Monday, June 29, 2009

Ancient Practice

June 29, 2009

When Rebecca Chopp, President of Colgate University ( gave the Ann Evans Woodall lecure a few years ago she spoke of the importance of spiritual practice in making sense of faith to a generation raised on the internet. Even before her excellent lecture, we were using the term spiritual practice in enquirers’’ classes, sermons and the like. Since then I have noticed it cropping up all over the place as something new in the recovery of the ancient. The emerging church is a network of self described churches that to a large degree draw on ancient practice at the center of their communal life.

A recognized leader of that movement called Brian McLaren ( ) has written an article for Sojourners Magazine (July, 2009 p.23-27) called ‘Everything Old is New Again’ urging that “activism shouldn’t be separated from spiritual practices”. Those ancient practices that are finding a home in post-modern Christianity include, in his view.
• Fixed Hour Prayer or in our tradition, the Daily Office
• Sabbath
• Liturgical year
• Sacred meal or what we talk about when we talk about the centrality of regular and committed gathering around the Lord’s Table
• Fasting
• Tithing
• Pilgrimage, something about which our tenth graders are teaching us and which our strategic thinking group is discussing as ‘transformational journeys’.

It strikes me reading this and reading much of the emergent church literature that we are well poised to be relevant in the next years of the life of the church. It also seems to me, after discussing some of these ideas with our program staff and vestry, we need to take into account the instinct and intuition in each generation that some people need to feel that they are part of something challenging and new, even within the tradition. Many of us may shudder at the memory of folk masses and clown Eucharists, the early unfortunate efforts at introducing liturgical dance or ‘alternative worship’. I suspect that part of preparing ourselves to be real and relevant in twenty five, fifty or one hundred years will be to pay attention to that instinct and include it in our common life in some way shape or form.

Attitudes toward gays in Britain

June 29, 2009

A recent opinion survey in Britain regarding attitudes toward gay people (results here: suggests a significant shift in a relatively short period of time with a majority or close to it supporting equality on a number of levels including marriage equality. At the same time there is a fairly entrenched group of about 25-35% who are quite opposed to any liberalization or change in this area. It seems form reports and commentary in various newspapers that a number of them are Anglicans. This news comes in the same month when our breakaway brothers and sisters have fromed an Anglican Province for North America and elected the deposed Bishop of Pittsburgh as their Archbishop. The most obvious feature of this new sect is their vehement opposition to any change in attitude toward LGBT people. Ruth Gledhill of The Times has a very good comment in her blog available here:

Freedom’s Prophet

June 29, 2009

Freedom’s Prophet is the title of a book by Richard J. Newman (New York University Press, 2008) about Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers. Episcopalians might be familiar with Allen through his friendship with his (slightly older) friend, Absalom Jones who was the first African American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. The book is interesting as biography and history, but also for the argument it makes that Allen and others were as much founding fathers who gave shape to this nation as the white men we remember. His concluding sentences: “Indeed, black founders like Richard Allen had already linked black struggles for justice to American and global liberation. The nation we inhabit today—multiracial but far from beyond the conundrum of race as a defining feature of national consciousness—is as much a product of Allen’s prophetic soul as Hegel’s or Jefferson’s.” (p.299) I, for one, find that Newman has made his case with this book.

I was intrigued by many aspects of this history, unfamiliar to me, but none more so than the founding of bethel Church in Philadelphia and the separation of the AME Church from White Methodism. What might have appeared as unacceptable compromise in various political decisions’ about power and control, were in retrospect significant steps along the way to securing first, a system of checks and balances in church governance and later an audience among all races for Allen’s’ continuing indictment of slavery.

I hope that in the challenge to justice presented the church today by the pressing pastoral needs of her GLBT members is such that we will finally be able to put to rest compromise and shenanigans over this issue and will stop seeing some kind of unity in our communion and the full acceptance of GLBT people as mutually exclusive. A church that already allows relationship to shape doctrine and is able to shift perspective about everything from cosmology to anthropology in the recognition of the full humanity of black people and women do not need to split over what is purported to be doctrinal issues but seems to be revealed after all this time as prejudice of the kind condemned in scripture.


