Sunday, May 31, 2009

Someone to Stand in the Center

"There must be someone in this world - which rejected God and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness - there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This 'someone' is Christ, the new Adam who restores that 'eucharistic life' which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mail-Order Mass

Damian Thompson writes this for the Telegraph:

Archbishop Jonathan Blake, a former Anglican priest who is now a bishop of the Open Episcopal Church, has hit on a neat solution to the problem of worshippers who cannot get to his Eucharists. He consecrates the host, then pops it in the post to allow members of the public to say their own "Masses" (minus consecration). ...

Blake is prepared to send you consecrated hosts at the following rates:







Once the host arrives, there's no need to construct a tabernacle: "People can carry a Host with them on a neck chain or in a specially adapted wallet for emergencies or just to have that sense that Jesus is with them throughout the day."

Read it all.

Blake has also posted a series of YouTube videos "showing the different ways you can celebrate the service once the host has dropped on to the doormat." Here are a couple of examples:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kill the Commentators!

Some thoughts on the Bible, scholars, and Christian discipleship from Søren Kierkegaard.

Today’s mass of Bible interpreters have damaged, more than they have helped, our understanding of the Bible. In reading the scholars it has become necessary to do as one does at a play where a profusion of spectators and spotlights prevent, as it were, our enjoyment of the play itself and instead we are treated to little incidents. To see the play, one has to overlook them, if possible, or enter by a way that has not yet been blocked. The commentator has indeed become a most hazardous meddler.

If you wish to understand the Bible, then be sure to read it without a commentary. Think of two lovers. The lover writes a letter to the beloved. Is the beloved concerned about what others think of it? Will he not read it all alone? In other words, would it ever occur to him to read this letter with a commentary! If the letter from the lover were in a language he did not understand – well, then he would learn the language – but he would certainly not read the letter with the aid of commentaries. They are of no use. The love for his beloved and his readiness to comply with her desires, makes him more than able to understand her letter. It is the same with the Scriptures. With God’s help we can understand the Bible all right. Every commentary detracts, and he who sits with ten open commentaries and reads the Scriptures – well he is probably writing the eleventh. He is certainly not dealing with the Scriptures.

Suppose now that this letter from the lover has the unique attribute that every human being is the beloved – what then? Should we now sit and confer with one another? No, each of us should read this letter solely as an individual, as a single individual who has received this letter from God. In reading it, we will be concerned foremost with ourselves and with our relationship to him. We will not focus on the beloved’s letter, that this passage, for example, may be interpreted in this way, and that passage in that way – oh, no, the important thing to us will be to act as soon as possible.

Isn’t it something to be the beloved, and doesn’t this give us something that no commentator has? Think about it. Aren’t we each the best interpreter of our own words? And then next the lover, and in relation to God, the true believer? Lest we forget, the Scriptures are but highway signs: Christ, the beloved, is the way. Kill the commentators!

Of course, the commentators are not the only ones at fault. God wants to force each one of us out again into the essential, back to a childlike beginning. But being naked before God in this way, this we do not want at all. We all prefer the commentaries. So with each passing generation we grow more and more spiritless.

What we really need, then, is a reformation that sets even the Bible aside. Yes, this has just as much validity now as did Luther’s breaking with the Pope. The current emphasis on getting back to the Bible has, sadly, created religiosity out of learning and literalistic chicanery – a sheer diversion. Tragically this kind of knowledge has gradually trickled down to the masses so that no one can read the Bible simply any more. All our Bible learning has become nothing but a fortress of excuses and escapes. When it comes to existence, to obedience there is always something else we have to first take care of. We live under the illusion that we must first have the interpretation right or the belief in perfect form before we can begin to live – that is, we never get around to doing what the Word says.

The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ "to leave the neighborhood" (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read:"If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me." Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

In vain does the Bible command with authority. In vain does it admonish and implore. We do not hear it – that is, we hear its voice only through the interference of Christian scholarship, the experts who have been properly trained. Just as a foreigner protests his rights in a foreign language and passionately dares to say bold words when facing state authorities – but see, the interpreter who is to translate it to the authorities does not dare do so but substitutes something else – just so the Bible sounds forth through Christian scholarship.

