Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bishop Dan Martins responds to the Presiding Bishop's Acts sermon

It's been almost two weeks since Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached a sermon based on Acts 16:16-34.  I've previously written about the sermon, and I note that in it the Presiding Bishop basically makes the same charge against the apostle Paul that the scribes level against Jesus (cf. Mark 3:20-30).  By doing so, the sermon equates the liberating power of Christ with the demonic, and the demonic with the Holy Spirit. 

One would hope that such an inversion of the Gospel would raise sufficient concern among those charged with preaching, teaching, and guarding the faith of the Church that they would speak out.  But the silence from other leaders in the Episcopal Church has been deafening.  And that is perhaps more disturbing than the sermon itself.  

Having said that, I am pleased to see that last night Bishop Dan Martins of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield posted a response to the Presiding Bishop's sermon on his blog.  Here's some of what he wrote:

This is awkward. Because of my position in the system, Bishop Jefferts Schori is not an abstraction to me. She is someone from whom I have sat across a table in several meetings of the House of Bishops. She is someone who sends me a hand-written note on my birthday and the anniversary of my consecration. She is someone who very kindly checked in on me by email while I was recovering from heart surgery, for which I was immensely grateful.

Yet, I feel constrained by the vows I took when I was ordained a bishop--vows that she herself formally required of me--to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God." These vows do not permit me to remain silent, even as I also remain respectful and charitable. ...

To call Bishop Jefferts Schori's exegesis of Acts 16 "strained" or "eccentric" is too mild. It is utterly bizarre. But others have done an adequate job fisking the sermon. I'm going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones. 

As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition, particularly the authority of sacred scripture. There are interpretive roads that are open to others--outsiders looking in--that are properly closed to bishops (and, by extension, to priests and others who preach and teach). In Acts 16, the author (presumably Luke) portrays Paul and Silas as the good guys, the slave girl as the exploited victim, and her "owners," along with the demon that possessed her, as the bad guys. What Paul did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, was to liberate an oppressed person. There is a homiletical treasure trove available here without disturbing this essential dynamic. To stray outside it only tortures the text. And I suspect that Bishop Katharine's concern that we recognize the image of God in one another could have been well-supported by the readings for Easter VII without so straying. 

One of the great temptations for either a theologian or a pastor is to be original. It's a tonic to the ego. Under the right circumstances, a theologian can get away with it. St Paul certainly did! A pastor, by contrast, eschews originality. A pastor, a bishop, is a relay runner, handing along (para-dosis, the root of "tradition") the baton to the next runner, the next generation. Originality is not compatible with that job description. 

I applaud Bishop Martins for taking the charge to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" seriously enough to speak out (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 517).  And I appreciate his noting that a bishop is "by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view."  That strikes me as consistent with the Examination and the Vows in the Prayer Book's rite for the ordination of a bishop.  

Ultimately, it comes down to this: will we who are ordained faithfully submit to the authority of Holy Tradition (which, as Bishop Martins notes, includes "scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology")?  Or will we arrogate to ourselves the right to sit in judgment on Holy Tradition, molding and manipulating it to support our agendas, and even setting it aside when it contradicts us? 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Presiding Bishop's "Delusional Exegesis"

A recent sermon by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on Acts 16:16-34 has quite rightly generated fierce criticism.  Before quoting what she said, it's important to first read the Acts passage:

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Timothy Fountain does an excellent job of succinctly laying out the many ways in which this is "one of the Bible's best [passages] for preaching the liberating power of Christ."  And he notes that this is "a passage that even progressives should find inspiring on several levels."  

The contrast of such an appraisal with the Presiding Bishop's sermon could not be starker.  Here's what she said:

We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.

There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.  But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.
An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.

So according to the Presiding Bishop, this story from Acts is not about the liberation of a slave girl from demonic possession and from degradation and exploitation at the hands of her "owners."  Instead, it's about the apostle Paul's narrow-minded bigotry and his inability to see the spirit of God at work in the girl.  (Would she say the same thing about Jesus and his ministry of exorcism?)  Instead of reading this passage as a demonstration of the liberating power of Jesus at work through Paul, the Presiding Bishop reads the passage as Paul's oppression of the girl. 


This is such a jaw-dropping example of eisegesis that it's hard to know how to respond.  Too many words come to mind, including ridiculous and embarrassing.  The Presiding Bishop is a very careful and intelligent person.  So what in the world possessed her to preach this sermon?

What's happening here is the exploitation of a biblical text in service to a theopolitical agenda.  Given what she says in the first paragraph I've quoted from her sermon, the Presiding Bishop suggests that anyone who doesn't buy into that agenda - anyone who holds to the traditional, orthodox understanding of such matters - is likewise afflicted with the same narrow-minded bigotry as Paul, and thus in need of enlightenment.  

One person who commented on the sermon at the Episcopal News Service website sums all of this up very well: "This is quite possibly some of the most delusional exegesis I've ever read in my life.  I'm sorry, but this sermon is not a Christian sermon."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Henri Nouwen: "The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance"

Aren't we priests and ministers called to help people, to feed the hungry, and to save those who are starving?  Are we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives?  Aren't we called to heal the sick, feed hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor?  Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the Word and said, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). ...

The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, "We can take care of ourselves.  We do not need God, the church, or a priest.  We are in control.  And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control.  The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence.  If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent negotiators.  God, the church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions."

In this climate of secularization, Christian leaders feel less and less relevant and more and more marginal.  Many begin to wonder why they should stay in the ministry.  Often they leave, develop a new competency, and join their contemporaries in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world.

But there is a completely different story to tell.  Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair.  While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world. 

Bret Easton Ellis's novel Less Than Zero offers a most graphic description of the moral and spiritual poverty behind the contemporary facade of wealth, success, popularity, and power.  In a dramatically staccato way, he describes the life of sex, drugs, and violence among the teenage sons and daughters of the super-rich entertainers in Los Angeles.  And the cry that arises from behind all of this decadence is clearly: "Is there anybody who loves me?  Is there anybody who really cares? Is there anybody who wants to stay home for me?  Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying?  Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?" Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident society.  Medical technology and the tragic increase in abortions may radically diminish the number of mentally handicapped people in our society, but it is already becoming apparent that more and more people are suffering from profound moral and spiritual handicaps without having any idea of where to look for healing.

It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear.  The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.