June 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking about how God addresses us obliquely or parabolically. A parable is something that is put or thrown alongside us. It is as though it comes at us on a tangent, nudging or inviting new perspective without, forcing our hand or limiting our freedom.

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008) reveals her main character through a series of stories of a New England town. In some of these stories Olive is hardly mentioned, but all of the reveal something of her personality and circumstance, the web of relations that make up her life and shape her values. I am reminded both of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote (Norton, 1961) in which he writes “I am myself plus my circumstance”—as good a definition of the self as I have ever encountered—and, rather obviously, the Bible in which the main character is revealed through a series of stories over time.

Peter Rollins (the same one who is a leader of the emergent church community called ‘Ikon’ –see previous entries) makes much use of parables and has published a collection of them called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Paraclete, 2009). He deals more extensively with his view of scripture in The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Paraclete, 2008) He writes:

“Within the Bible we encounter revelation as the felt concealment of God. Rather than God being rendered manifest in revelation, this term can be seen to define a tight web of three interrelated features. First, a revelation worthy of the name involves ‘epistemological incomprehension’. In other words part of the evidence that a revelation has occurred lies in the fact that what we have encountered cannot be understood within our currently existing intellectual structures. Second there is ‘experiential bedazzlement’. Here the incoming of revelation is evidenced in a type of oversaturation in which our experience is overcome. One is overwhelmed by the incoming and short-circuited by it. Third, there is an ‘existential transformation’. When a revelation occurs, the person who is receiving it is never the same again.” (p.119-120)

Elsewhere he warns against being so caught up in the poetry and music of an opera that we fail to take account of the story that is being told. He tells the story of a great Italian General urging his men to leap out of the trenches and attack the enemy in his most commanding and sonorous voice. The general is amazed to find that no one is moving but are all commenting to one another ‘what a marvelous voice he has’. (p.139)

We might think of this as another way in which God honors our freedom, and also declines to speak with clarity form the mountaintop, but prefers parable and the revelation of character in stories over time.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

une 17, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple is the title of a book by Kevin Roose (Grand Central, 2009) and is his account of leaving Brown University for a semester and enrolling in Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. A friend sent me this after I had read a review and decided that I was not going to bother to read it. I’m glad he sent it and that I read it. It is not a spoof or a sneer as I had supposed. Mr. Roose is clearly young and does not have much grasp of his own faith, but he enters into life at Liberty with an open mind and an open spirit, always checking his pre-judgments and wondering about how real relationships can be given his subterfuge. In the end he gets inside fundamentalist Christianity. Certainly he comes across creationism and intelligent design in the most unlikely of courses along with abhorrence of homosexuality and gay marriage, abortion and the other planks of the conservative social agenda. He is clear that students at Liberty are being thoroughly indoctrinated in a conscious and sustained way. There is little or not room for discussion or debate on these matters which are seen as essential consequences of being Christian. That said, he makes some friends, begins to enjoy the practice of regular prayer and bible study, discussing things that matter in an open ways, sharing his life, staying sober and so on. He shares stories of how pastorally flexible people can be within a system that is certain that salvation comes from giving your life to Jesus and worrying about the salvation of others above all. He went on a spring break mission trip to a Florida Beach and had to engage in ‘witnessing’ without any success. He shared in the religious life of the campus, singing in the Thomas Street Baptist Church Choir. At one point he interviewed Dr. Falwell for the campus newspaper and became a minor celebrity after Jerry Falwell died at the end of the semester.

