Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kohlberg and Christian Faith

December 21, 2010

I mentioned Lawrence Kohlberg and his theory of moral development last Sunday as a way of awakening some recognition that we do, in fact, develop in some fairly predictable ways in many areas of our life. A friend said on the way out of church “I really didn’t expect to hear about post-conventional morality on a
Sunday morning.” I did not sense that she was distressed about this, --quite the reverse if anything. It seems to me that if Kohlberg’s theory has merit, and if it could be applied to Jesus in relation to the religious authorities of his day, he could be identified as someone who was by and large ‘post conventional’ over against a ‘law and order‘ orientation of many religious leaders of the day.

I realize that this is a pretty gross generalization on a number of fronts, but am struck by how often Christianity, the churches or Christian Faith are identified with a view that suggests that the will of God is somehow enshrined in a moral order supported by law. We have seen this recently in the move toward the ending of the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ regarding gay and lesbian members of the armed services. We were told that military chaplains were opposed to any change in the policy on religious grounds. The New York Times carried a story on Saturday (December 17) about a debate at Belmont College in Nashville, TN as to whether it was going to remain true to its conservative Christian and Baptist roots or become more of a world class university with an “aggressively earned…reputation as a progressive, artsy place to study the music business.” The focus of the discussion was a lesbian soccer coach who was having a baby with her partner.

It seems that many people, including many Christians, assume that a large part of what Christianity is about is ‘helping us lead a better life’, ‘giving our children a moral upbringing’, ‘providing stability in society by teaching traditional morality’ and the like as though morality was somehow an enshrined set of rules and norms rather than a way of living that gets worked out in differing ways in differing situation as and contexts. I know this is an area of legitimate debate. What bothers me is how many people assume where Christians must stand in the debate. Surely Jesus did not “die to make us good” as I used to have to sing on Good Friday in Mrs. Alexander’s hymn of 1847, There is a green hill far away.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Fair Game

December 16, 2010

I suppose it was inevitable that the movie Fair Game would be controversial in some way. What I took to be a move primarily about the effects on Valerie Plame’s marriage and life of her being ‘outed’ as a covert CIA operative, is, according to the director, Doug Liman, is “about the President of the United States lying to the American people, and what happened to the people that challenged him”. This from an article at CJR.org in response to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Judith Miller (a journalist who was herself caught up in reporting the issues of the case at the time.) Both articles are worth reading for anyone interested in the history, but they are also examples of the polemic that is so divisive in the US at the moment where any deviance from a party line (on either end of the political spectrum) gets a vigorous party line response. I would not accuse President Bush of lying to the American people in the sense of some personal and morally culpable choice. At the same time, and however it came about, a lie was told which was a critical part of the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and so part of the case for American engaging in a war of aggression, the costs of which we will be paying for generations to come. (Serious question: Is that, as I believe, an indisputable statement of fact? Or is that somehow a political statement, meaning someone would not like it said?)

Fast forward to the kind of rhetoric around President Obama’s ‘tax deal’. While I do not understand the logic of being both against the deficit, AND against any ending of temporary tax cuts for people earning over $250,000 per year AND supporting the costs of two wars, I do get that letting some temporary tax cuts go a little longer in exchange for the continuation of unemployment benefits is worth doing. There are too many people hurting right now to play games with their lives for a principle. I’m pro-pragmatism.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Dean’s Diary

December 9, 2010

I was a newly ordained deacon when I had the privilege of preaching at the wedding of a friend in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which is the ‘parish church’ of Parliament. The Canon of Westminster who also served as Rector of the parish was a lovely man called Trevor Beeson. He could not have been more kind or hospitable to this strange phenomenon of a very young English deacon ordained in The Episcopal Church (then ECUSA). He went on to serve as Dean of Winchester Cathedral from 1987-1996, during which he kept a Diary (SCM, 1997). He also published a similar account of his time at Westminster and some wonderful portraits of some of the ‘characters’ that have served the Church of England as The Bishops, The Deans and so on. A few years ago he ‘came out’ as the author of most of the clerical obituaries in The Telegraph and published a collection of them. At one point in his Winchester Diary he recounts friends being offended on his behalf when and obituary of his immediate predecessor referred to him as “possibly the last of the gentleman Deans.” He could not tell them that he has actually written the thing.

His diary recounts the challenges of a Cathedral system that gives a Dean virtually no ability to manage, rein in, discipline or otherwise count the cathedral clergy as his staff. He recounts overcoming such difficulty to raise over 7 Million pounds in a recession, the encouragement of the arts, the challenge of his wife’s progressive decline from Alzheimer’s disease, his (good) relationship with his bishop and a host of other matters. He occasionally allows his wry humor free rein with lines such as “after a long rehearsal, so-and-so officially retired.”

A fair amount of time in these years was given over to issues around the ordination of women, which he supported, but his bishop and some other members of his Chapter, did not. He made extraordinary arrangements for the consciences of those with whom he had to work who saw the ordination of women as ‘contrary to the will of God’, but after the fist women were ordained in the Cathedral he remarks that in a few years “we will wonder what all the fuss was about.” He thought it sad that his bishop should have stayed at home and missed a marvelous and significant celebration while a Suffragan carried out the ordinations.

I think about our more recent journey with regard to gay and lesbian people and hope that one day the whole church will ‘wonder what all the fuss was about’ even as I recognize that we are not there yet. I was heartened by reports of a recent meeting of our wedding guild who, I’m told, are excited about the likelihood of further Celebrations of Commitment taking place in the church and looking forward to being able to serve all of our parishioners.

If you come across anything written by Trevor Beeson, even if you think you would not be interested, I promise you will enjoy what you read.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Praying in Public

December 8, 2010

Earlier this week I prayed for the work of the Atlanta City Council, something I have done once before. I have also prayed for the House of Representatives of North Carolina and the Senate of Virginia (who gave me a lovely small Jefferson cup to remind me of the occasion). There is something strange about offering prayer in such public legislative settings and I’m not sure what makes that so.

It could be strange because of the separation of Church and State business, but constitutional buffs tell me that a firewall between the two was never intended.

Or it could be the age old problem for Christians as to whether or not to pray through or in the name of Jesus. My standard with that question is that if I am allowed to be generous it is best to be so, and if there is some implied requirement that I be so, I prefer to pray with confidence in who I am as a Christian. (On this last occasion I asked that ‘whatever our tradition of faith we may carry out the work we are given to do in the assurance of your love for us, O God.)

It might be strange to pray in a legislature as a participant in some kind of meeting that needs a ritual but really doesn’t have a natural one. On this occasion the Invocation fell between the Call to Order and Roll Call of Council Members (a quorum for the 1 p.m. meeting was present by 1.15 p.m.) and the Pledge of Allegiance. This last is always tricky for a ‘resident alien’ who is unwilling to take the oath very reasonably required of U.S. Citizens. It currently reads as follows:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

In no way do I wish to express any disrespect to my hosts, so I usually turn toward the flag, and, if in very public view, place my hand over my heart, and then remain silent.

That done, I was then ushered out, while a group was being recognized for completing a massive and successful food drive. Our need for ritual is real. This is particularly so for otherwise non religious people seeking to get married or families trying to mark the death of someone they loved but who requested ‘no funeral’. I see it most clearly a t a Presidential Inauguration. (If only they would let the church take care of that. At least we can usually organize a procession.)

All this is by no means terrible, merely odd.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

World War

December 7, 2010

This fall, a friend gave me David Fromkin’s extraordinary book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 1989). It chronicles the chaos of the era in which the Allies of Europe led to the drawing of lines on a map creating the countries of Israel, Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere (1914-1922). He sees the formation of the Middle East as a consequence of ‘The Great Game’, the age in which Britain sought to protect the road to India from French, Russians and anyone else.

One of the things that becomes most clear in the book is that the European powers introduced an artificial system of ‘states and nations’ on the assumptions that they could change the fundamental life of Islamic Asia, that they should and that while this was about extending their own power it was dressed up as being good for the Arabs.

As with everything about the First World War it is a confusing story of bureaucratic infighting, terrible communications, unbridled arrogance, all underneath a heavy layer of myth. Most of the mythology was crated in the imagination of T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

This is not a ‘happy read’, but is essential for having a clue about what is going on, (and what does not have a chance of going on) in the Middle East (including Afghanistan) today.

Ken Follett, tells a similar story in a wonderful and accessible novel of the First World War in the first volume of his Century Trilogy. It is called Fall of Giants (Dutton, 2010), and once again the arrogance of those with power in social respects and international respects, in class systems and gender inequality, in Europeans over Africans and Arabs, in Christians over Muslims and on and on. It is a sad story that caused untold suffering and slaughter and provided the seeds for societal change among those willing to be self critical. The consequence of that war was not only the Second World War. This idea is a main thrust of John Keegan’s magnificent history, The First World War (Knopf, 1999). It also fueled class struggle and bolshevism with its eventual strengthening of democratic institutions and countries, gave impetus to the case of equal rights for women in such democracies, began the rumblings that became civil rights movements and also moved the Democratic West further and further from the norms and assumptions of other peoples and systems.

