Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Book To Skip

I was in a book store the other day, and a title caught my eye: I Don’t Believe In Atheists, by Chris Hedges. It’s a fun title, and there’s been a spate of pro-atheist books of late, by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others, so I thought I might find in this little book (185 pages, excluding notes and index) a handy rebuttal. I noted with interest that the jacket blurb said the author had also written a book critical of the fundamentalists, and I thought someone who rejected both atheism and fundamentalism might be a fellow centrist. So I bought the book.

Unfortunately, Hedges disappoints. His modus operandi is to assert his opinions, with no attempt to prove them to a reader who doesn’t already share them. For example, he condemns the “liberal church” because it “accepts . . . the rosy vision . . . that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ ”. Maybe that’s true, but couldn't we have a quotation or two from liberal churchmen who say that? Personally, I’ve never heard Father Pangloss preach. The “Christian Right”, Hedges tells us, is a “threat to the democratic state” and has “built an alliance with the corporate state to dismantle American democracy”. Wow, I’d sure like to know more about this “alliance” and exactly how it plans to “dismantle” democracy: a military coup, perhaps, or Brown Shirts beating up non-Christian shopkeepers? Hedges doesn’t explain. He rejects Richard Dawkins’ optimism about the future and asserts that “We march toward a world where the rapacious and greedy appetites of human beings, who have overpopulated and failed to protect the planet, threaten widespread anarchy, famine, nuclear terrorism, and wars for diminishing resources”. You wouldn’t know from Hedges’ book that there are reasonable people who don’t buy into that prophecy, and you certainly won’t find in the book evidence and argument to support Hedges’ view.

Although this book is supposedly a critique of atheism, the enemy Hedges truly loves to hate is fundamentalism. Time and again he equates atheism with fundamentalism. For example, he contends that “Those who offer collective salvation, whether through science, Jesus Christ or Muhammad, promise an unattainable human paradise”. “These secular and religious fundamentalists are egocentrics unable to accept human difference”. The “secular utopians, like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class”. Both “atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power”.

Hedges traces the origin of the atheistic version of fundamentalism to the Enlightenment, and to a notion that he calls “utopianism”: the “dangerous myth” that “confuses moral progress with material progress” and “places faith in an empowered elite to guide us toward a new world”. This “Enlightenment vision” “sanctifies inhumane abuse of the weak to push the race forward” and is a “corruption” that was “built into the Enlightenment from its inception”. These “secular utopians” seek to give sufficient power to the most “rational” and “enlightened” among us, that is, to themselves, “to dictate to the rest of the planet a new way of being”. What Hedges calls “utopianism” is more commonly called “fascism”, the word Hedges used in his previous book to describe religious fundamentalists.

I found quite a bit in this book to agree with. Like Hedges, I oppose both atheism and fundamentalism. Like Hedges, I think that the Enlightenment has a lot to answer for. Like Hedges, I oppose fascism, under whatever banner it marches. And I admit that I get as much of a cheap thrill as the next guy from polemical attacks on beliefs I disapprove of. From time to time, as I read this book, I felt an urge to shout “Right on!” But you don’t learn anything that way. And it’s not really productive.

Ironically, Hedges himself advises us that we need to develop a “sober, dispassionate response” to the challenges that face us, we need “empathy, the ability to see the world from the perspective of those outside our culture and our nation”. Yet there is little that’s sober or dispassionate in Hedges’ book, and he shows no interest in seeing the world from any perspective but his own. It’s jolly fun to call your opponents “stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class” who have built “squalid little belief systems” to serve “themselves and their own power” (I wish I’d written that!), but its more effective in the long run to address and refute their arguments. This book could serve as an object lesson in how not to have a sober, dispassionate discussion with those you disagree with.

By Eric Von Salzen

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Last week, I spent a few days at a retreat center with about 15 others, including the Bishop of Kansas and the Canon to the Ordinary, talking about our diocesan school for ministry, and by extension, all of theological education in the Episcopal Church.

Everyone knows by now the crisis - freestanding seminaries are struggling to pay their bills; Seabury-Western has ceased offering Master of Divinity degrees, and others may follow, and yet the church still needs fully formed leaders for ordained ministry.  Still, a variety of factors, not the least of which are economic, make it ever harder for students to travel away from home for a three-year degree.

What to do?  This was the question at hand in Kansas last week, and although we were mostly discussing theological education for deacons and lay leaders, the topic of local formation for priests was on the table, too.  Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I was fairly vehement that priests need very rigorous education and Anglican formation before they should be allowed to lead congregations.   But this was part of a conversation with deep divisions - first, about what, exactly, is the specific definition of Anglican formation and second, about how we can best get priests formed while fully facing the reality of real hurdles to the traditional seminary model.

And it seems to me that these two issues are the whole seminary crisis in a nutshell.  What IS Anglican formation, exactly, and how important is it?   And how does it happen?    I find that what I understand this formation to be - learning the history and the traditions and the sacraments of the church, but also learning them in a specific context - is not a universally shared opinion, is not seen as crucially important by everyone in the church, and is the source of a great deal of frustration about the best way to have it happen.

My main point on the subject in conversation was that Anglicanism is no something you learn, it is something you 'catch,' and that I caught it by being at seminary, day in and day out, living and learning and worshiping with my brothers and sisters in a specific setting, until I felt like I really GOT it.  And although a lot of that experience was pretty difficult (and 9 years out, it will still be years before I pay off all my loans), I cannot imagine learning what I did, no matter how many books on Anglican history or theology or liturgy I read, without having lived it in community.  For me, this is foundational to Anglican identity, and it pains me to think of priests being formed outside of this kind of context.  I fear that we will lose something extremely valuable, something incarnational and sacramental and virtually indescribable, if we start forming our clergy entirely online, or in a program where they meet together only one weekend a month.

On the other hand, my experience of the Episcopal Church has been formed entirely on the east coast of the United States, and now I live in Kansas.  In our entire diocese, the number of full-time, seminary-educated priests is 26.  Never before have I fully understood that there IS a clergy shortage, that most parishes are small and struggling, and that if we insist that all of our priests have a three-year seminary degree, both these situations are going to continue to bring more hardship for dioceses like mine.   So the second major question, exactly HOW are we going to get priests formed, became the dominant one for us.

It was a great experience, having this conversation with the group that I was with, who all feel as passionately as I do (though not about the same things!), in the place where we were having it.  But now I find myself truly torn, because I see the issues plainly for a small diocese like mine, and yet I know how valuable my own formation and education have been, and I am reluctant to endorse a process that would not include the same level of preparation.   And into this mix is the evidence that as a church we are becoming increasingly 'post-denominational,' and so there is the possibility that not all of this formation is as important as I think.

What to do?  How do we define Anglicanism, exactly, in terms of formation - what is the minimal foundation?  And how do we ensure that locations with fewer resources and longer distances from theological education centers do not lose out on having fully prepared lay and ordained leaders?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Papal Visit

Over the last week, it has been very interesting to watch the news coverage of the Pope’s visit to the United States. Benedict the 16th has proven to be vibrant and articulate. I think he has quelled some of the fears that stem from his reputation as “God’s Rottweiler”.

What has been most interesting, from my perspective, is the lack of understanding of the press. They don’t quite know what to make of the Pope. They frequently butcher the language and nomenclature of the Church. They even seem befuddled by the Pope’s comments about certain issues.

One commentator, who will remain nameless, was angry about some of the Pope’s comments about the materialism of the United States. This “newsman” seemed surprised and angry that the Pope would be critical of materialism and a perceived lack of economic justice in the world. It was as if the Pope is not supposed to be concerned about life in the present.

Putting the Roman Catholic Church aside, does the Church not have a role in contemporary public life? In this country, we have avoided the national endorsement of a particular religion. This is as it should be, but that does not mean our faith is relegated to the margins.

Part of our individuality stems from our faith. We don’t turn our faith on an off like a light switch. We seek to integrate our faith into a holistic perspective that is ours. Jesus did not tell us not to worry about the present moment because, one day, we will be in heaven. Jesus counseled against obsession with the present, but called us to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, that is breaking into the present. I cannot help but believe we are to apply kingdom principles to our view of the present. This means the lens of faith is always in operation, not for claiming power, but for seeing past economics and politics.

At the end of the day, is it not the role of the Church and her members to remind us that we belong to God and one another? We might differ as to how this works best, but it is nonetheless our vocation.

The Rev'd Chris Epperson

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Beyond Borg, Pagels, Crossan and Spong

There is an odd tendency in today's Episcopal churches -- particularly in urbane settings -- to focus on the writings of four people:

  1. Marcus Borg
  2. John Dominic Crossan
  3. John Shelby Spong
  4. Elaine Pagels

Here’s why they’re of dubious value to the transformation of disciples of Jesus Christ in the Episcopal Church.

