Monday, August 27, 2012

A letter from C. S. Lewis

Five months before he died, C. S. Lewis wrote this letter to a young member of St. Barnabas. A copy of the letter is now on display as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

Magdalene College,
20 June 63

Dear Claudia,
I am delighted to hear that you like the Narnian series, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. I’m afraid there won’t be any more. There was – if you see what I mean – only a certain amount of tea in the tea-pot. Enough for seven cups. If I tried to pour out seven more I’d have to water the brew and then it wouldn’t be worth drinking. It is because most authors don’t know when to stop that so many rotten books are written.
All good wishes.
C. S. Lewis

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anglican Comprehensiveness

From the Church of England website:

A Comprehensive Church

The history of the Church of England from the 18th century onwards has been enriched by the co-existence within it of three broad traditions, the Evangelical, the Catholic and the Liberal.

  • The Evangelical tradition has emphasized the significance of the Protestant aspects of the Church of England's identity, stressing the importance of the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion.

  • The Catholic tradition, strengthened and reshaped from the 1830s by the Oxford movement, has emphasized the significance of the continuity between the Church of England and the Church of the Early and Medieval periods. It has stressed the importance of the visible Church and its sacraments and the belief that the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons is a sign and instrument of the Church of England's Catholic and apostolic identity.

  • The Liberal tradition has emphasized the importance of the use of reason in theological exploration. It has stressed the need to develop Christian belief and practice in order to respond creatively to wider advances in human knowledge and understanding and the importance of social and political action in forwarding God's kingdom.

It should be noted that these three traditions have not existed in strict isolation. Both in the case of individuals and in the case of the Church as a whole, influences from all three traditions have overlapped in a whole variety of different ways. It also needs to be noted that since the 1960's a fourth influence, the Charismatic movement, has become increasingly important. This has emphasized the importance of the Church being open to renewal through the work of the Holy Spirit. Its roots lie in Evangelicalism but it has influenced people from a variety of different traditions.

What has held these disparate traditions together historically has been the common worship and theology of the Book of Common Prayer along with a general disinclination to define the boundaries of faithfulness very definitively.

This comprehensiveness is one of the things that drew me to the Anglican tradition and the Episcopal Church. When I was becoming an Episcopalian, I remember being shown a video produced by the Episcopal Church (USA) in which these three basic sub-traditions were identified. A church that balanced the three was appealing. Though I remained influenced by my Evangelical upbringing, I was becoming more “catholic” in my appreciation for the importance of the Church as a belonging to one another (including the others of the past, i.e., tradition) while I had also become more “liberal” in my appreciation for the need to take into account what humans, using their God-given reason had learned about creation as it presents itself to us. I have sometimes described myself as a somewhat Liberal Evangelical Catholic Anglican.

I would argue – pace the C of E website – that each sub-tradition has solid roots in Anglicanism going back at least to the 17th century and each can find a congenial teacher in Anglicanism's seminal theologian, Richard Hooker (1554-1599).

In the four centuries since Hooker these three traditions have lived in a sort of balance and sometimes in tension, with each having a turn as the party in ascendance at different periods. Each sub-tradition has been informed by the others and each has usually been kept from wandering too far off into the less healthy tendencies peculiar to itself. It has not always been an easy or comfortable balancing act and that very balancing act has given rise to the Anglican reputation for being messier and less straightforward than some other Christian bodies. Still, however lopsided the balance might have been at any given time, each tradition has been able to claim a legitimate place in the Anglican fold.

This comprehensiveness has not been easy to maintain. And I suspect it has gotten harder. Partly that has to do with the church being coopted by the polarization of contemporary society. We live in a an impatient age and patience is a key virtue in the maintenance of comprehensiveness in as much as it requires a willingness to bear with one another and go the second mile to accommodate those with whom we do not agree. But when the church begins to act as 'borderline' as the rest of society, divide the world into friends who are all good and enemies who are all bad, there is little room for patience and accommodation. For a generation the church we have indulged in a lack of patience, charity, and respect. All have fallen short of the glory of God in this respect. The result is the Episcopal Church - to our loss - has become less comprehensive than it used to be.
I suspect there is another challenge to real comprehensiveness. When one of the sub-traditions is dominate over a long stretch of time, as has been the case with the liberal tradition in the Episcopal Church for the last two or three generations, it is easy for those whose primary identification is with that sub-tradition to begin to assume that it is actually the normative expression. The other sub-traditions are then treated as anomalous deviations. One does not have to look hard to find examples of this attitude. The result is that those whose primary identification is either Evangelical or Catholic - especially in their more traditionalist expressions - feel alienated.

One of the challenges facing the Episcopal Church is just how comprehensive we desire to be. Are we willing to talk about ourselves in ways that remind ourselves and others that while we welcome the Liberal tradition, we are not merely a liberal church and do not desire to be? That the Evangelical and Catholic traditions are also welcome - and respected? Some of the apologia coming from Episcopalians after General Convention was not encouraging in this regard.

It is all the more complicated given that not all Evangelicals or Catholics line up on one side or another of particular church controversies. And when it comes to political convictions, Evangelicals, Catholics and Liberals are sometimes 'conservative' and sometimes 'liberal' or 'progressive'. Again are we willing to truly welcome and honor this comprehensive diversity? Again, the fact that many post-General Convention defenses of the Episcopal Church were framed as defenses of 'Liberal Christianity' raises questions about our commitment to comprehensiveness as opposed to a liberal broadmindedness that is actually not that broad and ends up being less than comprehensive.

Members of the Episcopal Church who are currently in the minority also need to find ways to engage the majority with patience, charity, and respect. What might it mean to accept the status of minority witness out of love? And what would it look like to demonstrate good will in that context?

