Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mind the Frost

Robert Frost is the first poet I ever studied. My parents were very fond of Frost, and he was quoted from time to time around the house. Like many Americans who studied English literature in high school and college, I had to commit a number of poems to memory, but sadly, to this day, The Road Not Taken, and the first verses of The Canterbury Tales are all I remember.

Perhaps Bob Duncan also knows only two poems, for in his recent open letter to the entire Anglican Communion, he has called Frost's Road into the service of his stark vision of the on-going tales of Canterbury.

The first and founding Archbishop of the newly formed Anglican Church of North America, with its 69,000 members in the United States and Canada, has proof-texted Robert Frost in the service of his claim that The Episcopal Church/Anglican Church of Canada are on the bad road, which must be avoided, and that the Anglican Church of North America is on the good road, which must be taken if righteousness is to be followed.

What is bizarre, of course, is that Frost's poem is not at all a reflection on dualism between good and evil. No, of course, Frost's poem asserts that there are two roads, each with its own merits, with much in common, and that while the road chosen was the one less frequently travelled by, it was not necessarily or inherently 'better' than the other. A bright twelfth grader, who actually did his homework, could see that this poem has absolutely no bearing at all on whether or not one road is 'Blessing' or another 'Curse.' Yet, Bob Duncan makes this very mistake.

But he doesn't just get Robert Frost all wrong.

Duncan begins his epistle of division by recalling Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. What is particularly galling about this is that Dickens was by any contemporary standard that Bob Duncan would employ a liberal Anglican broad-churchman. Dickens, who for so long was a Unitarian, fond of the Boston Transcendentalists, and an advocate of broad toleration of all Christian denominations in the establishment minded England of his time, dedicated Tale of Two Cities to Lord Russell, who was also very much a tolerance-minded liberal Christian.

Duncan then goes on to enlist the great St. Augustine of Hippo, by again taking the dualism of the City of God, and applying it to what he sees as the duality between The Episcopal Church/Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of North America. Again, this is patently absurd and erroneous. Augustine was an ardent opponent of the Donatists, that African-based schismatical sect which sought to purify the church, and argued that within the church there would always be a mixed body -- both wheat and tares. It seems patently obvious that Bob Duncan is asserting that the cause of purification has led him and his allies to create a new, pure, orthodox, and true church, departing from the ways of the old, impure, heterodox, and false church. Even the Pardoner, in his Canterbury tale of greed, and in his own fallen state, conveys the Augustinian response to the Donatists asserting that even sinful clergy can be means of God's grace in sacramental ministration.

Rowan Williams once said that when Jack Spong posted his "Twelve Theses" calling for a radical new reformation of Christianity they looked like the questions a bright senior in high school might pose. In the same way, Bob Duncan's bold call for radical reformation of Anglicanism along a 'Two Ways" dichotomy between blessing and curse, purity and mixity, and his use of literature to make his point, reminds me of the sort of argument I might expect from a bright 12th grader, who has neither read, or understood, the works he cites.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a staggering work of genius, and I have no doubt that it could only have been written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

For in just 11 verses - Chapter 2:11-22 - Paul manages to explain the cosmic scheme of reconciliation put into place by God in Christ, which is unfolding still- under which all broken relationships, all enmity, all division, all estrangement and all alienation are healed.

In the reconciliation of all things which have come untied, Christ is at work putting the power of God’s love upon the broken, the alone, the unforgiven, the forgotten, the afraid, the abandoned, the mocked, the ridiculed - and they are restored into the holy and living stones from which God is building his true temple; the abode of God and those whom he loves and who love him and each other.

Brothers and sisters, if you want to be healed eternally, and reconciled - retied to God and what’s His - then this is Good News for you. Healing now, and healing forever.

Once you recognize your need for this healing and reconciliation, and who can meet it - Jesus - then your life in the Kingdom begins. It begins with the baby steps of mortal faith and continues beyond to grow fully.

Do you recognize your need for this healing? This reconciliation?

In Mark 6, we see that Jesus and the disciples are recognized and mobbed by large groups of people who all have something in common. They are all sick or lost. They are all in need of leadership, love, compassion, protection and healing - and they know it.

In the Gospel, it doesn’t say that “well” people recognize and follow after Jesus. There is little mention of large numbers of “‘well, perfect or satisfied” people recognizing Jesus.

No, in fact, very often what we see is that the typical reaction to Jesus by folks who think they are “well’ is one of un-recognition or rejection. As Jesus taught, those who laugh now cannot be blessed. Those who are satisfied, self-absorbed and scoffing at the message of God cannot recognize their need or that Jesus is the one to call about it.

Now, to be sure, Christians and churches have made lots of mistakes over the years. There has been, is now, and will always be great turmoil in the world, and even in the Church.

In the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, there has been turmoil, threat and reality of schism for our 500-year history since we broke ties with Rome. In that five- century period, there have been roughly three categories of argument.

