Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Challenging Times

January 28, 2009

Our vestry and finance committee are in the middle of a substantial conversation about how to respond carefully and faithfully as we share in the challenges of economic recession.

This is a year in which most parishes believe that a ‘flat’ canvass is a victory and we look as though we will come close to that thanks to the extraordinary generosity and fidelity of those who have made commitments to support God’s work through the ministries of our parish in 2009. The vast majority of us have increased our giving slightly or swallowed and kept our pledge the same even when we are not sure whether or how we will meet it. Others have had to make significant reductions in giving. We project that we will end up somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 short of what we budgeted for 2008, and even closer to what we actually received against pledges. In the climate of the day, this is wonderful news. Obviously it still poses a number of challenges given that costs keep going up and the gap between what it would really take to support our ministries and what we can hope to receive is significant.

Balancing a budget is not complicated. We can cut staff, mission, program and giving and end up with a balanced budget. In fact this is more or less what we do each year when our aspirations are greater than the gifts released. We call whatever we can a ‘capital improvement’ or a ‘start up program’ and make requests to spend undesignated endowment income (which we do not and by our own choice may not use for ongoing operating costs). We shave giving, including failing to meet our moral obligations to give one percent of our budget to the support of Episcopal seminaries and another to support of the Millennium Development Goals. We have not increased our gifts in support of Covenant Community or the Midtown Assistance Center or our own allocations to other agencies with which we share common cause fop a number of years. We can make such decisions again if we want although it will be more painful than in the past. We can join the great throng of churches and businesses and agencies who are all hunkering down, cutting back, laying off staff, reducing services and hoping against hope that something will stimulate a change in the economy. Alternatively we can try and turn in a new direction, (ideally without preempting the ongoing work of our strategic thinking group.)

So here is what we are thinking: We must cut what ever we can cut toward a balanced budget this year and carry a small deficit. We have a plan in place that will bring the budget into balance without deficit within three years. We expect that this recession will be long and deep and that we should not plan for great increases in giving by our current members in the next couple of years. At So we will cut programs and expenses, some of which are very visible. We are talking about ending evensong, ending cafĂ© nights, and letting go of the award winning Saints Alive magazine. We are discussing a slight reduction in the number of professional singers who support our morning worship. We are cutting some less visible things such as reducing subsidies for some of our retreats and gatherings. At this point we are preserving our support of the newcomer and enquirers’ process and keeping costs of Wednesday night gatherings stable. We expect we will need to have another look at those programs next year. None of our full time staff will receive raises although some benefit costs have increased again, but all will keep their jobs. We expect to lose one clergy position and one other program position through attrition within the next two years which will necessitate some changes in how we are organized and how we support our ministries. Our real estate group is meeting to pursue finding additional tenants for the third floor of the Pritchett Center and the North Avenue front of Tate Hall generating additional income for the support of our properties pending longer term plans from our strategic thinking group and a change in the development climate.

All manageable. Not fun. Bit here’s where I am really proud of our leadership. We are looking at how to increase our giving for those in immediate need by increasing giving for mission one or two percent each of the next three years if possible. We are discussing setting aside money in 2009 for support for the unemployed in our parish, for those on the margins through our core ministries (Covenant Community, Threads, Refugees and Midtown Assistance), for those on the streets through a dedicated fund called the Sterne Fund and for those most vulnerable further afield through giving in support of the Millennium Development goals, probably through our companion relationships in global mission. There are many details of such a plan to be worked out and none of this has been approved as yet, but I am proud of the way our leadership is grasping the nettle, turning again to ask what is of real and ultimate worth and allowing our answers and intuitions, those promptings of the Holy Spirit, to shape our response. Please keep our vestry and finance committee in your prayers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quantum Theology

January 21, 2009

I remember being bemused in undergraduate days by a professor who told me that he found books about science much more fruitful for theology and faith than most books of theology. His name was John Wesley Dixon Jr. and he became extremely important to me. I have two inscribed copies of his book The Physiology of Faith: A Theory of Theological Relativity (Harper, 1979). John was, unusually if not uniquely, a professor in two departments: art and religion. He had made quite a name for himself on the UNC campus as an eloquent protestor of the war in Vietnam, I learned, and he had a daughter who sang in the choir in the first parish I served at Christ Church in Raleigh.