We declare that Christian scholarship exists specifically to help us understand the New Testament, in order that we may better hear its voice. No insane man, no prisoner of the state, was ever so confined. As far as they are concerned, no one denies that they are locked up, but the precautions regarding the New Testament are even greater. We lock it up but argue that we are doing the opposite, that we are busily engaged in helping it gain clarity and control. But then, of course, no insane person, no prisoner of the state, would ever be as dangerous to us as the New Testament would be if it were set free.

Taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard,
e-book "Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Liturgy: The Structure of Ultimate Reality

The Orthodox Christian Faith

Creed or No Creed

"Behind the issue of 'Creed or No Creed' there lies not the issue of 'modern thought' versus 'ancient thought,' but the timeless issue of whether Christianity has at its centre the theme of sin and redemption and the work of Christ the Mediator, or whether that theme and that work are to be belittled before a humanistic view of Christ who is called Divine since He is admired as Perfect Man."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Collect for Memorial Day

We give you thanks, O Lord, for all who have died that we may live, for all who endured pain that we might know joy, for all who made sacrifices that we might have plenty, for all who suffered imprisonment that we might know freedom. Turn our deep feeling now into determination, and our determination into deed, that as men and women died for peace, we may live for peace for the sake of the Prince of Peace, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

based upon a prayer by Leslie D. Weatherhead

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Living the Answers

For the second year in a row, the Cathedral parish I serve has received permission from our bishop to transfer the Feast Day commemorating the Martyrs of Sudan to a Sunday. We do this for many reasons, including the fact that we have a number of young Sudanese men and women who are members of our Cathedral parish (part of the Lost Boys and Girls), and also because of the relationship we are cultivating with Bishop Ezekiel Diing of the Diocese of Twich East in Sudan.

Listening this morning as our preacher recounted the terrible story of persecution, torture and death dished out by Islamic extremists to Sudanese Christians who refused to renounce Jesus as Lord and Savior by converting to Islam, I was struck by the dissonance between those horrible events and the comfortable existence most of us enjoy.

Educated and culturally sophisticated as we Episcopalians tend to be, we celebrate the freedom of "living the questions," taking pride in differentiating ourselves from all those "fundamentalists" and "simple believers" by cultivating an identity as "thinking Christians." We know enough to assume for ourselves the authority to pick and choose the doctrines and the scriptures that we deem normative, sifting the wheat from the tares of Christianity, or even embracing "progressivism" to the point of moving beyond the core tenets of the Christian faith altogether. We do it for the sake of "relevance." And we do it from the comfort and security of our armchairs, laptops, and Sunday school classrooms.

While we live the questions, the Martyrs of Sudan and the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan are examples of what it means to live the answers of the Christian faith without comfort and security. As with all the Christian martyrs, theirs is a faith whose paramount concern is not about insuring that we are "thinking Christians" or about "salvaging" or "revising" Christianity so that it's relevant to persons who don't believe in it anyway or who are outright hostile towards it. Their primary concern is being faithful to the God who proves His faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ by bearing witness in their own lives and, if need be, in their deaths, to the love, mercy, and glory of God. They remind us that being disciples of Jesus Christ is not an academic exercise or a thought-experiment. Instead, it's a way of life that entails absolute commitment to the risen Jesus as Lord and Savior in the company of other disciples. That can sometimes be risky and dangerous, and even lead to torture, death, and diaspora.

As with our nation, so too in the Church: the comforts and freedoms we enjoy are luxuries that were bought with a price (and sometimes a terrible price) by predecessors, most especially including confessors and martyrs. We are able to live the questions of faith because others suffered and died for the answers of the Christian faith. We do well to remember their examples lest we get so carried away with the permission to ask questions that we confuse our liberty with license.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Limits of Reason

Most Episcopalians are familiar with the so-called "three-legged stool" of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Others prefer to use the image of a tricycle, with scripture as the big wheel, and tradition and reason as the little wheels. But in either case, a threefold conception of authority is upheld as the norm.

Regardless of the image used, my understanding is that these three sources of authority cannot stand alone. They are interdependent. They overlap and mutually inform one another.

But in my experience with the Church, this threefold emphasis often breaks down into privileging one of these three as the sole or supreme source of authority, and often along ideological lines. And so many "conservatives" or "reasserters" emphasize scripture (if they happen to be more Evangelical or "Low Church") or tradition (if they happen to be more Anglo-Catholic or "High Church"), whereas many "liberals" or "progressives" emphasize reason (of which "experience" - an oftentimes ill-defined, slippery term - is perhaps a subset, and at other times perhaps constitutes a fourth source of authority).

