the future." Until the 1940s, the Presiding Bishop was simply the senior active member of the House of Bishops. Upon assuming the office, he held onto his day job as the actual bishop of an actual diocese. He wasn't in any substantial way a figurehead and CEO. That is no longer permissible under the canons as they are presently written. But we can change that. At the last convention, the House of Deputies bravely tried to do so, but the proposal was defeated in the House of Bishops (over the dissenting vote of the Bishop of Springfield, as is sadly so often the case).

It's time to revive the idea. I'm not suggesting we go back to making the senior active bishop the PB. But it would be healthy on many levels if we could elect a Presiding Bishop without requiring that person to resign his or her see in order to take up the new position. Of course, we would need to re-write the canonical job description to make this practically feasible. Removing the requirement that the PB visit every diocese during a nine-year term would be the major component of this revision. Removing the expectation that the Presiding Bishop serve as chief consecrator every time we ordain a new bishop would be another big piece. It would probably also be necessary to come up with a way of aiding the diocese whose bishop is elected in calling a suffragan or assisting bishop to take up some of the load. And we may want to think about creating a new position called something like General Secretary, someone to mind the store and take care of the daily operations of ... whatever we end up having that still has daily operations. Lots of other Anglican provinces have an arrangement like this.

The advantage would be that we have a Presiding Bishop and Primate who is actually the bishop of something. A bishop is by nature and definition a pastor, not an executive or a figurehead. Our Primate is not an Archbishop (we've had that "discussion" more than once and rejected the idea), and has no metropolitical authority. So the person occupying the office is effectively churchless. And a bishop without a church is like a ... well, you get the idea.

Lest you think this is a bizarre suggestion: Out of the 38 Anglican provinces, only two--the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada--have "dedicated" Primates, that is, unattached to a diocese. Even the Primate of All England and visible face of the worldwide Anglican Communion is the bishop of a diocese, and makes regular parish visitations in the Diocese of Canterbury. For that matter, a man who lives in Rome and goes by the name of Francis claims the title Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church only because he first holds the title Bishop of Rome, elected to that position by the senior clergy ("cardinal rectors," as they might be called in TEC) of the diocese. Our practice is an anomaly, and theologically incoherent.

This proposal is also consonant with what TREC seems to be aiming at: a structure that is more networked than hierarchical, more nimble and less bureaucratic, more driven by theology (formed by scripture and tradition) than by the models of post-WWII American corporations. We can do this.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Hermeneutic of Ecumenism

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul (I will get to celebrate it again tomorrow at St Paul's Cathedral in Springfield, where they always save a seat for me), the complementary bookend to the Confession of St Peter, which was a week ago. This eight-day period each January is known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Known, perhaps, but not by very many. Not by enough, at any rate. It is an observance that is simply not very widely observed. I have attempted to plant some seeds among my ecumenical opposite numbers (Roman Catholic and ELCA) in the area where I live and work, but so far they haven't germinated.

Why? Is it because enough people don't care about keeping one more item on the calendar, or because enough people don't care about the underlying issue--unity among all who profess and call themselves Christians? A little of both, I suspect, but if there were more energy around the latter, the former would get more attention.

The number of distinct "brand names" of Christian bodies is staggering. It numbers in the tens of thousands. Given the manifest will of Jesus in his prayer "that they may all be one" (John 17:21), this reality ought to be scandalous beyond imagination. Yet, it isn't. Instead, we have normalized a situation that we don't see any hope of changing. We speak of the proliferation of denominations as representing healthy diversity, veritably a gift from God.  Each has its market niche of ethnic or cultural or devotional proclivities, and isn't that wonderful, because then the gospel can reach a wider variety of people? Ecumenism is nice, but not an emergency. Not an emergency at all.

Almost 15 years ago, my own church entered into a "full communion" relationship with the principal Lutheran body in the U.S. We can now swap clergy and members with minimal bureaucratic impedance. In concept, that's a good thing. Ability to share the Eucharist and recognize sacramental ministries is the sine qua non of ecclesial unity. But what comes next in that relationship? It's as if Called to Common Mission has inoculated us against any urge to take it to the next level. We have blunted the scandal in one small corner of the Christian universe, but we have not removed it. There are no laurels to rest on.

