Wednesday, October 14, 2009

At Clergy Conference

I'm writing from the Duncan M. Gray Conference Center where I'm attending this year's annual clergy conference for the Episcopal Diocese of MS. It's always good to see my brother and sister presbyters and deacons. This year, we have so many new clergy in the diocese that it seems like there's one person I don't know for every three or four that I do know.

This year we're joined by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and author of the 7th volume in the New Church's Teaching Series entitled Opening the Prayer Book.

Many of my more conservative brother and sister clergy were angered by Bishop Lee coming to be with us, in large part due to his involvement with the Chicago Consultation (the website says that this group's "principal focus is on strategies for advancing the inclusion on GLBT people in the sacramental life of the Church").

In spite of theological differences, however, I think it's safe to say that everyone in the room was impressed and moved by the talk and spiritual direction that Bishop Lee just walked us through (I certainly was). It's the first of several talks/meditations, and this one was on woundedness. Bishop Lee was very vulnerable with us as he shared his own woundedness over the premature birth of his son, and he has invited us to "show" our wounds in the expectation that our wounds are the places where we encounter the wounded Christ. Upcoming talks/meditations will focus on gifts and on healing, and on how both are connected to our woundedness.

Bishop Lee and his wife are musically gifted, and as someone who also loves and plays music, I was struck by one thing in particular that he said:

"The Christian life is a practice, not a performance."

UPDATE: October 15

After two more meditations with Bishop Lee yesterday afternoon and last night, I'm afraid I must qualify my initial enthusiasm. When he first spoke to us, he lamented the polarization of the Episcopal Church and the ways in which we reduce one another to slogans. And yet, with each successive session, he becomes increasingly bold in saying things that almost seem targeted to antagonize conservatives. And it's working.

He has an interesting way of prefacing certain things by saying, "This may sound heretical, but ..." And then he says something that does, indeed, sound somewhat heterodox if not heretical.

I didn't pick up on all of this so much in the second session (my conservative friends sure did, though), but I did during his meditation in the midst of Compline, especially when he boldly declared himself a Universalist and denied any substitutionary character to the atonement (I would have to conclude that he's not very big on Rite I). He said that the sacraments don't do or change anything, but simply reveal what is already the case: that we are loved and saved by God in Christ. And in what came across to some as a jab against orthodoxy per se, he said that we don't have to do anything right or believe anything right. Grace takes care of everything.

While I'm reconstructing this from memory and am hoping that we will get a copy of all or some of this to back up my memory, I can confidently say that I'm hearing antinomian and somewhat Gnostic overtones to some of this. Indeed, some of what Bishop Lee is saying sounds like it's in the same ballpark with the stuff I read from Kevin Thew Forrester, the former bishop-elect of Northern Michigan (my series of postings on Forrester can be read here). I'll be listening carefully this afternoon.

In the meantime, it saddened me last night to hear one of my best clergy friends say that every time "he" comes to a gathering such as this, "he" leaves feeling disheartened and more disconnected from the diocese and the Episcopal Church.


Joe said...

Rev'd Owen,

The comment from your clergy friend as stated in your last sentence is fairly close to how I felt when I left Western Louisiana's Diocesan Convention last week, and I did not have to suffer through meditations with Bishop Lee (that Bishop Gray would choose him as your convention guest speaks volumes about your bishop).

I am afraid that the future for the orthodox within TEC is very bleak indeed. Feelings of being disheartened and disconnected from our dioceses and from the national Episcopal Church are only going to grow more and more intense.

That said, I am not yet called to leave my church. Truth be told, I do not see any good option as an Anglo-catholic. I'm not yet ready to swim the Tiber.

My understanding of the Old Testament is that God's love for his creation is steadfast. God will provide a path, of that I am sure. No doubt God has a purpose in not making the path easily visible. I pray for continued patience.

Of late I think often of a little plaque on my kitchen wall that gives to me the essence of the psalmist's message from the Twenty-third psalm, a message of comfort, hope and reassurance: "The Lord is my Shepherd; that is all that I need."

God's peace.

Joe Roberts <>< (Cotton Country Anglican)

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing your concerns, Joe. It's perhaps always been difficult for Anglo-Catholics in some parts of TEC, and perhaps increasingly so in more and more of TEC these days. My clergy friend sure feels it.

I don't know how all of this needs to be resolved, but I do pray for a way ...

Joe Rawls said...

If I'm not mistaken, I think Lee voted to confirm Thew Forrester's election.

Bryan Owen said...

Wow, Joe! Any way we can confirm this?

plsdeacon said...

According to the Stand Firm tally, I don't see Lee of Chicago listed, but the Standing Committee of Chicago did consent.

