Tuesday, May 26, 2009


May 25, 2009

Nudge-ology was the title of an article in The New Republic not too long ago as a description of Obama’s economic policies. The author was making the case that whenever possible the Obama administration was encouraging or ‘nudging’ preferred behaviors by their policies rather than demanding, requiring or legislating them.

At a recent ‘egg-onomics’ breakfast at All Saints’, the dean of the college of management at Georgia Tech, Steve Salbu talked about why good people make bad decisions by looking at some of the ways we fool ourselves and so become susceptible to mistakes.

Both the article and the talk were delving into the increasingly influential and interesting field of behavioral economics. I have written before about Dan Ariley’s Predictably Irrational as a good primer for this field. Recently however a friend pointed me to an article from Foreign Policy called ‘Why Hawks Win” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3660) This too argues from behavioral economics for the predictable errors that lead us to give rein to the hawkish bias “built into he fabric of the human mind”. We are prone to exaggerating our strengths. We tend to attribute the behavior of others to the person’s nature, character or motives even when we are alerted to context that should affect our judgment. We tend to optimism in the face of evidence and so on and we hate to cut our losses. The article argues that if we can become aware of our biases then hawks will not win more arguments than they should.

These things play out with some frequency in the church as well. I remember being on a standing committee that had to evaluate parish requests to take on significant levels of indebtedness, usually for a building program. They were without failure more optimistic about the effect of their building on the future growth of the parish. (If you build it they will come.) Buildings do make a difference in the experience visitors have when they check out a parish, but nothing is more important than the reality of the welcome they receive and the preparedness of the congregation to make room for new people, new ideas, maybe even new music and so on. For a parish that will not change, indebtedness is a major drain on the resources being released for the proclamation of the gospel. Predictably irrational indeed.


May 25, 2009

Roy Blount Jr. has reviewed a book called Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language in the NYT Book Review (May 24, 2009). The authors tell us that it is hopeless to resist the evolution of the word ‘hopefully’ to mean ‘it is hoped’ or ‘I hope’. I think she is right but I continue to resist. I remember being at lunch at the Supreme Court in Washington DC with my parents and brothers the day after what might be called ‘a good dinner’. They were not familiar with the custom of serving iced tea at meals and this gave rise to a proper use of the word ‘hopefully’. Hopefully they looked at their iced tea only to be disappointed.

In spite of Churchill’s comment on the rule of grammar that would rule out ending a sentence with a preposition, (“That is a rule up with which I will not put”) I still prefer to avoid so doing. Another rule that I like is long gone in popular speech and grammar and in all kinds of official publications and that is rule against the split infinitive. I realize that the logic for the rule (there being no possibility of splitting the infinitive in Latin or its derivatives), and in spite of my love of Star Trek, the split infinitive is a realm into which I would rather not boldly go.

Finally (for now) I also prefer the pronunciation of ‘blessed’ as bless-ed rather than blest, especially in church. The version of the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer depends on the longer pronunciation for purposed of scansion and rhythm. There is a reason it sounds better. Similarly ‘prophesy’ sounds better pronounced prophe-sigh to distinguish it from ‘prophecy’ or prophe-see. This too appears to be a losing battle based on the way 1 Corinthians 13 is read at many weddings.

Death of a Salesman

May 25, 2009

The politics of race remain tricky as made evident by the rise and fall of Jeremiah Wright during the Obama campaign. Now the Yale Repertory Company has staged Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with an all black cast. John Lahr’s review in The New Yorker (May 25, 2009 p.82-3) quotes the venerable August Wilson arguing in 1996 that to try and portray black experience, culture and history as part of ’the human condition’ through a play conceived for white actors is a denial of black experience, culture and history. That makes sense and the review of the Yale Rep production goes on to say why. “Death of a Salesman is about alienation. It shouldn’t be an exercise in it.”

I wonder, however, whether the alienation of what was originally white middle class in mid twentieth century America couldn’t speak to the alienation of other times and cultures if we were seeing the play fresh and with no knowledge of its history. I remember seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II set in Nazi Germany and thinking that if I didn’t already know the play I would have found it unsatisfying as a portrayal of the age in which it was set. It is hard to imagine not knowing a play when I already know it. In the end I don’t think it is a terrible thing to try and reveal something of the human condition through trying to alter historical particularity, but human drama tends to end up being quite particular, and so these productions are generally going to fail to satisfy.