In a free country I suppose that it must be alright for a University to establish itself as a ‘conservative boot camp’, but the sneering of the faculty and some students at anything on the ‘other side’ of their agenda and the vain attempt to make things intellectually respectable in order to achieve accreditation and the like left me feeling quite sorry for the students there who are mostly convinced that being Christian entails listening to professors who say that if every single piece of (so called) scientific evidence proved something other than intelligent design without any doubt, that the professor would still have to believe ‘the Word of God’ over the evidence because ‘the Bible does not lie’. Many of the people that Kevin Roose met are clearly people he enjoyed being around. Many of them are admirable in all kinds of ways. But the doctrine supporting this kind of faith is doing them a terrible disservice. This is the hoax behind today’s ‘mainstream’ of Christian expression in this country. We would not be considered Christian by anyone at Liberty, and they are therefore doing Christianity a terrible disservice as well.

More on Ikon

June 17, 2009

Peter Rollins of Ikon (See entry for June 1, 2009) has written a number of books. In How (Not) To Speak of God (Paraclete, 2006) he argues for theology and spirituality that has more in common with the Christian Mystics than much of the debate argument today. He is seeking to articulate a post-modern Christianity and then suggest ways in which that thinking might affect the design of worship. While his descriptions of worship (or Ikon events) don’t do much for me personally, I like what he is trying to accomplish. If I was to translate his thinking about such things as ‘a/theology as icon’ and ‘inhabiting the god-shaped hole’ into my own language it would come out sounding as though relationship is much more important than doctrine or even institutional forms of the faith. He says such things as “being a Christian always involves becoming a Christian” (p.6) He is going deep into what is known as the ‘apophatic’ tradition and wants to say that this theology transcends conservative/liberal approaches and includes and incorporates clear belief alongside doubt and disbelief in a journey of faith. I am not convinced that he would not be labeled a ‘liberal’ buy conservatives in spite of his protestations because he is not subscribing to control, right doctrine, either/or thinking, a sure and certain sense of salvation over against condemnation and the like. He is more interested in right believing than right belief.

I find what he has to say very congenial and think that he is expressing most of what I believe the faith to be about, albeit in a fresh way for me. I will read more of what he has written.

Gay Marriage one more time

June 17, 2009

Jonathan Chait is the current author of the TRB column in The New Republic. In the June 17, 20090 issue he takes on “Carrie Prejean and other anti-gay marriage intellectuals”. He is referring to the former Miss California’s contention that “marriage should be between a man and a woman”. After pointing out that this contention is not an argument, he asks why this might be true. It is certainly the basis on which many religious opponents claim exemption from civil rights laws such as we are seeing in England at the moment around whether religious bodies can discriminate in matters of employment, adoption and the like. ( It is also causing some challenges for Episcopalians in states in which gay marriage is legal because our canons define marriage as between a man and a woman (“That both parties understand that Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman, entered into within the community of faith, by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will, and with intent that it be lifelong.”)

Chait addresses a number of things that are sometimes said in support of this proclamation are that someone gets harmed if we allow gay marriage or that the link between child rearing and marriage would be weakened if marriage was extended to GLBT people. He points out, among other things, that all such arguments are exclusively about how heterosexual people would be affected by an extension of marriage rights, including the difficulty expressed by one person that it will be harder to persuade black men of the obligation to marry the mother of their children. (That masterpiece from one Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute: He suggests that the statement of belief ( and presumably desire) that the term ‘marriage’ should be reserved for one man and one woman is “a body of opinion held largely by people who either don’t know why they oppose gay marriage or don’t feel comfortable explicating their case.” Later he says that the belief is “an expression of unease rather than principle” and goes on: “As people face up to the fact that opposing gay marriage means disregarding the happiness of the people most directly (or even solely) affected by it, most of us come around. Good ideas don’t always defeat bad ideas, but they usually, over time, defeat non-ideas.”

