Friday, February 27, 2009

Keeping a Holy Lent

Lent is all about preparing to receive the power of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection. While penitence, fasting, and self-denial are major themes of this season, joy, love, and renewal also characterize Lent.

In the invitation to keep a holy Lent (BCP, p. 265), the Prayer Book invites us to observe the following practices to help prepare us in body, mind, and spirit for the joyful celebration of Easter:

Self-examination and repentance
We look at our lives – at things done and left undone – in light of the 10 Commandments and the Baptismal Covenant. Where we have fallen short of the mark, we ask for God’s forgiveness. We ask for God’s help to walk in newness of life. We may also make a confession to a priest using the rite for "The Reconciliation of a Penitent" (BCP, pp. 447-452). And we do all of this in the assurance that we have been redeemed by the dying and rising of Jesus Christ.

“Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words” (BCP, p. 856). The 40 days of Lent provide a unique opportunity for us to more deliberately respond to God, both in corporate worship and in making time each day (even just 5 minutes) for personal prayer.

Fasting is about abstaining from certain foods or behaviors to allow the body to regain its God-given orientation to health and wholeness. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two fast days of the Church calendar year. On those days, we are invited to abstain wholly or partially from all or certain foods.

Self-denial is another form of fasting that can be practiced throughout Lent. The operative question here is: “What foods or behaviors do I overindulge, that stand in the way of my relationship with God, and that I need to cut back on or cut out completely?”

Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word
God speaks to us in unique ways through the Bible. Follow the Daily Office lectionary, or pick one of the Gospels to read daily, and let the Holy Spirit shape your life more and more in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

These practices of preparation are time-tested ways for cultivating a deeper relationship with God. Experiment with these practices and find what works for you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Penitence and the Love of Christ

Appropriate reflections on Ash Wednesday from Charles Chapman Grafton:

What hinders the spiritual advance of so many? 'Why is it,' said a holy man, 'that so many Christians seem to be walking up and down on a level terrace, and ever remaining where they are in the spiritual life, without advancement?' After much consideration he concluded, because they were lacking in abiding sorrow for sin, a fear of its little beginnings, a hatred of all that is connected with it, and a humble trust in Christ's acceptance and the cleansing of His precious Blood. But how natural is it, having experienced Christ's loving pardon and our acceptance, and possession of His peace, to think no more of the past. It should be remembered as a ground of our faith, as we realize the mercy of its great deliverance. He has plucked us as brands from the burning. He has opened His arms and gathered us into their safety, as our true City of Refuge. However great our sins may be, He knows them all, and He who knows us, forgives and loves us, and we can trust that love.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tírechán’s Creed

A while back I attended an ecumenical service. Much of the liturgy used Celtic sources. The affirmation of faith was Tírechán’s Creed from the Book of Armagh:

Our God is the God of all humans,
the God of heaven and earth,
the God of sea and rivers,
the God of sun and moon,
the God of all the heavenly bodies,
the God of the lofty mountains,
the God of the lowly valleys.

God inspires all things,
gives life to all things,
stands above all things,
and stands beneath all things.

God has a Son who is co-eternal with himself;
and similar in all respects to himself;
and neither is the Son younger than the Father,
nor is the Father older than the Son;
and the Holy Spirit breathes in them.
And the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are inseparable. Amen.

Much of this is lovely. But what I find curious is its incompleteness. Note just some of what it leaves out:

  1. The Lordship of Jesus
  2. The Incarnation of Jesus
  3. The Virgin Mary
  4. The crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus
  5. The resurrection of Jesus
  6. The ascension of Jesus
  7. The return of Jesus
  8. Final judgment
  9. The Church
  10. Forgiveness of sins
  11. The resurrection of the dead
  12. Everlasting life

I really don’t understand why this particular creed would be used in the place of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. Given what it leaves out, this creed doesn’t even skim the surface of the Christian faith in its fullness.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Recovering from Secularism

David Brooks is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. I just came across an interesting essay he wrote back in 2003 in which he proposes a six-step program for "kicking the secularist habit."

Here's the opening to the essay:

Like a lot of people these days, I'm a recovering secularist. Until September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.

It's now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom.

Islam is surging. Orthodox Judaism is growing among young people, and Israel has gotten more religious as it has become more affluent. The growth of Christianity surpasses that of all other faiths. In 1942 this magazine published an essay called "Will the Christian Church Survive?" Sixty years later there are two billion Christians in the world; by 2050, according to some estimates, there will be three billion. As Philip Jenkins, a Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, has observed, perhaps the most successful social movement of our age is Pentecostalism (see "The Next Christianity," October Atlantic). Having gotten its start in Los Angeles about a century ago, it now embraces 400 million people—a number that, according to Jenkins, could reach a billion or more by the half-century mark.

