glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Anglican Sermon on Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Zacchaeus the wee little man

When I was growing up, we had something of a family ritual in my house around bedtime. Well, we actually had two rituals. First, my brother Andy and I would do everything we could to avoid going to bed. Asking to watch another 10 minutes of TV, usually. Or taking a really long time in the bath. Or suddenly engaging in some very exciting play with our Star Wars figures. And invariably, my parents would tell us to “stop stalling” and get to bed. Somehow, I suspect that this ritual wasn’t unique to the Cadwells in Minnesota.

But after we gave in and actually got ready for bed, it was prayer time. As I recall we didn’t say prayers absolutely every night, but often enough. Sometimes my parents came into our rooms, and sometimes we went and hopped into their bed, so we could all be together. We didn’t really say prayers for people or things. Instead, we tended to sing songs from Sunday school. My mom was a Sunday school teacher, so she knew all the songs, and I think my dad did, too. We usually sang two or three songs together, and then said the Lord’s prayer and ended with “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I know it sounds really cheesy, like we were right out of the von Trapp family in the Sound of Music, but it’s true!

My favorite song was about Zacchaeus, the character in this morning’s gospel. Maybe you know it, too. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree. And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today. For I’m going to your house today’.” Usually, when we sang it both in Sunday school and at home there were hand actions, too.

I can’t say that when we sang this song I knew a whole lot about wee little Zacchaeus or why Jesus went to his house. We just knew that whoever he was, he was really short, he knew how to climb trees, and he also knew about Jesus. Somehow Jesus knew about him, too. Well, this morning’s gospel fills in the blanks. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, he was the chief tax collector, which in the first century was an even more unpopular job than working for the IRS would be today. Because you see, in those days tax collectors went around and collected whatever tax the Roman Empire required, but then they would take some additional extra finds for themselves. And sometimes they took a lot extra funds for themselves. But there was no one to stop them, as they were part of their society’s power structure. They were an integral part of the system that the Roman Empire used to try and keep people down.

That’s why we hear such frequent negative references to tax collectors in the gospels. They were the epitome of the corrupt bad guys. The worst of the worst. And yet it seems that Jesus actually spent a lot of time with them. He forgave them. He even invited them into his closest circle of friends. In fact, the disciple Matthew, after whom I am named, was a tax collector. And so was Zacchaeus, the wee little man. It obviously wasn’t the best move in terms of Jesus’ public relations, especially among the religious people who thought that hanging around with the wrong kind of people would somehow rub off on them, but it’s what Jesus did. Over and over again.

Why did he do that? Why did he associate with such unpopular, even hated people? Why hang out with tax collectors, who cheated other hard-working people out of their money?

Well, first we know that Jesus was almost never too concerned about popularity or what other people thought. He absolutely didn’t care about that. In fact, I think Jesus associated with, hung out with, these people in part because they were so hated. I know that sounds weird. But you know, the tax collectors (as well as the prostitutes and whoever else that was unpopular), they were shunned by their society. Nobody liked them or treated them with any sort of respect, except maybe out of fear. And so they dug their heels in, and since they were treated so badly in the first place, they gouged people in collecting taxes. In a way, the tax collectors like Zacchaeus made others pay for being so mean. Which only made people hate them more.

But Jesus wouldn’t be caught up in that vicious cycle. Jesus broke the cycle by telling Zacchaeus that he will accept him, and even befriend him, just as he is. It didn’t matter to Jesus how rotten a life Zacchaeus’ had led. It didn’t matter to Jesus that Zacchaeus had no other friends. It didn’t matter to Jesus what he had done. Jesus just wanted to be with him, he wanted to spend time with him, to accept him, for no other reason than, well, just because.

Now of course as a result Zacchaeus says that he will change his ways. He promises to give half of what he has to the poor and he promises to repay four-fold anything he has taken dishonestly. But that doesn’t come first. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, “if you fix your life I’ll be your friend” or “if you shape up, I’ll love you.” No. With Jesus, the friendship, the love, and the acceptance all come first. Just because. Just because that’s what Jesus does.

