Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Religious But Not Spiritual

I recently joined an interesting Facebook group called "I am religious but not spiritual." The group's motto says: "The most important thing in life is to have an institutional relationship with God."

Tongue-in-cheek as this group perhaps is, the title and the motto are nonetheless deeply counter-cultural things to say in an age when approximately 1 out of 5 persons in the United States identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious."

The satirical website Stuff White People Like makes short shrift of that identification:

White people will often say they are “spiritual” but not religious. Which usually means that they will believe any religion that doesn’t involve Jesus.

Popular choices include Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah and, to a lesser extent, Scientology. A few even dip into Islam, but it’s much more rare since you have to give stuff up and actually go to Mosque.

Mostly they are into religion that fits really well into their homes or wardrobe and doesn’t require them to do very much.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Difficult Teaching

Jesus has a knack for offending people.

Today's Daily Office reading from the Gospel of John (chapter 6, verses 60-71) is a case in point. The reading is part of the larger "bread of heaven" discourse in which Jesus says:
"Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them" (John 6:53-56).
In many Episcopal churches, we sing this as we receive communion using Hymn #335 ("I am the bread of life").

I once heard a respected organist/choirmaster say that when his congregation sings this hymn, they always omit verse 3:
Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his Blood,
you shall not have life within you,
you shall not have life within you.
His rationale for the omission was to say, "What kind of message does that send?!" He found it offensive.

It's fascinating how closely this reaction corresponds to the reaction to Jesus' teaching recorded in John's Gospel:
When many of the disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:61-63).
Jesus' response to the complaints made matters worse: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66).

Apparently, taking offense at this difficult teaching is still true for some of us today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reproach Yourself

This is a worthy passage from a work entitled "How to Scrutinize and Reproach Yourself" by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306 - c. 373). With self-deprecating humor and disarming honesty, St. Ephrem models a kind of humility too often lacking in the Church.

After having gained knowledge of the truth, I have become a brawler and an offender. I argue over trifles; I have become envious of and callous toward my neighbor, merciless toward beggars, wrathful, argumentative, obstinate, slothful, irritable. I harbor vile thoughts, I love fancy clothing. And to this day I have many corrupt thoughts and fits of selfishness, gluttony, sensuality, vainglory, arrogance, lust, gossiping, breaking of fasts, despondency, rivalry, and indignation.

I am worthless, but think much of myself. I lie constantly, but get angry with liars. I defile the temple of my body with wanton thoughts, but sternly judge the wanton. I condemn those who fall, but myself fall constantly. I condemn slanderers and thieves, but am myself both a thief and a slanderer. I walk with a bright countenance, although I am altogether impure.

In churches and at banquets I always want to take the place of honor. I see hermits and act dignified; I see monks and I become pompous. I strive to appear pleasing to women, dignified to strangers, intelligent and reasonable to my neighbors, superior to intellectuals. With the righteous I act as if I possess vast wisdom; the unintelligent I disdain as illiterates.

If I am offended, I take revenge. If I am honored, I shun those who honor me. If someone demands of me what is rightfully his, I start a suit. And those who tell me the truth I consider enemies. When my error is exposed, I get angry, but I am not so dissatisfied when people flatter me.

I do not want to honor those who are worthy but I myself, who am unworthy, demand honor. I do not want to tire myself with work, but if someone fails to serve me I get angry with him. I do not want to walk among laborers, but if someone fails to help me in my work I slander him.

I arrogantly deny my brother when he is in need, but when I have need of something I turn to him. I hate those who are ill, but when I myself am ill I wish that everyone would love me. I do not want to know those who are higher than I, and I scorn those who are lower.

If I abstain from indulging my foolish desires, I praise myself vaingloriously. If I succeed in vigilance, I fall into the snares of conceit and contradiction. If I refrain from eating, I drown in pride and arrogance. If I am wakeful in prayer, I am vanquished by irritability and wrath. If I see virtue in someone, I studiously ignore him.

I have scorned worldly pleasures, but do not abandon my vain desire for them. If I see a woman, I go into raptures. To all appearances I am wise in humility, but in my soul I am haughty. I seem not to be acquisitive, but in reality I suffer from a mania for possessions. And what good is it to dwell on such things? I appear to have forsaken the world, but in fact I still think about worldly things all the time.

During services I always occupy myself with conversations, wandering thoughts, and vain recollections. During meals I indulge in idle chatter. I yearn for gifts. I participate in the sinful falls of others and engage in ruinous rivalry.

Such is my life! With what vileness do I obstruct my own salvation! And my arrogance, my vainglory does not permit me to think about my sores that I might cure myself. Behold my feats! See how vast are the regiments of sins which the enemy sends to campaign against me! Yet in the face of all this, I who am wretched endeavor to boast of sanctity. I live in sin, but want others to honor me as a righteous man. ...

If Thou wouldst save me, who am unworthy, O Merciful Lord, vouchsafe me, a sinner, repentance; enliven my soul deadened by sins, O Giver of Life. Drive out the stony hardness that is in my miserable heart and grant me a fountain of contrition, O Thou Who didst pour forth life unto us from Thy life-creating rib.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who Do You Say I Am?

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 16: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

All of us long to be known and affirmed for who we are. And Jesus is no exception.

After traveling widely with his disciples, teaching, healing, and proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, Jesus’ ministry is halfway over. From here on out, every step will take him closer to the sufferings of Calvary. So Jesus decides to take a break. He needs some time off to think and to pray.

So he withdraws to a place called Caesarea Philippi. This was a district beyond the control of King Herod and inhabited primarily by Gentiles. It was a perfect place for Jesus to get away from the crowds and from his enemies. And it was a good place to spend time with the disciples clarifying something weighing on his heart and mind. Even after all this time, Jesus wasn’t sure that his followers really understood who he was. And so when he’s alone with his disciples, he asks them, “Who do people say I am?” Jesus wants to know what’s the word on the street. And from the disciples, he learns that people think of him primarily as a prophet. “Some say you’re John the Baptist come back from the dead.” “Some think that you’re Elijah come back to usher in the great and terrible day of the Lord.” “And then there are others who say you must be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

These were all very complimentary things to say. They show that the people held Jesus in high regard and that they saw his ministry as a sign that the long hoped-for Messiah was coming soon.