In a brief piece over at "Covenant," Matt Gunter takes a look at the limits of relying on reason as the supreme or sole source of authority:

It is no secret that interpreting scripture is not as straightforward as many have thought or would like to think. It is also true that the voices of tradition do not speak as one and sometimes vary a great deal. While both of these observations can be over played – neither is simply incoherent – one must acknowledge that both have their obscurities. But what about reason, that third source of authority to which Episcopalians and other Anglicans appeal? There are some in the Episcopal Church who speak as though reason is the more straightforward reliable, and, ultimately, authoritative of the three. Is it more straightforward and reliable than scripture or tradition? In a word, no.

Simply saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” doesn’t work. But, “Jesus came to take away our sins not our minds” is no more helpful and begs just as many questions.

First, it suggests that somehow our minds and our reasoning are unaffected by sin. But, our ancestors did not think so. Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker’s contemporary and ally, said of reason, “[T]his light hath caught a fall . . . and thereupon it halteth.” It is not to be rejected, and grace can “make it up” but, unaided, it cannot get us very far.

John Donne, who had much in common with Hooker wrote in one of his poems:

Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend
But is captived, and proves weak and untrue.

More forcefully, William Temple wrote, “[R]eason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt.” Nature, Man, and God p. 368.

Second, it ignores the fact that what we find reasonable is shaped by our historical, cultural, and personal location. And any reasoning is part a tradition of reasoning with a peculiar history rather than some abstract universal accessible to all clear-thinking people. As such, all reasoning is biased and those biases are subject to unveiling and critique.

Third, reason tends to get invoked in ways that are self-serving. As Curtis White writes in The Spirit of Disobedience, “Let’s face it: clear thinking is anything that proceeds logically from my assumptions.” I have wondered if that is not what the old motto, “The thinking person’s church” has really meant. Curtis also quotes Ben Franklin, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Fourth, talk of reason assume we know what “reason” is and what it looks like. It is true that the seminal Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, maintained an essential role for reason in understanding God and life lived light of that understanding. But, it is clear that what Hooker and those who followed him meant by reason (along with those he followed like Thomas Aquinas and the earlier church theologians like the Cappadocians - Macrina, Basil and the two Gregories) meant something quite different from what it has come to mean for us. For them, reason was reflective of, and oriented toward, God. Reason was part of a richly textured, multifaceted, imaginative, theocentric way of seeing and being in the world that included revelation—in creation generally and in the church’s teaching grounded in scripture particularly. That is different from the detached and secularized reason that the Enlightenment elevated to the point of superstition.

Appeals to reason are at least as contingent and uncertain as appeals to scripture or tradition.
What we need to do it seems is explain to ourselves and one another what we think we are doing when we appeal to any of these or any combination of them. What makes such an appeal faithful and how does it keep us honest with ourselves, one another, and God?

Gunter's piece underscores the dangers of affirming the autonomy of reason and/or its superiority to scripture and tradition. Gunter also provides a warrant for the conviction that we need the backing of all three sources of authority - scripture, tradition, and reason - coupled with communal discernment, review, and reception, before the Church can accept something as "meet and right."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trust in the Slow Work of God

This is a poem I discovered at CREDO.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.

Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.

Let them shape themselves without undue haste.

Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
-- that is to say, grace --
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Right Use of the Creeds

Some thoughts on the right use of the Creeds and dogma from Arthur Michael Ramsey's The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936).

... the Church can never be said to have apprehended the truth. Rather is the Truth the divine action which apprehends the Church. Dimly it understands what it teaches. For the more the Church learns of God, the more it is aware of the incomprehensible mystery of His being, in creation and in transcendence and on the Cross. ... The Church's perilous office of teaching is inseparable from the Church's worship of the mystery whereby it exists.

Ineffable, therefore, is the revelation of God, which creates and which uses the teaching Church. Human language can never express it. Yet the Church, like its Lord, must partly commit it to human speech and thought, and is indeed commissioned to do this in every age and civilization. Hence have appeared the Canon of Scripture and the Creeds; both express and both control the Church's teaching. But, since Truth and life and worship are inseparable, the scriptures and the Creeds are not given for us in isolation. They form, with the ministry and the sacraments, one close-knit structure which points the Christians to the historical facts wherein God is revealed, and to the life and experience of the universal society. The Creeds, therefore, have authority not as scholastic definitions of Christianity, but as a part of the structure which points beyond scholasticism and philosophy to the Messianic works of Jesus. They point away from speculative theories which would swamp the Gospel, and from partial or ephemeral definitions which would distort its proportions. But the Creeds are not in themselves the Christian Faith; Christians do not "believe in the Creeds," but, with the Creeds to help them, they believe in God.

