Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Narcissism Goes to Church

Reformed speaker and writer Dr. Monte Wilson takes a critical look at the current state of worship in evangelical churches in an essay entitled "Narcissism Goes to Church: Encountering Evangelical Worship." A friend brought the essay to my attention, and while reading it, I couldn't help but be struck by ways in which the problems Wilson identifies cannot be confined to evangelical circles alone; indeed, we can find much of this stuff creeping its way into The Episcopal Church.

Here, for example, is how Dr. Wilson describes what's happened to the opening of many evangelical services:

"Good Morning!" bellows the greeter, Mr. Rapport. "Why don't we stand and greet one another?" While every-one nervously pretends to happily welcome those around him with body language that says, "I can't believe he made us do this," Mr. Rapport will walk up and down the aisle shaking hands with the members, kissing babies and, in essence, acting as if he were running for office. (Maybe he is.)

What is this? It is the evidence of the modern proof of God's presence: Warmth and Fuzziness. The service must have the correct ambiance. People must feel wanted, even needed--or they will go elsewhere. Not long ago, the normal service would begin with Bible reading and prayer, declaring the congregation's allegiance and submission to Christ. Today, our allegiance is to user-friendliness.

Perhaps in The Episcopal Church we have our own parallels to this sort of thing. Maybe during the announcements, the priest sets a super casual tone by cracking jokes and going out of his/her way to convey the message, "Yes, I'm a priest decked out in these vestments, but I'm really just like you, and I'm your buddy." (I'm guilty of having done that!) Or maybe, instead of maintaining an ethos of reverence before the service begins, everybody is so garrulous that they have to speak louder and louder in order to be heard over the Prelude. A tone is set that's more akin to attending a Rotary Club meeting or a cocktail party than entering into the presence of the Holy.

Then there's Dr. Wilson's description of the preacher:

It is now time for The Reverend Doctor Raconteur. First, he will tell a story. Now this yarn need not have anything to do with the message, but it must assure everyone that he is a) glad they are there; b) capable of wowing them; c) a real master of the pulpit; and d) just plain folk, like all of them. If he fails to accomplish one of these objectives, he is in trouble. If he fails in two, his job is in jeopardy.

It doesn't matter how well educated in theology the minister is because he will rarely deal in theology: the real need is psychology and entertainment. The man must move the audience. He must make them feel loved, needed, wanted, appreciated, cared for and special--reeeeal special--all in one message. Content is secondary, if it is relevant at all. What matters is that the minister is personable and able to make every individual present feel like he is talking just to him.

It is not just the people's ego being stroked here, but the minister's as well. He moves, he cries, he laughs and he woos. The spotlight is his. He is on center stage and loving it. Men revere him, women adore him and children laugh at his jokes: all stand in awe of his skills. What a life! Except, that is, when there is no response from the people. He stands at the back door and receives only the most mundane of compliments. No one is saved. No one spoke to him of his brilliant performance. No one fell down at the altar. Nothing visible, nothing audible, nothing happened, period. And what of his ego, now? It is dashed. He is a failure. No one appreciates him. No one knows his toil, his anguish--his insecurity and the ravenous hunger of his ego for approbation.

Don't some of us in Episcopal Holy Orders fall into this trap, too? Don't we sometimes go for telling "feel good" stories that connect with the biblical readings at best tangentially, talking about ourselves and our own experiences as though our own subjective histories are surer guides to God's truth than Holy Scripture? (I've done that before, too.)

I don't mean to suggest that it's never appropriate for clergy to share their experiences and their stories from the pulpit, especially when that serves the purpose of illuminating the truth of the Gospel. But talking about ourselves in the pulpit can be dangerous. It's so easy to simply use scripture as a way to buttress my own preferences and experience, and to use the pulpit as a means for therapeutic catharsis and for emotionally manipulating the congregation ("How can they not like me after what I just shared with them this morning?").

Dr. Wilson also offers his diagnosis that modern American Christianity

... is filled with the spirit of narcissism. We are in love with ourselves and evaluate churches, ministers and truth-claims based upon how they make us feel about ourselves. If the church makes me feel wanted, it is a good church. If the minister makes me feel good about myself, he is a terrific guy. If the proffered truth supports my self-esteem, it is, thereby, verified.

Whence does this error spring? What is its source? One source is the belief that salvation is solely due to an experience of conversion, rather than to what happened on the Cross of Christ. Most Christians today define their salvation exclusively in terms of what happened to them subjectively, having no notion whatsoever of the objective basis for their salvation. This in turn focuses all of their attention on anxiously caring for that experience.

I suggest that another source is the common modern presupposition that experience is the foundation for belief. This cannot be so, however, because experiences do not happen in vacuums. People experience something or someone. The question, then, becomes, "What or Who has been experienced?" The "What" or "Who" must be interpreted. And simply because the Who or What was encountered in a religious setting does not mean that the encounter was sent by God.

One of the attractions for basing beliefs and theologies on experience is that it gives various religious groups a common starting point for ecumenical dialogue: "We have all experienced Jesus (or Truth or the transcendent God), have we not?" But this begs the question: who is going to verify exactly Who was experienced and by what standard shall they make their evaluations? How shall we ascertain if we have experienced God or Truth--or have only been experiencing ourselves?