Moreover, it is the denominations that refuse to adapt to secularism that are growing the fastest, while those that try to be "modern" and "relevant" are withering. Ecstatic forms of Christianity and "anti-modern" Islam are thriving. The Christian population in Africa, which was about 10 million in 1900 and is currently about 360 million, is expected to grow to 633 million by 2025, with conservative, evangelical, and syncretistic groups dominating. In Africa churches are becoming more influential than many nations, with both good and bad effects.

Secularism is not the future; it is yesterday's incorrect vision of the future. This realization sends us recovering secularists to the bookstore or the library in a desperate attempt to figure out what is going on in the world. I suspect I am not the only one who since September 11 has found himself reading a paperback edition of the Koran that was bought a few years ago in a fit of high-mindedness but was never actually opened. I'm probably not the only one boning up on the teachings of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

There are six steps in the recovery process.

Here are Brooks' six steps to recovering from secularism:
  1. Accepting the fact that, as a Westerner, you are not the norm.
  2. Confronting fear.
  3. Getting angry.
  4. Resisting the impulse to find a materialistic explanation for everything.
  5. Acknowledging that you've been too easy on religion.
  6. Understanding that this country (the USA) has never been very secular.
Read it all.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Jesus the Compassion of God

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany

RCL, Year B: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Listen here.

It was a surefire thing: somebody was going to hit us up for money.

I’m not talking about the fall stewardship campaign. I’m talking about my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In the midst of so many sights and sounds and experiences, the one constant was the drive to make a buck. It was bad enough in Galilee, but it was particularly intense in Jerusalem. Walking down the narrow, uneven streets of the Old City, we Americans might as well have had neon flashing signs above our heads saying, “American! Sell me something!” I learned quickly to not make eye contact with the shopkeepers. As soon as you did that, they’d immediately start in on you, “Come into my shop. I have very nice things for you. Here, I give this to you for $5.” Even without making eye contact, some of them were aggressive enough to walk out into the street and start touching and prodding us, saying, “Here! Here! Come into my shop!” An orthodox Jew even hit me up for money just feet away from the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

I’m willing to bet that 2,000 years ago, Jerusalem wasn’t much different. It was a pilgrimage site back then, too, and whenever pilgrims come to town, the shopkeepers will be there to aggressively hawk their wares.

Jesus would have encountered the same kinds of sales pitches we did. But Jesus also had something else to deal with, something that started at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. The first chapter of the gospel according to Mark is filled with stories of Jesus’ power to heal sickness and exorcise demons. And it didn’t take long for the word to spread. Throngs of people keep showing up, crowding Jesus and touching Jesus and grabbing Jesus, begging him to help them. The demands are so endless that, at one point, Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat (cf. Mk 3:20). But in spite of the overwhelming demands on his time and energy, Jesus consistently responds with compassion.

Today’s gospel reading offers a particularly striking example. A leper comes to Jesus begging and kneeling at his feet, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). Mark’s account of Jesus’ response is all the more powerful for being so brief: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Mk 1:41).

Martin Luther once called John 3:16 the Gospel in a nutshell. I think that’s right. But I’ve come to believe that the encounter between Jesus and this leper also offers the Gospel in a nutshell. Let’s explore what it has to say to us.

A few words about the social context set the stage.[1] This encounter between Jesus and the leper takes place in a world in which the concern to maintain ritual and moral purity is paramount. As God’s chosen people, the law commanded the Jews to be holy as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 19:12). And the dominant view was that holiness meant separation from people, places, and things considered dirty or unclean. Jewish society was organized around the opposition between pure and impure, clean and unclean. The two were never supposed to come together. So Jewish law established purity boundaries to sustain and give legitimacy to an entire social hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid were the priests and the Levites. In descending order of purity, they were followed by common Israelites, converts to Judaism, persons of illegitimate birth, and, at the bottom of the heap, the maimed, the sick, and the disfigured.

Behavior also played an important role in the purity system. There was a close correlation between following the purity rules and being considered a good person. Jews who meticulously observed the purity laws were considered “righteous.” Those who weren’t so meticulous, or who bucked the system, were “sinners.”

But there was more. Accidents of fate and fortune also defined one’s purity status. Things like good physical health, masculinity, wealth, and Jewishness were all considered signs of purity and therefore signs of righteousness. Conversely, things like chronic or progressive illness, femininity, poverty, and being a Gentile were understood as unclean and therefore sinful.

This is where the leper in today’s gospel reading comes in. Leprosy is a chronic illness, so he was unclean. That’s why Jewish law mandates that folks like him live alone, isolated from other persons. Contact with a leprous person would contaminate the community, passing the leper’s impurity over to otherwise clean persons. And so lepers were supposed to yell out, “Unclean, unclean!” to warn others to stay away from them and thus minimize the possibility of unwanted contamination.

But notice what our leper does. He completely blows off this biblical rule. Instead of staying away from Jesus, he walks right up to him and kneels at his feet. Instead of shouting out “Unclean!” he says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Talk about chutzpah!

