Friday, July 31, 2009

The Protestant Matrix for Interpreting Scripture Breeds Heresy

Fr. Stephen has written a fascinating posting on the Orthodox approach to the reading of Holy Scripture. He draws heavily on Irenaeus to ask the question, "What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it?"

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Discussing the matrix by which the Reformers approached the interpretation of scripture - an approach which has produced many varied and often irreconcilable teachings, and which continues to dominate much of Western Christianity to this day - Fr. Stephen minces no words. He says that the Protestant Reformers "had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes." In particular, he targets one doctrine produced by the Protestant matrix for special censure:

For instance, the doctrine of predestination to damnation ... is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.

In short, Fr. Stephen charges that the Protestant matrix for interpreting Holy Scripture breeds heresy.

Read it all.

Brief Thoughts about the Archbishop of Canterbury's Statement

The blogosphere is flooded with postings across the theological spectrum about the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent statement in response to the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Many on both the Left and the Right are either howling about different parts of it, or writing it off as yet another disappointment from the ABC. I'm still processing what it does and does not mean and what I do or do not like about it. But on the whole, I find myself agreeing with Bishop Christopher Epting that it is "thoughtful, measured, and generally pastoral." I suppose that's my centrism coming out.

I also commend a posting on the ABC's statement by Fr. Michael Nation, one of my clergy colleagues here in the Diocese of Mississippi, who has recently launched a blog called "A Nation in Exile." Fr. Michael's take on how the ABC's liberal Anglo-Catholicism surfaces in this statement is interesting:

It has been said that Dr Williams is a liberal anglo-catholic. There certainly was evidence of that in his letter. As an anglo-catholic he appealed, not to the teachings of the Bible as an Evangelical would, but to the teachings of the Church. He understands the Church is independent institution as Keble, Pusey and Newman argued. He reminded us that we are a part of an even wider church, and not only do we have responsibilities to our ecumenical partners, but he also admitted the possibility that the teachings of other churches should inform this conversation. However his liberal leanings evidenced themselves in that while calling prejudicial behavior toward gays sinful, (and his strongest admonitions were reserved for those who had shown prejudice and contempt toward homosexuals) he stopped short of calling homosexual behavior sinful; he simply said that they are not in accord with church's teaching. Does he envision a time in the future when that teaching will change? Maybe. Does he hope for a time when those teachings will change? Maybe so. However he does not admit to either.

I also find much to agree with in Fr. Greg Jones' reflections about all of this over at "The Anglican Centrist":

I think The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada need the Communion more than the Communion needs us. I am not talking finances here -- or control -- or domination. We need to be in full communion with people who do not live in the contexts we live in. That's what catholicity means.

If they will not have us, because of our choice to do what we think the Spirit is calling for us to do anyway, then this is very sad. I do not think we are to be blamed or need to accept full responsibility for the loss of communion, but we ought to recognize and lament this loss.

I think we need to find a way forward that seeks the maximum degree of Christian unity possible -- not a way that makes possible and comfortable lesser such relationships.

Fr. Greg continues by noting our pressing need for "a bit more cohesiveness and discipline" when it comes to conforming to the Episcopal Church's doctrine, discipline, and worship (and yes, that includes things like rubrics and Prayer Book language), more teaching about what our Church's core doctrine is with respect to baptism, salvation, Jesus Christ, etc., and the crisis of shrinking membership with its wake-up call to get serious about evangelism and mission.

One conservative Episcopal priest recently said to me that the fight we're having right now between the Left and the Right is distracting us from the matters flagged by Fr. Jones. "This fight is a maintenance fight and is about maintaining the status quo," he told me. It's certainly true that the Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging members and money. We desperately need to move from maintenance to mission if we are going to survive, much less flourish.

But, of course, for some, the fight is about the mission of the Church. And if that's the case, it's hard to see how, in the long run, we can maintain the kind of "maximum degree of unity possible" that Fr. Jones and many of us hope for.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ephraim Radner on the Dynamics of Decision-Making at the 76th General Convention

Ephraim Radner recently offered reflections on the 76th General Convention that are worth taking time to contemplate. The piece is entitled "It seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit: The 'Us' of General Convention." Here's a teaser:

Let us leave aside the substantive theological aspects of the recent Episcopal Church General Convention. They are important, of course. But I am interested here in the dynamics of decision-making that underlay the way things turned out. I am interested because these “transactional” aspects, as some call them, may tell us a lot about the future. And we are hearing a lot about these aspects from the Convention: it was surprisingly “respectful”, many have reported; it was engaged without “acrimony” and “contention”, and despite the momentous topics addressed, people were calm and relatively relaxed. All very different from past conventions, with their hand-wringing, protests, weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Where are all the passionate arguments?” many wondered, breathing a slightly uncomfortable sigh of relief. The explanations for the relative peace breaking out varied: some said that the traditionalists of TEC’ had all been “purged” or disappeared or were simply too exhausted and defeated to raise a ruckus; others said that the church had finally moved to a real “consensus” about previously contested matters of sexuality. “This is who we are!”, the Convention could finally say with some coherence.

