Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Need for Scripture and Tradition

"If the community is the ultimate authority and the Bible just one member of the community, what prevents the community from plummeting into heresy?"

"Without tradition as an outside marker, we have no way to know how far we have moved from biblical fidelity."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Episcopal Church Driven by the "Bush Doctrine"

On several occasions one of my clergy colleagues has said that the Episcopal Church's actions on issues relating to human sexuality over the last several years is a version of the "Bush Doctrine." In terms of foreign policy, one of the central tenets of the "Bush Doctrine" is unilateralism. One on-line site defines "unilateralism" as: "A tendency of nations to conduct their foreign affairs individualistically, characterized by minimal consultation and involvement with other nations, even their allies." The mindset is one which says, "We're going to do X no matter what anybody else thinks about it because we just know we're right." To many, this comes across as recklessly arrogant. Translate such arrogance and absolute certainty into ecclesial terms and you have a situation in which a province of the Anglican Communion does what is right in its own eyes regardless of the consequences or what others think.

On the Internet, I came across an Episcopal priest named Bob Griffith who recently offered very interesting comments on Fr. Mark Harris' blog along these lines. Describing himself as "a gay priest serving in an urban area in a neighborhood and a parish with a lot of gay people," Fr. Griffith argues that our church's current leadership is driven by a unilateralism akin to that which characterized the foreign policy of our former President and his administration. Here's some of what he has to say:

I know most people in TEC leadership have thought long and hard concerning all that has transpired these past 7 years. My opinion is not a particularly popular one, but from where I sit it is becoming more prominent, to the chagrin of some.

I think that too many of us are still unwilling to consider that we could be wrong in the ways we are acting with respect to the rest of the Communion and even with segments within our own American Church. ...

We are getting a time-out because we acting arrogantly and self-servingly. We act as if we are not part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We act vaingloriously as if we are so incredibly wise, knowledgeable, and “prophetic” that we don’t need to listen to anyone else.

We are acting as a Church in the same why our State Department and Military leadership acted under George Bush. We can do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, unilaterally because we are Americans and that makes it right! We claim over and over that we "listen," but we still act like Bushy Americans. Are we so blind that we cannot see that as a Church we are acting like the “ugly Americans,” imperialists, paternalists thinking that we know so much better than all others, particularly those backward Africans? And to add insult to injury, we are actually claiming “colonial victimhood” because the English ABC is beginning to take action - fairly, I might add.

Responding to less than enthusiastic comments about his views, he adds:

Well, here is another problem. Point (i): Our own Church, our own bishops, won’t even abide by our own Canons or Constitution or General Convention. Simply take open communion as an example. We can’t even “faith and order” ourselves within our own institution, and we are to be trusted by the other Provinces, by the ABC, by other Traditions that we as Americans can faithfully represent some sort of coherent Anglican Communion position within ecumenical relationships? I don’t blame anyone for not trust us – heck, I don’t trust us.

Fr. Griffith also writes about this topic on his blog:

We may not lob physical bombs (or money, in our case); we will simply not listen to anyone else, hands over our ears. We will simply not face up to reality and our place in the world Communion. Oh, we want diversity and multiculturalism all right, just so long as they believe just like we do or pretend to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. ...

It isn't that I disagree with women being clergy or LBGT people being members, priests, or bishops of our Anglican Churches. It isn't that I don't think we can or should be advocates of such things around the Communion or the greater Church. What I absolutely disagree with is the way this generation of leadership in our Church has been conducting itself with respect to institutional change and the "controversial" issues. We treat those issues as civil rights causes and make decisions in like manner. This is not the way the Church should handle things.

Now, because our leadership makes decisions in such a political or social manner (they know no other way), we are losing the knowledge of how to make decisions as a the Body of Christ, internationally. And herein lies the problem of trust and "faith and order" as the other provinces attempt to order their lives when they cannot ignore what the Americans' are doing without much regard for their plight.

Read it all.

It would be highly ironic if Fr. Griffith is correct that those driving the progressive agenda in the Episcopal Church are acting like "Bushy Americans." Because I'll bet that most of those progressive Episcopalians loathe the former President, his administration, and the unilateral foreign policies sanctioned by the "Bush Doctrine."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Marriage Rite Exhortation is "A Dumb Prayer Based on Prejudice”

A few years ago I subscribed to the House of Bishops and Deputies email list. Dr. Louie Crew established it back in 1996 to provide a means for bishops and deputies to General Convention to stay in conversation on issues affecting the common life of the Episcopal Church. It is a lively and active forum. On some days, I would receive well over 100 messages in my inbox.

