Monday, August 31, 2009

Presiding Bishop Expands GC Address

She writes:

I always am delighted when people listen to what I say in a sermon or address. Sometimes I am surprised by what they hear.

In my opening address at General Convention, I spoke about the "great Western heresy" of individualism (see the full text here). There have been varied reactions from people who weren't there, who heard or read an isolated comment without the context. Apparently I wasn't clear!

Individualism (the understanding that the interests and independence of the individual necessarily trump the interests of others as well as principles of interdependence) is basically unbiblical and unchristian.

The spiritual journey, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is about holy living in community. When Jesus was asked to summarize the Torah, he said, "love God and love your neighbor as yourself." That means our task is to be in relationship with God and with our neighbors. If salvation is understood only as "getting right with God" without considering "getting right with (all) our neighbors," then we've got a heresy (an unorthodox belief) on our hands.

The theme of our General Convention, ubuntu, was chosen intentionally to focus on this. Often translated from its original African dialects as "I am because we are," ubuntu has significant biblical connections and warrant. The Hebrew prophets save their strongest denunciation for those who claim to be worshiping correctly but ignore injustice done to their neighbors (e.g., Amos 5:21-24), and Jesus insists that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who have cared for neighbor by feeding, watering, clothing, housing, healing and visiting "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46).

In my address, I went on to say that sometimes this belief that salvation only depends on getting right with God is reduced to saying a simple formula about Jesus. Jesus is quite explicit in his rejection of simple formulas: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt 7:21).

He is repeatedly insistent that right relationship depends on loving neighbors – for example, "those who say, ‘I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1John 4:20). The Epistles repeatedly enjoin the followers of Jesus to "give evidence of the hope within you" (1Pet 3:15ff), that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:14-26), that our judgment depends on care for brother and sister (Rom 14:10-12) and that we eat our own destruction if we take Communion without having regard for the rest of the community (1Cor 11:27-34).

Salvation depends on love of God and our relationship with Jesus, and we give evidence of our relationship with God in how we treat our neighbors, nearby and far away. Salvation is a gift from God, not something we can earn by our works, but neither is salvation assured by words alone.

Salvation cannot be complete, in an eternal and eschatological sense, until the whole of creation is restored to right relationship. That is what we mean when we proclaim in the catechism that "the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" and that Christian hope is to "live with confidence in newness and fullness of life and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God's purpose for the world." We anticipate the restoration of all creation to right relationship, and we proclaim that Jesus' life, death and resurrection made that possible in a new way.

At the same time, salvation in the sense of cosmic reconciliation is a mystery. It's hard to pin down or talk about. It is ultimately the gift of a good and gracious God, not the product of our incessant striving. It is about healing and wholeness and holiness, the fruit of being more than doing. Just like another image we use to speak about restored relationship, the reign of God, salvation is happening all the time, all around us. Where do you see evidence?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lutheran News Blackout?

So, I was perusing the New York Times today in between services, looking rather intently for an in-depth piece on the groundbreaking decisions made last week by the 4.5 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church. They voted to permit same sex blessings, to permit congregations to call clergy who are in same sex unions, and, to join into full communion with the United Methodists.

In other words, they went perhaps farther than the Episcopal Church recently did at its convention, either in the direction of including gay persons living in relationship, or in terms of ecumenism, and, to be clear, they are a much bigger denomination than we are. Indeed, the Lutherans and Methodists are both much bigger than we are.

Yet, surprise, there was nothing at all in today's paper about it. And when I googled the news last Friday, I also came up with relatively little in the media.

So here's my question: why do Episcopalians get so much press on all this kind of stuff, and the Lutherans very little? Is it because Garrison Keillor controls the media?

Theories welcome.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lutherans in Action - Big News

Our full communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has made major steps in their churchwide assembly this week.

- Click here for Lutheran statement on sexuality which has passed their churchwide assembly yesterday.

- Click here about full communion with United Methodists entered into by Lutherans (ELCA)

- As well, it appears that the ELCA have also approved same sex blessings in a vote today.
- Also, persons in same sex unions have been approved by the assembly to be eligible to serve as clergy.

Atlanta Journal Constitution reports:

Pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can bless same-sex unions after a vote Friday by delegates at the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.

“I’ve been a life-long member at Redeemer Lutheran Church [in Atlanta], and I was never comfortable asking my church to bless my relationship,” said Bob Gibeling, who is at the assembly.

“This offers great hope to me that when I find a future life-long partner, my own beloved congregation will want to bless that union.”

The change in the Evangelical Lutheran Church does not require pastors or congregations to bless same-sex unions, but allows those comfortable with it to do so.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Classical Liberalism and the Church

Tobias suspects that the Archbishop of Canterbury may have a dimmer view of our polity than we do. In particular, Tobias suspects that Rowan Williams does not appreciate that our House of Deputies has so much authority in relation to our House of Bishops, and the General Convention as a whole. I don't know if this is true of Rowan, but I have heard this very thing voiced to me by other leaders from other non-U.S. Anglican provinces.