Over the years I have found much wisdom in what John taught especially noting that all too often our theological debates, (especially where there are political implications) often reflect the scientific world view of a previous age. I’ve read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which I found challenging and Barbara Taylor’s The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion, altogether more accessible. The most helpful book however has been Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. I am one of those people who found mathematics tricky, but could always figure out how many pieces of candy I had if three toffees were added to four chocolates. Greene has a way of helping me visualize concepts without getting stuck in complex logic. The logic is there: it is just that I seem to be able to follow it.) For m, reading physics is a bit like what reading theology must be like for those who are not accustomed to the genre.

I loved how Greene helped me see that Newton took an absolutist position with regard to space. He thought it was an entity. Leibniz in contrast saw that ll aspects of motion are relative,--a relationalist position. Mach followed and built on those insights. Einstein returned to an absolute position by noting that space and time are individually relative but ‘spacetime’ is an absolute entity that can help us grasp other things. (summarized on p.62 of the Vintage Books edition, 2004) I found myself thinking about the back and forth between relativism and relativity, between God of immutable Truth and the insights of process theology.

John Dixon saw the problem of relativism (apart from the incomprehensibility of it at its heart) as being that the individual becomes the referent point for truth and writes “relativism liberated man from the tyranny of dogmatism, but delivered him to the tyranny of the isolated self.” (p.xxix) He wanted theology to be truly communal or relational as a matter of discerning sacred reality in a way that parallels quantum theory’s sense of place and direction in the spacetime continuum. How I translate all this is that so many of our contemporaries claims to absolute truth on any manner of subjects, but especially in regard to knowing the will of God get contrasted with the bugaboo of relativism. They leave me wondering how to speak to someone living in an imaginative world that has more in common with Newton than with Einstein and beyond.

Al of this means among other things that we have a massive and complex task in any generation of translating the faith once delivered to the saints in ways that build on the insights of ages past without asking us to live in the past in order to understand and interpret the world in which we live. We say we believe in God who created all that is, seen and unseen. I have to assume that those categories are not immutable and that things previously unseen can become seen, without being in essential conflict with the profession of our putting our trust in one God.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration

January 20, 2009

I was able to watch the inauguration on television both glad to be in the warmth and also sorry not to be on the mall in DC for this extraordinary event. I have seen plenty of inauguration speeches but have never heard one that succeeded in striking all the right notes and resonances for me until now. I am suspicious of the evangelical fervor which some seem to have about President Obama, remembering that the job of Savior has already and adequately been filled. I am aware that some people will not be able to let go of the ugliness of partisan politics –even for a day or two. I have seen a bumper sticker saying “You can keep the change. Palin in 2012”, and this before the new President has done anything! I expect that four years from now we will be back at it. In the meantime, I find myself moved and hopeful that America can once again be a great nation, --one that does not sacrifice fundamental values and principle for expediency in the moment, and one that continues to stand up to those who would create dissension and terror before building hope for their people.

Ironically, I found preachers and poet slightly tiresome (even though I have no argument with what they said today). Joseph Lowery could have quoted James Weldon Johnson and sat down. It would have been enough for me. Throughout the proceedings I found myself thinking about what it must be like to be watching this in Gaza or Zimbabwe or Bagdad or Khartoum or even Paris. How could anyone not be moved by regime change without guns? And not just regime change, but a really basic step forward a few days after martin Luther King Jr. would have celebrated his 80th birthday had he lived? I am as proud of this country as I have ever been and find myself willing to share in whatever the price turns out to be of confronting the challenges that confront us.

Tony Blair at Yale

January 20, 2009

Neela Banerjee, a former religion writer for the New York Times had published a piece about Tony Blair’s teaching at Yale (along with Miroslav Volf) in the Yale Alumni Magazine (Jan/Feb 2009). As she reports his humble and almost diffident, self-deprecating teaching style, it becomes clear that his Faith Foundation ( is another attempt to understand and perhaps harness the power of religious resurgence for good in international issues. Banerjee quotes Sirajul Haq Khan, Secretary for Faith and Interaction with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association UK who believes that Tony Blair and Iraq will be synonymous unless there is some kind of admission of error on Blair’s part and that will render him ineffective in addressing the Muslim World. I find myself bothered by the implicit belief revealed her, but evident in so many arguments of our day, that we have to back away from our own commitments in order to enter a conversation with others who have no apparent intention of backing way from theirs. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Blair’s position with respect to the Iraq war (more wrong than right in my view) surely any conversion comes in the conversation or in the relationship, rather than as a precondition fro being able to enter the conversation.

Isn’t that similar to the ‘doctrine/relationship’ discussion in any of its forms? Could it be that strength of Anglicanism is precisely that there is not agency that can provide and enforce any particular doctrinal position? And shouldn’t that put us in a strong position to engage conversation with Islam? If this is the case, I note with some irony, Blair’s post-office conversion to the Roman Catholic communion.