Creeds are dangerous documents. That they are so is no modern discovery, but a fact fully realized in the ancient Church. S. Hilary, one of S. Athanasius' staunchest supporters in the Nicene struggle, wrote, "We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith, we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression." (de Trin. II, 2. 4.) But, for all the dangers which accompany them when they are used apart from the scriptures and the Church's whole evangelical structure, the Creeds none the less proclaim the Gospel. They point to the redemption once wrought and, in the phrases with which they close, to the Christian hopes which spring from that redemption. ...

In the light of early Christian history the character of the Creeds is indeed very striking. Christianity has entered the Hellenic atmosphere, it has used the Greek tongue, its theologians have largely been Greeks - and yet its Creeds show that it has baptized its Greek adherents into a Messianic faith in a God who reveals Himself through acts in history. The Biblical Gospel has overcome the speculative mind. ...

Yet the Creeds can be abused, as the scriptures can be abused. ... Thus the Creeds are misused when they are interpreted apart from the Gospel which is behind them and the whole organism of worship of which they form a part. When thus divorced from their true context - baptismal and eucharistic -in the Church's life, the Creeds can obtain a scholastic use which is alien from the true mind of the Church. ...

This "fossilization" has often taken place, and the meaning of dogma has often been obscured by a neglect of its relation to the Gospel and to worship. Hence there has come - notably in modern liberal Protestantism of the school of Ritschl - a reaction against dogma altogether, and an insistence that Christianity means personal faith in Jesus Christ and moral allegiance to Him, and not assent to metaphysical propositions about Him. This reaction has had salutary results in loosening the rigidities of dogmatism and in recovering the ethical meaning of faith and the figure of Jesus in His human life. Yet this reaction has led easily into the swamping of Christian teaching with subjective and humanistic ideas, and into a presentation of Christ as one who achieves men's values and fosters a man-centred religion rather than one who reveals Truth about God and thus draws men out of themselves in the worship of concrete divine realities. The remedy, both for scholastic fossilization and for the sentimental reaction against it, lies not in belittling of dogma but in a recovery of its right relation to the Gospel and to the Church's whole structure and worship. In relation to the Gospel, dogma will be seen to spring directly from the fact of Christ crucified and of His work for men, and "the Blessed Trinity" means the infinite love which is the ground of the love of Father and Son in the life and death on earth. Used in this right relation, the Creeds bear witness to the Gospel which is before and behind the philosophies of men and to the one historic society, whose orthodoxy is not a series of correct propositions about God, but the living out of the Truth through the building up of the one Body of Christ.

A Collect for Mother's Day

Here's a Collect I wrote a few years back for use on this day.

Most gracious and gentle God, from the womb of your love you gave birth to all creation, and in your Son Jesus Christ you reveal a loving-kindness that longs to gather up your children under the shadow of your wings: Bless, we pray, all mothers, especially those who nurse and care for children. Give them patience and wisdom. Sustain them in gentleness and grace. Deepen the tenderness of their affections. Affirm them in the nobility of their calling. May our children always find in the embrace of mothers an outward and visible sign of your never-failing love and care. And through the love of our mothers, may we all feel the warmth of your tender mercies and know the constancy of your unconditional love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Heart of the Problem in the Case of the Bishop-Elect of Northern MI

Kevin Thew Forrester, the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, has recently issued a nine-page defense of his theology and practice entitled "Approaching the Heart of Faith." I've weighed in on Forrester's theology and practice on this blog numerous times already, and in response to Forrester's latest offering, I can't say anything better than what my clergy and blogging colleague Greg Jones has already said over at "The Anglican Centrist."

Greg discusses numerous problems with "Approaching the Heart of Faith," including the document's affirmation that "the cross is not part of God's plan," as well it's rejection of the idea that "the death of Christ has any intrinsic connection to the salvation God has wrought in Christ."