Marcus Borg (HarperSanFrancisco) is certainly the best of this bunch. I have read his fairly recent book, ‘The Heart of Christianity,’ and I do like much of what he says – but I don’t trust his witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And here's why, he was an active member of the Jesus Seminar whose ultra-minimalist view of the Gospels' authenticity grabbed many a sensationalist headline in their day. Moreover, Marcus Borg has said, “The truth of Easter really has nothing to do with whether the tomb was empty on a particular morning 2,000 years ago or whether anything happened to the corpse of Jesus. I see the truth of Easter as grounded in the Christian experience of Jesus as a living spiritual reality of the present.”

The problem with this statement is that goes against everything the disciples of Jesus Christ have said since that particular morning 2,000 years ago. What they said then – and the earliest accounts in the New Testament witness to it – “he rose.” The letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark (written between 49-62) attest very coherently to this core proclamation -- Jesus' dead body was placed in the tomb – then the tomb was empty – then many of us experienced him as a living spiritual and physical reality subsequently." It may be that these early disciples and witness of the resurrection were wrong – but what they said was, “We saw the Lord – as a living, spiritual and physical reality.” Anybody so willing to deny this key witness should not be a major influence in our church.

John Dominic Crossan (also on HarperSanFrancisco) is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar. According to Crossan, Jesus’ body was dumped and eaten by wild animals. He allows that 'something happened' which the first witnesses experienced -- and this is 'resurrection.' But his sense of it is extremely reductionist and vague.

John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco) has written a lot of books. He got off to a pretty good start several decades ago as the smart young rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. His book This Hebrew Lord wasn’t really too bad. But as the Bishop of Newark he continued to put out books which got increasingly worse. His niche was “the skeptical bishop willing to question the basics of the Christian faith for intelligent readers of today.” It is notable that as his book sales got bigger his diocese got vastly smaller in membership - shrinking by more than a third in his tenure as a bishop.

He is fond of describing the biblical and traditional Christian worldview as ‘pre-Copernican.’ Like many modernists, Spong rejects things mysterious, miraculous, ethereal, or beyond human scientific comprehension.

Elaine Pagels (Random House) has, like Jack Spong, had a long and productive publishing career. Pagels is a college professor – at Princeton. Yet, apart from publishing a lot of popular books – she appears to have left many of her colleagues in the academy unimpressed as regards her own scholarship.

Friday, April 18, 2008


By Eric Von Salzen

My father resigned as a Sunday School teacher over Genesis 34:13-29.

In case you’ve forgotten , that’s the story of how the sons of Jacob took revenge on Prince Shechem for raping their sister Dinah. (Although the scriptures tell us that Shechem took Dinah “by force”, afterwards his “soul was drawn to Dinah”, “he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her” and asked his father to arrange a marriage.) When Shechem’s father asked Jacob and his sons to agree to marriage between the two (and generally between their two tribes), Dinah’s brothers tricked the Shechemites into agreeing to allow all their menfolk to be circumcised, and then, while the Shechemite men were still incapacitated from the operation – performed in those days with flint knives and no anesthetic – the sons of Jacob murdered them and plundered the city.

In our Sunday School text book, there was no condemnation of the sons of Jacob; after all the Shechemites were pagans, whereas the sons of Jacob were the chosen people of God. My father protested to the Sunday School director, We can’t teach 12-year olds that you can do anything you want so long as you’re a member of the right religion. We have to say that what the sons of Jacob did was wrong. But the Sunday School director refused to allow my father to teach that God’s chosen people could be wrong. My father never taught Sunday School again.

That was in the dark ages of the mid 1950’s, in a Presbyterian Church, and surely wouldn’t happen in an Episcopal church today. I mention it, though, because it was my first experience with one of the “hard” lessons of the Bible. I don’t mean “hard” in the sense that some of Paul’s theology is hard to understand, or that the imagery in parts of Revelation or Daniel is hard to visualize. I mean hard to accept.

There are a lot of these hard lessons, particularly in the Old Testament, such as God banning Moses from entering the Promised Land because he didn’t do the water-from-the-rock trick the right way; King Saul losing God’s favor because he failed to kill all the Amalekites after defeating them in battle; and Psalm 137, which begins with that poignant lament, “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps”, and ends in a hateful fantasy of revenge against the Babylonians: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

But the quintessential hard lesson for me is Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of Isaac. Every year in Education for Ministry, I look forward, with interest and a little trepidation, to the week the Year 1 members read and discuss that story. What are we to say about a God who tells a father to murder his own son, and about a father who is ready to do so? Every discussion is different, but it’s always challenging.

Most of us prefer easy lessons to hard ones. Easy lessons are the ones that tell us that what we already believe is correct, that what we want to do is what we ought to do. The nice thing about easy lessons is that there’s so much to choose from. Given a little imagination and a good concordance, you can find scriptural support for just about any position that appeals to you. That’s why my baloney detector goes off whenever I hear someone try to end a discussion by saying “The Bible says . . . .”

You don’t learn anything from a scripture that says (or that you believe says) that you were right all along. It’s hard lessons that you learn from.

Kierkegaard used the hard lesson of Abraham and Isaac as the point of departure for his discourse in Fear and Trembling. He characterized Abraham as a “Knight of Faith”, who was willing to sacrifice his son at God’s direction, but at the same time believed “absurdly” that he would get Isaac back. That’s an interesting take on this hard lesson, and worth further thought and discussion. In EFM, the same week that the Year 1 members are reading the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis, the Year 4 folks are reading about Kierkegaard. There’s an opportunity there for some productive cross-discussion.

Jesus made it a practice to take easy lessons and make them hard. When a rich man asked him what to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus could have advised tithing, but instead he told him to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. A hard lesson for a man who “had many possessions” (and mighty hard for all of us, too). When a lawyer asked Jesus a similar question, Jesus could have been satisfied with the standard scriptural answer, to love God and one’s neighbor, but that was too easy. Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which says that the most despicable person a good Jew could imagine – a Samaritan! – was his neighbor for these purposes. And as if that weren’t hard enough, Jesus added, “Go and do likewise”.

We can try to dodge the hard lessons, of course. We can dismiss the Abraham and Isaac story as a cultural vestige of a dark and primitive age that has nothing to teach us. That’s pretty easy to do. But you don’t learn anything that way. Our Catechism tells us that God inspired the human authors of the holy scriptures and still speaks to us through them; it also tells us that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and us in interpreting the scriptures. I think that means we’re supposed to work on it; we’re supposed to take the scriptures seriously, even when they’re hard. Especially when they’re hard.

In turns out, by the way, that condemning the murder of the Shechemites doesn’t challenge the scriptures after all. Genesis never presents the sons of Jacob as moral role models, quite the contrary. These are the same lovable characters who, a few chapters later, kidnap their kid brother Joseph and sell him into slavery. The Sunday School director just didn’t know his Bible very well.

The hard part of this lesson comes when we remember that the sons of Jacob are us. We, the people of God, do awful things all the time, just as the Israelites did over and over again in the Old Testament. Just as in the New Testament we crucify Jesus. The hard question is: Why does God tolerate the human race? There’s a good topic for discussion.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