Bishop Iker at Mere Anglicanism Conference

January 20, 2009

A friend has asked me what I think of Bishop Iker’s comments at the recent ‘Mere Anglicanism’ conference in South Carolina. His speech can be read here:

My (all too brief) response is as follows:

“This is the same old stuff dressed up in somewhat intellectually respectable clothing. Iker chooses to contrast 'sentimentality' (bonds of affection) with 'Truth' and then worries about who gets to define truth when there are problems. His claim that the consecration of a partnered gay man is against the Vincentian canon ( is a recognition that there is something new going on with the recognition of GLBT people as human without necessarily being sinful by virtue of their disposition. In this he is right and would doubtless have opposed Galileo on the same basis, as he suggests that the ordination of women is a problem. This seems to me a discredited argument.

If we (or he) would try on differentiating between the poles of doctrine and relationship (instead of sentimentality and truth) and using some of the work on polarities of recent years ( he might find a more helpful and possible faithful way forward.

What do you think?”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Love and Acceptance Inc.

January 12, 2009

Last night I was privileged to give the invocation at what was billed as “The First Annual Human Rights Ecumenical Service”, the first event of a new Alliance of Affirming Faith-Based Organizations called ‘Love and Acceptance, Inc. This is the brainchild of Pastor Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church ( who was featured in New York Times article on March 27, 2007:

There were a number of speakers in the midst of worship that was more like a Tina turner concert than anything else: raucous, rollicking, energetic and for many present, also profoundly moving. The main speaker of the evening was the Rev’d. Al Sharpton. He went back to his roots as a Pentecostal boy preacher condemning homophobia in the black community and especially among clergy. Those who had said nothing in the face of war and murder and poverty, but who organized and spoke against Proposition 8 in California received special condemnation. About ten minutes of his twenty five minute oration was done by hooping (or whooping), --that characteristic from of high energy rhythmic black preaching that is almost sung. He told of how his mother who was on welfare insisted that her children be home for dinner even when they did not whether there would be any dinner at all. He remembered that the same God who put food on the table was those one who healed Bartimaeus with out asking for any qualifications first and who now wants people of faith too stand up against injustice. “There are no civil rights for anyone unless there are civil rights for everyone”, he said, echoing a number of other speakers of the evening.

The evening was filled with memorable lines such as “I’m less disgusted by men on the down-low than by preachers who are low down. They condemn homophobia by day…” One that I will remember, ponder and doubtless use: “There are too many churches trying to be ‘cutting edge’ with out ever cutting anything.

Homophobia, especially among preachers was blamed for the disproportionate number of black men suffering from HIV/AIDS. The alliance will, among other things, serve to give some real support to clergy in the black churches who are willing to take on their colleagues as a matter of gospel proclamation.

I was proud to see some of our parishioners in attendance and proud to be from a parish that has, like Tabernacle, paid a price for doing the right thing. I was aware of how far we have still to go to assure and protect the civil rights of GLBT Christians.

Donations may be made to Love and Acceptance, Inc, PO Box 55529, Atlanta, GA 30308

Continuity and change in the Creeds

January 12, 2009

In a continuing search for ‘orthodoxy’, I have been reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s magnificent book Credo (Yale, 2003) who right off the bat points out the difference between the creed of the first council in Nicaea in 325 and what scholars call the Niceno-Constatinopolitan Creed from Constantinople in 381. Significant additions were made to the last sections of the creed (giving us essentially what we say in church) while proclaiming that adherence to the creed of Nicaea was the very definition of orthodoxy. Doctrinal development continued through all seven of the ecumenical councils, all of them claiming to be saying nothing different than the creed of 325. When does development become innovation? Was it when the title God-bearer (theotokos) was approved for Mary or when Marian devotion and doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception came into being? Or was the reformation doctrine of sola scriptura reform or innovation?

Among other things, Pelikan addresses the matter of translating the creeds into new cultures taking the move from Israel’s Shema ( the proclamation held by almost every Christian creed of belief in One God) from Deuteronomy to the Greek (and pagan) homoousios to describe Jesus as ‘of one substance’ with the Father. It is clear that part of the intent of creeds was to ensure that everyone meant the same thing when they said them. (Newman disagreed with this in effect when he discussed the elasticity of Anglican doctrine in Tract 90) How is that identity of meaning to be translated when cultures change over time and the imaginative worlds we inhabit are so different from those of our forebears? It is very hard (if not undesirable and/or impossible) for a child of the Enlightenment or of Modernism to inhabit a pre-Enlightenment or pre-Modern imaginative world with any integrity. Am I being heretical when I say that the creeds function as outlines of the story of our faith, --the story of God’s dealings with creation, --that tells us who we are in relation to God? Am I heretic al when I say that the creeds address the person of Jesus rather than his work and however widely Anselm’s satisfaction theory (and its substitutionary cousins and children) are not implied in the creeds leaving us considerable room to choose not to try and live with in a mediaeval system of ‘honour’?

