Monday, January 31, 2011

Rowan Williams

In the wake of the recent Anglican Communion Primates meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is being criticized as usual from both conservative and progressive absolutists. What representatives from both seem to want, and have wanted for some time, is for Rowan to either act like a pope (as long as he weighs in on their "side") or, in one way or another, concede to their "side" the moral and structural high ground. But, he does not have - and has been wary of assuming - the kind of authority some want him to exercise on behalf of their position. Rather he has tried to chart a course for the Anglican Communion acts in which constituent members behave as though they recognize the responsibilities of belonging to one another. Not hardline enough for conservatives who want things more narrowly defined and controlled, he is also not loose enough for progressives who seem determined to be bound to nothing but their own, often quite parochial, discernment.

I have not agreed with every move or statement Rowan Williams has made, but there is no one I would rather have serving as Archbishop of Canterbury at this time. Here is something I wrote some time ago that I think might explain why liberal/progressives in particular, but also conservatives, find him frustrating:

Many liberals/progressives have misunderstood Rowan Williams in that they assumed that he thought like them because he had argued for the possibility of rethinking the tradition in matters sexual and was not politically conservative. They were mistaken in at least three ways:

1. The fact that he has reached some conclusions similar to theirs does not mean he shares their Liberal Protestant theological convictions. Given his rather pointed critique of Jack Spong around the time of Lambeth '98, it was clear that his regard for traditional doctrine and discipline was more robust than that of theological liberals. He does not think inclusion as such is an adequate theological paradigm (though this has been mistakenly taken by some conservatives to mean that he believes gays and lesbians must cease being gay or lesbian to be welcome in the church).

It is possible that while he does think there is room for rethinking the traditional rejection of all homosexual behavior, he is put off by the liberal theology of that position's supporters in TEC. I suspect he has felt caught between those with whom he has more in common theologically and those with whom he shares certain social and political conclusions.

2. His catholicism is more than just a preference for a certain style of worship. As a catholic, he seems to believe that the truth is best discerned by the whole Church and is willing to live under that authority even when he seeks to make a case for rethinking certain particulars. The American church's unwillingness to live under that authority and, with patience and forbearance, seek to make a more convincing case and build a consensus is rather different. As a catholic, Williams thinks in terms of truth discerned and lived in community/communion more than generic or absolute principles (disconcerting to both liberal and conservative). And, unlike many liberals, Williams does not see the tradition of the church as a problem to be overcome, but a community in time to which we belong and with which it is possible to dialogue.

It is possible that he thinks the "uncatholic" way TEC has handled things has actually made making the case for rethinking the church's understanding of sexuality harder to get a hearing.

3. He does not seem to think that the case either for or against changing the Church's teaching (including the one he has attempted) is obvious or ironclad. He is thus prepared to listen to critiques of his own arguments and concede that those critiques have merit and must be taken seriously -- an attitude that is all too rare in our polarized context.

It is possible that he is frustrated by the attitude of complacent certitude of both liberals and conservatives - and has been bedeviled by the intransigence and absolutism of both.

As a Liberal Catholic in line with those like Charles Gore, Austin Farrer, and Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams is too liberal for comfort among conservative Evangelicals and too catholic for comfort among Liberal Protestants. As such, perhaps he is, as much as anything, the heir of F. D. Maurice who in the 19th century critiqued the usual church factions and was seen as suspect by each of them as a result.

I remain an unabashed "Rowanian" and only wish there were more bishops like him in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

ONE, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church

"We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" - Nicene Creed

Father, we pray your holy Catholic Church.
That we all might be one.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 387

Given the evident conflict and division, claiming to believe the Church is "one" might be one of the bigger stumbling blocks in the creed.

In his book, The Creed, Luke Timothy Johnson makes the point that the Church's vocation to be "holy" is sometimes in tension with its vocation to be "one" and "catholic". While the tension can be difficult and uncomfortable, in truth they are not separable.

Being a Christian is a matter of believing, becoming, and belonging. It’s the belonging part that modern Christians tend to miss, having drunk deeply from the well of individualism. Belonging to the Church is not a merely spiritual affection. It must be embodied. To be a Christian is not merely to adopt a set of beliefs or behaviors on our own. It is not about abstractions like faith or love or justice or peace or whatever. It is about embodying such things as a community.