What made it possible for this man to do this? Everything in his world – his society and culture, his family, his religion – they all communicated the same messages: “You are unclean.” "You're a sinner." “You are contaminated.” “You don’t belong.” “Nobody wants you.” “You are doomed to suffer and die in seclusion.” The full weight of the purity system’s social hierarchy bears down upon this man to keep him in his place. But somehow, in spite of all the messages of condemnation and rejection, in spite of the clearly-defined boundaries to keep him isolated, this man finds the courage to do the one thing that changes everything: he goes to Jesus.

Jesus’ response to this leper cuts straight to the heart of Mark’s vision of what the Gospel is all about. Instead of reinforcing the messages of condemnation and rejection, Jesus says to the leper, “I do choose to heal you.” And in saying that, Jesus also says: “You are worthy of healing.”

But Jesus doesn’t just talk to the leper. Jesus does something absolutely unthinkable for his day: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41).

Moved with pity, filled with compassion, Jesus touched the untouchable. He could have kept a safe distance, said, “Be clean!” and been done with it. But moved with pity, Jesus touched him and restored him to wholeness. Touching the leper, Jesus breaks the law and takes upon himself all of the leper’s stigma and contamination. Touching the leper, Jesus becomes impure, dirty, and – in the eyes of the purity system – sinful and unholy. And he does it willingly and knowingly and lovingly.

My friends, Jesus the Christ embodies the compassion of God. In Jesus, we see God reaching out to touch those places in our lives and in our hearts that are wounded, that are sick, that need healing. In Jesus, we see God suffering with us and for us, taking upon Himself all of the anguish, all of the fear, all of the loneliness and desperation that keep us locked up in our own private hells. In Jesus, we see God meeting us right where we are and as we are – with all of our conflicted motives, our successes and our failures, our virtues and our vices, our strengths and our weaknesses. In Jesus, we see God’s defiance of unjust social and religious systems that classify some people as worthless in order to restore their dignity. In Jesus, we see God’s will to free us from all that binds us so that we may live lives of freedom and joy and service to others.

Jesus is willing and able to touch us and to heal us and to set us free. It might not always be the kind of healing that we want. Healing doesn’t always mean “cure.” Indeed, sometimes the healing we receive is the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.

But the bottom lines is this: all of us have things in our lives that need healing, that cause us pain, that keep us from living the abundant life that God wills for us in Jesus Christ. Will we suffer in silence? Will we try and do it all on our own? Will we kowtow to messages that tell us we are worthless, that we have to be “perfect” before God will accept us, and that we don’t belong? Or will we follow the example of the leper who defies all the odds to kneel at the feet of Jesus? Will we let Jesus touch us and love us into wholeness?

I believe that Jesus can do that right here, in this place and among these people of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Whether this is your first or your thousandth time attending this church, there is a place here where you belong, a place where you will be accepted and nurtured in your spiritual growth, a place where you can experience God’s healing and empowering presence.

So let Jesus touch you. Let Jesus touch you in the liturgy and the music of our worship. Let Jesus touch you in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Let him touch you in our Christian formation offerings. Let him touch you in the fellowship we share with one another. Let him touch you in our many outreach ministries to the poor, the hungry, and the needy.

If you do, He will change your life.

[1] For the social context, I’m drawing on Marcus J. Borg’s discussion of the purity system in the social world of first century Judaism in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 50-53.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Don't You Wish It Was True

I don't know what his religious views are, but in this song rock legend John Fogerty touches on matters that find fulfillment in the Christian hope.

Enrolled in a Story

"To be a Christian is to be enrolled in a story that gives to each person and to the community a sense of identity and purpose which transcends the remembered experiences of those who worship at any given time and place. Faith that can only witness to events within the parentheses of one's own birth and death is undernourished and poorly resourced."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sacred Destinations

I recently discovered a cool website called "Sacred Destinations." I've found it helpful to consult as I've been putting together slide show presentations of my photos from the Holy Land. And I can see how it would be an ideal site to consult while planning a trip.

Here's what the homepage says:

Nearly every culture in human history has sought to honor the divine, the mysterious, the supernatural or the extraordinary in some way. Most often this happens at sacred sites: special places where the physical world seems to meet the spiritual world. These might be awe-inspiring natural places, sites connected to a god, saint or hero, places where miracles occurred, or buildings consecrated for worship or ritual.

Sacred sites are spiritually meaningful to millions today and the ancient practice of pilgrimage is as popular as it ever was. But you don't have to be a believer to recognize that holy places, religious buildings, and sacred art are some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you'll encounter in your travels. After all, because of the great importance of the sacred, they have been lavished with the very best in artistic skill, materials, time and labor that humanity has to offer.

Sacred Destinations is an ecumenical guide to more than 1,250 sacred sites, holy places, pilgrimage destinations, religious buildings and sacred artworks in 61 countries around the world. In addition to richly illustrated articles, we offer photo galleries containing over 24,000 high-quality images plus detailed maps and lots of practical travel information. It is a big project that is being expanded almost daily. Happy exploring!