To those who say that experience is The Standard for evaluating truth, goodness, beauty, etc., Luther had an interesting question. On Good Friday, when the disciples stood before the Cross, where was God? Was he not absent? For years they had experienced him on a daily basis; now he was demonstrably absent. Jesus himself cries out that God had forsaken him. Now, what do we believe? Well, as Luther pointed out, we had better believe the theology of the Bible.

When we allow experience or feelings to guide our faith we will end up in a ditch. Our feelings will tell us that God is absent while, all the time, he was right there "present in a hidden manner." What we need, then, is a theology with which to interpret our experiences.

I hear an allegiance to Almighty Experience voiced quite often in The Episcopal Church. It's become the fourth leg of the so-called "three-legged stool," and a touchstone for truth that can trump the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. How do I know this is right or true? I just feel so deeply that it is. And who is anyone else to question or invalidate my feelings?

Dr. Wilson sums up the "mantra" of modern evangelicalism as follows:

I feel, therefore, I am.

I do not feel God; therefore, something or someone is wrong.

I feel God; therefore, whatever is being said and done must be The Truth.

I feel good; therefore, I am good.

I feel needy and my needs are demands on your abilities and possessions.

I've rarely attended evangelical worship services, but all of this sure sounds familiar.

Read it all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Are You Saved?

Few questions create more terror in the hearts of Episcopalians than this one. It's even scarier than alluding to - much less openly talking about - the "E" word (Evangelism).

And yet, few questions get closer to the heart of what the Christian faith is really all about. And even fewer questions have been so distorted by the individualism and neo-gnosticism of the pat answers offered in response that I've heard most of my life in the heart of the ultra-Protestant, Southern Bible-belt.

When this topic has come up, I've seen and heard Episcopalians struggle mightily with how to respond. They know they don't want to go for the judgmentalism and condemnation that some of them have fled from. But they often aren't sure what to positively affirm. And so, all too often, I hear language about "being on a journey" with absolutely no idea about why we're on it, why we'd want to be on it (much less why we'd invite others to join us), or where we're heading.

All the more reason for why I love this video in which an Orthodox Christian responds to the question, "Are you saved?" According to the information at YouTube, "Text is written and read by Molly Sabourin, a freelance writer focusing on issues of family, faith, and community." She answers the question in three interconnected ways:

  • I was originally saved over 2,000 years ago ...
  • I am being saved, daily, ...
  • I will, Lord have mercy, be saved, at the great and final judgment ...

Would that more Episcopalians could be so confident and articulate.

Watch it all:

Using the Liturgy

In a blog posting entitled "Control," Fr. Tony Clavier strikes a chord that rings deep within me. Here are the two paragraphs that hit home:

Today there are many of us in TEC [The Episcopal Church] whose spirituality and doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) has been shaped by the way we worship. We are alarmed by those whose religious experience is framed not by our structural heritage but by a religious experience which looks to an “authority” above and beyond the language and temper of our liturgy. Some are ultra conservatives, framed by “charismatic evangelicalism” and many, convinced that the church is not a safe home, have abandoned TEC and formed their own home.

The ascendant and dominating party in our church describes and limits our heritage in the light of their cultural, social and “justice” issues. For them the contents, structure and ethos of our worship is no longer the law of faith and of prayer, but a neutral reality which may be used as a vehicle for their reforms.

Using the liturgy for our own purposes and agendas, we miss the possibilities for spiritual, moral, and theological formation it offers. But in order for that formation to happen, we have to be willing to submit ourselves - to give ourselves over - to the shaping power of liturgy and common prayer. We have to trust something (and Someone) larger than ourselves to help shape us as the selves God would have us become. Perhaps the loss of autonomy that entails frightens some of us. Or perhaps some of us are just so hell-bent on making the Church over in our own image (because we just know we are right in doing so) that liturgy really doesn't really matter. Liturgy is just a tool, a means to more important ends, an expression of interests, an ecclesial manifestation of the will to power.

As an Episcopalian once said in my presence, "Maybe one day we'll get a Prayer Book that's relevant." I heard that to mean, "Maybe one day we'll get a Prayer Book that suits my ideas about what's good, beautiful, and true." That way of thinking doesn't fit well within a tradition which emphasizes common prayer. But that way of thinking may be just one of the many challenges to retaining and living the tradition we have received.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Anglicanism and the Ecumenical Councils

As someone who appreciates the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the topic of Anglicanism and its relationship to the seven Ecumenical Councils intrigues me. And so I read a recent article published in The Living Church by Samuel Keyes entitled "Viewpoint: Anglicans and Councils" with great interest. Here are some excerpts:

Perhaps it should go without saying that the Anglican Communion has a mixed history with the seven ecumenical councils. Like the Orthodox, Anglicans cannot accept Rome’s reduction of “ecumenical council” to mean a general synod called by the pope. Yet I suspect that most Anglicans — including many who call themselves Anglo-Catholics — remain deeply suspicious of claims to “infallibility” about councils, even when, regarding the seven, such a notion is held consistently in both East and West.

