Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Relationships, Rules, and a Reflective Covenant

As I have attempted to follow the sometimes convoluted reports of the discussions happening at the Lambeth Conference, it occurs to me that there is a reality that transcends the hierarchy and the official statements made or not made. That reality is that these bishops value their relationships with one another, regardless of their stance on issues of sexuality. Even after the Archbishop of Sudan suggested that if he were Bishop Robinson he would resign for the good of the church, many TEC bishops and bishops from Sudan stressed their desire to continue to work together and forge stronger bonds of friendship and mission.

If the reality of relationships is accurate, then perhaps rather than an Anglican Covenant of rules and regulations (which is actually more like a contract) there should be an Anglican Covenant that reflects this reality of relationships over issues. The reality is that Christianity is a profoundly incarnational faith and thus requires human contact. That sort of contact, between flawed, sinful human beings, is bound to be messy, imperfect, and full of miscommunication and hurt as well as understanding and healing. From what I've read from various bishop's blogs, those relationships have been what have been the most valuable aspect of the conference, as they are with all good conferences that I've been to.

An Anglican Covenant that is reflective of the vital relationships that currently exist within the Communion and that seeks to strengthen those relationships in spite of theological differences rather than attempting to either gloss over them or legislate them out of existance would seem to the most helpful document for our ongoing life together.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

From Across the Pond: Bishop Nick

Through the Gathering the Next Generation (GTNG) clergy email list, I've recently been put in touch with a great blog from Bishop Nick Baines of Croydon (Diocese of Southwark). Hosted by Fulcrum, his blog makes interesting reading, relatively free from either the distress or the enthusiasm of some of the bishops from The Episcopal Church. I was particularly interested in this part of one of his posts:
When I asked a Zimbabwean bishop last year why they don't write their own indigenous liturgies and why they follow only the BCP (17th century vernacular English), I was told that this is what the missionaries brought with them. Christianity was synonymous with the trappings: BCP language and liturgy, English Victorian hymns, English vestments and robes, etc. To ditch (or 'move on from') any of these would be synonymous with changing the faith itself or moving on from (or 'changing') the Gospel itself.
I find that I have two reactions to this. First, it is increasingly clear to me that one of the largest challenges we have is that the Gospel message that was communicated via English missionaries (interwoven with the English culture of the time) has been so locked into place as the one and only unchanging Gospel that it is clearly difficult, if not impossible, for there to be any "new revelation" or "new interpretation" even considered. It would be like dishonoring your father or your mother. Second, I know that that we have some of the same things at work here in The Episcopal Church. How many people left the church when "the new prayer book" (i.e., Book of Common Prayer 1979) was adopted because they were so used to the forms of th 1928 BCP that they couldn't imagine worshiping God in any other way?

For me, I find that I need to be both compassionate and discerning in my response to this. Clearly, God is timeless and so is the Gospel. Yet, to the extent that we serve an incarnational God in Jesus Christ, someone rooted in a place and time, our expressions of worship will necessarily reflect our own place and time. More likely, they will reflect the place and time in which we were raised. Short of a cataclysmic "Damascus Road" experience, it is extremely difficult to transcend our own cultural upbringing and inheritance and embrace something new without a substantial spiritual grounding. Perhaps as we lament what we consider the limited wordview of our Anglican brothers and sisters in the developing world, we should realize that our view, too, is limited, just in different ways.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Anglicanism: Catholic, Protestant, neither, or both?

More than a week ago I ran across the Open Letter to the Bishops Gathering at Lambeth in which Dr. Ephraim Radner more or less begs those attending the Lamebeth Conference to "decide, resolutely, that those bishops from these churches who are in agreement to press forward in ways the Communion has now clearly and consistently repudiated [that is, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada] no longer partake in your common councils." Additionally, he states that "If the Lambeth Conference cannot take it upon itself to act with clarity and evangelical coherence in the face of the threats to our common life, you abandon us."

I must confess to being extremely conflicted about this letter and its assumption that the bishops are somehow the sole arbiter of truth and discipline in the Anglican Communion. It is much the same sense in which the gathering of the Primates has assumed legislative, judicial, and executive powers far beyond what any council or synod has had before. Were we the Roman Catholic Church, we might well be used to doctrine being sent down to the masses (no pun intended...) from on high (either Pope or Council of Bishops) but there is enough of a Protestant strain in our makeup that we naturally recoil from any such seemingly autocratic rule.