It may not come as a surprise that much of what we are seeing in today's divisions stems from differing values about what constitutes and who constitutes authority in the church. To be sure, the Church of England is still an established old-world church, and The Episcopal Church is the first Anglican Communion church to arise in a context of classical liberalism -- what more need be said?

The Church of England still has crown-appointed bishops. As well, in other parts of the communion, especially in the GAFCON provinces, for example, we see Anglican churches constituted in national contexts where classical liberalism has hardly taken any hold at all. Classical liberalism, again, is that particular bundle of ideas which gave rise to the United States' constitution, etc.

I find it no surprise at all therefore, that we see structural differences which are pretty major. What is amazing, in fact, is that more than two centuries ago the Archbishops of York and Canterbury consecrated William White to the episcopate, presumably knowing that he was the author of our deeply 'liberal' ecclesiastical framework.

Now, this all being said, I am still not sure that we in The Episcopal Church need be at all smug or superior vis a vis the depth of classical liberalism in our ecclesiastical dna. Indeed, the individualist ideology at the heart of liberalism, and the very 'political' machinations which describe so much of our own goings on, are edges where faithful critics of our church might have a good place to start.

Bill Carroll on Easter

Bill Carroll is Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio.

I don’t care what anyone tells you. I don’t care what the hymn says. We do not come to the garden alone.

We come racing with Peter and John, close friends of Jesus, to see the empty tomb. We come with Mary Magdalene, in the middle of the night, trying in vain to care for his body.

We also come with Christians in their billions. Today, they are gathered in Zimbabwe and the West Bank, in Guatemala and Haiti, in a Chinese village, in small town Iowa, in New York City, in the Swiss Alps, and in many other places throughout the world. We are also gathered right here in Athens County. Christians gather in every conceivable type of building: from monasteries to storefront churches, from the little country church to the majestic cathedral, from ancient stone buildings to modern structures of glass and steel. We also gather outside, beyond any four walls built by human hands, to worship the risen Lord at sunrise. We do so in every conceivable way in every conceivable language. In countless tongues, we sing hymns of joy and tell the Easter story.

So, no, my friends, we do not come to the garden alone. We come with many brothers and sisters. We come as a worldwide community, the Body of Christ, the Church.

We come for many different reasons, carrying many different burdens. Some of us are troubled by the burden of sin. Others by the prospect of impending death. Still others come imprisoned by the past and the shackles of memory. We come heavy laden with anger, resentment, and grief. We are fearful and anxious about our future. We worry about finding work or losing a job, perhaps even losing our home. Maybe this has happened to us already. Perhaps we are facing a difficult family situation or life-threatening illness. Perhaps we are bone tired, worn down by hard work and many cares. But, no matter what the reason or burden, no matter how heavy or light, and even if we are among those lucky untroubled few, we come today looking for a word of hope and resurrection joy. We are looking, in a word, for JESUS.

And so, we come. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, we come. We come to the garden tomb with Mary Magdalene. Spices in hand, we come, ready to bury our friend and Lord. We don’t expect much from Jesus. We certainly don’t expect to see him alive. But we have come here in the wee hours of the morning to do what we can.

Mary has spent the night weeping. She must be exhausted. Hours ago, she was already at the end of her rope. Now, she is numb with grief, nearly past the point of caring, in desperate need of sleep. But, when she arrives, there is no body. Insult is added to injury. Even this comfort, however small, is denied her. They have taken his body from her.

And so, she begins to weep. And first the angels, then the mysterious stranger, ask her why. In both cases, Mary’s answer is the same: “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Supposing the stranger to be the gardener, she asks him “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

But then, the stranger, who is Jesus, calls her by name. “Mary,” he says. And she turns to face him. “Teacher!” she replies. Jesus calls her by name, and she responds. Her turning is more than a simple bodily movement. It is a complete change of life. It is conversion. She is leaving sin and death behind her—to serve the living God. Jesus has appeared to her—ALIVE—so her grief gives way to joy. Having been called and sent, she runs to tell the others: “I have seen the Lord.”

No, we do not come to the garden alone. Our faith is built on the foundation of the apostles. It is built on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who saw and touched the Lord. It stands upon the testimony of a great cloud of witnesses, throughout the world and throughout the ages, who have encountered the Living One and been changed by him forever. Jesus calls person after person into his Body, the Church. We come to him through his community.