The first is over how and what it means to be “catholic.” How can we be catholic without Rome leading us? How can we be catholic without Constantinople leading us? How can we be catholic with so much autonomy, too?

The second is over what it means to be protestant or “reformed,” which is a better word for me. How can we learn from Calvin and Luther, without abandoning the catholic tradition? What is the most authoritative structure for us - the Bible, the church order? What are the sacraments and what means of Grace are there? How independent should churches be?

The third big debate is about how modern we can be. What do science, reason and faith have to do with one another? What effect does modern reason have on our vision of Scripture, etc.?

These three categories all fit under the question of “How can we be faithful to Christ, AND, be Catholic, Reformed, And/Or Modern?”

And for five centuries, these three categorical concerns have captivated many good Anglican/Episcopal minds - and led to much controversy and even schism. And they still are. Today’s question over what to do with gay Christians touches on all three. Today, as historically, there is likely to be a lasting legacy of schism from our current controversies. Just as the Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist groups of churches are the legacies of previous controversy and schism within Anglicanism.

I believe that all of these controversies and schisms remain ongoing - and unsolved. Yet, in my view, none of them makes a dent in the core proclamation of the main thing that Christians need to be all about.

And this core proclamation is this: God wants to reconcile a world that comes untied. We who are in the world, quite obviously, are hell-bent on coming untied from God and each other, and five centuries of Anglican history alone is sufficient to prove it.

For we who must recognize our illness and sin, and that we are untied, we must focus on the gracious gift of the loving God who sent Jesus to reconcile us, to bring peace, to end alienation, and to fix all that’s wrong.

This is the sure foundation of my faith, and I believe of this Church, broken and ill as it is. Jesus Christ is the sure foundation, and only in Him will all things be united that have come untied.

Nick Knisely Knows

This is a very good piece from Episcopal Cafe:

A few months ago one of the staff here at the Cathedral forwarded an email to me with a request that I answer the question it posed as he had no idea what he should say. The email was very simple. It was from a person in the community who was looking for a new church home. But, before he would consider a congregation, it was very important for him to know where we stood on the question of blessing same-sex couples.

There wasn’t any hint in the email about whether or not the sender wanted us to say we were for blessing same-sex couples or opposed. Just that it was critically important to him that we give the right answer so that he wouldn’t waste his time unnecessarily.

I get letters or questions like this quite commonly. I think most Episcopal clergy do these days. It’s the BIG question that seems to be used as a way to sort through congregations and dioceses so that we can determine which ones are right-thinking and therefore worthy of support and which ones are wrong and worthy of nothing. What was different about this letter though was that I simply couldn’t figure out what the person wanted me to say.

So rather than trying to be pastoral and sensitive in trying to respond to the question behind the question (as is my wont), I decided to be bluntly honest.

“There are people in this congregation who are fully supportive of the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. There are people in this congregation who are opposed to the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. While the Episcopal Church as a denomination is on record as calling for equal protection under the law for all citizens, if you’re looking for a congregation that is of one mind on this issue, you’re going to be disappointed with this one. We don’t have agreement internally on this particular - or many - issues. Instead, we just agree to pray and worship together”

We don’t agree with each other. We pray together.

Friends of mine who are involved in the church growth movement offer me their sympathy every three years or so following our denomination’s General Convention. “It must be really hard to grow a church that spends so much time fighting” they say. In the past I’ve agreed with them. But I think I’ve decided that it’s time we as Episcopalians tell the truth about who we are though in a way that tries to explain to others why our struggles are not a “bug” - they’re a “feature”!

The Elizabethan Settlement, which for me is modeled at every Eucharist when I present the host to a communicant with the paradoxical words (to a person of Tudor England) “the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven”, is fundamental to our identity as Anglicans. We are willing to be in relationship with people who will gather with us around Jesus; whether they by free or slave, man or women, Jew or Greek. We are the anti-puritans caring less about clarity of theological categories than we do about loving relationship. “If you will pray to Jesus with me, I will pray to Jesus with you.”

At least we try to when we’re at our best. Which isn’t always that often admittedly.

In my mind, as an Episcopalian of catholic leanings and ecumenical enthusiasm, if there’s one thing that argues for the continued existence of an Anglican witness in the Universal Church - it’s our charism of holding firm to praying with those with whom we disagree no matter how hard that is to do.

Eusebius writes that in the latter days of his life, St. John the Evangelist would respond to repeated requests of visitors to “tell of us of Jesus” by only repeating again and again “Little children, love one another.” When asked by those caring for him why he would only say that he is supposed to have responded “Because if they do only that, it is enough.”

Episcopalians don’t agree to agree. We pray with each other. Because if we can manage to just do that, it seems to me, that we will have done enough.