After a few months, I unsubscribed to the email list. Besides the fact that there were simply too many messages to keep up with (who in the world can possibly read and respond to all of this stuff?!), the tone of the exchanges often lapsed into some of the worst forms of incivility imaginable. Spiteful and ad hominem attacks on others were not uncommon, and the theological reasoning used to justify positions was often puddle-deep. It was disheartening to know that these are some of the people who gather every three years at General Convention to make important decisions that affect all Episcopalians and that help chart the direction for our church.

In light of my previous experience with this email list, a recent posting at Stand Firm caught my eye. Greg Griffith has taken the liberty of sharing some recent exchanges on this email list concerning the sacrament of marriage and the marriage rite in The Book of Common Prayer. It makes for depressing reading. I don’t want to rehearse all of it here (and actually, to be fair, there are a couple of comments cited that are quite reasonable and that raise important questions). Nor do I want to get into a debate about the meaning of marriage (perhaps another time and another posting). I do, however, want to cite what one priest on the email list said about the opening exhortation in the marriage rite.

But first, here’s what that exhortation from The Book of Common Prayer actually says:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God (BCP, p. 423).

Now here’s what an Episcopal priest who also serves as a deputy to General Convention has to say about this opening exhortation:

It is a dumb prayer that is based on prejudice not Bible IMO – God did not establish a bond and covenant or marriage in Creation. The story has nothing to do with marriage – it has to do with procreation – which we no longer support with abandon. As to Jesus attending a wedding as a basis for holding marriage in esteem – also not much of a reason. I hope someday we have an opening to the marriage ceremony that is not so laughable.

Wow, what a sweeping, dismissive judgment to make! And it’s a particularly serious judgment to make for someone who, as an ordained person, has solemnly vowed on two separate occasions to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church – doctrine, discipline, and worship which is here openly scorned as “dumb,” prejudiced, and “laughable.” It seems to me that if this priest is right, then no ordained person with any self-respect should stand in front of God and a gathered assembly and say these words.

So what’s this priest’s warrant for making such claims about the opening exhortation to the marriage rite?


Personal opinion!!!

Never mind the authority of scripture or tradition. Never mind the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Prayer Book to which one has vowed to conform. Personal opinion trumps all.

Elevating personal opinion to such an authoritative status reminds me of what I wrote in a blog posting just the other day in which I noted:

… tendencies within the broader Church (and within the Episcopal Church in particular) to downplay the authority of scripture and tradition in favor of untethered reason and/or subjective experience. The door is wide open for cherry-picking what each individual likes from scripture and tradition, or simply ignoring those classical sources of authority altogether when they become inconvenient.

That cherry-picking extends beyond scripture and tradition to the liturgies of the Prayer Book, as evidenced not only by clergy picking and choosing which parts of the Prayer Book are authoritative, but also in some of the illegal liturgical revision that goes on in the Episcopal Church.

It's one thing to argue on substantive theological grounds for liturgical revision or that we need to think through our Church's theology of marriage. It's quite another thing to simply dismiss what one doesn't like about the Church's liturgy and teaching as though personal opinion or subjective preference is a sufficient warrant for changing common prayer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A True and Truly Christian Theology

I'm sharing a couple of quotes I recently came across that struck a chord for me. It started with my growing awareness that something was awry during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early to mid-90s. At the time, divinity students were required to take only one theology course entitled "Constructive Christian Theology." Instead of immersing us in the study of the influential predecessors, councils, creeds, confessions, and liturgies in the tradition, the emphasis was on each individual constructing his/her own theology, the fruit of which was to be shared in the final paper.

Since then, I've become increasingly aware of tendencies within the broader Church (and within the Episcopal Church in particular) to downplay the authority of scripture and tradition in favor of untethered reason and/or subjective experience. The door is wide open for cherry-picking what each individual likes from scripture and tradition, or simply ignoring those classical sources of authority altogether when they become inconvenient.

It reminds me of a quote attributed to St. Augustine: "If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospels you believe but yourself."

