Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why the Church is in Trouble

Not everybody liked Walter Russell Mead's criticism of the liberal prophetic witness of some Episcopal bishops which I noted in my previous posting. It's received far more comments elsewhere than on this blog. And from what I can tell, some conservatives uncritically embrace Mead in his blog posting "Sunday Jeremiad: Petty Prophets of the Blue Beast" with glee (which troubles me as it suggests taking pleasure in the decline of our church). On the other hand, some "progressives" offer knee-jerk, defensive responses that make me wonder if they've actually read Mead's piece.

The fact is that the Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging money and membership. We are on life support. And regardless of what anyone's politics or theology may say about the pressing social and moral issues of the day, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a time when the fields are ripe for harvesting (perhaps particularly among the 20-30 something crowd).

In an earlier posting, I summed it up like this:

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

In a piece posted earlier this month, this is how the aforementioned Walter Russell Mead puts it:

The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination). Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners. And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year. The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try. People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices. When my dad was a young priest in the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina back in the late 1950s the bishop had a secretary and that was pretty much it for diocesan staff. These days the Episcopal church is in decline, with perhaps a third to a half or more of its parishes unable to meet their basic expenses and with members dying off or drifting away much faster than new people come through the door — but no respectable bishop would be caught dead with the pathetic staff with which Bishop Baker ran a healthy and growing diocese in North Carolina back in the 1950s. ...

Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are. And it isn’t just Anglicans. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell. Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking. Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors.

There’s another parallel structure: the seminary system. Peter, James and Paul didn’t have any degrees or professional training, but that is not good enough for us today. Our priests, elders, ministers or whatever we call them must be professionals. They must have graduate degrees from an accredited institution with a tenured faculty and, best case, a large grassy campus. These schools are expensive; students need to take out very large student loans, which must be paid back out of the salaries which, increasingly, shrinking congregations can’t pay. The tenured faculty, like tenured faculties everywhere, is generally less interested in teaching than in ‘research’ into various arcane but no doubt highly interesting ideas that can be published in peer-reviewed journals. Science! Progress! When it comes to theology, they are more interested in academically hot new ideas than in that boring old stuff that has been around forever.

Of course, like almost all academics, seminary professors must sometimes put their research aside and trudge into the classroom, but when they do (like their colleagues and peers in so many universities and colleges across this great and dysfunctional country of ours) they often want to teach recondite and abstract subjects rather than the dull, pragmatic bread and butter topics that church pastors actually need to understand. There are glorious exceptions: but we have somehow built ourselves an unsustainably expensive and cumbersome system which is geared to produce and support dysfunction.

Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ). Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.

In the spirit of Martin Luther, let me post a provocative thesis on the wall: If virtually the entire regional and national staff of every mainline denomination were to be called home to heaven overnight in a mainline version of the Rapture, leaving only the equivalent of Bishop Baker and his secretary in their place, I am sure that someone somewhere would notice a difference, but the effect on either the spiritual state of American Christians or the health and well being of local congregations throughout the United States would be hard to detect with the naked eye.

Maybe that goes a bit far, but it’s much too close to accurate for comfort.

Those bureaucracies, institutions, and assumptions: It’s holy crap and it’s got to go.

What would we do instead? Scale down and build a mission-centered church.

Some may read Mead as attacking the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches. Harsh as his words may sound, I don't think that's accurate. On the contrary, his criticism aims for a positive end, as the last two sentences in what I've quoted suggest (and as the rest of the piece demonstrates). And while he may not be 100% correct in his analysis or in his take on what to do about our decline, I think he's pinpointed some hard truths that we who love the institutional church do well to take a look at it. For if he's even partly correct, our very survival may depend on it.

