Monday, March 28, 2011

The Primary Paradox of Christianity

"The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall. In Sir Oliver Lodge's interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were: 'What are you?' and 'What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?' I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions; but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers. To the question, 'What are you?' I could only answer, 'God knows.' And to the question, 'What is meant by the Fall?' I could answer with complete sincerity, 'That whatever I am, I am not myself.' This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Opposing the Covenant in the Name of "True" Anglicanism

A few months ago, Peter Carrell posted a brilliant piece at Anglican Down Under entitled "Wrongly named international Anglican Coalition favours covenant." In that piece, he took on the No Anglican Covenant Coalition's opposition to the Anglican Covenant by showing how that coalition's rejection of the official Covenant entails an acceptance of an unofficial covenant. As I noted in my blog response, Peter shows that those who reject the proposed Anglican Covenant are themselves operating with a set of normative and perhaps even forcefully binding ideas about what it means to be "truly" Anglican, and that those ideas constitute a kind of implicit and rival covenant to the official Covenant.

Peter is making that point again, this time in response to a talk on the Anglican Covenant given by Lionel Deimel to a Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh meeting. Deimel's talk is entitled "Why the Anglican Covenant Should be Rejected," and it concludes like this:

Rejecting the Covenant may or may not derail what seems like an unstoppable express, but, at the very least, we will not be complicit in destroying Anglicanism or paying for the destruction of our own church. In the end, our mission might be to pick up the pieces of the Anglican Communion and reconstitute them as a fellowship that is truly Anglican.

Peter's response in a posting entitled "The annoying truth about the Anglican Covenant" is worth quoting at length:

Truly Anglican! What on earth is 'truly Anglican'? Since the whole of the talk is intelligent, rational, and insightful it is right and proper that the word 'truly' is understood to mean something in this context. It is not a descriptive word thrown into the sentence as a flourish. 'Truly' has to do with 'true': there is a true Anglicanism which can be distinguished from a false Anglicanism. Further, 'truly Anglican' means some kind of definition going on as to what is true Anglicanism and what is not true Anglicanism. Indeed the sentence speaks about reconstituting broken Anglicanism, a task which implies knowledge of how to go about intentional work on Anglicanism compared with (say) letting Anglicanism randomly evolve. That word 'fellowship' implies some sense of a shared definition as well as intention. So 'truly Anglican' involves definition of what being Anglican means, and a shared definition at that. A definition which Anglicans make a decision to agree to. Finally, note that implicitly the reconstituted Anglican fellowship will not include those who do not buy into the definition of what is 'truly Anglican'.

Sounds like a Covenant with disciplinary teeth by another name!

This point has been made by me before on this blog. Despite the arguments against the Covenant sounding like the choice before us is to have a Covenant or to not have a Covenant, as long as we remain committed to being 'truly Anglican' then the choice before us is to have a written Covenant or an unwritten Covenant.

The advantage of a written Covenant over an unwritten Covenant is that we know what we are agreeing to with the former. With the latter shadowy players behind the scenes have ample opportunity to change the meaning to suit the occasion. Real Anglican democracy lies in the way of transparency with a written Covenant. True Anglican justice lies with a Covenant known to all signers and not with an unwritten Covenant the contents of which no one knows for sure.

It is an annoying truth about the Anglican Covenant that there will be a Covenant as long as Anglicans wish to distinguish true from false Anglicanism. We cannot escape the Covenant, we can only make a choice as to whether it will be written down or not.

I agree that this is, indeed, an annoying truth! And it's annoying precisely because denying it means affirming it in the very act of denying it (a performative contradiction).

I also agree that it really is much better - more democratic with less room for subtle coercion - to have the norms of our common life and the distinctions between "true" and "false" Anglicanism written down so that everyone can make an informed decision about whether or not to sign on.

Many of those opposed to the official Covenant have written a great deal about what they think is wrong with the Anglican Covenant. Perhaps another contribution to the debate over the official Covenant that those opposed to it can make is to publish the normative ideas about "true" Anglicanism vs. "false" Anglicanism which drive their opposition. It would be helpful to see what the alternative covenant(s) affirmed by the opposition over and against the official Covenant actually looks like in a document that spells out the norms as clearly and concisely as possible. Comparing and contrasting the official Covenant with the unofficial covenant(s) affirmed by the opposition would make for a constructive conversation about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Church isn't a Playground to be Fixed

"The Early Church abolished the order of prophet. It had become a nuisance! Remember that our Lord is the Prophet. The church isn't a playground to be fixed, it is the Body of Christ."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Abandoning the Language of Sin

"Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Soft on Right Belief and Sin?

In an essay entitled "What's so appealing about Orthodoxy?" in The Washington Post, Rod Dreher shares the journey that he and his wife made from the Roman Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. It makes for a fascinating read.

