Friday, December 30, 2011

God Was Uniquely Present in Jesus

"In this real flesh-and-blood man, Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in the world. This man was not just a great teacher of profound truths about God and the secret of a happy, successful life. He was not just a revolutionary political leader with a vision of a more human and just society. He was not just a great moral hero for us to imitate as best we can. He was not just a very godlike personality, the model of a truly spiritual life. Nor was he just the founder of a religious club later called the church, where religious people with a common interest in him come together to admire him and admire themselves for admiring him. To know this man is not just to know a very great, very good, very wise, very spiritual human being. It is to know God. His very name is 'Jesus,' which in Hebrew means 'God helps' or 'God saves' (Matt. 1:21). He is the 'Christ,' the 'Messiah,' the 'Anointed One' of God. He is the 'Son of God' (Mark 1:1). His miraculous birth is a sign of the fact that where he comes from, who he is, and what he does cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary process of human life and history. This man comes from God. What he says and does is God's word and action. He is 'Emmanuel,' God-with-us (Matt. 1:23)."

~ Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (1994)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

E. L. Mascall on God's Ultimate Purpose

“The stupendous theme [of Christianity is] that God’s ultimate purpose for the human race and for the whole material universe is that they should be taken up into Christ and transformed into a condition of unimaginable glory, and that it is for this that God took our human nature, in which spirit and matter are so mysteriously and intricately interwoven.”

Musical Interlude with Mumford and Sons: "Awake My Soul"

"In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life"

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Responding to the Incarnation: A Sermon for Christmas Day

After hearing that beautiful account of our Lord’s birth, and the angelic fanfare accompanying it, what more is there to say? The story preaches itself. To add anything to it almost feels like taking the “merry” out of Christmas.

It reminds me of something a Christian educator once told his students. He said: “A deep instinct has always told the Church that our safest eloquence concerning the mystery of Christ is in our praise. A living Church is a worshiping, singing Church; not a school of people holding all the correct doctrines.”

To be sure, correct doctrine is vitally important. Like a compass that always points north, statements of correct doctrine like the Nicene Creed point us in the right direction, keep us on track, and protect us from losing our way. And so we will affirm this day that the One who is God from God, Light from Light, and true God from true God did as a matter of historical fact become incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

But the mysteries of God’s truth, beauty and goodness cannot be contained by rational explanations or dogmatic statements. And so centuries before the Church hammered out orthodox doctrine about Jesus, the Church was on its knees with bowed heads and on its feet with outstretched arms in the wonder, love, and praise of worship.

On the day of our Lord’s nativity, we’re on our surest and safest ground, not in saying something profound or trying to figure it all out, but in doing what the multitude of the heavenly host and what the shepherds did: glorifying and praising God.

Worship: what other response can there be to the impossibly good news that God the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, has been born of a woman as a helpless baby boy, a real flesh and blood human being? What other response is appropriate when we come face to face with the incredible truth that God chooses, not to be a distant deity, but to come among us as one of us? That God comes, not in the power of vengeance, but in the vulnerability of love? That in the Person of Jesus Christ God assumes our humanity in all of its frailty and limitations so that what is assumed may be healed and so that we may be united with the God who loves us more than we could possibly imagine?

Worship. Praise. Thanksgiving. That is the Church’s response to the glorious mystery of the Incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. And that’s why we’re here today: to join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing praises in response to good news of great joy.

For today we celebrate the joy of a wedding. In the birth of Jesus, humanity and divinity marry each other. In the Incarnation, God and man form “one flesh” for all eternity. In the birth of Jesus, God lowers Himself to our level and raises us up to His. On this day, heaven comes down to earth and earth rises up into heaven. And we who have been baptized into the Incarnation – into that wonderful and sacred mystery of Christ’s Body the Church – we, too, partake of His divinity. We, too, are citizens of a heaven that perfects rather than negates the body and the earth.

Anticipating this moment, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said:

"A physician is coming to the sick, a redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Yes, One is coming who will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, who will heal our diseases, who will carry us on his own shoulders back to the source of our original worth."

My friends, that One has come with the birth of Jesus. What else can we do in response, but fall to our knees in worship, raise the cup of salvation in thanksgiving, and sing with the heavenly host and with the saints both living and dead: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

So come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Musical Interlude with The Band: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"

Come down to the manger, see the little stranger
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, the prince of peace
Wheels start turning, torches start burning
And the old wise men journey from the East

How a little baby boy bring the people so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas, must be tonight

A shepherd on a hillside, while over my flock I bide
On a cold winter night a band of angels sing
In a dream I heard a voice saying "fear not, come rejoice
It's the end of the beginning, praise the new born king"


I saw it with my own eyes, written up in the sky
But why a simple herdsmen such as I
And then it came to pass, he was born at last
Right below the star that shines on high


Lyrics and music by J.R.Robertson
© 1977 Medicine Hat Music

A Physician is Coming to the Sick

"A physician is coming to the sick, a redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Yes, One is coming who will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, who will heal our diseases, who will carry us on his own shoulders back to the source of our original worth."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From Doubt to Perfect Belief: Thoughts on St. Thomas' Feast Day

Today on the Church calendar we remember St. Thomas the Apostle. Drawing on Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, here's part of what we read about St. Thomas at For All the Saints:

The Gospel according to John records several incidents in which the apostle Thomas appears, and from them we are able to gain some impression of the sort of man he was. When Jesus insisted on going to Judea, to visit his friends at Bethany, Thomas boldly declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, he interrupted our Lord’s discourse with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). After Christ’s resurrection, Thomas would not accept the account of the other apostles and the women, until Jesus appeared before him, showing him his wounds. This drew from him the first explicit acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas appears to have been a thoughtful if rather literal-minded man, inclined to scepticism; but he was a staunch friend when his loyalty was once given. The expression “Doubting Thomas”, which has become established in English usage, is not fair to Thomas. He did not refuse belief. He wanted to believe, but he wanted to be certain that what the others had seen was not simply an apparition or a vision, that the one whom they had seen was actually the same crucified Jesus, that God had actually raised him from the dead. Thomas serves as a witness to the bodily resurrection of the Lord in a Gospel that bears witness to the Word made flesh. For this reason, Jesus gave him a sign, though Jesus had refused a sign to the Pharisees. And yet, the Lord’s rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29), demonstrates that the sign itself does not create faith, that faith would come by the hearing of the word of those who bore witness to the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

I sometimes think we Episcopalians make too big a deal out of doubt. It's almost as though doubt - not really being sure about much of anything when it comes to the Christian faith, remaining in a state of indecision about belief in basics like the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Trinity, etc. - is a virtue to be encouraged, nurtured, and sustained, while the strong conviction of belief is discouraged as somehow anti-intellectual and even a kind of "fundamentalism."