Today, October 31, is of course Halloween. But it is also the 493rd anniversary of the day when a German monk and priest, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses (basically complaints or arguments) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, lighting the fire that became the Protestant Reformation. He did it out of frustration with the prevailing mood in the church of his day, which seemed to require that people earn (or even buy) their salvation. In those days, before you could be forgiven of your sins, you had to do all kinds of special things. First, you had to confess your sins to a priest. Then, you had to maybe say Hail Marys or undertake other spiritual exercises. People were even encouraged to buy a piece of paper from a priest that would assure that you or your relatives would be freed from purgatory. The worst offender in that regard was a priest named Johannes Tetzel, who famously said: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Hearing this, Luther was appalled, even as he struggled personally with feeling that he had not done enough to merit God’s forgiveness and love.

So, he decided to engage in a scholarly debate with the church hierarchy—that’s what he 95 arguments were for—to begin a debate with the church leaders. Luther was actually a very conservative man. He didn’t want to start his own church. He really just wanted to fix the abuses he saw. But the pope and the bishops weren’t too keen on an upstart monk from a backwater German town telling them how to run their church (plus they needed the money from the sale of the indulgences to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) so eventually, the only option for them was to excommunicate Luther when he refused to back down. Only, what happened was that others heard about him. They read what he wrote. And many, many people thought Luther was right—even some kings and princes thought he was right. So, they left the Catholic Church (which to that point really was the only church) and they started their own.

At the time, they didn’t call it Lutheran (or even Protestant). It was called Evangelical—meaning simply gospel-based. And like wild-fire, it spread throughout Germany and then into the Netherlands and Switzerland and Scandinavia and, eventually, to England, where it took on a unique character, blending the important insights of the Reformation teaching, with a more Catholic sensibility in terms of worship and church life. We, in the Episcopal Church, are the inheritors of that unique English way of being church.

But wherever it went—whether England or Germany or Scandinavia--it was always based on the idea that you can’t earn your salvation. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you. It doesn’t matter how good, or bad, your life is, God loves you anyway. That’s what we mean by “grace.” It’s unearned, unmerited love and acceptance. The phrase you often hear with regard to the Reformation is “justification by grace through faith.” You are “justified”—meaning, God loves you as if you haven’t sinned, even though you know you have, even though God knows you have. And all you have to do is accept it, have faith that he does so. Of course from a legal perspective it’s totally wrong. It’s unfair and unjust. But, it’s what God does. Just because.

What Luther discovered in reading the Bible—especially in the letters of St. Paul—was that God is not really like a judge who keeps track of each and every wrong. That’s what many of the medieval Christians believed, and to a certain degree it’s what the church wanted them to believe. Rather, Luther discovered that God is really like a parent, a Father, who loves us in spite of what we do, just as our own parents do. Our job, like Zacchaeus’ in today’s gospel passage, is welcome God into hearts, just as he welcomes Jesus into his home. That’s the faith part of justification by faith. And when we do, we are set freed from the chains of our sin. We realize that we are loved, we accepted just as we are with all of our faults, and in response, we are able to break the cycle of pain and hurt that we inflict on others.

When you boil it all down, that’s what the Reformation was all about—understanding and appreciating God’s love, shown in Jesus. Accepting God’s love. And then, being transformed by it. So that we are free to love in return. That’s what today’s gospel passage is all about, too. And, when you think about it, it’s what the whole of our Christian faith is all about. Being loved, accepting that love, and then loving in return. It’s pretty simple and it’s pretty wonderful.

I thought I would close this morning with a prayer by an Anglican theologian and bishop named Brooke Foss Westcott. He actually lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, not the Reformation era. But I thought the prayer was a good one in summing up what this morning’s gospel and the Reformation ideals were all about. So, let us pray.

