Sunday, February 24, 2008

February 24, 2008

I work with a marvelous group called VISIONS ( who address issues of difference between people of race, class, gender and the like. They talk less of majorities and minorities and more of target groups and non-target groups. It had been suggested (and I cannot remember where) that one of the challenges of the Middle East is that every group thinks of itself as a minority or target group. The Palestinians are a minority in Israel. Israelis are a minority in an Arab world etc.

Robert Littell writes marvelous literary spy fiction (a la Le Carre) and has released Vicious Circle (Penguin, 2006) in which he works out the real similarities between Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists (not a good term, but it gets to the point) and the vicious circle of killing that is a part of the picture as a result. A similar point or conclusion is made in a recent movie set in Saudi Arabia called The Kingdom. These do not inspire hope, but may point to thought and understanding that could lead somewhere useful.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 18

We are getting ready to do something akin to ‘strategic planning’ at All Saints’. This might be better thought of as ‘making decisions while engaging strategic thinking’. In other words I’m not looking for a data collection type of process (except when such is called for in a specific instance as we go forward), but more a series of educated intuitions that give rise to some consensus about forecasts (rather than predictions) of what is going on in the world in which we proclaim good news; and based on which we can make some choices that include naming priorities for mission (What form will worship need to take going forward? How important is the establishment of local, national and global networks and are those implicit in being Episcopalian? What is going on in mid Town and how might that affect our vision for a master plan for our block? etc. etc.)

To that end I’m going to the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parish meeting in St. Louis later this week to listen to Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future which I hope will be useful to our process. I’m looking for a way of thinking about what ministry will mean in an increasingly post Christendom world, but one in which we have many parishioners who value the remnants of Christendom, particularly in the way we worship. Strategic planning will be more an educational process for the steering committee, for area conversation groups and for the whole parish as the vestry makes decisions for our future, rather than a product driven process that result in long list of things to do, beautifully presented, of course. To this end we will also follow some of the advice of the Holy Conversations work of the Alban Institute .

February 17

I have been wondering about what Anglican disarray means in the great scheme of things. I’ve recently read three reviews (but not yet the book itself) of Miranda K. Hassett’s Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism (Princeton, 2007) The thrust of what all reviews call ‘well researched’ is that the future of Anglicanism lies in Global networks of affinity rather than national or diocesan boundaries. It is pointed out (whether by reviewers or the author, I’m not certain) that there is some surprise that this line is being taken by African Anglicans and their allies rather than more ‘liberal’ Christians. I think this is both right and problematic. It is right in the sense that many Anglicans gave up global relationships to the evangelicals with the redefinition of mission that occurred (at least in America) in the 60s. The assumption was that Anglicanism itself, expressed by communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference etc. is and was an ‘informal network based on affinity’.

At All Saints’, In spite of having been ‘fired’ by the Diocese of Western Tanganyika (but only after the Bishop came to visit us –which makes me wonder what about our identity as a parish is not clear from our website which he had studied extensively before coming to see us—any clues or thoughts would be welcome) we continue to find ways to stay in touch with that part of the world, supporting an Anglican related, but independent AIDS ministry in Kusulu; funding the education of the Reverend Fred Kalibwame at Uganda Christian University (an institution in a diocese and province that will not accept our money directly and which teaches as though we are the devil’s representative on earth); and hoping to find ways to support the continuing education of the Reverend Emmanuel Bwatta (who spent six weeks with us a few years ago) in the event that he can attain a high enough standard of English to attend Sewanee (which is apparently acceptable to his Bishop.) It is my hope and expectation that our current disagreements will not define us for ever and that we will still need to be related to leaders in Africa who are willing to stay in relationship even through clear disagreements, so that the important mission of the church can continue with neither their nor our cultural imperialism ruling the day. I am also on the lookout for some kind of international network that we might be able to join (or perhaps found and fund) that would transcend the informal networks of the church in developed countries.

The problem I see with Hassett’s vision (again, based solely on reviews) is that these informal networks need to be connected somehow and it is not clear that the conservatives (conevos) are going to allow Canterbury to be the point of connection unless Canterbury comes down clearly in support of their ‘view’ to the exclusion of others.