To be sure, honest doubt is as much a part of the life of genuine faith as trust and loyalty. Lord knows, we all go through times in our lives when what seemed sure and certain yesterday feels up in the air today. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the Prayer Book's emphasis on the objective character of Baptism: "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 298; emphasis added). The reality of my status as a member of the household of God transcends my feelings and subjective faith state at any given moment in time. And so William Willimon gets it right:

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we [the Church] told you so.

But falling back on what God does as opposed to what I do is no excuse for cultivating doubt as though belief about the basics of the Christian faith doesn't really matter. As Matt Gunter of Into the Expectation has noted: "Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."

It seems to me that one of the reasons why John's Gospel highlights Thomas' doubt is precisely to move us beyond a place of staying stuck in doubt to a place where we can not only doubt our doubts but also embrace belief in the risen Lord and the implications such believing has for how we live our lives. The language of the Collect appointed for St. Thomas' Feast Day is relevant to this point:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

To believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and our God "perfectly and without doubt" such that "our faith may never be found wanting" in God's sight: that is the end for which we strive. And that is the end in which we find the true fulfillment of our lives.

Monday, December 19, 2011

R.I.P. Ruth Spivey Gray

Today is a sad day for Episcopalians in the Diocese of Mississippi, for today we bury a truly remarkable lady: Ruth Spivey Gray. When I think of what it means to be a saint of God, Mrs. Ruthie is at the top of the list. Here is her obituary as published on The Clarion-Ledger website:

Ruth Spivey Gray, 83, of Jackson died Thursday, December 15, 2011 at St. Dominic's Hospital after a lengthy illness.

Funeral services will be Monday, December 19, at 2 p.m. at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson with burial following in Canton Cemetery. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 18, at St. Andrew's and from noon until 1:30 p.m. on Monday prior to the funeral service. Sebrell Funeral Home in Ridgeland is handling arrangements.

Mrs. Gray was born March 10, 1928 in Canton, the daughter of the late Lloyd Gilmer and Ruth Miller Spivey. She attended the University of Mississippi, where she was president of Tri Delta Sorority and a member of Mortar Board.

She was a lifelong Episcopalian and a fifth generation Mississippian. Throughout her adult life she gave her time and energy to a variety of concerns, especially the cause of reconciliation of the races in Mississippi. During the turbulent decades of social change in Mississippi, she joined her husband, Duncan M. Gray, Jr., in his public involvements in civil rights and human rights causes while living in Cleveland, Oxford and Meridian before moving to Jackson when he became Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in 1974.

She was a strong supporter of public schools during the integration crisis and served as citywide PTA president in Meridian during a critical time of transition. She continued to be involved in citizen lobbying efforts on behalf of public schools throughout her life. Other civic involvements included leadership positions with the Girl Scouts, president of the Meridian Symphony League, consumer representative to the Mississippi State Board of Nursing, and service on the Jackson Planning Board.

Within the Episcopal Church she was involved in numerous Diocesan outreach ministries and sang in parish choirs for over 21 years, a reflection of her lifelong love of music.

She was especially interested in Camp Bratton-Green, the diocesan summer camp, serving as a staff member for more than 20 years. She had a lifelong love of the outdoors and enjoyed leading her family and friends in exploring the mountain trails near the home she helped design at Sewanee, Tenn.

But above all, she will be remembered most as a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

She is survived by her husband, the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr., of Jackson; two sons, the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III (Kathy) of Jackson and Lloyd Gray (Sally) of Tupelo; two daughters, Anne Finley (Mack) of Adams, Tenn., and Catherine Clark (Shelton) of Nashville, Tenn.; a brother, Lloyd Spivey, Jr., (Ebbie) of Canton; ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren; and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. She was preceded in death by her sister, Marie Anne Spivey Lloyd (Thames).

The family expresses its gratitude to all who provided care and support throughout her illness, especially the congregations of St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral and St. James' Episcopal Church.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to Camp Bratton-Green at Duncan Gray Center, 1530 Way Road, Canton, MS 39046.

Mrs. Ruthie's husband is the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr., another hero of our diocese and of the larger Church. You can read a transcript of an interview with him on the Civil Rights Documentation website here. You can also watch a video interview about his time as rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi that includes Bishop Gray's experience with the 1962 riot on campus concerning James Meredith's entrance to the University of Mississippi. Also, there are two books about Bishop Gray, Jr. that are definitely worth reading: Will Campbell's And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma, and Araminta Stone Johnston's And One Was a Priest: The Life and Times of Duncan M. Gray Jr.

There's no doubt in my mind that Mrs. Ruthie played a critical role in Bishop Gray, Jr.'s ministry and in his civil rights activism. And her gentleness and compassion touched countless lives with the love of Christ. St. Francis is purported to have once said: "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words." Mrs. Ruthie's life was a sermon that proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ. That remained true even during the most difficult times of her illness. Her suffering is now over. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

"How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God ... to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God's friends" ~ St. Cyprian

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Episcopal Church of Sudan Backs Away from the Episcopal Church USA

I'm saddened and concerned by the news from the Episcopal Church of Sudan. Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under sums it up:

The Anglican church in Sudan (i.e. the Episcopal Church of Sudan, with more members than all Episcopalians/Anglicans in the USA) has come out boldly and clearly and stated it is recognising ACNA [Anglican Church in North America] as a fully orthodox church. At the same time it is distancing itself from most of TEC, and disinviting PB Jefferts Schori from coming to visit the ECS.

Nicholas Knisely at "The Lead" on Episcopal Cafe puts it like this:

Archbishop Deng Bul, the Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, has written to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church to withdraw her invitation to visit Sudan this spring. He cites the Episcopal Church's support of gay and lesbian Christians as the cause.

Here's the letter Archbishop Bul sent to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (h/t TitusOneNine):

The Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
United States of America

Thursday 15th December 2011

Dear Bishop Katharine,

Advent greetings to you in the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

It is with a heavy heart that I write you informing you of our decision as a House of Bishops to withdraw your invitation to the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS). We acknowledge your personal efforts to spearhead prayer and support campaigns on behalf of the ECS and remain very grateful for this attention you and your church have paid to Sudan and South Sudan. However, it remains difficult for us to invite you when elements of your church continue to flagrantly disregard biblical teaching on human sexuality.

attached a statement further explaining our position as a province.