The “purging” and the “consensus” explanations are probably both right to some degree. But it is a complicated overlap that merits some reflection. This is what I want to offer now. I have been doing some reading of late on the matter of how church councils “decide” things. And inevitably I have had to delve into some of the social scientific literature on related topics. There are two writers in particular who, I think, have something to say about this particular council we call the General Convention that has just met. And applying some of their broad insights can indeed, I suggest, help us to map the future a little bit. ...

As traditionalists leave TEC, consensus decision-making will prove more and more devoid of accountable divergent thinking, and the decisions made will become less and less informed and representative. This spells danger and self-destruction for the Episcopal Church. Alas, though, the same is true for the exiting groups. From the perspective of decision-making, the loss of divergent thinking will affect traditionalists who leave TEC as negatively in their own sphere as the liberal church they have left behind: alternative views will be suspect as “extreme” and councils “buffered” from their effects; small groups of decision-makers will prevail over the engagement of broad participation; and, just as importantly, the existence of multiple and available choices will spur exit over loyalty. American Anglicanism has never appeared so vulnerable as now (Canada is just a few steps behind).

A warning, then, a warning to all world Anglicans! All you who pass by! Do not touch the American disease! Too many choices, too many fears, insecurities and enmities, too few loyalties. The Anglican Communion cannot turn into an enclave. That is not what Christian communion embodies. Yet, should it simply split apart, it will become a set of enclaves, spreading their little seeds of insularity.

Do read the rest of Radner's essay.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Proclaiming Unbelief from the Pulpit

This morning, while reading the Rev. Dr. Canon Neal Michell's conservative reflections on the positives and negatives of General Convention 2009, I was struck by an experience he shared in the comments to his posting:

While I am not personally acquainted with many of the social liberals who have abandoned the Nicene faith, I do know many who have said they affirm the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, not for the truth they articulate but because we stand in procession of those who have affirmed those words.

However. . .(and this is a true story) sometime around 1996 or so, I was taking a class at Fuller Seminary during the two weeks following Easter. On the Sunday following Easter I attended All Saints, Pasadena. The preacher that Sunday was an assistant on the staff; I do not recall his name. He stood in the pulpit and announced, “It has been one year to the day when on the first Sunday after Easter last year I stood in this pulpit and announced that I no longer believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I must say that after a year of reflection, I have not changed my opinion.

“As you can imagine, I got lots of cards and letters and telephone calls some supportive, many complaining about how I had left the faith. I want to share one in particular with you. It was sent to me by Miss Louise (not her real name). Many of you know Miss Louise. She has been a stalwart member of this parish for over seventy years. She wrote, ‘Dear Father So-and-So. Thank you for your honesty and courage in announcing to the congregation that you no longer believe in the resurrection of Christ. I must say that I have from time to time shared your doubts. However, when the time comes for my funeral at All Saints, please have one of the other members of the staff conduct my funeral.”

The congregation laughed, and I got up and walked out of the church.

Well done Miss Louise and Neal.

How We Conceive of the World

"Shall we conceive of the world around us and of ourselves in it as personal, a meaningful whole, honoring its order as continuous with the moral law of our own being and its being as continuous with ours, bearing its goodness - or shall we conceive of it and treat it, together with ourselves, as impersonal, a chance aggregate of matter propelled by a blind force and exhibiting at most the ontologically random lawlike regularities of a causal order? Is the Person or is matter in motion the root metaphor of thought and practice? That answered, all else follows."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eliminating Evangelism

I was disheartened to see this on Fr. Terry Martin's blog:
A drastically reduced budget has been approved by General Convention. Among the cuts are various programs at the Episcopal Church Center.

I'm sorry to have to inform you that the entire Evangelism program, including my position, has been eliminated from the budget.

Other program officer positions eliminated include Worship and Spirituality, Women's Ministries and Lay Ministry.

All together, 37 positions at the Episcopal Church Center have been cut. No explanation has been offered as to why these programs were chosen for elimination.

One of the most frustrating things about this unexpected development was that it follows right on the heels of the positive time I spent last week with the Evangelism Legislative Committee as they carefully crafted various resolutions. There were plans in place to host evangelism events with our ecumenical partners, create an innovative evangelism "toolkit," and develop training programs for evangelists, among other things. All these resolutions passed both Houses.
To think that "the entire Evangelism program ... has been eliminated from the budget" of the Episcopal Church! And with "no explanation given"?

