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.