O Lord our God, in whom we live and move and have our being, open our eyes that we may behold your fatherly presence always with us. Draw our hearts to you with the power of your love. Teach us to be anxious about nothing, and when we have done what you have given us to do, help us, O God our Saviour, to leave the issue to your wisdom. Take from us all doubt and mistrust. Lift our hearts to you in heaven, and make us to know that all things are possible for us through your Son our Redeemer. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bishop Spong and his Manifesto

The Vicar of Wakefield hasn't been blogging lately, primarily because life in the parish has been very full. However, I recently received a message from a colleague in Toronto which made me think I should post again. He forwarded a year-old statement by the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong regarding the church's seemingly endless and increasingly tedious debate on the place of gay people in its common life.

As usual, Bishop Spong is strident. He is convinced that he is right. He doesn't provide room for debate. That's Bishop Spong's way. And in this case, I think he is right.

I don't read Bishop Spong much these days. I basically stopped reading him about 15 years ago. Although, I have heard him speak a few times since then and about 10 years ago I nervously preached a sermon at the MIT chapel when Bishop Spong was in the congregation. But although I am not attracted to his books today, there was a time when he was very important to me. In fact, I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. I was brought up with a very traditional faith, with which I was increasingly uncomfortable. So for me, Bishop Spong presented a fresh and open way of understanding the Bible, God, Jesus, and humanity. He presented it all in a way that made sense. When I look back on his books today I find that Bishop Spong's questions and concerns are no longer my questions or my concerns. But, as I reflect on it, it's probably because I read books like Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in Sin, and Born of a Woman that I was able to move beyond those questions of "fact" (how this or that miracle or fantastic story is possible which at one point were so challenging for me) that he spends so much time with, and into my current preference for trying to understand what the church or the Bible is trying to convey to its audience through a particular passage or story.

With regard to the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, Bishop Spong has been a pioneer. There's no question about that. Admittedly, sometimes it seems as if he lead the way in part to draw attention to himself. He definitely seems to like attention. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him. In some part I am Episcopalian and a priest because of him--because of his writings and his challenging the status quo and his doing what he thought was right when others were more hesitant and his refusing to back down--and for that I am very thankful. The bishop's statement on GLBT issues follows. Perhaps others, reading his powerful words, will be likewise transformed by his insight and leadership as they learn who they are, whose they are, and how much God loves them. Bishop Spong is right. It shouldn't be up for debate.

A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!

by Bishop John Shelby Spong
Oct 15, 2009

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant."

I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement.

I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is "high-sounding, pious rhetoric." The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me.

I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn't. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you!" Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a "new church," claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Women, Ordination, and the Radical Fringe

Some years ago, before I had even heard of a town called Wakefield, I began to think about a vocation in ministry. In fact, all through high school and college I toyed with the idea. I even went to a high school student visiting day at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul. But it wasn't until my junior year of college that I really began to think that this might be an option for me. So, I wrote to several of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church to find out what I would have to do, first to be admitted and then to pursue ordination.

Especially interesting to me was the varied responses I received. A few just sent me a catalogue. One sent me a copy of the canons, and a couple of the seminaries were very helpful. Interestingly, they were the schools closest to me: Nashotah House and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Nashotah House sent an encouraging letter and several back issues of their alumni newsletter, along with a catalogue. Unfortunately, when I read the Nashotah catalogue, I realized it probably wasn't the place for me. It had a quotation by a female graduate who said something on the order of "It's not really as bad for women here as I had expected." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Seabury-Western was really great. They even called me. I'm not sure how they got my number, since I didn't include it in my letter to them. I guess they phoned the college to find me. They were very nice, but as I spoke with the admissions director, she made a comment about how Seabury served "the broad mainstream" of the Episcopal Church, and not the "radical fringe." Having always been liberally inclined, I wasn't sure what to make of that. I wasn't sure if I'd fit in there, and I thought that perhaps where I really belonged was the fringe. So, I gave the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge a second look, despite the lack-luster initial response to my inquiry.

I can't imagine having studied anywhere else. As it turns out, I was never as "fringy" as some there. In fact, my New Testament professor told me once that I was among the most conservative students there. I'm not so sure about that. But I definitely tried to learn from all of the voices and perspectives I could. I guess that's why I am so interested in the concept of comprehensiveness.