Coming into The Episcopal Church as a severely lapsed Methodist, Dreher's context and journey are quite different from my own. But like Dreher, I find many aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy appealing. Perhaps it's little wonder, then, that parts of Dreher's essay connect for me.

For instance, here's what Dreher observes about the fate of right belief at the parish level:

Here’s the problem: there is very little orthodoxy in the U.S. Catholic Church, and at the parish level, almost no recognition that there is a such thing as “right belief.” It wasn’t that I wanted to throw out all those who don’t live up to Catholic teaching – I would have been the first one shown the door if that had been true – but that I discerned no direction, and no real conviction that parish communities exist for any reason other than to affirm ourselves in our okayness. Though I didn’t have a term to describe it at the time, I was weary to the bone from an ersatz form of Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

To be sure, within The Episcopal Church and across the theological spectrum within the Anglican blogosphere, there are many who take right belief very seriously (no doubt, this is true within most of the so-called "mainline" denominations). Nevertheless, I find that Dreher's observation generally holds true. I continue to be surprised by the pride some Episcopalians I encounter take in having the freedom to pick and choose whatever they want to believe. It's as though their freedom to choose is something to celebrate, no matter how far off the Christian reservation the choices may take them. Personal experience trumps special revelation.

Precisely because it contrasts so sharply with celebrations of autonomous freedom, I sometimes wonder what is going through our minds when, in reaffirming our Baptismal Covenant vows, we promise "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). Making this promise entails a solemn commitment to an obedience that places checks and balances on our freedom to choose personal truths and practices as though such choices could possibly take priority over the faith of the Church. But in the midst of emphasizing peace, justice, and respect for the dignity of every human being, I don't recall ever hearing this.

Another part of Dreher's essay that I found striking concerns sin:

The main reason why Orthodoxy is so attractive to converts, at least to this convert, is its seriousness about sin. I don’t mean that it’s a dour religion – it is very far from that! – but rather that Orthodoxy takes the brokenness of humankind with appropriate seriousness. Orthodoxy is not going to tell you that you’re okay. In fact, it will require you to call yourself, as St. Paul described himself, the “chief of sinners.” And Orthodoxy is going to tell you the Good News: Jesus died and returned to life so that you too might live. But in order to live, you are going to have to die to yourself, over and over again. And that will not be painless, and cannot be, or it’s not real.

Because of that, for all its dramatic beauty and rich feasting, Orthodoxy is far more austere and demanding than most American Christianity. The long liturgies, the frequent prayers, the intense fasts – all make serious demands on the believer, especially comfortable middle-class Americans like me. They call us out of ourselves, and to repentance. Orthodoxy is not interested in making you feel comfortable in your sins. It wants nothing less than for you to be a saint.

For the past 16 years in The Episcopal Church, I've heard very little about "the brokenness of humankind." On the contrary, I'm often struck at how we go out of our way to tell people that they are okay. The important thing is that all of us are affirmed in our faith journeys. The Church is here to be friendly and supportive. And so we readily proclaim the proposition: "Everyone is accepted in Christ." But we seem hesitant to add: "No one is affirmed as they are."

In a posting I published last summer entitled "The Human Problem and Full Permission Living," I wrote this:

I'm struck by how little I hear in The Episcopal Church about the human problem and the seriousness of sin. That's odd given the fact that the Renunciations in the Prayer Book's Baptismal rite underscore the pervasiveness of sin and evil at the cosmic, systemic, and personal levels of existence, and that, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to persevere against evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 302 & 304).

Then again, we live in a culture in which theological ideas like sin and the Fall no longer resonate, a culture in which the very idea of an ontological problem with human nature is repressive nonsense, and a culture in which the only problem is failing to maximize one's pleasure and fulfill one's "authentic" self.

I believe in the sufficiency of Anglicanism. And so I believe that the Anglican tradition provides the resources we need to do the very things that Dreher found so compelling within Eastern Orthodoxy. We, too, can emphasize "right belief" in our preaching and by showing how, in our liturgies, we corporately pray the orthodox faith of the Church. And we also have the biblical and liturgical resources to appropriately address the problem of sin and brokenness in ways that open us to God's healing, transforming grace.

Upholding right belief, and naming and addressing sin, go increasingly against the grain within our cultural setting. But the resources for doing this gospel work are right at hand. Indeed, they lie at the core of who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition. Dare we Episcopalians be so counter-cultural? Or, in the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to be "relevant," do we take the easier, softer route of optional orthodoxy?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Optional Orthodoxy

"I'll presume to call it Neuhaus' Law, or at least one of his several laws: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy's good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Taking Ash Wednesday to the Streets

In an article posted on Episcopal Cafe's "Daily Episcopalian," Sara Miles shares the experience of joining with other Episcopalians to take the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes to the streets of San Francisco:

The afternoon looked like rain; the skies were grey, and trembling. "Hey, did you know today is Ash Wednesday?" a white hipster shouted into his phone, as I led a procession of fifteen men and women dressed in black cassocks and carrying smoking thuribles into a plaza by the subway near my home in San Francisco’s Mission District. ...