This suspicion is unfortunate—or so I hope to show in this brief essay. It is unfortunate first of all because it ignores the grammar implicit in calling something an ecumenical council. A council becomes ecumenical not because, crudely, everybody was there, but because it was eventually received as having proper dogmatic authority in the whole world. ...

What any conception of “ecumenical” takes for granted, then, is that in order to call something ecumenical one must be part of the Church. It is the Church itself, as the Body of Christ, that reveals its wholeness, not some external secular principle. Accordingly, we cannot seek to judge the councils from some neutral ground. That, in Vladimir Lossky’s words, “would be to judge Christianity from a non-Christian standpoint: in other words, to refuse in advance to understand anything whatever about the object of study. For objectivity in no wise consists in taking one’s stand outside an object but, on the contrary, in considering one’s object in itself and by itself” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976], 12). ...

Where does all this leave us as Anglicans? Our problem, as has been made painfully clear in the current crisis, is that we do not really know who we are. It will not do to defer to scripture as if scripture stands outside the catholic and ecumenical tradition, for this attitude easily suggests, however unintentionally, that we read the scriptures alone, and that we alone mediate their interpretation.

Instead, let us follow the vision of Lambeth 1920, at which the bishops urged “every branch of the Anglican Communion” to “prepare its members for taking their part in the universal fellowship of the reunited Church, by setting before them the loyalty which they owe to the universal Church, and the charity and understanding which are required of the members of so inclusive a society” (Resolution 15).

Read it all.

While noting that the very idea of following the ecumenical vision of Lambeth 1920 is all but laughable for The Episcopal Church these days (and one either laughs in sorrow or joy), I read Keyes as offering a critique of the sola scriptura approach that, as he puts it, places the authority of scripture "outside the catholic and ecumenical tradition." It's a critique of the tendency towards hyper-Protestantism in The Episcopal Church on all sides, a tendency that places Anglicans/Episcopalians outside the Universal Church.

In other words, I read this piece as a critique of the "three-legged stool" model of authority that pits scripture over and against tradition as though the two can be so neatly separated. As Keyes writes, "To the fathers, truth was not an achievement, but a gift - a tradition (literally: handed down). The scriptures were the heart of this gift, but they could not be abstracted from the giving." Abstracting scripture from the tradition that gives it, scripture loses its grounding in truth and becomes simply another manifestation of division (rival wills to interpretation). That, too, is another manifestation of the "Protestant prerogative" to assert one's own individual conscience over and against the Universal Church.

As one Eastern Orthodox Christian who read this article told me: "Scripture simply makes no sense outside of tradition. The idea that the Ecumenical Councils' job was the interpretation of scripture would strike us as bizarre."

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year B, Proper 20: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Listen to the sermon here.

How could they? How could they act like that?!!

This is the second time Jesus has openly and clearly told these guys what’s going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. He’s going to be arrested, tortured, and killed. There will be suffering that stretches and challenges everyone to the breaking point. But there will also be new life on the other side because Jesus will rise again on the third day.

It’s a difficult message to take in, no doubt about it. A suffering, dying Messiah challenges all of the preconceived ideas the disciples have about the Messiah being a warrior king who comes to town to wipe the floor with his enemies. But for the second time, Jesus has been clear about his mission and his fate.

So, after hearing this again, what do the disciples do? Like school boys showing off on the playground to try and impress the girls, they squabble with each other about who’s ‘Number 1.’ With the shadow of the cross and Jesus’ death looming larger and larger on the horizon, they’re bickering and sniping at each other about status, jockeying for positions of prestige and power, concerned with their image and what other people think of them and how important they are.

Mark’s observation is dead on: when they heard Jesus’ passion prediction, “they did not understand what he was saying” (Mk 9:32). Their actions prove it.

But why? Why don’t they understand? These are the people closest to Jesus, the people who have the privilege of knowing him, seeing his manner of life up close, hearing his teachings and seeing him put them into action. So why, of all people, do they lapse into the very “bitter envy and selfish ambition” we hear condemned in this morning’s epistle lesson (James 3:14)?

It’s not because they aren’t smart enough to get it. The problem goes deeper. For according to Mark, the disciples “were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:32).

They were afraid. They were filled with fear. They heard something from Jesus that upset everything they thought they knew, everything that seemed so central and basic to their identity as God’s people. And so they were afraid to ask Jesus, “What are you talking about?” “What does this mean?” “You’re going to be killed and we’re your followers, so what’s going to happen to us?” “Are we going to be okay?” Rather than face their fears, they distance themselves from Jesus by asserting the importance of their individual agendas.

It’s easy to look down our noses at the disciples for this. How could they be so shallow and gutless? But ironically, we fall into the very same trap of vanity if we think we’re better than them. Instead, Mark invites us to see ourselves in the disciples, and thus to see how our own response to Jesus’ call to follow him all the way to Calvary’s cross can be governed by fear.