--(The Most Rev.) Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop Primate and Metropolitan of the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and Bishop of the Diocese of Juba

Part of the attached statement explains the reasons for withdrawing the invitation as follows:

We are deeply disappointed by The Episcopal Church's refusal to abide by Biblical teaching on human sexuality and their refusal to listen to fellow Anglicans. For example, TEC Diocese of Los Angles, California in 2010 elected and consecrated Mary Douglas Glasspool as their first lesbian assistant Bishop. We are not happy with their acts of continuing ordaining homosexuals and lesbians as priests and bishops as well as blessing same sex relations in the church by some dioceses in TEC; it has pushed itself away from God's Word and from Anglican Communion. TEC is not concerned for the unity of the Communion.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is recognizing the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) fully as true faithful Orthodox Church and we will work with them to expand the Kingdom of God in the world. Also we will work with those Parishes and Dioceses in TEC who are Evangelical Orthodox Churches and faithful to God.

We will not compromise our faith on this and we will not give TEC advice anymore, because TEC ignored and has refused our advices.

We have many Sudanese members of the cathedral I currently serve. I have no idea how or if this will affect their feelings about the Episcopal Church USA. Our cathedral has also been contemplating a medical mission to South Sudan, and my diocese is involved in efforts to raise money to build a Cathedral for the Diocese of Bor. Will this decision adversely affect those initiatives or even shut them down? Or will my diocese and/or cathedral be deemed worthy of inclusion among "those Parishes and Dioceses in TEC who are Evangelical Orthodox Churches and faithful to God?"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musical Interlude with Johnny Cash: "The Man Comes Around"

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse

There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the Man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the Man comes around

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling, voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
It's Alpha and Omega's kingdom come

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

Till Armageddon no shalam, no shalom
Then the father hen will call his chickens home
The wise man will bow down before the throne
And at His feet they'll cast their golden crowns
When the Man comes around

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the Man comes around

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
It's Alpha and Omega's kingdom come

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the Man comes around

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him

© 2002

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Turns the Tables on a Liberal Protestant

Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist, "New Atheist," and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has died. While I've posted a number of things critical of the New Atheists on this blog, I am truly sorry for Hitchens' illness, suffering and death. And I wish to offer prayers for his friends and loved ones as they mourn their loss.

I also wish to note that, in spite of the ways in which Hitchens misrepresented religion, Matt Kennedy is right: "Factually speaking [Hitchens] understood the implications of the gospel far better than the average liberal protestant." I note, for example, this exchange between Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (my comments are in italics):

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book [God is Not Great] is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Preach it, brother Hitchens!

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Notice how quickly Sewell changes the topic of conversation after Hitchens undermines the false dichotomy of fundamentalist faith vs. liberal religion with a single sentence! Of course, Hitchens is wrong about one thing: St. Paul did not invent Christianity. But Hitchens' statement that a core concept of Tillich's theology has "no meaning - at all" humors me. It reminds me of a story (I don't know if it's true) about a time when Karl Barth was visiting New York City. Tillich was teaching at Union Theological Seminary at the time. There was a really thick fog one day, which prompted Barth to say: "I see that Professor Tillich is thinking."

But back to the interview:

Sewell: Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything that you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Hitchens: Do you mind if I ask you a question? Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?

Sewell: The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

Hitchens: I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—as you put it, “the ground of being.”

In response to Sewell saying that while she agrees with almost everything Hitchens says she is still "a Christian and a person of faith," Hitchens turns the tables by asking Sewell simple, direct, and probing questions that go to the heart of Christianity: "Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?" Well, sure, if by "resurrection" you mean a metaphor rather than an historical event that really happened to a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Hitchens will have none of it as he suggests that Sewell's liberal Christianity lives "on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud." One gets the sense that while Hitchens hated religion per se and thought of all forms of Christianity as "a monstrous fraud," he was particularly impatient with watered-down versions of Christianity that revise or evade the substantive truth claims of the Christian faith.

Read all of the interview.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Keeping the Catholic Faith

"Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."

Thus we read in the Athanasian Creed.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson's translation of St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, acknowledges that this ominous sounding part of the Athanasian Creed has been a stumbling block for many. And he offers a perspective that may serve as a corrective to misunderstandings:

St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the "Athanasian Creed." I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.

"The operative word here is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep."

If Lewis is right, then it's important to clarify some of the relevant meanings of the verb "to keep." Drawing on, I note the following.

"To keep," meaning:
  • to hold or retain in one's possession; hold as one's own
  • to maintain (some action), especially in accordance with specific requirements, a promise, etc.
  • to associate with
  • to observe; pay obedient regard to
  • to conform to; follow; fulfill
  • to observe (a season, festival, etc.) with formalities or rites
  • to guard; protect
  • to maintain or support
  • to take care of; tend
  • to remain in (a place, spot, etc.)
  • to maintain one's position in or on
  • to continue to follow
  • to continue unimpaired or without spoiling

Each of these strikes me as a fitting way to unpack what it means to keep the Catholic Faith.

One of the most overlooked of the Baptismal Covenant promises is also relevant:

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304)

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching?" That could be rephrased to say, "Will you keep the apostles' teaching?" in the senses of "to keep" noted above. The phrase "apostles' teaching" points back to the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles' Creed, which here serves as the summary of the Catholic Faith into which we are baptized. So while we do not use the Athanasian Creed in the formal worship of the Episcopal Church, our Baptismal Covenant expresses a similar intention: to keep the Catholic Faith by maintaining and supporting the apostles' teaching, remaining in it, conforming to it, and guarding and protecting it.

This is another reminder that it's not just clergy who live under vows. Lay Episcopalians are also bound by vows to keep the Catholic Faith. And so all of us - lay and ordained - are bound by solemn promises to discern whether or not how we are living, and whether or not any given course of action contemplated by the Church is in keeping with the Catholic Faith of apostolic teaching.

This Baptismal Covenant promise also links continuing in the apostle's teaching with continuing in the apostles' fellowship. Given this linkage (which has a biblical warrant in the first letter of John), breaking with apostolic teaching entails the consequence of breaking apostolic fellowship. And that consequence is not benign.