But I think the deeper value of Greg's insightful analysis is that he pinpoints the heart of the problem in this particular case (which, to my mind, represents the heart of the problem of Anomic Anglicanism more generally). Here's what Greg writes:

In his vision of what it means to be a bishop, here I think he again falls off the rails of what might have been a good track. He says he agrees that a bishop is called to be a guardian of the faith. But, he interprets that to mean that the faith received is no more worthy of protection than the faith yet to be received.

In this he reveals his signature move. Since in his view the content of the faith is
always unfolding, as a priest (and as a bishop) he would see his leadership in protecting that unfolding. In light of his previous arguments that there are can be no boundaries at all to what "we may know," Thew Forrester appears believe that all aspects of the Church's doctrine and practice are therefore open to change, and not only change, but deep change, and not only deep change, but dismissal and discarding.

This latter point of view undergirds what appears to be his primary modus operandi. His m.o. appears to be that of one
singularly focused on innovation (as well as the redaction of doctrine and discipline as seems good to him). He seems to be quite proud to lead a parish which as he says is the diocesan leader in liturgical exploration and innovation. And while that can be a perfectly fine congregational vocation - it does depend on some key specifics. If one goes to the heart of the essential proclamation of the faith as bound up with the church's liturgical expression, and significantly discards or dismisses it, (as we have already mentioned above,) then I think one has gone too far. One can imagine, for example, that if a parish used "Rite III" every week -- in addition to be outside of the canons -- they could pretty much do anything they wanted. We all already know of parishes which do not regularly say the confession or Nicene Creed, and which openly invite the unbaptised to receive the elements. What if an entire diocese largely decided to come up with its own normative forms of baptism, eucharist, etc.? How is this anything but going too far?

Read it all.

Forrester's construal of the bishop's role as a guardian who protects "the unfolding" or "changing" or "evolution" or "revision" of the faith of the Church departs from the understanding of this role as one in which there is a substantive truth content - a dogmatic core - of the Church's faith to be protected and proclaimed. To be sure, our understanding of that core content can and does change over time. But that's a different thing entirely from changing or rejecting the core content itself. And ultimately, a new or different understanding of the core content is subject to reception and review by the larger Church. It's not merely a matter of the individual Christian's decisions, even if he/she is a bishop. Again, I think Greg Jones offers a helpful perspective:

... while I agree that God's revelation is unfolding, for that unfolding to be realized in the normal practice and proclamation of a very small group of people -- which is losing membership at a frightful rate -- in very short order - so as to lead to a form and message quite unrecognizable to so many Episcopalians in various places and contexts -- one might rightly ask the question: "Is it God's will that is unfolding here?"

Discerning the answer to that question is a communal endeavor rather than the individual's privilege.

And in a comment responding to Greg's piece, Christopher (who blogs at "Thanksgiving In All Things") makes this crucial point:

The unfolding of God's revelation in our time, let's call it "dependent revelation" in VII [Vatican II] lingo, cannot be dissonant with God's "foundational revelation" in Jesus Christ as sufficiently expressed by the Councils and articulated in our formularies.

By contrast, Forrester's theology and practice underscore an understanding of the bishop's role of guarding "the unfolding" that equates liberty with license, thereby shifting the locus of authority away from scripture, tradition, and reason to the individual's preferences (likes and dislikes) with respect to doctrine and liturgy. Opening that Pandora's box is a sure-fire way to undermine any basis for genuinely common prayer, and thus, by extension, undermines the conception of the Church as a Body in favor of affirming it as an aggregate sum of (more or less) like-minded individuals.

In short, the Forrester case offers a good illustration of what I've earlier characterized as the Over-Personalized Church:

The Over-Personalized Church embodies a model of authority we can term 'subjective autonomy.' Members are free to think, believe, and act as they individually please. Based largely on their personal preferences (likes versus dislikes), members choose whether or not to abide by Church norms and teachings. This Church embraces epistemic and ethical relativism. There is no such thing as Absolute Truth, only varieties of personal or subjective truths. Private judgment based upon individual reason and/or individual feelings is considered a virtue. Because the requirements for membership are so minimal, the Over-Personalized Church requires only a tangential consensus to maintain some semblance of a common life (e.g., 'we choose to be together because we individually like to do so').

