Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Canterbury Tale

April 25, 2010

It is not fun to come from a Sunday Morning celebration of our children’s and youth choirs, wonderful preaching by high school seniors, high energy and many visitors effusive in their praise for a vibrant, young, downtown parish only to read A Canterbury Tale by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker of April 26, 2010. it is a careful and thorough examination of the Church of England in relation to the ministry of women in the clergy in general and the debates about women in the episcopate in particular. I find my self wearied by the whole discussion that seems like ancient history for us even as I recognize all the same old arguments that have been around for so long. The Archbishop of Canterbury comes off as a nice and thoughtful man who really dislikes the divisions that seem to be exacerbated by debates of the kind going on in the C of E.

I also received an email today from a parishioner telling me that he is now ‘Anglican’ (as though The Episcopal Church isn’t) and begging me to follow the Bible. He has nothing against ‘those people having civil unions or whatever’ but sees no need for the Church to ignore the Bible. He asked that he and his wife be ‘removed from the rolls’.

Another visitor told me how much he enjoyed the liturgy and how religion is complicated for him as he also loves parts of his own evangelical heritage , especially the belief that we should ‘take the Bible as it comes’ and his concern that the Episcopal Church does not do that.

When will religious leaders stop making the false claims that they are following the Bible and that those who think differently (on what is culturally conditioned and necessary to change as a direct consequence of reading the Bible) are not being Biblical? They are as disingenuous as those who claim that ‘The Episcopal Church has left them’ as the basis for their ignoring their ordination vows or seeking to retain property. They are as disingenuous as those who say that the Church is following a path that ‘no Christina can take’ as though they and their doctrines are the ultimate arbiters of who is Christian. How long must we keep on making our case against those who should know better? How long must we debate those who repeat slogans without using the God given gift of reason?

I thank God that in the midst of this I am able to gather with all manner of hypocrites and sinners around the table of the Lord knowing that we are all striving to accept and honor the invitation to be transformed into the people we were created to be in and through the Love of God.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Going to Court

April 21, 2010

A recent post inspired an interesting response from someone who did not sign their name. The writer wanted to suggest that ‘squabbling over property’ was in some respects a consequence of The Episcopal Church being unwilling to embrace a clear biblical faith. I’ve not seen the article but would always argue that we present a clear biblical faith. What we argue about is what aspects of the various times and cultures reflected in scripture are essential and what are things that ought to change in the name of being faithful.

One of the most helpful things I have read on this recently is in David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence in which he uses Wisdom Literature as a lens for addressing ‘what is’ without needing to embrace the elements of the social order underlying the approach.

While there is a legitimate debate to be had over biblical interpretation (i.e. is there something essential about male/female complementarity and difference or is the essential matter the negotiation of complementarity and difference between any human beings?) Current complaints about whether the Church is ‘biblical’ amounts to little more than sloganeering without acknowledging the conversation.

Going to court is what Christians or anyone else does when someone else is behaving badly and not responding to reason. What TEC is experiencing is the classic reality that when we point out someone else’s bad behavior, those who do not appreciate it will try and make us the issue. The property issue is not ‘biblical’. It is about fiduciary trust, canons and the like in the Episcopal Church. Most courts seem to understand that so far.

Virginia is a little different for a number of reasons. Under state law, individual congregations have trustees of the property. When I was serving in the Diocese of Virginia it was made clear to me and I taught that the property was held in trust for the Episcopal Church. Accounts of recent arguments before the Virginia Supreme Court seem to suggest that perhaps the Diocese needed to take some legal action to make that explicit. Who knows how that will play out? In any event, those congregations who are seeking to depart with property invariably have a) persuaded themselves that they are justified in doing so on some basis like “The Episcopal Church is not Biblical”, and b) have clergy who are being clever but choosing to ignore what they have been taught in polity classes in ay and every Episcopal Seminary since the early 1980s at least. Without in any way minimizing the real sense of loss felt by those whose conscience will not let them stay in a church in which norms are shifting, and without suggesting that there are no other ways to negotiate this problem through negotiation, sale of property and the like in some situations, going to court is an appropriate response to the belief that departing congregations are engaged in theft. The courts will have to sort out whether that belief is justified or not under the law.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Nuclear Summit

April 14, 2010

It has been interesting being in Washington DC for a colleague group meeting at the same time as a huge meeting, including many heads of state, who are discussing the security of nuclear materials. This is clearly part of a series of events focusing on security issues. At the beginning of April we saw Russia and the US sign a pact which limits their respective stockpiles of nuclear weapons. It seems a long time since President Reagan and Michael Gorbachev came so close to agreeing to get rid of the things altogether at their summit in Reykjavik in 1986. Last week we saw the release of the latest ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ in which President Obama has limited ay possibility of the US striking first. Finally, we are looking towards a new multinational non proliferation treaty early in May. This has to be a huge accomplishment by any measure and especially important in an environment where rogue states and terrorist organizations are determined to get their hands on nuclear materials, and in which our troops appear to have been fighting with less equi98pment than they need due to budget constraints.