I support fully the vigorous defense of our way of life and the freedoms that we enjoy within it. I remain hard pressed to understand how our aggressive wars contribute to that defense. I was never sold on the logic of invading Iraq. I thought going after Osama Bin Laden and his organization made sense. I can see some merit in trying to keep Pakistan honest and an ally. But I am unclear what virtue there is in continuing to pursue military action in Afghanistan that talks as thought the outcome will be the formation of a functioning ‘country’. Even if I thought that was a desirable goal, I can find no basis for having any hope that it is achievable through warfare.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fair Game

December 6, 2010

Fair Game is a film that I saw a couple of weeks ago and about which I keep thinking. It is the story of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA operative who was ‘outed’ in the press in concert with administration conversations about how to rein in her husband. Joe Wilson was a career member of the Foreign Service who had been an ambassador in the Clinton administration and who had written an op-ed piece for The New York Times. He believed that a statement made by President George W. Bush in a State of the Union address was wrong, and importantly so, as it was part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq and was made contrary to the report of an investigation he had carried out as a temporary consultant for the CIA.

The movie is really more about the effects on the lives of Plame and Wilson more than it is a political screed. Nonetheless, it brings me back to the question I have had since the beginning: Why did we invade Iraq? I once had the privilege of being in a small group in conversation with journalists Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez, soon after the infamous “Mission Accomplished” declaration. Neither of them could really answer the question as to why we had troops fighting and dying in Iraq. The idea of there being WMDs that had been sold to us in a concerted campaign that included the President’s State of the Union Address and Colin Powell’s ‘Adlai moment’ at the UN had been discredited, as had the basis for that belief.

I think it came down to people in an administration who were ‘believers’. The believed that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator and may well have been correct about that. They believed that Iraq and the world would be better off without him leading a strategically critical country. They also believed that Iraq, with its vast oil reserves and relatively ‘secular’ government was ripe for ‘nation building’ and the creation of a real ally in the Region. It is not clear that these last beliefs were based on much beyond a certainty that any right thinking person would want democracy as their form of government. That strikes me then and strikes me now as a flimsy basis for sending troops to fight and die.

We were the aggressors in that war. Traditional notions of ‘reparations’ don’t seem to apply. And it looks as though we will be paying for our choices for a long time to come. Our financial situation in general and our national debt in particular are not solely the problem of bankers and sub-prime mortgages. Surely trying to wage the most expensive war in history without asking for sacrifice from everybody to pay for it is bonkers. We really should require that engaging a war on this scale should require an automatic commitment to a draft. That would help clarify the decision making process and ensure that we are not dying for the opinions and beliefs of those who have only political ideas at stake.

Monday, November 29, 2010

English Church Buildings

November 29, 2010

Our friend Giles Fraser has written an article for the Church Times making a utilitarian case fro the maintenance of Church buildings in England rather than their being ‘sold off’ as ‘too expensive. He writes “As the new National Churches Trust survey makes absolutely clear, the 47,000 places of worship in the UK provide the backbone of civil society.”

While this may or may not be a bit grandiose, he addresses neither the problem of who should pay for the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings, nor the opportunity cost in terms of mission for doing so.

My father is treasurer of a small church. A three minute walk across the fields brings you to either the church in Little Thurlow or the church in Great Thurlow depending on which way you walk. These two pretty village church buildings are part of an eight parish cure currently in need of a Rector. In spite of relatively successful “cure services” where everyone is expected to go to a single service once a month or so, the real desire of the villagers is to have ‘their’ church maintained and used. Last Sunday 15 people were reported present for a ‘Service of the Word’ led by a lay reader.

My middle brother is part of a different eight parish cure. His rector announced last Sunday that he was leaving for a single parish cure in another county. There were seven people present that day including the rector and his wife and retired priest.

I don’t know the ins and outs of financing the maintenance of these buildings. I do know that the Diocese continues to take and distribute the lion’s share of any money collected for all the good work that churches do together such as work in schools, prisons, hospitals and other institutions of society within the diocesan boundaries. I also know that the system is ‘top down’ and pretty dispiriting for those charged with raising the money and keeping the buildings open.

Both sets of villages are assured that it will be ‘a while’ before they can expect to have a rector. Not too many people are looking to do ‘rural ministry’, and when they are, they are more likely to be interested in those places where a single congregation can afford to sustain a rector by themselves.

So back to the buildings. There is no doubt that Canon Fraser is right and that these places of worship are integral to the life and history of the localities in which they are found. Many struggling parishes could manage a lot better fi they were able to ‘keep’ more of the money they raised and were granted more autonomy as to how to spend that money. Nonetheless it is really hard to see how a handful of parishioners can afford to maintain a medieval building, let alone support their clergy. In the age of fast cars it is worth noting that both my parents and my brothers can be at a Cathedral for worship within a 20 minute drive on a Sunday.

I’m glad this is not my problem to solve, but I would have to be thinking along the lines of helping congregations develop a plan to grow in their support of the work they carry out, including the maintenance of buildings. If in, say, five years they were not able to make it, then they would have a number of options for ‘Plan B’—mothballing, closing or selling some buildings. Part of the plan could include merging some of the institutional and diocesan responsibilities with parish expectations.

I’m perfectly certain there are hundreds of ‘reasons’ why such an approach is not acceptable to one party or another, but surely something has to give if the Church of England is to be a vital force that can really serve as “the backbone of civil society’.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Proposed Anglican Covenant Limps Along

November 28, 2010
The First Sunday in Advent

The First Sunday in Advent seemed a good time to return to occasional ‘blogging’ in and for our parish. The proposed Anglican Covenant is a necessary, albeit, unfortunate topic.

The Covenant was first proposed in “The Windsor Report” as a response to conflict among Anglicans following the Consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Some Anglicans refused to attend Holy Communion with others as a result.

What has emerged since those days are two key developments. One is that a number of Anglicans have decided to follow a path of ‘purity of doctrine’ which mostly seems to mean in practice a denial of the full humanity of women (at least as far as the Church is concerned) and the condemnation of homosexuality. A not insignificant number of Episcopalians have left The Episcopal Church and joined a new denomination of self-styled Anglicans. Some provinces, notably in Africa, have ‘recognized’ and declared themselves ‘in communion’ with this new effort.

The other key development is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight and authority behind the development of an Anglican Covenant that is now making its way through the provinces of the Communion for ‘response’. The ‘driver’ for this wordy effort is found in the commentary on the controversial section 4.2 which reads “From our recent history it is evident that some developments bring dispute, disruption and tension. The clear majority of responses demonstrated that a section of the Covenant which seeks to provide an ordered way for the Communion to approach disagreement remains a necessary feature of the Covenant.” The effort is to provide some means of resolving disputes without disrupting the Communion. The key principles are ‘inter-dependence and mutual accountability’.

The Archbishop told the General Synod of the Church of England that without the Covenant we could expect the dismantling of the Communion ‘piece by piece’. The commentary on section 4.2 of the document acknowledges, then dismisses, my position. “There remains in some quarters a lingering feeling that being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement.” I would not characterize my position as “a lingering feeling”, nor as the belief that ‘being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement”. I would characterize my position as the belief that “being in Communion requires being in communion or table fellowship irrespective of cultural differences.”

I see no good coming from continued efforts to keep this thing alive, especially in light of a statement made by leaders of the conservative movement known as GAFCON in the middle of the General Synod of the C of E saying that the Covenant is not satisfactory to them as it does not go far enough.

We have learned in this country that there really is no placating the group that wants a church founded on some notion of ‘purity of doctrine’ rather than the infinitely more messy search for ‘right relationship’, itself a gift of grace when made manifest, and in whose service doctrine is developed, put to use, and modified over time. The foundation for any scheme of union has been and should remain the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.For these reasons I have signed on to a group led by an international group of respected ‘bloggers’ called “No Anglican Covenant”.
We may well wind up with a number of provinces ‘signing on’. They, presumably, would be the ones invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s every-ten-year-gathering. Those who do not sign on might be accorded some kind of observer status or could possibly free up a great deal of money for mission rather than meetings. I’m not knocking meetings and I’m not knocking costly investment in relationship. I’m pointing out that should Anglicanism be defined by our having some central ‘Standing Committee’ who can help us find our way through the ‘relational consequences of serious disputes’, that our not being invited to the party is not the end of the world.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Preparing for a Diverse World

September 25, 2010

When I took Alexander to the University of Chicago we were struck by the wide variety of nationalities and interests that were manifest among freshman in his house. His roommate is of Indian descent from Los Angeles. I believe we heard as a first language Russian, Turkish, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic from among the sixty or so freshmen who were moving in. (I sometimes had to ask what language they were speaking.) The President of the University, Robert Zimmer made much of this reality in his remarks at the opening convocation. He was clear that diversity of opinion and perspective was not a substitute for rigorous academic enquiry but wad the context for really difficult work and the formation of appropriate judgments. Diversity of the kind he applauds does not mean ‘multiple truths’ or relativism, but what I would call hard spiritual work.