Read it all.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Walter Russell Mead: Episcopal Bishops Should "Shut Up"

Just in time for Lent, Walter Russell Mead offers a blistering (and no doubt controversial) look at the current state of the Episcopal Church in a blog posting entitled "Sunday Jeremiad: Petty Prophets of the Blue Beast." Here's how he begins:

There’s nothing like Lent for reflecting on the sins of other people; I thought I’d start at the top — with the bishops of my own church. As the Episcopal church along with the other mainline Protestant denominations diminishes, we don’t have to look far to see bishops and leaders who are largely failing in their core assignments: to tend to the health and promote the growth of the congregations in their area. Yet even as we have fewer and fewer effective and successful leaders, we have no shortage of political, ‘prophetic’ bishops. When they can, they meet with world leaders and jet off to exotic locales to bring peace and fight for justice. When they can’t do that, they sign statements of concern, issue reports and otherwise tug on the skirts of an indifferent public seeking attention for their political views.

In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960’s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions. The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort. I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform. Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes. It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King. Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause. The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea. This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter. Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both. A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics. I’m urging them to shut up. More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.


The jeremiad continues as Mead addresses the following four theses:

  1. Nobody cares what you think while your tiny church is falling apart.
  2. American Episcopal bishops have so spectacularly screwed up their relations with Africa that they are in no position to lecture secular leaders on international politics.
  3. In the contemporary world the job of the clergy isn’t to provide political leadership. It is to help laypeople grow into better, wiser political leaders.
  4. The Blue Social Model isn’t the Kingdom of God.

Read it all.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who Receives God's Mercy

"The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Repentance is the Door and the Path

As we begin the season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, I share some thoughts on repentance from Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn't really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.

This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren't enough.

We don't feel like we're rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you're automatically sinless.

A second popular myth is this: We're nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn't it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we're nice when we're comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.

Finally, there's the ever-popular conviction that we're still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn't judge one person against another, he doesn't grade on the curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we're really, truly sinners, because we see people so much worse than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we're just so gosh-darn nice.

The problem in all these cases is that we're comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly. And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.

Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.

Archbishop of Canterbury's Reflections on Lent

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, reflects on Lent as a time to "Sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy: 2

"If we wish to pull down the prosperous oppressor we cannot do it with the new doctrine of human perfectibility; we can do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin. If we want to uproot inherent cruelties or lift up lost populations we cannot do it with the scientific theory that matter precedes mind; we can do it with the supernatural theory that mind precedes matter. If we wish specially to awaken people to social vigilance and tireless pursuit of practise, we cannot help it much by insisting on the Immanent God and the Inner Light: for these are the best reasons for contentment; we can help it much by insisting on the transcendent God and the flying and escaping gleam; for that means divine discontent. If we wish particularly to assert the idea of a generous balance against that of a dreadful autocracy we shall instinctively be Trinitarian rather than Unitarian. If we desire European civilization to be a raid and a rescue, we shall insist rather that souls are in real peril than that their peril is ultimately unreal. And if we wish to exalt the outcast and the crucified, we shall rather wish to think that a veritable God was crucified, rather than a mere sage or hero. Above all, if we wish to protect the poor we shall be in favour of fixed rules and clear dogmas. The rules of a club are occasionally in favour of the poor member. The drift of a club is always in favour of the rich one."

Requirements for Receiving Holy Eucharist

This is a slightly revised sermon I preached on the first Sunday of Lent a few years back. It's the only time I've even mentioned in a sermon what must surely these days be one of the most neglected parts of the Prayer Book: the Exhortation at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist, Rite I. While I may not have put all of this as elegantly as others could, I hope I've at least landed in the ballpark of faithfulness.

From the beginning of the Anglican tradition, the Prayer Book has included an Exhortation to worthy preparation for Holy Communion. We don’t use it much anymore, but it remains an important part of our tradition. So this morning, I’m going to read it and use parts of it as the basis for the sermon.

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory in the Church evermore. Through him let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise, which is our bounden duty and service, and, with faith in him, come boldly before the throne of grace (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 316-317).

Wow! That’s pretty heavy stuff. We just don’t hear that kind of language much in church anymore. It’s more than a little scary to think that Communion is a dangerous sacrament, that we could “receive it improperly,” drinking from a cup of damnation rather than a cup of salvation (BCP, p. 316). But that’s what the Exhortation, following the apostle Paul, teaches.