The conversations facilitator for our meeting of Episcopal Clergy was James Carroll, author of Practicing Catholic and Constantine’s Sword among other works. He led us in thinking about a deep stream of apocalyptic, messianic idealism in American history that he sees as serving to undergird the idea that we can resist violence or end violence only through more violence. He argued persuasively that what really motivated people on both sides in the civil war was less the cause of slavery or Union and more a kind of religious ‘manifest destiny’. I’m looking forward to his next book.
James Baker in News from the Hill

April 14, 2010

The spring issue of News from the Hill, an occasional publication of the Virginia Theological Seminary includes an article by the former Secretary of State, James A. Baker III. He makes it clear that he claims no expertise in the polity of the Episcopal Church of which he is a member. He sees the sexuality debate in our church as one in which there is not likely to be any resolution in the near term and that an outcome where one side is seen to ‘win’ and another to ‘lose’ as unnecessarily costly. He wants us to do what I thought we were doing which is to express respect for the good faith of the point of view of those with whom we disagree and not ‘squabble over assets’. He suggests that each parish be allowed to vote on what position it wishes to take on the position it would take on” issues of sexuality”. He then proposes what sort of mechanisms would be needed for parishes to change their minds, how often votes could come up and so on. All parishes would be deemed to be in good standing in the Episcopal Church.

He does not address exactly how those who disagree with their bishop’s decision on the matter would act but I presume they would accept the ‘good faith’ of their bishop as well. He does want no more consecrations of lesbian or gay people as bishops until the necessary canonical changes are in place.

If I understand him correctly he is proposing some kind of ‘local option’ (a term he uses) based on the votes of individual parishioners in individual parishes.

I am not entirely clear what it is that would be accomplished by this plan that is not in place already. It seems to me that it is very clear that no one is being required to support the blessing of same sex unions and certainly no clergy are being required to officiate at them. The most common arrangements seem to involve some kind of ’customary’ approved by the bishop and/or a requirement that clergy have vestry support prior to proceeding. Certainly those kinds of arrangements could be strengthened if that would achieve the desired goal.

What else would be the desired outcome of such a plan? It might be that congregants want to be able to tie the hands of their clergy. That is tricky to achieve in our polity although agreements forged at the time of hire can have a similar effect. It could be that a desire is for bishops to respect parishes who disagree with her or his position on theses matters and vice versa. Is that not happening already on the part of bishops? Clearly there are clergy and congregations who want their bishops to be pure and in line with their own thinking. Will those people be satisfied by such a plan or should we assume that they have already departed this branch of Christ’s Church?

Mr. Baker’s plan would be a concrete, outward and visible expression of the idea that the Episcopal Church is broad enough to “include within it people who hold divergent views on a variety of issues including the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same sex unions”. I believe that is already the case and has been the case for some time. I don’t have any problem with clear statements to that effect. What has changed is that the majority opinion of the Church leadership expressed in various conciliar forms has shifted. I wonder if the proposal is an attempt to suggest that the leadership are ‘out of touch’ with people in the pews. If that is the desire then the proposal has the effect of pursuing a more explicit congregational polity in order to ‘rein in’ the leadership rather than expecting the leadership to preach and teach in a persuasive way such that those charged with leading the church at various levels (vestries, councils conventions and the like) can make informed decisions.

I find myself wondering what the proposal that we all ‘agree to differ’ would achieve and why that is not where we are and have been for a long time. What it won’t do is help people who do not like the current direction of the Episcopal Church either o come to terms with it or change it as best I can see. Or am I missing something?

Happy Easter and Apologies

April 14, 2010

Contrary to the suspicions of some, I have neither dropped off the face of the earth nor have I given up this blog. The happy combination of preparing presentations for our GIFT (Growing In Faith Together) program, Holy Week and Easter in combination with not much going on that merits comment in the wider Anglican scene have all conspired to keep me away from writing. A few new entries follow.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday Meditation

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I grew up imagining that Maundy Thursday was something to do with mourning and was not that excited by it. I preferred Good Friday where we were given 'hot cross buns' and sang a ditty from the 1700s. As I grew, I sang in the choir of our parish church. We tended to what I now know to be a fairly 'high' liturgical style, and Maundy Thursday was a pretty solemn and beautiful observance with not many of our fellow parishioners present. (Not unlike today at All Saints' now I come to think of it.) I remember learning that the name of the day comes from the Latin Mandatum Novum, or 'New Commandment'. "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" said Jesus even as he had just made this love manifest by washing his disciples' filthy feet. Today is the day in which we remember, above all, the gifts of love made manifest, first in the Eucharist and then in the consequence of that meal in our service to one another in the world.

It is around the Table that we are formed for life by telling the story of what really matters in life, the story of Love made Manifest. In telling and hearing this story while in table fellowship and conversation with one another, we turn our attention to that which is of ultimate worth and find our lives and values, our choices and hopes all being shaped toward what really matters. This is worship, or Ultimate Worth-ship, and is a particular gift that we celebrate in this memorial of the Last Supper.

About once a year I have the privilege of meeting with some high school students who have been selected to take a class on 'Philanthropy.' We talk about the origins of the parish as a particular geographical region and the way that understanding has developed in the Anglican Tradition. I enjoy pointing out that our parish 'philanthropy' is not so much something we do out of noblesse oblige or left over from our abundance, but is something that is rooted in the ancient law of Israel. The Torah understood community as meaning that the most vulnerable in life (the weak, the widows, the orphans and the wayfarers) were especially protected as a matter of common humanity or community. In a parish understood not as a congregation of like-minded believers, but as a geographical region, the church provides care for everyone in that area as a matter of being the church and recognizing how essential is the new commandment to our identity as human beings and children of God. Caring for one another in effective, often difficult, service is something that really and truly matters to us. It is not an 'optional extra' in life. It is at the heart and meaning of life. In the Episcopal Church the pastoral responsibility for a civic geographical region like a city or county is shared among the Episcopal Churches in that locale. We offer care to everyone because that is the generosity that is extended to us by God and the kind of love that makes us more fully who we are.

What made this commandment of the Last Supper a new commandment, was Jesus saying 'as I have loved you'. We are commanded to love, remembering that the worst thing in life is not death. The fate-worse-than-death is breaking faith with the Love that made us for Love.