FD Maurice On Now

THERE is a kind of pause between Easter and Ascension Day, when we no longer think of our blessed Lord as continually with His Apostles as He was before His Passion, and yet before we contemplate Him as once again in His glorious Majesty at the right hand of the Father. The great forty days on which we have now entered, during which at intervals He was seen of those who before had been continually with Him in His temptations, and when He gave them the clearest proofs of His still being a man and still wearing that same body which they had seen nailed to and pierced on the Cross, seem especially given to us as a distinct proof of His resurrection, of the certainty of our own, we sharing in His glory, as He has shared in our humiliation. He seems thus to have desired especially to silence all doubts as to the Resurrection of the Body, and thus to have proved His victory over the world, and the grave, and the powers of evil. You may see that He gave His body powers that it had not before; thus He was evidently not recognised at once--as in the case of the two on the way to Emmaus--some even doubted when the eleven saw Him on that mountain in Galilee where He had foretold that He would meet them,--He entered the room where they were assembled when the doors were shut; but yet He evidently desired by word and action, as by reminding them by a second miraculous draught of fishes of their earliest call, asking for food and eating before them, to give them clear evidence that His resurrection in the same body was a reality and not a fancy--that it was He, the man Christ Jesus, who had overcome death and risen from the grave, and not a phantom taking His likeness, or a spirit which had no flesh or bones which they saw Him to have. And as our Easter comes to us year after year with the same stirring call to awake from our graves of carelessness or neglect, as it comes again and again with the same repeated reminder of our Lord's resurrection, the same repeated assurance of our own, so surely ought it to quicken in our sluggish hearts this sense of our Lord's victory, this realization that the battle against sin and death was then once for ever won by Him; and at the same time while year after year comes to sadden us by the removal of those we have loved, yet ought we more and more to be ready to dwell rather on the bright promise of the future Resurrection and the glorious life with Him, than only on the sadness which is thus continually forced on us that all out of Heaven must fade, that all of earth, whether earnestness, or genius, or love, is given to earth but for a time, is summoned hence when the work given to be done is accomplished, the time when God has need of it elsewhere come. Yes, it is the old, old story that our Easter has ever to bring before us, of the non-endurance of the things of the world, and the passing away of all that is bright and fair in it, of the permanence only of the things of Heaven, and of how all that is given us on earth is to be used so that when resigned here we may find it again there. And surely if death comes to us at Easter-tide, and saddens all our rejoicings, we have only the more reason to take to ourselves the consolation that the Resurrection brings with it; we have only to feel the more certainly that if every year brings our mortality more distinctly before us, and makes every one come to believe at length that he too will die, every Easter also only the more distinctly brings to us the assurance of our immortality; brings to us the certainty also that death has been overcome, and that we shall overcome it too in our own bodies; that, in short, in the Apostle's words, "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." And surely now the sight of the renewal of creation around us, in the new birth of all inanimate things in the spring-tide, brings the same idea present to our minds; as we see the seed planted to die now rising again in the fresh beauty of the blossom, we have always the thought of our own future life, after in the same way dying and becoming a prey to corruption. And thus Christianity has given a new meaning to all of the ordinary works of nature. It is very different to us from the feeling of the heathen poet who observes that the mallow and the twisted dill die in one year, but renew themselves in another, while man when he dies sleeps on his never-ending sleep. The Christian knows that his awaking will not be like theirs, to die again and have the same process repeated over again, but that he will awake to the never-ending life with his Creator,--will live again in such a shape and form as will be fitted for the work that Creator has for him to do in that higher state of existence for which this is a preparation.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bishop of Tennessee on Ecclesiology

A good GTS man by the way:

The Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt: Remarks at Wycliffe College, Toronto

Agreeing Together: Reflections on Ecclesiology and Theological Method

“What are parties given for in London but that enemies may meet?” says the Duchess in Henry James’ novel The Awkward Age. “How can hatreds comfortably flourish without the nourishment of such regular ‘seeing’… as friendship alone supplies?” The aptness of such an observation, of course, depends on one’s perspective on the upcoming Lambeth Conference of Bishops. What kind of party will it be? Will it be the mere meeting of enemies? Or perhaps simply a “non-meeting”? For those of you who know the novel, it may seem that it is the awkward age of the Anglican Communion itself, no longer a child yet not quite grown, and perhaps even prey to unscrupulous persons. In a number of ways there is a sort of Jamesian quality to Communion life right now, with the necessity of a tortured parsing of dialogue in report, resolution, and communiqué. We might make the exception that the theme of sexual tension is in Communion affairs no longer subtly presented (as it was by James), but rather foisted upon us in a post-Freudian and political way in our own day.

Forgive the literary parallels. I have no solution to the dilemma of how we can gather, not as enemies, at Lambeth, though I do want to reflect on another parallel, in ecclesiology and theological method that may be helpful to Anglicans as we think about the way forward. That parallel is the necessity of agreeing together, both for the Church to embody the fullness of the life God has given it, and for Christian theology to have both authenticity and coherence. Those who must agree together in the Church are the diverse centers of authority; while in Christian theology a number of sources (“authorities” of another sort) cohere and speak together in order for truth to command assent.

So let’s start with ecclesiology, in particular with the influential Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. For Cyprian, the agreement that was crucial was the agreement of the Church’s bishops. The episcopate is one, and though spread throughout the world, is a harmonious multitude. The one Church and the one episcopate reflect the One God. though the necessity for agreeing together points to an underlying multiplicity, and is not an argument for an ecclesial monism. The concurrence of the episcopate in agreeing together was in Cyprian’s time an important theological datum, a sign of the Church’s unity and integrity in the midst of multiplicity and diversity. Diversity: in respect to penitential discipline, and then in Cyprian’s own time in respect to discipline regarding those who had lapsed during the persecution of the Church. The communion of the bishops with each other, in the midst of diverse practice, reflected the unity of the Church. “The authority of the bishops forms a unity, of which each holds his part in its totality. And the Church forms a unity, however far she spreads and multiplies by the progeny of her fecundity.”

But it is when we come to the issue of schism and baptismal discipline in the Christian community that we see Cyprian as most willing to stretch the concord of the episcopate. The custom of Cyprian’s North African Church was to re-baptize those who had been baptized in schismatic communities; not the practice of the Roman Church, nor the practice which eventually prevailed in the West. Cyprian and Pope Stephen engaged in long range theological argument over this difference in baptismal discipline, and Stephen seems to have been willing to sever communion with churches that followed the North African practice. Cyprian, by contrast, was willing to tolerate divergent practice in this case as well. Again, as in the case of the other issues, each bishop was to follow his own custom while unity was kept. “Charity of spirit, the honor of our college, the bond of faith, and priestly concord, are maintained by us with patience and gentleness”.

Yet there were limits to diversity in Cyprian’s scheme. When it came to clergy who had lapsed in the persecution, or who had become schismatic, a harsher line was taken. They were not to be restored to office, even if repentant. The more rigorous discipline functions as a reminder of the role played by the episcopate in Cyprian’s theology. As long as the episcopate was uncompromised, diversity in regard to some things could be tolerated.

Cyprian’s Episcopal theology and ecclesiology were tremendously influential among upholders of the episcopally-ordered Church of England in the seventeenth century, and then again in the wake of the Oxford Movement among Catholic-minded Anglicans in the nineteenth century. It is a fact to conjure with that the echoes of this ecclesiology continue to resound in the Windsor Report, with its specific call for agreement among Churches about those who hold the episcopacy, in order that the Communion can continue to walk together. The tradition of North African Christianity has been a rich mine for Catholicism in the West, and a rich mine for Anglicanism in particular. The themes developed by Cyprian continue to shape the argument. Diversity, yes; but also the necessity of agreement together.

Let’s cycle forward a bit now, ruthlessly skipping the rise of the medieval papacy, the Conciliar movement, and the Reformation, not to mention the beginnings of a global Christianity and the development of the Anglican Communion itself, and come to the way in which agreement together works itself out in our Anglican context. The 1948 Lambeth Conference addressed one of its reports to the subject of the Communion itself. The Report cited the 1930 Conference, which had contrasted two types of ecclesiastical organization, “that of centralized government and that of regional autonomy”. Casting its eyes nervously over its shoulder at Rome, the 1948 Conference Report repudiated centralized government, congratulating previous Conferences on decisions not to establish either a formal primacy for Canterbury, or an Appellate Tribunal, or to give the Conference itself legislative powers. One wonders what the fathers of Lambeth 1948 would have made of our situation today. It’s a sobering meditation on how times have changed, and of how a gentlemanly smugness concerning a time-conditioned understanding of our own tradition as evidenced at Lambeth 1948 has been first exposed and then transformed by ecumenical dialogue and the changed circumstances of a global Christianity.

Yet, even here, in spite of smugness about the best of all possible churches, “the positive nature of the authority which binds the Anglican Communion together is therefore seen to be moral and spiritual, resting on the truth of the Gospel, and on a charity which is patient and willing to defer to the common mind”. “The common mind”: once again, agreement together.

Authority, as it has come down to the Anglican Communion from the undivided Church of the first centuries, is single in that it comes from one Divine source, but is “distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through His faithful people in the Church”. Lambeth incautiously speaks of different kinds of authority together in the same breath, but the principle of diversity is the same. Again, the need for multiple elements to agree together for authorities to cohere and speak as one in order for truth to command assent.

“It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralized authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check each other; these elements together contributing by a process of mutual support, mutual checking, and redressing of errors and exaggerations to the many sided fullness of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church. When this authority of Christ is to be found mediated not in one mode but in several we recognize in this multiplicity God’s loving provision against the temptations to tyranny and the dangers of unchecked power”.

When Lambeth 1948 sought the place where this dispersed authority distributed in diverse places finds its focus, it pointed to the episcopate, “by virtue of… divine commission, and in synodical association with… clergy and laity”, and to the Book of Common Prayer. So again, we come back to agreement together: something different from centralized authority or universal jurisdiction, yet still substantial, and morally and spiritually authoritative.