What makes telling the story of faith from age to age so different? Lamin Sanneh has argued in his Disciples of All Nations (2007) That Christianity is the only major world religion that has transcended particular geography and been ‘enculturated’ in many times and places. Some of our current travails both within Anglicanism and ecumenically have to do with what happens when the enculturation of the Christian story leads to differing understandings of the gospel. So the Anglican embrace of the United Nations initiatives on the role and place of women can be enormously threatening to cultures that prefer that women keep their place in the kitchen. One person’s liberation is another person’s idea of ‘following the culture at the expense of the faith once delivered to the saints’. One Christian does not recognize another as being of the same faith and sharing a common humanity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight and influence behind the idea of an Anglican Covenant in an attempt to articulate some boundaries for world wide Anglicanism and a process for changing those boundaries. He and his allies in this effort are trying to shut the barn door after the horse has made a run for it and the signs thus far suggest that the Covenant idea will not succeed in stopping ‘the wind blowing where it will’. Some Christians will say that they are not ‘in communion’ with others and it was ever thus, and ever should be.

Monday, May 18, 2009


May 18, 2009

You might recall my discussion of a debate that took place in the spring and summer issues of the Anglican Theological Review in 2004. That conversation has now been joined by the Rev’d Dr. Stephen Edmondson, rector of St. Thomas’, McLean, Virginia and formerly Associate Professor of Church history at VTS in ATR (Spring 2009, Vol. 91, no. 2). He is furthering Kathryn Tanner’s argument that admission to communion should be extended to all and not limited to the already baptized through a work of liturgical theology (after the model of the late Aidan Kavanaugh). He brought together groups of parishioners from four parishes to reflect on the ways in which they value their practice of explicitly inviting all people to the Table of the Lord. Their conversations centered around radical grace with special attention to the practice of Jesus’ dining with tax collectors and sinners. Baptism was also seen as a desirable or essential response to such radical grace and the model for this tension was seen in the various characters in the parable of the prodigal. Further and following from that understanding was the idea that we are all children of God without exception. They further reflected on what Edmondson calls the relationality of grace and more than that on the particular relation of being part of the body of Christ and members of centered communities. They saw the open table as ‘catechizing adults’ toward baptism for mission. They were aware of the dangers of sentimentalizing the mission of the church to grow in grace and to suggest openness to the table without really offering openness to participation in the community of faith. All in all this is a useful and real reflection on liturgy by parish participants making the existential case for an open table.

I am under the impression (but cannot prove) that if we put together all the rubrics, resolutions and canons of the Church on the matter of who is invited to the table we would end up saying something like “all baptized Christians who share with us an understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and who regularly receive communion in their own church are invited and welcome to participate with us.” (This would go in the ‘unhelpful’ column.)

My own view is that baptism is still and ought to remain normative for admission to the table. That said, when there are increasing numbers of people coming to the church who have not been baptized as infants or around age twelve who are no less overtly ‘unchurched’ than many who were baptized that making the distinction seems rather unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that this usually arises when adults are enquiring seriously enough about the faith to be moving towards baptism and confirmation. What Dr. Edmondson’s groups thought about baptism being in some sense a commissioning, we teach in confirmation as ‘ordination to the laity’ and the particular empowering of the Holy Spirit for the ministry of the confirmand. Whatever ought to be the case, I end up discouraging adults from seeking baptism by the bishop (deemed confirmation), instead preferring that they be baptized, preferably at the Easter Vigil early on Easter Day and then be confirmed thereafter. In the current climate of almost but not quite post-Christendom this seems to make the most emotional sense to the most people, even if some still choose a different option. I have yet to meet anyone who knowingly continues to partake of communion without seeking baptism and so for now see no problem and great advantage to the open table without fear of diminishing the importance of baptism.


May 18, 2009

In a conversation with the Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, the Very Rev’d Joseph Britton, he said something very helpful to me about Anglican Formation in an ecumenical context. He wants students to have ‘Anglicanism’ as their mother tongue and be bilingual in ecumenical and interfaith languages. This means that those being formed for priesthood at BDS/Y are asked to be regular in Episcopal worship and take a number of courses in Anglican history, practice and polity while also paying attention to the life and work of other Christian expressions represented in the community of Yale This seems to me to be a fundamental difference between an Episcopal Seminary and the significant variety of Anglican Studies programs that exist in many non Episcopal Seminaries.