Check it out.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We Get a Name in Baptism

Occasionally I pull a copy of a book by Thomas Merton off my shelf and flip through it. I'm almost always amazed by what I find. Even if it's a passage I've read many times before, it speaks to me in a new way. The following passage does that for me by offering a fresh angle of interpretation for what it means when a priest or bishop marks the forehead of a newly baptized Christian with oil of chrism while saying the words, "N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).

When suffering comes to put the question: "Who are you?" we must be able to answer distinctly, and give our own name. By that I mean we must express the very depths of what we are, what we have desired to be, what we have become. All these things are sifted out of us by pain, and they are too often found to be in contradiction with one another. But if we have lived as Christians, our name and our work and our personality will fit the pattern stamped in our souls by the sacramental character we wear.

We get a name in baptism. That is because the depths of our soul are stamped, by that holy sacrament, with a supernatural identification which will eternally tell us who we were meant to be. Our baptism, which drowns us in the death of Christ, summons upon us all the sufferings of our life: their mission is to help us work out the pattern of our identity received in the sacrament.

If, therefore, we desire to be what we are meant to be, and if we become what we are supposed to become, the interrogation of suffering will call forth from us both our own name and the name of Jesus. And we will find that we have begun to work out our destiny which is to be at once ourselves and Christ.

Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island (1955)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

182nd Annual Council of the Diocese of Mississippi

I'm just back from our annual diocesan council meeting held this year in Hattiesburg. It was fairly low key (with no controversial or problematic resolutions like we had last year). As always, it was a wonderful time to reconnect with clergy and lay brothers and sisters that I don't often see.

Council's theme this year was reconciliation, which is one of the parts of Bishop Gray's vision for the diocese first articulated at a tent meeting in August 2005: "One Church in Mission: Inviting, Transforming, Reconciling." And so most of the reports centered on the ways in which our diocese is involved in ministries of reconciliation.

For me, the most powerful part of council was our guest of honor: the Right Reverend Ezekiel Diing Ajang Malang of Sudan. Here's part of what our diocesan website says:

Bishop Ezekiel was consecrated Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Bor in southern Sudan in 2004. Because of the rapid growth of the Diocese of Bor, the Anglican Archbishop of Sudan asked Bishop Ezekiel to lead an effort to establish a new diocese in the neighboring region of Twic.

This new diocese, to be named East Twic, “will need considerable infrastructure before being formally received as a diocese in the Province of Sudan,” stated the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III. It is from the Diocese of Bor and the region of Twic that so many of our Jackson Sudanese come.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, approximating the size of Europe, with a population of 40 million people, 500 ethnic and tribal divisions and 50 distinct languages. The country has been embroiled in a long running civil war grounded in the political, economic and social domination of the non-Muslim, non-Arab Southern Sudanese people, many of whom have sought sanctuary in African refugee camps for years in order to survive the civil war.

Bishop Gray III wishes to establish a relationship with Bishop Ezekiel and the Church’s effort to form the Diocese of Twic East which compliments and adds to the existing ministry the Diocese of Mississippi has with the Sudanese people taking refuge in the diocese.

Bishop Diing's wife Rebecca, and their 5-month-old son, also came to Mississippi. It was their first trip to this part of the world. Last Thursday, Bishop Gray baptized Bishop Diing's son at St. Andrew's Cathedral (Bishop Diing and his wife gave their son the Christian name "Paul"). In responding to the question "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?" by saying, "We will", we acknowledged the general principle that, for all Christians, baptism is thicker than blood. But it was also another particular way for us to forge a deeper relationship in Christ with our Sudanese brothers and sisters.

My wife attended the clergy spouse luncheon, and Bishop Diing's wife Rebecca attended as well. She told the spouses that coming to the Diocese of Mississippi was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, and that when she returned home to Sudan, she would dream about each of the persons sitting at her table.

Meeting in council under the shadow of the economic recession and its impact on our personal lives and on our Church's mission and ministry, the presence of Bishop Diing and his family was a sign of hope. Looking at pictures of the people from his diocese, hearing of their sufferings and their triumphs, and seeing the churches they've built that house thousands of worshipers on Sundays - it puts our economic challenges and theological divisions in a much bigger and better perspective. And so their visit challenged us to look beyond our own situations and fears to how we can give of ourselves in evangelism, mission, and outreach.

"We're all in this together," Bishop Gray said in his opening address and repeatedly throughout this council. May we own and grow into that truth more and more.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liturgy as Primary Theology

Back when I was working on my "Anglican Studies" certificate at The School of Theology in Sewanee, TN, I took a Liturgical Traditions class taught by Neil Alexander (now the bishop of Atlanta). We were required to write a book review, and I choose to do so on Aidan Kavanagh's book On Liturgical Theology. I was very pleased to receive an A+ for my review with the comments: "One of the fairest, clearest, most complete reviews I have read of AK, including the published works." In spite of my critical assessment of the book, I still think that it is a great resource for thinking through what it means to affirm the principle that praying shapes believing.