I think it not too far a leap, at this point in the life of the Communion, to see the Instruments of Unity within the Anglican Communion as the means by which authority, multiple and dispersed, finds focus so that there can be agreement together. The agreement expresses a common mind, and a commitment to a life together that is substantial, even if not agreeing in every detail. Charity requires patience, and of course patience involves suffering. To walk away from agreement together as our means and end to the living of the Christian life in community is to attempt the re-founding of our doctrine of the Church on something else (indeed, what?); to walk away from the possibility of “mutual support” “mutual checking”, and the “redressing of errors and exaggerations” within the Communion. It is to take the ecclesiology of Cyprian, a committed builder of bridges between Churches, and to turn it into the ecclesiology of the Donatists, who defined their Church by separation. The ecclesiology of the Donatists, in some aspects his legitimate heir, represents in fact the metastasis of Cyprian’s ecclesiology.

Now I want to say something in parallel about theological method, already adumbrated in the 1948 Lambeth Report. In the same way that the Church seeks agreement in the midst of multiplicity, so too do the sources of Christian theological authority seek to come together and offer a coherent witness. They may be distributed in diverse places, according to the Lambeth Report, but they too agree. The Church has a regula, a rule of faith, which is akin to saying that the Holy Scripture needs to be reasonably interpreted in light of the Church’s tradition of understanding the Scripture. The Scripture has its own hermeneutical tool, a way of being interpreted, and it is rooted in the Scripture itself. As Lancelot Andrews put it “one canon...two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period...determine the boundary of our faith.”

Here I want to offer, perhaps improbably, an argument for theological diversity (of a sort). For all our talk of pluralism, there seems a much greater danger of monism in theological method than there is of anything else. Anglicanism has tended to take a historical approach to theology, and history is messy and diverse. The regula is revealed in history; creedal orthodoxy takes time to blossom. The Anglican Divines of the 17th century followed Andrews in valorizing the first centuries of the Church’s life, but by doing so they embraced a multiplicity of perspectives and issues that were stitched together into a coherent witness by the regula.

Yves Congar puts it this way:

Nevertheless, the Church of the Fathers is possessed of something quite special and privileged, and we must recognize this, not just in virtue of some romantic taste for the primitive, but because of what that period represents, historically, in the Church's life. It represents, to be precise, the moment when the deposit of apostolic faith was given an exact form with a view to excluding certain interpretations rejected as heretical...This was the historical role of the Fathers, and that of the great dogmatic councils too. Among these latter, the first four have a kind of preeminence, for, like the Fathers with which they are contemporary, they had to determine the fundamentals of belief, the trinitarian and christological dogmas; they had to forge, for future generations, the elements of a whole Christian language.

Diverse sources sprung from Scripture within community and the lived life of the Church had coherence through the regula fidei.

But what we have in our own day is a tremendous diminishment of theological method, as more complex considerations are swept away by appeals to “justice”, or “inclusion”, or even “scriptural truth” as the only interpretative tool for the Christian tradition. This is less like the uncovering of agreement within multiplicity, the teasing out of connection and underlying unity, and more like the paving over of difference by a theological monism that ignores whole parts of our theological tradition. It is like trotting out “incarnation” and expecting it to trump “atonement”, to speak the word “fall” and expect it to eclipse “creation”, or vice versa.

Don’t misunderstand me: justice (once we’ve defined what we mean by it) is important; and inclusion, if we can define it by proclamation of the truth and welcome into the community, is a graceful thing. But I think that you know what I mean when we find that our mission is defined in such a one-dimensional way, and our community re-defined on a basis which dissolves its very coherence.

Then again, I’m not arguing against Scriptural truth, but only against a sort of “scripturalism” that uses the Bible as a weapon. I think Richard Hooker understood this when he refused to let the Church’s order and traditional common life be re-fashioned by the Puritan demands of “nothing but the Bible”, a demand which finally led to schism within English Christianity and became the theoretical justification for that separation. Hooker upheld a Scripturally-based reformed Catholicism, but he knew the trap of theological monism that was concealed by the Puritan agenda.

Christianity is simply too broad and too deep for this sort of reduction. The necessity of agreeing, through a “regular” reading of Scripture (that is, both sustained over time and also in accord with the rule of faith), reminds us that theological issues are not resolved by appeals to slogans, even ones with substantial credentials, worthy of our attention. Slogans tend to be repeated endlessly, whereas agreement comes through attention to the Scripture and shared discernment and prayer. Our theological method needs to recognize the diverse sources and issues that come before us, and seek agreement in the midst of them. We will have to pray together and hold together in order to do this. There will be no possibility of agreement otherwise.

So, will we be able to gather, as something more than enemies? Agreement together is crucial to both our understanding of the Church, and also to our articulation of the Faith. I think we will need to work out what it means to agree together for our gathering to have any meaning. Agreeing together does not, and should not, involve ecclesiological or theological monism, but it does mean that we will have to agree on substantial things; enough, at least, to show up for the party. I believe that the Windsor Report points the way forward: not to the resolution of everything that divides us at this present moment, but perhaps to that substantial agreement together that will allow us to gather and to seek a common mind.

General Seminary Hosts Anglican Covenant Conference

By Jered Weber-Johnson
for the Episcopal Cafe

The Anglican Covenant Conference began last evening at the recently opened Desmond Tutu Center in New York City, with participants from across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada as well as representatives from various bodies within the wider Anglican Communion. The General Theological Seminary convened this conference with the intent of engaging participants in dialogue and debate over the draft Anglican Covenant.

The format over the next day and a half includes panel presentations by theologians, scholars, and faculty from the several seminaries represented at the conference with responses by student panels. Each seminary was asked to select a faculty and student representative to send to the conference.

Interspersed between the panel discussions will be three keynote speakers. The first of these keynoters was last night, the Most Reverend Drexel Gomez, Archbishop and Primate of the West Indies and the Bishop of the Diocese of the Bahamas. Also on the schedule are Canon Dr. Jenny Te Paa, a member of the Lambeth Commission on Communion which produced the Windsor Report in 2004, as well as the Reverend Canon Gregory Cameron, Director of Ecumenical Affairs and Studies, and Deputy Secretary General in the Anglican Communion Office in London.

The question posed to the presenters and keynoters by the conference organizers was “Would an Anglican Covenant clarify Anglican identity and strengthen mutual interdependence? Or would it be a tool of exclusion and dominance?”

In his talk, “The Case for an Anglican Covenant”, Archbishop Gomez asserted that not only would it clarify Anglican identity, but, he further argued, “covenant is the only available mechanism” to keep us together as a communion.

The majority of Archbishop Gomez’s comments centered on the necessity and practicality of an Anglican Covenant, drawing heavily from Section C 119 of the Windsor Report, on Canon Law and Covenant.

Seeking to demonstrate prior precedent for covenanting in the history of Anglicanism, Gomez sited the Bonn Agreement of 1931 between Anglicans and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, noting that that particular covenant was brief due to the amount of trust by both parties entering into it.

Gomez argued, “brevity can only survive in a situation of complete trust. Where matters are disputed, the matters must be clarified.”

In his responding remarks, the Reverend Dr. Peter-Ben Smit, a priest in the Old Catholic Church and a student of the General Theological Seminary noted that rather, the tenor leading up to the Bonn Agreement was anything but trusting, and issues were far from resolved at the time of the agreement.

“Over seventy-five years of full communion, of which my presence here is a living example, show therefore that your premise that ‘where matters are disputed, the matters must be clarified’ holds not true”, said Smit.

Smit further noted that in lifting up the example of the Bonn Agreement, Gomez had not argued for a lengthy agreement such as the proposed covenant, but rather “for a short statement of fundamental agreement”.

John Lock, a seminarian from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry pointed out that he agreed with Gomez that an Anglican Covenant might be practical and necessary in troubled times such as these.

At the same time Lock argued, “we cannot achieve unity, the precious gift of the Spirit, merely on the grounds of Anglican polity.” Rather, “unity comes when” he continued, “we are reconciled to God and have peace with God, and as a result we can have peace and be reconciled to those who are redeemed in him.”

In perhaps the most pointed comment of the evening, Leonel Abaroa Boloña, a student at Trinity College, Toronto, stated that Archbishop Gomez had preached at the consecration of two bishops whose consecration was expressly for the purpose of pastoral care to Anglicans in America disaffected by the Episcopal Church’s stand toward homosexuality. Boloña argued that Gomez’s presence at the consecration, which took place in Kenya, seemed to be inconsistent with the stance of the Windsor Report and the Anglican Covenant, both of which Gomez played a part in producing and is expressly supportive of.

“I need consistency”, said Boloña, “and as the Primate of the West Indies and as a person who says he supports the Windsor Report, you are saying one thing and doing another.”
Gomez responded that his presence at the consecration was not as Primate, but as close friend of the two men being consecrated. He denied that his actions were in any way inconsistent with his words.

