Monday, December 31, 2007

Tour Bus or Roller Coaster?

I recently ran across this post on Irenic Thoughts, the blog of Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia. I'd run across it before somewhere, but it says something about how such a spiritually charged event often is presented and experienced as the same old thing, week after week.
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?...Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?

The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Annie Dillard, (1945 - ) from her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
Perhaps it is not God who is asleep but we who worship God, lulled into receiving God as a normal, regular, benign part of life who would not dare disrupt our carefully planned lives. I wonder what God could do with us if we woke up?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Looking backward, Going forward

As I vacation with my immediate and extended families in California, I am struck anew by the flurry of cultural, economic, technological, and media retrospectives on 2007. As yet I have not found an Anglican/Episcopal retrospective, but I'm sure someone in the blogosphere will put one together soon (if you know of one, feel free to leave it in the comments section of this post). I am also less than two months away from turning 40 years old, always an occasion for both looking back and looking forward. As the Anglican/Episcopal world convulses and raises questions of identity, structure, and purpose, I've also been thinking about my own identity as an Episcopal priest and my own values for ministry on which I hope to focus a bit more purposefully in 2008. Those values are:
1) The transformational power of faith in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps it is my own grounding in the evangelical flavor of Christianity, but my own belief is that if the church is not standing up and proclaiming that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not just a nice thing to do, a trendy (or counter-trendy) lifestyle, or even something that changes your world-view but something that fundamentally transforms one's life in both real and mysterious ways, I'm not sure what exactly we're here for. If you want to serve, there are plenty of service clubs around. If you want to learn, there are many blogs, podcasts, video courses, and even classroom-based opportunities for learning. If you want to socialize, there are likewise plenty of social clubs (including social networking web sites) in which you can join. Heck, even worship of God is something that one can do alone with an iPod, at least to some extent!

I am at once frustrated with my own tendency to 'put God on hold' amidst the pressures and demands of life and ministry and frustrated with the tendency of the church to be so self-absorbed with similar demands that there is little time given for exploring our relationship with God in Christ. So little, in fact, that many people in the pews have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention such a relationship! For 2008, I want to 'go deeper with God' and invite members of the congregation I serve to go there as well.

2) Being grounded in traditional Christianity and yet drawn to fresh expressions of the church through the emerging church and missional movements.

I'm an anomoly--a Generation Xer who grew up in a very traditional, middle-of-the-road Episcopal church in Silicon Valley with parents that are still together to this day. I didn't suffer from a broken home, a broken faith, or a broken church. We had major players from Silicon Valley companies in our congregation, but no one would have dared suggest that we incorporate the least bit of technology into our services. At the same time, the rest of my life was saturated with cutting-edge technology as well as cutting-edge ideas. I married that very traditional liturgical church upbringing with an evangelical fervor caught in high school and fanned into flame during my college years at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Humboldt State University. Even so, I am drawn to fresh expressions of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. These are often expressed in the emerging church and missional church movements.

All that is to say that while I'm grounded in traditional expressions of Christianity, I'm searching for ways to live out my calling as an Episcopal priest in the very exciting world of the emerging church without losing that traditional base and evangelical fervor. I suspect that exploration will continue in 2008, primarily through the addition of a new evening 'alternative service' to the very traditional service currently at the church I serve.

3) Love of technology as a tool for ministry.

I'll admit it--I love technology with a passion. Raised in Silicon Valley and in high school at the beginning of the technology wave, I'm as fully plugged in as my time and money allow. I obviously blog regularly, check my e-mail constantly, monitor a variety of blogs, and essentially live on the Internet, with only one exception--my ordained ministry. Sure, I use the Internet to get ideas, illustrations, and examples for sermons, but the church I serve has no real value for technology as a tool for ministry. This is not limited to my current congregation. There have been plenty of folks over the years who wonder why I'm on the computer 'so much' and exactly what I'm doing there. I will readily admit that occasionally the lure of technology overwhelms my call to on-the-ground ministry.

So, in 2008 I'm resolving to explore ways to unite my love of the church with my love of technology, all under the umbrella of being a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and a more effective priest of the church. Viewing technology as a tool for ministry rather than simply a toy for entertainment means being more focused in my use of technology and my learning about how best to integrate it into my ministry. It also means making sure that I do not neglect face-to-face ministry in favor of 'screen-to-screen' ministry.
We'll see how all of this goes. I'm mindful that most people break New Year's resolutions before the end of January. Hopefully by my birthday at the end of February, I'll still be plugging along!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paradox and Polarization

One of the great things about the blogosphere is that there is such a treasure trove of opinion and research from which to draw. After my own blog entry regarding bishops, I happened upon this excellently written post by Fr. Tony Clavier which discusses exactly the difficulty we get into when we relegate our bishops to a political role as members of simply one of two Houses of General Convention. It is very much worth a read. Coupled with that, the Episcopal Majority blog has an excellent article by The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett on the struggle for the church to embrace paradox over exclusion, something he points out that we've never done well.