For all our socio-economic and other diversity at All Saints’, the world in which we and our children will be living is already much more international and complex than we sometimes experience in our comfort zones. This is why we have said that it is through engaging God and Neighbor that we grow in faith. Learning to recognize, understand and even appreciate difference are critical skills for people of faith. How can we build the development of those skills into our common life?

The work of our 2020 groups looking at various strategic issues such as this one hold promise with clear work in the area of diversity being included in leadership development, global missions, preparation for and reflection on transformational journeys of various kinds and so on. This will demand some of our time and attention and resources as we move forward. Anyone who wants a taste of hat this world is like could visit the student union building at Georgia Tech for a glimpse in to the future that is already present in many of the formative places for students in this country.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Saint Paul and the Redeemer

September 20, 2010

Yesterday, before moving Alexander into his dormitory at the University of Chicago, I attended the 8 am Eucharist at the nearest parish to the campus. St Paul and the Redeemer seemed to be a vibrant place with all the signs of good leadership under a rector called Peter Lane, careful, thoughtful liturgy, an engaged multi racial group of about 15 or 20 for the early service, sounds of a choir practicing in the background, an attractive nave set up in the round with the altar in the center, good visitor information and on and on.

The new assistant Rector, Ray Massenberg preached an excellent homily in which he addressed the hard question of the parable of the unjust steward while introducing an expanded feeding ministry as a spiritual matter for all those engaged in it. I was particularly struck by his description of serving canned food to those in need from the church proper, how some community developed and the organist who was present played some impromptu hymns. We were treated to a careful, thoughtful sermon, inviting congregational response in a new initiative at the onset of the program year from a deacon who had been learning the needs of the surrounding area. This has all the signs of something that will become central to the identity of the congregation which describes itself as “an Episcopal Community.”

Mr. Massenberg referenced the recent report that one in seven Americans are now living below the federally determined poverty level. I picked up a book called Out of Reach (Yale, 2009) by a member of the U Chicago faculty called Scott Allard. He looks at the ways in which the American ‘safety net’ has changed over the years from cash assistance to programmatic and systemic assistance. He looks at the increased role of non profits and faith based organizations in the delivery of help and the question of ‘place’ or ‘geography’ including community y trust in the ability of the poor to access such services. He addresses the difficulty of service providers who are juggling uncertain funding among other challenges in looking at larger policy issues and the tendency of government agencies to become distant from the realties as they focus on ‘block funding’. I don’t know the field well but suspect that this is an important book that should be read by those who ought to be looking at how we respond to the reality of the poor.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Vignettes

September 13, 2010

Newsweek (September 13, 2010 p.21f) tells the story of Hafiz Hanif, a young Al Qaida recruit. He goes back and forth to his home while training to make bomb vests for would be suicide bombers, use guns and explosives and the like. He remembers finding the head of one of the trainers after a US drone attack on his camp. He sometimes got sent on the food run to buy supplies for the entire camp. He reported never being short of cash for those kind of necessities. He wrote his last will and testament on his 16th birthday as all would be suicide bombers do, urging his male kinsmen to ”join the jihad, seek martyrdom and see him again in the company of the virgins.” The reporters, Sami Yousfzai and Ron Moreau convey a stunning sense that all this is quite normal in the eyes of their subject who is simply a boy growing up in unusual circumstances.

A friend who has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan in recent years reports the regular rape of recruits by more senior members of the Afghan military and Police. This, he says is all bound up with a perversion of the belief that there will be virgins in Paradise. Muslim women must be kept pure and protected (with the Burqa and other veils for example) meaning that male ‘needs’ must be met with boys or with young Christian women who have been kidnapped for the sex-slave trade. In some strange moral calculus this all seems to be OK.

The Week (#780, August 21, 2010) reprints much of an article from The Times Magazine/N.I. Syndication telling the story of a man in Pakistan who helps rescue young British girls from forced marriages, often contracted for purposes of acquiring visas for men to enter England with, or more often without their brides. Albert David is the rescuer who approves of arranged marriages as a cultural tradition and expression, but not these forced marriages that are akin to kidnapping and imprisonment. The article tells of Tania whose 16th Birthday present was a one way ticket to Pakistan and to a kind of perversion of marriage.

Where do we see the equivalent perversion of all that is good and holy and healthy in Christianity? When does our sense of ‘morality’ lead us off the rails with oppression, degradation and hatred dressed up as religion? We can certainly point to the laws that were proposed last year in Uganda that would criminalize all kinds of associations with homosexuality allowing the death penalty in some cases. We know that in some sense Christians support such moves because they are in competition with legalistic forms of Islam for ‘market share’ and seem to forget the fundamental Christian teaching about God’s grace. But what about closer to home? Are we, as President Obama said of Islam recently, a “religion of peace”?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The War in Iraq and Economy at Home

September 2, 2010

I thought President Obama struck all the right notes in his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday, most especially in his oft repeated and heartfelt praise for those who have fought and those who have died in our wars. He backed it up with improved long term healthcare and a new GI bill. Good stuff. I do not understand to this day why we decided to invade Iraq and continue to hope that our intervention and all the lives that have been lost can yet be the seeds of something hopeful for the people of that region (explicitly including the Kurds in the North).

All of that said, I was also pleased to hear the reminder that we have a long way to go on the home front in a stagnant economy. I‘m among those who believe that rescuing the car companies and some banks (of which I did not approve) and providing stimulus money (of which I did approve) seem to have staved off the worst kind of recession. I see healthcare reform as a great victory even knowing that we have yet to see exactly how things will look in three or five years. The resistance to change was massive and predictable. But no one of good will and good sense can really suggest in good faith that some kind of change was not essential. In other words I’m not disheartened by how things are progressing and am among those who would give President Obama a high approval rating on everything except winning the PR battle.

As I think about what all this means for us and for our parish, I’m aware that we are facing significant capital needs in the not-too-distant-future. We are going to have to be very creative about how to move forward in meeting those needs in a climate that is not auspicious for a traditional capital campaign. Most of the pundits to who I listen are suggesting that ‘recovery’ in Atlanta will not be real and true until the commercial and residential real estate markets show signs of sustained positive movement. For many of us, ‘capital’ is in our homes and that is where we have been most visibly challenged. In one example of how this works, the wonderful ministry of Canterbury Court is facing no waiting list for admission for the first time in many years. This is less to do with the recent and beautiful expansion and more to do, I suspect, with the reality that most people need to sell their homes in order to move to Canterbury. In this climate, that movement is not happening. The ripple effect of the real estate market in our city will be a precondition for our being able to seek the kinds of resources we need in traditional ways. What will non-traditional and creative funding look like for us in the next five or ten or fifteen years? It will be exciting thinking through some answers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Mosque

August 30, 2010

A number of you have asked whether I would comment on the proposed Islamic Center to replace an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory store in the vicinity of Ground Zero. The opposition to this work is profoundly un-American in that it is opposed to freedom of religion. This is, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’.

That said, the phenomenon of the opposition itself is interesting. Clearly there is a widely supported antipathy to Islam being expressed. We are also hearing something very like religious fervor about Ground Zero itself when it is described as ‘holy ground’ that is somehow being ‘desecrated’ if Muslims have a community and educational center with a prayer room in it somewhere within a few blocks of what used to be the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

I don’t really know what to make of the Ground Zero Religion except that it seems to be a kind of visceral and American response to disease about people for whom the separation of ‘church and state’ or ‘religion and politics’ is nonsense, people who are engaged actively throughout the world in trying to turn majority Muslim countries into effective theocracies. The religious impulse applied to Ground Zero converts the anti-Islamic sentiment into an issue of one religion’s freedom over against that of another and therefore somehow within the bounds of the common life of those who live in this country.