But as much as I have a concern for maintaining a delicate balance in the church between the various views, one of the issues I am rather uncompromising on is the ordination of women. I was born as a Lutheran and women were already pastors by the time I came into the world. Women were approved for ordination in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada when I was less than 4. And Anglicanism had its first woman bishop when I was 16. So, it seems strange to me that this issue is still being debated, as it is across the Anglican Communion.

Today, July 29 is the anniversary of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. It happened in 1974. But not officially. Rather, it was an "extraordinary" or "irregular" event (some might and did call it illegal). On that day in 1974, in the city of Philadelphia, the face of ministry in the Anglican Church was forever changed. Eleven women deacons were "irregularly" ordained by three retired bishops. It was irregular, because neither the Episcopal Church, nor any church in the Anglican Communion, had yet approved women’s ordination; although, one courageous woman, Florence Li Tim Oi, had been ordained in Hong Kong in 1944, but was subsequently asked not to serve as a priest and was not recognized in other parts of the Communion. After years of working tirelessly to change the church through the usual power structures by appealing nicely to the men in power, by working through the democratic processes of synods and conventions, and after being turned down again and again, these 11 women and three men who were committed to living out the Gospel of Christ in its fullest sense decided to stop being polite and took matters, literally, into their own hands.

On this anniversary, I would like to share their story. The late Suzanne Hiatt, one of the 11 women, and the primary organizer of that historic event reflected on it in a letter to women working for ordination in the Church of England, published as "July 29, 1974--Kairos as Paradigm Shift," in No Easy Peace: Liberating Anglicanism, ed. Carter Heyward and Sue Phillips, (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1992).. This is an abridgment of what she wrote:

When we arrived at Church of the Advocate at 9:00 a.m., the feast of Ss. Martha and Mary of Bethany, it was already two-thirds full. The church is a barn of a building, holding in excess of 2000 people. We had contingency plans in case of a riot or an interruption of the service. There was a basement room where we met to vest and to take the oath of conformity and where we planned to reassemble (bishops and deacons), in case of emergency, to finish the ordination. Because the opposition was so shrill and violent, I was sure we had chosen the right course. I think we all felt the same steely determination that morning.

By 11:00, the church was packed--standing room only--and the press and TV cameras were adding to the general bedlam, heat, and excitement. Paul Washington, the rector of the church, quieted the crowd and began the proceeding with an eloquent welcome. He compared our situation to that of a pregnant woman - the church says it's an inconvenient time to have a birth, but the baby comes when its time is here. This analogy was followed by the opening strains of the hymn, 'Come, Labor On.' The accident of juxtaposition produced a roar of laughter and on that note the procession began, led by crucifer Barbara Harris, Warden of the parish, and later first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The procession was slowed by people pressing in to embrace us and sustained applause and cheering when the bishops emerged. I remember my lay presenter shouting over the din, 'They're going to do it. They're really going to do it. The Holy Spirit has grabbed them by whatever hair they have left and they're actually going to do it!'

The sermon came first. The preacher, Dr. Charles Willie, an African American layman and Vice President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, spoke of justice delayed as justice denied and made the obvious parallels with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When the time came for objections there was a line of black-suited clergymen. When all had their say, the bishop who was presiding read a simple statement to the effect that we had weighed our action carefully in the light of Gospel imperatives and were not dissuaded. The opponents left after making their objections.

Then the ordaining began. About a hundred priests joined the bishops for the laying on of hands - the line stretching to the back of the church. The press contributed much pushing and shoving and flashing of cameras. The spirit of the day was high excitement and delirious joy. We had been prepared for just about anything, but the outpouring of love and support from so many people was astonishing. It was a sign that the time was right--a truth we'd sensed but now knew beyond doubt.

The ordination was only the beginning of 18 months of intense struggle. It was followed by a special meeting of the bishops, declaring the ordinations so irregular as to be invalid. Afterward we began functioning as priests whenever and wherever we could. Prior to that August meeting we had refrained from priestly ministry to give them a chance to decide how to deal with us. When they refused, we felt we had no choice.