Not satisfied with the verdict of opinion polls, Jesus takes a risk. Looking at his disciples, he asks, “But what about you guys? Who do you say I am?” There’s a lot riding on the disciples’ answer to this question. What they say will tell Jesus whether or not his closest followers and friends really know him.

Matthew doesn’t tell us if there was any time lag between Jesus’ question and the answer. But I like to think that there were at least several seconds of silence. Sort of like back in school days when the teacher asked a question and everybody thought they might know the answer but were too afraid of looking stupid to raise a hand. That’s the sort of silence I imagine in this scene – the kind where you can hear a pin drop. And although it lasts for only a few seconds, that silence feels like an eternity.

Finally, good ol’ impetuous Peter takes the plunge. Looking Jesus in the eye, Peter says, “You’re not just a prophet preparing the way for the Messiah. You’re way more than that. You are the Messiah. You’re the Son of the living God.”

Then there’s another moment of silence. Peter’s answer hangs in the air. Everyone’s heart is pounding as they wonder, “Has Peter blown it again?”

Just when the disciples think they can’t take the suspense any longer, Jesus’ face lights up, he breaks out in a smile, and he cries out in joy, “Wow! Simon son of John, you didn’t get this answer from any human being. It came straight from my Father in heaven. And because you’ve been bold enough to share what God has revealed to you, your confession of faith is going to be the foundation for my Church. And even the forces of hell and death won’t be able to overcome it.”

This scene from Matthew is one of the most dramatic stories in the Gospels. And it’s also one of those stories whose relevance seems to just leap off the page. Whether we’ve been in church all our lives, or are checking it out again after a sabbatical, or are coming to check it out for the first time, we all face the same question from Jesus: “Who do you say I am?” It’s not an impersonal question we can answer by looking in a book or doing a Google search. It’s not a question we can answer by citing somebody else’s opinion. We don’t have the luxury of getting off the hook that easily. No, this is a direct and personal question, a question that nobody else can answer for us. Jesus says to each and every one of us: “Who do you say I am?” And the way we answer that question will shape the rest of our lives.

If we say – as some have – that Jesus was just a pretender or a charlatan, or even just mistaken, then we can evade the claims he makes on our lives and our loyalties. If we say that Jesus was a great moral teacher – perhaps even the greatest moral teacher – then we ironically elevate his status while simultaneously rendering him irrelevant. C. S. Lewis put it like this: “If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference” [Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), p. 137]. And if Jesus was just an inspired prophet of God like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Elijah, then why go through all this messy business of crucifixion and death? Why do something that would automatically label you as a failure?

The New Testament repeatedly affirms Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus is the one through whom God’s promise to redeem Israel and all of creation finds fulfillment. Jesus is the one through whom God has acted to save us from the powers of sin and evil by defeating those powers – not through force or violence – but through his own death and resurrection.

That’s the New Testament’s response to the question, “Who do you say I am?” It’s a response that gets fleshed out more fully in the historic creeds of the Church, and it’s a response which we pray in our liturgies every time we gather to worship God in Word and Sacrament.

That’s all well and fine. But how do we make the Church’s response to the question, “Who do you say I am?” our own response? How do we avoid the pitfall of simply relying on external authorities – even authorities as weighty as Scripture and Tradition – to dictate to us the answer to a question that Jesus wants us to answer for ourselves, from our hearts and with our lives?

We do it the way Peter did it.

Now that may seem like a strange thing to say. After all, doesn’t Jesus assert that Peter’s confession did not come from any human being but was, instead, a revelation from God? And doesn’t that mean that God zapped Peter with a lightning bolt from heaven, jolting him into a sudden awareness of the truth?

Hardly. The revelation of Jesus’ true identity as the Christ doesn’t come from a lightning bolt out of the blue. It’s not a matter of bowing to an external authority or a “problem” to be solved. Coming to know Jesus as the Christ is not a supernatural intervention or a scholarly quest. On the contrary, it’s a relationship to be lived. And it’s a gift to be received.

It’s been said that “We cannot know Jesus without following Jesus;” indeed, “we [must] follow Jesus before we [can come to] know Jesus” [Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 55; emphasis in text]. We must be willing to let Jesus be the one who teaches us how to live, and why life is worth living. Following Jesus’ example, we must be willing to put the needs of the poor, the sick, and the suffering ahead of our own. And even when we don’t always understand, we must be willing to follow Jesus all the way to the sufferings of the cross and beyond to the unexpected joys of the resurrection. That’s how we come to know Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Coming to know Jesus is sort of like asking someone to marry you or having a child. We can’t possibly know what we’re really getting ourselves into. We’re linking our lives to the fate and fortunes of another, venturing out into the great unknown, not always sure of where it will take us. That takes faith. Not blind faith, mind you, but the kind of faith – the kind of trust – that comes when we fall in love with someone who loves us. That puts us on a journey that will change our lives. For as we follow, we will not only come to know Jesus; we’ll also come to know ourselves for who we really are – beloved children of God whose destinies are interwoven in the life fabric of a community that not even death itself can overcome.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Real Problem of the Christian Life

Here's a wonderful passage from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity that speaks directly to our need for transformation, how ordinary, everyday life poses the greatest of challenges, and therefore (as I read it) for why having a prayer life is imperative.

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ. But it is far easier than what we re all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call "ourselves," to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be "good." We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way - centred on money or pleasure or ambition - and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in simply shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), pp. 168-169.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Blessed Simplicity of Profession

Objections to using the historic creeds take many forms. Some, such as the Rev. John Beverly Butcher, maintain that the creeds are defective because they do not mention the life, teachings, and healing power of Jesus and thus should be “taken out of service.” There are other objections to the creeds, such as these noted by Presbyterian theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850): “The objection that creeds supersede the Bible as a standard of faith; the objection that creeds interfere with the rights of conscience; the objection that creeds discourage free inquiry; the objection that creeds fail to achieve their purpose; the objection that creeds promote discord and strife.”