It is a hopeful sign that, in response to this vision of the Church as articulated in Forrester's theology and practice, even many "progressive" Episcopalians appear to be saying "no."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The One Thing That is Certain

If someone were to ask you, "What is the one thing in life that is certain?" you would have to answer, "The love of Christ." Not parents, not family, not friends. Not art or science or philosophy or any of the products of human wisdom. Only the love of Christ. You could not even say "God's love," because the truth that God is love is ultimately known only through Jesus Christ. Such is the certitude of faith rising from lived experience.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lay Episcopalians are Bound by Vows, Too

“The Episcopal Church permits a wide spectrum of possible beliefs.”

The truth of this statement is one of the reasons why I’ve always felt attracted to the Episcopal Church. The comprehensiveness of the Anglicanism – its ability to “comprehend,” to contain or include, a number of different and at times rival points of view – commends it as a tradition uniquely positioned to bridge the divisions that otherwise separate Christians from one another.

There are many examples of this, but one that comes readily to my mind is the theology of the Eucharist. Here’s how Christopher puts it over at “Thanksgiving In All Things”:

… Anglicanism has allowed for a range of explanation of Christ's Presence without insisting upon one, and indeed, many Anglicans I suspect remain happily agnostic about the “how” of Christ's Presence. While various and sundry argue for one or another theory and each of these “fills up” without exhausting the sign, and though I have my thoughts on the matter which I happily share, I have an even greater interest in keeping room for the happily agnostic among us, not only for myself most days, but for the many other Anglicans who do simply the same—receive Christ.

The Eucharist is a good example of comprehensiveness because, while Anglicanism has allowed for a wide range of understandings of what happens to make Christ present in the sacrament and how it happens (including the “explanation” of not explaining it), the Anglican tradition has also always affirmed that something does really happen to the bread and wine during the course of the Eucharistic Prayer. After everyone says the Great Amen, the bread and wine are no longer ordinary. They’re different. They’ve changed. They are now set apart by prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit as holy, regardless of how we understand what that means. And so the Eucharist is not merely a memorial meal. While an individual Episcopalian may believe that, practically speaking, that theological understanding goes beyond the spectrum of the Church’s theology and practice as embodied in the Prayer Book’s liturgies and rubrics.

My point is that there are limits to the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. Anglicanism is not an “anything goes” tradition. There are boundaries to the faith, boundaries aptly and succinctly summarized in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s affirmation of four essentials for the fullness of the Church:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I raise all of this because I keep hearing statements from laity and clergy that suggest or outright claim, “Episcopalians can believe anything they want.” When it comes to belief, the sky’s the limit. We’re not constrained by anything or anyone beyond individual conscience and personal preferences. True, clergy have made vows, but those may be set aside if good reasons can be given. And laypersons have not made vows that bind them to anything in particular. Our liberty as Episcopal Christians thus translates into license. In my opinion, two particularly egregious instances of this mindset surface in the document “Already One in God” put forth by the Diocese of Northern Michigan back in 2007, and also in the preaching and liturgical revisions of Kevin Thew Forrester, the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

I’ve written before about the problem of clergy setting aside the vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. And while it is true that laypersons have not taken that vow, all Episcopal Christians – lay and ordained alike – have made a promise in the Baptismal Covenant that commits us to living within the limits and boundaries of acceptable belief:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

People I will, with God’s help.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304

The language about “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” is not merely nice sounding words on paper. It entails a substantive content. And in this particular liturgy, that content is laid out in the first half of the Baptismal Covenant in response to the questions of trust that precede the five questions of promise. Those questions are:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father?
  2. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
  3. Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

The answers to these questions take the form of the Apostles’ Creed. So when we promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, we are making a solemn commitment to persist in adhering to the doctrinal content of the articles in the Apostles’ Creed. We are affirming that the faith of the Church articulated by this creed (and, I believe, by extension and amplification in the Nicene Creed) is the norm of belief against which our own personal, individual beliefs are measured and found more or less adequate. And we are promising to conform our believing to this creedal norm.

In practical terms, this means that any Episcopalian – not just deacons, priests and bishops, but laypersons, too – who denies the understanding of God as Trinity, or the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Son of God, or the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, or the resurrection of the body, etc., is violating his/her baptismal covenant. Such denial translates not only into abandoning the faith of the Church, but also to saying “no” to one’s baptismal identity as an adopted child of God called to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).