Bryan, did you expect anything different from +Lee? Heresy often starts out sounding good and reasonable. It is not until it is full grown do we see how ugly it really is. Someone needs to teach our clergy and people that the correct way to punctuate any statement that start out "This may sound heretical but" is to put a period after the word "but." If it sounds heretical, then it probably is.

There are several things that we may not like about Christianity or what it teaches. We may find them out of step with our culture or our ideals. It sounds sooo much better to say that we don't have to do anything because God does it all and, so, no one will ever be damned. But that is not what Scripture teaches. When will we recall that Christianity is a revealed religion and not one where we get to make the rules?

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Points all well taken, Phil. As to your question "what did I expect?" In any particular case, I try to be as open and fair-minded as I can be. That was my approach to Bishop Lee as well, who, by the way, said and offered much that was very good. He strikes me as a very sincere and kind person. But he also strikes me as perhaps sincerely mistaken about some points of doctrine. Nevertheless, because he is a bishop, I will continue to respect him and the office he holds.

Joe Rawls said...

After a good half-hour of googling, I cannot find out how +Lee voted on the Thew Forrester confirmation. If he in fact voted "no", I apologize for suggesting otherwise.

bob said...

Yes, I recall when Lee was in his parish in Medina, WA...About 6 years ago. A command performance for my nephew's baptism. His sermon was on the Transfiguration, or as he would have it, the Apostles' hallucinations of a transfiguration, due to early morning, mist and lack of sleep. "This may sound heretical..." Oh, it did. It was. How else would he make bishop? Interesting that he was a Nashotah House graduate. Once that actually meant something.

The Postulant said...

Hmm. I'm disappointed to hear these things about Bishop Lee, whom I knew slightly from my days at Notre Dame, when he was Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. (The NI clergy of those days are taking over the world: two others are bishops and another is rector of St Mary the Virgin.) Are you at all dismayed at the prospect of having him again next summer at the Mississippi Conference?

I am reminded again of how fortunate I've been in my bishops.

Bryan Owen said...

Not sure how to answer your question about music and liturgy conference. Bishop Lee is a genuinely nice and decent person who has much to offer. It's the curveballs that concern me.

bob said...

There seems to be a great difficulty for people to be able to say "I like the guy, but his teaching is out to lunch". I know people who knew James Pike who *could* make the distinction. Time to grow up and do the same with Lee. Alot to offer? Here's Lee on Trinity Sunday(By the way, if you want to see pure waffling and inept speaking, this is the Sunday sermon to look for on any Anglican parish website. The one Sunday a year they have to say *something* about *THAT* topic) in 2008:

It is a painful read. More painful to think he was the best they could find, either in Medina or Chicago.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing the Trinity Sunday sermon, bob. And I agree that it is important to make the distinction between someone being a nice, likable person on the one hand, and the nature of their beliefs and teaching on the other hand.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to read this about bishop Lee. There are a lot of us who think it is possible to be inclusive without giving up on orthodox creedal Christianity--indeed, who want to reaffirm it with new energy. It seems to me that greater openness for the different forms human sexual love may take should lead away from gnosticism and other such heresies, not toward them.

I wonder if there is a generational issue here, i.e. whether at some point a kind of crystallization occurred with sexual inclusivity became tied to theological liberalism (in the bad modernist sense)for some people. I don't thing the same is true for a younger generation, or for those older people like myself who found their way back to the church in more recent years, when maybe it's been easier to separate the issues.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing this perspective, Anonymous. I, too, wonder if, at some point along the way, "a kind of crystallization occurred with sexual inclusivity became tied to theological liberalism (in the bad modernist sense) for some people." That does, indeed, seemed to have happened in some cases.

Both in personal relationships and through the blogosphere, I know homosexual Christians who are creedally orthodox. Not long ago a gay man in a committed relationship approached me with his deep concerns over the Presiding Bishop's apparent willingness to jettison the uniqueness of Jesus in the economy of salvation. Based upon some of what I've read in the conservative blogosphere, that's not supposed to even be possible!

Since it appears that the Episcopal Church is heading in a direction that favors the kinds of changes on the moral and sacramental theology front advocated by members of the Chicago Consultation, my hope is that those who espouse such changes and who embrace creedally orthodox Christianity will prevail over theological liberalism (in the bad modernist sense). It will be a disaster for the Episcopal Church if the bottom completely falls out and the official Prayer Book theology embraces what I was hearing at clergy conference, namely:

(1) Universalism;
(2) a denial of the substitutionary, sacrificial character of Jesus’ death on the cross;
(3) a denial of the efficacy of the sacraments;
(4) a rejection of Jesus' miracles;
(5) a reduction of the Paschal Mystery to a spiritual pattern built into the "way things are" that everyone experiences as a matter of course in their lives; and
(6) an affirmation of an antinomianism which says that we do not have to believe or do anything right (which effectively rejects both orthodoxy and orthopraxy per se).