Even those of us who have our doubts—who doesn’t?—can glimpse in broken fragments the meaning of Easter. Every sign and symbol we use, every story we tell, points beyond itself to the Great Mystery. We see it mirrored in the flowers and smiling faces. We hear its echoes in our thunderous hymns of joy. We even taste it and smell it in the bread and wine made holy. We feel it in our bones, in the HOPE this Day gives us—in God’s frightening yet exhilarating offer of freedom. For, on this Day, Christ is risen, breaking the power of death. On this Day, he sets us free from all the powers that enslave us. He calls us and sends us in his Name.

The Christian vision of life is very realistic. “The three sad days have done their worst,” and they cannot be undone. We do not deny sin, suffering, and death. In Christ’s presence, our burdens remain real, but they lose their power over us. Easter does not undo the evil that crushes Jesus; it unveils the saving power of his Cross.

On this Day, God imparts a sure and certain hope the world can’t give. God gives us a knowledge born of love. The whole Day testifies to things unseen—to the victory of God—to the grace and mercy that are now claiming our world, from the bottom on up.

For God chooses the weak and despised of the world, and makes of us a kingdom. God chooses sinners, and makes us beloved children. God chooses the fallen, and makes us stand.

The same stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

My brothers and sisters, come to Jesus the Living One, who is that very stone, and lay your burdens down. For we have been born anew to a living hope by his resurrection from the dead.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tim Chesterton on Williams and Wright

Tim Chesterton is Rector of St. Margaret's in Edmunton, Canada:

Unlike many of those who are commenting on recent statements about the future of the Anglican Communion by Rowan Williams and Tom Wright, I have no wish to enter into theological controversy with them. On the basic issue, I agree with them (well, with Wright, anyway; even now, I'm really not sure exactly what Williams' personal position is, because of his previously stated conviction that his role as Archbishop of Canterbury requires him to attempt to speak for the Anglican Communion as a whole, rather than giving his own personal views).

I will say, though, that I don't think Rowan Williams takes any personal joy in outlining this particular view of the Anglican future. I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, he is still enormously sympathetic to gay people and would prefer to preserve a big-tent Anglicanism in which a diversity of viewpoints on this issue is tolerated. But this is not the political reality of the Anglican Communion, and Rowan has to deal with the reality, not the ideal. The majority of Anglicans worldwide have said that a decision to continue down the road of same-sex blessings and gay ordinations is a decision to walk apart from the rest of the Communion. Whether he likes it or not, this is the political hand that Rowan has been dealt.

Tom Wright, however, disappoints me. I say this as a person who has great respect for his enormous scholarship. His books about Jesus and Paul (including The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, What St. Paul Really Said, and so on) have had a huge impact on the way I read the Bible, and have really helped me understand the life and teaching of Jesus in its proper context in the first century world. Tom Wright as New Testament scholar is an inspiration to me, but Tom Wright as an international ecclesiastical politician repels me. This is because he really seems to relish the cut and thrust of the debate and the imagining of future ecclesiastical realities in which he is cut off from erstwhile friends and colleagues in a new two-track Anglican Communion, simply because they disagree with him over one issue. He sees the future in terms of new configurations and new excommunications and possible new instruments of unity between the two tracks. What is absent in what he has written is how he sees the future for gay and lesbian couples who love each other. He is dealing with an issue, not with individuals and couples.

I repeat, it pains me to have to be so critical of one from whom I've learned so much in my reading of the New Testament. But I must say that one of the strongest arguments against the Church of England's system of crown appointments is the appointment of Tom Wright as Bishop of Durham. He should have stayed in the world of biblical scholarship and resisted the temptation to become an ecclesiastical grandee. His growing image (justified or not) as a mouthpiece of the Anglican right wing is only going to hurt the image of his scholarship, and in my view this would be a tragedy.

I repeat, I do not disagree with his view of same-sex unions or gay ordinations. Nor do I doubt that he and his friend Rowan Williams have read the mind of the Anglican Communion correctly. What I miss in their writings, though, is a tone of regret that things should have come to this.

After all, is it not a shame that people with a professed high view of the authority of the Bible and the consensus of the early church should have chosen to take their stand on this particular issue, to have drawn this particular line in the sand?

They could have chosen a couple of other issues, on both of which the Bible is every bit as clear (more so in my view), and which are every bit as relevant to the struggles of people in the modern world.

The first is the issue of war and peace. It is acknowledged by most people that, for the first three centuries of Christianity, the infant church was overwhelmingly pacifist in its interpretation of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The early Christians believed and taught that followers of Jesus must not kill others, even as soldiers in war or as magistrates imposing legally-sanctioned capital punishment. This position began to soften later in the post-apostolic period, and when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D., it was not long before a new position emerged, based on a marriage of pagan philosophy and Old Testament teaching: the so-called 'just war' view. But when it was first proposed this was a novelty, an innovation as startling to the early Church as acceptance of same-sex unions is to traditional Christians today.