It's true that Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church allow for a wide range of beliefs and opinions on any number of matters. But when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith, our tradition also affirms limits and boundaries to comprehensiveness. It’s right there in the Baptismal Covenant.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Incompatible Views on the Bishop-Elect of Northern MI

An article published in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette entitled "Believing outside the box?" gives a feel for the gulf that divides supporters of Kevin Thew Forrester, the so-called "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, and those who do not support his election. Here's a sample as reported in today's paper:

“I don’t really see what there is left to say - the unique incarnation, saving death, bodily resurrection and universal lordship of Jesus are basic to Christian faith and to question that means you are disqualified from being an upholder of that faith in any official capacity in the church. That such a man should be considered even a possibility for a bishop is quite simply extraordinary.”

- The Rt. Rev. N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, England

“I think [Thew Forrester is] solidly a Christian believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ and will be a faithful bishop. ... I don’t think he’s outside the tent of acceptable theological thinking and understanding.”

- The Rt. Rev. Tom Ely, Bishop of Vermont

“This gentleman, apparently, doesn’t believe the creeds. ... The doctrine of redemption through the incarnation and atoning work and resurrection and heavenly reign at present and future return of the second person of the Godhead: That is Christianity. Take that away and you have destroyed the Christian religion. Period. That’s what Christianity is about.”

- J. I. Packer, Board of Governors' Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia

“The creed is a statement of faith and of love of God. ... The question is ‘Is Kevin’s interpretation of it within the ballpark?’ For me it is. I think it stretches us but not to the point of breaking.”

- The Rt. Rev. Bruce Caldwell, Bishop of Wyoming

“The facts of the Christian faith are that Jesus is God’s Son, born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died for our sins, rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is coming again. A Christian will agree with these facts. If a denomination or church is Christian, it will agree with these facts. If a so-called bishop does not agree with the central elements of the Christian faith, then he should not call himself a Christian, let alone a bishop - nor should a church ordain him. He is an apostate from the Faith; and a church that ordains such a one is also apostate.”

- The Rev. George O. Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God

Read it all.

Readers of this blog know from previous postings that, in this case, I stand with the likes of Wright, Packer and Wood against folks like Bishop Ely and Bishop Caldwell. (I hasten to add, however, that unlike the Rev. Wood, I would not be willing to categorize the entire Episcopal Church as "apostate" if Forrester gets consecrated bishop. That would be unfair to the vast majority of Episcopalians who would not agree with such an action.)

A bishop is called "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 517). Based upon what I know about this case, Forrester is not a fit candidate for this calling.

As to the faith of the Church - what we know about his preaching and writing thus far suggests that he either rejects the dogmatic core of the Christian faith due to ignorance or misinformation about it ('material heresy'), or that he deliberately and defiantly rejects the dogmatic core of the Christian faith ('formal heresy').

As to the unity of the Church - Forrester's views are so out of touch with the mainstream of the Christian tradition that he cannot serve as a symbol of the Church gathered together in united witness to the faith shared by the universal Church. This accounts for why the primary unity generated by the controversy surrounding Forrester's election, his liturgical practices, and his theological views has been to bring Episcopalians across the theological spectrum together in opposition to his election.

And as to the discipline of the Church - Forrester's failure to conform to the ordination vows he's already taken on two occasions (first as deacon, then as priest) by his unauthorized and illegal liturgical revisions suggests that he either doesn't understand what it means to voluntarily given up the "right" to ecclesial disobedience/innovation, or that he does understand but doesn't care. Either way, that track record doesn't bode well for future performance.

And so I continue to hope and pray that Forrester's election will not receive the necessary consents for moving forward.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Beyond Apostasy

Over at “The Anglican Centrist,” Greg Jones shares a 2007 response to the Primates’ Dar es Salaam Communiqué (remember that?) entitled “Already One in God” which was drafted and published by the Diocese of Northern Michigan, the diocese which recently elected Kevin Thew Forrester to be their bishop.

I share Greg’s views about Forrester and this document. Here's what he has to say:

Among the things that have many so alarmed about the election of Kevin Thew Forrester to the episcopate -- not merely in Northern Michigan, but for the whole church -- is what looks like a deeply different religion than that upheld and proclaimed by the Book of Common Prayer. It is not a matter of slight differences - or even a question of pushing the limits of our usual Episcopalian latitude. No, the faith proclaimed by Fr. Thew Forrester, and it appears to be shared widely in the diocese where he ministers, is intentionally and thoughtfully articulated, believed and put forth. There is a degree of integrity to it, to be sure. But, it is not the doctrine or order of the Book of Common Prayer. Simple as that. It truly is something sufficiently different as to warrant being its own denomination. That so many seem so comfortable with such a deep and categorical departure (this has nothing to do with inclusion my friends) is what bothers so many of us who hold dear to the essential elements of the Christian faith sufficiently and widely-enough put forward in the Quadrilateral of creed, sacrament, scripture and historic episcopate.