The leadership of the ABC is something of a mystery to me. He taught me theology (along with many others –not a supervisory type or terribly personal relationship) at Cambridge and we have since reconnected slightly through the meetings of the Compass Rose Society (although I have experienced him as more personally guarded at recent meetings than was the case prior to 2003). He seems to be declining to solve the problems of the communion by taking a clear theological view on the underlying issues of homosexuality, the way scripture is used (or abused) in various ways in various cultures, the implicit desire for power and its relationship to heterosexism and patriarchy, and any number of other bones of current contention. In this, I think he is partly right. If we cannot get around a table and talk, or at least eat, then what does communion mean? If we have to have something more than goodwill and a common identity in Christ, --if we have to have doctrinal clarity and even uniformity as the price of admission,-- then should we not be Roman Catholics? And if not, why not? The ABC is not going to make life easier by seeking a pseudo-doctrinal solution to a matter of deep disagreement. Instead he seems to be insisting that he is taking all concerns seriously and asking that Bishops keep talking to one another. The conevos are sick of it however and think that they are being asked to keep talking until they agree with those with progressive voices in the church whom they believe should be told to repent or be excommunicated. If they want to take their toys elsewhere, he is not going to stop them. He is however willing to entertain a covenant and willing to withhold an invitation to his party from the properly and constitutionally elected bishop of the Episcopal Church. He is, at the same time signaling to others, that he is willing to withhold invitations from Bishops consecrated extra-canonically (or something) by African provinces and is not acceding to demands that only ‘pure’ Episcopalians be invited. It is not unlike the mudblood problem of Harry Potter in search of a Dumbledore.

What I cannot fathom is that he seems to think that his role as Archbishop of Canterbury (as distinct from his role as Archbishop of Wales) requires that he put on hold the publication of any reflections, teaching, theology or other point of view that might be persuasive or useful in the current debates. I can only assume that he believes this would be counter-productive and would make it impossible for him to broker any other kind of arrangement. I think this is misguided because he is already mistrusted by the conevos based on his prior ordination of homosexuals and his initial support for Jeffrey John becoming Bishop of Reading. If we have learned anything in America, it is that the conevos will take any concessions they can get, but are neither grateful, not committed to broad communion except on their (minority) terms, which they are now trying to parlay into a majority by ignoring all the customs of Anglicanism and ‘going global’. I wish they would get honest about who they are and set up whatever kind of alternative communion they want (‘The Reformed Anglican Communion’?) but then there is always the problem of property. I wish the ABC would use his auctoritas to address the fundamental issues, put them in some kind of perspective other than ultimate concern and worth breaking the communion apart over (surely that is sin) rather than to try and patch up the unpatchable.

February 16

I learned recently that the seminarian from Virginia Theological Seminary whom I inherited when I first became rector of St. Paul’s in Alexandria has been made a bishop of the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA). (St. Paul’s is also the parish in which john Spong did some of his seminary field work.) I find myself having quite strong reactions to this news. My reactions are not so much about him, but about the reality that the conservative evangelical club, of which he was a part, have pretty much all ditched the Episcopal Church. (Along with some questions about just how many bishops this breakaway movement needs.) I have valued being part of a broad church, even sometimes at the expense of moving fast on matters on which I have already become clear in my own mind or heart the ordination of women, for example, or the proper place of gay and lesbian people in the church). I am not worried that the Episcopal Church will become a liberal sect because I suspect that many people of a conservative instinct are not necessarily willing to be led by schismatic evangelicals, or their African friends and sponsors, when push comes to shove.

I do think it is possible that we will continue in some kind of ‘impaired relationship’ within the Anglican Communion, indeed that the whole of the communion will be ‘impaired’ in some way, but that at least we will be part of something more broad than an American or even North American fellowship. This remains important to me even though I have no vision for what has been called ‘institutional unity’ and that is not what I prayed for during the week of prayer for Christian Unity in January. Nevertheless, I do not trust the leadership of any version of church to take fully into account other expressions, emphases, theological commitments, enculturation of the gospel and so on, without some kind of discipline or necessity about that work.

There is much talk of the proposals for an Anglican Covenant (offered originally in the Windsor Report). I do not get the sense that this idea has real legs, but it is important to those evangelicals and other conservatives in the communion who want to hold things together around Canterbury rather than some other location or person, with them in it and the Episcopal Church out of it (or ‘second tier’ as was floated at one point.) I think that if it takes a covenant with disciplinary clauses in it to keep some semblance of Anglicanism together, then the Anglicanism that is kept is dishonest Roman Catholicism with differences of taste about worship, for example, or perhaps some theological quibbles about Marian devotion, or some such thing. These of course are matters that were manageable differences within Anglicanism before the ordination of women and the existence and place of gay and lesbian people became an issue for what seems to be a boys club.

The whole business is strained as much by the condemned ‘foreign incursions’ as by anything that TEC has done to ‘weaken the bonds of affection’ in the Communion. It appears that the constitution of the Province of the Southern Cone who are so busy taking ‘real’ Anglicans under its tiny protective wing requires that such action be approved by the Anglican Consultative Council, a body in which we are ‘voluntarily’ reduced to observer status for the time being. I wonder how Archbishop Venables found his way around that one, or did he?