St. Hippolytus once wrote: "The world is a sea in which the Church, like a ship, is beaten by the waves, but not submerged." Breaking apostolic fellowship is like jumping off the ship into the stormy sea. Far better to remain in the boat by continuing in the apostles' teaching and keeping the Catholic Faith!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bishop Spong: "Shifting the Paradigm"

I see from the Episcopal Divinity School Fall 2011 newsletter that Bishop Spong gave a lecture in St. John's Memorial Chapel back on October 21 entitled, "Shifting the Paradigm - From Rescue to Expanded Life." Here's some of what the newsletter article reports:

In his address, Spong declared Christianity's "old symbols increasingly are bankrupt ... [and] the new symbols have not yet fully arisen so that they are recognized." He compared the present day with that of Augustine, Aquinas, or the 16th-century Reformers - a moment of "paradigm shift" that "calls for the death of what has been and the birth of what is to be - and that is never a comfortable time." In particular, he said, the titles "savior," "redeemer," and "rescuer" applied to Jesus in liturgies, hymns, and sermons have "become bankrupt, useless, and even distorted ... I think all of them have got to go."

"What is the problem with these titles?" Spong asked. "They all imply a particular definition of human life, which I think is false. ... [W]e are constantly insulting our humanity out of a particular theological frame of reference. We are beggars approaching God. We are telling God how unworthy we are." Such a theological construct, said Spong, is "simply not true. ... It is therefore bad anthropology, and no one can build good theology on bad anthropology."

"Our problem is not a fall into sin," maintained Spong. "It is that we have not yet achieved our full humanity."

The source of acts of evil, said Spong, is found in humanity's survival instinct, "the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries." Because it is part of human nature, "our only hope is that we are lifted beyond it. We have to be called, we have to be merged into a humanity that somehow finally escapes survival as our driving force."

Words like savior and redeemer and rescuer "simply lock us into the old paradigm," Spong argued. Instead, telling the story of Jesus "as the source of love calling us to love beyond every boundary, to love wastefully, to give it away, to never stop and count the cost: that's a new image of what it means to be human."

I won't waste time by critically assessing any of this (others have done that work quite well with regard to Spong's published writings). But I will say that Bishop Spong is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of an increasingly post-Christian society. Instead of saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord," however, Spong declares a different message: "Catch the wave of the 'paradigm shift' by purging the Church of creedal Christianity and classic consensual ecumenical teaching. Then, exercising the authority of your own private judgment, and for the sake of being 'relevant,' create something new to replace the old, dull, dead dogma."

By contrast to Spong's project, note these words from the preface in Thomas Oden's Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology:

I wish to provide neither a new interpretation of old ideas, nor a new language that is more acceptable for modern sensibilities. Rigorous accountability to the ancient teachers themselves is a large enough task, without adding to it other heavy burdens. If that seems irregular, it can be viewed as a response to a prevailing excess, one that inordinately emphasizes self-expression, often exaggerated in current self-importance. I do not pretend to have found a comfortable way of making Christianity tolerable to vanishing forms of modernity. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no new way to salvation. The road is still narrow.

I do not have the gift of softening the sting of the Christian message, of making it seem light or easily borne or quickly assimilated into prevailing modern ideas. I do not wish to make a peace of bad conscience with dubious "achievements of modernity" or pretend to find a comfortable way of making Christianity expediently acceptable to modern assumptions. If Paul found that "the Athenians in general and foreigners there had not time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty (Acts 17:21), so have I found too much talk of religion today obsessed with novelty.

I am dedicated to unoriginality. My aim is to present classical Christian teaching of God on its own terms, undiluted by modern posturing. I take to heart Paul's admonition: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!" (Gal. 1:8, 9; emphasis added by Oden).

Truly, the difference between Spong and Oden is a difference that makes a difference!

I'm reminded of something James Griffiss wrote in his book The Anglican Vision: "I believe ... that our [Anglican] history and foundations demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change - continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require." Spong's project repudiates continuity for the sake of change. By contrast, I think that Oden's book embodies continuity in ways that enable faithful interpretation of the gospel in changing situations. (I would say the same thing about Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.)

So yes, let's shift the paradigm. But let's shift it away from "progressive" attempts to drive the Church off the Christian reservation. Instead of novelty and "relevance," let's focus on continuity and faithfulness to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. For, as Dorothy Sayers once put it, "It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St. Nicholas of Myra: Punching Heretics in the Face

Today is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Among many noteworthy aspects of his life, I note the following from the now defunct Lesser Feasts and Fasts: "As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by Dutch colonists in New York, from whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus."

St. Nicholas is, of course, quite a different person from the Santa Claus who has become the patron saint of Western consumerism. And for Christians who find the very idea of "heresy" unsavory, and for whom taking the idea of heresy seriously may be the last remaining heresy, St. Nicholas should be deeply problematic. I note the following from an article entitled, "The Historical St. Nick: Santa Claus Punched Me in the Face":

St. Nicholas, hardened by his imprisonment under Diocletian, knew how to handle himself in a fight. Modern forensic facial reconstruction of the relic-skull of St. Nicholas, now in Bari, Italy, reveal a stout man with a bent nose, the result of several breaks. Being the genuine man of his roots, St. Nicholas didn't leave his common ways behind when attending to Church matters.

Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea in 325 to settle the Arian controversy. During a heated debate with Arius, Nicholas, indignant at Arius' unyielding obstinacy, punched him in the face. Though secretly thankful, the emperor had no choice but to strip Nicholas of his bishopric. ...

Generous to a fault, the real St. Nicholas spent his life in service to his community. He defended his faith even if it meant a punch in the face. If you get boxing gloves for Christmas, the giver knows the history of the broken-nosed Bishop of Myra.

While I admire St. Nicholas' willingness to defend the truths of the Christian faith as though something vital and precious is at stake, I do not condone the use of violence against persons because they espouse heretical views. Other saints have also been willing to defend the faith, but without the use of violence. So perhaps both those who don't like the idea of heresy as well as those who think it's important to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy can agree: in our commemoration of St. Nicholas, we do well to note that not everything about the man can be commended as worthy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent Video Downplays the Penitential Character of the Season

Thanks to the Anglican Curmudgeon for highlighting the following video about Advent:

I appreciate this video's emphasis on Advent as a season of "expecting, waiting, hoping and praying." But in differentiating Advent from Lent, the video raises concerns when it says that Advent is "about hope not repentance." In a previous posting I've addressed the question "Is Advent a penitential season?", with more thoughts on the penitential character of Advent here.