What happened when I responded to my inquirer wanting to know where the Cathedral I serve stood on the question of same-gender blessings? I sent my short note off fully expecting to never hear from him again.

I got a note back a day later; “That’s so awesome. I’ll be there this Sunday.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ruth Gledhill Witnesses

I have been following the Times (UK) religion writer for some time now, and have never quite been able to tell 'where she's coming from' as a churchwoman. I've often wondered if she was liberal, conservative, anglo-catholic, evangelical, modern, pre-modern or post-modern. Well, in this piece she tells us what she stands for -- in addition to being a journalist.

Ruth Gledhill: View from Fleet Street CEN July 17th

Just like the Church of my birth, I am inwardly divided. I’ve always believed in the adage, ‘bloom where you are planted’ and that has meant that I’ve resisted the temptation to move away from the Church of England when it has occurred. One of those occasions was many years ago when I was sent to interview a Sea of Faith clergyman who, until his stipend was threatened, didn’t seem to think it mattered that he didn’t believe in God. That sea seems pretty dead now, or at least its not floating any boats on my horizons these days. The diocese in question got rid of him before my own concerns cyrstallised into action, and things moved on. I got an insight back then into how many clerics had beliefs, or lack of beliefs, that even in today’s secularized society would shock.

Many of them have now retired and the Church, and along with it the General Synod, has shifted noticeably to the right. By ‘right’ in this context I mean in a conservative direction, whether to the ‘New Wine” style of evangelicalism of the charismatic movement, or the more hard-line, Calvinist-style approach of Reform.

And although church attendance is not exactly booming, the evangelicals are often not given enough credit for the fact that the decline that has been a feature of the post-war era is definitely showing signs of bottoming out. In some places, such as London, it is in reverse, and London is where many of the most thriving evangelical churches – HTB, St Helen’s – are based.

So the evangelicals, from my perspective formed out of 23 years on The Times , of which 21 have been spent on this beat, are winning the battle within the Church, and have been for some time. The battle they are not winning, yet, is that with the wider society. For all the posturing, sermonizing and clarion calls for gospel values, society is proceeded relentlessly along its secularizing liberal path.

Where does that leave people like me, and I believe there are many, many of us? My own background is Anglo-Catholic. I’ve become increasingly liberal as my one-time opposition to women’s ordination has melted away like the ice caps in an age of global warming.

My own church, St Ann’s in Kew, where you’ll find more incense than in Rome at Mass on Sunday morning, became a resolution A and B parish and almost opted for C. But we’re all changing. The only ABC we recognize is the one at Lambeth. The other day we even had a woman celebrant, and I don’t think anyone except me even noticed. Yet we still believe in God, love the Prayer Book, the rhythm of the liturgical year, go to ‘proper’ confession when necessary. Many of us, like me, also revel in the music of the evangelicals. Besides being stirred in our souls by the charismatic power of Peter Jensen, the best bits about the launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans were the worship songs.

Yet how bizarre to see traditionalist Bishop of Fulham John Broadhurst up there on the stage talking about how when he was ordained he did not believe in the devil, but now he did and knew where he lived. Satan resides at Church House, he told us. Even Dr Jensen looked slightly startled by this one. Let’s hope Father John was just joking.

I confess I’ve ‘joined’ FCA and if you’ve tried to do this you will realize that this means ticking a box where you sign up to the fellowship’s beliefs. It seemed to be the only way to get on their email list to be kept in touch with events.

My conscience is only slightly troubled. There’s not much to disagree with in the Jerusalem declaration from Gafcon last year.

The trouble is, I support gay ordination, believe the Church should bless gay partnerships under the same principles as it does heterosexual marriage, and support the ordination of women bishops.

Given that, should I even be writing for this newspaper ( the CEN), you and others might justifiably be asking? My view on the above issues is that we should be allowed to confess according to our own conscience in line with our Church’s teaching, as set out by the Bishops, and there is nothing in my beliefs which contradicts what the Church of England teaches. Ultimately, I believe, God is the judge. Where there is doubt, charity must prevail, and this opens the door to justice and truth.

For me, one of the most significant aspects of FCA is the involvement of New Wine. This is a network that never gets involved in politics. Paul Perkin, vicar of St Mark’s Battersea Rise, who chaired the FCA launch is New Wine. And among the greetings, alongside those from the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury as this little noticed offering from Rev John Coles of the New Wine Network:

“This is a follow-on to GAFCON last year, at which I was present along with others from the UK. A conference is becoming a movement. Having talked again to Henry Orombi when he was with us for our Leadership Conference, I am sure this is an important movement and Monday is an important gathering. It’s important for us to show solidarity with orthodox and persecuted Anglicans in North America; it’s important for us to show that there is a strong group of orthodox Anglicans in the Church of England; and it’s important for us to stand together against the slow but steady conforming influence of secular humanism within the Church of England”

I wish the US Church had not split, and pray the same thing does not happen here. In spite of protestations that it is just a movement, there are worrying sings that it could be a ‘schismatic’ movement. These have been spelled out by the new Bishop of Sherborne, Graham Kings, on the Fulcrum site and others.