We Episcopalians love to tout the Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer. As we should. So what about the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)?

In light of how often during the year we typically renew this covenant promise to be evangelists, as well as the general ineptitude of most of us in the Episcopal Church when it comes to claiming and living out what it means to be an evangelist, what does it say that we will not be putting our money where our mouths are?

If, as Jim Wallis has often pointed out, "a budget is a moral document," then the values expressed in a budget that cuts the entire Evangelism program are crystal clear. It says that evangelism is not sufficiently valued at the highest level of our Church to merit funding. Which means it's just not that important, period. Sorry, folks, you'll just have to figure this out on your own at the provincial, diocesan, or parish/mission level.

So what is more important than evangelism? Perhaps this report from The Living Church, which shows that litigation funding was dramatically increased, suggests an answer:
Virtually every department saw a reduction in funding from what Executive Council recommended with the exception of the Presiding Bishop’s Office, especially legal funding. Legal Support for reorganizing dioceses was increased 900 percent to $3 million over the next three-year period. Title IV and Legal Assistance to Dioceses was increased to $4 million, an increase of 122 percent. These items are all categorized under the Presiding Bishop’s Office, whose overall budget increased 15 percent.
This suggests a strong maintenance as opposed to mission mindset. The message this sends is that we will protect the institutional Church at all costs, even if that means failing to do the most basic work the Church exists to do: effective proclamation by word and example of the Good News of God in Christ.

All of this renews my concern that the leadership of our Church has failed to heed the wake-up call issued by C. Kirk Hadaway, our Director of Research for the Episcopal Church Center, in the recently issued "Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey," as well as the report submitted to General Convention by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. Both of these documents very clearly show the crisis we are in, a crisis which we are failing to adequately address. As I've noted on a previous posting, that crisis can be summed up as follows:

Aging membership + conflict + declining financial health + little interest in or understanding of evangelism = no viable future.

It sounds like we are responding to the reasons why we are losing membership and money by not funding efforts to deal with the loss of membership and money.

There may be an elephant in the Episcopal Church living room ...

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year B, Proper 11: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22;
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Listen to the sermon here.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a rock star?

I sure have.

It started when I was a little kid. Once I got over Glen Campbell’s hit single “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy” and had made my passage through Elton John’s “Greatest Hits,” I discovered The Who. And that was it. From then on, I wanted to be like John Entwistle, The Who’s electric bass player who transformed a background instrument into a booming, driving rock and roll force.

And so I took up the electric bass and the dream was born that one day, with the right group of guys (or gals), I’d hit the big time. I’d get to play through a wall of Marshall amplifiers in front of stadium-sized audiences, feeling each note played on the bass pulsating through my body in waves, the crowds of fans roaring with thunderous applause between songs on the set list. And to this day, I have to say that if Bono from U2 or Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters called me up to say, “Bryan, we really need a bass player for our upcoming tour. Can you do it?”, I’d be on the next plane out of Jackson.

Fortunately, my childhood and adolescent dreams of rock stardom have been tempered by reality. Based upon what I’ve learned, the rock-and-roll lifestyle can entail some major negatives. The pressure to put out a bigger hit than the last one only increases over time, and the critics are merciless. The time devoted to recording and touring schedules can tank marriages and family life. There’s no escaping from one’s stardom status, no going for a stroll around the block or shopping at Kroger or out to dinner incognito, all of which can reinforce an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. And it’s a lifestyle that can be dangerous, as the untimely deaths of many of the greats so tragically testify.

It may seem a bit odd, but I’ve come to believe that all of this gives us a window into how Jesus and his disciples might have felt in the midst of their active ministry. For by the 6th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has achieved a kind of superstar status. He can’t go anywhere without crowds of people recognizing and mobbing him. They just want to catch a glimpse of him or touch him or make a special request on his time and attention. It’s gotten so bad that, according to Mark, “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mk 6:31 NRSV). The needs and the demands are endless. Jesus and his disciples simply cannot keep this pace up without burning out. They need a break. They need to get away. And to make matters worse, this whole Kingdom of God preaching tour is starting to get dangerous. As we heard last week, Jesus’ warm-up act – the prophet John the Baptist – got his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. And Jesus himself is increasingly viewed as a threat to the social and religious powers-that-be. Even his own family and the folks back home in Nazareth think he’s lost his mind (can’t this guy get a real job?).