The quotes below point us in a very different direction.

"A true and truly Christian theology will surely be deeply rooted in revelation and tradition, in worship and prayer in the Christian community, in compassion and service in the world, in fear and trembling before the wonder of the Christian gospel, and in humble dependence on the grace and agency of the Holy Spirit. Yet precisely these notes are the ones missing from the prevailing canons of theological discourse."

"Revelation, worship and tradition are the 'fundamental womb' in which theology is conceived, develops and flourishes. Yet ironically, too many seminaries have deserted these sources in a misguided attempt to communicate the gospel more effectively to their surrounding culture. As a sad result many seminary graduates feel compelled to construct their own theology out of whole cloth. [William J.] Abraham acerbically describes the ludicrous expectation on many seminary campuses 'that each theological student must, in the space of a semester or so and after a short period of study, develop his or her own creed and shortly thereafter be licensed to inflict this creed on the church at large.'"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Marriage as a Spiritual Discipline

"I believe it is possible to enter marriage with a view to being cleansed spiritually, if, that is, we do so with a willingness to embrace marriage as a spiritual discipline. To do this, we must not enter marriage predominately to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ. We must embrace the reality of having our flaws exposed to our partner, and thereby having them exposed to us as well. Sin never seems quite as shocking when it is known only to us; when we see how it looks or sounds to another, it is magnified ten times over. The celibate can 'hide' frustration by removing himself from the situation, but the married man or woman has no true refuge. It is hard to hide when you share the same bed."

~ Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (2000)

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Heart of God Hasn't Place for Boundaries

As "progressive" bloggers continue to throw fits over the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost letter and the follow-up actions announced by the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon (Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Office), one response in particular caught my attention. It's from the blog of the Rev. Francisco Silva, Secretary General of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil:

In our Provincial Synod, we heard from the mouth of our Archbishop Mauricio that in the heart of God hasn't place for boundaries. Our delegates approved unanimously a motion of solidarity with brothers and sisters from TEC and Canada and a letter to the Communion will be issued about punitive actions gone to Provinces who has been looking to welcome all the persons without barriers and prejudices.

" ... the heart of God hasn't place for boundaries."

I'm hoping that there are some issues of translation from Portuguese into English going on here, because this is a troubling statement. It effectively collapses the distinction between boundaries and barriers, which in turn tosses the community-building and sustaining role of norms out the window. I've written about the critical importance of boundaries and norms before:

... it is not possible to form and sustain the common purpose and vision of genuine community without shared norms to which all members are accountable. And so the concern for norms, rules, and discipline derives from a concern for the conditions that make it possible for us to be the Church in the first place. Indeed, until the issue of shared norms and accountability to them is settled, it is not possible to get on with the work God calls us to do in the world. Lacking clear norms, we spend all of our time negotiating or arguing about how we’re supposed to be doing what we’re called to do. We get sidetracked from the focus on mission. ...

Boundaries are not barriers. But without norms that establish boundaries, the self-differentiation necessary for creating community can’t happen. And the term “Church” collapses into a projection of individual preferences and interests that set the stage for competing wills to power rather than cooperation among diverse members of a common Body.

The Book of Common Prayer's catechism notes that, in biblical terms, the requirements of living in covenant relationship take the form of commandments: the Ten Commandments in the Old Covenant, and the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment in the New Covenant (cf. BCP, pp. 846-848, 850-851). At the heart of biblical faith is a God who, by issuing commands, establishes boundaries and invites us to live into those boundaries and the norms for behavior they entail in relation to both God and our neighbor.

So how utterly bizarre to say that "the heart of God hasn't place for boundaries." Coupled with the Presiding Bishop's proclamation that "Pentecost continues!", such a statement comes dangerously close to affirming that anything is possible or potentially permissible. Surely Archbishop Mauricio and Fr. Silva do not intend to endorse such a scenario.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Historical-Critical Enterprise

"One way to characterize the whole historical-critical enterprise as it relates to the Bible in the modern era and continues in our own day is to see it as the embodiment of the motive behind a popular bumper sticker that reads, 'Jesus, save us from your followers.' And who cannot fail to have at least some sympathy with such a hope? Alas, the hope itself is illogical, and its pursuit destructive of its own religious object. For without his followers, it makes no sense to speak of a Jesus who saves. Christ Jesus may remain faithful while we are faithless, as Scripture claims (2 Tim. 2:13); but in that case Christ Jesus also remains unknown. Stripped of a Church whose life in history conforms to the object of its worship, this Jesus becomes wrapped in obscurities and hidden by arbitrary claims of the moment."

