Wednesday, August 29, 2012

C. S. Lewis to clergy: "It is your duty to fix the lines of doctrine"

It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: (1) It may be so “broad” or “liberal” or “modern” that it in fact excludes any real supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. (2) It may, on the other hand, be Roman. It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is. I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priest think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession.

This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.  

Even when we have thus ruled out teaching which is in direct opposition to our profession, we must define our task still further.  We are to defend Christianity itself - the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Church Fathers on the Intimate Relationship Between Character Formation and Biblical Exegesis

In the following passage from Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall unpacks the patristic insight regarding the "dialectic between spiritual growth, character formation and understanding Scripture."  This insight serves as an important corrective to the individualism of many Protestant approaches to reading the Bible.  And it provides a means for critically engaging an intellectualism that reduces discipleship to a thought experiment, eschewing commitment to a community grounded in Tradition for the sake of salvaging a "relevant" Christianity in ways that often end up revising or jettisoning the core content of the Church's faith.  Hall reminds us that there is a more ancient, faithful, and better way.

The [church] fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well.  For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness.  The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Spirit.  The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself.  Character and exegesis were intimately related.

For example, in his well-known work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius adamantly insists that

the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures [demands] a good life and a pure soul. ... One cannot possibly  understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. ... Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.  Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.  Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.

Gregory of Nazianzus offers much the same advice in his theological orations.  Studying and speaking well about God does not belong to everyone, not "before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits."  Gregory insists that theological study "is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are past masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified."

Neither Athanasius nor Gregory envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation.  Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church.  The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ's grace is communicated to his body.  That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of Scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible.  This holistic, communal approach is surely a methodology that warrants a close investigation in our highly individualistic, specialized, segmented world.

The fathers' insistence on spiritual health and integrity as we approach the Bible is advice we must heed.  Sadly, our words and lives too often do not fit together.  We are not of one piece.  The fathers' call to wholeness and integrity, to allow our lives to be shaped by the narratives of Scripture within the community of the church - so that we can understand and communicate that narrative in an ever more faithful manner - is a sine qua non for understanding how and why the fathers go about the business of exegesis.  The dialectic between spiritual growth, character formation and understanding Scripture is a crucial patristic insight.

Monday, August 27, 2012

St. John Chrysostom: "If they had not seen him risen they would not have risked so much"

I came across this gem from St. Chrysostom today at Fr. Brandon Filbert's blog The Rector's Corner.  Part of Fr. Filbert's introduction to this excerpt from St. Chrysostom's homily is in italics.

The following excerpt from a homily written by St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD, commemorated on January 27 in the Episcopal Church) contains one of the best responses to the shop-worn argument that Christianity is a fabricated faith, that the Resurrection is a purely "spiritual" event, and that the Gospel is primarily an intellectual phenomenon, not one involving the total person.

+ + +

It was clear through unlearned men that the cross was persuasive, in fact, it persuaded the whole world. Their discourse was not of unimportant matters but of God and true religion, of the Gospel way of life and future judgment, yet it turned plain, uneducated men into philosophers. How the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and his weakness stronger than men!

In what way is it stronger? It made its way throughout the world and overcame all men; countless men sought to eradicate the very name of the Crucified, but that name flourished and grew ever mightier. Its enemies lost out and perished; the living who waged a war on a dead man proved helpless. Therefore, when a Greek tells me I am dead, he shows only that he is foolish indeed, for I, whom he thinks a fool, turn out to be wiser than those reputed wise. So too, in calling me weak, he but shows that he is weaker still. For the good deeds which tax-collectors and fishermen were able to accomplish by God’s grace, the philosophers, the rulers, the countless multitudes cannot even imagine.

Paul had this in mind when he said: The weakness of God is stronger than men. That the preaching of these men was indeed divine is brought home to us in the same way. For how otherwise could twelve uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, the others fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!

How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead - if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?

