Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Dry Salvages

Of all the times I have read these poems, I do not recall ever being as affected by this one before. Maybe it is because of the connection between America and England through the imagery of the places joined by ocean. Maybe it is the images of decay as Eliot writes near the beginning of WWII and we are in the midst of a war that seems will last longer than that one. Or maybe the sadness of the poem touches my sadness at some very challenging and difficult things going on in the lives of so many parishioners as we approach Christmas. Or maybe it is the themes of annunciation and incarnation that are connecting with me at this time of the year.

I’ve wondered about the name of these poems before. There are clearly four of them, but why ‘quartets’? I think it has to do with four levels of meaning in theology, philosophy, mysticism and symbolism. Or perhaps it is the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Does anyone know? The comment section is open.

As to the reality of death and decay, I have been wondering whether death is a consequence of sin and the fall. (“The wages of sin is death.”/ “We sinned and became subject to evil and death” etc) or whether it is part of creation that God saw to be good. My provisional instinct is that the change inherent in history that inevitably includes death is part of creation and not to be feared as somehow evil. But that the meaning of death as separation from the source and ground of our being is clearly a consequence of sin, compromise, being less than we were created to be and so on. So Jesus could decide in the Garden of Gethsemane that the worst thing in life is not death, but separation from God.

Monday, December 17, 2007

December 15, 2007

So the long awaited Advent Letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury has been released and already the online conversation is well under way. I have read it through three times and still find it difficult to know what exactly he is saying. He seems to think that the Communion can hold together as Bishops gather and talk, provided they are willing to do so within the framework of the Windsor Report and working towards a covenant. He sees the Lambeth resolution in which homosexuality is addressed by a majority of bishops as not being permissible based on scripture as follows:

While argument continues about exactly how much force is possessed by a Resolution of the Lambeth Conference such as the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution on sexuality, it is true, as I have repeatedly said, that the 1998 Resolution is the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion. This is the point where our common reading of Scripture stands, along with the common reading of the majority within the Christian churches worldwide and through the centuries.

He is concerned to find ways for the communion to live together and those who wish to distance themselves from actions (of the American and Canadian provinces) with which they disagree be able to do so.

He has himself clearly taken the view that he cannot discuss whether or not he believes that scripture is open to an interpretation that allows for a change in anthropology with regard to gay and lesbian people. He appears to have thought so in the past regarding ordination at least, and was initially willing to countenance the appointment of a gay man as a Bishop on the Church of England (Jeffrey John). He seems to think that his beliefs in the matter must be somehow subjected to a majority resolution of Lambeth and wishes that others, notably the American Church, would exercise a similar restraint for the good of the whole.

The problem I have with this is that it becomes unity at the expense of a single group of Christians in the name of consensus about biblical interpretation. He writes:

The Instruments of Communion have consistently and very strongly repeated that it is part of our Christian and Anglican discipleship to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence, to defend the human rights and civil liberties of homosexual people and to offer them the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ's name. But the deeper question is about what we believe we are free to do, if we seek to be recognisably faithful to Scripture and the moral tradition of the wider Church, with respect to blessing and sanctioning in the name of the Church certain personal decisions about what constitutes an acceptable Christian lifestyle. Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about this, it is not in favour of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible.

I believe that those who claim to know ‘the plain meaning of scripture’ have forsaken any intellectual credibility. That is quite different from those who recognize the legitimacy and necessity of interpreting scripture in light of cultural, scientific and social realities that have led in the past to changes in our cosmology (the earth is not flat, nor the center of the universe) and anthropology (slavery is wrong; women are full human beings; roles may change etc.), but who in conscience disagree.

The Archbishop seems to find the possibility of unity only by saying that we cannot change without consensus for change. I think there must be some possibility other than the ‘all or nothing’ approach he appears to accept (although I am quite prepared to be shown that I have misunderstood his inscrutable style.)