I think he has reached the heart of the matter on this one and would be interested in your thoughts.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kant and the Birth of the Modern

June 6, 2009

Giles Fraser in his weekly column for The Church Times ( takes on certain kinds of ‘irrational’ behavior and wonders if they aren’t examples of Immanuel Kant’s idea of the transcendental, a precondition for a certain kind of social experience. I have never found Kant easy and a recent foray into some aspects of his thought has been no exception. David Pacini has written Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience.(Fordham University Press, 2008) which is described as a ‘close reading’ of certain aspects of the philosophies of Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau and others in an articulation of the modern religion of conscience, (with ‘modern’ referring to the period known as ‘modernism’.) It was a little like reading a very dense chapter in Paul Johnson’s wonderful history, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991) in which he suggests that the roots of the modern age (that is the age which many think we are now ‘post’) are found within a fifteen year period.

Drawing on art and poetry along with the philosophers, Pacini finds commonalities and differences in three philosophers who would not normally be taken together. Notably, they all seek to find some way of looking at humans that neither mires them completely in earth, nor grants them the status of angels, but sees them somewhere in between and in need of modification in order to achieve great purpose. This, as Pacini shows, leads to the development of the idea of conscience as emancipation from religious dogmatism and re-ordered religion as a kind of moral ordering of the individual and society. We see the remnants (and also signs of the problems inherent in this move toward conscience in the popular ideas that ‘religion is an individual or private matter’, contra revealed theology as the exclusive preserve of religious institutions; and ‘I take my children to church so that they can have a moral foundation for life’ or the idea that religion is really about making us and our society ‘good’ or ‘better’.

Pacini takes us through the development of this modernist idea of conscience and then looks at its later critics in Wittgenstein, Freud and Barth (leading me to wonder if early Wittgenstein marks the end of modernism, does his later work define the beginning of post-modernism?) In the end Kant’s conviction that conscience leads to a just and harmonious order is deemed incoherent as Pacini looks to amore relational solution dependent on ever-shifting perspective. In this regard I come back to the idea that I have written about before namely John W Dixon’s ‘theological theory of relativity. Though Narcissus’ Glass Darkly is more than a work of strictly historical philosophy and theology and more a clue as to how we find ourselves in a post modern imaginative world and points to an agenda for that age of making connections in a world without any clear meta-narrative.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Virginia Missionary

June 4, 2009

The Living Church (June 7, 2009) reports that the Archbishop of the Sudanese Church has asked for the removal of an appointed missionary, The Rev’d Lauren Stanley. I remember Lauren from the days when I taught at VTS and know that she has done good work in the Diocese of Renk, the Archbishop’s former diocese. Apparently she made some remarks at the Annual Council of either Virginia or the Diocese of Renk (it is unclear) in favor of same-sex marriage “which were deemed offensive”. They do not say exactly what the remarks were so it is hard to judge what went on, but I’m left with the impression that she spoke in favor of same sex marriage and that was considered offensive in itself.

If I’m right then we are once again up against the thorny question of when to honor cultural differences and when there are aspects of another culture that should be challenged. More than that, if there are aspects of another culture that should be challenged than the question of time and place arises.

I’m among those, for example, who believe that most, if not all, countries in Africa would be much closer to peace and prosperity if women were able to experience greater freedom of role than they do now. I also think that granting women real power on a footing with me will be resisted in all kinds of ways. The work of the united Nations in this regard seems to be a good, respectful and proper way to go (Kudos to the Office of the Anglican Observer in this regard), where criticizing the hospitality of a home in which the women serve food to men (and honorary men in the form of women who are foreign visitors) and then receding to the kitchen would not be helpful.

If Lauren Stanley made her remarks in Renk, then she might be open to criticism. But if (as seems likely) she made them in Virginia then I would hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury might raise a concern with the Archbishop of the Sudan about illiberal behavior not appropriate in a follower of Jesus.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cheney on Marriage, etc

June 2, 2009

So I was sweating at the gym reading when I glanced at the television to see Dick Cheney at the national Press Club offering his support for same–sex marriage but insisting that it is a state rather than a federal issue. Good for him. It is a shame he was not that brave when he was in power.