So why not draw this line in the sand, if we're going to draw lines? After all, the biggest threat to Christian unity is not when Anglicans and Roman Catholics disagree about papal authority or who is or is not a real priest. The biggest threat to Christian unity is that, in many places in the world (recent tribal conflicts in Africa come to mind) it is considered quite acceptable for Christians to kill their fellow-Christians out of loyalty to their own ethnic group. Pacifist Christian groupings such as the Mennonites are sometimes classified as 'sects', but surely this is the ultimate sectarianism: the division of worldwide Christianity into national churches or ethnic churches which then legitimise the killing of fellow-Christians.

So if we're going to draw lines in the sand, why not this one? Early Christianity agreed that Christian faithfulness excluded violence and war. Those who are willing to go along with the early consensus of Christianity in its interpretation of the New Testament could be in track one of the Anglican Communion; those who accept the revisionist interpretation of the just-war position could be in track two.

Or if we want another issue, how about usury? Most Christians today don't even know what that word means! But the Bible is unanimous in disallowing the lending of money at interest; everywhere the practice is mentioned in the scriptures it is condemned. Furthermore, for the first fifteen centuries of Christian history, this was the view of the overwhelming majority of Christians, a view that was not challenged until the Protestant Reformation gave more of a green light to capitalism.

Now, granted, there was a certain amount of hypocrisy in the way that this view was applied in medieval Christendom (Christians weren't allowed to lend money at interest, but kings needed those loans anyway, so they made the Jews the investment bankers of the medieval world; it's unclear to me how Jewish people squared this with the Torah, which is where the strongest condemnations of usury are found). Granted, also, many modern scholars question whether the sort of money-lending which the Bible condemns (taking advantage of your neighbour's poverty by charging him interest on relief loans when he's down and out) is exactly the same as the provision of loans for homeowners and businesses today. But then, isn't this exactly the same sort of argument that gay and lesbian Christians make, when they say that biblical references to homosexuality do not refer to couples who want to live in lifelong monogamous faithful unions? So if we allow one 'revisionist reinterpretation' (the legitimising of usury), why not another (the legitimising of gay unions)?

So why isn't the Anglican Communion making this the line in the sand? Surely it's a huge issue today; it can be argued that usury has condemned millions of people in Africa to lifelong poverty with no hope of relief. Why isn't the Anglican Communion worldwide standing up and saying, 'Acceptance of usury is unfaithful to the teaching of the Bible and it perpetuates poverty and injustice in the world today, so those who accept it will from now on be relegated to track two of the Anglican Communion'?

I have a nasty suspicion about the reasons why the Communion is not going to take a stand on these two issues of war and usury. I suspect that the reason has a lot to do with the fact that taking this stand would have an enormous cost for huge numbers of us. Many Anglicans are in fact investment bankers, or stockbrokers, and many, many more take advantage of the modern capitalist system (which is based on usury through and through) to get loans to buy houses and cars and to start businesses and so on. Dissenting from this all-pervasive system would have enormous economic and social consequences for us. And in a similar way, we all depend (or at least, we think we do) on our armies to keep us safe from international rogue states and terrorists and so on. Making a decision to follow Jesus in loving our enemies and refusing to strike back against them would inevitably have deadly consequences: after all, it led Jesus to the Cross, and he assured us it would do the same for us ('take up your cross and follow me').

Sadly, for the vast majority of Anglicans the issue of homosexuality does not carry that personal price-tag. Most of us are straight; we aren't the ones who would be bearing the cross if the church as a whole agreed that same-sex unions are not a legitimate part of a life of following Jesus. Gays and lesbians are an easy target, because there aren't many of them (tho' more, perhaps, than some Christians would like to think).

Personally, I think it's a tragedy that we're drawing these lines in the sand at all. Historically, it's not been our way as Anglicans. On the (equally clear) biblical teachings about war and peace and about usury, we've allowed for a variety of biblical interpretation. Why is homosexuality so despicable that we don't make similar allowances?

For me, a two-track Anglican Communion would be a tragedy. As I've said, my own view on the subject is traditional, but there are many people with whom I disagree on this issue but agree on almost every other facet of the Christian faith. Contrariwise, there are people with whom I agree on this issue but strongly disagree on many other elements of Christian faith and practice.

So to go back to Rowan and Tom. I think it's a tragedy that Rowan's role as Archbishop of Canterbury requires him to play the role of an ecclesiastical politician in planning the future structures of a divided Anglican Communion, and I think it's sad that Tom seems to relish his role in these global machinations. Maybe they think that (in Luther's terms) 'Here I stand, I can do no other', but if that is the case, I wish they would reflect on why they think they can do no other; is it in the service of God, or is it in the service of the Anglican Communion? Because, of course, these are not necessarily the same thing.