As noted in my previous postings on this topic, downplaying or denying the penitential character of Advent flies in the face of the liturgy. Today, the second Sunday in Advent (RCL Year B), is a good example. Here's the collect appointed for this day:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I note also in today's epistle reading from 2 Peter the admonition to "strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish," as well as John the Baptist's proclamation of "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" in today's Gospel reading from Mark.

Advent: it's about hope and repentance.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Musical Interlude with Luka Bloom: "Exploring the Blue"

I go down into the water
And dive as deep as man can go
Into those dark places
Watch the underwater flow

Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
In search of you

Here I stand by the mountain
And I look up to the sky
Knowing it's a matter of having to climb
Above this place these clouds lie

Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
In search of you

It may be high
It may be low
Where I think you are
That's where I'll go
That's where I'll go
That's where I'll go

I go down into the water
And dive as deep as man can go

© 1992 WB Music Corp./
Luka Bloom Music ASCAP

Thursday, December 1, 2011

G. K. Chesterton: "Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas"

"Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Evelyn Underhill on the Sacramental Principle

"It is true that at bottom worship is a spiritual activity; but we are not pure spirits, and therefore we cannot expect to do it in purely spiritual ways. That is the lesson of the Incarnation. Thus liturgies, music, symbols, sacraments, devotional attitudes and acts have their rightful part to play in the worshipping life; and it is both shallow and arrogant to reject them en masse and assume that there is something particularly religious in leaving out the senses when we turn to God. Through such use of the senses man can receive powerful religious suggestions, and by their help can impregnate an ever wider area of his life and consciousness with the spirit of adoration. If music is something that may awaken the awed awareness of the Holy, if pictures can tell us secrets that are beyond speech, if food and water, fragrance and lights, all bear with them a memory of sacred use - then the ordinary deeds of secular life will become more and more woven into the seamless robe that veils the Glory of God. But this will not happen unless the sacramental principle - the principle of the spiritual significance of visible deeds and things - has a definite expression in our organized religious life."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent is a Dangerous Season

Commenting on Mark 13:24-37 (the Gospel reading assigned for this first Sunday in Advent), Matthew Skinner writes about the dangerous character of the Advent season for the Huffington Post:

Here comes Black Friday, even earlier than usual. Bell-ringers are appearing outside stores. Advertisers are shifting the consumerism-as-therapy machine into high gear. And Christians say: This is a good time to think about the world falling apart.

We're not trying to be morose. We're starting Advent.

The season of Advent (four Sundays preceding Christmas) traditionally begins, not with backward-looking remembrances of circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth, but with eerie images of cosmic mutations and grand promises of a future in which Jesus plays -- to put it mildly -- a noticeable role. Don't wear the tacky Christmas sweater just yet; track shoes and a hazmat suit may capture the mood better. ...

The impulses behind Advent should alarm those who are overly enamored with the current system (who probably number more than 1 percent), as well as any others who are overly confident in their ability to engineer what's best for the world.

Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That's a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments and loyalties aren't what they're cracked up to be.

Notice: The transformation anticipated in Mark 13:24-37 is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval, its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of the God's desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.

The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power. This means a lot of us, of course.

I'm struck again this year by how quickly so many people in my neighborhood - most of whom are churchgoers - have already decorated for Christmas. The tree and ornaments go up almost as soon as the sun sets on Thanksgiving Day. And by the afternoon of Christmas Day, all of the decorations come down, with Christmas trees on every curbside waiting for the garbage pickup.

Perhaps, in light of Skinner's piece, we find Advent so disturbing and subversive that we bypass the season in our haste to get on with the good cheer of Christmas. Then again, many Christians in my neck of the woods belong to non-liturgical churches and thus may not even be familiar with the term "Advent" (much less the idea that there are twelve days of Christmas!). And even many of my fellow Episcopalians (clergy included) seem confused by this most complex of seasons, some even openly denying that Advent is a penitential season (in spite of the evidence to the contrary in the lectionary readings and collects appointed for each Sunday).

Regardless, when it comes to the dangerous season of Advent (as with so many other aspects of Christian faith and practice), the Church has lost and the secular culture has won. Rather than serving as an occasion for lament, perhaps the increasing marginalization of things like Advent offers an opportunity for Christians who inhabit liturgical traditions to bear renewed witness to the Light in the darkness of this world. One thing is for sure: doing so means standing out from the crowd's celebration of our consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas.

h/t to BC at Catholicity and Covenant for bringing Skinner's article to my attention.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reducing Christian Faith to Contemporary Secular Assumptions

In an article entitled "Shrinking Jesus and Betraying the Faith," the Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison (retired bishop of South Carolina) takes aim at two biblical scholars whose work finds a welcome home within many "mainline" churches:

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are two remarkably popular theologians who teach a version of Christianity that reduces the Christian faith to contemporary secular assumptions. For Crossan, Jesus was an illiterate Jewish cynic. No Incarnation, no Resurrection. The Easter story is “fictional mythology” (p. 161, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). Borg claims that Jesus was only divine in the sense that Martin Luther King and Gandhi were divine. Borg dismisses the creeds (p.10, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) Jesus was a “spirit person,” “a mediator of the sacred,” “a shaman,” one of those persons like Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, et al. (p. 32)

Recently Borg and Crossan have collaborated on a book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. Their Jesus is a semi-revolutionary leader of peasants and outcasts against the priestly elite and those who accommodate to the dominant system of Roman coercive authority. It was not our sinful condition that demanded his crucifixion but this elite. Borg and Crossan’s Jesus does not come from God to take away sin but arose from among the innocent to teach us how not to be a part of the dominant systems. They fail to understand the depth of sin in all of us at all times, including peasants, as well as the elite. More importantly they lose the assurance of ultimate mercy and forgiveness.

Speaking of elites these two “scholarly authorities” purport to tell us, “What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus.” They pander to an increasingly secular culture and to the human itch to find some undemanding simplicity that now finally explains everything. And they do this while ignoring, and without reference to, the multitude of superior contemporary scholars such as Richard Bauckham, Raymond Brown, Luke Timothy Johnson, N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Leander Keck, Christopher Bryan, and scores of others whose works reflect the faith of scripture and the creeds.