Akbar Ahmed of American University has offered a kind of ‘Muslim Typology’ in his Journey Into Islam in which he recognizes the mystical strain of Sufism. He bemoans the waning of modernist Islam of which he is a part, and which most Americans would recognize (rightly or wrongly) as inherently ‘moderate’. He sees the majority of Muslims as adhering to traditionalist and anti-modernist expressions of the faith that would include everyone from our friends of the Atlanta Masjid on 14th Street to members of Al-Quaida. If he is right then it is difficult for many Muslim leaders to really and truly distinguish themselves from the kind of Islam that suborns terrorism. It might not be just a prejudice of Western Media that makes the condemnations of murderous violence seem so ‘muted’. This is not a view that pleases me, nor is it one with which my friends who are more deeply involved in interfaith conversation than I am, agree.

The issues of immigration, American identity, the salad bowl full of distinctive identities over against the old melting pot in which everyone eventually assimilates in to something recognizably ‘American’, the relationship of religion to national life and so on are more than can or should be addressed in a short blog piece. The legalities of the proposed Islamic Center seem clear to this non-lawyer. The intricacies of the religious and nationalist impulses revealed in the political football aspects of this issue are complex and worthy of sustained attention and conversation.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proposition 8 and Ugandan Anglicans

August 10, 2010

I cannot help but contrast the elegant ruling in the case to overturn California’s Proposition 8 which outlawed gay marriage and the Anglican Church of Uganda’s continued support for criminalization of gay and lesbian people. The California ruling systematically examines the arguments presented at the original trial including the ideas that:
· Denial of marriage to same-sex couples preserves marriage.
· Denial of marriage to same-sex couples allows gays and lesbians to live privately without requiring others, including (perhaps especially) children, to recognize or acknowledge the existence of same sex couples.
· Denial of marriage to same-sex couples protects children.
· The ideal child-rearing environment requires one male parent and one female parent.
· Marriage is different in nature depending on the sex of the spouses, and an opposite-sex couple’s marriage is superior to a same-sex couple’s marriage.
· Same-sex couples’ marriages redefine opposite-sex couples’ marriages.

Episcopal Café reports that Jesse Masai has written in an article called “The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans” as follows:

“The church’s position on human sexuality is consistent with its basis of faith and doctrine and has been stated very clearly over the years as reflected in various documents,” she said. “From a careful and critical reading of Scripture, homosexual practice has no place in God’s design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation, or his plan of redemption.
“The Church of Uganda believes that homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture. At the same time, we are committed at all levels to counseling, healing, and prayer for people with homosexual orientation. The church is a safe place for individuals who are confused about their sexuality or struggling with sexual brokenness, to seek help and healing.”
On the bill itself, she continued, the COU prefers that current law (Penal Code Cap. 120) be amended, clarifying gaps, protecting all parties from uneven enforcement and from the anti-homosexuality bill’s encroachment into family life and church counsel. Currently, the bill outlaws failure to inform authorities of homosexual activity, much as standard criminal law forbids failure to testify concerning wrongful acts observed. Ugandan law protects underage girls from sexual predators, Onapito explained, but not underage boys.
The COU wants the law to protect, not criminalize, confidential relationships of medical, pastoral, and counseling professionals and their clients, she said. An amended Penal Code must, in fairness and for the protection of youth, specify lesbianism, bestiality, and “other sexual perversions” as targeted behaviors. The free marketplace of ideas must have legal boundaries prohibiting material that “promotes homosexuality as normal or as [merely] an alternative lifestyle.”
Onapito added that while the church’s position may be contrary to Western notions of fair treatment for gays, it hardly poses the desperate risk to life and freedom that gay rights advocates fear. There should be no doubt, however, that the COU wants to ensure that “sexual orientation is excluded as a protected human right.”

Would that a reasonable judge would do the kind of rigorous research and work needed to examine statements such as “The church’s position on human sexuality is consistent with its basis of faith and doctrine and has been stated very clearly over the years as reflected in various documents.” Whether this prejudice is ‘consistent’ with ‘the Church’s basis of faith and doctrine’ is precisely what is in dispute and saying it is so –even while exhibiting the most passionate commitment to the idea-- does not necessarily make it so.

Why have many Ugandan Anglicans and their allies decided to make homosexuality their cause célèbre and align it with anti -Western sentiment? I don’t know the answer, but part of it must be demonstrating that Christians are just as legalistic and vicious as those of their Muslim neighbors who favor the imposition of Sharia. I continue to believe that rather than trying to out-moralize Muslim neighbors, Christians would do better to preach grace and to inspire others by their loving generosity. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword, will they not?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ann Rice Gives up on Christian Community

August 4, 2010

Ann Rice has recently declared in her blog (with thanks to Scott May and the Episcopal Café):

“For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

And later:

“As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

There have been a flurry of responses including a group ‘welcoming her to the UCC’ and a copy cat effort to tell her that the Episcopal Church is where she needs to be. It does seem that most people think that what she is really leaving is the Roman Catholic Church.

The various comment streams that I have seen on this suggest that there are many people who feel as she does about the Church but who do not seem to talk about worship or community. Being connected to a community that has deep disagreements in its midst about social and ethical issues also means recognizing that we are all creatures of God. Many commentators sympathize with Ms. Rice’s need to be clear about who she has been created to be without being told that she is wrong on every front by Christians who seem to ‘know better’ and who on every front appear to be ‘hypocritical’.

Even Ms. Rice and those who sympathize with her appear to be falling into the trap of those whom they are rejecting and that is assuming that ‘The Truth’ is both singular and obvious. We live in a series of interconnected and sometimes conflicting imaginative worlds shaped by philosophy, science, the arts and so on. ‘Humanity’ is not the same post Galileo or Descartes or Einstein as it was before them. But it takes a long time for the consequences of such insights to become normative in any sense and then, in time, be supplanted by new movements. All of them affect people of faith along with everyone else.

The consequence of this is that Christian Community becomes a very visible place in which those major shifts in perception are navigated thoughtfully and critically (and often with much weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth). It is not always fun and there are usually power games being played in the process as one group or another seeks to ‘hang on’ to their sense of security and place in the world, fearing that some shift will shake them up. This will be particularly true with any issue that is in any sense ‘ethical’ because in the end, ethics are deeply personal and none of us really like our worlds being shaken. ‘Don’t ask. Don’t tell’ is a compromise that we live with and prefer in many spheres because it means that we can hang on to whatever structures we live within (usually the ‘values’ we were taught in our formative years) without having to make difficult shifts.

In one example: a recent conversation in our staff about how to be more conscious of our using an expanded range of images and language for talking about God and humanity will mean that our children won’t have to do the difficult work of ‘undoing’ or ‘unlearning’ things we have taught them.

So while I wish Ms. Rice well, I choose to stay among people who are gathering around the Communion Table each week in the midst of hearing an enacting the story of what is of true and ultimate worth, together seeking and allowing our lives to be shaped by what really matters, even re cognizing that there are frequently deep disagreements among us about how we would like the world to be. In the end, our common humanity is more ‘real’ tan our differences, but our differences and how we deal with them can have a great deal to do with our (sometimes unwitting) inhumanity to each other.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


July 31, 2010

Much has been published in recent weeks regarding what our strategy might be in the longest war of American History. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former official in the recent Bush administration has made more sense to me than anyone else thus far. Writing in Newsweek (July 26, 2010) he explores various options including ‘staying the course’, immediate withdrawal, ‘reconciliation’, ‘partition’ and ‘decentralization’. Haas sees many potential advantages of this last option which involves the US providing arms and training to local leaders who resist Al Qaida. It works with the Afghani tradition of a weak center and strong periphery and would allow the majority of US troops to return home. He describes this more as a ‘patchwork quilt’ than a partition’. He is not naïve about the challenges of any policy but believes that we are closer to achieving the goals of preventing Al Qaida from finding safe haven in Afghanistan and making sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the (relative) stability of Pakistan.

There is clearly a divide among people of both major parties in Washington about how best to proceed that ironically seems to achieve a certain number of potentially bi-partisan alliances.

In the background of all this, we must remember what we are doing to the young men and women who are fighting this war. Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) has written War, a compilation of his thoughts and experiences during a sustained number of visits to Afghanistan war zones as an embedded reporter. He is particularly good in reminding us that we cannot view this war or our troops through the lens of Vietnam. In this war our troops are volunteers and, for the most part, proud to be serving their country. At the same time Junger addresses some of what makes war so intense: everything matters to everyone on the most mundane level. Smelly urine points to dehydration and that soldier is likely to fade out in a firefight. An unlaced shoe is a danger to everyone and so on. This kind of community and intensity are part of what makes return to life without war so very challenging. It sounded to me akin to why some practitioners of the twelve steps of AA and its offshoots find that community so much more helpful than church. In AA there is a certain level on which drinking or not is a matter of life or death. Salvation is literal and specific to the task of not drinking alcohol. A real sense of community can develop to the extent that people can look as if they are substituting a kind of ‘addiction’ to AA itself in some extreme cases.