In my opinion, both of these articles point to a difficulty we face in this conflict. We face a cultural chasm in which most Western cultures have been in conversation regarding issues of sexuality for decades, while in some African and Asian countries such discussions cannot even begin due to cultural taboos. Even beyond that, the foundational point in the modernist/postmodernist divide--the conflict between the "either/or" way of seeing things and the "both/and" way of seeing things--means that the clash between the "one truth" aspect of thinking (i.e., the "plain truth of scripture") wars with what former Presiding Bishop Griswold has referred to as "pluriform truths." I also note that, at least in my experience in the Episcopal Church, such a tolerance for paradox is less likely to occur in the Baby Boomer generation than it is in postmodern generations (Generation X and Millennials).

Add to this conflict in both culture and ways of thinking the fact that, at least according to this article in Ekklesia, most of us have both very short memories and very little tolerance for long explanations. The author also makes a point related to my last post, that is that:
Hard work will be needed if the gulf which has opened up is to be bridged. Moves towards increasing the power of senior clergy, and their unaccountability to those they supposedly serve, will not help. Why should laypeople used to taking responsibility in other areas of life, and having to argue their case if they are to persuade others to take their views on board, passively accept the pronouncements of bishops who have not done their homework, especially if this undermines local mission and ministry?
In other words, while I would assert that bishops do have a charism and responsibility for teaching and for 'guarding the unity of the church," they also have an obligation to study and consult widely as they consider their positions. As well, we are well past the time when anyone can be said to have the final word on anything, much less an aspect of a two-thousand year old faith tradition.

I'm not sure just where this leaves us, except that we need to be in a lot less of a hurry to resolve the situation and a lot more willing to deeply consider possible solutions, including the possibility that this particular issue may remain unresolved for a long time to come. Perhaps we just need to live with that fact.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bishops and Democracy

The long-awaited Archbishop of Canterbury's Advent Letter has been published and is worth a read. Folks with far more free time on their hands than I have dissected and parsed the text trying to read between the lines for what it really says (or what they would like to think it really says) and I will leave that to them. The question which is as yet unanswered is this: Can the members of the Anglican Communion agree to disagree regarding ordination of partnered homosexual persons and blessing of same-sex unions, or are the irreconcilable differences of opinion on this one issue such that schism is inevitable? It seems more and more that this is a cultural, rather than a biblical or theological, divide, but it is no less critical for that.

I'm also interested in +++Rowan's thoughts regarding bishops:
A somewhat complicating factor in the New Orleans statement has been the provision that any kind of moratorium is in place until General Convention provides otherwise. Since the matters at issue are those in which the bishops have a decisive voice as a House of Bishops in General Convention, puzzlement has been expressed as to why the House should apparently bind itself to future direction from the Convention. If that is indeed what this means, it is in itself a decision of some significance. It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in The Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.
Having just had my own bishop call for the election of his successor, and having seen from afar some of the issues with which he has been forced to deal, the question of what we in the Episcopal Church think is, to use the Archbishop's words, the "distinctive charism of bishops as an order." Do we think of the episcopate, or even the priesthood and/or diaconate, as simply jobs or positions? Do we believe in the "Bishop as CEO, Priest as Caregiver, and Deacon as Social Worker" model or do we believe that there is, in fact, some special gift of the Spirit that is conveyed or recognized at ordination? What do we think God does when we ask God to "make" someone a bishop, priest, or deacon in God's church?

More than sexuality, it appears that here is where the real divide between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion lies. We like to dress our bishops up like everyone else, parade them around, and have them make speeches and wax theological, but God help them if they actually exercise any power! Ever since the first colonists came over and established a settlement at Jamestown 400 years ago, we have been uncomfortable with the role of bishops. I would submit that we often have far more in common with the Lutherans, for whom I believe that bishop is a role or job, not an permanently ordained ministry, then we are truly catholic in our ecclesiology. I keep seeing other bloggers wondering why we should give the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference so much weight and seeing the most representative body, the Anglican Consultative Council, as having the only true and legitimate authority in the Communion. Don't even get them started on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates! Why? Why do we see democracy as having the highest authority? I would say that says more about our culture than it says about out theology. While we certainly shouldn't give bishops more authority than they are due, it may well be a part of what Dan Martins refers to as our "impoverished ecclesiology" (though that blog entry was written before the Archbishop's letter and referring to the unpleasantness in the Diocese of San Joaquin) that we give them so little authority.

In any case, I would love to see a discussion on what we believe ordination is and what we believe the ministry of a bishop is. As the Archbishop says, "this needs to be addressed."