I, for example, have taken the view in my current diocese (Atlanta), where we have no explicit consensus or Episcopal policy about commitment ceremonies, blessings and so on, that until it is legal, accepted and above board I will not offer such ceremonies in the church itself. This is a compromise that is distasteful to me, but allows people to get on with their Christian lives while the wider church sorts out how to live together. I also believe that we are nowhere near consensus about something as sacramental as pronouncing blessing on same sex unions (although I am quite clear that we should be seeking that consensus). We can however beg God’s blessing on anything we choose, recognizing that we may or may not receive it. So in those ceremonies at which I have presided we usually write a prayer for the whole congregation using the language of the couple that they come up with in response to the question as to what ‘blessing’ would mean or look like in their lives. This too is a compromise for the sake of the wider church.

Nothing will satisfy those who believe that any public recognition of homosexual relationships is beyond the pale. But for those who are receiving this kind of celebration of commitment (as we call it) as “the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ’s name” it looks and feels like a wedding whatever it is called and whether or not I pronounce blessing.

This past week I was part of a focus group of clergy from ‘mainline denominations’ discussing whether and how we address issues of sexuality and justice in our congregations. We were all asked to summarize our thoughts at the end of the session. Mine were a) how far we have come in a mere thirty or forty years; b) how disheartening it is for gay and lesbian people to find acceptance in a parish that is part of a denomination who keeps expressing ambivalence about them; and c) how this issue has in many respects defined my entire ordained ministry, how it is not what I would have chosen, how we don’t really ever discuss it any more at All Saints’ as the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our leadership, life and ministry is a ‘given’ (as is our desire that it be expressed fully in the wider church), and how tired I am of the conversation about it, important though it is.

East Coker

December 15th, 2007

The first of the Quartets written and published in wartime contains what seems to be the heart of the matter in the fourth section: “The dripping blood our only drink/ the bloody flesh our only food:/ In spite of which we like to think/ That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood--/ Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” But it is his return to the challenge of finding words to express the inexpressible and the wonderful phrase “ a raid on the inarticulate” that grabs me most this year.

We have enjoyed a visit from the English priest and columnist for The Guardian and The Church Times in the past week. One point that he made is that columnist cannot do ‘Anglican fudge’ but must take clear positions or no one will want to read what he says and the debate will not be moved forward. The cost of that is some pretty ugly stuff in the blogosphere.

Alan Bennett also reflects on what it takes to be a writer in his most enjoyable novella, The Uncommon Reader (Farrar Straus Giroux 2007) “You don’t put your life into books. You find it there.” (p.101) Writing becomes bearing witness and a witness will quickly become the focus of attention, that off which others bounce as they discover what it is that they think and believe. Not an easy place to be.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Burnt Norton

Once again I have decided to read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (This edition by Harcourt Inc, copyright 1943 by T. S. Eliot, renewed in 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot)
for reflection in Advent. I’m also taking as a companion a book I have not looked at since buying it soon after finishing seminary. It is Meditating on Four Quartets by John Booty (Published by Cowley, Copyright 1983 by John E. Booty). These are great, great poems for a season in which we are looking both backwards and forwards in time. Burnt Norton, named for a house and garden in the Cotswolds, begins “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past.” Reading this poem again, I am reminded of some of the pictures of fractals and the like in Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, where we see order coming out of chaos and a kind of united picture that makes sense of disorder. Booty says that “Four Quartets is concerned with the apprehension of the whole, beyond the apparent chaos of opposites and paradoxes.” (p.6) Clearly we are approaching an expression of God, sometimes described as ‘the Eternal Now’ but perhaps more in order to find our way with the flow of things rather than to impose our will upon that flow. I don’t know if Eliot was a pacifist, but it would make sense as these poems are written immediately before (Burnt Norton) and during (the others) the Second World War.