On Liturgical Theology. By Aidan Kavanagh. Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical Press, 1992. xiii + 205 pages.

For persons trained in the oftentimes abstract and technical language of philosophical and Christian ethics, a reorientation to the grassroots level of Christian identity can be a welcome change in perspective. After all, before we are Christian theologians and ethicists we are simply Christians. And being Christian makes no sense apart from the shared practices, languages, symbols, rituals, memories, and hopes of the Church. If we forget this order of priority and value, our work as Christian theologians and ethicists may fail to connect with the life-world of the Church – that web of relationships, practices, and beliefs which form and sustain the Church as a worshiping community of faith. Such lack of integration between theory and practice entails the alienation of theology from the Church, to the detriment of both.

Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology seeks to provide a critical account of why a bifurcation between theory (academic theology) and practice (liturgy) stymies the Church’s faithful witness to and worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Kavanagh’s argument concerning the role and function of liturgy in the life of the Church and theological reflection is at times insightful and at times outrageous. Either way, he challenges readers to think critically about the place of liturgy in the life of the Church. Rather than simply rehash the terrain Kavanagh covers in each chapter of the book, I want to focus on a few central ideas for the sake of examining the strengths and weaknesses of his argument. In particular, I will focus on Kavanagh’s distinction between primary and secondary theology, and the moral implications that follow from his understanding of liturgy.

Primary versus Secondary Theology
Perhaps the central contribution of Kavanagh’s book is his distinction between primary and secondary forms of theology. Most people think of theology as primarily the domain of academically trained professionals. As such, theological discourse seems far removed from everyday experience both within and outside of the Church. According to this widely-held view, the experience and effects of the liturgical acts of worship can be understood as theology in at best a secondary sense only.

Kavanagh argues, however, that this puts the cart before the horse. Theology understood in the academic sense as systematic reflection on religious experience and the exposition of doctrine constitutes theology in a secondary sense (theologia secunda). As such, academic theology is a second-order discursive reflection on the primary experience of liturgy. It is not the case that the disciples first engaged in theological reflection on the resurrection as a means of reaching the conclusion that “Jesus is Lord.” On the contrary, Kavanagh would insist on just the opposite scenario: the disciples responded to the resurrection by proclaiming in worshipful adoration that “Jesus is Lord.” Only subsequently were the theological implications spelled out in doctrines and creeds. Liturgical response to God in Christ preceded theological articulation of the doctrinal meaning of God in Christ.

It follows that academic theology, properly understood and practiced, grows out of the liturgical action of worship. Liturgy is the root of the Church, Jesus Christ the vine, disciples are the branches, and theological reflection is one of the fruits. The fruits cannot take the place of the root, bur rather are dependent upon the root for their very existence. Put differently, the liturgical praxis of the Christian community is the seedbed for the more cognitive and reflective aspects of belief. Although Kavanagh acknowledges that theory (academic theology) informs and shapes practice (liturgy), he takes a consistently negative view of an overly dialogical interplay between the two. “Secondary theology,” he writes, “even at its best, seems to approach the liturgical worship of Christians with a certain condescension” as though worship exists “to serve secondary theology” (p. 90; emphasis added). The shoe should be on the other foot, with secondary theology subordinated to and restrained by the actual practices of liturgy.

Kavanagh’s conception of primary theology provides a warrant for the patristic maxim: lex orandi est lex credendi et agenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief and action). “In keeping with this principle,” notes theologian Christopher Morse, “dogmatic statements are often said to be ‘doxological,’ in that if they truly are teachings decreed by God they praise God and do not simply state information about God.”[1] Adoration precedes assent to dogmatic propositions. This is the reason why Kavanagh insists that “orthodoxy,” rightly understood, “means first ‘right worship’ and only secondarily doctrinal accuracy” (p. 3).

The distinction between primary and secondary theology grounds Kavanagh’s understanding of the liturgy as the “church’s faith in motion” (p. 8). Through liturgical praxis, Kavanagh maintains, the Church engages in “an ecclesial transaction with reality” (p. 88). This bears an affinity with the pragmatic and dialogical conception of liturgy articulated by Marjorie Proctor-Smith:

To be precise, the liturgy claims that when its work is being done, participants are engaging in dialogue with God. The claim of encounter with God gives the liturgical event its power and its truth. Liturgical “truth,” then, is not at all an abstract or purely intellectual truth, but an engaged, embodied, and particular truth, a truth that cannot only be talked about, but must be done.[2]

Liturgical truth is not a static “thing” or set of abstract concepts and doctrines. Rather, liturgy emphasizes the performative character of truth. The truth of Christian faith is more fundamentally something that Christians do rather than something Christians merely believe or give intellectual assent to. As the active expression of Christian faith, liturgy mediates a “graced commerce” between God and human beings in the Church (p. 120).