Those in the Liberal majority need to decide if they truly cherish comprehensiveness in which Evangelicals and Catholics - including traditionalists - are welcome and respected.
What would that look like in practice?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Walk on the Farm

I walked on the farm this morning. It is the only home I knew growing up. It remained my father’s home until he died five years ago. Now it belongs to my sister, my two brothers, and me. It is a sort of pilgrimage site for me. It contains layers of memories.

We rent the land to a young farmer who rented it from my father after he retired. That farmer bought and lives on the farm a mile or so to the east where my dad grew up and where my grandparents lived until Grandma died 12 years ago.

I start back the lane, a cornfield on my left and soy beans on my bright, serenaded by red-winged black birds.

I pass by the spot where a big walnut tree used to stand. I remember the purply black stains handling the light yellow-green husks would leave on my hands.

A rabbit hops across the lane a few yards ahead of me.

At the dog leg I turn left then right and continue back the lane, now with a cornfield on my right. On my left is the solid green wall of the Huckleberry Marsh where we used to pick the berries for which it was named. It is also the place where, as a boy, I imagined exploring a prehistoric swamp. And where I hunted frogs. 

I can hear the huu huu grunt of a deer but cannot see him.

I cross under the electric lines and the great steel tower that was built beside the lane when I was a kid. My father had offered to pay to have them go around our farm, but imminent domain won out and so an electric buzz drowns out most natural sounds for a bit.

Passing beyond th Huckleberry Marsh I have a field of corn on my left. As I approach what is now the end of the lane, a kite or falcon skims the top of the corn and flies to the electrical tower behind me.

I stop for a bit where the lane ends. A couple of monarch butterflies dance among a stand of trees on my left. Ahead and to the right is the Muck Field planted in soy beans. Across the muck field, to the right, is Windmill Hill. The windmill is long gone, but I remember it. The lane picks up at the hill and enters the Back Woods.

Straight ahead, at the end of the field, is Christmas Tree Hill. When my dad first bought the farm, he planted some pine trees there. When I was little we went back to this hill to select our Christmas trees. I remember the tree dragging behind the tractor leaving a pine-swept trail in the snow.

Between the hills a bluish mist blankets the soy beans and the tall grass beyond.

At the far left corner of the field I see a doe. After watching her for some time, I notice a buck almost straight ahead at the foot of Christmas Tree Hill near where the Gravel Pit used to be – now a grass-covered scoop in the hill. He must be the one I heard grunting earlier. I head in that direction, walking between the rows of soy beans. I get a little closer to the buck and stop. We stare at each other for a while. Then he bounds up the hill and disappears among the trees. But I can hear him snorting and stamping for a while longer.

Continuing to the scoop that was the gravel pit I walk up the hill. I hear the deep chatter of squirrels and see one in a tree to my left and another in an oak tree to my right. I walk to the base of the oak, notice the entry to a ground hog den at its base, and look up at the loquacious squirrel. He scolds me for a while and then climbs further up the tree. 

I come down the hill and head into the field between Christmas Tree Hill and the Back Woods. The soy beans end where I suppose the field has become too wet to plant. There is nothing but tall grass soaked with dew. I head into it and am soon soaked myself up to my hips. I try to avoid the occasional nettle plant. Despite my caution I begin to feel a familiar sting on the outside of my left calf where I must have brushed a nettle.

At the end of this field I reach the Muskrat Pond. Though it might not be particularly ‘PC’ I have fond memories of trapping the eponymous water rodents to sell to a furrier for spending money when I was a teenager. The pond is full of lilly pads – more than I remember.

There is a scar on the side of my left hand from a barbed wire incident near here. This place has marked me in more ways than one.

I turn right and head into the Back Woods. It is good to get out of the wet grass, but my hiking boots and socks continue to squish as I walk on the brown carpet of last year’s leaves.

Now I am home. These trees were – are – my friends. This was the refuge of a young, day-dreamy introvert.

Here is where extended family and friends would hunt mushrooms each spring. Soaked in brine, rolled in a soda cracker batter and fried in large batches, they tasted simultaneously wild and homey.

Walking on I see a hickory tree that, about twenty feet up the trunk, is split – I suppose by lightning. One half rests on the ground, its leaves still green. The other half is cradled in the branches of neighboring trees.

A little further on there is an old rotting, sawed-off stump. I am filled with memories. My father, who owned a sawmill along with the farm, would occasionally cull lumber-worthy trees from these woods. I am flooded with memories of the sound of whining chainsaws and crashing timber and the smell of sawdust. And the biting cold of frozen steel log chains, numb fingers and toes when the logging happened in winter.

I walk on and come upon an arrow on the ground. It has not been here long. Perhaps last fall’s hunting season? The three-bladed tip is slightly rusted, but still looks deadly. It evidently missed its target. Did that deer live to see another day? I take the arrow with me.

I find the lane and continue to walk through the woods, soaking up the sights and sounds and smells. I come out of the woods at the top of Wind Mill Hill. And there in the middle of the muck field is another doe prancing through the soy beans. She meets up with another and together they gracefully bound away from me across the field, waving their white-flag tails until they disappear into some trees.

Crossing the muck field I head back up the lane, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and little white butterflies dancing in front of my feet now and again as I walk.

Nostalgia and contentment mingle as I make my way back. Much has changed. I have changed. But this place endures. And being here grounds me and nourishes my spirit like nowhere else. In the homogenized, contextless space that is much of our contemporary world where we are reduced to tourists and consumers, I am aware of the gift it is to have such a sense of place. And I am grateful.