I am not saying that one or the other reality is necessarily better for the future of the Church but it is something to which we should pay attention in a time when roughly half of all Episcopal clergy are being trained outside of Episcopal seminary life. It is not clear to me that an Anglican student at The Candler School of Theology at Emory would graduate with ‘Anglican’ as his or her ‘mother tongue’. That said, much more has gone on in the past than taking a seminary degree with a couple of courses in Anglican polity. Students have spent three years in a single Episcopal parish, have met regularly together (sometimes with their parish supervisors), have formed an Anglican community within the larger community and have shared a significant worship life together once each week of term. I do not know that this is a more full Anglican program than would be found in many places, but it getting closer to the idea of developing a ‘mother tongue’ than simply taking a course in The Book of Common Prayer might achieve.

This image of language could be useful for the conversation about what we need, want and expect in and out of theological education.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

David and Goliath

May 10, 2009

MMalcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and other books, has published another thought in The New Yorker (May 11, 2009, p.40-49) called How David Beats Goliath. He looks at how an unlikely group of twelve year old girls were coached to the finals of a basketball championship. He looked at other underdogs who had prevailed by breaking conventions: how David beat Goliath, how Lawrence of Arabia led the Bedouins in his sway to victory and how a computer scientist called Doug Lenat created a computer program called Eurisko that, when fed the rules for a war game involving naval fleets, managed to come up with a series of solutions suitable for underdogs. In every instance the strategy of the underdog involved doing something unexpected that gave an edge unless or until the better prepared or more skilful ‘other’ responded. The girls used a full court press throughout the game (not unlike Rick Pitino in his early days at Kentucky, as Gladwell points out.) David used his slingshot against brute strength. T. E. Lawrence used what we might call ‘guerilla tactics’ against his enemy. Eurisko, asked to design a naval fleet for war gaming came up with a large number of small boats and weapons with no defense and no mobility and so beat gamers who knew history and strategy and computers and the like.

The girls’ team was from Redwood City. Their coach Viveck Ranadive, decided to use the whole court for the whole game as a way of minimizing the skills of the other team relative to his own. Very quickly other coaches started saying that what Redwood were doing was not really ‘fair’, not the point of the game which was to teach girls basketball skills after all. What the girls learned this way, Gladwell points out, is “that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.”

I was reminded of how Dean Smith was using the ‘four corners’ strategy against better teams than UNC in the mid to late 70s. He subsequently supported the introduction of the shot clock which was a direct response to the delaying tactic that helped Dean win games against better teams. I remember how opponents cried ‘foul’ at the tactic which was simply a challenge to convention within what was possible.

Fans of Star Trek will remember how James T. Kirk as a cadet beat a computer simulation by reprogramming the simulation. (This incident reappears in the new movie about the origins of the Enterprise crew.) Was that ‘cheating’? Or was that beating the unbeatable program intended to create fear in an aspiring officer of Star Fleet?

Conservatives in The Episcopal Church have decided to break the conventions and pour money and effort into subverting the Church to the end of ‘capturing the brand’. Happy Episcopalians have responded in part by declaring their behavior to be ‘unfair’ or ‘cheating’. We have responded in part by repeating the rules and our logic. (‘Individuals can leave the Church but dioceses and parishes cannot’) They have said, in effect, ‘watch me’. It is also true that we have acted as an underdog (which we are in respect to the majority of the Anglican Communion.) We have responded by breaking the conventions urged by councils of the church who bemoan the use of lawsuits and be refusing to lie down and take it on the chin, responding to hardball with non violent and legitimate hardball and, on the whole, seem to be prevailing in the courts. Conservatives are, predictably, playing the ‘who started it?’ game claiming that The Episcopal Church ‘broke the rules’ and was ‘unfair’ with the consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. The problem with that claim is, of course, that we didn’t break the rules at all and now the some in the communion (apparently with the full support of the Archbishop of Canterbury) are trying to change the rules. They want to make it true retroactively that we have broken the rules because we have acted in spite of the majority ‘mind of the communion’ in believing that gay and lesbian people are not perverted heterosexuals and therefore worthy of moral condemnation.