I find myself thinking of memory and how something from the past shapes the future, but also how there is a sense that time stand still as Eliot wanders through the garden and sees the empty pool, filled with his thoughts and memories. In the second section he leads us through paradox including saying “Only through time time is conquered.” And then the descent into the underground tunnels of London follows; a descent into darkness where even the question of meaning seems to be lost. So to the night of section IV: “the still point of the turning world. Before, finally, a kind of dawn as The Word seeks words and words seek The Word; words that “strain crack and sometimes break under the burden” of expressing the inexpressible, and so back to the Burnt Norton garden and affirmation of memory.

A professor who was very important to me was John W. Dixon who wrote The Physiology of Faith (Harper, 1979) in which he attempted to articulate a ‘theological theory of relativity’. In a way that is what Eliot is offering in the Quartets: a way to articulate how all things come together in love. I would want to say further that the possibilities of extraordinary diversity in creation, including in the world of ideas, are proper for God who brings universes into being, and that therefore anyone who would impose or coerce a single vision is belying the God who is Love.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Alan Bennett’s reflections in Untold Stories continue to come to me in strange (coincidental?) ways. First; a few days after remembering Nigel Slater’s Toast in this blog, Bennett refers to it in ways that it would be impolitic to include (but is on p.334 if you are interested). He talks about houses in which he has lived in a section called "A Room of My Own", leading me to remember the various rooms I had a boarding school and in my parents’; homes; dormitory room at Carolina (ghastly), apartment on Purefoy Road (also ghastly but happy), a flat in Cambridge (happy), a privileged room in college (fine), a hotel room in North Miami beach when I worked looking after British tourists (fun), another dorm room in Seabury Hall at Yale Divinity School (now a ‘pod’ in an ‘adaptive reuse’), an apartment off the Wake Forest Road in Raleigh, another near Rex Hospital, a rectory in Alexandria, Virginia, a house on Springdale Road in Druid Hills, Atlanta, an apartment complex filled with hard bodies, SUVs and rather pathetic divorced men like me, a wonderful bungalow on Coventry Road and now a mansion and a new house for the first time near Emory (happy). I could do the same with cars but will spare you.

Today my rather good internist gave me the obligatory lecture about how I was about to turn 50 and should have the essential colonoscopy. (My body bypasses my brain with certain things, not unlike keeping my tongue down at the dentist.) Not a happy prospect for me. Then I read about Bennett going through it and being diagnosed with cancer. He is along term survivor at this point and I am glad. I’m inspired to make the appointment and pray that the effects of the drugs for cowards are as good as advertised

Monday, December 3, 2007


George Thompson Jr. is Associate Professor of Leadership and Ministry Practice at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. The Alban Institute has recently published his Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality and the Future (2007). He offers a helpful tool for analyzing congregations in relation to their surrounding context by looking at two scales that he calls inner directed---empathetic; and conventionality---marginality. He believes that most American churches are inner directed and conventional. He says “such congregations do not make waves. What is known of them publicly is considered respectable enough, even if their theology and religious practice happen to possess some purported challenge to the status quo. Their actual participation in matters of the public arena is as second- or third-tier performers, politely and sometimes tepidly following someone else’s’ lead” (p.60).

All Saints’ would fall more of the time into his category of ‘empathetic conventionality’, “a congregation at home in its environment, yet deliberately reaches beyond itself in the name of Christ” (p.75f.) Thompson wants to see more churches exhibiting the characteristics of empathetic marginality, and points to the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. as exhibit A. One such characteristic is that congregations of this type are ‘effective at articulating their edge’ (p.88) They follow their call in ways that mean that they do not fit comfortably into the world around them. They do not seek to be unconventional as a goal, but find themselves following their calling in clear ways that have the consequence of their not being quite comfortable in every respect for the ‘conventional’.

We could look at our congregational history in terms of those times when we have moved toward or beyond the margins of conventionality. We began as a Sunday School on the Northern edge of the city. Some think that we represented a mission to workers in a nearby pencil factory who were otherwise ignored. Later, when many churches were moving to new properties further out of town, we made a conscious choice to stay put and live and minister in a changing community. We could point to the days of civil rights and the ordination of women and how in both instances All Saints’ took a clear and early lead. Or we could look at the decision to let go of the night shelter and move into a new, more challenging, more costly and more radical ministry of Covenant Community. At such times we have moved more clearly to the margins, not simply offering assistance to ‘them’—whoever they may be—but becoming ‘them’ in some way, inviting them into ‘our’ midst and so being changed. Those are the times when we have moved toward empathetic marginality and every such move has led to some of our brethren and sistren choosing to go elsewhere, usually toward some more conventional and therefore comfortable place to be. Once in a while at such times we have people who decide that being ‘inner directed’ is really the most proper response to the gospel and we hear about how we should stay out of politics and spend more time teaching people about prayer and other ways in which they can be in relation to God.

It is not easy moving toward the margins. In the contextual education section that I help lead at the Candler School of Theology we have to remind each other on a regular basis that we do not seek to be marginal; we seek to be faithful. We do not seek to grow, we seek to be faithful to the calling we have been given. We do not seek to ‘win converts’, but to present the Good news of Christa and invite others to join us. We don not seek to manipulate others; we seek to be transparent and open in our commitments and so on.

It is not always easy to do the right thing. Alan Bennett captured it well after declining an honor from Oxford University in protest of their accepting money from Rupert Murdoch for the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication. He wrote; “I wish I could say that this refusal leaves me with a warm feeling of having done the right thing, but not a bit of it. I end up, as so often when I have tried to get it right, feeling I’ve slightly made a fool of myself, so that I wonder whether after more momentous refusals martyrs ever went to their deaths not in the strong confidence of virtue but just feeling that they had somehow muffed it" (Untold Stories p.241). I think what he is writing about at one level is the power of convention, of fitting in, of staying within the norm to get along in life. Christians at their best are brave. Seeking to maintain convention for its own sake and ours is not brave.


I’ve been enjoying Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of essays and articles not unlike his earlier Writing Home. As he remembers his Yorkshire upbringing, he captures life in England that is quite different from the one I knew, but which is also quite recognizable and familiar in a way. I had a similar experience a few months ago with Nigel Slater’s Toast, another memoir, this time from a chef and focused on the food he remembers from growing up in England in the sixties. Some of them were universal: Sunday roast, ice cream, Christmas cake. Others less familiar to me: walnut whip, fairy drops, parley sauce, bluebird milk chocolate toffees.

I don’t think these memoirs have given rise to an overwhelming nostalgia in me although nostalgia for an England past, childhood, home and other evocative notions are certainly part of my reaction. Another part is more to do with identity, who I am and where I come from.

The other day a friend made a comment about how clearly neither he nor I were originally from the South. While that is indubitably true, I nonetheless find that I enjoy a certain familiarity with the Southern comedy of manners, a sense of what is ‘done’ and what is ‘not’. The actual objects of such judgments differ. (No one in the US seems terribly concerned about when and whether it is ever alright to wear brown shoes with a dark suit.) But the worrying itself is familiar. (I never hear anyone in England comment on white bucks after Labor Day.) What IS clearly different (and I not infrequently give offense as a result) are the conventions about how rules can be broken, commented upon or mocked. Satire and irony have their place in the South, but in ways subtly different from those with which I grew up. A certain edge, clever quality, perhaps vulgarity and so on can be admired in some circumstances and some company in England, but are rarely so in the South. They are simply boorish, disrespectful of the traditions and so on, all of which are to be taken very seriously as a matter of Southern Identity.

As the years pass since my arrival in North Carolina in 1976, I give unintentional offense less often than in the past, but am still reminded of my roots from time to time. I have not ‘gone native’, at least not completely. When I experience a little nostalgia in the company of Alan Bennett or Nigel Slater, I’m not unhappy to be reminded that while I may not be from here, much as I love the American South and all its ways, I am from somewhere.