A year later in 1975, four more women were ordained irregularly in Washington, DC. Women's full ordination was officially approved in the U.S. in 1976, and the 15 women ordained irregularly in '74 and '75 were fully accepted as priests. There were some who argued that the women would have to be re-ordained, as the first ordinations were not valid. The women obviously disagreed, and argued back that by ordaining them a third time, after their diaconal and priestly ordinations, it would not make them priests but, in fact, bishops! The men in power definitely didn't want to go there, so they were accepted “as is.” The Anglican Church of Canada also began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1976, watching events in the U.S., but without the catalyst of such revolutionary actions. Actually, Canada began ordaining women legally two months before the U.S. By contrast, it took the Church of England another 20 years, approving women’s ordination in 1994, and only now debating whether women can be bishops.

There are many Anglicans who look to these 11 women as prophets and pioneers. Others, even some who approve of women’s ordination, are still frustrated by this dramatic action, which broke the rules so precipitously. Anglicans, it seems, are by nature rule bound.

The author of this reflection, Sue Hiatt, and two of the other women ordained that day--Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek--were among my professors at the Episcopal Divinity School, part of that radical fringe. They have had a profound impact on my life, my understanding of Christian discipleship, and my own sense of what it means to be a priest, as I know they have for others as well. Bishop Ann Tottenham (retired suffragan in Toronto) told me once that she was opposed to women's ordination until she met some of these pioneering women, who obviously changed her mind. And consider the result: A small, radical movement that began with 11 women and three retired bishops ushered in a new age in our church, one which now, three decades later, includes thousands of women clergy, 25 women bishops across the world in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand, including Bishop Gayle Harris, who ordained me, and even the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

I can't imagine the Church without the ministries of these women, and especially the women who have shaped my own ministry: pastors, field education supervisors, professors, bosses, rectors, bishops, and friends. On this anniversary day I say to them congratulations and thanks. And most especially I ask God to continue to bless them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On churchgoing

One of my favorite things about Sunday afternoons is the opportunity to listen to Garrison Keillor's radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" as I drive home from church. Unlike previous vicars of Wakefield, I live some distance, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that it gives me the opportunity to take time out, breathe, and listen to music and interesting programs. Being a Minnesota native, my favorite radio show is Keillor's. He has a wonderful ability to connect me with my "homeland," even when I am so far from there.

This past Sunday, July 18, Keillor's show was a patchwork quilt of previous clips--something that's to be expect in the mid-summer, I suppose. As I was driving, he shared a beautiful piece on "Churchgoing" by the late John Updike. Keillor first read this on air just after Updike died in January 2009. I didn't hear it then, but I am glad I did this week. Here it is:

from Churchgoing

There was a time when I wondered why more people did
not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what
could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a
venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean
for us one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison
and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths
worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen, or not
listen, as a poorly paid but resplendently robed man strives to
console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts,
hopelessly compromised by words, of those intimations of
divine joy that are like pain in that, their instant gone, the
mind cannot remember or believe them; to witness the
windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers
arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered
spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of inheritance; to pay, for
all this, no more than we are moved to give-surely in all
democracy there is nothing like it. Indeed, it is the most
available democratic experience. We vote less than once a
year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our
supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal
arithmetic of equality: one equals one."

--from "Churchgoing," from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1962, pp 249-250

I imagine that this is why a lot of us go to church. We go because there we are connected with something that just doesn't make logical sense, and yet, is very real. In church we are filled with that "divine joy" Updike writes about. The stained glass, the flowers and resplendent vestments, the old words and ancient creeds, they all connect us with something deeper and more profound than we find in our ordinary day to day lives. Or at least that's true for me. And maybe it's true for you as well. The church has its faults, there's no question about that. But it is also special and holy and sacred. It warms the heart. It fills us with divine joy. Most especially, it gives us life.