~ Ephraim Radner, Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (2004)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Anglican Communion Meltdown

Coming back from a week of vacation in the mountains of east Tennessee, I see that things have heated up in the Anglican world.

First, there is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William's Pentecost letter in which he proposes:

Firstly, that members of provinces that are in breach of the three moratoria requested by the Instruments of the Communion should no longer participate in the formal ecumenical dialogues in which the Anglican Communion is engaged. Secondly, that members of these provinces currently serving on the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (a body that examines issues of doctrine and authority) should, for the time being, no longer have full membership, but retain the status of consultants. 'This is simply to confirm what the Communion as a whole has come to regard as acceptable limits of diversity in its practice'.

Read it all.

In response, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, wrote:

We live in great concern that colonial attitudes continue, particularly in attempts to impose a single understanding across widely varying contexts and cultures. We note that the cultural contexts in which The Episcopal Church's decisions have generated the greatest objection and reaction are also often the same contexts where women are barred from full ordained leadership, including the Church of England.
As Episcopalians, we note the troubling push toward centralized authority exemplified in many of the statements of the recent Pentecost letter. Anglicanism as a body began in the repudiation of the control of the Bishop of Rome within an otherwise sovereign nation. Similar concerns over self-determination in the face of colonial control led the Scottish Episcopal Church to consecrate Samuel Seabury for The Episcopal Church in the nascent United States – and so began the Anglican Communion.
We have been repeatedly assured that the Anglican Covenant is not an instrument of control, yet we note that the fourth section seems to be just that to Anglicans in many parts of the Communion. So much so, that there are voices calling for stronger sanctions in that fourth section, as well as voices repudiating it as un-Anglican in nature. Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.
We are distressed at the apparent imposition of sanctions on some parts of the Communion. We note that these seem to be limited to those which "have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion." We are further distressed that such sanctions do not, apparently, apply to those parts of the Communion that continue to hold one view in public and exhibit other behaviors in private. Why is there no sanction on those who continue with a double standard? In our context bowing to anxiety by ignoring that sort of double-mindedness is usually termed a "failure of nerve." Through many decades of wrestling with our own discomfort about recognizing the full humanity of persons who seem to differ from us, we continue to work at open and transparent communication as well as congruence between word and behavior. We openly admit our failure to achieve perfection!

Read it all.

(For critical takes on this pastoral letter from the Presiding Bishop, see Fr. Tony Clavier's blog posting entitled "Reflections on a Pastoral Letter" and Joe Carter's piece for First Things entitled "Is the Holy Spirit a Relativist or a Colonialist?")

Then there's the statement issued by the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Office, indicating how he is attempting to implement the Archbishop of Canterbury's proposals. The response across the Anglican blogosphere suggests that this has really turned up the heat of anger and mistrust.

Are we dealing here with two rival or even incommensurable visions of what it means to be the Church? Possibly so. Then again, as Fr. Nathan Humphrey suggests, it may be that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop are talking past each other and that there are places of convergence in their perspectives which, if recognized, might offer opportunities for deepening understanding and maintaining relationship in the midst of conflict. (Perhaps this is true more broadly?)

Regardless, I find as I surf the Anglican blogosphere that the theological left and the theological right are united in heaping scorn and contempt upon the Archbishop of Canterbury, but for different reasons. For the left, the Pentecost letter is too much. For the right, it's too little, too late. But it's how this all gets expressed that I sometimes find disturbing.

On blogs and on Facebook, rhetorical excess abounds. Terms like "dictator," "Anglican pope," and even "fascist" are used by the left to describe the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some on the right characterize him as "spineless" and call him a "coward." And some of the words I've read and heard by a few on the right to describe the Presiding Bishop I cannot, in good conscience or taste, publish (and, sadly, that's been true ever since her election in 2006).

It also disturbs me that our Presiding Bishop used words like "colonial control" and "spiritual violence" in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost letter. Given the climate out there, such language all too easily gives cover to those who go a few steps further by using ad hominem and vicious rhetoric to attack those with whom they disagree. At the very least, it can fuel a mistrust that says the motives of others are self-serving, authoritarian, perhaps even evil. Whatever its merits or demerits, I do not detect anything like this going on in the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost letter.