Not surprisingly, the churches that remain doggedly, if lethargically, active in the ecumenical project tend to be those that already have a "higher" ecclesiology, to which concerns about church order, sacramental integrity, and historic continuity are organically part of their own identity. But I sense a consistent undertone of tamped-down triumphalism from older church toward those whom they look on (secretly, in most cases) as "spinoffs" from themselves, an attitude of "we'd happily take you back if [fill in the blank]." So Anglicans can look at Methodists, for example, and think (not say, usually), "Well, you're a chip off the old block anyway, right? The Wesley brothers both died Anglicans, after all! And we already sing some of your hymns. So, if you can just promise to be stricter about the historic episcopate and the integrity of your eucharistic rites, we can come together." And Roman Catholics can look at Anglicans and say very much the same thing, with the final condition amended to something like recognizing the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Heck, in this era of Anglicanorum coetibus, they'll let us hang on to various bits of Prayer Book bric-a-brac and our clearly superior hymnody. Of course, the Orthodox can look at the churches in communion with, and under fealty to, the See of Rome, and replicate the same pattern, though I won't presume to articulate the condition.

What of free church Evangelicalism? In America, this represents a huge percentage of those who identify as Christians. Here we're talking about both those who participate in some sort of denominational structure, even if a loose one, wearing a brand label (some kinds of Baptists, for example), and those who either wear their denominational affiliation as an undergarment, or have none at all (including the Willow Creek-style mega-churches). I hope I'm not being either inaccurate or uncharitable if I say, among these groups, ecclesiology as a division of systematic theology barely creates a blip on their radar, so, in the absence of anything intentionally well-thought through, their default ecclesiology is rooted in the notion of the autonomy of the local congregation. Among these folks, many of whom I hold in high esteem because my own youthful roots as a Christian are in that tradition, my experience is that they have effectively mentally blocked out the existence of Christians who are not Christian like they are Christian. In their peripheral vision, they are aware of churches that are just weird (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, most Lutherans and most Anglicans--with passes give to the likes of Lewis, Packer, and Stott) and churches that have jumped the shark on moral issues (old-line Protestants). But, among themselves, they see no functional disunity. Each local congregation is pursuing its mission in its own context and in its own way, but if a bunch of pastors get together for a retreat, they won't think twice about having a communion service, and it wouldn't matter who presides or whether there's an epiclesis; such things just don't occur to them. That may be a good thing; I'm trying to make an observation, not a judgment.

Interestingly, in my last two cures, I was involved with the Greater Warsaw Ministerial Association and the Stockton Leadership Foundation. Both groups were dominated by the attitude I described in the last paragraph. On many levels, I felt a more authentic Christian bond among those colleagues than I do when I'm at a provincial gathering of my own church (General Convention, House of Bishops). But I was also usually frustrated when I was with them for the sheer lack of any ecclesiological substance in their thinking. I don't know how I would have even begun to articulate my concerns to them. There wasn't even enough of a common vocabulary from which to do so, and way too many divergent assumptions.

So we have blinded ourselves to the scandal, either by rationalizing our divisions, by partial measures like full-commuion agreements, by crypto-triumphalism in our ecumenical endeavors, and by severely limiting the section of the playing field that we pay attention to. But the scandal is still there. It still grieves the heart of Christ, and is therefore still an emergency.

A hermeneutic is a fundamental interpretive framework, the default lens through which we mentally process the stream of data on a particular subject. I have a Pandora station dedicated to organ music, and I have, with some effort, taught it to strain out anything that isn't organ music. It has pretty much gotten the algorithm right now, and has an organ music hermeneutic.
At the close of 2014's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my hope is that I, and anyone whom I might influence, will adopt a hermeneutic of ecumenism in what we say, what we write, and how we pray. To borrow the rhetoric of liberation theology, this implies a preferential option for ecumenism in our thinking and in our ecclesiastical discourse, as we take our share in the councils of the church. 
It means we train ourselves to unfailingly ask the question, What are the ecumenical implications if we do X or Y? And if doing X or Y will have an adverse ecumenical impact, we probably then decide not to do X or Y, even if, in our own internal life, it seems right and good.