On the other hand, Archbishop Rowan Williams has noted that bishops have what he refers to as a "unique charism" both implicit in their office and explicit in their ordination vows. As has been said repeatedly, the church is not inherently a democratic establishment. To the extent that it is, it inherited that character from the secular world, not from biblical mandate or church tradition. After all, the successor to Judas was selected by lot, not by vote. I don't think that it is an accident that there bishop, priest, and deacon are all nouns with no verb connotations (as opposed to Pastor, Minister, etc...). When clergy in the Episcopal Church are ordained, the bishop asks the Holy Spirit to "make" that person a bishop, priest, or deacon. Being a Episcopal deacon or priest (and, presumably, bishop) is not simply a job, it is a way of being. That sort of idea, that one's very "ontological status" is changed at ordination, is very catholic and not very protestant.

I hope that as the Lambeth Conference moves on, the bishops there can see their "unique charism" not so much as enforcers but as teachers, communicators of the experiences of God as told by a spectrum of the wider Anglican Communion. While this sort of result may not make the news, and will certainly frustrate conservatives, liberals, and those who would like to place people in such neat categories, it might well enable us to transcend issues and really talk about how we can proclaim the redemptive power of Jesus Christ in our own missional context.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Fr. Tom, Bishop Tom, and the Anglican Communion

Through various blogs, I was recently directed to an article by The Rt. Rev. N.T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop of Durham on GAFCON, his initial reactions to it, and the continuing discussions. One of the interesting things I find in his essay is the assertion that, to quote, "...there are huge problems in America, and they are of course reflected here and there in the C of E, but we are NOT AT ALL in the same situation." In the article, he describes the persecution of clergy by so-called "liberal" bishops for teaching traditional Christian doctrine, noting that "I continue to stand where I have always stood, that is, shoulder to shoulder with those in the USA who have suffered much for the sake of their allegiance to this same gospel and standard of behaviour [sic]." What he is saying, in effect, is that while there are isolated incidents of liberalism making inroads into the Church of England, apparently we are much farther gone in the United States.

As a professed centrist with evangelical leanings as well as a priest who passionately loves both God in Jesus Christ as well as the Episcopal Church which nurtured my faith in Christ and as someone in agreement with the so-called 'core doctrines' of the faith as expressed in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, the implication that clergy with precisely the same centrist outlook as mine are being actively persecuted by their bishops and colleagues for teaching core orthodox Christian doctrines is profoundly troubling to me and verges on the frightening. If he is not overstating the case, and there are truly clergy being persecuted for their teaching (not simply disciplined for schismatic activity) then I would like to know about that and it needs to be addressed immediately.

Bishop Wright goes on to state the following:
"As I look around not only my own diocese but also the larger Church of England, I see many clergy and laity who are not from an ‘evangelical‘ stable but who are cheerfully preaching the gospel, working for God’s kingdom, saying their prayers and living lives of faithful holiness."
As I read that quote, I thought to myself: "I can affirm that here, too!" I interact with clergy in my own diocese and in the Episcopal Church though Gathering the Next Generation (GTNG) and the Church Development Institute (CDI)) and see people "cheerfully preaching the gospel, working for God's kingdom, saying their prayers and living lives of faithful holiness." I think it is a huge mistake to think otherwise based upon news reports, blog entries, or strident statements from official or quasi-official sources.

Not to be too (literally!) parochial, but most of us clergy, I suspect, have enough difficulties dealing with the challenges of leading a congregation in this twenty-first century post-Christian context. We spend our days dealing with anemic parish budgets, both delightful and difficult people, wide-ranging demands on our time and attention, and the myriad of other pastoral care issues and administrivia that fill our days. We do all of this while attempting to see to our spiritual health, keep our families healthy, happy, and not hating or resenting the church for taking up so much of our time, and just generally getting on with the business of living lives as faithful to our Baptismal Covenant and our marriage and ordination vows as possible. Most of us have neither the time nor the energy to pay much attention to the controversies raging across the Anglican Communion. Not only that, but it is often detrimental to our spiritual health to do so!