After the evening’s discussion the Reverend Dr. Ian Douglas reacted for Episcopal Café to the presentation and subsequent comments.

“I was quite impressed by the questions. People got right into it, and the questions people had were well researched.”

Noting the significance of the Anglican Covenant Conference: “I think it’s important to have substantial discussion, discussion that is considered and gracious, which surfaces valid and important differences. If we’re going to be genuine to the covenant process—these conversations are going to be necessary.”

For more information about the Anglican Covenant Conference, its keynote speakers and other presenters, and to look for papers as they are posted, go to

Jered Weber-Johnson, a postulant from the Diocese of Olympia, is a student at the General Theological Seminary.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gospel According to Pagels - Chilton

This piece by Professor Bruce Chilton of Bard College is published here from the New York Sun, without permission.

The Gospel According To Pagels

April 2, 2008

In 1945, two brothers dug for natural fertilizer beneath a cliff of Jabal al-Tarif in Upper Egypt. Their tools struck an ancient ceramic jar filled with books, hand-sewn in the manner of antiquity. The brothers had recently avenged the murder of their father. For that reason, they remembered the time of what otherwise seemed a disappointing discovery; they had been hoping to find treasure in the jar. But their find unearthed a library from the fourth century of the Common Era, and represents a landmark discovery in the history of the study of Christianity.

The 13 volumes of this collection, almost entirely written in Coptic — the latest form of the Egyptian language — are called the Nag Hammadi library, after a town nearby. They contain gospels and apocalypses and discourses and letters and chants unknown in the Christian Bible; teachers in Christian antiquity such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen knew many of these works and quoted from them, often with disapproval. In this library, a range of worship and religious experience and theology comes to direct expression, unfiltered by polemics, for the first time since the fourth century.

The discoverers and their relatives did not appreciate what they had found; it seems that the thirteenth volume is fragmentary today because large parts of it were used for kindling. Middlemen from as far afield as Cairo and Geneva were more canny, but also destructive; they divided the collection up in an attempt to enhance their profit from sales. An American scholar affiliated with UNESCO, James M. Robinson, assembled the volumes in Cairo again, damaged though they had been subsequent to their discovery, and arranged for an exemplary translation. The team of researchers he brought together included Elaine Pagels, who is credited in partnership with John D. Turner for translating two of the four dozen documents in the Nag Hammadi collection.

Ms. Pagels, then teaching at Barnard College, also wrote the leading volume on the discovery, "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979), a brief but penetrating study of the works found at Nag Hammadi and their importance. No single contribution has shaped the popular impression of the significance of the find and the meaning of Gnosticism more than her book. As her title suggests, Ms. Pagels makes sense of the library by associating it with Gnosticism, a movement that flourished between the second and fourth centuries C.E., and which sought "knowledge" (the meaning of the word gnosis in Greek and Coptic) as the insight that could bring a person into true contact with eternal reality. This insight held the promise of eternity, according to Gnostic theology. Although not all of the works in the library are Christian, in referring directly to Jesus and his followers, the great majority of them are, and Ms. Pagels therefore used the collection to describe a Christianity which formed a cogent alternative to the Church that claimed the name "catholic," meaning universal.

She pursued her analysis by means of her first-hand acquaintance with Gnostic writings, and with ancient authors who mentioned the Gnostics. Those writers, the Fathers of the Church, were generally critical of, or hostile toward, Gnosticism. The tension of debate, indeed, is the driving concern of Ms. Pagels's book, as she contrasts Gnostics to Catholics on the issues of resurrection, authority, the feminine side of God, martyrdom, the identity of the true Church, and knowledge itself. These were crucial issues for Gnostics and for Catholics, so that reading this volume can to this day serve as a useful introduction to the Nag Hammadi collection and to Gnosticism as a whole, especially if the reader at the same time has recourse to a good translation of the documents themselves, such as Professor Robinson produced.

The argument that "The Gnostic Gospels" mounts alongside its helpful description, however, depends upon an anachronism. In discussing each of her topics, Ms. Pagels attempts to make the case that the motivation for the Catholic position was to give the clergy greater power, while the Gnostics nobly pursued their quest of knowledge into historical oblivion, until the Nag Hammadi collection surfaced again after 1,500 years. Ms. Pagels sees her essay as a contribution to the relationship between religion and politics, but for the most part, she leaves out the real power in the whole equation of the religious history of the period: the Roman Empire.

Because successive emperors promoted or permitted the persecution of "atheists" — people such as Christians who refused to acknowledge the gods of Rome and the divinity of the emperor — both Catholics and Gnostics were martyred, paying for their convictions with torture and even death. Although the great majority from both sides managed to find an accommodation with their Roman masters, enough of them refused to bend to the will of their persecutors that Catholics and Gnostics alike had to contend with the question of how much their adherents should put themselves in harm's way for their beliefs.

Under the circumstances of Roman rule, it is unconvincing, misleading, and inaccurate to portray Catholics as somehow exercising power over Gnostics in the period prior to the fourth century. After Constantine's conversion, of course, Rome's might did back Catholic Christianity in military and financial, as well as political, terms. But it is anachronistic to describe the two groups' relationship prior to that as a power inequality. Both of them were oppressed. They did argue with one another, and amongst themselves; that was the nature of theological debate in earliest Christianity, and in the ancient Mediterranean world as a whole. Moreover, the lines of demarcation and debate were fluid: Many Catholics claimed access to true gnosis, while Gnostics claimed their truth was universal. In fact, "Catholic" and "Gnostic," though convenient terms for grouping differing communities in retrospect, did not at the time represent mutually exclusive orientations, as Ms. Pagels herself admits.

Ms. Pagels attempts to meet the challenge of sorting out a complex series of disagreements with a picture of Gnostics as existentialists and of Catholics as organizers. That simple model permits her to argue that Jesus and Paul represented a bit of both tendencies, and that the Church in the modern world should accommodate these two approaches. That is a nicely inclusive argument, and makes for a user-friendly version of Gnosticism, but it comes at the price of historical integrity.

Dealing with each topic in her book, Ms. Pagels does not mention crucial evidence concerning Gnostics and Catholics, and distorts what she does mention. She falsely maintains that Catholics insisted upon a physical view of resurrection (as compared to the Gnostics), when a spiritual view is clearly represented from Paul in the first century until Origen in the third century. She asserts that Gnostics did not concern themselves with authority, when in fact they often branded those who disagreed with them as corrupt materialists who were constitutionally incapable of understanding the world of spirit. Attempting to say that the Gnostics were feminists, she ignores texts from Nag Hammadi, as well as Gnostic sources that had been known for centuries before the library's discovery, that portray "Wisdom" (Sophia), the feminine counterpart of the true, masculine God, as literally hysterical — jealous of divine power, but unable to create life on her own, and therefore vindictive. Martyrdom was a common threat to Gnostics and Catholics, and not at all a fate that the Fathers of the Church wanted Christians generally to seek; Gnostics could be as ferocious as Catholics in claiming unique insight, and the knowledge that transcends this world was every bit as much a Catholic as a Gnostic quest.

Appearing in a book as well written as Ms. Pagels's, her anachronisms have undermined public understanding of early Christianity. Gnosticism proved to be the most powerful philosophical and religious movement of its time because it insisted without compromise that the only truth that matters transcends this corrupt world. Gnostics often denigrated women as creatures of corruption, condemned any disagreement with their teaching as materialist fantasy, and denied that sexuality had any place in the realm of spirit. Trying to turn this orientation into existentialism, or feminism, or an embrace of the world's physicality, will only work with an extremely selective handling of the evidence, and deploys a laundered view of its subject.

Ms. Pagels is too wise to pretend that the Gnosticism of the historical sources supports the Neo-Gnostic fashions of our time that have thrived in New Age circles. Yet in "The Gnostic Gospels," she does compare the texts to what existentialists, feminists, and environmentalists have to say. Her habit might be seen as part of the historian's function, to use today's language to help explain yesterday's events and movements. But by impact if not by intent, her book has promoted the view that Gnosticism is a liberal version of Christianity, when in fact liberalism and Gnosticism are radically different phenomena.

By softening the hard edges of the texts she herself had a hand in translating, Ms. Pagels has robbed many of her readers of an appreciation of the real force of the Gnostic Gospels. The fact is that Gnosticism, even after Constantine, was not successfully repressed. Many of its books were indeed destroyed or hidden away; it seems plausible that the Nag Hammadi library was sealed in a jar and buried to protect the writings from overzealous orthodox monks during the fourth century. But even as the books went underground, the power of gnosis remained.