It has been easy enough for the conservative evangelical and allegedly orthodox (sometimes known as ‘conevo’ PR machine to keep the focus on America while ignoring Canada and elsewhere. I think the looming issue is England. That is a place where the Archbishop of Canterbury may exercise both impreium and auctoritas and cannot avoid doing so by saying “I have no ability to adjudicate or influence the outcome of disputes so I am not going to.” England seems to me to be just as divided as anywhere else, but the constitutional issues make separation and schism extremely complex. It is one of those occasions where I am glad that the C of E is a state or ‘official’ national church. It means that the few remaining Christians in that country must keep talking to each other if they wish to be part of ‘The Church’. More on the leadership of the ABC later.

February 14

I continue to follow the furor over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s raising of the question of sharia law in England. I’m still not completely certain what he has raised, but think that he is suggesting that certain kinds of family matters might be dealt with in religious tribunals that have some kind of ‘official’ recognition akin to that of the beth din of Orthodox Judaism.

I was first introduced to sharia and its effects in the Sudan in 1998. This Islamic law had been imposed on a country by a fundamentalist Muslim government whose explicit agenda was the whole of the Sudan (and preferably the whole of Africa) would come under such conservative fundamentalist religious rule. It was a curious mixture of things. Sharia apparently allowed the persecution of Christians and others and their being herded into large refugee camps, but art the same time required that the Christians in these camps be allowed to build schools and educate their children. The same law had nothing to say when soldiers subsequently and regularly knocked down these schools and destroyed them. It is sometimes hard to sort out what is cultural and what is religious (such as when we were seeking a burial plot for a Bosnian refugee some years ago and the family did not want burial near Arab Muslims –this, apparently, was a cultural norm –prejudice?—not a religious requirement.) In the same way it is sometimes hard for an outsider to sort out what is fundamentalist extremism and what is religiously necessary (i.e. the calls for a British teacher in Sudan to be executed because her children elected the name Mohammed for the class teddy bear or the furor over the publication of cartoons in the Netherlands).

In light of what I wrote yesterday, it seems really important that we forge the kind of relationship that will allow us some window on these matters other than that of what someone has called a ‘feral’ press. My own instinct is that there is one law of the land for all people and that groups within a nation can decide to operate however they like as long as it is not in contradiction to the law. It makes sense to me that the Supreme Court rather than some religious authority would decide at what point withholding medical treatment for a child of Christian Science parents is illegal, for example.

I also know that I no more wish to live under sharia than I wish to live with the norms and mores of society in rural Tanzania, much as I love many of the people I have met there, as I think the way women are treated diminishes everyone involved. I also believe that is for those people to sort out. (Apparently they do not see much that is truly ‘liberated’ in Western culture that makes change look attractive. Visiting the West still seems to be high on the agendas of many however.) I feel the same way about a government dominated by fundamentalist Christians and think we have come dangerously and repressively close to that from time to time. (Remember James Watt? ) This is quite different than conservatism. I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Christopher Hitchens in his article (though not the headline) published in the online magazine, Slate .

Feb 13: the Feast of Absalom Jones

On Monday I had the privilege of meeting with a senior member of the board of the 14th Street Mosque (al-Farook) that is under construction, and the school associated with it. My host was Dr. Hisham Hawasli, an Atlanta cardiologist, originally from Damascus. His wife founded and is still the principal of the school that is now a k-8 day school and a supplemental Saturday school for students from elsewhere who wish to learn the tenets of Islam and some basic Arabic.

I found myself left with a number of impressions.

First, Dr. Hawasli is a genuinely welcoming gracious man. He teaches a class at the mosque, open to anyone, from 1-2 p.m. on Sundays. He might be willing to offer some Sunday morning classes at All Saints’ in due course and is open to exploring relationship with us. He was part of a group of leaders who began, in the late 1970s, buying property (mostly run down houses) on the block where the mosque sits, and is significantly responsible for its construction.

The mosque itself is carefully and well built in a rather traditional style. It has domes (fiberglass) and a minaret –even thought the minaret will not be used for a call to prayer. There are separate prayer and ablution rooms as men and women will be separated. (“If a positive and negative pole touch, there will be electricity”). There is a room for Christian and Jewish guests, (“Yes, there are some Jews who are not Zionists”) and a large room for lectures and receptions.

The school follows the curriculum of Woodward Academy, supplemented by Islamic and Arabic studies. We were treated to hearing a couple of classes recite their classes in Arabic and English. They were learning about hospitality. (“If there is food enough for two, then there is enough for three. If there is food enough for three, then there is enough for four.”) The students wore uniforms including what I believe to be called the shayala for girls, the simple headdress that covers hair but not face.