It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

William Temple: "It is the worshiping life that can transform the world"

This detachment to which the Church is called, but which Churchmen have seldom attained, is not a hermit-like withdrawal from the world; on the contrary it is the way by which the Church may most influence the world.  For the way to spiritual power over the world lies through worship and sanctification.  If the Church is to supply to Christian people the quality enabling them to convert the world, they (or at least a large proportion of them) must be Churchmen before they are citizens, recognizing that their highest duty and privilege is to worship God made known in Jesus Christ, to quicken their consciences by His holiness, to feed their minds on His truth, to purify their imaginations by His beauty, to open their hearts to His love, to submit their wills to His purpose.  Worship includes all those elements.  Worship so understood is the activity whereby and wherein men become more fully incorporated into the Body of Christ, thus enabling the Church to become its true self and to do its true work.

Of course, such worship is a continuous and lifelong enterprise.  To 'go to Church' and there sit, stand, and kneel while other people say things and sing things may be better than nothing, for it is an act of witness; but it is not certain that it is better than nothing, but such a Churchgoer lowers the temperature of the whole congregation.  It is not possible to worship truly while the daily life is far from God; and it is not possible to bring the daily life much nearer to God except by the best worship of which we are capable.

Thus worship is the distinctive and specially characteristic activity of the Church; but then worship includes all life and the moments spent in concentrated worship, whether 'in Church' or elsewhere, are the focusing points of the sustaining and directing energy of the worshiper's whole life.

It would strike many people as absurd to say that the cure for unemployment is to be found through worship; but it would be quite true.

If then the Christian citizen is to make his Christianity tell upon his politics, his business, his social enterprise, he must be a Churchman - consciously belonging to the worshiping fellowship and sharing its worship - before he is a citizen; he must bring the concerns of his citizenship and his business before God, and go forth to them carrying God's inspiration with him.

This is all expressed in the Eucharist.  There we bring familiar forms of economic wealth, which is always the product of man's labor exercised upon God's gifts, and offer them as symbols of our earthly life.  If God had not given to the seed its life and to the soil the quality to nurture it, there would be neither harvest nor bread.  Equally, if man had not ploughed the soil and scattered the seed, there would be neither harvest nor bread.  Bread is a product of man's labor exercised upon God's gift for the satisfaction of man's need.  So is wine.  There are our 'oblations' at the 'offertory' - often also accompanied by 'alms' expressing the charity which seeks to share with others the good things which God has given us.

These representatives of all earthly 'goods' we offer to God in union with the act of Christ at the Last Supper when, in preparatory interpretation of His death, He took the bread, called it His Body, and broke it - took the wine, called it His Blood and gave it.  Because we have offered our 'earthly' goods to God, He gives them back to us as heavenly goods, binding us into union with Christ in that self-offering which is His royalty, so that we give not only our goods but ourselves, and thus become strengthened as members of His Body to do His will in the various departments of our life.

The Eucharist divorced from life loses reality; life devoid of worship loses direction and power.  It is the worshiping life that can transform the world.

~ William Temple, Citizen and Churchman (1941)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What is Catholic Anglicanism?

Fr. Thomas A. Fraser, president of The Living Church Foundation, Inc., answers that question succinctly and elegantly in the following essay.

When we speak of Catholic Anglicanism we mean:

  1. an Anglicanism which is defined by, and in all things understood in, the perspective of the fullness of its almost 2,000 year history, not understood as being founded in and defined by the second half of the 16th century; 
  2. an Anglicanism in full communion with the ancient See of Canterbury, whose core norms and practice are consistent on all levels — provincial, diocesan, parochial — with the teaching of the Anglican Communion worldwide, as expressed by the council of Anglican primates, archbishops, and diocesan bishops known as the Lambeth Conference; 
  3. an Anglicanism which upholds the historic teaching of the undivided Catholic Church as defined by its seven General Councils: 
    • The Church on earth is a divinely instituted sacramental body established by Jesus Christ, which will be indwelt by the Holy Spirit until Christ’s coming again at the end of the age; 
    • The Church on earth, while not infallible, is “indefectible,” that is, it cannot remain in error. In the fullness of time the Holy Spirit will lead it into all truth; 
    • Christ gave the authority and power to interpret his revelation and apply it to the ongoing life of the Church (to “bind and loose”): to his apostles as a body (neither to any individual bishop alone or any local synod of bishops nor to every individual Christian). Therefore only a general council of all the bishops in the apostolic succession can authoritatively interpret matters of faith and morals (de fide) and alone constitutes the dominically established magisterium of the holy Catholic Church; 
    • The Church has three states: “militant” on earth, “expectant” in paradise, and “triumphant” in heaven; 
    • Salvation is a lifelong process or journey beginning with justification (which comes through Baptism) and continues with sanctification (which comes principally, though not exclusively, through the other sacraments); 
    • Seven sacraments objectively convey salvific grace, including the sacrament of Holy Orders: bishops, priests, and deacons in the Apostolic Succession.