In response to all of this, Jesus invites his disciples to get away with him “to a deserted place” where they can “rest a while” (Mk 6:31 NRSV). He offers them a time-out for renewal. But like the paparazzi finding out that a celebrity is heading to the beach with friends, the crowds discover the plan and get there before Jesus and his disciples arrive. This vacation just isn’t going to happen.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I’ve made plans to do something important for myself or with my family or friends, something I’ve really been looking forward to doing, and those plans get wrecked, I’m not the most pleasant person to be around. So I’m struck by how Jesus responds. Instead of lashing out in irritation and disappointment, and instead of turning the boat around and trying to get away from all these people, Mark tells us that “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34 NRSV). Looking out into that sea of humanity, at all of the nameless faces yearning to see him, the hands reaching out to touch him, the voices crying out, “Jesus, help me!”, our Lord’s “heart was filled with pity” (Mk 6:34 TEV). And acting out of these deep feelings of compassion and pity, Jesus makes time to spend the rest of the day with these needy people. He heals the sick among them. He teaches them about the coming reign of God in which sorrow, sickness, suffering, and death will be vanquished by God’s love, mercy, and justice. He gives them hope for the future, a reason to keep on keeping on. And although we don’t hear it in this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also takes five loaves and two fish and feeds them.

Under the circumstances, it’s amazing that Jesus had the energy and patience to do all of this. But unlike rock stars and other celebrities who, while they may be gifted and even generous persons, are still human, all-too-human, Jesus is a genuinely extraordinary person. Indeed, according to the faith of the Church, Jesus is not just a human being like you and me. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Jesus is true God from true God. As Episcopal theologian James Griffiss so aptly puts it, “Jesus Christ is God’s presence with us in a completely human life” [The Anglican Vision (Cowley, 1997), p. 80]. And that’s the difference between Jesus and the rest of us that makes a difference.

Griffiss spells it out like this:
When we look to Jesus as the truth about God and about our own lives, we believe we are shown that the holy and transcendent God comes to us in all that we have to go through. God comes to us and stays with us, not just as some fleeting presence, a stranger who drops in for a call, but as someone who abides with us in all that really matters in human life: joy, love, a desire for justice, courage, and forgiveness, as well as failure, pain, suffering, and death. … Belief in Jesus calls us to believe that God, the eternal and holy one, is with us in death as in life, in sorrow and in joy. This is what we mean when we say that we believe that God is with us in Jesus Christ [ibid., pp. 84, 86].
Jesus doesn’t come among us just to put on a show, then pack up his gear and leave town. Jesus comes among us to stay. And as the abiding presence of God with us, Jesus has an inexhaustible supply of compassion for human need and weakness. That doesn’t always mean we will be spared difficulties, loss, and heartache. But it does mean that we can rely on Jesus to help us deal with it. We can rely on Jesus to supply what we, as merely human beings, cannot come up with on our own. We can trust Jesus to provide guidance, support, and nourishment for our souls.

But the Christian life is not just about receiving the comfort and nurture of Christ. It’s also about transformation. It’s about the transformation of our hearts and minds so that our thinking, feeling, and acting conform to the One who responds to our neediness and failures with self-sacrificial compassion. It’s about giving ourselves to the world in love just as Jesus gave himself, even and especially when that means the death of our own wills for the sake of God’s will. It’s about receiving the power of God to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 RSV), persons whose lives are changing more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.

And so we can count on Jesus to challenge us. Yes, we take comfort in the knowledge that God loves us just as we are. But God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. So we can count on Jesus to push us to grow. We can count on Jesus to push us beyond ourselves. We can count on him to challenge us to see in life’s inconveniences opportunities to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when they annoy us, interrupt what we’re doing, or wreck our best-laid plans.

The inconveniences, interruptions, and brokenness of this world fill our Lord’s heart with compassion and move him to action. And he wants to transform us so that we can do the same.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Whatever Became of Heresy?

Fourteen years ago, Thomas C. Oden published an essay in The Christian Century entitled "Can We Talk About Heresy?" Oden's basic concerns are perhaps more relevant now than they were in 1995. Given the association of the very idea of "heresy" with intolerance, for instance, I think he's right to suggest that, among mainliners, the only real heresy left is believing in heresy at all.

Here's an excerpt from Oden's essay:

An interloper who steals property must be caught and charged. Thinly disguised atheism and neopaganism are interlopers in “liberated” church circles. They have engaged in the theft of church property. The stolen property must be reclaimed and the thieves brought to justice.

To point this out means raising the issue of heresy. But in the "liberated" church circles of oldline denominations heresy simply does not exist. After centuries of struggle against recurrent heresies, Christians have found a quick way of overcoming heresy: they have banished the concept altogether. With absolute relativism holding sway, there is not only no concept of heresy, but no way even to raise the question of where the boundaries of legitimate Christian belief lie.

This is like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Only we continue to insist on calling it baseball because a game by the name of baseball is what most people still want to see played.