All told, the politicization of the Church goes unchecked.

For those of us who genuinely care about the comprehensive character of Anglicanism, i.e., its ability to unite "people of great diversity ... by a common recognition of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience" (John E. Booty), this is all very troubling. The scorn and contempt for those with whom we disagree has been around for a while now, but across the Anglican spectrum there's a willingness to throw each other under the bus if it serves our purposes. Living in a culture of increasingly expendable relationships, it's so much easier to just walk away into our like-minded enclaves.

In watching what might be the meltdown of the Anglican Communion, I'm reminded of Speed Leas' five levels of conflict:

Level One: There's a problem to solve in the organization, and people may disagree about how to solve it. But they believe they can work it out, and they are committed to try. They are talking directly to each other, not withholding information. As a result, most people don't call this conflict. They say, "We've got problems to solve, but we can do it."
Level Two: The focus shifts from solving the problem to caring for myself. People feel, We've got a problem to fix, but I don't want to be associated with it. I'm going to be cautious, armor myself, plan before I talk to the pastor. I'll talk with other people, but not share fully all I know about the situation. People are nervous, which you can tell because they generalize everything: "We're not communicating. There seems to be low trust around here. There are some difficulties with the choir." But they don't describe the problem specifically. The role of the pastor, then, is to get people talking.
Level Three: Again the objective has changed. It's no longer, "Fix the problem", or "Protect myself;" it's "Win." People feel, You must accept my solution. It's win or lose. I'm not contributing to the difficulty; I'm the good person who has the only possible answer.
The language in such cases is not only vague, it also overstates, distorts, and dichotomizes the conflict. For example, "Pastor, the whole church is out to get you. We are split down the middle. A few bad apples should not be in the church at all. They're never going to change."
People are not yet in factions, but they clump together, and we give them labels: "The pastor's buddies," "the old pillars of the church."
The pastor's role is to create a safe environment for people to air concerns and start solving the, which means thinking a lot about who should be in what conversations and how we can affirm people and hear their concern.
Level Four: People are no longer satisfied with getting their way. Now they have to get rid of the opposition. The goals is a "divorce"--getting people to quit coming to church, firing the pastor, or disbanding a committee or ministry. People are now in factions, usually meeting in homes. There is a clear leader, sometimes two, who gives marching orders to each faction.
At this level, it's wise to get outside help: denominational officials, a consultant, a skilled pastor or lay leaders from another congregation.
Level Five: People won't settle for getting people to leave; now they want to remove them from the fact of the earth, as we see in Palestine or Northern Ireland. In a church, the people are not satisfied with a resignation; they want to have the pastor defrocked. And if they can't have that, they'll call congregations where the pastor is candidating and warn them.
People at this level become fanatics. They won't stop fighting because they feel it's immoral to stop. They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil. The only thing you can do at this level is remove the opposing parties from each other.

Different people and different parts of the Anglican Communion may be at different places among these levels. Some of our leaders, for instance, appear to be in the second level ("let's keep talking"). But I do wonder if, on the whole, we haven't moved beyond the third ("win or lose") into the fourth level ("get rid of the opposition"), with some pushing for us to enter into the fifth level of conflict ("annihilate the evil enemy"). And there's no discernible resolution in sight.

For those who care about the Episcopal Church being a part of something larger than itself and containing more than a majority of mostly like-minded "progressives," this is depressing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Differential Feature of Christianity

"Without the hypothesis that Jesus is God-incarnate it is hard to make sense of any part of the New Testament. These claims by Jesus and the apostles, taken together, have led Christians to conclude that the valid beginning point for understanding this particular man is plainly and simply that he is truly God while not ceasing to be truly human.

"The deity of Christ is the differential feature of Christianity. Even Hegel could discern that 'the Christian religion has this characteristic: that the Person of Christ in his character of the Son of God himself partakes of the nature of God.'

"A suffering messiah who is less than God may elicit our pity or admiration, but not our worship. A messiah to whom one cannot pray is not the Christ of the New Testament. If the Messiah is God's own coming, then Christ is God, according to apostolic reasoning."