If we accept Mark’s invitation, we may discover that we’re really not all that different from the disciples. Don’t we also fear the unknown? Doesn’t the call to follow Jesus beyond the safety of our preconceived ideas, and beyond the doubts and questions that keep life-changing answers at arm’s length, stir up anxiety within us? Don’t we sometimes find ourselves recoiling at the very idea of giving ourselves over to something or someone other than ourselves, sacrificing our independence and autonomy, submitting our freedom to think and act as we please to a way of life that promises to change who we are, what we value, and what we live for? Don’t we sometimes fear what it might mean to completely turn our lives over to Jesus?

When I look at my own life, I have to say that there have been many times when the answer to those questions has been “yes.” I remember, for instance, when I began my graduate work in religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early 90s. I was a seriously lapsed Methodist at the time, and deeply skeptical and suspicious of the Church. I didn’t understand persons who actually took the faith of the Church seriously enough to regularly show up for worship. It all seemed too good to be true, this business of God actually becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth, much less rising from the dead.

But the deeper truth of my skepticism was that I was hiding behind my academic work. I was taking refuge in intellectualism as a defense against intimacy with God, a convenient way for me to get close enough to the faith (I could just study it as an intellectual exercise) without having to actually commit to anything or anyone. I was afraid of being seen as “one of those people,” as someone who might get labeled a “fundamentalist” to the alienation of my friends. I was afraid of having to change. And yet, behind the walls of my defenses, I was haunted by the echoes of a call I had heard since my childhood, a call that very simply said, “Follow me.”

Long story short, it was the Episcopal Church that started breaking down my defenses. When I found this Church, I found people who were willing to welcome me just as I was with all of my doubts and my fears, but who also were not content with letting me stay that way. I found a connection with God through the liturgy and the music, and particularly in the Eucharist. Over time, through participating in the week-in, week-out rhythms of Sunday worship according to The Book of Common Prayer, I found myself changing. I discovered new depths of meaning and treasures in places I never dreamed they could exist, including the words of a Creed hammered out over 1600 years ago, words which initially seemed cold and sometimes even intellectually odious, but which over time became a mystical opening into life-giving relationship with the Triune God. I discovered that one can embrace the faith of the Church articulated in scripture, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book and still be a thinking Christian. And, perhaps most important of all, I re-discovered Jesus as Lord and Savior.

As it turned out, my deepest fears came true. The Church and her faith were challenging and changing me. I found myself wanting to know Jesus and to make him known. I became willing – ever so slowly – to turn my heart, will, and mind over to God. And eventually, I found myself open to responding to a call to the priesthood that, in my skepticism and fear, I never would have conceived possible, much less desirable!

Even so, I still have a long way to go before I let go of all of my defense mechanisms against the divine. Too often, I reserve the right to be the Lord of my own life. And when I look at the promises in our Baptismal Covenant, I find that there is still so much within me that needs conversion.

But I’ll bet that’s probably true for all of us. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And so none of us are where God would like us to be. We all have a long way to go.

And so we continue to struggle with our questions, our doubts, and our fears. Like the first disciples, we sometimes resist the way of the cross, afraid that it will hurt us, that it will ask us to part company with beliefs, attitudes, and habits which we simply cannot imagine living without.

And yet, here we are, gathered for worship. Here we are, opening ourselves to a relationship with the One who calls us to follow him all the way to Calvary’s cross and into a way of life that asks us to die to ourselves – to let go of our narrow, self-interested agendas for the sake of embracing and serving a world filled with the poor, the suffering, the lonely, the sick, and the marginalized. Here we are, showing up in response to the message that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. And whether we consciously know it or not, here we are saying “yes” to the invitation to share that message with a world desperate for the Good News of God’s truth in Jesus Christ.

We can’t know for sure where that will take us, what it will ask of us, or how it may change us. So why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because, in our worship and in our fellowship, we come to know the healing power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We come to know the One before whom all our hearts are open and all our desires are known, the One who sees it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – yet still loves, forgives, and embraces us. In coming to know and love the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, we come to know and love our true selves. And we discover that fulfillment of our lives comes from doing what Jesus did: giving ourselves away in love for God and our neighbor.

May we accept the embrace of God in Jesus Christ by opening our hearts and our minds to the life-giving, life-changing faith that has sustained and empowered followers of Jesus for almost 2000 years. And may we know the perfect love of God that dispels the darkness of our fears.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Pirate Creed


Today is "International Talk Like a Pirate Day." In honor of such a special occasion, I'm sharing again this year the Nicene Creed translated into Pirate Talk (such as might be used in a Pirate Eucharist):

We believe in one God, the Almighty Admiral,
Maker o’ heaven and ‘arth,
and o’ all things natural and ghostly.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
T’only Son o’ God, says I, eternally begotten ‘o the Admiral,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, nar made,
‘o one Bein’wi’ the Father.
Through him all things t’were made.
Far us and far arr salvation
he opened the hatch o’ heav’n
and dropped into the hold:
by the pow’r ‘o the Holy Ghost
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made a swabbie.
Fer arr sake he was keel-hauled by that the scurvy dog,

Pontius Pilate;
and was sent t’ Davy Jones’ locker.
On the third day he came back in accardance with the book;
he ascended into heaven
and be seated at the right hand ‘o the Admiral.
He will come again in glory t’judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will ha’e no end.
Avast then!