Our solders are not inclined to philosophy or the life of the mind as Junger observes them on the front lines. Every instinct is being honed toward killing and not being killed to the extent that too long without a fight can lead to the creation of violence in the camp itself.

We know that our troops are being asked to serve longer and more frequent foreign tours than at any point in the past. We know that Afghanistan is a quagmire of corruption and we know that every nation and empire that has attempted to subdue it has failed. Mr. Haas gives me hope that there is a sensible way forward that takes seriously our security interests in the region, works with the tides of history in that part of the world rather than attempting to force a new direction and holds hope of bringing many of our young men and women home before we further damage them by making it ever more difficult to re-enter a society that is not living on the front lines of a war minute by minute.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Four Corners of the Sky

July 27, 2010

Michael Malone is a talented man from North Carolina. In addition to being a successful script writer for soap operas, he has produced a number of literary detective novels. He has also written a great ‘Odyssey’ tale called Handling Sin which is one of the best works of fiction I have read in recent years and which sent me back to re-reading the original and watching O Brother with new appreciation. His most recent work is called The Four Corners of the Sky which is variously a mystery about a mostly charming and enigmatic con man and a story of a woman naval pilot trying to discover who she is through discovering more about the mysterious crook who is her father and anything about who her mother might be. For some, the strange characters and constant movement of the book will be a bit much but for me it kept me engaged the whole way through even if a little judicious editing was in order.

The business of who we are and who we ought to be has sent me back to one of the most substantial works of theology to come out in recent years: a work of Christian theological anthropology called Eccentric Existence by
David H. Kelsey. He sees the questions of anthropology being essentially questions around ‘what are we?’, ‘who am I or who are we?’ and ‘How ought we to be?’

What makes anthropology specifically Christian are ‘non-negotiable’ bedrock beliefs we he articulates as being a) God actively relates to human beings to create them; b)to draw them to eschatological consummation; and c) to reconcile them when they are alienated from God.

This is a dense theoretical work of ‘secondary theology’ that I am hoping can shape some new self discovery for me in relation to God in coming months

Monday, July 12, 2010

Current goings-on in the C of E

July 12, 2010

More leaked information from the Crown nominations Committee meant that the attempt to derail serious consideration of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark was successful. Most of the press and blogosphere seems to blame Rowan Williams for another ‘betrayal’. I doubt that is fair as I cannot imagine him supporting John’s candidacy in the current circumstances anyway.

What has happened since then that has led to calls for his resignation is that the Synod of th Church of England meeting in York has defeated his proposal for some kind of compromise on the question of women bishops. In essence the proposal in which he was vociferously supported by the Archbishop of York (and made clear that he hoped that it wouldn’t be seen as a loyalty test) was that male bishops should be able to work alongside women to provide ‘care’ for parishes and people who decline to accept the ministry of women bishops. Given that he appears to have thrown his weight and authority behind getting the compromise passed it is not surprising that it has been seen as a loyalty test. They synod narrowly defeated the proposal.

Now the press is predicting a schism in the C of E as traditionalists who seem to believe in the depths of their being that it is wrong for women to be ordained at all, let alone as bishops, sort out whether to jump ship and take the well traveled road to Rome on the red carpet that Benedict has laid out to help with his bolstering the conservative flavor of his church while dealing with the clergy shortage at the same time.

I think that schism is more likely when institutional unity is made into a false God. This kind of unity appears to come at the expense of relationship-across-difference and is one in which my view of the world is ‘more important than yours even though the tides of opinion in the church are making me a minority’. I continue to hope that Anglicanism can serve as a catholic communion based on that kind of right relationship around the Lord’s Table rather than a purely hierarchical institution.

I am among those who have been disappointed that Archbishop Williams has chosen to try and hold things together by placating conservatives rather than using his full moral authority to teach what we thought he believed and urge all kinds of people with minority views (on an international basis that would include TEC) to stay at the table. Unfortunately what we now call ‘traditionalists’ (even though that is a name I would happily use to describe myself in some definition that was not part of the political spin) have a different vision of church. They appear to want to hold back the kinds of shifts in power that appear tome to be part and parcel of the consequence of gospel. And that drives them into the position of wanting to be part of some kind of purity sect.

I have, until quite recently, held all kinds of minority views within the church and can testify that it is not such a terrible place to be. I hope that Bishops will lead from conviction about something other than unity through placating those with whom they disagree and that traditionalists will set aside their desires to control the vision of world and church which is unfolding and find ways to stay in relationship with their brothers and sisters.

If that were possible then perhaps church gatherings could be about our response to the persecution of Christians around the world, the possibility of right relationship with Muslims and others, and even some kind of contribution to the work of peacemaking in those places where there is war.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rumors from Southwark

July 7, 2010

There have been a series of articles, blogs and the like, --all officially uncontested—that Dr. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Albans in the C of E, is to be offered as a nominee to be Bishop of Southwark. Dr. John, you may recall, was forced to withdraw from nomination as (Suffragan) Bishop of Reading because he is partnered and gay while professing celibacy. Apparently the other name rumored to be in the mix is the Rector of St. Martin’s in the Fields in central London who carries his own baggage.

A blog entry by
Colin Coward spells out the issues in terms of a debate between Giles Frazer and Chris Sugden, the Executive Director of Anglican Mainstream. You can read it here.

It will be interesting to see whether it actually happens and if so, how Rowan Williams will cope while he is up to his armpits in trying to have it both ways on the question of whether women can be bishops. It is certainly silly to say that Jeffrey John can be a dean but not a bishop, just as it is silly to say that a woman can be a priest but not a bishop. All the usual players are making the usual threats. “They will know we are Christians by our Love”.

The Sorry Saga of the Proposed Anglican Covenant Continues

July 7, 2010

In recent weeks the Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia have accepted the first three parts of the proposed Anglican Covenant and have rejected the fourth section. More recently, the Province of Mexico has approved the proposed Covenant in its entirety. This has won praise from Kenneth Kearon, the Secretary-General of the Communion. Paul Handley, writing for The Guardian has compared the process to “introducing the rules of football 100 years after the start of international tournaments.” The Archbishop of Canterbury has clearly placed his eggs in the Covenant basket opting for some kind of largely mythical ‘institutional unity’ at the expense of gay and lesbian people to such a degree that he found it hard to condemn Ugandan proposals for laws that would enact a death penalty for those found to be gay and punishment for those who concealed them which appeared to be supported by Anglican bishops there.

I’m tired of the whole thing. The Church of England is ‘a church’ governed by internally agreed up on rules and regulations in the form of constitution and canons. So is The Episcopal Church. So are each of the 39 interdependent provinces that make up the Anglican Communion (which itself is not ‘a church’). The Covenant is the beginning of producing something that could serve as a constitution for a kind of international ‘church’ with increasingly centralized power and control in the form of a ‘standing committee’ (which sometimes smells like the old soviet politburo to me). All this appears to me to make us susceptible to the old and ignorant taunt that we are ‘Roman Catholic Lite’. I continue to pray that we will continue to be a communion who model catholicity through staying in relationship through difficult (‘divisive’) controversies. There is no law that will set us free however good some rules may look to some.

I continue to believe it important that we find ways to be in relationship with Christians very different from us in Rio and Kasulu. I think it important that we continue to support such inter-Anglican efforts as providing for an Observer at the United Nations and the work of the Compass Rose Society in spite of the silly games by which Americans are being excluded from ecumenical conversations for proceeding with the consecration of a lesbian woman in Los Angeles, while others who have been deemed to have ‘ignored the moratoria’ are ‘being investigated’. At some point that work will become something less about relationship and more about giving material support to those who do not wish to be in relationship with us apart from whatever money we might provide. If and when such a time comes the current form of the Anglican project will be over. That would be a great loss in my view, but not the end of the world. The truth will still set us free.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jane Shaw

June 30, 2010

The Dean of New College, Oxford has been called to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. She is as well known figure in the English church (and friend and classmate of our Kanuga speaker, Giles Fraser.) You may be aware that the C of E has been getting itself in a big twist over the inevitability of Women being appointed and consecrated as Bishops and how they will handle/care for those who believe this a theological impossibility. When I asked my mother if she know about the appointment she said she didn’t “but supposed that any talented woman get tired of waiting to be a bishop”.