The Nag Hammadi collection does not represent ideas that have lain dormant until a miracle of accident and scholarship brought them to light. Rather, these 13 volumes show that beliefs prevalent in mainstream Christianity to this day derive from Gnosticism: the full divinity of Jesus, the conception that his death paid the price of blood to Satan for the sins of the world, and the conviction that true believers should be celibate, for example. None of these is a small idea; each has had a powerful influence on the history of religious thought, and not only among Christians. None can be adequately accounted for on Ms. Pagels's reading of Gnosticism, and she gives them either scant attention, or no attention at all.

The power of the collection discovered near Nag Hammadi is not that they miraculously agree with the fashions of our time after 1,500 years of silent burial. Instead, with powerful focus, they identify religious forces that shook and shaped the ancient world, and then developed belief systems that remain influential to this day. Jesus's divinity is a grounding conviction of Catholicism and Orthodoxy now; Fundamentalism is fiercely attached to the ultimately Gnostic doctrine that God paid Satan by permitting his son to die. Ambivalence toward sexuality is a pan-Christian attitude. Gnosticism is a deeper and darker force than the revisionist scenario that makes it the prop of modern liberalism. After 30 years, it is time to move beyond the anachronism of "The Gnostic Gospels."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Easter Demands a Response

I have posted this excellent sermon by the Rev. Cathie Caimano without her permission.

The Rev. Catherine A. Caimano
March 23, 2008
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS

I read a really interesting story the other day on, an online magazine that covers current events. The writer, James Martin, a Jesuit priest, was writing about why it is that Christmas has been almost completely taken over by commercialism and consumerism, and that somehow, Easter has resisted this trend, and it remains largely a religious holiday. Why is that so, he wondered?

The main point he made is that Christmas is safe. It can easily be boiled down to a happy, wholesome image, regardless of what one’s beliefs actually are: a young, pretty pregnant woman, a ruggedly handsome slightly older man, their trusty donkey.

With no room in the inn, they give birth to a beautiful baby boy in a stable stocked with cuddly animals and a few interesting shepherds and other characters around. It is heartwarming and lovely, and fits right in with feasting and joy of every kind. And if you want to think that this little baby is the Son of God, well, then, no one is really going to be troubled by that.

The Easter story, on the other hand, is not nearly so easy to take – a man who preaches love and peace is betrayed, arrested, and then brutally tortured and killed. That doesn’t make for witty cards to send to our friends, or an occasion to decorate our home and throw parties. It’s no wonder that the secular world shies away, and it’s no wonder that it is hard for us to reduce this moment in our story to sentimentalism.

But the truly interesting thing I found in this article, especially in a thoroughly secular context, is that Martin points out that the real reason that Easter has not been co-opted by our culture is that it demands a response.

There’s no sitting on the sidelines. There is no making it pretty.

The events leading up to Easter, the Passion story, the days that we have just finished walking through – the nails and the cross and the bitterness and the gall and finally the empty tomb. There is no hearing this story without it having an effect.

If we are appalled by it, if we are vaguely fascinated by it, if our hearts are broken by it, we can’t reduce it to part of OUR every day lives, we can’t make it about US. Instead, we are drawn out of our lives and into this world, this story of Jesus’ last days, this drama of life and death.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that unlike almost everything else in the Christian story, and especially unlike what happens after the tomb, no one doubts this part. Isn’t it interesting, that you never hear anyone saying that Jesus WASN’T really hung on a cross,
that Jesus DIDN’T really die a terrible death? No one has trouble believing in hatred. No one disputes the violence.

But what happens next, what we are here this morning to celebrate, the resurrection, is really where the controversy is, is really where the choices are. Martin points out in his article that even though there have been many celebrated movies about Jesus’ last days, most notably Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ of a few years ago, they have treated the resurrection with barely a passing glance.

But here, this moment, the empty tomb, although it is ALL about God here, what God has done, here is also where we ARE involved. Here is where there is a call on OUR lives.

If it happened that Jesus rose from the dead – well, then there really is no turning back. You would HAVE to believe that love is the strongest force in the universe. You would HAVE to believe that God loves us so much that God defeats even death to show us this.

And this would NOT be an occasion to take the sentiment and turn it into just another feel-good holiday. This would be an occasion to change your LIFE. This would be an occasion to BELIEVE in life. This would be something that could change the WORLD.

And because of this, there is nothing easy about it.

In his article, Martin writes: ‘The resurrection, the joyful end of the Easter story, resists domestication as it resists banalization. Unlike Christmas, it also resists a noncommittal response. Even agnostics and atheists who don’t accept Christ’s divinity can accept the general outlines of the Christmas story with little danger to their worldview. But Easter demands a response. It’s hard for a non-Christian believer to say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead.”

That’s not something you can believe without some serious ramifications … If you believe the story, then you believe that Jesus is God … what he says about the world and the way we live in that world then has a real claim on you. Easter is an event that demands a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ There is no ‘whatever.’

And so this morning, this joyful morning when we celebrate the empty tomb, the shock and the astonishment of the Mary’s encounter with the angel, and then the risen Christ, we are here at the moment of our faith that asks us again to commit ourselves to something that the rest of the world simply does not understand.

The tone of this article that I have been quoting was surprise. The reason it got to me so much was that its author seemed so amazed that in this day and age, when anything and everything is co-opted to sell something, is borrowed from one cultural form into another, is reduced to simplistic piety or easy emotionalism, that this is ONE event that manages to resist every way that we have to seal it in a tomb.

Our ancestors did it with nails and beams and one big rock. We do it with marketing and contextualization.

But Jesus is stronger even than that. The love of God will not be reduced to what is safe, to what is easy to understand, what we can manage to fit into OUR lives. The resurrection ensures that we will not be content with anything short of rearranging our whole lives altogether.

Easter demands a response.

If it is just another day on our calendar, just another day off, just another excuse for chocolate, then it is just another step closer to Valentine’s day or Halloween, holidays that once held religious meaning but now are more or less just time to have some fun.

But if we are willing to say ‘Yes’ to the resurrection, then love and fear, life and death, EVERYTHING is rearranged by God in a way that calls us to live in the secure belief in resurrection, in forgiveness, in a God who never lets us go.

Martin ends his article with the thought that even Christians don’t really know what to do with someone who has been raised from the dead, but I think he is wrong about that.

We know what to do: we are called to follow this Lord, this love, which is stronger even than suffering, stronger even than death, stronger than money and power and cleverness and every other way we think that WE have to reduce and remove ourselves from what we are afraid of, what we don’t understand.

“Do not be afraid,’ it says twice in our Gospel reading today. Do not turn away from life, from love, from forgiveness and resurrection. Do not turn away from a God who loves you this much.

Easter demands a response.

The whole joyful world waits for yours on this day.

Education For Ministry

by Eric Von Salzen

I had never heard of Education for Ministry.

My wife and I were sitting in the pew at St. Alban’s, Washington, DC, reading the announcements in the service leaflet while we waited for the 5:30 pm service to start. Helen said, "Oh, look, they’re starting up a new Education for Ministry group in the fall. You’d like that. It’s intellectual. You ought to sign up."

So, of course I did.

When I came home after the first meeting of the new EFM group, and Helen asked how I liked it, I said, "Well, the mentor’s very good; she clearly knows what she’s doing. And I like the people in the group. The study materials seem to be just what I was looking for to learn something about the Bible. But I’m not really sure this program’s for me. I think it’s kind of touchy-feely."

I should explain, that I was raised in New England. We don’t do touchy-feely.

What was really bothering me was that I had learned that within a few weeks I was going to have to present to the entire EFM group my "spiritual autobiography". I was supposed to talk for 15 whole minutes about who I am, about my hopes, my dreams, my disappointments, and what my spiritual life is like. That’s not a Yankee thing to do.

However, I persevered. I continued in EFM, and I shared my spiritual autobiography. I found that sharing something about my spiritual life with others who were sharing with me something about their spiritual lives gave me insights that made up for the embarrassment.

Four years later, I graduated from EFM, which was one of the highlights of my life. The EFM diploma is the only one that hangs in my home office (you can see my college and law school diplomas on the way to the guest bathroom if you care). By that time, I had already become a mentor and with another newly-minted mentor had recruited and was leading a new EFM group at St. Alban’s. Now that I’m retired, I lead two EFM groups at All Saints, Fort Lauderdale.

EFM is a wonderful program for religious education. In the first two years we read most of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament. In the next two years we study the history of the church over the last two thousand years, and dip into the works of the great philosophers and theologians of those two millennia.

My impression is that a lot of church-going Episcopalians would like to know more than they do about the scriptures and their church, and EFM is a good way to meet that need.