It’s not my intent to even begin answering all of these objections in any detail. Rather, I want to offer reflections from Luke Timothy Johnson’s wonderful book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003) that I think offer ways of entering into possible answers to such objections. The section of the book I’m drawing on is entitled “The Blessed Simplicity of Profession.”

One of the qualities of the creed that most recommends it to contemporary Christians who find themselves confused about essentials and divided by nonessentials is its remarkable simplicity in profession. As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4).

Now, simply with respect to economy of expression and content, the Apostles’ Creed is considerably superior to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that has been our text. It says everything that needs to be said, and nothing more, which probably accounts in part for its continuing use and influence. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, however, is far superior to every subsequent creed and confession elaborated by Christians.

It adds to the Apostles’ Creed what is required to clarify the identity and work of the Son of God, and the work of the Spirit and the church. In this elaboration, it has shown itself faithful to the full range of scriptural testimony and the extraordinarily complex character of the Christian story. But it stops there. It retains the virtue of reticence. For this reason, and for its central place in the liturgical life of many Christians, this version of the creed deserves the close attention of the church today.

The simplicity of the creed is notable first in those matters on which it speaks. The creed consistently affirms what without trying to specify how, and thus liberates in two ways: the minds of believers are free to examine and investigate, without constraint, the gaps left within by the creed’s propositions, and their minds are not imprisoned by extraneous and possibly unworthy explanations or elaborations. The creed thus provides a stable confession within which the faithful can find a variety of acceptable standpoints and interpretations. This is part of what I meant by saying earlier that the creed gives boundaries, not barriers (pp. 314-316).

The creed tells us what is absolutely essential: God acts in the world for the sake of humans and to save them. The “how” and any further inquiry into the “why” remain unstated because they are both (ultimately) unknowable and unnecessary (p. 318).

Thus, the creed, far from being a restriction on Christian thinking, actually liberates the Christian mind. The simple and thrifty creed defines a few essential points and opens reasoning faith to many others. In this way it provides a model of establishing boundaries that are not barriers (pp. 320-321).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gloria in te Domine, Gloria exultate

Remembering my teenage years back in the '80s, I look back and can say without hesitation that one of the many lasting influences on my life from that time was the band U2. Being young and spiritually immature, it's difficult to describe what it was like knowing that they (or at least three of the band members) were committed Christians. This was particularly important to me since that was a period in my life when I wasn't sure what it meant to be a Christian, or even if I wanted to be a Christian. And when I recoiled from others who called themselves Christians because I didn't like things they said or did, I always remembered how much I loved U2 and that Bono, The Edge, and Larry Mullen were Christians. So why wouldn't I want to continue being Christian, too?

The song "Gloria," from U2's second album "October" (released in 1981), is a fine example. According to Wikepedia:

"The chorus 'Gloria in te Domine /Gloria exultate' translates to 'Glory in you, Lord / Glory, exalt [him]' with 'exalt' in the imperative mood, a reference to Psalm 30:2 (in te Domine, speravi). The song also contains references to Colossians 2:9-10 ('Only in You I'm complete') and James 5:7-9 ('The door is open / You're standing there')."

I can remember as a teenager being blown away to learn that this song is basically a rock-and-roll Christian hymn. It's amazing to see how easily U2 has been able to get audiences to sing this hymn with them, as though the rock concert has suddenly shifted into a religious service. And they never make any apologies for performing an explicitly Christian song in an otherwise "secular" setting.

Here are the lyrics for "Gloria":

I try to sing this song
I try to stand up
But I can't find my feet
I try, I try to speak up
But only in you I'm complete

Gloria in te domine
Gloria exultate
Gloria, Gloria
Oh Lord, loosen my lips

I try to sing this song
I try to get in
But I can't find the door
The door is open
You're standing there
You let me in

Gloria in te domine
Gloria exultate
Oh Lord, if I had anything
Anything at all
I'd give it to you
I'd give it to you

Here's an excellent live version of "Gloria" from 1984. Note how the crowd sings along with gusto (would that all of our congregations would accompany the choir this way!):

Monday, August 18, 2008

Does The Episcopal Church Really Value Adult Education?

Over at TitusOneNine, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon has written an important piece about adult education in The Episcopal Church. I think he hits the nail on the head. And with Fall programming kicking in just after Labor Day, it couldn't be more timely.

How can the Episcopal Church claim to be the thinking people’s church when so few parishes devote sufficient time to adult education on Sunday mornings?

It is a question worthy of much pondering. I think we should where at all possible give one hour to adult spiritual formation on the Lord’s day — but if you study how parishes actually function, the number who use this standard is precious few.

In some parishes there is little or no adult education to speak of on Sunday mornings, whereas there are such offerings for children. But following Christ is a life long call, and this approach won’t do.

Thankfully in the last two to three decades more and more parishes are offering adult education on the Sabbath day. But how much time do they give them?

I have here a parish newsletter from one of the largest parishes in the country, and on their Sunday morning schedule they offer several classes for 35 minutes.

You know how this works in practice. People come out of worship, people have struggles finding a parking spot, people need to use the rest room, and before you know it, 35 minutes becomes 25 or less in practice. But this is much less time than a typical college class, or an average session in a business seminar. Does this communicate a priority on adult education?

Other parishes do better and actually give 45 minutes. But again, one has to go beneath the surface in the parish to see how this actually functions in a number of instances. One quite vibrant parish comes to mind that has 45 minute classes, but in this parish the choir members leave after 30 minutes for Sunday morning choir practice. What does this communicate about priorities, never mind the distraction to other class members?

I believe one hour needs to be devoted to adult education, because even then with all the distractions on most Sunday mornings the time actually spent on the material is less, but it at least allows substantive engagement. Yes, parishes should use every considerable resource. By all means we should use different formats that taken into account the fact that adults learn in different ways than children do.

I realize, too, that some parishes have physical space constraints that make this amount of time impossible without unduly damaging the chance to worship.

But if we do not give it sufficient time, we communicate in our actions that it really isn’t a priority.