By "liberated" church circles I refer to the sexual experimenters, the compulsive planners of others' lives, the canonical text disfigurers, and ultrafeminists (as distinguished from the great company of godly Christian women who are found at many different points along the scale of feminist reflection). The liberated characteristically understand themselves to be free from oppressive, traditional constraints of all sorts and shapes. "Liberated" is not a term applied from outside, but a term they frequently apply to themselves. By liberated they usually imply: doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, muticulturally tolerant, morally broad-minded, ethically situationist, and above all sexually permissive.

I am not speaking merely of liberation theology in its more thoughtful manifestations as argued by Gustavo Gutierrez or Jurgen Moltmann or Mary Stewart van Leuwwen. I am referring rather to an engulfing attitude that proclaims: we have been liberated from our classic Christian past, from the patriarchalism of Christian scriptures, from benighted Jewish and Christian traditions, and from their oppressive social systems. As a former full-time liberator, I know from experience how mesmerizing this stance can be. The intellectual ethos I am describing is not liberal in the classic sense of that word, but intolerant and uncharitable when it comes to traditionalists of any sort, all of whom are capriciously bundled under the dismissive label of "fundamentalists."

I have the dubious honor of having recently been categorized in someone's computer bulletin board as a heresy-hunter. This gives me the comic occasion to embrace the misapplied description in a specific ironic sense: I am earnestly looking for some church milieu wherein the sober issue of heresy can at least be examined. I am looking, like Diogenes with his sputtering lamp, for a church or seminary in which some heresy at least conjecturally might exist. I have sought for some years to find a theological dialogue where a serious methodological discussion is taking place about how to draw some line between faith and unfaith, between orthodoxy and heresy. But almost everywhere that I have asked about the subject I have found that the very thought of inquiring about the possibility of heresy has itself become marked off as the prevailing archheresy. The archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Just at this point, however, we can glimpse a faint sign of hope: a growing recognition among laity of the need for criteria to recognize orthodoxy, which therefore require some reference to heterodoxy. Just as the impatient adolescent is searching for boundaries, so liberated church leaders are unwittingly pressing their constituency for boundaries. This search for boundaries is essentially what was despairingly attempted at the 1993 "Re-Imagining" conference in Minneapolis. The most anxiety-creating fantasy is that there are no boundaries whatever and never have been.

The rediscovery of boundaries in theology will be the preoccupation of the 21st century of Christian theology. Some within the church-a party I call postmodern paleo-orthodoxy--are increasingly gaining the courage to inquire: Is pantheism heresy? Is reductive naturalism as reliable as any other assumption? Can Christianity make friends with absolute relativism? What would the church look like if it were apostate?

The word "heresy" derives from the Greek term hairesis, which has as its root the word meaning "choice" or "assertive self-will." It implies choosing one's own personal will over against the truth. It is a term that was early applied to interpretations of Christianity that differed markedly from apostolic testimony. It was a term that became important during persecution of Christians who were willing to die for the truth of the apostolic testimony. Under conditions of severe persecution under state tyranny, Christians found it necessary carefully to distinguish the apostolic recollection of salvation from counterapostolic accounts.

But what kind of assertion qualifies as "self-willing against the truth" Since the truth is worth dying for, this is not a negligible question, even if it has been largely neglected since the Enlightenment. Anyone attempting to answer this question since then has had first to fend off hysterical assertions that the question itself is unraisable because of the sordid history of abuses committed since the Counter-Reformation Inquisition. The calm defense of the truth, which is embodied in Jesus Christ, truly God, truly human, requires intellectual patience.

Heresy is less the assertion of statements directly hostile to classic Christian faith than it is the assertion of fragments of apostolic teaching, an assertion of segments that lack the cohesion and wholeness of classic Christian faith. Heresy occurs when some legitimate dimension of faith is elevated so unsymmetrically and so out of equilibrium as to become a decisive principle of interpretation for all other aspects of faith. To do so denies the unity and equilibrium of the ancient ecumenical consensus. Every hairesis against apostolic testimony gives the church a new opportunity to clarify the equilibrium of faith of the ancient Christian apostolic consensus.

Read it all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Getting Conservatives Out of the Way

I spoke with a clergyperson the other day who seemed pretty pumped about what's taking place at the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. In particular, she was referring to resolution D025 (which is widely perceived - even by some folks on the left - as overturning resolution B033 passed by the 75th General Convention). She said (and I'm quoting nearly verbatim):

"It's amazing the progressive things the Church can do now that the conservatives are out of the way."

This comment disturbs me for several reasons.