This is what it means to "seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions" (BCP, p. 818). It means no longer rationalizing our "sad divisions" as a blessing. It means laying aside the notion that any part of the community of Christian communities possesses the fulness of ecclesial life, but we are, all of us, profoundly broken and incomplete in our state of broken or impaired communion, and that this state of brokenness is the the single most powerful impediment to the prosecution of the Church's mission of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ. For our free-church Evangelical friends, it means waking up out of their ecclesiological torpor and engaging with more seriousness the fact that Jesus left a church behind when he ascended to the right hand of the Father. It means developing the capacity for restraint, bathing in St Paul's counsel to the Corinthian church that they "wait for one another" (I Corinthians 11:33).

The Church will never die this side of the eschaton. Of that we are well-assured. But that doesn't mean it won't die in Europe and North America, even as it died in North Africa and most of the lands that now comprise Turkey. This is one of the "great dangers" arising from our "sad divisions." When Christianity was the centerpiece of the culture, we could fool ourselves that there was nothing strange about churches of different brand names gracing all four corners of a downtown intersection. We can no longer afford that illusion. Blessed Peter and Paul, pillars of the Church, pray for us.

Now, a bit of a postscript for Anglicans (who are probably the great majority of anyone reading this post anyway): We have, of course, an "ecumenical situation" internally. This is to our great shame, and there are no innocent parties. We will never be able to simply walk back what has been done in the past decade, anymore than toothpaste can be put back into its tube. But we can still have a hermeneutic of ecumenism, a preferential option for unity, going forward, and in so doing, make it less difficult for the generation that comes after us to repair the breaches we have caused in our intemperance and haste. Among other things, this means disentangling ourselves from the secular legal system. Surely we can find those in another wing of the household of faith who can help us resolve our differences over property and other assets charitably and justly. HOB colleagues, I'm talking to you. ACNA friends, I'm talking to you. If you love Jesus, you will heed my advice. Because I'm pretty sure Jesus wants us to try something different, to cast our nets on the other side of the boat, because, whatever we're doing now, they're coming up empty.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Lord Jesus

I am an unrepentant kyrialist.

Yes, that’s pretty much a made-up word. It is not therefore insignificant, however. Quite the opposite. 

A case can be made that the earliest Christian creed consisted of just two Greek words, Kyrios Iesus, which works out to three words in English: Jesus is Lord. The expression Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy—is one of the oldest bits of Christian liturgy we have. As the tradition of Christian worship developed on the Latin end of the decaying Roman Empire, it became formulaically customary to conclude most any prayer with per Dominum Jesum Christum—through Jesus Christ our Lord—before the Amen. 

The word ‘Lord’ is so ubiquitous in Christian devotion and worship, and so rare in ordinary speech (at least, for English speakers outside the UK, where it continues to have some parlance), that it’s taken on the aspect of jargon, a bit of technical vocabulary with very little to connect it with anything outside what has come to be perceived as its native environment. When Christians began using the term, however, the opposite pertained. Everyone had a lord and everyone knew who their lord was. Even the lords had lords. There was a hierarchy of fealty that ran from the lowest rungs of society (slaves) to the highest (the emperor). 

So when Christians started announcing that “Jesus is Lord”—indeed, the Lord of lords--they weren’t just indulging in insider religion-speak. They were making a highly political statement, something not only very profound in a theological way, but dangerously seditious. It was seen as a zero-sum game: If ‘X’ is “Lord," then’Y’ is “not Lord.” If X=Jesus, then Y=somebody else who already claims lordship. Ultimately, that somebody else was Caesar. Is it any wonder the first several generations of Christians were persecuted, and a great many put to death?