Citing a blog posting by a clergy colleague in another diocese, I've offered criticism of Borg and Crossan (as well as Elaine Pagels and Bishop Spong) on this blog. And I've added to the mix Fleming Rutledge's recent critical response to Borg, as well.

I cannot agree with everything Bishop Allison says in his article. And sifting wheat from tares in what I've read by each of them, there are helpful nuggets of wisdom to be found in the work of Borg and Crossan, in spite of their affiliation with the Jesus Seminar (I note that Borg's work was an important resource for a sermon I preached on Mark 1:40-45).

Nevertheless, I've always found it odd when folks who find the overall agenda of scholars like Borg and Crossan persuasive also want to worship in churches whose liturgies affirm the very doctrinal content of the Christian faith this scholarship ultimately denies. Embracing paradox is one thing (after all, Christian orthodoxy affirms the paradoxical nature of the Christian faith). But embracing contradiction is something else.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day I am grateful for family and friends, life and health, the gifts that God so freely gives and the call to serve with those gifts that comes to each of us every day. I give thanks for those who regularly read this blog (including those who are critical of the things I write and quote), and I wish all of you every blessing. And I am struck anew by the wonderful "General Thanksgiving" in The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Prayer Book, whose liturgies, collects and prayers train us how to pray when our own words fail us.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Holy Scripture, which contains all things necessary to salvation and which, as we read and study and prayerfully engage this gift, trains us to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the catholic creeds that succinctly summarize the story and preserve the mystery of the Church's faith.

Thanks be to God for the gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he was willing to give everything for our sakes, including his life.

And thanks be to God for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, the mystical body of Christ into whose risen life our lives are forever joined in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and who reminds us that we are graciously accepted as living members of Christ's body in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

William Law sums it up best:

"Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new-created upon your account; and under the sense of so great a blessing, let your joyful heart praise and magnify so good and glorious a Creator."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Union with the Living Christ

Redemption occurs not through assent to doctrine but through union with the living Christ by faith. This life could not occur with a dead Christ. The engendering power of Christianity could not be proclaimed if Christianity spoke only of a person who was but no longer is. If he ceased to be alive, he could not have an effect on our present life with God.

Believers are joined to the Lord in a spiritual union and fellowship with each other that is sustained by their relation to this living Person. The continuing life of Christ includes our life. In this union Christ shares empathetically in our struggle even now, and we share in the fullness of his life with God the Father.

There is hardly a point in Christian teaching at which we seem to be further distanced from modern consciousness than the exaltation of Jesus. When we look toward him with jaded modern eyes, we tend to reduce him to something manageable. So modernity struggles to identify experientially how his consciousness has affected our modern forms of consciousness. The only conception of a living Christ that is allowable under the constraints of modern naturalism is that his influence lives in the memory and actions of others, analogous to the way heroes exert continuing influence. But the worshiping community celebrates that he acts upon us as one who himself is personally alive. The missing element in such an analysis is his own continuing personal life.

The ancient ecumenical testimony is that Jesus now lives so as to engender life in us. His living presence is the real energy and force and power of historic Christianity and present Christian life. Detached from the living Christ, the branch withers, the flower fades.

~ Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (2009)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Church is Beyond the Times

"The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times; it is waiting till the last fad shall have seen its last summer. It keeps the key of a permanent virtue."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bishop Budde vs. Bishop Wright

There's an interesting piece on The American Spectator's website entitled "Spiritual Decay." It's about Mariann Budde, the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It talks about Bishop Budde's candid acknowledgement of the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room (good for her!), even as the piece is critical of her ideas for how to address the problem. I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Budde:

"I'm pretty confident that the gospel is clear on this in terms of our accepting people as we are created by God to be and not asking people to change to conform to some uniform standard of human expression."

This statement brings to my mind a passage from Simply Christian in which N. T. Wright addresses the practical implications of Baptism (you can read the passage here). I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Wright:

"We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire."

Perhaps a comparison of these two statements by Anglican bishops gives us a feel for the depth of the chasm that divides us.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Musical Interlude with Bruce Cockburn

I recently rediscovered the music of Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn. The spiritual depth of his lyrics and the accompanying music are quite powerful. Below are some of the gems I've come across on YouTube with some lyric samples, closing with a gorgeous instrumental piece.

"There's roads and there's roads and they call, can't you hear it?
Roads of the earth and roads of the spirit.
The best roads of all are the ones that aren't certain.
One of those is where you'll find me till they drop the big curtain."

"Somebody touched me deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole there was somebody home
Some would say that I'm dreaming but I swear that it's true
Somebody touched me I know it was you"

"I'm blown like smoke and blind as wind
Except for when your love breaks in
Maybe to those who love is given sight
To pierce the wall of seeming night
And know it pure beyond all imagining"

"When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations"

The Source of False Religion

The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt: They are all temptations, traps – very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow “religious” people often look on joy with suspicion.

The first, the main source of everything is “my soul rejoices in the Lord…” The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull – or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to Joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Anglicanism Has Doctrinal Content

Drawing on Philip Turner, Sublunary Sublime reminds us that Anglicanism does, indeed, have doctrinal content:

Contrary to Maurice Wiles’ opinion that Anglicanism has no identifiable content, Philip Turner states that, “the doctrinal content Anglicans share is embedded primarily in liturgical practices the purpose of which is to form the character of a communion of believers. Its liturgical and formational setting means that the doctrinal content of Anglicanism is, as it were, scattered through a complex of practices rather than focused in a specifically theological document.” 
Turner is careful here, noting that if one says that the primary focus of Anglicanism is “liturgical practices,” then one is also saying in the same breathe that the heart of Anglican theology is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For at the center of the Book of Common Prayer is the “prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.”

The complex of liturgical practices that comprise the doctrinal content of Anglicanism is, of course, found in The Book of Common Prayer. And the Catechism at the back of the 1979 Prayer Book offers "a brief summary of the [Episcopal] Church's teaching [i.e., doctrine] for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book" (p. 844). I note also that the Prayer Book describes the Catechism as "a commentary on the creeds," which underscores the normative centrality of the doctrinal content of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds for the Episcopal Church (ibid.).