We promote and support an understanding of Anglicanism which — in the words attributed to Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Francis Fisher (1945-61) — proclaims that “we have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church, enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution.”

See also the Anglican Catholic FAQ page on the website of St. Paul's Parish in Riverside, IL where Fr. Fraser has served as rector since 1975.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Truth about the Council of Nicaea

According to pop culture accounts, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) made up a new version of Christianity that includes the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity. And the Council also gave orthodox bishops absolute political power to stamp out rival, more tolerant followers of Jesus. The subtext, of course, is that orthodox Christianity is bad if not evil. And its core doctrine is false because it was the byproduct of efforts to consolidate political power and control.

According to the following video, this view of the Council of Nicaea is "a complete fairy tale" grounded in a lack of historical evidence. The video is a good antidote to some of the anti-Christian, "let's make up our own religion" hype out there, so watch it all:


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cyril of Alexandria: "Surely she must be the Mother of God"

That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills me with astonishment.  Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him!  Our Lord's disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this has also been taught us by the holy fathers.

In the third book of his work on the holy and consubstantial Trinity, our father Athanasius, of glorious memory, several times refers to the holy Virgin as "Mother of God."  I cannot resist quoting his own words: "As I have often told you, the distinctive mark of holy Scripture is that it was written to make a twofold declaration concerning our Savior; namely, that he is and has always been God, since he is the Word, Radiance and Wisdom of the Father; and that for our sake in these latter days he took flesh from the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and became human." ...

The divinely inspired Scriptures affirm that the Word of God was made flesh, that is to say, was united to a human body endowed with a rational soul.  He undertook to help the descendants of Abraham, fashioning a body for himself from a woman and sharing our flesh and blood, to enable us to see in him not only God, but also, by reason of this union, a human being like ourselves.

It is held, therefore, that there are in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity.  Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and human; not a deified human on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form.  We are assured of this by Saint Paul's declaration: "When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as children."

edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Publishing, 1991), p. 486.

Many thanks to Catholicity and Covenant for noting how Richard Hooker affirms St. Cyril's words and the Christological teaching of the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431). He writes:

The faith of Cyril and Ephesus, affirmed by Hooker, does pose some questions for those Anglicans - liberal and evangelical - who flee from describing the Blessed Virgin as Theotokos/God bearer. Liberals, we can suppose, dislike the creedal Christology inherent in the title: that begs quite a few very significant questions indeed. For evangelical Anglicans, however, surely an orthodox affirmation of the Incarnation requires - as Cyril, Ephesus, and Hooker state - a recognition that the girl from Nazareth was indeed Theotokos? That the phrase is not used in Scripture is of little significance - nor is homousion. It is also difficult to avoid Hooker's conclusion that a rejection of Ephesus means "we are plainly and inevitably Nestorians".

And for catholic Anglicans ... well, we need to be challenged to re-engage with the Christological roots of Marian belief and devotion. It is not an ecclesiastical hobby nor a badge of ecclesial identity. We confess Mary as Theotokos not to be like Romans, not to declare that we are 'High', but because "for us and for our salvation" the Word became flesh. We confess Mary as Theotokos to remind the Church of her Christological centre.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost 2012

RCL, Proper 14, Year B: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8, 12-15; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51 

[Click here to listen to the sermon.]

Okay everybody, listen carefully, because this is what you’re going to need:

• three 2 inch binders
• loose-leaf paper
• index cards
• a pack of tab dividers
• three pastel highlighters (of different colors, of course)
• one box of colored pencils
• white out
• a pocket thesaurus
• a pencil sharpener
• #2 pencils
• blue and black ink pens ...