We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the giver ‘o life,
who proceeds from the Admiral and the Cap’n.
With them two, he be worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one dunkin’ far the forgiveness ‘o sins.
We look far the resurrection ‘o the dead,
and the life o’ the world t’come.
So says one, so says us all. Aye aye.

And here are the Pirate Guys to to help us learn "The Five A's":

Be sure to visit the "Talk Like a Pirate Day" website for more tips on how to appropriately observe the day.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Edward Bouverie Pusey

Today the Church commemorates Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882).

Here's what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about him:

The revival of High Church teachings and practices in the Anglican Communion, known as the Oxford Movement, found its acknowledged leader in Edward Bouverie Pusey. Born near Oxford, August 22, 1800, Pusey spent all his scholarly life in that University as Regius Professor of Hebrew and as Canon of Christ Church. At the end of 1833, he joined Keble and Newman in producing the Tracts for the Times, which gave the Oxford Movement its popular name of Tractarianism.

His most influential activity, however, was his preaching - catholic in content, evangelical in his zeal for souls. But to many of his more influential contemporaries it seemed dangerously innovative. A sermon preached before the University in 1843 on "The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent" was condemned without his being given an opportunity to defend it, and he himself was suspended from preaching for two years - a judgment he bore most patiently. His principles were thus brought before the public, and attention was drawn to the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. From another University sermon, on "The Entire Absolution of the Penitent," may be dated the revival of private confession in the Anglican Communion.

When Newman defected to the Church of Roman in 1845, Pusey's adherence to the Church of England kept many from following, and he defended them in their teachings and practices.

After the death of his wife in 1839, Pusey devoted much of his family fortune to the establishment of churches for the poor, and much of his time and care to the establishment of sisterhoods. In 1845, he established the first Anglican sisterhood since the Reformation. It was at this community's convent, Ascot Priory in Berkshire, that Pusey died on September 16, 1882. His body was brought back to Christ Church and buried in the cathedral nave. Pusey House, a house of studies founded after his death, perpetuates his name at Oxford. His own erudition and integrity gave stability to the Oxford Movement and won many to its principles [Lesser Feasts and Fasts, (Church Publishing, 2006), p. 384].

I'm pleased to share the anniversary of my ordination to the transitional diaconate with Pusey's feast day.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sunday Worship as Sabbath-Keeping

Even though I still think there are good reasons to not refer to Sunday as the Sabbath, the following thoughts on what constitutes Christian holiness and politics in light of the commandment to "remember the sabbath day and keep it holy" are worth pondering.

In our Sunday worship Christians serve the world by showing the world that God has not left us alone and that we have good work to do. In its Greek derivation, liturgy means ‘the work of the people.’ Worship is the work God does with us to show the world a manner of life that could not be known had not God vindicated Jesus.

Sabbath keeping is a defense against the exploitative, purely pragmatic, and ruthlessly utilitarian tendencies of the world. Like the Jubilee year in which Israel was to free slaves and land, so the Sabbath ought to be our time to enjoy one another.

The Christian Sabbath … is when Christians perform one of our most radical, countercultural, peculiarly defining acts – we simply refuse to show up for work. It is how we put the world in its place. It is how we take over the world’s time and help to make it God’s time. It is how we get over our amnesia and recover our memory of how we got here, who we are, and in whose service we are called.

We need to take time to separate ourselves from the world’s disorder so that the world might see true order.

Political holiness is not simply obeying this or that law. Christian politics is constituted by the worship of the true God found in Jesus Christ. It is politics that assumes we have all the time in the world, eternity, in a world of deep injustice and pain, to take time to worship. In an unjust world, we either want anxiously to take time into our hands and right the wrong on our terms or, worse, to acquiesce to the injustice, giving it sovereignty, assuming that God cannot or will not work in time to do a new thing. Sunday worship is thus a radical protest from the world’s time, a time when we literally take time to rejoice that in Jesus Christ God has made our time his own.

Stanley M. Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, The Truth About God:
The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (1999).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Anglicanism is a Nonsense Religion

It appears that, in his dismissal of the Anglican Communion as an "imaginary community" created to justify the oppression of dissidents and minorities, Frank M. Turner isn't the only one on a roll with trashing Anglicanism these days.

Fr. John Hunwicke, priest-in-charge of St. Thomas the Martyr Church in Oxford, England, has some rather pointed words to say about Anglicanism in a recent blog posting. Here's a teaser:

Anglicanism is a nonsense religion, a dim, pathetic, ridiculous superstition, developed within the last 150 or so years. ... The sooner that 'Anglicanism' is shovelled into the trash-can of History, the better.

Read it all.

Thanks to BillyD for bringing this to my attention in a comment on a previous posting.