But maybe it will not split the Church of England. Maybe it is indeed simply ‘new wine’ in an old skin. The grace of the Spirit can be an extraordinary thing, and who knows what can happen. None of us, homosexuals, women, ordinary Anglicans, not even FCA, should give up on the Church of England yet.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Looking Ahead

I am looking ahead to my vacation, much needed. But I am also looking ahead to the future of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

It may be that the Archbishop of Canterbury's notion of a two-track Communion -- first mentioned years ago -- will indeed come to pass.

All of this is very sad in my opinion -- because I am and will remain very much invested in a vision of the Anglican Communion which sees it as an alternative to Roman or Eastern Orthodox churches -- but which still upholds catholicity, etc. I share the dream of a global fellowship of regional churches which profess the one faith of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit -- but which experience a degree of variation in their local interpretation and incarnation of that faith.

I think The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada need the Communion more than the Communion needs us. I am not talking finances here -- or control -- or domination. We need to be in full communion with people who do not live in the contexts we live in. That's what catholicity means.

If they will not have us, because of our choice to do what we think the Spirit is calling for us to do anyway, then this is very sad. I do not think we are to be blamed or need to accept full responsibility for the loss of communion, but we ought to recognize and lament this loss.

I think we need to find a way forward that seeks the maximum degree of Christian unity possible -- not a way that makes possible and comfortable lesser such relationships.

I suggest that one way for us to approach the future -- inside the Episcopal Church as well as in relation to other Anglican churches -- is to redouble our commitments to what we think we are all about any way.

As such, I would like to see an intentional focus on that which we are truly passionately excited about. And it would be my hope that this would be more than talk of programs, or agendas, or single-issue advocacy groups, or things which do not keep the main thing the main thing.

Notably, I'd like to see a bit more cohesiveness and discipline in a church which loves to talk about its canons and how the General Convention is our topmost authority. As such, I'd like to see more folks abiding by the language and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer that we have. More teaching and proclamation about all the elements of the Baptismal Covenant -- and not merely it's last line regarding the dignity of every human being. More teaching about why salvation is BOTH individual and corporate. More teaching about why Jesus Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and therefore, as fully divine, is the incarnate presence of the God who is the unique creator, unique redeemer, and unique sustainer of the world. If he's the Son of God made flesh -- then friends -- of course he's the way, the truth and the light. Pluralism and respectfulness of other faith traditions does not require avoiding, regretting or denying that our most primary tenet is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I'm frankly astonished that anybody thinks we need to refrain from making our core proclamation in pluralistic conversation with other faiths -- because the other partners in that conversation do not. We do not honor the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so forth with whom we are in conversation when we backpedal on our core convictions. They say what they believe -- and we need not be offended; so why should we not do the same?

We need to tell ourselves the truth about our institutional reality: We Are Shrinking. When we lose membership, we shrink. Simple as that. It doesn't matter if we lose people because of lower birth rates, or whathaveyou. Our growth and life depends on including and serving human beings. Nearly every diocese lost membership in the past few years -- and yet the populations of their localities mostly did not decline. What's up?

It's NOT the economy. It's NOT about birthrates. (And, as Diana Butler Bass has argued, it's not necessarily about liberalism either.)

Including and serving people in the name of the Son of God who is Lord of All is our only purpose. Welcoming people, offering them not merely an affirmation that "Questions are OK" but actually providing a few cosmic and beautiful answers (like the Gospel), preaching, singing, working with youth and their families well, caring for people pastorally, feeding, healing, teaching about God in Christ, etc. The basic practices of intentional Christian community are what we are supposed to do, and when we do them, almost certainly, we grow.

I for one welcome a future when we stop fighting over the culture wars and start working together over the peace of God which passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.

Will there ever be a time when leading Episcopalians stop saying that decline is no big deal, that church growth is somehow bad, that strong Christ-centered kerygma is 'offensive'? Honestly. I'd love it if the next General Convention had a single-issue advocacy group with whom some 70% of the deputies were fully in agreement with on the basic issues that we need to get down the basics of preaching and living the full content of the Baptismal Covenant with the idea that God wants us to include and serve MORE people than we are currently including and serving.

The real elephant in the room, in my view, is this: We Are Shrinking. When General Convention passes resolutions which affirm this -- then I will believe we are being authentic in telling ourselves and the world, "This is who we are, we are shrinking, but we want to start growing instead."

When something shrinks for long enough -- it doesn't really matter how vital it thinks it is.

Old Anglican Centrist Site

I am trying to rework this thing, as I get ready for my August break from blogging.

Go here for old stuff.