That’s just a partial list of supplies my daughter had to acquire to prepare for school this year. But, of course, as students and parents know, there’s more to it than checking off a list of supplies, getting new clothes and shoes, attending class room open houses and meeting new teachers. There’s also the work of gearing up mentally, physically, and spiritually for the transition from summer to school. It’s about going to bed early and getting up on time, laying out your clothes for the next day the night before, making sure that lunches are made, and thinking ahead so that homework, sports, and other extracurricular activities can all fit into increasingly busy schedules. Going back to school is more than just showing up. It takes a lot of preparation to be ready. And the better prepared our kids are for school, the more likely they are to take advantage of what education has to offer.

It’s in the midst of back to school preparation that many of us this morning hear our Lord’s words: “I am the bread of life. ... Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 51). Bread that when consumed gives eternal life: you can’t get that at Fresh Market or on sale at Kroger. And you can’t make a trip to Target, Wal-Mart, or Sam’s Club to pick up a case. But it’s offered each and every Sunday morning right here in church. Every time we come to church to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the risen Jesus. Taking full advantage of that opportunity and the ways that it can change our lives is more than a matter of just showing up. It helps to be prepared. Fortunately, The Book of Common Prayer points us in the right direction.

According to our Prayer Book, in preparation for receiving Communion “we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP, p. 860). When we honestly examine our lives, we see the truth that all of us are guilty of taking God’s grace in vain. We all fall into sin and we all need repentance. This is one of the primary reasons why we corporately confess our sins before exchanging the Peace and moving to the Eucharist. And there are few better ways to discern where we need to get back on track than by examining our lives against the Ten Commandments and the vows of the Baptismal Covenant before coming to church.

True repentance, however, is not merely about saying a general confession for sin in the liturgy. True repentance means having “a troubled spirit” and “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:18). It means being sincerely sorry for our sins and shortcomings, owning up to what we’ve done or left undone, genuinely desiring to live in accordance with God’s will, and, whenever possible, seeking reconciliation by making appropriate amends. With God’s grace, we have to be willing to do what it takes to set things right.

Self-examination, repentance, amendment of life, and reconciliation: these are critically important ways to prepare ourselves to receive Communion. Because the truth is that when we receive Communion, we are consuming the Real Presence of the risen Christ given to us in the bread and wine. By the end of the Eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a way we cannot fully understand, the bread and wine have been consecrated, set apart as holy, spiritually transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. How that happens is a mystery that defies rational explanation. Fortunately, we don’t have to figure out how it happens in order to believe in and respect the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist anymore than someone has to have a theory of love before they can get married or give a friend a hug.

But even without a theory of how it happens, we do believe that it happens. When Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” and when he took wine and said, “This is my blood,” he wasn’t being cute or dramatic. He really meant it, both then and today. That’s the inspiration for the wonderful words in our hymnal attributed to Anglican priest and poet John Donne:

When Jesus died to save us,
a word, an act he gave us;
and still that word is spoken,
and still the bread is broken.

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

It’s precisely because we receive the Real Presence of our Lord that the Church invites us to examine our lives and conduct before we partake of communion. Coming forward to receive the Body and the Blood is not something to be done “unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which” our Lord instituted this sacrament (BCP, p. 423).

The work of preparing to receive Holy Eucharist is not meant to scare us off. Nor is it meant to erect barriers. On the contrary, our preparation is meant to instill within us reverence and respect for the incredible gift of the Eucharist. And our preparation is meant to provide an opportunity to intentionally respond to our Lord’s self-giving sacrifice by offering in return “our selves, our souls and bodies” as a living sacrifice for Christ’s sake (BCP, p. 336). And so the practices of self-examination, repentance, amendment of life, reconciliation, and discerning Christ’s Body in the sacrament are all means by which, with God’s grace, we may “worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood” of our Lord (BCP, p. 336). This serves as an important reminder that receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist is not a right but a privilege worthy of our best preparation.

For in the Eucharist we receive nothing less than Christ himself. We receive his risen life into our souls and bodies, strengthening our union with the One who loves us more than we dare imagine. Made more fully one with Christ and with each other, we anticipate the fulfillment of the promise that we who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever and be raised on the last day to join the company of God’s faithful people at the mother of all feasts.