Unlike basketball, this is not a game and human lives (quite literally in Nigeria and elsewhere) are at stake in what we say and do. That is why we should not support a change in the ‘rules of the game’ that outlaw what we have done well within the bounds of our common life, but unacceptable to some from societies. Many of those bishops and others who are upset are from societies who have not yet been able to take a good look at the gifts that could be released if they took a look at women through a different lens that that of patriarchy. Certainly we should not eat meat offered to idols if it will offend a brother or sister, but that is not what we are doing or what we have done. We have stood in the councils of the church like Peter and declared that health and salvation are a divine matter and divine matter only as we are shaped by the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have with Peter declared that no purely human construct, theology, worldview or prejudice should stop the raising of the lame or the bringing of the lepers into the mainstream of community, or the opening of the eyes of those once blind (as I was once in the matter of gay and lesbian people) as the liberating work of God and our claiming of the gospel promise.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Parson’s Plaint

May 9, 2009

Every so often someone will express an opinion which bemoans a perceived focus on conversations about sexuality to the alleged exclusion of anything else important to the gospel. This will sometimes be accompanied by a wistful and oh-so-sensitive peek at conservative churches that are said to be growing for this or that reason. (a recent example being here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/81840_107137_ENG_HTM.htm)

I put these opinions in the broad category of ‘handwringing’ or ‘the parson’s plaint’, an ineffective bemoaning of this or that. It seems to me first that sexuality will continue to dominate conversation as long as it is a matter of such importance to so many in the Church, and until it has been addressed in some way that does not need to divide us. This will require a basis for unity other than an either/or choice and especially not one that is found at the expense of lesbian and gay people. In other words we can stop talking about it when we have dealt with it. Certainly our experience at All Saints’’ has been that with a significant step forward the conversation moves into the wings for awhile and then re-emerges is light of new moves in the wider church or society. I am among those who long for the conversation to be over and think the best way to achieve that is to work for marriage equality and all that means (even recognizing that Georgia will be one of the last states to go and will probably have a semi serious conversation about secession in the process).

I agree with the opinion that we have much to learn from more conservative churches, but not on the basis that we need to be more like them and less true to ourselves. We do not need to be looking over or shoulders anxiously worried about competition. We need to be clear and forthright about bearing witness to the gospel as we have received it and inviting others to join us. Another way to ‘talk about something other than sexuality’ is to get on with talking about something other than sexuality rather than asking others to do so, which is a way of prolonging the conversation without moving it forward.

Covenant Postponed

May 9, 2009

The news from ACC-14 is that the proposed Anglican Covenant is not ready to be sent to the provinces for approval because the section on ‘discipline’ needs to be more fully, clearly and coherently worked out. In other words if there is to be some kind of discipline with teeth (as desired by Archbishop Carey among others—see previous post) hen we ought to know what that process looks like so that it can be manifestly an transparently ‘fair’. I suspect that the real problem is that it is hard to impossible to develop a view of discipline that is consistent with what has been taught and/or assumed with the spread of the Anglican Communion and therefore with Anglican Ecclesiology. Let’s remember that this whole business of Covenant was proposed in the Windsor Report which was about how to keep unity when some Anglicans did not like what other Anglicans were or were not doing.

I don’t like the fact that many churches do not ordain women and appear to have no interest in developing the ministries of women in any way that might threaten male hegemony. I do not like the fact that many of those who support the covenant are unwilling to contemplate the possibility that they may be wrong or perhaps have something to learn form a minority view, but a majority view within at least one province. I disagree with those who think some common intellectual assent to creedal propositions is the basis and therefore admission to the Lord’s Table. There are a host of attitudes and practices which I consider to be contrary to the gospel as I have received it within Anglicanism. That does not mean that I wish punitive discipline on anyone. I do think that those who are striving to stay ’Anglican’ at the expense of gay and lesbian Christians should be resisted in favor of a view of communion that is truly a broad church.

Archbishop Carey on TEC

May 9, 2009

Retired Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey was a keynote speaker at a recent gathering of conservatives who say they want to be loyal to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (See “Archbishop Carey Says TEC Likely to ‘Clean Out Conservatives” in The Living Church May 10, 2009, p.6f) He is quoted as saying two things of interest. First, he asks the instruments of communion: What should be done about those provinces which have dissented from the mind of the majority of the Communion? Can there be no hope of discipline apart from mild reproof?” It seems to me that this reveals a punitive desire, possibly with the intent of enforcing a kind of uniformity in the Communion and I wonder if that reveals either the Spirit of Christ or a firm grasp on much of the ecumenical movement in recent decades who have moved away from a vision of institutional uniformity as the basis of unity.