It was a year ago. Bertie Pearson, a young priest who’d been a DJ in the Mission’s coolest nightspots, had set up a makeshift altar on a black-draped card table in front of the stairs to the subway. Duct-taped to a fence behind it were two handwritten signs: Life is Very, Very, Very Short said one, and another read More Forgiveness. Our impromptu group, assembled from various neighborhood Episcopal churches, looked around a little nervously. There were a couple of priests, and a few seminarians, but most of us weren’t used to stomping through the streets in long black robes. ...

We returned to the altar and fell on our knees. “O God,” began Bertie, chanting in a serious, thin voice only partly drowned out by the buses going by, “you made us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and hope...” He lifted the baby-food jars we’d brought with us. They held the ashes of burned-up palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, when we had gathered to hail Jesus as king on the way to his death. Now bystanders were edging nearer to see what we were doing, and a seminarian with long black hair addressed everyone. “Let us kneel before the God who made us,” she said.

I knelt and pressed my forehead to the dirty sidewalk, the whole rush of my neighborhood, its crazy beauty and apparent hopelessness filling my heart. I’d walked through this plaza the day two teenage kids were shot a block away; I’d seen someone OD in the subway entrance. I’d come here busy and distracted on the way to the library with my five-year old daughter; I’d eaten tacos, chatted with beggars and laughed with friends in this place. “Lord,” I whispered, “have mercy.”

Miles goes on to describe imposing ashes on "the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks," as well as noting "a teenaged drug dealer [who] grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead."

Read it all.

There's much that's moving about the experiences that Miles recounts. And there's something courageous about this group of Episcopalians who leave the relative safety of church buildings to go out into the streets.

But the story Miles shares is also troubling. Taking the imposition of ashes out of a liturgical context that includes scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, and the litany of penitence, there is no insistence on the reality of sin or any call to repentance. The article describes persons imposing ashes with the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And that's it.

To be sure, this confronts people with their mortality. But it leaves out Ash Wednesday's pointed emphasis on sin and repentance, as well as the liturgy's emphasis on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 269). So the gang members, the teenaged drug dealer, and the others are not invited to name and repent of their sins. There's no explicit call to change. Ironically, without the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the imposition of ashes becomes a kind of implicit affirmation of persons as they are.

Perhaps this accounts for why there is no specific proclamation of the Christian answer to sin and death in this street "liturgy." Where, in what Miles writes, is there any specific proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to the persons receiving the ashes?

Lifting the imposition of ashes from its liturgical context, we're left with the message: "Life is very, very short. So be a more forgiving person." But we don't need Jesus to proclaim that message.

As we move deeper into a post-Christian culture, we need to find creative ways to do Church in new ways. As Sara Miles and her colleagues demonstrate, that may mean literally hitting the streets to meet people where they are. But it also needs to include the fullness of the Gospel message.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Greatest Danger in the Modern World

"In the better than 16 years or more that I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my retired Archbishop), I have heard him warn repeatedly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear."

~ Fr. Stephen Freeman, "Smashing Icons"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

More Unpersuasive Reasons for Communion Without Baptism

Here's the first part of an article entitled "Anglicans to consider opening communion to unbaptized" from the National Post:

Canadian Anglicans will hold discussions this spring about whether baptism is necessary for taking part in communion — questioning a requirement of Christianity that has existed for 2,000 years.

“Official teaching is you have to be baptized first. But a number of clergy across the country feel strongly about this as an issue and many have approached their bishops about allowing for an ‘open table’ in which all could take communion,” said Archdeacon Paul Feheley, who is the principal secretary to Archbishop Fred Hiltz, head of the Anglican Church of Canada.

It will be discussed when the House of Bishops meet in April, but not as an official topic, he said.

I've already offered some thoughts on communing the unbaptized and why I oppose the practice, so I won't rehash it all again. But I will cite and respond briefly to some of the comments in favor of the practice from the National Post article:

Rev. Gary Nicolosi said that if Jesus did not discriminate about who he invited to his table, then the Church should follow his lead.

“How, in our multicultural and pluralistic society, can our churches be places of hospitality if we exclude table fellowship with the non-baptized? This is not an academic question,” wrote Rev. Nicolosi, the pastor at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont., and an official Church consultant on how to build membership.