The experience of doing liturgy or primary theology, Kavanagh argues, brings worshipers “to the edge of chaos” (p. 73). Using finite objects, symbols, language, and gestures, liturgy provides a window through which persons catch a glimpse of the mysterium tremendum – a God whose presence both sustains and limits possibilities for human fulfillment. Liturgy, in other words, provides an experiential warrant for the biblical claim that human life is fundamentally dependent upon and claimed by God. Liturgical experience thus unmasks “the sovereign individual” – that concept so central to the modern ideology of liberal society – as an illusory attempt to evade the sovereign claim of God (p. 26). Inevitably, Kavanagh maintains, liturgical experience changes people in both conscious and unconscious ways (p. 76). In response to the awe-ful reality of the One to whom the Church addresses its liturgical practices, the worshiping assembly undergoes a process of adjustment and adaptation. The process accounts for the evolution of liturgy over time.

Liturgy and Ethics
Another strength of Kavanagh’s book is his insistence that liturgy – the worship of God – is an end in itself (p. 152). As an intrinsic good, liturgy must not be reduced to serving therapeutic or instrumental ends. Kavanagh rails at the loss of liturgy’s integrity in a world in which goods and ends are subordinated to the desires and preferences of “the sovereign individual” (p. 26). Under such conditions, the Church loses its power to effectively witness to the way of life called into being by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a way of life at odds with the desires and values of a world driven by violence and materialism.

As a Christian ethicist, I find Kavanagh’s attempt to articulate a balanced relationship between liturgy and the moral life laudable. Kavanagh rejects the view that liturgy and the moral life are completely unrelated. This view reinforces an escapist view of worship in which liturgy insulates persons from the joys and sufferings of the world. Such alienation of liturgy from everyday life lends credence to the Marxist charge that religion provides an opiate for the masses or to the Freudian view of religion as an infantile illusion. At the same time, Kavanagh resists construing liturgy as merely a function of ethics. This runs the risk of making liturgy relevant while simultaneously usurping God – the supreme center of value – to human goods and utility values. Kavanagh clearly does not want to reduce the Church to just another special interest group or lifestyle enclave. On the contrary, Kavanagh is bold enough to proclaim that, without the liturgical witness of the Church, the world cannot know itself as sinful and abnormal in God’s sight.

Citing the baptismal writings of Basil of Cappadocia, Kavanagh suggests that a renewed sense of liturgy as the fundamental theological practice of the Church entails two moral implications that pit the Christian way of life against the ways of the world. These include “evangelical poverty” – or the renunciation of the pursuit of wealth – and a commitment to “nonviolence or nonresistance to evil” (p. 156). Both of these norms, Kavanagh argues, follow from the liturgical act of baptism. Orthodoxy (right praise) defines orthopraxy (right action). Baptism provides a ritual gateway for living into “the tension between love of God’s world and adamant critique of what we have made of it” (p. 7). When the Christian life resolves this tension in favor of love for the world, the Church loses any vantage point from which to critically evaluate worldly practices. Orthodoxia – right praise of God in the community of faith – provides the lens for rightly seeing, interpreting, and responding to a world that, in its violence and lust for wealth, remains “abnormal by its own choice” (p. 159). The Church’s failure to live the connection between praise and praxis – and to require its members to live this way – is a sign that liturgically grounded Christian moral norms have been compromised in the interests of peace with the world.

Critical Response
As a basis for his conception of primary theology, Kavanagh claims that participation in liturgical acts effects “deep change” in the lives of participants by bringing them “to the edge of chaos” and back (p. 73). This appeal to the language of “chaos” clouds more than it clarifies about the nature of liturgical practices as the primary theology of the Church. One may concede that participation in liturgy effects deep change. The real question is whether or not a conception of “chaos” helps make the case. Empirically speaking, it is difficult to see a connection between a highly structured Anglican or Catholic liturgy and any experience of “chaos.” If anything, such liturgical traditions run the risk of routinizing the mysterium tremendum of God’s presence. Kavanagh’s argument might make more sense in churches whose worship life entails a fundamental posture of openness to the Spirit (e.g., many Pentecostal and Holiness churches where persons are “slain in the Spirit” and/or handle snakes).[3] Far less dramatic and more in accord with experience is the claim that repetitive acts performed over the course of a substantial period of time form habits that shape virtues (or vices) of character. An Aristotelian/Thomistic moral perspective provides a better framework for understanding the pragmatic effects of liturgical acts than this rather dubious theological “chaos” theory.

Kavanagh’s primary/secondary theology distinction may also be criticized. Although he claims that he wants to effect a “reconciliation” between primary and secondary theology through the mediation of liturgical theology, the overall tone of the book suggests the author’s desire to keep academic theology in its place (p. 178). In response to the subjugation of liturgy to academic theology, Kavanagh inverts the hierarchy. This has the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing rather than ameliorating the bifurcation of the parish and the academy.