It is time for the church that claims to be the thinking person’s church to live into its own claims and devote a whole hour on the Sunday morning schedule to adult education of real quality and variety.

Imagine that—a church that claims to be for thinking people giving people real time to think on Sunday morning about what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. If it is really important to us can we do any less?

For original material from Titusonenine (such as articles and commentary by Dr. Harmon) permission to copy and distribute free of charge is granted, provided this notice, the logo, and the web site address are visible on all copies. For permission for use in for-profit publications, please email KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Bishop Gray's Post-Lambeth Conference Reflections

The Faith Forum in today's Clarion-Ledger is written by my bishop: the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III. In it, he shares some brief reflections on his experience at the recent Lambeth Conference, reflections which he also shared in greater detail with a gathering of clergy and laity this past Thursday at St. Andrew's Cathedral. Brief as this is, it does a good job of putting the struggles we have within the Episcopal Church into the larger perspective of what it's like to live the Christian faith in very different social and cultural contexts, including contexts in which being a Christian can be dangerous.

I recently returned from a gathering of Anglicans/Episcopal bishops from around the world. At this gathering in Canterbury, England, the site of St. Augustine's first missionary effort to the people of southern England, I listened to story after story of people seeking to be faithful in an extraordinary diversity of contexts.

I listened as one spoke of the challenges of being a Christian leader in a community in Pakistan controlled by the Taliban. Another spoke of the uphill battle in India trying to get the government to ease the discrimination against the untouchables, the caste that makes up much of the Church of South India.

I heard the story of a bishop jailed for seven months in Sudan and every morning being asked with a gun pointed at his head, "Are you still a Christian?"

I discovered the serious efforts at peace-making and reconciliation being carried on by the Church of South Korea seeking a reunification with families in North Korea.

The Church of Myanmar told of its struggles to provide assistance to cyclone victims even as its government refused to allow much needed supplies to be brought in from the outside.
And in much of the developing world the clergy, including many bishops, received no salary for their work.

In the midst of such witness, the sharing of my own frustrations about the several institutions I inhabit seemed rather like the whining of an overly pampered child. The faith lived in a post-modern secular culture has challenges rather different from the faith lived in front of a loaded gun.

At our closing service in the ancient Cathedral of Canterbury, the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, we placed the names of seven Melanesian Franciscan brothers on the altar in the Chapel of Contemporary Saints and Martyrs. In the early 1990s, their simple faith had led them to pitch their tents between two warring communities as a testimony to reconciliation. Their deaths were a witness to a peace that this world cannot give.

May we, in our own context, have the courage of such a witness in our day.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Insurrectionist God

Today's devotional from Forward Day by Day is a fitting one for this Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

FRIDAY, August 15
Saint Mary the Virgin

Luke 1:46-55. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. (RSV)

The Song of Mary, or Magnificat, often recited at Evening Prayer and sung at Evensong in Anglican churches, adds an unsettling twist to the popular picture of Mary as reticent, meek, surrounded by a warm glow, and dressed in pastel blue. It's true that Mary submitted to God-"I am the handmaid of the Lord"-but then she sang a song that has her God turning the world upside down,scattering the proud, knocking rulers off their thrones, and impoverishing the rich. Mary's God is an insurrectionist.

Those living in wealthy, powerful countries and assuming this is the God-approved order of things should be leery of Mary's God. Nations that use military force to impose their will, tell others how to order their lives and govern themselves, and enjoy luxurious comforts while others work in sweat shops or have no jobs at all might be living more dangerously than they know. Mary's act of obedience to God took her to unexpected places. If we are similarly obedient, where might it take us? And if we are not?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Creed: A Prayer and Love Song to God

In spite of a couple of glitches, Episcopal priest John H. Westerhoff offers a brief but insightful take on the meaning and role of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy.

The response to this conversation on the Word of God [in the sermon] is the Nicene Creed. No matter how much the sermon may have divided us, we are reunited as we pray this creed together. This creed begins: "We believe in," not "I believe." To believe in is to give our love and loyalty to the triune God revealed through the creed. The Christian faith is a way of life, more than the intellectual acceptance of particular doctrines or propositional truths. While this creed is the consequence of two ecumenical councils that met to address to potential heresies and to establish orthodox interpretations of scripture, it was understood to be "a symbol of the faith," reflecting our image of the nature and character of God, the God we will meet in the Holy Eucharist. To emphasize this intuitive approach to the creed, it was often sung. What better response to the hearing of God's Word is there than singing a love song to God in thanksgiving for God's mighty acts on behalf of our and the world's salvation?

John H. Westerhoff, Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People (Morehouse, 2004), p. 84.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Meaning of the Story

The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God's future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves into a final scream of desolation.

Nothing in all the history of paganism comes anywhere near this combination of event, intention, and meaning. Nothing in Judaism had prepared for it, except in puzzling, shadowy prophecy. The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel's destiny, the fulfillment of God's promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns.

Christianity is based on the belief that it was and is the latter.

N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 111.

Third Candidate for President

Looks like my cover has been blown.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"The Creeds Are Defective"

That's what the Rev. John Beverly Butcher of Pescadero, CA says in a letter published in the August 2008 issue of Episcopal Life.

Fr. Butcher first made a splash in the pages of Episcopal Life back in June 2008 when he argued that Episcopalians should drop the Nicene Creed from services because it impedes the “natural flow from the ministry of the word into prayer.” He also said that the Creed "is not an essential part of the shape of the liturgy.” I responded to Fr. Butcher on this blog by noting several ways in which the Creed is, indeed, a crucial part of the shape of the liturgy. And I concluded as follows:

We clergy have promised to be conformists. We have voluntarily relinquished all rights to ecclesial (and thus liturgical) disobedience. And when we willfully break that solemn vow, we should be held accountable by the Church. If there was accountability in our Church with this sort of thing, then priests who drop the Creed from the Sunday liturgy and commend doing so to others would be disciplined.