This looks like a great call and you can read about Dean Shaw here

Galatians 5

June 30, 2010

Last Sunday’s readings have set me on a path of thinking more about how Paul provides a basis for making ethical decisions on just about any controversial issue and at the same time how an ethical ‘rule of thumb’ (or indeed any rule or law) will never be able to save us from the real complexities of life which require our regular acknowledgment that we are not God and are in need of forgiveness. Here is how I get there:
• I assume Jesus’ bias toward the poor based on his concern and the prophetic concern of the tradition for the weak, the widow, the children, the sick, the stranger and the outcast.
• I think of 1 Thessalonians 5:21. “Test all things and hold fast to that which is good.”
• Paul outlines what is ‘good’ as the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 (almost a summary of the whole epistle which deals with the relationship of Gentile Christians to the Mosaic Law.
• So in any given controversy I ask whether we can identify an increase in peace, joy, hope, kindness and the like (especially among those who identify as less powerful).
• The I listen to the claims of those (especially those who we identify as ‘more powerful’) that they are experiencing loss, factions, anger, dissention, envy and the rest as a result of whatever change is being brought about by emphasis on any particular ethical issue.
• Next, I ask whether the outcome of any debate in any way reduces the capacity of those who believe themselves to be ‘losing’ for peace, joy, kindness etc. This is not to say that there might be real loss: income, status, influence etc in any Magnifcat change, but that such loss is not the same as loss of capacity for the fruits of the Spirit which I do not see as dependent on such things.
• Finally, I recognize that even the best rule of thumb or process does not guarantee that there will be no moral ambiguity when we are addressing complex issues. I note, for example, that those who stress ‘individual responsibility’ are often directing such emphasis at the poor; and that those who abuse ‘community responsibility’ are frequently the poor themselves. There is no simple answer and in all our broken relationships lie opportunities for confession, forgiveness, grace and an increase in our enjoying the fruits of the Spirit.

Dueling Letters

June 30, 2010

Early this month I reacted to a Pentecost Letter by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Subsequently we received a pastoral letter from our own Presiding Bishop that was a much more satisfying and hopeful vision of the church. It has been shared widely in our parish. Some have suggested that Bishop Jefferts Schori’s history is wrong, particularly regarding the Council of Trent. That has struck me as a way of attempting to undermine the main thrust of the ecclesiology of the letter which better expresses the nature of Anglicanism as I understand and seek to live it than the rather fussy and juridical letter of the ABC.

The threats articulated by the Archbishop of ‘discipline’ for provinces that have ignored the ‘moratoria’ suggested in the Windsor Report and elsewhere against the consecration of gay or lesbian bishops, moving toward the blessing or celebration of same sex unions, and ‘border crossing’ by bishops from one province interfering in the life and worship of another. Thus far the only province so disciplined is...wait for it…you guessed it…The Episcopal Church! Yes, our representatives to various ecumenical conversations have been told to withdraw or in one instance, asked to serve as a ‘consultant’. The logic for this is that TEC members cannot represent Anglicanism when it so clearly will not abide by Lambeth resolutions seen as expressing ‘the mind of the church’. Apparently the vibrant bilateral conversation sin which we are engaged are of little matter where we seem to be participating quite well and fruitfully. Our inconvenient beliefs and actions are thought to ‘confusing’ to our conversation partners. Rather than acknowledging challenging differences as being integral to our identity as a communion, the ABC and the Secretary General of the communion are trying to make them go away in favor of an organizational and hierarchical ecclesiology. If that is who we want to be, we really should reunite with Rome and submit ourselves to the Pope. I still believe in the possibility of an alternative and relational vision of catholicity that I thought was the hallmark of Anglicanism over against that (perfectly good alternative, but alternative nonetheless) of Rome.

Removing people from conversation might allay some anxiety in the short term but it won’t really solve the deeper problem.

I wish that the ABC would have used his office to teach and model theological reflection conversation about the substance of the issues that divide us rather than focusing on a controversial ecclesiological vision and using power mechanisms to enforce it without addressing the underlying issue of the proper place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, acknowledging that there is real and substantial debate about this, that there are clear cultural tensions and that there are divisions within provinces but that the positions of those who wish to move from tolerance to affirmation of gay and lesbian people are theologically considered, legitimate, and have long been discuss

Words in Summer

June 30, 2010

I have sometimes thought that “A Word from the Rector” should be restyled “Far Too Many Words from the Rector” or perhaps simply “Verbosity”. I’ve enjoyed a break (including a break from blogging) but have been gratified by the fact that some of you have noticed and commented that you miss these ruminations.

A fair bit has been going on in the field of Anglicana, but none of it as interesting as the World Cup. My earliest national sporting memory is of watching the World Cup final in 1966 during which England beat West Germany 4-2 in London. I remember that there was a controversial goal in that match scored by Geoff Hurst of West Ham United. It seems that history has reversed itself with controversy in the recent match in which Germany saw England out of the cup.

In the 1070’s there was a Campaign for Real Ale in England known as CAMRA with the goal of reversing the post war trend toward fizzy keg beer, and urging a return to ‘pure’ local brews. I remember going to a finalist in the Pub of the Year competition in London as a guest of a CAMRA member. The place was crowded and smoky and we drank Flowers Beer from kegs mounted on the bar. We were served the dregs evidenced by the fact that the bung was removed from the barrel to get the last drops into our mugs. It was an indescribably filthy drink. My host declared that “one of the great things about real ale is that it is unpredictable”.

Now I’m a fan of limited production, well kept, local brews. (My favorite is Abbott Ale by Greene King, a brewery in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk). There is, however, something to be said for technological innovation that ensured a reliable product as well. The governing body of World Soccer (FIFA) has resisted the use of technology to confirm or alter the decisions of referees arguing that the absence of technology is one of the attractions of the sport. I’m not among those who are attracted when in game after game television shows game changing decisions to be in error time after time and from every conceivable angle. My guess is that some kind of official television review will be in place for the 2014 World Cup as has been allowed in other sports. It will not detract from our enjoyment one whit as best I can tell.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Pentecost Letter

May 31, 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written a Pentecost Letter in which he proposes that representatives of various (unnamed) provinces who have not begun or continued to observe the ‘moratoria’ (against the consecration of (openly) gay or lesbian bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or interference by one province in the governance of another) with draw from various councils. I fail to see how this ‘moves the ball forward’ and am glad I do not have his job.

Among the marks of Pentecost seems to be the breaking of the boundaries of race, language and religion through a radically new and Spirited sense of what it is to be human. The letter gives me the sense of a thoughtful Christian doing his best with a tricky situation more than giving me a powerful sense of the redemptive and freeing reality of Good News. I still wish that Archbishop Williams would lead from belief about the underlying issues rather than trying to manage disagreement through wordy ecclesiology. I’m not arguing for less intellectual rigor. I do wish it was being applied to our underlying differences.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Memorial Day
May 31, 2010

Early in the first Clinton Administration when senior military officers were resisting the expressed desires of their Commander-in-Chief (for reasons they considered entirely proper) regarding gays in the military I had an unusual experience. The policy known as ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was on the table but not yet passed by congress and I was running my usual series of enquirers’ classes which culminated in a retreat. On the retreat I was able to introduce two people who had met previously but had no reason to know each others stories. One was a colonel in the air force who was to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of any policy that came out of the debate. He did not like anything much that made it possible for homosexual men and women to serve, but was more concerned about how he was going to be fair to all parties. He raised many of the same concerns that are being raised about implementation today: housing policy, bathrooms and the like. He was determined to do a good job in spite of his misgivings. The other was a Captain in naval Intelligence who had admitted during a routine review of her security clearance that she had entered into a relationship with another woman and had been discharged from the Navy within something like a week of her interview. All this was going on during the eight or nine weeks of those classes. The Colonel credits the former Captain with helping him come to terms with the work he had to do and which he began to conceive as ministry.

I recently received an email from a friend who was taking issue with a posting from March 6 in which I suggested that the published opinions of Retired U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Merrill A. McPeak qualified him as a ‘dinosaur’. He took issue with me on two points relevant to the current debate in congress. He read my comment in reference to McPeak about a “tired old unsubstantiated point about ‘unit cohesion’ on the battlefield” as belittling. My correspondent pointed out to me that I had not been in a battlefront unit and suggested that many in the military and in wider society are “naturally very uncomfortable in the intimate proximity of a military in the field with those that they fear and believe look at them with other than disinterest”. As a letter in the New York Times from yesterday points out, there has been little or no problem integrating open gay and lesbian service members in the forces of Israel, Great Britain or Australia. I have no doubt that the same services who have done such a fine job of integrating white and black members into cohesive units can do a similar job when they get their minds around the reality that the enemy here is prejudice not homosexuality.

My correspondent’s second point was my “apparent willingness, encouragement even, to place upon our soldiers, already under heavy stress (think PTSD) and daily risking their lives—to protect our freedoms, additional stress…” He says “perhaps you could find a more appropriate target to serve as an environment to attempt bringing about forced social change.” He is concerned about being forced into change by the government and ‘social engineering’ suggesting that if such change is good it will come about gradually in society. He recognizes that such a view poses a problem of an “imposition upon some service members who happen to be homosexual”.