Perhaps that serves as a counter-cultural reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not politically correct. There are limits to its inclusiveness. And some of those limits surface in our Church’s understanding of the requirements necessary for receiving Holy Eucharist.

There are three requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal Church. These include sacramental, moral, and theological requirements.

First, there’s the sacramental requirement. Our Church teaches that only persons who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit may receive Communion. Many of us may remember a time when you had to also be confirmed before you could receive. The change came with the 1979 Prayer Book. The change is partly an attempt to conform our practice to that of the to early Church, back when there was no such thing as confirmation. But the 1979 revision is also an attempt to submit to the authority of Holy Scripture by conforming our practices to the New Testament understanding that baptism alone is the sacramental gateway to full membership in the Church.

Baptism is a once-for-all event. You don’t have to do or receive anything else to be fully initiated into Christ’s Body the Church. And as a full member, every baptized person, including infants, has a “right” to receive Holy Eucharist. A possible exception to this rule are non-Episcopal Christians whose churches teach that they cannot receive Communion from another church. So, as a bare minimum requirement, you have to be baptized to receive Holy Eucharist.

There are also moral requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist. These include self-examination, repentance, and reparation. Remember what the Prayer Book’s Exhortation says:

“Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone” (BCP, 317).

Notice that the Exhortation does not say if you have offended. It presumes the same truth we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans: that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That’s also why the Ash Wednesday liturgy speaks of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP, p. 265; emphasis added). All of us are guilty of taking God’s grace in vain, and all of us are in need of repentance. And there are few better ways to discern where we’re taking God’s grace in vain than by examining our lives against the 10 Commandments and the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.

The point of comparing ourselves to God’s expectations is not to beat ourselves up. On the contrary, it’s an encouragement to return to a loving and gracious Lord, choosing the way of life rather than the way of death. True repentance is not about mouthing a general confession for sin. True repentance means being sincerely sorry for our sins and shortcomings, owning up to what we’ve done or left undone, and genuinely desiring to amend our lives. We have to be ready to do what it takes to set things right.

Of course, that can be much harder than it sounds. Sometimes we get stuck in the mud of resentment, guilt, or shame and we can’t get ourselves out. If that happens, the Church stands ready to help. That’s why the Prayer Book’s Exhortation reminds us of the sacrament of reconciliation or private confession with a priest. It’s a way to help us lay hold of God’s forgiveness so that God’s grace can pull us out of the mud. As your priest and pastor, I am always available to provide this sacrament of private confession, not only during Lent, but at any time of the year.

Baptism, self-examination, repentance, and reparation: those are the sacramental and moral requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist in our Church. If all of this seems like a lot of fuss, that’s because of the theological requirement: that we recognize the Lord’s Body – the Real Presence of the risen Christ – in the consecrated bread and wine.

Anglicanism maintains that by the end of the Eucharistic prayer, after we say the great “AMEN” printed in all capital letters, the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a way we cannot fully understand, the bread and wine have been transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Few Anglicans hold the Roman Catholic theory of transubstantiation, largely because we believe that what happens in the celebration of Holy Eucharist is a wonderful and sacred mystery that defies rational explanation. You don’t have to have a theory to believe in and respect the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist any more than you have to have a theory of love before you can get married, give your spouse a hug, or believe that your mother really loves you. Even without a theory of how it happens, we do believe that it happens. When Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” and when he took wine and said, “This is my blood,” he wasn’t being cute or dramatic. He really meant it, both then and today. That’s the inspiration for the wonderful line in our hymnal attributed to Anglican priest and poet John Donne:

He was the Word that spake it,
he took bread and brake it,
and what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it (
The Hymnal 1982 #322).

That’s why we don’t throw leftover, consecrated bread in the garbage bin or pour leftover, consecrated wine into the sewer. Such careless actions invite judgment by desecrating the Lord’s Body and Blood. Likewise, the Exhortation calls upon us to do the work of self-examination prior to partaking of the Real Presence of our Lord lest, by our careless reception, we show disrespect for the one who died that we may live.