There is no greater gift of love, grace, and mercy. May we never take that gift for granted.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Huron Statement: Baptism before Communion is the Rule for Good Reasons

I was pleased to recently discover that earlier this summer The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission released "The Huron Statement: Font to Table."  Faithful to Scripture and Tradition, it is a well-written, theologically grounded, and pastorally sensitive defense of retaining the rule of Baptism before Eucharist.  Here are some excerpts:

Communion before baptism may sound appealing because it seems to rescue us from having to deal with deeper challenges that have been creeping up on the church for a long time. Challenges such as our retreat from the public sphere that leaves us no method for communicating the gospel except waiting for people to show up on Sunday. Or our deteriorating sense of membership that expects next to nothing of the baptized anyway. Or our centuries-old practice of normalizing emergency baptism (baptism as security against ending up in hell) which obscures the purpose of baptism as free response to the gospel, and makes adult baptism an embarrassing anomaly. ...

If I identify with Christ but refuse to recognize the responsibility I share for his death (“I would never have cried ‘crucify’ if I had been there”), I simply repeat the deluded self- righteousness which condemned him in the first place; and I join the company of those who blame the Jews — or the Romans — for killing Christ. Thus, when we promote inclusivity by suppressing the offense of the cross we betray him all over again. It is precisely the offense of the cross that confronts us in both Baptism and Eucharist: we submit to being “crucified with Christ” as we descend into the water; we “proclaim his death until he comes” as we eat his body and drink his blood. As my eyes are opened by the revealing spectacle of the cross, I see that my whole world is judged by it, and my very being comes to a dead-end. Thereafter, the only future open to me is the new being offered to me by the risen Lord who holds out bloodied hands in forgiveness and peace. In Christian tradition, baptism is the definitive way to accept that offer.  
It is therefore not enough to ask whether the eucharist owes more to the inclusive meal practices of Jesus than to the Last Supper. We need to go deeper and ask whether we are drawn to the eucharist primarily because we (unlike the first disciples) have such a natural affinity for Jesus' progressive social outlook, or whether we (like the first disciples) have found ourselves transformed by the spectacle of his rejection and the mystery of his vindication. 
There is, then, an unavoidable self-definition by the community, which some will see as exclusivity, in the celebration of the sacraments, but this is the self-exclusion of those who refuse to come to terms with the cross of Christ and choose to avoid this crisis. Our administration of the sacraments must include guiding people through the crisis, not tempting them to avoid it. ...

Restoring a sacramental order founded on baptism does not mean we should turn anyone away at the Lord’s Table. The issue is whether we wish to undermine the ‘grammar’ of our sacramental language by explicitly contradicting the relation of baptism and communion. Inviting the unbaptized to share in communion does that. Baptism is the defining moment in one’s life, incorporation into a new sacramental identity and vocation for the sake of the world, from which there is no turning back; sharing in communion is the sacramental living out of this priestly vocation as we reenact the truth decisively acknowledged in our baptism. What is at stake in this ‘grammar’ is the meaning not only of the sacraments, but of discipleship, too: baptism is turning to Christ; communion is cleaving to Christ. By undermining this sacramental ‘syntax’ which serves as our corporate memory, we open the door to mindless revision of meaning, to commodification and fragmentation of the sacramental order. And we risk pandering to a culture of spiritual tourism.  ...
So baptism before communion is the rule in Christian tradition for good theological and pastoral reasons; there will always be justifiable pastoral exceptions, but these must  not be allowed to erode or replace it.  Unbaptized worshippers will, on occasion, receive communion with us for reasons we may or may not be able to anticipate.  This in itself does not undermine the church's sacramental ‘grammar,’ nor does it spiritually endanger the unbaptized.  Rather, it is the explicit invitation to the unbaptized to share in communion that undermines the meaning of the sacraments.

Read it all.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jesus and the Scandal of Self-Reference

It is characteristic of great religious teachers that they are self-effacing.  Jesus seems quite different.  He was constantly remembered as saying outrageous things about himself, like: "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).  "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:27).  These ring with absurdity unless there is a plausible premise behind them that can help them make sense.  One of the most shocking aspects of the New Testament is the frequency with which Jesus makes reference to himself, his mission, his sonship, his coming kingdom.  No wonder he is regarded as delusional by some amateur psychiatrists whose naturalistic assumptions rule out taking seriously his own explanation of himself.