Second he says of the General Convention to meet this summer: “If the General Convention pursues its liberal agenda in authorizing same-sex liturgies and the ordination of homosexual and lesbian bishops and priests, this will confirm the worst fears of many that TEC considers that agenda far more important than the unity of our Communion.” Leaving aside the moral question as to whether it is helpful for a retired Archbishop to characterize the actions of his opponents as ‘a liberal agenda’, I think it is worth noting that many in the Episcopal Church, though clearly not all, do not see the full inclusion of GLBT Christians in the life of the Church as a matter of having a liberal agenda. It is rather a recognition of the full humanity of GLBT Christians and therefore, (after more than thirty years of conversation and education), the necessity as a matter of fidelity to the gospel that all the sacramental rites of the church should be open to all of the baptized. Clearly there are many who for whatever reason prefer and choose to see GLBT Christians as ‘perverted heterosexuals’ and therefore sinners who need to repent. At this point they are a minority in TEC and appear unwilling to take seriously where the conversation of many years has led.

For me, this is no longer a theoretical o theological discussion but a discussion that forgets to take seriously my friends. Why are our leaders no t looking for a solution that is true to Anglican Heritage that has managed to shift our cosmology and anthropology (admittedly with difficulty) many times over the past few centuries? (Does anyone remember Essays and Reviews?) These days, at least in the American context, whenever I hear someone saying they are ‘traditionalist’ I hear them saying that they do not approve of the inclusion of gay and lesbian christens in the life of the church. I believe that traditional Anglicanism has made room for Christians who take seriously such things as the insights and effects of Galileo and Darwin, Einstein and the new physics, and sociological/psychological research and practice in any number of areas of our common life.

I hope that General Convention thinks first about the human effect on many of our members of continuing to tell them that they are ‘not quite really OK in the eyes of their church’ and declines to continue to be willing to sacrifice them on the altar of an idolatrous vision of unity as uniformity of thought and action. Unity is to be found in our common transformation into the image of Christ around the Table of the Lord open to all the baptized (and perhaps even to those desirous of baptism) and our growth towards the creeds.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


May 5, 2009

So the fourteenth meeting of the Anglican consultative council is underway. Two things seem to have happened thus far. One is that Henry Orombi, Archbishop of Uganda has attempted to seat the chief operating officer of the American Anglican Council, the Rev’d J. Philip Ashey, as a delegate from Uganda. (The AAC for those who get confused by the acronyms and initials is one of the conservative groups in America who leaders appear to be based in Atlanta when not on airplanes.) I was in at least two small clergy groups at various conferences in the Diocese of Virginia with Philip Ashey who was then serving at the Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, VA, which is now part of the CANA group of churches. I remember him as engaging and thoughtful. He received some (mostly negative) press recently when he compared the AAC to the American special forces who go behind enemy lines and blow things up, quickly pointing out that what he is blowing up are ‘principalities and powers’. (http://www.livingchurch.org/news/news-updates/2009/4/3/aac-official-canterburys-recognition-unlikely) The ACC, through the Secretary-General has declined to support this move by Archbishop Orombi and his friends.

The opening matter of substance has been the introduction of the Ridley (“best possible”) draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant (http://www.aco.org/commission/covenant/ridley_cambridge/draft_text.cfm) which is being introduced with a resolution that it be sent to the provinces for response. The chair of the committee producing the document is Archbishop Drexel Gomez who has said that it is “now or never” for the Anglican Communion. There has apparently been some debate about how long it will take for provinces to respond. Those who see the covenant as a way of reining in provinces that are moving toward the full inclusion of GLBT people would like to see something approved soon. Others (such as The Episcopal Church) would like a proper amount of time to consider and respond to the proposal through General Convention. That means either crafting some kind of rather hurried response that will not have been digested by the province as a whole this summer, or waiting until the next convention three years from now. Apparently some other provinces would like even more time. I support our Presiding Bishop in her thinking that doing something this summer will not reflect the broad consideration of the church in the form of classes and discussions at parochial and diocesan meetings.