Now Fr. Butcher is making an even stronger negative statement about the Creeds. Here's his recent Episcopal Life letter:

Perhaps you have noticed that the creeds speak of the birth of Jesus and then of his death. There is no mention of the life of Jesus, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the healing power of Jesus

The heart of the gospel is missing. The creeds are defective and need to be taken out of service. Instead, let us proclaim clearly the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus, "The seed of true humanity is within you. Follow it!" Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) 4:5

I'll begin by simply noting that the Church Fathers and other early Christians would be surprised to learn that "the heart of the gospel is missing" in the Creeds. Perhaps even earlier than the second half of the second century - well before what we in the West now call the Apostles' Creed took the form in which we know it today, much less the final version of the Nicene Creed - various "rules of faith" which look a lot like the Apostles' Creed were widely used in preparing persons to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It's an understatement to say that these creedal formulas were regarded by the early Church as an indispensable means for the formation of new Christians and for the reaffirmation of the Church's faith by the baptized. From the beginning, "rules of faith" - and later, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds - were regarded by the Church as succinct, memorable formulations of what is, indeed, the heart of the Gospel. This carries over into late 19th and 20th Century Anglicanism with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral's affirmation (repeatedly reaffirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of The Episcopal Church) of "The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol" and "the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith."

In short, the Anglican tradition embraces the historic Creeds as indispensable means by which we know what is at the heart of the Gospel. So while we do, indeed, affirm (echoing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation and serve as the rule and ultimate standard of faith, the Creeds help us discern what exactly in Scripture is necessary to salvation, and what exactly in Scripture serves as the rule and ultimate standard of faith. As I have written before about the Nicene Creed: " ... like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it."

Fr. Butcher is, of course, correct to note that the Creeds do not include articles about Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power. He regards that omission as proof positive that the Creeds are "defective." However, he goes off track in drawing the conclusion that we should therefore jettison them. For the truth is that the Creeds were never intended to say everything important about Jesus. (I note that even the Gospel according to John says that about itself in chapter 21, verse 25. Should we therefore throw it out of the canon of Holy Scripture?)

The Apostles' Creed was not accepted for use in the Church, nor was the Nicene Creed hammered out over the course of the 4th Century, in order to displace the content of the Gospels concerning our Lord's life, teachings, and healing power. On the contrary, the Creeds and the Gospels are meant to supplement each other. They are not in competition. So Fr. Butcher's conclusion constitutes a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" argument.

And finally, I cannot help but note the significance of the fact that in his letter, Fr. Butcher's example of "clearly" proclaiming the Gospel takes a most interesting form: quoting the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene).

I find it puzzling that after Fr. Butcher expresses the concern that the Creeds omit Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, he chooses to quote a Gnostic rather than a canonical Gospel. Coupled with a call to jettison the historic Creeds, this choice takes on added significance in light of the fact that part of the purpose of codifying the "rules of faith" in the form we call the Apostles' Creed was to combat the heresy of Gnosticism (and the Nicene Creed builds upon that rejection of Gnosticism in addition to its rejection of other heresies). Plus, the Gnostic Gospels do not affirm what the Church means by (in Fr. Butcher's words) "the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus." On the contrary, they deny the full humanity of Jesus, his death by crucifixion, his bodily resurrection, and the Christian hope that our bodies (and all of God's good creation) will also be redeemed and transformed by resurrection.

In conclusion, I cite what I've written before about the Nicene Creed:

As "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith," the Nicene Creed underscores that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths. Christianity is not a recipe for relativism, nor does it affirm subjectivism. It's interesting in this regard to note that the English word "heresy" derives from the Greek hairein, meaning "to choose." The Creed reminds us that Christianity is not an individualistic, "pick and choose what you like and discard the rest" faith. ...

The faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong.

My concern is that the call to jettison the Creeds while quoting a Gnostic Gospel as a warrant for such an action constitutes a rejection of the boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith from other possible faiths. In its appeal to Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, such a move may appear like a good one to Christians who are committed to the this-worldly implications of the Gospel. But besides the fact that such a move opens the door for the private judgment of individual opinions to supplant the faith of the Church, it also sets up a false dichotomy - as though this-worldly and other-worldly hope do not constitute one hope. A thorough reading of N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008) provides a nice counterbalance to this error.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Anglican Aphorism

"Anglicanism is a particularly difficult place for those with a narrow view and an easy place for the apathetic."

attributed to Fr. Tony Clavier

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Something Christlike

John M. Buchanan is the editor and publisher of The Christian Century. His editorial for the July 29, 2008 issue is entitled "Something Christlike." In it, Buchanan shares how one Episcopal Church bounced back from the brink of closure by living into the Gospel mandate of Matthew 25:31-46. It's an inspiring story that shows what it means to take the work of the Church in the world seriously. It also touches on "the long emergency" of increasing energy costs, the repercussions of which all churches are going to have to find ways to address if we are going to be faithful to our Lord and have a relevant witness to the world.

The version of Christianity that appears in the media often embarrasses me: it's narrow, sectarian, exclusive and sometimes mean-spirited. So it was a joy to find in the May 26 New Yorker an article by novelist Ian Frazier about a church being a church in the best sense.

Frazier conducts a weekly writing workshop at a church soup kitchen in New York City, and he regularly encounters gifted men and women who, for one reason or another, are homeless and hungry. The Church of the Holy Apostles is a landmark, with a high arched ceiling and gorgeous stained-glass windows. Over the years the Episcopal congregation dwindled in size as the neighborhood changed until the 200 members could no longer afford to pay the bills to keep it going. A new rector suggested that "if Holy Apostles is going out of business, it might as well do some good before it does."

So in 1982 the church launched a free-lunch program. Thirty-five people showed up. The program grew and attracted more people and outside support. In a few years the congregation was serving 900 lunches daily and bursting the seams of its mission house.

In 1990, during roof repairs to the main sanctuary, a fire broke out that caused major damage. During insurance-covered restoration and renovation, and while the pews were out, members came up with an idea: Why not leave the pews out and use the worship space, which was empty and unused Monday through Friday, for the lunch program?