Some clergy think that parishioners can get all the scriptural knowledge they need by just listening to the readings and sermons in church; over the three year lectionary cycle they’ll hear most of the Bible. There are two problems with that, though. First, what you hear read in church are just snippets of the scriptures, without the context and the background. Second, some preachers aren’t interested in – or aren’t very good at – explaining the scriptures to lay listeners.

On the day my EFM class graduated at St. Alban’s I was given the privilege of preaching the sermon at the 11:00 am service (other EFM graduates preached at the 8:00 and 9:15 services). In the course of my sermon, I referred to the day’s Epistle reading (Gal. 2:11-21) in which Paul talked about how he had criticized something that "Cephas" had done, and in passing I mentioned that "Cephas" was another name for Peter.

Afterwards, some people were kind enough to tell me that they had liked the sermon, but the thing they really liked was learning who Cephas was. They had heard Cephas mentioned before in the readings in church, but they had never known that this was St. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus would build his church, the leader of the twelve disciples, etc. You really miss the impact of Paul dressing down Cephas if you don’t know that Cephas was Peter.

So Bible study, the "intellectual" part of EFM, is important, but so is the "touchy feely" part – spiritual autobiographies, theological reflection, worship, and table fellowship. The parts of EFM that I was most dubious about at the beginning are what ends up changing lives.

The name of the program is off-putting for some people. They think it’s only for those who want to become ordained clergy. Well, it does sometimes work out that way, but that’s not the "ministry" that EFM is about. God calls all of His people to ministry, to serve Him and their brothers and sisters. EFM is supposed to prepare us to perform that our ministry better.

It’s certainly a good way to recruit people into such service. For example, if it hadn’t been for EFM, I doubt it ever would have occurred to me to run for the vestry or to become a junior warden.

I’ve also found that EFM serves another role as well. In my two groups at All Saints, we have a lot of members who are already deeply involved in church leadership and in various kinds of outreach activities. EFM didn’t lead them into ministry; they were already there. For these people, I think that what they learn in EFM makes them better at the ministries they’ve chosen. And when those ministries have become difficult burdens for them to carry – and we all know that this can happen –the fellowship of their EFM brothers and sisters helps them through.

When I recruit new members for EFM, one of the hurdles is that it’s a four-year program. That’s a big commitment (although it’s a commitment made one year at a time). I’m about to see my first class graduate at the end of the four years, and they are already worrying about how much they will miss EFM, wondering how they are going to get by without it. That’s one of the nice things about being a mentor. EFM just keeps going on and on.

For more information, see

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

John Adams and the Bishop of Pennsylvania

I have been enjoying the new HBO miniseries 'John Adams.' As a history buff with an interest in the Revolutionary War period, I am relishing this historically erudite dramatic presentation. My own Jones ancestors were also patriots, and I am grateful for their courage and willingness to do the right thing.

John Adams was not religiously unusual in his class and time -- but it might surprise folks now to learn that he was a Unitarian. Like many highly educated persons of his time, swept up with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, Adams rejected the basic tenets of Christian faith.

As I understand his theology - Adams rejected the doctrines of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Indeed, many of the leaders of the American Revolution shared in such modernist beliefs, preferring in the place of creedal Christianity something we might call secular humanism - with a hint of divinity sprinkled about it. Like many other leading citizens, patriots and zealots for the cause of liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- Adams would not have been able to hold dear the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, acknowledge the gracious power of the sacraments, or declare the Holy Scriptures to contain all things necessary for salvation. Almost without doubt, I believe Mr. Adams would have denied any value in the office of the episcopacy, especially as understood by Anglicans, to be an office with special divinely given authority down through the ages.

And Adams, while a 'liberal' in many ways for these religious beliefs, shared them with many others who we might call 'conservative' for their religion. In his day, thanks to the evangelical revivals of the period preceding the Revolution, the rise of American evangelical protestantism was great. The growth of Calvinistic protestantism was big in those days -- and while they would have confessed belief in the Trinity and divinity of Christ to be sure, they would also have done away with the more ancient and catholic marks of the faith, such as the creedal formulas, sacramental theology, and episcopacy. The last decades of the 18th century, and the first decades of the 19th century, were good for this kind of Christianity, but they were not boom times for Anglicanism in the United States of America.

After the Revolution, and the widespread approval that it was a righteous endeavor to throw off the chains of Monarchy -- it became hard for many Anglicans to figure out how to be Anglican once the Church of England and its Monarchy, Lordly Episcopacy, and Establishment-ness were also now thrown off. Indeed, many Anglican clergy remained loyalist, and left these United States.

The challenge for those remaining, and who yearned to be Anglican still, was to figure out how to preserve the essential marks of the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic' faith, the essential elements of Anglican identity as they existed unto that point, while also separating out other bits: like the divine right of kings theology which fueled so much of Establishment theology in the Church of England.

Contrast With William White
We owe a great debt of gratitude to those founders of the Episcopal Church who managed to work out these questions in rather short order, and without coming to pieces. For even then, as now, there were different parties within American Anglicanism. Some were basically straight-up Calvinists or evangelical protestants -- others were the High Churchmen of New York and Connecticut -- others something little different than a Methodist, a Congregationalist, or even a Unitarian in some places.

But, continuing to use the Prayer Book as a guide, and allowing only for moderate and often minimal changes, the founders of the Episcopal Church managed the birthing process pretty well. William White was a leader in that cause -- as a 'moderate revolutionary.' He was committed to the harmony of the American expression of Anglicanism, and also to continued relationship with the Church of England.

Frankly, it is remarkable that William White, the second bishop of the Episcopal Church (after Samuel Seabury), could have become a bishop when he did, where he did, and the way he did. White was consecrated as Bishop of Pennsylvania in 1787 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of Bath just a few years after the end of the American Revolution. He didn't even have to go up to Scotland to be consecrated irregularly there by bishops willing to do without an allegiance oath to the British Crown.

White, an American, a patriot, and a man ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England before the Revolution, found himself elected by his peers (not appointed by the crown), and consecrated by the hierarchy of the Church of England to serve as a bishop in an altogether new entity -- an independent, autonomous, and free 'Anglican' church, in communion relationship but not fealty to the Sees of Canterbury and York, etc.

White - a creature of his time though not beholden to it -- was able to do both a new thing (i.e. help to launch a new 'church' with a revised ecclesiology and self-understanding) while not destroying an old thing (i.e. the essential doctrine and practice of the apostolic Christian faith.)

I believe we need more folks like Bishop White in the Episcopal Church. Not radical revolutionaries, but faithful evolutionaries.

do not create ex nihilo - only God does. We shape ground we've been given -- do we not? We do not work from the annihilation of what we receive, but rather by the faithful and often slight re-translation of it to suit evolving contexts. Only from time to time are we called to dissolve those long established bonds between old and new iterations - but not normally every day or even in every age. Especially, when so much of what we should be cherishing and focusing on in the church has already stood the test of time long before we were invited to carry it forward.

It seems not so unimaginable to me that we could manage to preserve and uphold the faith once delivered (the Nicene faith, the Baptismal covenant, the sacraments, the Scriptures, the historic episcopate) - while also cherishing our particular liturgical tradition (the Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal) - while also continuing to stand for the teaching of Christ in the face of a world which is unjust and ungodly - while also continuing to do that prophetic work of trying to bring real justice to fruition by the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on Earth today - while also being open to the occasional revision of certain liturgical practices, moral teachings, and other matters which of necessity are often limited by time and space and are not perhaps eternal.

I'm just thinking that instead of following the trajectory of the radical reformers of protestantism who between the time of Luther and John Adams managed to toss out in one place or another nearly the whole of the faith and practice of the Church of England -- we might be a bit more like old William White.

In other words -- passionate about the Gospel, cherishing the bonds of baptismal, eucharistic and ecclesiastical unity, and walking humbly and mercifully with a Lord who teaches us to love all, heal all, feed all, liberate all, and welcome all to relationship in the name of Christ.

Can I get an amen?

Monday, April 7, 2008


Luke is vague about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One is identified as Cleopas -- but the other is not named. According to John's Gospel, one Cleopas is married to a woman named Mary -- who was at the foot of the cross with the other Mary's. Luke is perhaps vague to invite us into the story.

Imagine you and your companion are together in this story as well -- and a companion is anyone with whom you break bread ('companion' - 'with bread') – and you are just reeling – because you’ve been through hell...

Imagine you’re reeling, and you’ve left town, where nothing’s going well, and you’re on the road to home – hoping it’s there – so you can get there and get it together.

Have you ever been there? Confused, and shocked, and afraid, and you just wanted a place to go and be with companions for a moment’s peace?

I have – and for me that place has always been my church.

It’s always been my home in a nutty world – and thank God they took me in and called me brother.

Because if they didn’t I don’t know what I’d do.

What about you?

You’ve been down that road.

God knows you have.