So it seems that the short answer is that innovation that is consistent in some way with the gospel revealed in ages past is OK. Initial reaction to Essays and Reviews published in March 1860 and not long after Darwin’s origin of the Species was rabid in some quarters. It was not long however before on of its contributors, Frederick Temple, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The thrust of the Essays was to find ways to read and understand scripture in light of new science or new knowledge. How is that different that adjusting to the new cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo or the new anthropology which acknowledges the category of homosexual person as part of humanity rather than a perversion. We might want to debate categories (although my jury and that of the majority of the leadership of The Episcopal Church is in after thirty or more years of debate, listening, study and conversation), but to say that such an innovation is heretical or otherwise beyond the pale amounts to little more than name calling.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy Epiphany

January 6, 2009

As 2009 begins I find myself aware of both the reality of economic recession and some measure of hope for reasonable change with a new President, administration and congress on the horizon. I’m reminded of the exilic prophets who preached a real and holy hope to a broken, exiled and often suffering people. As we try and read the tea leaves as to where our annual appeal fro support will end up, I’m clear that whatever the outcome of this canvass that we are going to have to plan to do more with less in the next few years. Our conversation is about whether we have any areas of our programmatic life that we can do without and whether there is a way to reduce our staff without compromising our program. We are also talking about how to increase our congregational giving for those in need even as we look for cuts. While not easy, this is not all bad and we are seeing many people who can step up and increase their giving doing so, even as we learn of stresses and strains from those who find themselves unemployed or severely restricted as they try and live on a fixed income..

Our church struggles seem pretty unimportant in the face of all this. The California courts have found that church property belongs to the Episcopal Church rather than the local congregation. Our bishops remain clear, for the most part, that The Episcopal Church is not hazy about our identity or our polity and continue to express that clarity with the mantra that individuals can leave the church but that parishes cannot. Various congregations and dioceses, the majority of whose members wish to have nothing to do with TEC keep trying to challenge that clarity by talking about ‘revisionist theology’ among other things. They have had some success in fanning the flames of discord in some instances. Others of a conservative bent are adjusting to their new and unaccustomed role of being the ‘loyal opposition’ and remaining within the Episcopal Church.

I have tried over and over to get a handle on what exactly is meant by ‘revisionist theology’ and it keeps coming back to the question of how the church should view GLBT people. If we follow the American Psychological Association and similar bodies we find that there has been and continues to be a fundamental cultural shift in how such people are viewed. The analogy here would be something akin to the Copernican revolution, the opposition that Galileo encountered with a new view of the place of the earth in the universe, or Martin Luther King and his followers encountered with a new view of the full humanity of black people in America. Essays and Reviews published within three or four years of Darwin’s Origin of the Species was attacked as ‘revisionist’, but in a relatively short period of time one of its contributors was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and people wondered what all the fuss was about.

What is different today is the sense that we are part of a world wide communion with some people arguing that one constituent church ought not proceed with ‘innovation’ until there is a considerable measure of support for such moves. I continue to believe that those who want that kind of discipline have a fine alternative in the Roman Catholic Church, and prefer that we continue to find ways to be in relationship with one another in ways that allow differences to make for strength in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Sometimes concern is expressed about whether all Episcopalians affirm the uniqueness of Jesus, and particularly what that means for salvation. The theological conversation behind that concern has a long history and could hardly be described as ‘revisionist’, wherever we find ourselves within the conversation. I think it would be revisionist if we were to decide that the Nicene Creed was not the sufficient statement of our faith, or that the historic Episcopacy, locally adapted, was something we should do without, or that the Scriptures did not contain all things necessary to salvation as the Word of God. Those changes would require revisionist theology. The phrase as bandied about during our disagreements however seems to me to be an empty slogan and one day it will become clear that the emperor has no clothes.

I rather hope and expect that there will be less heat and less interest in our inter-Nicene struggles in the year to come (although a General Convention will always stir the pot in one way or another) and I look forward to having less of that upon which to comment.