I note that Kendall Harmon brought all of this to public attention on October 8, 2007, but there are no comments on his website in response. Since that was well before the election of Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop of Northern Michigan, perhaps the seriousness of this statement’s theological stance didn’t resonate as deeply as it should have at the time. Now we see clearly that Forrester’s theological views and willingness to revise the Prayer Book didn’t come out of a vacuum. I think Greg Jones is right to note that, given what “Already One in God” says, Forrester’s theological positions and actions are consistent with views which are apparently widely held in the diocese of Northern Michigan, at least among the leadership.

Read all of “Already One in God” for yourself.

I’m going to resist the temptation to invest my time in analyzing “Already One in God” line-by-line (I think I’ve done enough of that with Forrester’s preaching and liturgical revision in previous postings). Instead, I’ll share some of my favorite parts from its different sections and a few observations in response.

We affirm the theological truth that we are always already one in God; otherwise we would not be. The tragedy of the current moment, which is recurrent throughout history (remember the conflict that led to the first council in Jerusalem), is that we fail to see this unity and so we grow anxious and afraid.

We invite all to God’s table. What we expect, in turn, is that those who come to the table likewise recognize the right, by being children of God, of everyone else to be at the table.

We proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ that everyone and everything belongs. We are continually being created in the image of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Baptism confirms this most basic truth which is at once, the Good News: all is of God, without condition and without restriction.

We seek and serve Christ in all persons because all persons are the living Christ. Each and every human being, as a human being, is knit together in God’s Spirit, and thus an anointed one – Christ.

We do harmful and evil things to ourselves and one another, not because we are bad, but because we are blind to the beauty of creation and ourselves. In other words, we are ignorant of who we truly are: “there is no Greek or Hebrew; no Jew or Gentile; no barbarian or Scythian; no slave or citizen. There is only Christ, who is all in all.” (Colossians 3:11).

Everyone is the sacred word of God, in whom Christ lives.

“Already One in God” affirms:

  1. the unity of God and the world (as in pantheism);

  2. the “open table” of communion without the need for baptism;

  3. the “right” of access to communion simply by virtue of existing;

  4. that every person, simply by virtue of being human, is Christ, the sacred word of God incarnate; and

  5. that our problem is not sin, but ignorance of our true identity as Christ.

By making these affirmations, “Already One in God” denies:

  1. any substantive differentiation between God and the world (thereby rejecting, not just theism, but also the dogma of the Trinity’s affirmation of both the unity of God’s Being and the eternal distinction between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);

  2. the uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ and the only Son of God;

  3. the Incarnation;

  4. the problem of sin and the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross; and

  5. the need for regeneration through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

To be sure, all of this amounts to what Greg Jones of "The Anglican Centrist" calls "a deep and categorical departure" (i.e., apostasy, or the abandonment of the historic Christian faith). That amounts to high irony because this document clearly wants to provide a forceful articulation of the Prayer Book’s Baptismal Covenant. But by giving the Baptismal Covenant such a strong reading, it ends up turning the Baptismal Covenant on its head, revising it’s core theological vision in ways that go well beyond anything recognizably Christian. The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

But we can’t stop with apostasy. For by virtue of denying the dogmatic core of the Christian faith, “Already One in God” goes well beyond apostasy. Indeed, there’s only one word fit to describe it: heresy.

Churchgoers More Likely to Support Torture

CNN reports that, according to a Pew Research Center survey, "The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists."

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. Only 42 percent of people who "seldom or never" go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.

The analysis is based on a Pew Research Center survey of 742 American adults conducted April 14-21. It did not include analysis of groups other than white evangelicals, white non-Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, because the sample size was too small.

The survey asked: "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?"

Roughly half of all respondents -- 49 percent -- said it is often or sometimes justified. A quarter said it never is.

The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations -- such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- categorized as "mainline" Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified.

Perhaps this sheds some light on why many of the unchurched think Christians are hypocritical and that the Church is irrelevant and/or espouses unacceptable values.