The connection between liturgical theology and primary theology remains somewhat fuzzy in the book. At times one gets the impression that Kavanagh thinks that, because it is closer to the liturgical practices of the Church, liturgical theology is the most adequate articulation of primary theology. Primary theology is the liturgical experience of “the assembly’s regular baptismal and Eucharistic encounters with the living God” (p. 93). This leads to forms of adjustment and adaptation that are the proper domain of inquiry for liturgical theology. Liturgical theology, in other words, emerges out of the praxis of worship.

At other times, however, Kavanagh describes the work of liturgical theology in ways that suggest as much distance from primary theology as any form of academic theology. This confusion emerges in the claim that primary theology itself entails not just experience, but also “reflection” and “reappropriation” (p. 93). The problem is that reflection and reappropriation imply a certain distance from the original experience. Indeed, reflection is a function of second-order activities. To say that primary theology entails adjustment to the experience of God through critical reflection is tantamount to saying that secondary theology is already at work in the act of primary theology. Indeed, the very distinction between primary and secondary theology is itself removed from the experience of liturgical practice. The distinction is a more or less adequate construct for interpreting and understanding the differences between worship and theological reflection. This is an example of how liturgical theology can be itself an instance of secondary theology.

Kavanagh’s privileging of praxis (primary theology or liturgy) over theory (secondary theology) is also problematic. For example, privileging primary over secondary theology might lead one to assume that the breakdown of the classical unitive rite of Christian initiation was due to the influence of academic theologians on liturgical practice. Perhaps in attempts to come up with a theological rationale for why bishops needed to lay their hands on the newly baptized, they inadvertently undermined the rite’s integrity. However, the breakdown was not due to the impact of secondary theology, but rather was a natural outgrowth of the liturgy’s response to the fact that the bishop could no longer be present at every baptism. Only subsequently did theologians respond to the changes in liturgy by attempting to give a theological rationale for what would become the rite of confirmation. In short, accidents of history often play a more determinative role in shaping the liturgy than encounter with God.

There is also another reason why privileging practice over theory is problematic. It runs the danger of reinforcing myopia with regard to the moral and/or religious adequacy of the Church’s practices. Theologian Bryan P. Stone persuasively argues that both the bifurcation of theory and practice and/or the subordination of either one to the other is dangerous. In particular, allowing experience to be the primary or sole determinative factor in shaping (secondary) theology truncates possibilities for practice to inform theory and theory to inform practice in mutually edifying ways. Stone notes that “when we fail to be self-critical about the way our context and practice shape our beliefs, it is all too easy for our beliefs to become strictly determined by our context and practice.”[4] Translated into Kavanagh’s terms, one could say that when we fail to be self-critical about the way our liturgies shape our beliefs, it is all too easy for our beliefs to become strictly determined by our liturgies. The subordination of theology to liturgical experience reduces theology to “a mere rationalizing of what we already do and where we already stand.”[5]

This leads, finally, to a point about the connection between liturgy (orthodoxia) and the Christian moral life (orthopraxis). I believe that Kavanagh is right to note the inseparable connection between Christian worship and Christian ethics. This view is an important corrective to the tendency among Christian ethicists to privilege abstract principles over the substantive particularity of the Church’s practices. However, Kavanagh’s conception of the connection between praise and praxis is too narrow. While he accents the role of evangelical poverty and nonviolence, he also leaves readers with the impression that worship is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of the Christian moral life. The moral example of Christians at worship ascends into the foreground while the struggle for peace and justice in a broken world recedes into the background of Kavanagh’s discourse. In response to the danger of believing that praise alone fulfills the moral requirements of Christian discipleship, we do well to remember the words of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NRSV).

Kavanagh correctly highlights the inaccuracy and absurdity of the view that an elite corps of theological professionals first think up theologies of this or that and then apply them by creating liturgical acts to give the laity something to do in church. He also rightly maintains that “the liturgy is not something separate from the church, but simply the church caught in the act of being most overtly itself” (p. 75). In spite of occasional lapses into rhetorical excess and the problems internal to his conception of primary theology, liturgical experience, and the relationship between liturgy and the moral life, Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology provides a thought-provoking account of why Christian theological and moral reflection cannot be adequately understood apart from the liturgical practices of the Church.


[1] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 52. Morse appeals to the patristic principle lex orandi est lex credendi et agenda as a criterion of consistency with worship that serves as one of several tests of doctrinal faithfulness in the Church.

[2] Marjorie Proctor-Smith, In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition (Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 13.

[3] See, for example, the account of being brought to the edge of chaos and back in a Pentecostal, snake-handling service in Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

[4] Bryan P. Stone, Compassionate Ministry: Theological Foundations (Orbis Books, 1996), p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spirit-Soaked Fertility

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood predestined to Another City,
begotten by God's blowing
and borne upon this torrent
by the Church their Virgin Mother.