Compounding the irony, all of this was said by one who most earnestly taught humility and urged others to "become as little children."  Preaching meekness, he warned his hearers against self-centeredness, and when they quarreled over who would be the greatest, he corrected them (Mark 10:35-45).  Either he did not follow his own teaching at all, or there must have been something utterly unique about him that enabled him to teach from a very different premise of authority than anyone else.  The most shocking hypothesis is simply to suppose that he was telling the truth about himself and that reports of him were substantially accurate.  This is the faith of classic Christianity.

~ Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (2009)

Monday, August 6, 2012

God Became Man

The Father exclaimed: This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; heed Him.  Thus He spoke of the Son, Who is undivided from the glory of the Divinity.  For the Father and the Son together with the Holy Spirit are one nature, one force, one essence and one kingdom.

And Mary was called the Mother of God by His Son in the flesh, Who was undivided from the glory of His Divinity.  For one is God, Who has appeared to the world in the flesh.

His glory proclaimed His divine nature which is from the Father, and His body proclaimed His human nature which was from Mary; both of His natures converged and were united in a single hypostasis. 

He was the Only-Begotten of the Father and also the Only-Begotten of Mary.  And he who divides the hypostasis in Him will also be separated from His kingdom, and he who conjoins His natures will be deprived of the life that is of Him.

He who denies that Mary gave birth to God will not see the glory of His Divinity, and he who denies that He was clothed in sinless flesh will receive neither salvation nor the life which was granted through His body.

His very deeds give witness and His divine strength teach the contemptuous that He is true God.  And His sufferings give proof that He is true man.

~ Ephraim the Syrian (c. 306 - c. 373), A Spiritual Psalter

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Francis J. Hall on Testing the Catholicity of Doctrine

Reduced to its simplest and most general terms, the rule of faith is to accept with docile spirit the existing teaching of the Church, and to verify it by searching the Scriptures; for it is the function of the Church to teach and of the Scriptures to prove the Faith.  Among us this means practically that an unlearned Anglican should assume that the Church's teaching is correctly embodied in the Book of Common Prayer.  If he does otherwise, he rejects providential guidance in favor of incompetent private judgment.

But competent theologians may and ought to test the provincial and current doctrines which they have received, in order to ascertain if such doctrines really have Catholic authority.  And such testing, repeated in every generation and in various lands, is one of the chief means under God by which the Faith is preserved in the Church in its original purity and integrity.  The method to be employed is implied in the rule of St. Vincent of Lerins: "In the Catholic Church we must take care to hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all," "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est."  In short, the marks of universality, antiquity, and consent are to be looked for; and this, not to discover the Catholic Faith, but to verify the Catholicity of existing doctrines.

The test of universality is applied first, or the concurrent voice of the living Church, heard in all its various particular portions.  If the doctrines considered stand this test, adequately and correctly applied, they will stand the other two tests; for the Church universal ever teaches the same Faith, and the consent meant by St. Vincent is never wanting to universal doctrine.

The test of antiquity is next applied by tracing the doctrine through the ages to primitive days, in order to ascertain if it agrees with what has been taught by the Church from the beginning.  This test is of especial importance when dispute exists as to the mark of universality.  Legitimate developments in doctrinal language must, of course, be carefully allowed for.

Finally the test of consent is made use of.  This does not require us to discover that the doctrine has been explicitly accepted by every Catholic believer, or even by every theologian.  A mere counting of heads is futile.  What is to be ascertained is, whether the generality of representative Catholic theologians can be seen to agree, when their respective places in theological development, and diverse points of view and modes of expression, are taken duly into account.  ...

In the case of certain doctrines, theologians find themselves unable to apply all of the Vincentian tests because of insufficient data.  Such failure is not necessarily a proof that the doctrine is not Catholic.  If such research as is practicable tends to confirm the ability of the doctrine to stand the necessary tests, this fact, along with the doctrine's ecclesiastical origin, affords sufficient warrant for accepting its Catholic value.  In the case of a doctrine imposed by ecclesiastical authority, the burden of proof lies with the subject of such authority who would reject its Catholic value.  To disprove this value in such a case one must prove positively, and with adequate knowledge, that the doctrine cannot stand the Vincentian tests.  An appeal to silence or to ignorance is not necessarily sufficient.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Liberal Church Decline and the Irony of "Relevance"

Writing for The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente offers sobering thoughts on church decline in a piece entitled "The collapse of the liberal church."  Noting the upcoming General Council of the United Church of Canada, she writes:

For many years, the United Church was a pillar of Canadian society. Its leaders were respected public figures. It was – and remains – the biggest Protestant denomination in a country that, outside Quebec, has been largely shaped by centuries of Protestant tradition.