Our Church’s requirements for receiving Holy Eucharist are not meant to scare us off. On the contrary, they are meant to instill within us a holy reverence and respect for the incredible gift we receive every time we celebrate the Eucharist. For we receive nothing less than Christ himself. We receive his risen life into our souls and bodies. And made one with Christ and one with each other we receive the assurance of God’s gracious and loving intention towards us.

What a precious gift the Holy Eucharist is for us, and what a privilege to receive it. May we never take it for granted.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy

I recently started reading G. K. Chesterton's 1908 classic Orthodoxy. After only a few pages, I was so taken with it that I posted as part of my Facebook status: "[Reading this book is] like walking into the sunshine and breathing in fresh air after spending a day in a cramped, dark room." Responses were interesting, particularly the observation from one person that "Orthodoxy per se and walking out into sunshine and breathing fresh air seem so very much to me like oxymorons." Back when I was younger, I shared that view. I do so no longer. And so I find that the following passage from Chesterton's book really strikes home why orthodoxy is, indeed, freedom, life, and adventure.

"This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next moment she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom - that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

~ G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)

Moving Beyond Modern Chauvinism

Does the study of God require a special temperament?

According to Thomas C. Oden in his book Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009), the answer to that question is "yes." Here's what he writes:

Just as a wise judge requires a judicial temperament, or a teacher a pedagogical temperament, so does a good mentor in Christian truth require a "theological temperament." The classic Christian pastors referred frequently to certain tempers, dispositions, or habits of mind that tend to engender responsible study of God. However much modern skepticism may disparage these qualities, they remain important ideals, if not imperatives (p. 189).

Oden includes the following among the necessary "habits of mind" for the study of God (pp. 189-191):

  1. Humility in the Face of Truth.
  2. Reverence.
  3. Patience.
  4. Prayer for Divine Illumination.
  5. The Heartfelt Obedience that Faith Elicits.
  6. Integrity.
  7. The Willingness to Suffer for the Truth.

With few exceptions, I do not recall professors holding up a single one of these "habits of mind" as ideals worthy of emulation when I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. On the contrary, what I most remember was the implicit, and at times explicit, exaltation of the omnicompetence of experience over and above scripture and tradition. Sometimes reason was given its due, but it was defined and practiced as, by and large, autonomous reason (i.e., reason not beholden to the boundaries and limits set by scripture and tradition). Typically, it was experience that was held up as the supreme locus of authority. While both reason and experience were rarely defined with precision, it was consistently made clear by the institution that, like dogs, they should be chained within a politically correct fence. As a result, anything handed down to us by scripture and tradition that didn't fit within that fence was subjected to sometimes brutal assault by a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of suspicion. I was left with the impression that the Christian tradition has largely sold us a bill of goods tainted with the evil of oppression, and thus in critical need of revision or even rejection for the sake of "justice" or "liberation."

While I do not subscribe to the naive view that everything the Church has ever said or done is good, noble, and worthy of unquestioning acceptance, I hope that I have grown beyond what Oden calls the "inveterate modern chauvinism that assumes that human consciousness today is intrinsically superior to all premodern modes of thinking - and, conversely, that all premodern thinking is assumed to be intrinsically inferior to modern consciousness" (Classic Christianity, p. 198; emphasis in text). Perhaps one sign that I've made that move is something I couldn't have dreamed possible back in my divinity school days: the fact that I believe the Nicene Creed - hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the fourth century - is one of the most radical and life-giving affirmations of faith. Hence the title of this blog.

So what does it take to grasp what we've received from tradition as holy and life-giving as opposed to a bill of goods that we must reject for the sake of doing "justice"? In my case, it took the ongoing formation of liturgical, Eucharistic worship. Thrown into the context of week-in, week-out worship using The Book of Common Prayer, I found that my life was slowly but surely bearing witness to the truth of the patristic maxim: lex orandi est lex credendi. That's what began transforming my self-assurance in the truth of my personal "experience" and the enlightenment of my individual "reason" into the conviction that the historic, universal Church is, indeed, the Body of Christ that contains treasures of wisdom and truth that far exceed my capacity to fully understand or rationally comprehend, much less experience in its fullness.