Now the church is serving 1,200 meals a day. Volunteers do most of the work. They take the tables down on Friday afternoon and set up folding chairs for the weekend. The budget is now $2.7 million, which comes from businesses, foundations, the city—and the 200 members, who, instead of closing down a church, are part of a vital and compelling community of faith.

The program rules are simple: no proselytizing and no one turned away. If anyone wants more food, that person can go outside, stand in line, get another ticket and eat again. Frazier asked Elizabeth Maxwell of the Holy Apostles staff about the religious motivation behind the program. She said: "Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There's no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and hungry and those in prison. . . . In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message—feed the hungry—could not be more clear. Those of us at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and wine of the Eucharist we share on Sunday becomes the food we share with our neighbors during the week."

There has long been an important debate in the church about whether its mandate is to feed the hungry or to address the social, economic and political structures that cause people to be hungry. We are in a major global food crisis, the reasons for which are complex—including the rising cost of oil, which has an impact on the cost of fertilizer and transportation. It is a crisis that ultimately will not be addressed by food aid. If you want to take Jesus' moral imperative seriously, sooner or later you have to think about politics and economics.

In the meantime, it is important that the world see in the church something of the kindness, compassion and justice of Jesus which is behind the advocacy for social and political change. It's a matter of both/and.

Maybe the world would find churches more interesting and compelling if they showed something of the love of Jesus in their lives and practices. Maybe there is no more important and life-giving strategy for every church than finding something Christlike to do.

Copyright 2006 CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Reproduced by permission from the July 29, 2008 issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

Spong's Phantom Religious Faith

After reading A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, Eric Von Salzen has posted a fantastic essay about John Shelby Spong over at "The Anglican Centrist." Besides accurately diagnosing the emptiness at the heart of Spong's theological vision, it's also a hope-filled reminder that every Episcopalian simply cannot be accounted for by the Right's blanket charge of The Episcopal Church's alleged heresy/apostasy.

Here's a portion of this fine essay.

What Bishop Spong is refuting is not Christianity, but some weird parody of Christianity that he has created in his own imagination. This is a simplistic, village atheist performance that isn’t even challenging enough to be interesting.

But what is interesting is that, having asserted that theism is dead, Bishop Spong can’t stop talking about God. He proclaims that “the reality of the God-experience overwhelms me every day of my life.” “I have walked beyond theism,” he says, “but not beyond God”. The reader may be perplexed – I am perplexed – about what the heck he is talking about when he speaks of a “post-theistic God, the God who is not a person but the source of that power that nurtures personhood”, a God that is “nebulous and yet as real as a holy presence”, “a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless”, “the reality underlying everything that is”, “the ultimate source of life”. Go figure.

Bishop Spong even argues that the death of theism needn’t deprive us of our Jesus. He asserts that “I cannot remember a time when Jesus was not important to me”. For him, he says, Christ “is the source of godly empowerment who calls me beyond my boundaries”; he is “not an example to follow”, but “a vision that compels”, “the doorway through which I enter the holiness of God”. This may not make much sense, but give Spong credit for one thing: Unlike some modern “followers of Jesus”, he avoids the cop-out of claiming that Jesus was a great moral teacher who we should follow but not deify. “The content of Jesus’ teaching,” Bishop Spong concedes, “was not terribly original.”

So, if Christ is not the Son of God (because there is no “theistic God” to be his Father), and if he was just run-of-the-mill as a moral teacher, how does Christ become a compelling vision, a doorway into the holiness of the post-theistic God? Bishop Spong’s answer seems to be simply that in our western culture, we’ve inherited “Jesus, who is called Christ” as “the primary symbol in our faith-story”, and the “Christ-figure will continue to be our central icon, the gift we have to offer the world.”

I puzzled over these assertions for several days after I finished this book, and I went back and re-read several parts of it to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I’ve concluded that Bishop Spong really means what he says. He really does feel a “God-experience” while he nevertheless denies the reality of a (theistic) God; he really does find that a First Century rabbi with nothing original to say is his “doorway” into “the holiness of [the non-theistic] God.” He’s apparently able to do this because he’s been steeped in religion – and particularly the Christian religion – his whole life. He finds that he can still enjoy the feeling of being Christian, can use the name of “Christian”, even though he’s rejected the substance of Christianity. I understand that a person who has had a limb amputated may continues to feel a phantom sensation as though the missing limb were still there. This may be something like what Bishop Spong feels about God and Christ.

Phantom religious faith may work for Bishop Spong, and it may work for some others, but I don’t think it can work for the church, not for long. I’m typing this post on my laptop. If I pull out the power plug, I can still continue to type for some period of time on battery power. But after a while, I must either plug back in, or my screen will go dark. You may be able to enjoy the God-experience for a while without God, but if you don’t plug back into the source of that experience, your screen will go dark.

Bishop Spong thinks that in the modern, secular era, “we” can no longer believe in a (theistic) God and a Christ who is the Son of that God. If Christianity is to survive, he claims, it must radically transform itself into the non-theistic faith he advocates. Yet when I look around, I find thriving churches that unapologetically worship the theistic God that Spong says is no longer viable in this age. If Spong were right, shouldn’t we see people flocking to “non-theistic” churches? Have I missed that? Try a little thought experiment with me. Suppose a new church were opened in your community, and the pastor announced that its services would “celebrate the long human journey from the first form of life in a single cell to the complexity of our modern, fearful, human self-consciousness.” (This is the liturgy of the future, according to Bishop Spong.) How many congregants do you think that church would have after six months?

I don’t dispute that Christian churches face a modernity challenge today. We sometimes use archaic language that fails to convey the true meaning of our faith to contemporary listeners. We sometimes hang on to practices and traditions that no longer make sense in today’s world. Some of our churches still revel in the glories of the Middle Ages, while others embrace the modern world up to, but not including, 1859. We do have to change, but we don’t have to give up God and we don’t have to give up Christ. Spong is wrong about that.