First of all, it rightly or wrongly gives credence to the perception that the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church is engaging in realpolitik. We'll be nice about it at first. We'll even say that we want to be in relationship with you. But if you stand in our way, we'll make things increasingly difficult for you. We'll defeat every resolution you propose or amend at Diocesan and General Convention. And if need be, we'll force you out to get what we want. For truth be told, we really don't want you around anyway.

Let me be clear and fair here: the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church is no stranger to this strategic mindset. But they're no longer in power. They're no longer around in sufficient numbers to offer a credible counterbalance to an increasingly liberal legislative majority.

Secondly, this clergyperson's comment suggests a staggering disregard for the very idea of catholicity. Looking at the meaning of the word "catholic," Justo L. Gonzalez in The Apostles' Creed for Today writes:

It is often said that this word [catholic] means "universal," and that therefore it is a way of referring to the presence of the church throughout the world. This is partly true. Indeed, most early Christian writers tend to refer to the "catholic church" as the one that is present throughout the world, in contrast to the various sects, which are small and local. But the word "catholic" actually means "according to the whole," so that what makes the church catholic is not its presence everywhere, but rather the fact that people from everywhere are part of it and contribute to it. Therefore, a variety of experiences and perspectives is not contrary to the catholicity of the church; quite the contrary, it is a necessary sign of it.

Getting conservatives out of the way (much less losing communion with Canterbury and a place in the Anglican Communion) means rejecting a "variety of experiences and perspectives," and thus a narrowing of the scope of our Church's catholicity. It means claiming authority to sift the wheat from the tares, deciding who really belongs in the Church and who does not. Those are odd things to do for folks who allegedly profess to embrace inclusion.

This oddness gets reinforced by Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters that "the ideal of catholicity also implies inclusiveness." He writes:

A sect may include only males or females, or white or blacks, or rich or poor, or Democrats or Republicans. We know, in fact, that many Christian denominations in American can be defined in just such terms of exclusivity; they are more notable for whom they exclude than for whom they include. But the ideal church should be one that embraces differences within a larger unity.

If the progressives claim they want to be inclusive, yet in the process of making good on that claim they get conservatives out of the way, then their actions give the lie to their professed allegiance to the ideal of inclusion. Getting conservatives out of the way means rejecting a Church that "embraces differences within a larger unity." It means embracing a Church defined in terms of who gets excluded. If that is really what's happening under the cover of "inclusion," then this means we are becoming an increasingly homogeneous, sectarian and monolithic Church, an increasingly like-minded, left-of-center, "progressive" Church. To my mind, that's no better than belonging to an increasingly like-minded, right-of-center, "traditionalist" Church. Either way, we lose catholicity and comprehensiveness.

And finally, there's a third point (or, perhaps more accurately, a concern) related to the disregard for the Episcopal Church's catholicity suggested by this clergyperson's statement. Perhaps we are entering a time in which we who embrace a generous orthodoxy and who have until now inhabited the diverse center of the Episcopal Church may be finding ourselves the new conservatives. Or at least we will be perceived that way by the progressives who have the power. And the perception of reality is often more important - more consequential politically - than the truth.

If progressives feel like they can accomplish amazing things once conservatives are out of the way, how much more can they accomplish if they get rid of centrists, too?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Would We Lose If We Decided to Go Our Own Way?

It's worth noting Bishop Shannon Johnston's response to this question (he's currently bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of VA).

Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled by request at YouTube, so you'll have to go here to listen to his response.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Gospel Perspective on General Convention

This past Sunday night, the Rev. Canon David H. Johnson (a member of the Mississippi deputation to General Convention) offered some insightful reflections on the character of the debates over various resolutions. I think the larger Church would do well to take these reflections to heart:

... convention is moving slowly but surely toward consideration of various "hot button" resolutions. The debate has been gracious and respectful thus far, and I am grateful for that fact.

There has been a bit of irony, though; one that has been reflected in the lack of personal insight on the parts of speakers from various perspectives. I want to be clear: This observation has applied to each end of the spectrum of these conflicted issues.

This afternoon, a speaker objecting to passage of D-025 referred to the saint whose feast day we observed yesterday -- St. Benedict of Nursia. In objecting to the resolution, the speaker cited St. Benedict's practice of "never moving on until the weakest member of the group could move along with the rest." He contended that passage of D-025 (and others like it) would leave many disaffected Episcopalians behind.

In committee hearings and in other venues, I have heard others -- who support repeal of the 2006 B-033 resolution and similar actions -- speak of the burden and the crosses they have had to bear because of B-033 and earlier actions which discriminated against the gay community.

The irony seems to be this: As arguments are offered, the advocates from each side seem to equate themselves with "the weakest" and those "who have carried the cross" and those "who have been persecuted." There appears to be a true absence of insight into the irony of their positions. The traditionalists appear to feel put-upon and persecuted, as do those who seek to bring about change in how the church values and recognizes gay and lesbian relationships.