I believe that Anglicanism is a part of that larger whole, and I am grateful to belong.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Episcopal Church Workers Abruptly Fired

In my preparations to teach an ethics course for our diocesan school for deacons, I've been thinking a lot about justice. And so the story about the abrupt firing of nine workers at the Episcopal Church Center caught my eye. The New York Daily News has the scoop:

They worked for years cleaning and maintaining the Episcopal Church Center in midtown Manhattan. But after they were fired on Dec. 30, nine hard-working people are in desperate need of divine intervention.

"We came to work on Dec. 30 as every day, hoping to leave a little earlier to celebrate the new year," said Bronx native Héctor Miranda, a father of three. "But when we got to the building we were told that we no longer worked there. Just like that. They picked the date well to fire us."

Now, without the means to support his family, Miranda has no idea how he will pay the rent.

"Even worse," he said, "without health coverage I don't know how I am going to pay for my wife's treatment. She is a diabetic, you know."

The workers lost their jobs - which paid standard wages and benefits - when the church canceled the contract with Paris Maintenance, a union cleaning contractor, and replaced it with the nonunion Benjamin Enterprises. ...

"We have called Benjamin Enterprises and asked to keep our jobs, but we haven't received any response," the workers said in a letter addressed to presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and to Bonnie Anderson, president of the church's house of deputies.

"We believe that the Episcopal Church would not want to create more poverty in this world, so we are hopeful that the church will do everything in its power to help us regain our jobs," the letter said. It was signed by, among others, Max Fullner and Raymond Hines, who worked at the church for 42 years; Ives Jean Pierre, 39 years, and Ahmed Alsaidy, 27 years. The way they were just suddenly terminated after all those years of service speaks volumes to the injustice done to them. ...

Linda Watts, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, put out an official statement: "Budget constraints have prompted The Episcopal Church to review all contracts and to implement cost-cutting measures where possible," she said. No mention of the plight of the nine men and women thrown out to the streets or of lending them a helping hand.

"Good luck, we wish you all the best," read the note the workers found in their lockers on Dec. 30. The only thing missing was "Happy New Year."

Read it all.

It might be interesting to ask my students how they think all of this squares with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "respect the dignity of every human being."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Prayer for the Saints

First delivered by Archbishop Philip M. Hannan in 1968:

God, we ask your blessing upon all who participate in this event, and all who have supported our Saints.

Our heavenly father, who has instructed us that the "saints by faith conquered kingdoms . . . and overcame lions," grant our Saints an increase of faith and strength so that they will not only overcome the Lions, but also the Bears, the Rams, the Giants, and even those awesome people in Green Bay.

May they continue to tame the Redskins and fetter the Falcons as well as the Eagles.

Give to our owners and coaches the continued ability to be as wise as serpents and simple as doves, so that no good talent will dodge our draft.

Grant to our fans perseverance in their devotion and unlimited lung power, tempered with a sense of charity to all, including the referees.

May our beloved "Bedlam Bowl" be a source of good fellowship, and may the "Saints Come Marching In" be a victory march for all, now and in eternity.


(Hat tip to The Times-Picayune.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bishop Gray's Response to the Challenge of Church Conflict

I'm writing as we're wrapping up the first evening of the 183rd Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. I was struck by some things Bishop Gray said in his opening address tonight in response to the "ongoing disagreements" that pose a challenge to the mission of the church. And since I happen to have a copy of the address, I'm sharing that portion of it:

Many have rightly noted that the church has lived with conflict throughout its history. That is, indeed, true. What seems to be different in our age is, first, the speed of communication that provides data without context and makes us assume that we know all there is to know when we have barely scratched the surface. Reflection and the wisdom the proceeds from that are in short supply. The second thing that makes conflict difficult in our age is that we all drink from the same cultural cup that seeks to caricature, stereotype and demonize those with whom we disagree. "Homophobic" or "revisionist" are not used as comments about someone's ideas, but are rather meant to suggest ontological statements about another person's very being.

May I suggest we return to the earliest Christian creedal statement - the one that came out of the mouths of those first followers of Jesus, two or three centuries before the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds. Quite simply, they claimed "Jesus is Lord."