I am unmoved by the ‘not during wartime’ argument (while I am concerned for the health and safety of our troops). I’m quite sure that clever Generals can come up with an implementation plan that does not put front line troops in danger from each other. I’m also aware from published reports that an unusual number of those who have been discharged under the current policy are Arabic translators and that their loss from service poses a wartime challenge of serious understaffing in a critical area. I do not think of this as ‘forced social change’ as much as I see it as addressing a fundamental weakness in our armed forces in today’s world. Prejudice, enshrined in law or policy, always weakens a country. Look at the governmental chaos in Nigeria, while an Anglican Primate urges that the country leave the UN because of its ‘support of homosexuality’. My correspondent’s arguments are fine if we are still unsure about whether or not gay and lesbian people should be objects of prejudice, and outdated and morally wrong if we believe that they should not be asked to bear an “imposition” for the sake of a capable and society shaping institution that would prefer not to have to juggle one more challenging task at the moment. I am glad that congress appears to recognize this tension while giving military leaders considerable respect and leeway in the implementation of a change in official policy.

On this day I join with all those who honor and pray for men and women who have given their lives in the service of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country and pray that those freedoms and their attendant privileges and responsibilities may be extended to all the people of this land as a beacon of hope for others.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What follows is an 'open letter' to our friend The Rev'd. Emmanuel Bwatta MA, Principal of the Bible College of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in Kusulu, Tanzania encouraging the development of an indigenous African theological tradition that is widely accessible through written transmission.

Dear Emmanuel,

I enjoyed reading your MA thesis on Prophets and the Social-Po0litical Welfare of Israel: Today’s Challenge to the Churches of Tanzania. You helped me understand some of what I have witnessed in my visits to you. I have noticed and commented on the reality that your Bishops live at a very different material level than the vast majority of their clergy. I had not seen this through the lens of ‘social class’ but am persuaded by your thesis that class is a useful lens for thinking about the challenges of your country.

We have talked frequently about the need to develop an indigenous theological tradition throughout Africa and the challenge that is posed to that project when so many of your people who are privileged to enjoy a Western Education end up becoming Bishops or otherwise enjoying the benefits of the class system that you have identified. It seems to me that an authentic tradition will do the kind of work that you have done in looking at the prophetic tradition, looking at your own country and looking at the insights of liberation theologies as they have developed elsewhere. This kind of work can become that ‘tradition’ that we long for if people like you will keep teaching, but also keep writing so that your work can be shared and disseminated more widely than strictly oral tradition allows.

I hope that we can continue our personal friendship and institutional partnership between this parish and The Bible College of which you are principal in ways that allow the flowering of this tradition for DWT, for Tanzania, for East Africa and for the Continent as a whole. Let’s keep talking about how we can help make that happen even as you return to your growing family and the day to day challenges of funding and managing your school.

In Christ,


Sunday, May 23, 2010

High School Graduation

May 23, 2010

Attending graduation ceremonies from a large public high school has been an interesting experience for me as a parent. First and foremost I find myself filled with pride for my son, Alexander, who has done extremely well and will be heading to the University of Chicago. That said there were a number of things that were odd to my sensibilities.

First we had ‘pre-commencement exercises’. These took place in a Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University. It was referred to by the speaker as a ‘hall’, even as he acknowledged that many such observances would be called a Baccalaureate Service and would be an essentially religious observance with hymns and prayers. That speaker was the University President, James Wagner. His address was unusually substantial for such an occasion. He spoke of ‘the practices of community’ which included such things as honest conversation, being connected and giving for others. He resorted to the use of scripture only once, but for me this served to show how difficult it is to develop a genuine ethic without the idea of God or something that resembles or functions as God in the argument. Alexander is sure that God is unnecessary for such things as humanity or community or our responsibility to one another. I’m not sure whether he thinks such notions are somehow ‘innate’ to humans, but at any rate ethics in such a world seem limited primarily to utilitarianism. I remember reading The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull in an introductory course in philosophy as an undergraduate. While the book was somewhat controversial, Turnbull portrayed the breakdown of a people called the Ik from Northern Uganda when their way of life was essentially destroyed. He showed how many of the traits that we like to think of as ‘human’ go out of the window pretty quickly under really extreme and apparently permanent conditions. Certainly the breakdown of any kind of value to ‘community’ came fast and furious for these people.

At the graduation itself I was struck by how well Ms. Donovan, who had been Alexander’s advisor, read the names of more than three hundred students with care and aplomb. I don’t know how many ethnic origins were represented, but it was a truly international group and many of the names were quite challenging for an Anglo. I was quite moved by that reality. I was also struck by the fact that Alexander was wearing a tassel on his shoulders that proclaimed ‘work readinesses. While I don’t’ know what was required to achieve this recognition, I was encouraged anyway. Could a summer job be a possibility? Less encouraging was my unscientific observation that only about a third of the class was sporting a sign of such accomplishment. Third, while I realize that not everyone who begins Druid Hills High School graduates, and while I know that for some this will be the major academic accomplishment of their lives I was strangely revolted and appalled at the whooping and shouting and carrying on of some of the students and their supporters in the Civic Center. This seemed to transcend race and national origin to some extent, but it didn’t seem in keeping with the occasion. Last, I have a friend who believes that there is really only one ‘
Alma Mater’, that it is used everywhere and is universally dreadful. Certainly there was no one on the stage last Friday who seemed remotely enthusiastic about singing it including leading faculty, administrators and students. Thank God (or whomever) for the talents of the Kennesaw Brass Quintet who carried the thing.

The student speeches were, for the most part a highlight. I particularly liked the one by the two salutatorians who with real wit and substance urged us not to be quick to judge others as we might miss some important gifts. It was a good message for the crowd and the occasion. They didn’t put it this way but they came close to saying that prejudice is when we judge a person and discernment is when we judge behavior. Good thoughts for life.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Bible tells me so

May 21, 2010

Martin Doblmeier is president and founder of Journey Films based in Alexandria, Virginia who in 2006 produced a documentary for PBS on Bonhoeffer. Along the way he interviewed Inge Karding, a former student of Bonheoffer in Berlin. She remembers Bonhoeffer saying that “when you read the Bible, you must think that here and now God is speaking with me…he taught us that we had to read the Bible as it was directed at us, as the word of God directly to us. Not something general, not something generally applicable, but rather a personal relationship to us.” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer p.128f.) In 1936, in a letter to his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer wrote “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive the answer…in the Bible, God speaks to us…” (p.136)

Bonhoeffer’s Barthian interest in the Bible was an interest in the Word revealed in and through the Bible. I agree with him about the Bible but would modify the emphasis slightly to make sure that we remember that the point is the revealed Word or what Bonhoeffer elsewhere makes clear is relationship with God in Christ. In his thesis of 1929, Act and Being Bonhoeffer named something that was to be one thematic strand of his theology: “God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God’s freedom.” While the story of faith contained in the Bible is the preeminent revelation of God’s love, the Word is also present in the sacraments, in creation, made incarnate not only in Jesus but in our own discovery of grace as we move towards right relationship.

It is not so much that “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” but more “I know that Jesus loves me as I meet the living Word in the whole story of canonical scripture.” Those who would use the Bible as a talisman or attempt to stem the tide of cultural shifts with all of their scientific, philosophical and artistic manifestations by insisting on some manifestations of culture in the stories of scripture are simply wrong. Bonhoeffer and Barth before him would be appalled at such distortions of the Word.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonhoeffer in America

May 20, 2010

Eric Metaxas has written the first major biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer since that of Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, more than forty years ago. It is called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (Thomas Nelson, 2010) I wrote my undergraduate thesis on this man and both his life and theology have intrigued me ever since. I keep returning to the story of someone who saw and felt what was happening in Germany in general and in the German Church in particular such that he compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah and suffered imprisonment and death for his fidelity. I keep returning to the story of someone for whom God was real, but who rejected fundamentalism along with the particularly American forms of liberalism that he encountered while yearning for what he called a kind of “religionless Christianity”.

He came to Union Seminary near Columbia University in New York City in 1930 at the height of American liberalism and was appalled. John Rockefeller had just built Riverside Church as a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick who also taught preaching at Union. Fosdick’s curriculum placed topics like ‘the forgiveness of sins’ and ‘the cross’ in the general, and by implication not terribly important, category of “traditional themes” (p.106). Bonhoeffer learned much about community while at Union and much about both music and holding the faith apart from the mainstream through what he called ‘negro religion’ traveling through the South in search of greater understanding of this particularly affective and hopeful expression of the faith. Both were to play an important role in the way his life was to unfold. But he was appalled by the theology, or rather lack of theology that he encountered. Metaxas cites a letter to Max Diestel in which Bonhoeffer writes

“There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students…are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about…They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level” (p.101).