I found myself acutely aware of how strange this was to me in the midst of modern America. I have been in some Torah day schools and am not aware of having had the same feeling, although I might have done if the dress was significantly distinctive in some way, and not only the language. I can only imagine what a stranger would make of our walking the Stations of the Cross repetitively intoning the Trisagion (“Holy God. Holy and Mighty. Holy Immortal One”) I was reminded that ‘learning about Islam’ is fine, but that what I think we need to be about is knowing and being known before we can evaluate or discern what we make of Islam in the midst of a modern America that values ‘freedom of religion’ but has, in general, a post 9/11 view of Islam that is quite frightening. (Our host again: “Perhaps the greatest tragedy of 9/11 is that every Christian has been injected with poison with respect to Islam.” Asked about Wahabism “They are faithful people. It is strict, but not really about cutting off hands and heads.”) I hope we might be able to find ways to meet the Other anew as we discover something real, something beyond ‘beliefs’ of the other on 14th street.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February 10, 2008

Some of you may have seen that there has been a big furor in England this week over the Archbishop of Canterbury allegedly arguing that some aspects of sharia law should be entertained as being part of the law of England. This has led Lambeth Palace to issue a statement about ‘what the Archbishop actually said’ . It seems to me another instance of the Archbishop being so nuanced that he was opening himself to misunderstanding. I’m not sure that I have got it yet, but he seems to be making some parallel between canon law and sharia law in some limited way, having a recognized place in English society. He seems to be properly concerned with how a real place is made for a Muslim minority in a pluralistic society, and doing it apart from and in the face of a rather ugly xenophobic strain in the ‘English psyche’. Of the many articles I’ve read trying to get a handle on this, the most helpful came from Ekklesia. It was posted this morning and can be found here. The Archbishop is raising all kinds of issues that go very clearly to some of the reading that our vestry was doing last year in what it means to be the church in a postmodern world and an increasingly post-Christian environment.

Our friend Giles Fraser has written some good stuff this week, an article on progressive Christianity in America for The Guardian newspaper and a really clear piece for the Church Times making clear that the withholding of an invitation to the Lambeth Conference to the Bishop of New Hampshire is morally bankrupt. (Read it here), a position with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Ash Wednesday

Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew (Perseus, 1998) calls itself ‘the untold story of American submarine espionage. (‘A darn good read.’) It includes the anecdote about the aftermath of the soviet loss of a Golf class submarine called the Glomar. Instead of telling the truth to those who were widowed and orphaned in what would have been an embarrassing failure to the soviets, the government offered surviving wives a one time payment of 1,500 rubles and an annual pension of 58 rubles for each child and disabled relative of the dead men. The authors say “Irina Zhuravina who lost her husband on the Golf, refused to spend those rubles because she thought that would be reconciling to her husband’s death on her government’s terms.” (p.276)

I cannot help but think of Jesus refusing to give credence to the government of his country in his day who staged a trial, and the price of integrity, with its implicit challenge to compromise and cant, in each case. A gift as we begin a season of prayer, fasting, self-examination, almsgiving and scripture.

Another snippet from T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life by Lyndall Gordon (Norton, 2000). It appears that Eliot sometimes thought his teacher and sponsor Ezra Pound sometimes considered his protégés to be machines for the production of poetry rather than students and human beings. Surely this is another challenge to our tendencies to objectify (and sometimes –as a consequence—demonize) each other in the name of some ‘greater good’.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I had heard a rumor that Kenneth Stevenson was about to drop something of a ‘bomb’. It seems that his book A Fallible Church, published this week by DLT includes an essay by the Bishop of Liverpool, generally a conservative evangelical, who apologizes for his opposition to the appointment of Jeffrey John (a gay man) as Bishop of Reading. His essay is on his diocesan website. The storm around the appointment of this Suffragan in the diocese of Oxford led Archbishop Williams to pressure Jeffrey John to withdraw from the nomination. Bishop Jones is an interesting man who was in Atlanta a year or so ago and I had a chance to meet him. He is very committed to the stewardship of creation and was in the USA encouraging some conservative evangelical groups to embrace this as part of their biblical agenda for the world. I fear his embrace of David and Jonathan and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple as biblical models for same gender relationships will alienate him from many of his friends. I have long since stopped claiming the label ‘evangelical’, but this is the kind of honesty that I admire greatly. I share with the evangelical party of the church (and I hope with many others) a belief in the transforming love of God in Christ and the importance and desirability of making a conscious decision to follow Jesus (using whatever words are helpful for describing that decision) as part of living and sharing the Gospel.

Today is not April Fools day, but Shrove Tuesday and the day when many will enjoy pancakes for supper. At All Saints’ these will be cooked and served by intrepid members of our Global Missions group. Pancakes for supper are not my favorite thing to eat, but I love the occasion which includes the burning of last year’s palms of Palm Sunday to make ashes for Ash Wednesday tomorrow. On Shrove Tuesday we are shriving ourselves of things we will forgo in the Lenten fast, traditionally including butter, sugar and eggs—hence the pancakes. I have had such good time since thanksgiving with a plenitude of parties that I have begun to amuse myself by thinking less of Shrove Tuesday and more of ‘Shrove January’.