Trashing the Anglican Communion

In an essay entitled "The imagined community of the Anglican Communion," Frank M. Turner defends The Episcopal Church by trashing the very idea of the Anglican Communion:

Over the past twenty years proponents of what is called “The Anglican Communion” have sought to establish ... [an] imagined ecclesiastical community among various provinces around the world whose churches derived in some fashion from the Church of England. In the case of the Episcopal Church the derivation of Episcopal orders was not direct but through the Scottish Episcopal Church and its character was strongly influenced by its eighteenth century American setting. The so-called Anglican Communion exemplifies a religious version of Anderson’s “imagined community.” At its most banal, the Communion exists to justify bishops traveling about the world on funds contributed by the baptized. At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people. In this respect, it this ecclesiastical imagined community replicates in its drive to exclusion the persecution that ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of dominant nationalist groups from the early nineteenth century to the present day. ...

One of the reasons for the use of “Anglican Communion” as part of what the Archbishop of Canterbury terms “our identity” resides quite simply in the hubris of the claim that the Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian denomination in the world after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is, however, important to recognize that the churches in this communion are not all the same, represent distinctly different histories and cultures, use different prayer books, different liturgies, and different modes of ecclesiastical governance. ...

The good that the Archbishop of Canterbury seeks to achieve is the unity of an imagined Anglican Communion that has virtually no existence in reality. In support of that unity he willingly sacrifices the ordination of women in some dioceses, the appointment of women to the episcopate in some churches, and the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from ordination and the episcopate. For the sake of unity of a communion that does not really exist, he has (perhaps unwittingly) fostered turmoil, dissension, and schism. ...

Read it all.

"More than a via media" offers an insightful, critical response to Mr. Turner:

Turner's history of American Anglicanism is, to say the very least, abbreviated. He fails to mention that for a century before 1776 Anglicans in the American colonies, without indigenous bishops, relied on English bishops to ordain their priests and deacons. That they used the Church of England's 1662 Book of Common Prayer. That they described themselves as members of 'the Church of England'. That when Seabury sought episcopal consecration he turned first to the English bishops and only after a refusal on political grounds was consecrated by Scottish bishops.

Turner has engaged in historical revisionism in order to support the radical doctrine of provincial autonomy. He seeks to deny that Anglicanism emerged from the pattern of theological reflection, liturgical and pastoral practice, and threefold orders experienced in the post-Reformation ecclesia Anglicana. He denies that this tradition has shaped national and local churches that have emerged across the globe.

What [Turner] emphasises instead of a shared Anglican tradition is a distasteful ecclesiastical version of American exceptionalism. ... It has, of course, familiar ring. It is a baptised version of the Declaration of Independence. Here, then, is TEC's charter for independence, its Manifest Destiny.

Despite the morally distasteful fact that his essay uses LGBT persons as a means to the end of justifying American ecclesial independence, Mr. Turner's frontal assault on the very idea of Anglican catholicity as a form of false consciousness at least has the merit of clearly and decisively answering the question raised by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his 2006 statement The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: "Are we prepared to work at a common life which doesn't just reflect the interests and beliefs of one group but tries to find something that could be in everyone's interest - recognising that this involves different sorts of costs for everyone involved?"

Mr. Turner - and most of the commentators responding to his piece - have answered this question with a resounding, "No!"

I submit that it is precisely this answer to this question that is starting to make many moderate Episcopalians jump off the ship currently steered by our national leadership. If that's true, it bodes ill for a Church that continues to hemorrhage money and membership.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Doctrine is a Verbal Icon of Christ

Fr. Stephen strikes again.

From the Desert Fathers:

Malicious sceptics visited Abba Agathon to see if they could annoy him. They had heard that Agathon possessed great discretion and self-control. They spoke directly to him, "Agathon, we heard that you are an adulterer and full of pride."

He answered, "Yes, that's true."

"Are you the same Agathon who gossips and slanders?"

"I am."

"Are you Agathon the heretic?"

"No, I am not a heretic."

"Why did you patiently endure it when we slandered you, but refuse to be called a heretic?"

Agathon answered, "Your first accusations were good for my soul, but to be a heretic is to be separated from God. I do not want to be apart from God."

Christianity inhabits a confused and confusing world of religious belief. There are those among us (including the Orthodox) who use the label "heretic" too easily. There are others for whom the word has no meaning – they are indifferent to doctrinal belief.

One reason for this particular confusion is that, for many, doctrine inhabits a space called "opinion" and they are right not to give much weight to opinion. My opinion in doctrine does not matter. Others recognize that doctrine matters (the history of the Christian faith bears witness to this) but still do not make a proper distinction between opinion and doctrine.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is "a verbal icon of Christ." That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of "right opinions" but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.

I perceive the power in this.

And so I encourage you to read it all.

Nailed by Scripture

As I was proofing this coming Sunday's bulletin today, I laughed out loud when I saw the first sentence of the assigned reading from the letter of James:

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

This was so striking to me because this Sunday is when we at St. Andrew's Cathedral kick off our Fall formation offerings for children, youth, and adults. What a timely Word from the Lord on the day when all our teachers begin their classes! And what a timely word of warning to those who use the privilege of teaching in a church setting to promote agendas that call into question or even tear down the faith of the Church.