Finally, I think a myth really needs debunking here. The myth that one cannot be a faithful Christian or priest in a diocese in which the bishop and/or a majority of the clergy hold so-called "heterodox" or "liberal" views is, quite simply, wrong. Having been raised in the Diocese of California, served my early years of ordained ministry in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and now serving in the Diocese of Oregon, I can confidently say that as a priest I have never, ever, had a conversation with my bishop or other diocesan authority about my theological views, what I preach and teach, or anything remotely resembling what Bishop Wright appears to be saying is happening. While I would characterize my current diocese as decidedly middle-of-the-road, both California and Pennsylvania are hardly bastions of conservatism!

I'm not sure what to expect from the upcoming Lambeth Conference. I am just optimistic enough that I hope that a statement affirming the primacy of relationships over issues or doctrines might emerge. We are unlikely to have a resolution to the questions surrounding homosexuality anytime soon, perhaps not even in my lifetime. Yet if we are to share the love of Jesus Christ we need to discern a way forward though the current strife that honors God and each other.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day, Interdependence, and Lordship

In the wake of the recent conclusion of GAFCON, the responses arising from it, and the anticipation (or lack thereof) of the upcoming Lambeth Conference, it is a tad ironic that today the United States celebrates Independence Day. Given that what we celebrate is our country's independence from Great Britain, the Episcopal Church (as a daughter church of the Church of England) was at the center of the birth of our nation. Fast forward 232 years and the world is a very different place. It is a post-colonial, post-Christian, and post-modern world in which nearly everything we thought was stable and solid has either cracked and fallen away or is being radically reshaped. The era where "the sun never sets on the British Empire" is long gone and one of the core foundations of the Anglican Communion--our common ancestry in the Church of England--no longer seems sufficient to unite an increasingly culturally, economically, and theologically diverse union of national churches. In many ways, we are the most "independent" we have ever been--set free from state, church, and the bonds of tradition and history.

As politicians, pundits, and poets wax eloquent about the glories of freedom and independence, our economy is in shambles, fuel prices are at record levels, and across the world many of those former British colonies are in the mids of strife and starvation. Doesn't look like freedom and independence is all it is cracked up to be, does it? And yet there are the beginnings a realization that as much as Americans revere the self-made man or the rugged individualist, events across the globe can rapidly impact our lives in both subtle and profound ways. The emergence of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is an example of our increasing awareness of the global issues that transcend both nationality and church membership. Morally and economically, we can no longer afford to either ignore or assume we can control the world. The current travails in the Anglican Communion, it seems to me, are as much about this renegotiation of power and influence as they are about anything else.

Ever since my Sabbatical a year ago, and my accompanying journey through the program of the Church Development Institute (CDI), I have been re-introduced to the liturgical and theological riches that support and strengthen both Anglican theology and Anglican ecclesiology. One of those areas of strength is the Benedictine rule of life which values stability, obedience, and conversion of life. My good friend and colleague Fr. Nathan Humphrey has written an excellent essay on Independence and Interdependence in which he links Independence Day (July 4) and the Feast of St. Benedict (July 11). It is well worth a read.

Just to add to my mental ruminations, the Gospel lesson appointed for this coming Sunday, July 6 include Jesus' famous words:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:29-30)
Perhaps the best way to honor those who have come before us, who have blazed the way to independence from temporal authority, who have often paid for our freedoms in the price of their blood, is to freely surrender that independence not to a temporal power nor a set of rigid precepts, but to God in Jesus Christ with whom we have an ongoing and dynamic relationship. There is great reticence to using the word "Lord" in many versions of our liturgy, but what is Christianity but a voluntary submission to the Lordship of Christ and the communion brought about by Christ's work as our Savior?

Rather than chafing against all restrictions, what would it look like if we truly yoked ourselves to Jesus, went where Jesus leads us, depended on Jesus to help us, and realized that the yoke we bear is easy precisely because God is yoked right there alongside us, both leading us and helping us? That is a question with far more implications and ramifications than can be dealt with in a single blog entry, but is worth thinking on as we watch our contemporary "rockets' red glare."