On the contrary. Rather than water down the Christian message to a mere “icon”, as Bishop Spong would have us do, we need to proclaim it with confidence. But we need to proclaim it in language that modern listeners can understand. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the first Christians the gift of languages, so they could speak the word of God to those around them, each in his own tongue. The language changed, but not the message.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Singing Against the Faith of the Church

While attending the recent Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, the choir sang a piece that really caught my attention. Entitled “In Remembrance,” it’s part of a larger Requiem whose music was written by Eleanor Daly. Requiem received the National Choral Award for Outstanding Choral Composition of the Year by the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors (ACCC) in May 1994. The music for “In Remembrance” is truly beautiful and moving. That alone would make this an attractive selection for funeral services.

However, there are problems with the words (which are attributed to an anonymous author):

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.

A Church anthem or hymn is not just a piece of music with words added on. First and foremost, a Church anthem or hymn is a theological text. And so its purpose – with the aid of music – is to teach and communicate the faith of the Church.

So, what kind of theology does the text for “In Remembrance” convey? And is that theology in sync with the faith of the Church?

By summing up the whole, the first two lines of the text go a long way towards answering these questions: “Do not stand at my grave and weep./I am not there, I do not sleep.” This is a clearly stated denial of the reality of death (which is more emphatically laid out in the last words: “I did not die”). According to this text, death is ultimately an illusion. It’s something that happens only to the body, not to the “real self” or soul. And so the “real self” transcends embodiment and lives on beyond the demise of the body.

At a surface level, this may seem comforting and pastorally appropriate for those who have lost loved ones in death. But, in somewhat Gnostic fashion, what it’s really saying is this: “Your grief is unfounded because your loved one hasn’t really died. He/she has just lost his/her body, which isn’t really who he/she is anyway. So grieving and crying are for those who don’t really understand the truth of what has happened. Death isn’t real. If you’re enlightened enough to see the reality behind the appearances, your grief will vanish.”

In other words, your grief, your pain, your tears, your suffering over the loss of a loved one - it's all a mistake.

If that’s true, then unless he was putting on a show, Jesus was wrong to have wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And our Prayer Book would also be wrong to affirm that grief is compatible with Christian faith because “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 507].

The text of “In Remembrance” entails a body/soul dualism which privileges the soul as superior to the body, and which envisions the soul as intrinsically immortal. But it goes a step further by envisioning what happens after apparent death as the dispersal of the “real self” or soul throughout the world. And so in addition to its Gnostic overtones, this text resonates more with a Hindu than with a Christian post-mortem vision. Huston Smith’s explication of this aspect of Hinduism resonates with the text of “In Remembrance”:

Underlying man’s personality and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is without limit in awareness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is not less than Brahman, the God-head [The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), p. 27].

Contrary to the view grounded in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the body is not an intrinsic part of the “real self” from this perspective. Smith explains: “In the Hindu view, spirit no more depends on the body it inhabits than body depends on the clothes it wears or the house it lives in. When we outgrow a suit or find our house too cramped we exchange these for roomier ones that offer our bodies freer play. Souls do the same” [ibid., p. 75].

While it is certainly true that a body/soul dualism found a niche within Christian theology, it’s also true that this dualism contradicts the biblical teaching that human beings are created in the image of God. Reformed theologian Shirley C. Guthrie explains:

In the Bible human beings are not essentially spiritual or physical. Whatever else our basic humanity is, it has to do with our whole being, spiritual and physical, body and soul in their inseparable interrelatedness. It is as embodied souls (or life) and besouled (or living) bodies that we are created in the image of God [Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 195; emphasis in text].

Along similar lines, Guthrie offers biblically-grounded reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the immorality of the soul which “In Remembrance” implicitly entails. It's worth quoting in full:

Biblically informed Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life. If the concept of the soul’s innate ‘divine’ immortality is unbiblically optimistic about the future that lies ahead of us, its contempt for the body is unbiblically pessimistic. The Bible does not teach that the body is a shell or prison in which we are trapped and from which we long to escape. It teaches that we are created and are body (male or female body!) as well as soul, and that bodily as well as spiritual life is willed and blessed by God. It also teaches that our hope for the future is not for the soul’s escape from bodily-physical life into some higher and better spiritual realm but for the renewal of our total human existence as embodied souls and besouled bodies. So it was with Jesus: The New Testament does not tell us that his soul left his body and "went home" to be with God; it tells us that God raised him b0dily from the dead and that the same earthly Jesus his disciples had known before (to be sure with a transformed "new" body) returned to the God from whom he had come. So it will be with us. … Biblical-Christian hope for the future is hope for human beings who are body and soul in their inseparable unity [ibid., pp. 380-381; emphasis in text].

The Christian hope is a far cry from any perspective which either denies the reality of death in all of its pain, tragedy, and ugliness, or which views human post-mortem existence in terms of disembodied eternal bliss and/or as the dissolving of selfhood into the ocean of being. For the Christian hope is centered on resurrection. And by definition, resurrection includes the body. Drawing on the 15th chapter of the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Anglican bishop of Durham N. T. Wright puts it like this:

This is ... a theology in which the present physical body is not to be abandoned, nor yet to be affirmed as it stands, but is to be transformed, changed from present humiliation to new glory (Philippians 3.21), from prsent corruption and mortality to new incorruption and immortality. This is indeed the defeat of death, not a compromise in which death is allowed to have the body while some other aspect of the human being (the soul? the spirit?) goes marching on [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 358].

In light of Guthrie’s Reformed theological perspective and the work of Anglican theologian N. T. Wright, I submit that the text of “In Remembrance” conveys a (perhaps somewhat confused) mixture of Platonic, Gnostic, and Hindu ideas about death and post-mortem existence that contradict the faith of the Church. It is therefore inappropriate for such a text to be used in the context of a Christian burial service.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Big Butter Jesus

For the second year in a row I've played this Heywood Banks song at the Mississippi Conference on Church Music & Liturgy's "Rose Hill Cabaret." It was a big hit again tonight.

The Image of God

A reading from a homily by Origen (c. 185 - c. 254):

Each of our souls contains a well of living water. Within it is buried the image of God. It is this same well that the hostile powers of the universe have blocked up with earth. But now that our Isaac has appeared - I mean Christ - so let us welcome this coming and dig out our wells, clearing out the earth and cleansing them of all impurities. In spite of all the accumulated pollution, we shall find in them living water, water of which the Lord says: "Those who believe in me, out of their belly shall flow streams of living water."