So even if it's true that, as one bishop and Anglican priest have written, "The Episcopal Church does not readily think in terms of 'doctrine'," that's not because we have no identifiable doctrine. It's right there in the Prayer Book. We corporately enact it every time we gather for the liturgy. And in the Prayer Book's ordination vows, clergy have voluntarily promised "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church" (pp. 513, 526, & 538). That would be a very strange promise to make if we had no identifiable doctrine!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Corrupting Influence of Christian Politics

The Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, takes on the manipulation of Christian symbols and theology for the sake of getting votes and consolidating power in a column entitled "Christian politics create unholy alliances." He writes:

Politicians continue to use and abuse the language and symbols of Christian faith in order to win political support. They speak of God, Jesus, Christian faith and Christian values. They bow their heads in prayer at a million chicken dinners. Then Christian voters — perhaps flattered, perhaps reassured — think that these evocations of holy Christian symbols and terms actually mean something.

In playing the God card, politicians often deploy religion as a kind of tribal identification. ... Some conservative Christians are tempted to look for the candidate who is (or appears to be) most clearly a member of their religious-political tribe — rather than focusing on the candidate's résumé, skills, foreign policy proposals or more full domestic agenda. These voters check off the Christian box and look no further, just as some liberals check off a candidate's "pro-choice" or "pro-union" box and do the same. ...

It's not just the politicians' fault. If church leaders and rank-and-file Christians were not susceptible to these appeals, they would not work. Head fakes in the direction of Christian symbols still make many Christians swoon. Religious tribalism gets out the votes. It helps that the promise of access to power still intoxicates. ...

This version of Christian politics is inherently corrupting to Christian faith, ethics and witness. It encourages politicians to take God's name in vain, and to do so routinely. (That would be a violation of the Ten Commandments, if Christians still cared about such things.) It tempts church leaders to abuse their offices and abandon their core vocations as they entangle themselves with politics. It confuses the message of Christianity with that of the politician of the moment. It damages the moral witness of Christians in culture. It makes it harder for millions to even consider the claims of historic Christian faith. It drives many away from God altogether.

This kind of Christian politics is also corrupting of American politics. When a significant minority of the body politic votes mainly on the basis of what amounts to religious tribalism, it encourages everyone else to do the same thing. But tribal politics is toxic. It has destroyed nations from Yugoslavia to Lebanon. And it does nothing to bring to office leaders with the skills to actually solve our everyday problems. We need effective leaders, not religious symbols.

Gushee continues by issuing a challenge:

Precisely as a Christian, I call for my fellow Christians to try an experiment. For lack of a better term, let's normalize, even secularize, our approach to the next election. Ask all candidates to drop the God talk. Recognize and reject all forms of religious pandering. Punish candidates who make base appeals to religious tribalism. Evaluate candidates according to their past performance and current policy proposals related to the major challenges facing our nation. Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a refresher. Pastors, stay home and preach the Gospel rather than being precinct captains. If you want to engage in relevant political reflection, wrestle in your sermons with how constitutional democracy and broad Christian moral principles relate to each other.

Christian politics is corrupting both Christians and politics. Our nation is in too much trouble to endure another round of this sorry spectacle.

Let's do better.

Amen, Dr. Gushee!

Read it all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Episcopal Bishop Tried, Convicted, and Deposed for Heresy

The recent issue of the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin contains a fascinating article. Entitled "The Red Bishop," it's about the Rt. Rev. William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937). Brown was the bishop of Arkansas from 1899-1912, during which time he became a Communist and openly rejected core teachings of the Christian faith. According to one source, Brown "is best remembered as the first Anglican Bishop to be tried for heresy since the Reformation, and the first of any creed in America to be deposed for heretical teachings." He ended up accepting an offer to be a bishop in the Old Catholic Church (and, incredibly, one source says that the Russian Orthodox Church offered to take him in!).

Here's some of what the article says:

Some called him the Red Bishop, others the Bad Bishop, or even the Mad Bishop. But no one called Episcopalian William Montgomery Brown a boring bishop

A Gilded-Age Ohioan educated at Kenyon's Bexley Hall seminary, Brown cut a broad swath through life, a man of God who morphed into a man of Marx-and Darwin, too. He was the first Episcopalian bishop, and only one so far, to be tried for heresy.

Bexley Hall, a fixture at Kenyon until 1968, holds few stories as fascinating as Brown's. His career-part Willy Loman meets Elmer Gantry, with touches of Horatio Alger Jr. and Jay Gatsby-reflects both the meandering path of an individual life and the winds of social change that swept across the land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Above all, Brown strove to hold sway among those around him. "It's a constant in his life, this business of wanting to be somebody," said historian Ronald M. Carden, author of William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop Who Became a Communist. ...

Bishop Brown had a rocky career in Arkansas. Internal church politics made his election controversial. His sometimes autocratic style and ongoing local church disputes worked against him. So did his annual stays in Galion, far from the diocese.

He tried to shore up his standing-to "mend his political fences," as Carden put it-by embracing southern attitudes toward race. In a book called The Crucial Race Question, Brown proposed strict segregation for the Episcopal Church: one autonomous but separate church for blacks, another for whites.

"Amalgamation is a ruinous crime," he wrote. Cain's murder of Abel, by comparison, was "a crime that was venial compared with that of miscegenation." ...

Seeking to wield influence, drawn to ideas on a grand scale, Brown continued to cobble together visions of Christianity and political philosophy. The Ohio seminarian turned Arkansas racist now developed a scheme for a sort of church egalitarianism.

In a 1910 book, he unveiled a plan for "leveling." The idea was that members of all Protestant denominations would select their own bishops and all would come together under the umbrella of Episcopalianism. As part of the project, Brown dropped some elements his church held dear, such as apostolic succession and a priestly class.

Brown campaigned for his plan nationally. But Episcopalians, both lay and clerical, shunned his ideas. Some bishops burned the book; churchmen even talked of heresy, according to Brown's autobiography. He ignored the routine duties of his diocese while campaigning for his plan, further alienating local congregants. ...

In Galion, Brown's physician, apparently looking for ways to reinvigorate the bishop intellectually, suggested he read Darwin. With time to read and contemplate, Brown began to change his views.

And the change was big. "I no longer believed in a personal God, nor in a six-day creation, nor in a literal heaven and hell," Brown wrote. No fall of man, nor a redemption through the blood of Christ, either. Creeds, he decided, were symbolical, nothing more.

Others guided him towards socialism, and he began reading Marx, too. "That was another revelation," Brown wrote. "Darwin was now my Old Testament, Marx my New." ...

In 1920, Brown summarized his new philosophy in Communism and Christianism, a 247-page book urgingreaders to "Banish the Gods from the Skies and Capitalists from the Earth."