Jesus' prayer that his followers be one is thus fundamental to what we are supposed to be as the new community living in his Spirit under the new covenant inaugurated in his death and resurrection. The Church is to be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God in which the wound of the Original Schism of sin and brokenness is fully healed. Schism – between humans and God, and humans and humans - is the original sin colorfully depicted as unfolding in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. It is that Schism that Jesus comes to heal. Or as Ephesians has it, it is the barriers and enmity of that schism that he breaks down.

I suggest a fundamental mission of the church is reflected in one of the prayers in the Marriage Rite in the Book of Common Prayer: "Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (BCP p. 429) Splitting the church is a counter-sign that undermines whatever aspect of the gospel it hopes to preserve/advance. The fact that the Church is already broken and in a state of schism does not justify further division, i.e., further false witness.

Schism can be provoked (by the zealous pursuit of holiness - or justice, or whatever reformation/revision someone thinks necessary) as well as pursued (by those who are convinced they - and God - are better served by separating from those with whom they disagree). We have seen plenty of both in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion over the last decade. Both are a participation in the Original Schism of sin.

Being bound to one another, actually learning to love – not the insipid sentimentalism that often goes by that name, but the love typified by the self-emptying way of the cross - is part of our witness to the world. It is hard - the Church is a school of love that is often a school of hard knocks – but it is the more excellent way. This includes speaking truth, offering and receiving correction, etc. It also includes trusting that the Church is the body of Christ and that its destiny, along with ours as members of it, is in God's hands. Part of what it means for the Church to be the light of the world is to actually be the community envisioned in Romans 12, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4, etc.

Thus, while it is encouraging that they have reiterated their commitment to the Anglican Communion, it is still disappointing that some primates are absenting themselves from this week's meeting in Dublin. But, it is also disappopinting that many in the Episcopal Church are so convinced that they know the mind of the Spirit that they are willing to pursue actions that most of the rest of the Anglican Communion has yet to be persuaded are faithful.

An Anglican Covenant makes sense, not because it will settle any given issue once and for all (it won't) but because it just might enable the Anglican Communion to live more fully into the vocation to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Here is something from Charles Gore reflecting on what some early church theologians had to say about schism.

I hope to write reflections on the Church's vocation to be holy, catholic, and apostolic in the future.

Friday, January 21, 2011

liberal donuts & conservative cupcakes

Neither liberal donuts with Jesus-glaze nor conservative cupcakes with Christian food-coloring should be confused with the Bread of Life which is challenge, comfort, and nourishment to all comers.

A lot of American Christians need to change their diet.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Bible in the Life of the Church

The Bible in the Life of the Church Project is an ongoing attempt among Anglicans to clarify to ourselves and one another how we read and understand the Bible. It is a good project to be about. It is one of the fundamental questions that hang over the church - not just those of the Anglican Communion, but all churches. At least it is in churches without a magisterium. It has particular urgency in churches where questions raised by historical-criticism are accepted as legitimate. But, it is a question being asked among Evangelicals. It is harder and harder for folk to affirm that the Bible stands on its own. Hence the increasing appeal of the early and medieval church for many Evangelicals. It is harder and harder to claim the Bible is perspicuous, i.e., plain to the understanding. There are too many fundamental disagreements between readers of scripture for that to be so. What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired? And then there is the question as to which writings should be included in the Bible and considered scripture. Who decides? How and why?

So what is the place of the Bible in the life of the church? How do we read it faithfully so we are "challenged, judged and changed" by God's Spirit which breathes through the pages of the Bible? Who decides which competing readings are faithful and how? I'm reposting my attempt to make sense of some of these questions. I would cherish any feedback, positive or critical, on this:

Posted by Picasa

I was invited to make a presentation at a Miqra event put together by the youth leaders of the Diocese of Chicago. I've posted a slightly expanded version in installments. Here's the whole thing with links:

Reading scripture, according to the great 2nd century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons, is like configuring a mosaic of precious jewels. That mosaic can be configured in more ways than one. According to Irenaeus, it can be configured to reveal a portrait of the King – Jesus Christ as the Church knows him – or it can be configured, as it was by heretics and other false teachers, as something else, say a fox. More

Part 2: Among other things, honoring the scriptures means we must attend to the kinds of texts they are rather than impose theories of what we think they should be if they are inspired and authoritative. More

Part 3: Can we identify some guidelines or criteria by which we evaluate more faithful biblical configurations from less faithful or even faithless interpretations? Not all configurations are faithful. Not all faithful configurations are equally faithful. But there might be a range of recognizably, more or less, faithful configurations. The following criteria, based on how the canon of scripture came to be accepted and how the early Church read the Bible, are suggested to assist in configuring the mosaic of scripture. More

1. The Criterion of Jesus Christ
2. The Criterion of Love
3. The Criterion of the Rule of Faith
4. The Criterion of the Church's Prayer
5. The Criterion of the Church's Tradition
6. The Criterion of Comprehensiveness
7. The Criterion of Dissimilarity
8. The Criterion of Community
9. The Criterion of Character

No one criterion is adequate and no set of criteria will assure agreement on particular questions of interpretation. But, an interplay of the above criteria would provide a broad measure of relative faithfulness as we seek to configure an image of the King rather than a fox or a dog.

Monday, January 10, 2011

10 More

Last week I posted a list of "Top Ten" posts. The readership of this blog got a boost last summer. Consequently, nearly all of the "Top Ten" most read posts are from July 2010 and after. So, for those who might have missed them, here are ten more that were posted before the boost which seem to have struck a chord and were either printed in magazines, reposted elsewhere on the internet, or continue to get regular hits:

1. Immortality or Eternal Life?
2. Charged with the Holy Spirit
3. The Friendship Dance (of the Trinity)
4. "Tammy Metzger thinks you're cute" (and so does God)
5. Little Floaty Things That Say "No"
6. The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism
7. A "Whiskey Priest" Church
8. Seraphim of Sarov and the Burden of One Another
9. Joy-Smuggling Servants of the God of Joy
10. All Saints

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lightning on the Horizon

I heard a story told by one of the pastors of the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. During the civil war, this pastor was talking to a man who was not a member of the church. When the man learned that the pastor belonged to the Episcopal Church, he said, “I know your church. Your church is like lightning on the horizon in a time of drought signaling the promise of rain.”

I've had the opportunity to see that lightning first hand in trips to the Sudan in 2005 and 2009. The Episcopal Church is the largest Christian church in Sudan and wonderful things are happening through its ministry. It is an evangelistic church, evangelizing and starting new churches. But, it also is at the forefront of providing physical care to the people. The church is building schools. It delivers food aid to the hungry. The clinic in Renk delivers health care and immunization. In many places, the only social services that exist are through the church.

My congregation, St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn and the Diocese of Chicago have been privileged to help "seed the clouds" and encourage the lightning on the horizon (see the Renk Media Team page here). St. Barnabas provides the salary for a pastor in Maban and we have funded the building of a church there. We have funded a brick-making project. We have funded the digging of two wells and the purchase of land for agriculture. We have also raised funds for the health clinic in Renk for medicine and the provision of a midwife.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is also taking the lead in working for reconciliation. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul has been very involved in those efforts. The current bishop of Renk, Joseph Garang Atem is vice-chair of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission. This is vital work as the church helps to resolve issues as displaced persons return. The church also works to unite people across ethnic groups, some with a long history of antagonism. And the church has been involved locally and internationally in insuring that the pending referendum on whether or not the southern part of Sudan will become independent from the north is peaceful and fair.

That referendum begins on January 9. The good news is that indications are that it will indeed be peaceful and if the vote goes as expected and the south secedes, the government of the north is resigned to accept that result. Still, the government in Khartoum can still cause much mischief. There is the reality of ethnic tensions in the south. And putting together a new government that can lead the south into its new future is fraught with potential pitfalls.

With peace there is the hope of stability and a degree of prosperity. Pray for freedom, justice and peace in the Sudan. And pray for the Episcopal Church of the Sudan as it continues to be lightning on the horizon bringing hope to people where hope is often in short supply.