Reborn in these depths they reach for Heaven's kingdom,
the born but once unrecognizable by felicity.

This pool is life that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.

Sinner sink beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.

Sinner here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one Font, one Spirit, one Faith made one.

Sinner shudder not at sin's kinds and number:
for those born here are holy.

5th Century inscription in the Lateran baptistery attributed to Leo the Great.

Translated by Aidan Kavanagh, OSB in The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bishop N. T. Wright on the Bible and Ecumenism

Attending a synod of bishops in Rome, Anglican bishop N. T. Wright reflects on the role that reading, praying, and studying Holy Scripture can play in forging deeper relationships across "denominational" divisions:

Three months ago I had the privilege of being the Anglican Fraternal Delegate at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. The topic was "the word of God", and it quickly became clear that it carried enormous ecumenical implications.

The synod was, in effect, inhabiting more fully the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the document Dei Verbum. Many bishops at the Synod spoke excitedly of the effect of Bible reading and study on their congregations, and of the sea-change that this represents compared with the time, not long ago, when the Bible was quite literally a closed book to ordinary lay people. More than once bishops declared, as though it was a new discovery, that the Bible (and not just prayer and the liturgy) can bring people into a living personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. ...

One of the most striking things I heard in Rome was that there are two signs and means of unity which we already possess, namely baptism and the Bible. How do we make that a reality?

One answer is shared Lectio Divina - a reading of scripture which takes time to pray, to ponder, and to allow the text to soak in at every level. What is to stop Christians from every tradition coming together in each locality to share this simple but profound practice? Nothing except our nerves. ...

Of course, there are problems to be faced. What about "historical criticism"? Many have bad experiences of being told "you can't believe this" or "that's now been disproved" - when, often enough, the "disproof" consists merely of the sneer of the sceptic, pretending to be "objective" while we Christians are "prejudiced" (as if atheists are not prejudiced as well). But there are ways through. ...

To my surprise, the synod gave little attention to the task of the Church in the world. You might have thought that attention to scripture would compel us to tackle that. It is precisely Roman Catholic writers, by and large, who read scripture afresh and generated the last generation's liberation theology. Modern western culture has regularly tried to stop the Church speaking out in the public sphere. "Devotional" and "historical-critical" readings alike can, by themselves, collude with this pressure in a way which falsifies the message of the Bible itself.

What's the alternative? A scriptural reading in which heart, mind, soul and strength are brought together. We need the devotional, the academic, the rehumanising and the missional readings of scripture, each in its proper way and all in their proper balance.

Read it all.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Chaplain Bans Creed to Be "Inclusive"

It seems that dropping the Creed from worship is not just an American thing. Here's what the beginning of an article in the Daily Mail Online says about a Church of England chaplain:

Sandhurst military academy has dropped the Church of England Creed [sic] from services over fears that it may offend religious minorities.

The move has outraged worshippers who say centuries of religious tradition have been sacrificed for the sake of political correctness.

Senior chaplain Reverend Jonathan Gough dropped the Christian declaration of faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, when he took office earlier this month.

Mr Gough – nicknamed the ‘Right On Rev’ by some of his flock – says he wants to avoid offending non-believers.

But Christian cadets and civilians were furious when the traditional Anglican service abruptly ended without the Creed being read last Sunday.

Although no official announcement was made, a fellow Chaplain said it had been removed ‘to stop upsetting cadets who do not believe in God’.

Last night the Ministry of Defence confirmed the Creed, which also refutes heresy, had been withdrawn from services at the Royal Memorial Chapel to make the church more inclusive.

This is despite the fact that it is not compulsory for any Sandhurst cadets to attend.

Read it all.

I think the "Right On Rev" is dead wrong. This is a good example of how the (no doubt sincere) desire to be inclusive pushes the Church further in the direction of offering nothing in which to include anyone in the first place.

The logic of this misguided notion of "inclusion" can easily lead to a slippery slope. After all, why stop with dropping the Creed? Aren't some people offended by references to Jesus as Lord? Or to any reference to Jesus at all? What about atheists who are offended by the word "God"? What about persons who object to the perceived "cannibalism" of the Eucharist, or who object to the norm that baptism precedes the "right" to receive communion? Or what about excluding sacred writings from other religious traditions from Christian worship? Doesn't a closed canon exclude and pass judgment on other religious persons?

It's a good thing that early Christians like the apostle Paul didn't buy into this misguided understanding of "inclusion." If they had, chances are pretty good that none of us would even know anything about Jesus, much less have churches to worship in.

When we no longer stand for something in particular, we end up standing for little or nothing.

Another excerpt from the online article:

Former army officer Patrick Mercer, who went on to become the Bishop of Exeter, last night led calls for the Creed to be returned.

Mr Mercer, who trained at Sandhurst, said: ‘If you go to an Anglican Church service you expect to hear an Anglican service. I think the good reverend is being a little too precious.’