And God knows you have – not because he can see clearly from on High – but because he can see clearly from up close.

Yes, God knows, and sees, and feels everything you do – and not just because God is smart – but because He became a person like you and me, and lived this human life, and suffered it, and died it, and by his loving Grace forgave us everything –

And friends that same Jesus is following us on our journey even now.

Even now – even today – even right here in this specific time and place – Jesus is here with us – and we are in a kind of eternal Emmaus where with our companions and our Lord we are hearing Scripture and breaking bread and finding that the Good News is really for real.

Don’t you feel him here?

Have not your hearts ever burned within you as the Spirit breathes through Scripture, or prayer, or song, or the breaking of the bread?

Friends – I feel the Lord in this church of ours – in this heavenly village – don’t you?

I feel the Lord when somebody reads the Bible in the Liturgy of the Word.

I feel the Lord when somebody makes sacred music.

I feel the Lord when somebody breaks the bread and raises the cup.

Don’t you?

I have given my life to the Body of Christ because I believe God has shown himself to me and asked me to do so.

Yes, I’m all-in – because I am convinced that we companions who break bread in Jesus’ name are able to see the risen Christ in our midst– and receive power to build the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Are you all-in?

The readings today – especially in Acts and Luke – they are about this. They are about this group of Christ’s companions – this New Creation, this Body of Christ, this Church.

The readings today should burn within you as they tell us what we’re supposed to do – how we’re supposed to be – what our mission really is.

As Peter tells it – the new creation of God in Christ is not racial, or civil, or territorial – but it is flesh and blood and spirit.

The fellowship of those who believe in Christ is that real-time body of people who put Him above all else in baptism and call him Lord.

This creation – as Peter tells us – exists solely to do God’s gracious will on earth – now and forever – period.

And folks – that’s us.

And for us, the primary way of knowing, seeing, feeling and connecting with God and each other
is the sharing of mystic sweet communion around the eucharistic table where the Body and Blood of Christ are given.

In other words, the Church is not just a group of people who look alike and agree on the basics. In fact, ideally not at all.

The Church is primarily the people who simply share in the Baptism and Eucharist of the Son of God.

For in baptism and eucharist in and with Christ – and only there – do the scriptures even begin to make sense, or do we have any power at all to make a difference in this world.

Friends – as I understand the Word of God today – you and I are not on the road to Emmaus.

We who are disciples are already in Emmaus.

We are there, gathered around the table with a present and risen Lord Jesus, and that is some kind of good news.

Isn’t it?

Aren’t you glad?

I am so glad to be among companions in the presence of Christ. But, as I understand the Word of God in the Bible – especially in Acts 2 – disciples are not called to be merely glad.

We are supposed to be glad, and, we are supposed to be generous in heart.

And without doubt, if we don’t get generous and make space here for our new companions and those still on the road here – I believe we will begin to turn away from where Jesus wants us to be. I believe that if we do not continue to make space at the table of Christian fellowship then we will be turning down a road we don’t want to be on. I believe the time is now to be both glad and generous of heart for the purpose of adding souls to this communion of companions in Christ.

I believe that the world needs the Episcopal Church to continue in the apostolic teaching and fellowship, the prayers, the breaking of the bread, and to be glad and generous in heart, and to thereby grow in faith, mission and numbers – and we need to open our walls and our pockets to do so.

Because, yes, growth is the fruit of faithfulness in Christ. And growth is spiritual and physical, it is measurable in terms of depth and breadth, in non-numerical and numerical ways.

Friends, I am asking each of you to pray, and ask God for the courage to be both glad and generous for the sake of the Gospel. And spread the Word and invite folks into the Church to be baptized and to break bread with us and our Lord Christ.

Because while we are already in Emmaus around the table with the Lord – there are countless people on that hard road looking for companions, looking for home, looking for peace in a world that cannot give it, looking for the Son of God made real in baptism and eucharist.

Won’t you join me in making room for them?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Sage or Savior?

by Tom Simmons

When I preached on Easter I pointed to Mary Madgalene's story in John's Gospel. I asked peope, Do you believe her? Some are skeptical of this claim…and with good reason. Dead people stay dead, right? We know this. It’s medically impossible for someone dead three days to “come back to life”. It just doesn’t happen…so there must be a rational explanation.

“Obviously”, people say, “someone is telling tales to make a sage into a Savior, to make Jesus, who was a great religious leader, or prophet, or guru into something much more.” Do you suspect they’re making this up? Stay with me because on close examination of this story it’s obvious they aren’t.

If they were inventing this, would they say, “Jesus is risen from the dead….as a gardener”?! No. If they were weaving a myth to elevate their guy Jesus from sage into Savior they’d make him look much more impressive, wouldn’t they? They’d include angelic trumpets and timpani, with great shining heavenly lights and Handle’s Messiah in the background. That’s how people would stage-manage such an event if it were up to them. But it’s not. Instead Jesus gets mistaken for a gardener.

Why is that? Because Jesus, alive from the dead, is the last thing these people expected to see. EVERYONE knows dead people STAY DEAD. Mary does. Look at her thought process. The tomb is empty… so the only rational explanation is that grave robbers have stolen his body. Jesus is standing right in front of her… yet she’s can’t assimilate that fact. The only rational explanation is “Wow, that gardener sure looks like Jesus!”

And the fact that it’s Mary telling the story is another mark of authenticity. Here she is bearing authoritative witness, and yet, in that society she has ZERO credibility. Not only is she a woman, but she also has a history of mental illness and demonic possession. She’s crazy! She’s not credible. If John were inventing this story he wouldn’t imagine including her in it.

The only conclusion is John’s not making this stuff up, but scrupulously telling the story AS IT HAPPENED, in all its embarrasing details and implausibility. In fact, the utter implausibility of the resurrection is the very POINT of it! OF COURSE it’s impossible! People don’t rise from the dead… and yet… here’s Jesus. Deal with it. Mary is saying, “The tomb is empty and I have seen the Lord!” What do you do with that?

Your Choice. Do you believe it, or not? Do you believe Mary’s testimony that she saw Jesus of Nazareth risen from the grave, or not? If you do, that changes things.

First, it means Jesus isn’t merely a sage, the founder of another world religion like the other prophets and sages and religious leaders in history. They are all showing a path to the divine, delivering a law for life, teaching a technique for spirituality. And in our contemporary religious paradigm, all religions are good and you pick what works for you, crafting your own spirituality.

But when you listen to what Mary is saying Jesus is clearly much more than a Sage. Every sage and prophet and religious leader died…but none of them walked out of the grave. Every sage and prophet and religious leader said, “This is the way. Here’s the truth. Here’s how to live,” but Jesus had the audacity to say, “I AM the way, the truth and the life” and he rose again from the dead to PROVE it.

How should we respond to that? If it’s true then fall on your knees and worship Jesus. If it’s not true then treat him with utter disdain, because no sage would claim what Jesus claimed. If it’s not true then he’s a liar of megalomaniacal proportions. You have to choose.

Second, it means you can’t remain as you are. When Jesus walked out of the grave something was altered, decisively. A new relationship has sprung to life. Up to that point Jesus spoke of God as “My Father”. He spoke of his followers as ‘servants’ or ‘disciples’ or ‘friends’.

But now all that has changed. Jesus tells Mary, “Go and say to my brothers, I am going up to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ The disciples are welcomed into a new world: a world where they can know God the way Jesus knows God, where they can relate in love to God like children to their Father.

That’s the Good News, friends. Jesus brings the Distant God near… as near and secure, as generous and affectionate as a loving Father. Does God seem distant to you? Sure you believe in God. You like God. But WHO is God and WHERE is he? Does God seem abstract and distant and frankly irrelevant to your life on a day-to-day basis?

When you see Jesus through Mary’s eyes, you see the only God who has ever come down – all the way down – to be with us. The founders of all the other religions said, “I have come to show you the way to God”. But Jesus said, “I did not come to show you how to find God. I AM THE GOD come to find you.”

The only acceptable response is to fall on your knees and worship him as Lord and say “command me, my life is yours”. Or if you decide he’s wrong, you should utterly reject him as a liar or a lunatic.

But the one thing you can’t do is have a mild response to Jesus Christ, to appreciate him as a Sage and be kind of inspired by his teaching and his spiritual symbolism. Jesus won’t let you do that. If you are tepid about Jesus, you’re not thinking. You’re not listening. You’re missing what’s right in front of you, mistaking the Savior for the gardener. You have to make a choice.

I remember when I chose. I became a follower of Jesus at age 19 after being a scornful skeptic all through my teen years. CS Lewis described to a tee what I have experienced since: “good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives opens at last.” Choose to follow Jesus, and, like the tomb on Easter morning, it will open for you too.