Monday, September 7, 2009

No Easy Religion

Fr. Tony Clavier offers food for the soul in his sermon for Pentecost 15:

Jesus offered no easy religion to his disciples and he offers no easy religion to us. We don’t much like that. So often we think of faith as some sort of insurance policy against suffering, hurt, betrayal, sickness and death itself. Like Peter we don’t want a faith that goes there. We want a return for our investment. We want our rights. We want our freedom. The list of our wants go on and on. Like Peter we don’t want Jesus to suffer but is that in part because we don’t want to be caught up in his suffering?

It is easy to deal with the sufferings of others at a distance. We may support causes, write checks, travel to meetings in our nice cars and utter revolutionary thoughts! We may be attacked by those who oppose our views. What a comfortable martyrdom. Yet always there, behind the altar, on the wall, however tasteful or ornate, is the Cross. “If any would follow me they must take up their cross.”

Yet even at the gate of death we cry Alleluia. So speaks the language of our Prayer Book. If our faith isn’t an escape from hurt, isn’t a faith about a Messiah who comes to do it all for us, it is a faith which brings us extraordinary joy in walking the way of the cross through death into life.

Read it all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Faith and Doubt

Over at "The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic," Joe Rawls calls our attention to a great article by Fr. Martin L. Smith recently posted at Episcopal Cafe. Smith's article is entitled, "Welcome the doubters, but challenge them too." Here's how he begins:

"Come with your doubts; you’ll find a hospitable community here wherever you are on your faith journey." Reviewing the Web sites of Episcopal churches you often will encounter a deliberate appeal to those who have difficulties believing in some elements of the Christian faith. Certain churches proudly present themselves as havens from the demands of fundamentalist or orthodox communities. Fair enough, but is it enough to be a haven, which exists only to shelter?

In line with Smith's review of church websites, I note that at the Cathedral I serve, our bulletin sleeve includes this language: "Historically, Anglicanism allows and encourages honest struggle with the deep questions that faith encompasses. In that spirit, we at St. Andrew's welcome you to walk with us in whatever stage of certainty or doubt you find yourself. ... Both your talents and your questions will find a safe home here."

But as Smith rightly asks, "is it enough to be a haven, which exists only to shelter?" If all we do is shelter, much less encourage, doubt and skepticism, it's difficult to see how we form persons as committed disciples of Jesus. I sometimes get the feeling that, among the more progressive-minded Episcopalians I know, the whole point of being the Church is simply to "live the questions," endlessly deferring any answers (no matter how final or even provisional), assuming for ourselves the authority to pick and choose the doctrines and scriptures we deem normative, tailoring discipleship to our own subjective needs and desires. But Smith reminds us that our task is go deeper, and that doubts can provide an opportunity to do precisely that:

A church which welcomes those who identify themselves as doubters is called to be a place of risk and venture in which the actual experience of questioning is explored with candor and even rigor. A community content to vaguely affirm people where they are and leave their issues unexamined and unchallenged would be just as spiritually inauthentic as a complacently orthodox community. A goal for any Episcopal church would be to develop tools for publicly interpreting the various meanings of doubt. It would be good if in preaching and teaching, pastoral ministry and group discussion we demonstrated skills in diagnosing a wide spectrum of experiences that come under the abstract heading of doubt.

Smith continues by discussing the differences between several different kinds of doubt, including"healthy developmental doubt," "doubt as visitation," "mystical doubt," and doubt as a "defense mechanism." Smith is worth quoting on the latter:

Then there are entirely different kinds of doubt, which instead of serving faith, are defense mechanisms against it. So in our congregations there are those who rely on doubt for keeping Christ at bay. We need to get better at detecting the emotional dynamic that is frequently at work under doubts that are often presented as purely rational problems or even badges of sophistication. There are those whose doubts about the resurrection, doubts about the real presence, doubts about Christ, function as rationalizations for a basic dread of intimacy with the divine. In these cases intellectual agnosticism shields one from the possibility that Christ might actually touch or enter us, making us utterly vulnerable to being loved, moved, led and changed. It is good to keep on setting out good arguments for the truth of basic Christian doctrines, but they won’t be effective unless we recognize the emotional dynamic of fear and resistance that may well be fueling a person’s unbelief as they take up our offer of hospitality and inclusiveness.

As frustrating as it can be to deal with persons in the Church whose way of expressing doubt lies in questioning or even denying core tenets of the Christian faith while pushing the progressive BCP (Borg/Crossan/Pagels), it's important to heed Smith's counsel. It may be that doubt as a defense mechanism against intimacy with the divine, an emotional dynamic of fear and resistance to commitment, lies beneath the surface. I know that was true for me many years ago when I was so enamored with such authors. I was keeping Christ at bay, fearful of what it might mean if I opened the door of my life to him. Sure enough, things did change for me (I never in my wildest dreams, for instance, could have imagined I'd end up ordained as a priest!). And I'm quite sure that I still have a long way to go before I let go of all of my defense mechanisms against the divine. And so Smith's words serve as a much-needed call, not just to challenge doubters, but to do so with genuine humility.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bishop Paul Jones

Today the Episcopal Church remembers Paul Jones, a bishop and peace activist. Here’s James Kiefer’s summary about Bishop Jones:

Paul Jones was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. He attended Yale University and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was ordained and served a mission church in Logan, Utah. In 1914 he was made Bishop of the Missionary District of Utah.