So, while “Lord” suffers from over-familiarity, it is central to the confession of the historic Christian and Catholic faith. It is central to the vows and promises we make at Baptism and Confirmation (including, for Episcopalians, the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant). 

In recent years, the notion of the Lordship of Christ is once again under attack, only this time from within the Christian community. Some, operating from a feminist perspective, have come to regard it as an emblem of patriarchal oppression, since the word inherently carries heavy masculine baggage. For them, it signifies more than itself; it points to an elaborate apparatus of male hegemony (one is tempted to say “domination,” but that is precisely the point at issue) in the Church, marginalizing and infantilizing half the human population, handicapping the gifts that women bring to the life of the Body of Christ. So there is pressure to, if not completely remove, at least drastically reduce the use of the word “Lord” in liturgical texts. In the Episcopal Church, the present edition of the Book of Common Prayer and the original edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts came to life just early enough to escape this movement. But anything published since the mid-1980s—The Book of Occasional Services, all the Enriching Our Worship materials, and the proposedHoly Woman, Holy Men, reflects the trend of “de-kyrializing” the liturgy. “Lord” is consistently and nearly universally avoided (though, it has been done presumptively, stealthily, with no direct conversation over the issue).

I invite those who find kyrial language (no more quotes; it’s officially a word now after three uses) offensive to demonstrate any concrete damage it is alleged to have done. I further invite them to weigh that alleged damage against the weight of the Tradition—in scripture, in liturgy, in theology, and in devotion. Yes, I will acknowledge the possibility that certain persons—mostly women, in all likelihood—who have had particular life experiences that are unfortunate, even tragic, but, to the benefit of all, quite rare, may not be helped by associating any notion of God with the word “Lord.” But, I would submit that this is not sufficient grounds upon which to overthrow two millennia (more if you count the Old Testament as it has been mediated to us via Greek and Latin) of tradition. 

Liturgy drives theology—or so goes the contemporary wisdom. If we de-kyrialize our worship, we may not be saying right away that “Jesus is not Lord.” Not right away. But we will be opening the door to such a move by the next generation. As our society rapidly secularizes, Christians will need more ways, not fewer, by which to demarcate their identity over against the “Caesars” of consumerism,. nationalism, hedonism, and all the other false gods that demand just a harmless pinch of incense at their altar. Rather than laying aside the notion that Jesus is Lord, we would do better to double down on it, to explain it in ways that don’t cause unnecessary trauma to anyone’s psyche, and enable the baptized faithful to be more clearly and confidently who they are—the redeemed of God, the harbingers of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Kyrios Iesus.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Oh, Hell ...

We all have our subscription settings to the Information Marketplace fine-tuned differently, so your experience may not be like mine. But every day I rummage through Tweets, Facebook posts, and links to articles and blogs, that engage the question of belief in general, Christian belief in particular, and what difference it makes; that is, what are the consequences that are at stake?

Within the context of this maelstrom, of course, certain controverted issues are bound to come up--issues around sexuality and fecundity, for the most part. Of late, cyberspace is abuzz with commentary and speculation about Pope Francis, who has, inside of a year, pulled off an astonishing shift in the tone of what emanates from the Vatican. Some in the journalistic community--mostly representing the secular media "covering" religion, but also some others who should know better--have inconvenienced billions of electrons with their prognostications that, any day now, the Holy Father will take a neutral stance on abortion and shrug his shoulders in a sort of "whatever" assessment of homosexual behavior.

Aside from the amazing and completely vincible ignorance that underlies such wishful thinking, what I find both mystifying and unsettling is the way it's all inevitably tied to Heaven and Hell, as if that's what it's all ultimately about when we cut to the chase and dispense with technicalities and small talk.   The Pope says, "Who am I to judge [gays and lesbians]?" and right away the story is about how the Catholic Church no longer teaches that gays and lesbians are going to "burn in hell." Secular journalists and bloggers ineluctably reduce inter-religious differences, and even theological differences between the array of Christian groups, to an issue of who gets into Heaven and who goes to Hell.