If you care to hear Garrison Keillor read this passage in his own distinctive voice, you can do so here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rediscovering Anglican Comprehensiveness

The recent Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the response by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church have led to numerous reflections on blogs and various internet sites. Some hail Archbishop Williams’ fortitude in working to defend the historic faith and practice of the church in the face of Western modernizing tendencies, particularly regarding sexual ethics and the common mind of the world-wide Communion. Others, particularly in the United States, have taken great comfort and pride in the forcefulness of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter, in which she has sought to describe how the Episcopal Church has come to its current decisions and practice vis a vis sexuality, particularly in approving the consecration of a second partnered and openly gay bishop. Interestingly, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church appeal to the voice of the Holy Spirit as guiding the unity of the Communion and/or the prophetic but undeniably divisive actions of the Episcopal Church’s leadership.

As thoughtful and skillfully written as these primatial epistles are, it is easy to find fault with both letters. In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he seems to place unity of belief and practice above all else, while failing to recognize that there is already a profound diversity within the Anglican Communion. In practice, his emphasis on unity likely serves to enshrine the most conservative perspectives, while minimizing or rejecting new perspectives and practices that arise in various contexts. If the church is to grow and adapt to new contexts and new situations, including new understandings of holy living in the contemporary world, a more open approach is undoubtedly necessary.

Toward that end, I would argue that some provinces of the Communion should be allowed a generous degree of freedom to explore these new developments and practices in the context of the Christian community, and then after a time be given the opportunity to share the results of this period of testing with the wider church. If certain provinces aren’t given this freedom, how else will the wider church ever know if it can move in a new direction?

The example of liturgical revision may be helpful here. The Episcopal Church did not just leap from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the 1979 Prayer Book over night. Rather, there was a long period of trial spanning several decades, beginning with a few parishes interested in the Parish Communion Movement and expanding to dioceses and the wider church. In 1976 a new Prayer Book was provisionally adopted by the General Convention, but even then was subject to a three-year trial period. Following that book’s final adoption in 1979, other churches of the Communion began to experiment with the prayers and liturgies found in it. It was not an immediate process and while the “radical” revisions of the 1970s are common across the Communion today, there remains a vibrant and lively diversity of practice in the world’s Anglican churches, some preferring the traditional language of our heritage, others embracing contemporary liturgies, and a great many striking a delicate balance, offering both within the same faith community.

While not “officially” approached in this way, the Communion’s handling of the issue of women’s ordination to all three orders of ministry largely has followed this path as well. A few provinces of the Communion adopted the practice in the minority, much to the dismay of many, only to be followed by more and more after they had seen the undeniable fruits of women’s ministries in those few contexts that led the way. Had the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States been denied the opportunity to experience women’s ministries in the 1970s, the Church of England likely would not be debating the best way to adopt the practice of consecrating women as bishops today.

The fact of the matter is, the Anglican Communion has often held such open views when member churches have desired to push the boundaries of traditional practice. It has never required that all member churches come to the same conclusions, but rather has allowed for a significant degree of ambiguity, even with regard to very significant theological, moral, and liturgical issues. The recent attempts to clamp down on diverse practices with threats of punishment and exclusion are simply foreign to the long-standing ethos of comprehensiveness that has been so vital and life-giving within Anglicanism.

That said, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s Pentecost letter defending the actions of the Episcopal Church presents problems of its own. She is right to criticize the unprecedented centralizing tendencies of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his letter (and though unstated, in the work toward the adoption of the Anglican Communion Covenant). She is right to defend the autonomy of the Episcopal Church while desiring to maintain its strong “bonds of affection” with the churches of the Anglican Communion. However, her appeal to the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant is not theologically strong enough to justify her defense of the church’s actions, in my view. And as others have pointed out, her appeal to the Church’s history is not always accurate.