He was an outspoken pacifist, and when World War I began in 1914, he spoke against it. As the war progressed, and when the United States entered the war in 1917, many Americans were vehement in holding that pursuing the war was a moral duty, and opposition to the war was immoral. In the spring of 1918, yielding to pressure, Bishop Jones resigned as Bishop of Utah. He continued to speak out within the Church as an advocate of peace and the Christian renunciation of war, until his death on 4 September 1941.

Bishop Jones was also a founder of the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship (established on November 11, 1939). On May 24, 1965, the name was changed to the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

In his statement before the House of Bishops on October 18, 1917, here is some of what Bishop Jones had to say before his resignation:

We all feel that war is wrong, evil, and undesirable. Many even feel that war is unchristian but unavoidable as the world is now constituted, and that the present situation forces us to use it. Some contend that this is a righteous war, and that we must all fight the devil with fire, even at the danger of being scorched, or all the ideals which we hold dear will go by the board, and therefore we are solemnly, sadly, and earnestly taking that way.

In spite of my respect for the integrity of those who feel bound to take that course, and in spite of the knowledge that I am occupying an unpopular and decidedly minority point of view, I have been led to feel that war is entirely incompatible with the Christian profession. It is not on the basis of certain texts or a blind following of certain isolated words of Christ that I have been led to this, for I am not a literalist in any sense of the term; but because the deeper I study into it the more firmly I am convinced that the whole spirit of the gospel is not only opposed to all that is commonly understood by the word “war,” but offers another method capable of transforming the world and applicable to every situation which the individual or the nation is called to face.

If we are to reconcile men to God, to build up the brotherhood of the kingdom, preach love, forbearance and forgiveness, and stand for the good even unto death, then I do not see how it can be the duty of the church or its representatives to aid or encourage the way of war, which so obviously breaks down brotherhood, replaces love and forbearance by bitterness and wrath, sacrifices ideals to expediency, and takes the way of fear instead of that of faith. I believe that it is always the Church’s duty to hold up before men the way of the cross; the one way our Lord has given us for overcoming the world.

I know that some good people believe that in this present crisis we are following the way of the cross, but I think that it is a false analogy to say that the sacrifices we and the allies are making are analogous to our Lord’s sacrifice. He did not die to save his mother or the apostles, or to punish evildoers, but rather died the just for the unjust. … Moreover, because Germany has ignored her solemn obligations, Christians are not justified in treating the sermon on the mount as a scrap of paper.

Prayer is, I believe, the best test of the whole matter. If it is right and our honest duty to fight the war to a finish, then we should use the Church’s great weapon of prayer to that end; but the most ardent Christian supporter of the war, though he may use general terms, revolts against praying that every bullet may find its mark, or that our embargoes may bring starvation to every German home. We know that those things would bring the war to a speedy, triumphant close, but the Church cannot pray that way. And a purpose that you cannot pray for is a poor one for Christians to be engaged in [Documents of Witness: A History of the Episcopal Church 1782-1985, edited by Don S. Armentrout & Robert Boak Slocum (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), pp. 339-340].

And here’s an excerpt from a pamphlet Bishop Jones wrote during his tenure as Bishop of Utah:

As a Christian Bishop, charged with the responsibility of leadership, I would be deserving only of contempt did I remain silent in the present crisis, when the Christian standards of judgment are apparently being entirely ignored. The day will come when, like slavery, which was once held in good repute, war will be looked upon as thoroughly un-Christian. At present it is recognized as an evil which nobody honestly wants, but not yet has it received its final sentence at the bar of Christian morality. Only when Christian men and women and churches will be brave enough to stand openly for the full truth that their consciences are beginning to recognize, will the terrible anachronism of war between Christian nations be done away [quoted in John Howard Melish, Bishop Paul Jones: Witness for Peace (Forward Movement Publications, 1992), p. 54].

Bishop Paul Jones had the courage to publicly stand firm for what he believed. And he willingly paid the price for taking that stand.

You can read more about Bishop Paul Jones here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Death of Our Cat

Nellie had been missing for several days, and my wife has described what that was like better than I could on her blog. Beautiful and oftentimes temperamental, Nellie was a faithful companion for almost 12 years, living with us through five moves, two dogs, two children, and another cat.

After the removal of a tumor, she spent most of her time this summer lounging around in the carport. We knew her time was limited. So when she went missing we figured she had gone off to die. We were right. The neighbors found her body by their fence. I knew retrieving her body would be bad, but after several days of decay, it was worse than anything I could have imagined.

After moving her body and digging her grave in hard ground through tough roots, sweating and fighting off mosquitoes, I couldn't help but think about the horror of death. Yes, death is a part of life. It's "natural." But only in the wake of the Fall, when the world had become subject to evil and death, could the word "natural" be used for the word "death." God does not intend the putrid horror I saw and smelled when I came across Nellie's body today. God does not intend the heartache and grief I see in my wife and children, even over a pet.

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his servants" (Psalm 116:13 BCP).

Can the same be said of an old, beloved calico cat dying alone by a fence?