The same day brings news that the House of Bishops has appointed a theology committee to examine same sex relationships but the chair, someone I have known and respected for along time, Henry Parsley, Bishop of Alabama, refuses to let anyone know who is serving on the committee. See

I was unaware of this committee before Episcopal CafĂ© picked up their report from the General Convention Blue Book available here: It seems that they are die to report in 2011. I pray they will not try and use that as a delaying tactic for moving forward on something that the Church has been discussing for more than thirty years. The Presiding Bishop has declared publicly that she does not support revisiting B033 (the resolution that appears to support a moratorium on the consecration of GLBT bishops) in favor of a positive statement as to where we are now. She has not, to my knowledge, said anything about who will generate that statement or what form it might take. Please God, will some Bishop be brave and forthright and honest and take a public lead on moving us forward in this area. My plea is not unmindful of some potential or perceived cost to such clarity for the bishop who expresses it, but any move to hide behind some idea such as ‘we have a double top secret committee who will report in 2011 and we should wait until then’ will not fly in the trenches.

Why, oh why, do we need to shoot ourselves in the foot like this? The end result of all these machinations –both civil and ecclesial-- will be gay marriage recognized by every state with some clergy exercising their current and canonically enshrined right to decline to officiate at any wedding for any reason. The interim is tiresome and painful, especially for those being told by their church that they are ‘Ok, but not quite Ok’. It may be that I will have shuffled off this mortal coil by the time this vision is realized but I look forward to the day when such dislike of the different is over. Trouble is, it will attach itself to someone or something else. If the former clam-like Vice-President can proclaim that freedom in this area is a good thing how long can it take?

Monday, June 1, 2009


June 1, 2009

An interesting article in The Christian Century (June 2, 2009 p.20-22) is called ‘Seeds of Doubt’ and is an interview with Peter Rollins about an emergent church gathering in a Belfast pub called ‘Ikon’. I am interested because this is the first example of the emergent church movement that does not seem to be young adults discovering ancient tradition and packaging it as new and trendy. (I have no objection to this aspect of the movement, but am not clear that there is much that is ‘emergent’ about it.) Ikon, by contrast is looking to be a group ‘beyond belief’ (and I’m not clear whether the pun is intended or not.) Peter Rollins expresses the goal of the group to speak of faith as “something that brings life, that brings transformation.” He explains: “I think that this understanding of faith resonates with people who are tired of a religion in which believing the right thing is what it’s all about.”

Much of what he proclaims about Ikon are things that we could claim for All Saints’ (indeed for much of the Episcopal Church.) He is looking for a way between belief and rejection of belief that puts ‘the experience of transformation’ at the center rather than doubt. They seek to achieve this through the use of art (called “anarchic experiment sin transformance art”) and drama (called “theodramatic events”). Anyone can gather at the appointed time to plan the gatherings. Rollins is clear that this only ‘works’ for someone who is rooted in a religious tradition, apparently including those rooted in a rejection a specific religious tradition, and sees Ikon as “like the warning on the side of a package of medicine tablets. You can’t have the tablets without the warning, but the warning without the tablets is nonsense.”

You can get more flavor for this experiment here:

My response is that much of what draws people to Ikon might also draw them to All Saints’. Where they talk of ‘transformation’ as being at the center, we might ask transformation from what to what else and why is that a good thing? We are more likely to talk of ‘right relationship’ as being the center and goal and talk about why the story and person of Jesus are liberating (or transformative) in our lives. To the degree that worship is an enactment of salvation history and so transformative drama, we could probably develop much more creative and ‘alternative’ possibilities than we do now for engaging the imaginations of those who are not yet here.

Where Ikon emphasize personal responsibility and decline to hold out any expectation that they will “meet needs’ for community friendship and the like, we would rather say that if you find friendship, community or any other expression of love it is a gratuitous gift of God’s grace that may or may not be granted, but you will miss it if you are not paying attention.

Our program staff enjoyed an interesting conversation flowing from The Christian Century article, which I intend to share with our strategic Thinking Group and Vestry as well.