I fully agree that this is not an academic question and that the Church should, indeed, be concerned about how our parishes can be places of hospitality in an increasingly diverse and post-Christian context. But I think there's something deeply awry with Fr. Nicolosi's approach here. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels did not own a house, so he was never in a position to invite anybody to "his table." Fr. Nicolosi gets things backwards: it's not other people who accept an invitation to dine at Jesus' table, it's Jesus who accepts invitations to dine at other people's tables. And if we take seriously the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels, the only people present for that meal were Jesus' closest followers. That makes the Last Supper - the meal at which our Lord instituted the sacrament of Holy Eucharist - an exclusionary event.

Fr. Nicolosi continues by asking the question:

“How can the church effectively minister in a post-Christian world where a significant percentage of the population is not baptized?"

What happens if we take out the word “post-Christian” and insert “pagan,” and then take out the words “a significant percentage” and add “the vast majority”? We get this question:

"How can the church effectively minister in a pagan world where the vast majority of the population is not baptized?"

This is the exact same question that faced the early Church. And yet, in stark contrast to our day, there was no movement among the early Christians to allow for communion without baptism. And yet they still found ways to “effectively minister."

Once again, I find the reasoning used by those pushing for communion without baptism unpersuasive. It strikes me as a well-intentioned but misguided effort to make a dying Church "relevant" in a post-Christian world by watering down the Gospel in the hopes that such an accommodation to the culture will make the institutional Church more appealing to people who mistrust and/or have no use for such institutions.

In contrast to Fr. Nicolosi, I think that Ephraim Radner gets it right:

Rev. Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary in Toronto, rejects the idea that changing 2,000 years of tradition will make the Anglican Church stronger.

“The Eucharist isn’t a welcoming exercise,” he said. “It is about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It’s not a meal like any other meal.

“It has been a clear and consistent practice through all of Christianity and shows that a baptized person has committed himself or herself to Jesus.”

He said to eliminate the requirement would water down what Christianity stands for, and he is concerned that leaders of the Church do not find the suggestion alarming.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “It makes God and Christ not as holy and demanding and wonderful as the Church has taught.”

This kind of change, he added, would also drive a further wedge between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Christians and help kill any notion of ecumenical reconciliation.

Read all of the National Post article.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday Homily

It was my turn this year to offer the Ash Wednesday homily. I found it a bit difficult to write a homily for this occasion, largely because the scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, the imposition of ashes, and the litany of penitence pretty much say everything that needs to be said. So I kept it very short and to the point.

[Listen to the homily here.]

Ash Wednesday confronts us with two truths we probably don’t like to dwell on and which our culture encourages us to minimize, deny, or simply ignore.

The first truth is about sin. To be human is to be a sinner. We have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate, a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God. It’s a sickness that goes to the very core of our being, distorting and at times severing relationships with God, with other people, even with all of creation. Again and again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should spurn. And we are powerless to cure ourselves.

The second truth Ash Wednesday confronts us with is mortality. We are all going to die. That truth will be powerfully underscored in just a few moments when ashes are imposed on our foreheads in the sign of a cross accompanied by the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We are sinners and we are going to die. Focusing on these truths may seem harsh if not morbid. But it’s only by honestly facing and accepting these truths that we can then move on to embracing another, more powerful truth. If we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear this truth in the prayer over the ashes when the priest asks that “we may remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 265). That prayer points to the good news that God responds to our sinfulness and mortality, not by abandoning us, but with a decisive intervention that can do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves.

Yes, we are sinners who cannot save ourselves. But there is One who can save us. Yes, we are going to die. But there is One who loves us so much that He graciously gives us the gift of everlasting life. That One is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Lent is a particularly good season for facing the truth about who and what we are, while also remembering the One to whom we belong. It can be a difficult journey. It’s never easy to name and own our sins, much less to accept the reality of death. But the first step of true repentance – of turning around and starting the long walk back home – is admitting that there’s a problem, confessing what we have done and what we have failed to do, admitting that we’ve strayed far away, that we’re lost, that we need help, and then acknowledging that our only hope for help is in God.

As we journey through these 40 Days of Lent, may we remember that the God we know in Jesus Christ is greater than our sins and that through His resurrection He has won a decisive victory over death – a victory that we share by virtue of our baptisms. And may we never forget that, standing with outstretched arms of love, Jesus beckons us to come back home to Him for forgiveness and healing.

Thought for Ash Wednesday

"Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: 'For my sake the world was created.' And the other: 'I am dust and ashes.'"

~ Rabbi Simcha Bunim

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Luke Timothy Johnson on the Nicene Creed

" ... the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them. This is the precondition to their celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world where they should be challenged."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

N. T. Wright on Christian Hope and the Mission of God

"The church is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’ resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation. ...

"What you
do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself – will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether …. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. ...

"Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God."

~ N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope