Monday, March 31, 2008

Easter Friday

This morning I will be at the ordination to the Diaconate of Bob Book who is leading the ecclesia ministry for the homeless down town and is a Lutheran pastor coming into the Episcopal Church and connected with All Saints’. Tomorrow morning there is a meeting at the Cathedral for two aspirants for orders who have been accepted from All Saints’ into the Vocational discernment Program (VDP) of the diocese. Early next month I begin regular meetings or a taskforce on leadership at the request of the Bishop to consider how to raise up and train leaders in the church. All of these things are to one degree or another to do with the organization and structure by which we operate to proclaim the gospel. I’m not always clear that our ‘structures’ are the most effective for doing the work we have to do. In one example: our canons are written for small churches who can do things like know exactly how many people are in attendance or who exactly is a ‘member’ and so on. Certainly, we operate within the canons but have to do so creatively –with vestry elections for example—in order to achieve the result of everyone being able to vote but not necessarily able to attend an annual meting.

Two questions that have to do with institution and structures that have come up and I am wondering about the merits (or otherwise) of asking our vestry to spend some time on them. One is a request from Calvary Church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh who have, for a number of years, been keeping a close watch on their Bishop’s attempts to construct a legal mechanism for departing from the Episcopal Church in contravention of the letter and spirit of the canons that govern our common life expressed as “the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the Episcopal Church. About 400 parishes who are members of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) have been invited to contribute $1,000 as a sign and pledge of support for their continuing efforts both to stay clear about what is going on among those who are seeking to break from the Episcopal Church, (without actually breaking of course. They want to a) become the ‘Anglican’ franchise in the U.S. and b) keep control and ownership of property held in trust for the ministry of the Episcopal Church in the process) and to hold the Bishop accountable. The question I am chewing on is not the $1,000 which we can raise or find easily, but whether to have an official conversation and vestry action that allocates church funds toward a law suit (from which we arguably benefit, but indirectly.) Is this important enough for the proclamation of the gospel for us to spend time on or should I just ‘take care of it’ on our behalf?

A similar question comes up with the efforts of a C of E movement called “Inclusive Church” to garner parishes (not individuals) to sign a statement stating our belief in the importance of being part of a church that includes a broad spectrum of belief and practice. The statement itself is fairly innocuous. The logic appears to be that Rowan Williams was apparently persuaded that a huge number of Episcopalians were unhappy with their bishops and the direction of the church and that even if only 200 parishes or so go the trouble and effort of signing on, a powerful statement will be made that we believe the Anglican Communion is an important witness in and of itself to the gospel. Again, as we look toward the future and a process of strategic thinking, are these broader issues things on which we want to take valuable vestry meeting time? Or should we let them go?

I share this more to give an idea of my thinking about how, whether and when such matters become part of our official agenda. At the moment my inclination is that these are both worthwhile efforts, but not necessarily compelling enough for us to take time on. I am interested in existing and developing networks of churches. I used to assume that the Anglican Communion was our ‘network’. It now appears to me that this is not a good assumption in light of our being disinvited from relationship by the Diocese of Western Tanganyika who do not want to be part of a church that affirms gay and lesbian people. I’m also interested in how we create and maintain ties in this country and around the world that wills serve as investment in the future when bigotry does not govern the agenda of church, and fighting over matters of institutional control does not pervert the proclamation of the gospel. Is it possible that spending time on the Calvary and Inclusive Church requests would constitute such an investment in the future and so serve as a sign of real hope?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter Tuesday #3

The contextual education class that I am helping lead on Thursday afternoons at the Candler School of Theology is based on the idea that much contextual education is about learning techniques to be better at leading churches that retain the vestiges of Christendom. The section I am leading with David Pacini begins with the assumption that churches, even in The South, will live increasingly in the tension of Christendom and post-Christendom assumptions. To get at this we read theology, Bowen systems theory and some of the leadership work of Ron Heifetz. There has been some element of ‘designing the airplane in flight’ about the course, but recent conversations suggest that the craft is in the air and flying. As students bring case studies and reflect on them in light of the diverse and substantial readings we are doing, they are getting quite good at identifying the places of cultural tension in the issues they raise and thinking more fundamentally about ecclesiology and mission instead of starting with technique in their analysis.

One book I have read in the past couple of weeks has been John Spong’s book: Jesus for the Non Religious. (Harper, 2007) It is particularly interesting to me in that he deals with questions (that at the risk of grossly oversimplifying things) that could be called ‘modernist’. He takes miracles and birth and resurrection stories and asks if they could possibly be true in the sense of stories that provide accurate historical data. He concludes that the stories are not true in that sense but develop out of the liturgical symbols and rhythms of Israel at the time of Jesus. He shows no patience with those who believe otherwise out of a concern for those who find ridiculous pre-scientific, pre-modern truth claims to be somewhere between irrelevant and actively malignant. He points toward a renewal of the symbols of faith calling Jesus “the breaker of tribal boundaries” and the cross, “a human portrait of the love of God.”

Post modernism and post Christendom are not unrelated concepts. I find myself wondering what happens to worship going forward. I remember asking Bishop Spong about that when he was at All Saints’ during our centennial celebrations. His response was that was something that people younger than him will need to sort out. How will we appropriate the symbols of the faith and make sense of them in a new age. I’m not an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ person, but I do think that meanings can, will and should change over time.

Easter Tuesday #2

A second entry for today as Holy Week did not leave a lot of time for writing blog entries. I did not want Senator Obama’s speech on race to go without comment. It seems to me tht he did a pretty good job of keeping faith with his church and naming some of the problems of black anger, while at the same time letting his white community of support know that he ‘gets’ their issues as well. He seems to understand that sometimes movements outstrip their leadership who are left with nothing terribly new to say. Good for him. But then there is the call for a ‘national conversation about race’. Who could be against that? I imagine there will be lots of conferences and references to this speech for a while. What interests me however is effective change and that means first not assuming that the symptoms and effects of modern racism (or any other prejudicial ‘ism’ for that matter) is that same for the person or group with power and the person or group without power. The symptoms and their meanings cannot and should not be easily equated or considered ‘opposite and equal’. There is a good paper on this (originally given, I believe, for the Episcopal House of Bishops) by Valerie Batts of VISIONS-Inc. You can read it here. Change won’t come from insight alone, but from pain or something like it that creates urgency in the hearts and minds of those of us who appear to benefit from all domination systems: black middle class with Philippine servants, whites with Mexicans without benefits caring for our lawns, engagement rings made of blood diamonds and so on. I’d be happy to offer some scholarship to anyone in our parish who would like to take a four day VISIONS workshop. See for more information.

Easter Tuesday

David Aaronovich of The Times has taken on the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, for his views on the embryology research bill currently making its way through Parliament. You can read it at The Times Online.
With the sermon here.

This makes a nice change from ecclesial politics, but seems strangely old fashioned to anyone who has lived in the States for the past decade or more.

I have read three books recently that have made me more aware than ever of the politics of medicine, --also something that will not surprise anyone who has followed the debates about health care and health insurance in this country. Ken Follet’s World Without End makes much of the tension between the university educated monks of the 14th century and the careful medical observations of a nun who really knew better what spreads disease and what cures it. We wind up quite irritated with the ‘experts’ who cannot make their case other than by pointing to their credentials, making spurious arguments about the way things have always been understood, and putting down the opposition with slurs and innuendos (pre-eminently in this case, the accusation of witchcraft.)

Piero Gambaccini, a radiologist from Florence has written a fun book called Moutebanks and Medicasters: A History of Italian Charlatans from the Middle Ages to the Present.(McFarland, 2004). This was translated by his wife, Bettie Gage Lippit, who grew up in Atlanta and who gave me the book after the funeral of her mother, Bettie Holland. I have only now picked it up. One thing that Gambaccini makes clear is the very thin line between art and science when it comes to medicine in the past and medicine today. And the same point again in The Lost World of James Smithson by Heather Ewing (Bloomsbury, 2007) as politics began to look for some kind of evidence of science behind scientific or medical claims. I had previously no idea that Smithson, while buried in Washington near the Smithsonian Museum that bears his name, was caught up in the secular advantages of revolution and left his estate to the U. S. out of admiration. Today we have to worry about the purity of the ‘scientific’ process by which medicines and other medical inventions are approved for use. With so much money at stake we still have to make sure that data is not falsified and inconvenient truths are not ignored. Some years ago, Alicia Mundy, a former parishioner in Alexandria wrote a chilling expose of the whole drama around the heart drug Fen-Phen called Dispensing with the Truth which is only one such story, picked up in fiction by John le Carre in The Constant Gardener, also made into a film.

The embryo research debate (not unrelated to the stem cell conversation) has all the possibilities involved: pure research, potential medical advances, large amounts of money at stake and the ethical issues about the status of an embryo in the eyes of God. My own view is that while there is some danger of degrading the way in which we value human life, there can be (and should be) safeguards in the research process, particularly around how the embryos are procured. As for lessening the value of human life: In what do you have to believe to make the deaths in Iraq of 4,000 American troops in addition to countless civilians and members of allied forces anything other than ‘wasted’?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

March 15, 2008

March 15, 2008

I have a friend who is conservative both theologically and politically. For him, abortion is the most compelling and urgent moral issue of our day and it is the single issue, above all others, that will determine how he will vote in an election. He believes that every potential human has the moral status of a human and therefore abortion is murder. He believes that Jesus died as a substitute for us and a punishment for sin. On Good Friday he tells the children of his congregation that as they think about Jesus on the cross they should think about how that should be them up there because everyone of them was ‘born in sin’ and God’s goodness or honor must be satisfied with the shedding of blood. On these and many other issues I have said to my friend that if I agreed with his premise, I would have to agree with his conclusion. I neither think that a zygote, while a potential human in most instances, has a moral status that trumps all others, nor do I believe that God needs bloodshed to satisfy honor or expiate sin.

If I were a U.S. citizen and therefore a voter, I would be a single issue voter myself in the next election. I believe that our war in Iraq is wrong and immoral and that congress and country were ‘sold’ on it based on lies. I do not mourn the death of Saddam Hussein (although found his trial and sentencing to be ugly), but I do mourn the loss of American status and respect in the world that is a result of many policy decisions of the past eight years, none more so than the decision to invade Iraq. I cannot think that any of the ‘pocketbook issues’ that seem to be coming to the fore in candidate debates and opinion polls are unrelated to the growing debt attributable to this ‘misadventure’. Our troops are not dying for their country and appear to be dying for people who have no will to overcome their internecine conflicts and govern themselves. They must be brought out of Iraq and some kind of protection must be offered to those Iraqis who have risked life and limb to support us. (I’m not sure that anything less than an offer of U.S. citizenship will do.)

That said, I am persuaded that Barak Obama should be the Democratic nominee. While I would prefer Hillary Clinton, it seems that her only chance is to persuade enough super-delegates to go against the popular democratic vote which I fear would be a pyrrhic victory at best. I find it difficult to imagine that either democratic candidate would see Hillary Clinton as Vice President, but shouldn’t they begin having private conversations about a role for her? How about her at the State Department (with Bill as a kind of ‘roving ambassador’ or perhaps ambassador to the UN)? I’m sure there are a million reasons why this, or something like it, isn’t a good idea in the world of realpolitik, but surely something that allows both to campaign with integrity in the fall should be worked out and worked out soon. Individually they both have liabilities against McCain. (He, of course, has his own challenges as well.) Together there is a chance that getting our troops out of Iraq and getting our economy and status in the world back on track will appeal to a majority of voters in November. I don’t know how the campaigns can have a conversation about this (and especially a conversation without the ‘help’ of the media) but hope that they will try.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008

I am adjusting to early morning walks with our newly adopted one-year-old golden retriever called ‘Bo’ (short for Bollinger). Those walks often take place at 5:30 or 6:00, --a time to which I had become accustomed to using for prayer, reading and writing in this blog. I will get things sorted out, but apologize for making rather intermittent contributions in recent weeks.

Life keeps on going apace whether I write about it or not. Last weekend saw the conclusion of another series of adult enquirers’ classes and retreat. We continue to see people being drawn to our midst whose experience of ‘church’ in any denomination ranges from ‘deeply engaged’ to ‘complete neophyte’, the latter often being children of parents who rejected formal faith during their own adult lives. W may need to take another look at how we incorporate and form Christians of such widely differing experience. I don’t think this will be a matter of ‘tweaking’ (although what we do now is pretty good and is tweaked with every class), but something more fundamental, perhaps offering a more individual approach prior to the formal classes.

Some enquirers find themselves in a similar place to members of our vestry who spent some time at a recent meeting talking about what exactly we make of Jesus. Many interesting and helpful things were said including one idea that we all needed to develop something of an ‘elevator speech’ about why we are Christians in general and why we are Christians at All Saints’ in particular. This was tempered by the thought that it is not easy to answer ‘why’ in a short or simple way and that it should not be. Part of the answer to ‘why’ is that we tend not to oversimplify the faith and so honor the majesty of God. What was difficult for enquirers and vestry alike was identifying and sharing real experiences of God’s grace.

Last night I was able to ask the participants in various GIFT groups to see how they did with that tasks as we wrapped up what has become a Lenten series on death (changing attitudes to death, the place of death in creation, the temptations of Jesus as temptation sot deny death, death as metaphor, death in the natural world and the like.) If there could be said to be a conclusion to that series it was this: that much of what passes for faith is really a denial of the reality of death and that until we really acknowledge our finitude in light of real death, we will not be able to find real faith in both the continuity and the radical novelty in the sheer grace of resurrection. This is not unlike being able to acknowledge really, specifically and in fact our own sin, brokenness, need of healing and so on in order to know really the sheer gratuity of God’s love and have Good news to share. What do you think of that?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

March 6, 2008

Our tiresome inter-Nicene struggles continue, that is to say struggles among people all of whom profess the Nicene Creed every Sunday. You will recall in the story so far regarding the diocese of San Joachin that the Bishop believes he is s bishop of the Church of the Southern Cone (contra their own canons), and that he has “led the diocese out of the Episcopal Church” and that his actions are “separation not schism.” Our leadership maintains that clergy can leave the church and individuals can leave the church (even in great numbers) but that there is no such thing as parishes of dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church.

Bishop John David Schofield is trying to forestall a vote of the House of Bishop that would depose him consequent on his ‘abandonment of the communion of the Episcopal Church” by resigning. You can read his letter here (with its complete and childish misspelling and misuse of the presiding bishop’s name):

It seems to me clear that he is no longer a bishop of the Episcopal Church and the rest is just games that have to do –ultimately –with money and property. It seems we have two diocese of San Joachin, --one is the Episcopal Diocese of San Joachin and another is The Southern Cone Diocese of San Joachin. The Southern Cone Diocese believes it owns the property that was bought, given and developed for the ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joachin, hence the importance for them of the obfuscation that they have ‘separated’ rather than ‘split’ or that they are ‘separatist’ rather than ‘schismatic’. I believe that our bishops have a fiduciary responsibility to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church that includes not giving away property against the intent of the donors (a rather more tricky and serious issue in legal circles than the question of ownership when many of the donors would not like the ‘trajectory’ –to use the current buzzword—of the Episcopal Church). This is leading us to civil courts which everyone from St. Paul to the current occupant of the throne of St. Augustine deplores. At one level I don’t really care how it is settled, but think we will continue to have our resources of every kind drained until there is a measure of clarity about the property.

The term ‘forestalling’ appears to come from the practice of doing business in mediaeval times before arriving at the market stall whose rent would go to the Lord of the Manor, the Cathedral or whoever was responsible for the market. To forestall therefore has some implication of depriving someone of something that they believe to be their right. I learned this from Ken Follet’s World Without End, a fun (and lengthy) sequel to his Pillars of the Earth about the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral. A the same time I have enjoyed Ian McEwan’s novella called On Chesil Beach, a rather sad story in which I have been unable to discover any greater significance or larger point than that it is an extremely well written sad and longish short story. Last, I have been re-reading James Alison who was our Holy Week preacher three years ago. His The Joy of Being Wrong is a reexamination of the doctrine of original sin. This is my third time through it and I suspect I am beginning to ‘get it’ only now. He takes the insights of Rene Girard and applies them to the Christian Story in wonderful and creative ways. More accessible are some of his essays in Faith Beyond Resentment including a re-telling of the story of the man born blind from John 9, and the subject of last Sunday’s sermon.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

March 4, 2008

March 4, 2008

I am grateful that there are some regular visitors to this blog who have noticed that I’ve not written for just over a week. Life rather took over, so here are some brief thoughts:

  • A number of you make comments to me about things I have written but do not comment on line. Part of my hope for this blog was that it would be a reason for regular visits to our parish website. Another was that it would generate discussion, not so much with me (you notice I don’t’ respond to the few brave comments that are made as I keep hoping that someone else will) as among members of our parish who usually do not exhibit such reticence with thoughtful opinion. Can anyone enlighten me?

  • I’ve been thinking about suicide. In conversations with seminarians at Candler ( we have identified a few things that we think must be said at a funeral sermon. These usually include telling survivors that the death of the person they love is not their fault and that the person who chose to take his or her own life made a decision and choice, however misguided. It is important to find a way to address the truth that the person who died was made by Love for love and that God still loves that person. (Somewhere we all have this vague notion that suicide is an unforgivable sin, vague memories that people who made this choice could not be buried in the church yard and so on.) Third, it is usually important to acknowledge the real anger that is part of grieving the death of someone who takes his or her own life.

  • There have been some developments in property disputes between dioceses and schismatic churches in Canada. A judge in Ontario has ruled that a diocese cannot send people into a dissident parish to provide services and care to those who wish to remain Anglican. This is not as strange as it sounds (although unhelpful) because it is like a ‘stay’, a temporary ruling for two or three weeks until the court hears substantial argument on the issue.