For the Word of God is present there, within us, and his work is to remove the earth from the soul of each of us, to let the springs of water within gush free. This spring is within you and does not come from outside, for "the kingdom of God is within you." Or to give another analogy from Scripture, the woman who had lost her silver coin found it not outside but inside her house. She lit her lamp, swept out the house, and there she found the silver coin. For your part, if you light your "lamp," if you make use of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, if "you see light in his light," then you too will find the silver coin within you. For the image of our heavenly king is within us.

When God created human beings in the beginning, he made them "in his own image and likeness." He does not imprint this image exteriorly on us, but within us. It could not be seen in you as long as your house was dirty, full of junk and rubbish. But once you let the Word of God clear the great pile of earth that is weighing down your soul, then the image of the heavenly king will again shine out in you.

The maker of this image is the Son of God. And he is a craftsman of such surpassing skill that though his image may indeed become obscured by our neglect, it can never be destroyed by evil. The image of God always remains within you.

Clergy Day 2008

After attending Clergy Day at the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy for four consecutive years, I found this year to be the most rewarding.

It began with the Rev. Susan Anderson-Smith guiding us through a discussion on “Presiding as Pastoring.” Drawing on Paul Galbreath’s Leading from the Table (The Alban Institute, 2008), we talked about the basic characteristics of the Eucharistic prayer:

2. It is BIBLICAL.
3. It is a STORY.
4. It is COMMUNAL.
5. It is PHYSICAL.
6. It is characterized by a sense of EXPECTANCY.

That flowed directly into a discussion of the ways that leadership at the Eucharistic table

1. Requires a sense of TRANSPARENCY,
2. Requires a sense of PRESENCE,
3. Grows out of a sense of EMBODIMENT,
4. Grows out of a distinctive NARRATIVE dimension of prayer, and
5. Grows out of the conviction that prayer at the table provides a PATTERN for our lives.

Susan then drew on Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell’s Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning (The Alban Institute, 2005) to help us reflect on how we plan for worship in our parishes and who is involved in planning, with special attention given to the need for appropriate collaboration. This could involve a worship planning leadership team that includes the rector, the church musician, the music staff, worship assistants, artistic staff, and others (including the altar guild, vergers, sextons, ushers, sound and video technicians, etc.).

The resources Susan offered, and the discussion it generated, was very helpful for thinking through the purpose of why we do what we do – and how to go about it – when we gather for worship.

After lunch, I helped facilitate an “Iron Musician” planning exercise with the two other faculty persons for this year’s conference: Michael Kleinschmidt and Michael Messina. Taking our cue from the popular Iron Chef television program, we broke the conferees and visiting clergy down into five groups. Using as their primary ingredient the RCL Propers assigned for a Sunday in Year B (including Advent 2, Epiphany 1, Lent 3, Easter 4, and Proper 10), and bearing in mind any special events or activities taking place in their hypothetical parish, their assignment was to collaboratively plan the music for Sunday worship in 30 minutes.

After the time was up, members of each small planning group shared with the entire conference their group process. How did they start digging into the task? Why did they choose the particular hymns and anthems for that Sunday? How did activities in the life of the parish shape their process and the choices they made? What were the group dynamics like between participants?

I thought that this exercise did a good job of modeling appropriate collaboration between clergy, church musicians, and choristers. It also stimulated a rich discussion of the dangers of falling into the “idolatry” of either singing the same hymns all the time without ever trying anything new, or becoming so focused on finding new music that our fixation on novelty and innovation causes us to lose sight of the core purpose of why we plan in the first place: to worship God.

We also had time to sing a number of hymns from a variety of sources, including Wonder, Love, and Praise, Voices Found, With One Voice, New Hymns and Songs, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship. For anyone who primarily uses the 1982 Hymnal, the hymn singing provided an opportunity to broaden one’s experience and become aware of a lot of great music out there that can be easily sung by choirs and congregations.

Clergy Day was a fun way to engage issues around the most important work we do: the liturgy of the Church. If you missed it, be sure and put it on your calendar for next year.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thoughts on the Idea of an Anglican Covenant

I've seen that (among other major issues this weekend) the bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference will be looking at the "Anglican Covenant."

Speaking of the so-called "Anglican Covenant," Fr. Jones' recent piece at the Anglican Centrist suggests a good question: why not just go with The Five Marks of Mission affirmed by the Anglican Consultative Council back in 1984?
  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
Why can't these marks of mission be a sufficient basis for a covenant? After all, they mirror the five vows we make in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer's Baptismal Covenant.

But someone might object that these five marks are not sufficiently specific when it comes to doctrine.

While I would agree about the need for more specific doctrinal content, I would also respond to such an objection by asking: Why can't the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral - affirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of The Episcopal Church - be a sufficient basis for staking out the doctrinal norms and boundaries of our common life as Anglicans? After all, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral not only affirms that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God that contain all things necessary to salvation; it also says that the Apostles' Creed is the "Baptismal symbol" and the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith." What more doctrine do you need to be an orthodox Anglican?

Why can't we simply reaffirm what we've already affirmed as Anglicans: the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and "The Five Marks of Mission"? Why can't what we've already agreed upon - what is already part of our inheritance as a global communion - be the sufficient basis for a "covenant"?

I've been struggling with the proposals for an "Anglican Covenant," and the more I think about it, the more I think that between "The Five Marks of Mission" and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the primary reason for insisting on anything else is to gain leverage to exercise some kind of power and control over others (particularly those with whom one disagrees).

Besides being a bad idea, that's also not Anglican.

Furthermore, it's a recipe for "being in communion" already available in other Christian churches that reject the comprehensiveness of the creedal (as opposed to confessional) orthodoxy of the Anglican tradition.

We live in strange times when Anglicans ask Anglicans to sacrifice our identity as Anglicans in order to maintain our identity as Anglicans.