Maybe it's my unique perspective, but I see more of this reductionism coming from outside faith communities than from inside. Yes, I know it's possible to find more than a few individual Christians, and the marginal sects and cults with which they are associated, who seem inordinately consumed with the question of who's going to Hell and how hot it will be when they get there. But, for the most part, I don't see much of this among mainstream Evangelicals, old line Protestants, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, or Orthodox. So it seems more or less a convenient hook on which largely secular scribes can hang their impressions of Christianity and other religions.

What a constricted and impoverished understanding of Christianity this is. What a constricted and impoverished understanding of the world this is. I wish Christians, along with those who devoutly practice other religions, would be more vigilant and more aggressive in calling out this fallacy. The reason more don't challenge this view, I think, is because it's not all that far from the views (secretly?) held by many Christians. It represents our Cultural Theology, even if it doesn't represent the formal teaching of any particular church. Hence, it has more of a hold on the imagination of Christians than do formal articulations of doctrine or the words of our worship. It's not what we're really supposed to believe, but it's what others think we believe, so it's what we quietly believe about ourselves.

Let me unpack that a bit. Our Cultural Theology teaches that "good people" go to Heaven when they die and "bad people" go ... well, not to Heaven, at any rate. How many times do we hear somebody caught doing what is by any measure a "bad" thing protest, "But I'm not a bad person!" Of course, well-instructed Evangelicals and well-instructed Catholics will push back on such sentimental claptrap, but, let's face it, how many Evangelicals and Catholics are well-instructed?

Of course, behind this binary Good People:Heaven/Bad People:Hell paradigm is an assumption of a philosophical concept that has been called the "immortality of the soul," i.e. that there is a "spiritual" element in the makeup of a human person that survives the death of the physical body, a continuing consciousness of some sort. Cultural Theology teaches that everybody automatically has this and the only question is the degree of happiness that will be attached to it in the "afterlife." Once again, this is sentimental claptrap, a caricature of a distortion of real Christian belief, and, to the extent that there actually is an upsurge in atheism, it against this intellectual train wreck that most "new atheists" are reacting. I don't blame them.

By contrast, the Christian hope is not anchored in the immortality of the soul. There is no line in any of the creeds about the immortality of the soul. The Christian hope, as we do say in the creeds, is in the resurrection of the body. My hope is not that I will "go to Heaven when I die." My hope is that, sometime after I die, I will be raised with Christ, and live in a body that is material but glorified, like the one in which Jesus appeared after his resurrection. Oh, we can go at it about whether there's an intermediate conscious state between death and resurrection, but that's a second-tier conversation, and it has rather little to do with whether souls are immortal.

In the meantime, there's a bigger picture that we do well to keep our eyes on. The universe is fallen and broken, and God, motivated by deathless love, and having long ago determined not to accept that state, is going about the business of stitching it back together, reweaving the fabric, redeeming it, making it better than it was to begin with. Jesus' incarnation, birth, life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension--the complex of events we call the Paschal Mystery--is at the core of that redemptive project. Sadly, Cultural Theology and the Paschal Mystery have barely more than a passing acquaintance. If a critical mass of Christian were not deeply in thrall to Cultural Theology, the secular media would have to deal with the Paschal Mystery, and they wouldn't be able to reduce statements by Christian leaders to questions of who's going to burn in Hell.

Now, as a post-script: I do accept the notion of Hell as a logical necessity if one believes in human free will. If we are truly free, then we are free to reject God, to reject God permanently. Hell is the absence of God and the annihilation of the central feature of human identity--the image of God. Whoever is in Hell is there, not because of what they are, or what they've done or not done, or what they've believed or not believed--although those things are not unimportant--but because they have freely chosen to reject God's love. As to whether Hell is actually populated, or for how long, or whether it's a state of conscious suffering--that is its own quagmire, in which I will probably never be sufficiently interested to explore in a venue like this.