My perspective on the gospel is somewhat perverse. It seems to be true that we, as Christians, should seek to outdo one another in showing respect and forebearance. We should be willing "to turn the other cheek." We should not so much "seek to be understood as to understand" (St. Francis' prayer). We should try to be like Simon of Cyrene, and pick up the cross and follow our Lord on the long, rough and winding path to the death of "our way" -- whatever "our way" might be.

The example of Jesus Christ is not one of willful victory, but of self-offering and sacrifice. As that wonderful Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy wrote many years ago, "The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. But let us pray for but one thing: the marvelous peace of God." Christ never promised us victory -- except over death. The quest for victory of self and one's own perspective is not, I think, divine in its origins. The ability to bear and understand one another's pain is profoundly Christian. That is a worthy goal for all sides of the debates which began today in the House of Deputies and will continue in the days to come.

There is plenty of pain, loss, grief and alienation on all sides. That, I think, is the common ground we can share at the foot of the cross. In that, we can find our unity. In sharing that, we can find community that goes beyond the need to prevail.

Read it all.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Who Has the Pulse, Bishops or Deputies?"

That's part of the title of an interesting piece written by the Rev. John Ohmer. He thinks that the House of Bishops better reflects the views of the rank and file in the Episcopal Church than the House of Deputies.

Here's a teaser:

One irony of the General Convention is that the House of Bishops is more representative of the folks back home than the House of Deputies.

Conventional wisdom is that the House of Deputies, made up of lay people and local clergy who have to stand for re-election every three years, has the pulse of the people back home. Thus the cacophonous, sometimes raucous nature of the House of Deputies as diverse constituencies battle it out in a Convention Center of ideas.

Meanwhile, the thinking goes, the House of Bishops, made up of men and women who are elected to serve, even in retirement, until death, gather in carpeted, quieted rooms voting their consciences at round tables, secure in the knowledge they can ride out an unpopular vote back home.

But the reality is different.

Read it all.

Also, read Fr. Ohmer's additional reflections on this topic here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Equates Reciting the Creed with Idolatry

Or at least that's the impression that one might get from what she said in her opening address to the 76th General Convention.

Her remarks were first brought to my attention by the Rev. Greg Jones at "The Anglican Centrist." Here's the snippet he quoted:
Reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus ... [is] a form of idolatry ... putting me and my words in a place that only God can occupy ....
My jaw dropped a bit when I first read this. However, it's misleading to say that this is a direct quotation. Here's what she actually said in context:
The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.
The crises to which the Presiding Bishop here refers include "caring for the most vulnerable," "the needs of the poorest around us," "the inclusion of those who do not have full access to the life of this Church," and the lack of "the same kind of financial resources to address [these matters] that we had three years ago." Using the strong language of "heresy," I think she's saying that Western individualism - the belief that each one of us are autonomous beings who are free to act or not as each of us sees fit as though we are not fundamentally dependent upon one another - is a falsehood that not only undermines the Church's mission and ministry, but also misconstrues the fundamentally corporate character of salvation. (I note that the Presiding Bishop is not alone in labeling individualism a heresy. Conservatives like Deacon Phil Snyder have done so, too, as evidenced here and here.)

I think it's important to note this context in which the Presiding Bishop makes her remark about "a specific verbal formula about Jesus" before leaping to the conclusion that she is equating reciting the Creed with idolatry. No doubt, her critics on the far Right will leap to precisely that conclusion. And to be fair to those critics, some of the Presiding Bishop's statements on matters of core doctrine in the past have been, at best, vague and equivocal to the point of suggesting readings at variance with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

Having said that, over at "The Anglican Centrist," Fr. David offers a charitable reading of the Presiding Bishop's words that are worth pondering:
I think that what the PB was referring to is the lone individual who in the dark of the night says, "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior," considers themselves "saved," or "born again," but then never finds a church where they can be a living member of the Body of Christ.
And at the same site, Chad offers another charitable reading:
Words without action are merely words vis-a-vis idolotry.

Just because one merely assents to a creed or a belief system does not make one a "member" or included in the group.

... I think our evangelical brothers and sister do have at least this correct: To merely say that you are x, y or z doesn't make you x, y or z. We shouldn't just say what we believe; we should "live" it. At the end of it all, we truly live how we believe, i.e. if we live charitably toward others, we are charitable. If we merely give lip service to it, yet never engage in bringing about the justice and righteousness of God (mishpat), then we aren't charitable and our statements about our beliefs are an empty crock of you-know-what.

And again:
She is not slamming salvation or the means of grace found in it, but the modernist's insistence that a "personal" relationship with God is all that matters.
Bill Carroll succinctly sums up this charitable reading: "Correct verbal formulae, in the absence of right practice, are not salvific."