Disagreements have always been a part of the church's life, but the intensity of our current conflict, the name calling and the drawing of lines in the sand so that there can only be winners and losers, suggests to me that this radical, revolutionary statement, "Jesus is Lord," is often forgotten. To say "Jesus is Lord" means that everything else that I claims as true - my theology, my deepest beliefs, my worldview - must be subordinate and under judgment, or it has become an idol, replacing Jesus as the Lord of my life.

All theological positions, all biblical interpretations, all denominations, every political party, all economic systems, every country and nation stand under the ultimate judgment of the one we call Lord. All are imperfect, all are impure, all are incomplete, all fall short of the Kingdom, all are in need of forgiveness and redemption.

The value of everything - everyone of us and every system we inhabit - rests ultimately, not on its own merits, but on the grace of the living God - a grace we experience in Jesus, our Savior and Lord. My value - my salvation - is not dependent on my being right. It is finally in the hands of the one to whom I wish to offer my life.

Thus, to claim that Jesus is Lord over our lives, and nothing else is, should call us into a posture of profound humility as we seek to be the church together, in the midst of deep disagreements.

As I listened to this part of the bishop's address tonight, I heard echoes of both Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. I was intrigued and heartened by the turn to an ancient creedal statement as a substantive theological antidote to the self-serving politics of polarization and division. And I was reminded once again of why, in spite of the many ways in which we fall short of the mark, it is good to serve as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Main Point of the Christian Faith

"The Christian faith isn't all about getting to heaven. It isn't all about the church. It isn't all about the individual spiritual life or 'personal relationship with God.' It is about all of these things, but they aren't the whole point, or even the main point. The main point is God's saving love for creation, God's faithfulness to all of creation, God's ongoing mission of healing a world torn by human injustice so that it can fulfill God's original dream. It is about God's kingdom coming to earth, and it is about God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven."

Brian D. McLaren, The Justice Project (2009)

Monday, February 1, 2010

How Accessible Should Clergy Be?

Jason Byasee made some observations in response to this question a few years back in a piece entitled "The Wired Pastor." Since then, his observations have become only become more relevant:

You’ve seen them, maybe you’re one of them: pastors who must be in touch at all times. The cell phone is either in use or strapped handily onto the belt, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. It’s best as a Blackberry or Treo, so it can vibrate every ten minutes with news of new messages. And just in case those fail, a beeper should be handy. You can never be too wired.

I can understand why some professions would cause one to need to be accessible 100 percent of the time: firefighters, psychologists with mentally ill patients and (given recent floods in this part of the country) plumbers come to mind. But why pastors? Certainly on large church staffs it’s a venerable practice to have one of the pastors on-call at all times in case of emergency. But I worry when I see wired pastors, ubiquitous as they are at church conventions and gatherings of clergy. I fear they conflate importance with accessibility, as if being incommunicado even briefly will lead to spiritual crisis. Must we be like other professions—doctors or financiers—and have a loop around our ear at all times? Or does pastoral wiring suggest anew the loss of confidence of the clergy vocation?

Read it all.

I know clergy who never seemed to have learned that you don't have to answer your cell phone just because it rings. But I'll admit to having a cell phone on me almost all the time. In fact, I almost feel naked if I don't have it with me. And I hate going for more than half a day without Internet access. I'm not sure that's such a good thing. (Thus far, I've resisted the temptation to acquire an iPhone or a BlackBerry. Then again, here I am blogging before breakfast!)

Byasee's perspective really does make me wonder if it wouldn't be better for clergy - and perhaps for most people generally - to unplug for part of the day, to be inaccessible for a time. It can be true that genuine ministry comes in the interruptions, and being accessible leaves us open to constant interruption and thus multiple opportunities for ministry. But surely it's also true that the energy and vision we need for ministry comes from times of quiet and reflection, times when we aren't easily interrupted, times when we are accessible to God alone.

Perhaps the drive to be constantly accessible is more about our need to be needed, and even our fear of encountering God in silence, than it is about living more deeply into our vocation as clergy.