There is an unfortunate lack of theological grounding in the Presiding Bishop’s letter and also in the Episcopal Church’s regular appeal to justice as a defense for its actions. There’s no denying that a deep and abiding concern for justice has been a central facet of Christianity since the earthly ministry of Jesus and before him in the voices of the Hebrew prophets. However, for the concept of justice (which can be interpreted variously, depending on an individual’s or group’s point of view) to attain its most compelling meaning it needs a strongly articulated theological foundation. For many Anglicans, especially those inspired by the ethos of comprehensiveness, that theological foundation is the Incarnation.

The Presiding Bishop would have been on firmer footing if she had instead drawn more deeply from the rich well of the Anglican theological tradition, and especially the theologians of comprehensiveness, such as Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, B. F. Westcott, and even Charles Gore. In their own ways and contexts, each argues for the unity of the church in the face of diverse practices. For them, the central unifying force is nothing less than God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In and through the Incarnation of Christ, diverse persons, practices, and beliefs are ultimately reconciled and transcended. In and through the Incarnation of Christ humanity finds its true meaning—justice, love, peace, compassion, and unity in diversity.

In 1893 B. F. Westcott wrote (excuse lack of gender inclusive language):

However feebly we realize the fact, the truth, of the Incarnation, we find in it the inexhaustible spring of brotherhood. No difference which finds its expression in terms of earth can stay it. In this sense also, ‘brothers are brothers evermore.’ We spell out the Divine message little by little in thought and action, but the most rudimentary apprehension of its meaning brings home to us that man is bound to man, in virtue of his humanity, by that which is infinitely stronger than anything which tends to separate one from another: that in the reckoning of the great account the loss of one cannot be another’s gain…. We may be filled with shame and compunction for innumerable inconsistencies, failures, sins, but the motive which we have once felt loses nothing of its claim on our obedience. Christ—such is the formal confession of each one of us—took me to Himself when He took humanity to Himself, and I owe myself to those with whom He has united me.The Incarnation and Common Life, pp. 24-25.

Of course this idea presented so well by Westcott did not originate in the Anglican divines. It goes back to St. Paul, who argues that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. This is not to say that these differences disappeared (men and women aren’t neutered after all), but that in Christ, through whom and in whose image we all are made, our true and lasting unity is discovered, even in the midst of our inherent diversity. In Christ, we recognize who we are and who our neighbors are, whatever differences may exist among us.

Generations of Anglican divines have elaborated on this foundational Christian principle to present it afresh in new contexts and situations, many of them as marred by division as we find ourselves today. It’s lamentable that their inspirational work has not been better utilized (by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and others) in defense of the embattled Anglican ethos of comprehensiveness and even more importantly in defense of today’s diverse practices and beliefs. Ultimately, the differences among us, vast though they sometimes seem, reflect the quest of every one of us to discern truth and holiness in our age as we attempt in imperfect ways to live the bold life of Incarnation in the Body of Christ.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Post the First

So, until about 5 minutes ago I maintained that blogs are self-indulgent. I enjoy reading various blogs from time to time, but I never thought much about putting up one of my own. And I can't help but think that excessive blogging has contributed to the very polarized Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion that we know today. It's just too easy to compose sharply worded epistles to the world and to spend time and energy criticizing those with whom we disagree. None of that seems to serve the greater purpose of building up the Body of Christ.

So, this blog will endeavor to build up, rather than tear down. An appreciation of Anglican Comprehensiveness will be the theological and ecclesiastical bias employed here (coincidentally, that's the focus of my thesis, too). There will probably be lots of quotations from theological giants like Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, Charles Gore, A. G. Hebert, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Norman Pittenger, and the like. The occasional sermon may find its way here. And for a bit of levity, an appreciation of all things Scandinavian (except Lutefisk) will be featured, too.

The title, by the way, is taken from the 1766 novel of the same name by Oliver Goldsmith. It was a particular favorite in the Victorian era. I'm a Rector not a Vicar and I minister in Massachusetts not England, but the title is too perfect not to use. A parishioner gave me a copy of the book on my first day in the parish, so I feel a special connection with it. And my spiritual director always begins our sessions by asking "How is the Vicar of Wakefield," so I've begun to identify with it; although, I hope I'm somewhat less daft than the Rev. Charles Primrose, the novel's title character.