While I am inclined to give the Presiding Bishop the benefit of the doubt along the lines of these readings, I also think that Bill Carroll is right to say that her words are "poorly chosen." He explains as follows:
I do think she should have been far more careful in choosing her words. There are plenty of people in the Episcopal Church who would look at any affirmation of basic dogma and say "Your God is too small." This is a petty and dangerous evasion of the task of sound doctrine. ...

I do think that what the Presiding Bishop chose to say (in prepared remarks) was a risky and unhelpful thing to say, given the rather loose attitude toward doctrine that prevails among some in our church.
The "rather loose attitude toward doctrine" in the Episcopal Church is an expression of the individualism which the Presiding Bishop rightly castigates as heresy. And yet, in the very act of rejecting that heresy, her words about the non-salvific character of "reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus" can easily be heard in our cultural context as a rejection of the need for any corporate confession of faith, as though it doesn't really matter what we say we believe as long as we're doing the right things vis-a-vis social justice, etc.

But, of course, it does matter what we say we believe.

Given the rampant individualism, subjectivism and relativism of our hypermodern culture - tendencies which reinforce conceptions of "spirituality" that entail a "drive-thru window" or "cafeteria pick-and-choose" mentality - one of the most odd and countercultural things we Christians do is stand every Sunday and recite the words of a creed hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the 4th Century. It is a radical and even subversive act to not only recite the words of the Nicene Creed, but also to mean what we say.

Here, for example, is what Luke Timothy Johnson writes in an essay entitled "The Countercultural Creed":
Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it made them in today's world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.
Johnson continues this train of thought in an essay entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed":
For Modernity, belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure. Creeds involve faith, and faith makes statements about reality that can't be tested. Everyone knows that statements can be true only when they don't really say anything about the world or when they have been empirically tested. Creeds are therefore structures of fantasy. One cannot be both a believer and a critical thinker. Creeds also express convictions held by a group of people, and for intellectual elitists, the many is always a herd, and a herd will always believe what it is told. A creed negates the need for individuals to seek truth as a quest for authenticity. To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority. Better to stay silent than to speak a single word that is not a personal testimony. ...

I think that the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them. This is the precondition to their celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world.
Given the importance of the Creed for not only laying the foundations for Christian community and commitment, but also for "challenging the dominant conceptions of the world" that precipitate and perpetuate the crises noted in her opening address to General Convention, I wish that the Presiding Bishop would be as clear about the need for right belief as she is about the need for right action.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Two Truths

Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment.

Let one be: “For my sake the world was created.”

And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunam

Friday, July 3, 2009

Two Tracks in the Revised Common Lectionary

In comments on another posting a while back, someone asked me a question about the relationship between the Old Testament reading and the rest of the readings in the Sunday lectionary after the Day of Pentecost. I thought it might be interesting to post some of my reflections on this for others.

During the season after the Day of Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary, there are two tracks for the Old Testament readings. For the sake of continuity, parishes are supposed to choose one or the other.

Track One is a semi-continuous reading of major Old Testament books. So starting in June through mid-August in Track One, Year B, quite a bit of 2 Samuel is read.

By contrast, Track Two is a Gospel-related track in which the Old Testament reading is selected because it has some sort of thematic connection to the Gospel reading appointed for the day. So during the same June through mid-August period during Year B, this track features numerous Old Testament books, including Ezekiel, Job, Amos, Jeremiah, Exodus, and Proverbs. This is a very similar approach to what we have in the now defunct Prayer Book lectionary.

The idea behind Track One is a laudable one, i.e., that we tend to short-change the Old Testament in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, and that we need to hear more of the Old Testament and be more familiar with it. And also that if we're hearing the development of some of the great Old Testament stories over the course of successive Sundays, there are unique opportunities for preaching that otherwise might be missing.

The Achilles heel of the Track One approach is the assumption that you have a sufficient critical mass of persons who actually come to church Sunday after Sunday to hear the unfolding of the Old Testament readings in this way. Since Memorial Day, attendance where I serve has been sporadic (a typical and predictable summertime pattern). Which means that if we're using Track One, many of our people are going to miss huge chunks of the story. So when they come to church, it's sort of like sitting down to watch a 2 hour movie when you've missed the first 90 minutes.

An additional issue is that the Track One approach quite often has Old Testament readings that do not have any thematic connection whatsoever to the Epistle or Gospel readings for the day. That can create a sense of dissonance for preacher and parishioner alike.

A couple of years ago we used Track One, but for the past two years we switched to using Track Two. In light of the problems raised above, I'm more pleased with the Track Two approach.

Which track are you using in your parish and why?