But today, the church is literally dying. The average age of its members is 65. They believe in many things, but they do not necessarily believe in God. Some congregations proudly describe themselves as “post-theistic,” which is a good thing because, as one church elder said, it shows the church is not “stuck in the past.” ...

The United Church is not alone. All the secular liberal churches are collapsing. In the United States, the Episcopalians – facing many issues similar to those of the United Church – have lost a quarter of their membership in the past decade. They’re at their lowest point since the 1930s. Not coincidentally, they spent their recent general meeting affirming the right of the transgendered to become priests. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it doesn’t top most people’s lists of pressing spiritual or even social issues.

Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive. They figured that was the way to reach out to a new generation of worshipers. It was a colossal flop.

“I’ve spent all my ministry in declining congregations,” says David Ewart, a recently retired United Church minister who lives in British Columbia. He is deeply discouraged about the future of his faith. “In my experience, when you put your primary focus on the world, there is a lessening of the importance of worship and turning to God.”
The United Church’s high-water mark was 1965, when membership reached nearly 1.1 million. Since then it has shrunk nearly 60 per cent. Congregations have shrunk too – but not the church’s infrastructure or the money needed to maintain it. Today, the church has too many buildings and too few people to pay for their upkeep. Yet its leadership seems remarkably unperturbed. “It’s considered wrong to be concerned about the numbers – too crass, materialistic and business-oriented,” says Mr. Ewart. The church’s leaders are like the last of the Marxist-Leninists: still convinced they’re right despite the fact that the rest of the world has moved on.
Clearly, changes in society have had an enormous impact on church attendance. Volunteerism and other civic institutions are also in decline. Busy two-career families have less discretionary time for everything, including church. Sundays are for chores and shopping now. As for Sunday school, parents would rather take the kids to sports.
But something else began changing in the 1960s, too. The liberal churches decided that traditional notions of worship were out of date, even embarrassing. They preferred to emphasize intellect, rationality and understanding. “When I went to seminary, we never talked about prayer,” says Mr. Ewart. “I had an intellectual relationship with Jesus. But love Jesus? Not so much.”
As the United Church found common cause with auto workers, it became widely known as the NDP at prayer. Social justice was its gospel. Spiritual fulfilment would be achieved through boycotts and recycling. Instead of Youth for Christ, it has a group called Youth for Eco-Justice. Mardi Tindal, the current moderator, recently undertook a spiritual outreach tour across Canada to urge “the healing of soul, community and creation” by reducing our carbon footprint. Which raises the obvious question: If you really, really care about the environment, why not just join Greenpeace?
According to opinion polls, people’s overall belief in God hasn’t declined. What’s declined is people’s participation in religion. With so little spiritual nourishment to offer, it’s no wonder the liberal churches have collapsed. 

Read it all.

If Wente is right about the United Church of Canada, then there are, indeed, parallels with the Episcopal Church. For the sake of "relevance", we, too, have invested heavily in (politically correct) attempts to be "more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive."  The sad irony is that the more "relevant" we have become in these ways, the more deeply we have bought into "secular" social and political agendas that are often more ably enacted by other groups and institutions that often have little time or respect for anything Christian.  Taking that route of "relevance," we have been tempted to call into question, set aside, or even abandon core aspects of Christian faith and practice lest they give offense to those who don't already belong to the Episcopal Church.  The more that has happened, the more we have come to tolerate dumbing down the faith (or flat-out leaving it behind) within the Episcopal Church as well.

Even keeping in mind the complex constellation of factors that account for church decline across the theological spectrum, this kind of "relevance" really does raise the question: why bother with the Church - or anything particularly Christian - at all when those needs and causes can be more easily met elsewhere?

We can and must do better than this!  And we can start by doing two things: (1) proactively studying, teaching, and preaching basic Christian doctrine, and (2) insisting on uncompromising commitment to the theology and practice of The Book of Common Prayer.