Brown wrote that capitalism had failed, that "millions are insufficiently fed, clothed, housed and warmed, and are doomed to a perpetual and exhaustive drudgery which leaves neither leisure nor energy for the cultivation of their soul life."

He called for "economic levelism," a spreading out of wealth and new respect for the worker. "Communism is for me the one comprehensive term which is a synonym at once of morality, religion and Christianity," he wrote.

Some church leaders thought him daft. Ignore him and he'll go away, said others. Still others called him a heretic who must be brought to account.

Church officials pondered their options. Eventually, three bishops, the minimum required, charged Brown with heresy. Eight like-minded bishops gathered in 1924 for a trial in Cleveland. They served as judges and jurors. And they quickly convicted him.

"They were going to hang him up by his thumbs, no matter what," Carden said. And so Brown, once a rising star of mainstream Christianity, had become a pariah.

Read it all.

All told, it's not only a fascinating but also a sad story. And it serves as a reminder that the issue of bishops who openly reject the faith of the Church and teach things that contradict that faith hardly began with Bishop Pike or Bishop Spong. Nevertheless, unless I've missed something, Brown is the only bishop in the Episcopal Church who has ever been convicted and deposed for heresy (something which might seem unthinkable to most of us today, regardless of how far off the reservation a bishop's theology may go).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Rehabilitating Pelagius

A resolution submitted to the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta asks the Council (in the words of George Conger) "to reverse the condemnation of the Council of Carthage upon Pelagius, and to explore whether the Fifth century heretic may inform the theology of the Episcopal Church." Here's the original resolution:

R11-17 Contribution of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

Submitted by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany

I see from the diocesan website that the Council amended part of the resolution as follows:

Amended as follows (otherwise unchanged):

Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta recommend that the bishop appoint and oversee a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor understand the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in to our tradition

Conger reminds us of who Pelagius was and why he was condemned by the Council of Carthage:

A British monk, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Mankind possessed an unconditioned free will and was able to obtain his own salvation through personal betterment rather than grace, he argued. In the Letter to Demetrias, Pelagius argued that Adam’s sin was not what caused us to sin. Humans were born good, but over time became wicked through voluntary acts. “Over the years our sin gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.”

The Council of Carthage in 416 [sic] condemned Pelagius’ teaching. Augustine argued that the British monk’s teaching contradicted Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 because Pelagius located the capacity “to will and to do” what pleases God in human nature rather than in God’s grace. (On the Grace of Christ, V.6 and VI.)

(Citing Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A History, I touched on some of the problematic aspects of Pelagius' rejection of original sin in a previous posting.)

So what have been some of the initial reactions in response to this resolution? Here's Conger again:

The proposed resolution has brought mixed responses from the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies chat room, with some ridiculing the notion that the Diocese of Atlanta believed itself capable of redefining church doctrine. However, other deputies have endorsed the resolution saying it gives a breath of Celtic Christianity to the Episcopal Church and enhances the church’s theological diversity.

One person says this on Conger's website:

I can just see the headlines in some newspapers if the Diocese of Altanta really does formally state that Pelagian views are fine as part of the diversity of TEC: “Diocese of Atlanta denies the concept of original sin.” But it does seem as though our Presiding Bishop agrees with Pelagius as described above–we’re all born good and in need of kind teachers, rather than a savior. And if people act selfishly or worse, it can be attributed to their upbringing, rather than anything inherently wrong in the human condition.

Rod Dreher responds to the resolution by simply saying: "It’s not heresy, dear, it’s enhancing diversity."

David Gibson offers quite a different response in a posting entitled "Cool News of the Day":

Great news. Why? For one thing, there is a chance that Pelagius may have got a raw deal way back when, and it would be important to revisit the issue and to learn about early Christian history, which no one seems to recall terribly well.

I'm not much of a Pelagian, or neo-Pelagian, if you couldn't tell. But I do think that it's great when Christians argue about doctrines and dogmas and things that really matter, rather than the usual arguments over whether praise music is dreck or the cantor's Latin pronunciation is off. (Both are likely true. Done.) It's too easy to slip into heresies without thinking about it.

They were fighting in the streets over Arianism. How about an "Occupy Carthage" movement, starting in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta in the 21st century? It could be good to re-fight these battles every millennium or so, to clarify what a religion believes. But we need to know history in order to repeat it. Or not.

A couple of responses to Gibson's piece are interesting, like this:

I commend the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta for their initiative in ‘rehabilitating’ Pelagius. It seems to me that “Command and control” motivation took precedence over dialogue and truth finding as Augustine (of Hippo) provided the ecclesial sword so profoundly taken up by Constantine to establish the “imperial” church. Pelagius taught that “right ordering” of self was the key to bettering one’s relationship with God. Augustine, on the other hand, seemed to deny the intrinsic goodness of self and creation and promoted “abnegation, mortification and self-denial” - the emptying of self (does God really want an empty vessel returned to “Her”?). If there was a heretic here is is more likely Augustine, and his motives were suspect as well.

(I note that Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom goes a long way towards rebutting the whole "command and control" thesis so central to the hermeneutic of suspicion's approach to this period of Church history.)

And there's this:

There is a great tendency in modern theological circles to elevate the arch-heretics of the ancient church to the status of Fathers of the Church, though their views were repudiated by the Fathers of the Church. So, if the Episcopal Diocese of Atalanta has their way, not only Pelagius, but Origen, Severus of Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuetia, Arius, Apollinarius, Sabellius, etc. will now be added to the list of church fathers and maybe venerated as saints. ...

The Blessed Augustine erred in his insistence on grace and denying of free will. But that does not prove that Pelagius and his followers, like Julianus, were right. It is also important to note that though the eastern churches couldn’t figure out what the problem with Pelagius was, Pelagius and Julianus were still condemned by the Synod of Jerusalem in 416 (if memory serves). Pelagius was not a saint and should not be elevated to that rank nor should he be ranked as a church father. He was just as wrong (if not more so) than Augustine.

And looking at things from across the pond in the Church of Ireland, BC at Catholicity and Covenant writes:

That reference [in the resolution] to "our birthright as Anglicans" is somewhat interesting, not least in light of the words Article 9: "Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) ...". One assumes that the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Atlanta is fully aware that it does not have the authority to act in a manner contrary to the church catholic and the Anglican tradition. Right?

I guess we'll find out soon enough!