Elsewhere in a reflection on The Enlightened American he remarked that the sermon has been reduced to “parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” He admired the social conscience that was part of genuine community, but feared for Christianity that did not preach a vigorous gospel of sin, repentance, salvation and the cross.

I doubt that Bonhoeffer would have the same experience of Union Seminary today. We will have a glimpse of today’s theology when Serene Jones, the President of union and a wonderful speaker offers our Woodall Lecture this autumn. She has spent much of her career holding together the insights of Calvinism and the insights of feminism which even in the early 1980s were considered strange bedfellows. Her recent work considers theological resources for those who have suffered trauma. I wonder what he would say about the content of preaching at All Saints’ and believe that he would hear the gospel proclaimed with vigor from a clear consistent theological (what he calls ‘dogmatic’) foundation. But he would hear it in the midst of a people who, while shaped by and towards a desire for righteousness (diakosoune), and with an appreciation for the continuing revelation of divine will in and through community, might not always articulate the Christian gospel of forgiveness and grace through the cross and resurrection with great confidence. Does that sound right? And is it a problem?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thoughts on attending a Seminary Graduation

May 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended the graduation and commencement ceremonies of St. Luke’s Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. We had a small representation form All Saints’ in support of Emmanuel Bwatta, our friend who is the principal of the Bible College of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in Kusulu. He received a Master of Arts degree and was awarded the prize for excellence in the study of Hebrew. I’m looking forward to reading his thesis on “Prophets and the Social-Political Welfare of Israel: Today’s Challenge to the Churches of Tanzania.”

Fourteen people received the Master of Divinity Degree, thirteen of whom are Episcopalians and (presumably) headed toward ordination in the eleven dioceses represented. The preacher was Barbara Crafton (who has led our women’s and all parish retreats in recent years, and who herself received an honorary doctorate). She mentioned the phenomenon of ‘disappearing curacies’ and I wondered how many of these graduates were going to have positions and places in which to serve in the coming months.

I wonder what the future holds for the provision of ministry as clergy in particular and church staffs in general become ever more expensive. The General Convention does a good thing requiring some level of health and pension benefits for all staff and sets the bar at people who work twenty hours per week. That will increase our costs in a year or two by an amount that is roughly the cost of the position we are giving up by not hiring a person dedicated to Christian Social Ministries in the near term. Even as we lose positions in this climate, so those positions become ever more expensive to fill. Something has to change and I’m not sure what that will be. What I know is this: the ministry of the gospel is not dependent on handsomely paid positions in the institutions of the church. I also know that those positions will be much easer to fund if the people who are graduating from seminary have fire in the belly and a passion for proclaiming good news rather than solely having really well thought out opinions on the use of incense in worship. I am not intending to take a swipe at theological education which I value, but am suggesting that the education needs to be focused more on the gospel and less on the institutional forms that it takes. Could it be that this is why denominational seminaries of every stripe are struggling?

As to the ceremony itself, it was a joy to see people happy and celebrating surrounded by friends and family who have supported the journey. It was fun to connect with old friends from various parts of the church. One of my pet peeves is any attempt to use the ‘large occasion’ to introduce new music or liturgical innovation to a congregation who are not there for that. We had a couple of spectacularly unfortunate examples. Shouldn’t our worship on such an occasion be as inclusive and celebratory as possible? Also, while I was proud of our bishop who is serving as Chancellor of the University and who clearly knew what he was doing, if we are going to use schools Latin in the awarding of degrees after the custom of the ancient Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, then some of the other speakers could use some guidance in pronouncing the Latin. It really shouldn’t sound like we imagine a modern Italian might do it! The school did a good job of providing translations, but I wonder if it had much to do with the mountains of Tennessee in the first place.

The Omega Point

May 15, 2010

Don DeLillo’s recent novel called Point Omega (Scribner, 2010) has sent me back to the work of Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit and biologist who died in New York City in the 1950s. I was introduced to his work when I was a teenager by an Anglican priest who taught biology along with theology. De Chardin developed a theory of the evolution of people, consciousness and matter which he saw as moving towards a kind of perfect relation that he called the ‘omega point’. It is over simplifying things to say that he thought of the omega point as God but he used language like ‘supreme consciousness’ as the goal and direction of the evolution of all life.

DeLillo’s short novel takes hold of the omega point idea almost making it a place within the universe (implied by the name ‘Point Omega’). The question that I was left with early on and again after reading the novel is whether there is really any place for ethics in a universe that is moving inexorably toward its end or purpose. Should we care that a character goes missing in the desert or is that just part and parcel of life working itself out. The novel almost suggests that the process is a kind of Hegelian movement of thesis-antithesis –synthesis. A man involved in the architecture of the first gulf war escapes (in a sense) to a desert which itself becomes a place of violence (perhaps) as he more or less wastes away. It is not even clear that love is a real part of ultimate consciousness in DeLillo’s vision of ultimate consciousness.

This kind of phenomenology seems to have more in common with certain kinds of Buddhist teaching than with the story of Jesus. I enjoyed the book in many ways but am still wondering what to make of it. Has anyone else read it and could you comment?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Participatory Exegesis

May 9, 2010

I met with my interdenominational colleague group this week. We gather once or twice a year to discuss theology, usually having read a biblical text, something ancient and something contemporary. This time it was the Psalms, The Letter to Marcellinus by Athanasius, and Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation by Daniel Levering. I went with little clue about what issue Levering was addressing and wondering whether that emperor had any clothes. I found myself thinking that in the end he was arguing for inductive bible study for Roman Catholics. He clearly wanted bible study to be more than reading solely through the lens of the historical critical methods that most of us were taught but that none of us were limited by or to.

Our conversation however did lead us to the question of how our ‘world view’ affects biblical exegesis. Or put another way, we wondered about our fundamental assumptions about theology and history and how they affected our reading of scripture. If we say ‘Jesus is Lord’, do we mean something for all people and all of history? Or is the notion that God has established a single claim for all people for all time a reflection of the limited world view of the Roman Empire (as I suspect)? Is it the greater hubris to claim that Christianity is the ultimate way and that those of other faiths will need to get with the program, perhaps after they die; or is the hubris greater to say that a god who would condemn large swaths of the planet with different religious and cultural assumptions than our own is a god not worthy of worship? Is there a way to develop some kind of theological theory of relativity without resorting to relativism (‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’)?

We didn’t solve these mysteries, but once again ran up against the kinds of fault lines that are divisive for Christians. We see the conflict being played out in many ways in most mainline or old line denominations and between the more ‘liberal views’ and the more ‘conservative views’. Perhaps we are not so much an interdenominational colleague group as an interfaith one.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Angry Men

May 3, 2010

I read an article somewhere suggesting that part of the problem with much of the negativity in Washington (currently represented by the tea party movement and Mitch McConnell’s inability to find anything he likes in any proposal from Democrats, but from which no party is immune) is that it is un-American. The article suggested that in a democracy, some respect must be given to majority desires in the assurance that there will be another election in due course where the polis may express their preferences. The author pointed out that President Obama ran for office in part on a platform of healthcare reform, was elected by a large majority at the head of a party with majorities in both houses of congress. He then set about doing what he said he would do with endless and public conversation, televised debate, open process and on and on. At what point do those who resist move on? The refusal to accept democracy at work is what is being suggested is un-American.

Related to that, a friend sent me an article from the San Francisco Sentinel by Tim Wise (25 April 2010) called Imagine if the Tea Party was Black.

Here are just a few quotes from the article:

“Imagine that hundreds of black protestors were to descend on Washington DC and Northern Virginia…armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns and ammunition …Would these black protestors with guns be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic?”

“Imagine that white members of congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of the congressmen for not voting the way the black protestors desired?...that is what white Tea Party protestors did recently in Washington.”

“Imagine that a rap artist were to say in reference to a white president: ‘He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.”…that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said recently about President Obama.”

Is this really legitimate protest when engaged in by people who have generally seen themselves as ‘those in power’ when ‘outsiders’ would be viewed as threatening and probably criminal? And does any of this suggest that all is well with the State of the Union?

The sea change that has been going on for years and has made possible (at least for now) a black President is being predictably resisted by those who feel some sense of loss, often without really knowing what that is. We have seen the same behavior in the church over the ordination of women and, more recently, the reaching of a tipping point in support of gay and lesbians in the church. The noise and bad behavior of those who feel themselves displaced is just plain ugly. I am not convinced that any of these changes are secure as yet but I am convinced that they are gospel, consistent with the good news of Christ and consistent with Peter’s vision at Joppa of nothing and no one God has made being declared profane. With any such change sabotage and resistance is inevitable. This is the time to stay the course.