Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bishop Pierre Whalon

On polygamy, homosexuality, and generosity

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
Bishop in Charge, Convocation of American Churches in Europe

The bishops gathered at the 2008 Lambeth Conference re-discovered, through the Bible study groups and Ndaba process, that we hold the same faith, and use the Bible the same way, as the Conference Lambeth Indaba document makes clear.

This formed the basis for a renewal of trust in each other and in the desire to remain in communion with all the Anglican provinces and churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his concluding lecture of our retreat, pointed out that bishops are essentially leaders—but not in the usual sense that business seminars or military academies use the word. We lead, oddly enough, by following. Specifically, the bishop is to follow in the way that Jesus is opening up (cf. Hebrews 10), and lead others into that way.

The key element of episcopal leadership is therefore discernment, in order to find the way and follow Jesus. The Lambeth Conference 2008 can be said to have determined that what we are wrestling with is not a division over the faith itself. The American and Canadian churches have not wiped their feet on the Bible and blown their noses with the Creed, so to speak. The dividing issue is a question of morality. As the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, put it in one of the sessions, “Is homosexual practice adiaphorous or not?” Is it a church-dividing issue, in other words?

The heart of the dividing issue is therefore not in the realms of fundamental or systematic theology (dogma and doctrine), as has often been stated, but rather moral theology. If our disagreement were over a creedal issue, such as a province deciding explicitly to deny the virginal conception of Jesus, there would have to be an unequivocal action by this Conference and the other Instruments to declare that they are not in communion with this province. The faith is that which must be believed by all, everywhere, at all times (the so-called Vincentian canon).

However, moral reasoning rarely has such universal norms. Other than the commandments of to love God and neighbor, and the New Commandment of Jesus, moral reasoning is by nature contextual. Even those of the Ten Commandments that have to do with moral conduct have to have some relation to a specific case in order to be understood and applied. For instance, does “You shall do no murder” make self-defense a sin? If you steal food in order to survive, have you violated the commandment against stealing? If you lie to the Gestapo about the Jewish family hiding in your attic, is that bearing false witness?

On the other hand, “you shall have no other gods before me” is always applicable, everywhere, all the time.

This explains why the Church has changed its moral teaching from time to time. Slavery used to be considered moral. Lending with interest was thought for a long time to be immoral, etc. These former teachings were amply supported by certain biblical texts. They were changed by new readings of the Bible, which then have been commonly accepted. These fresh readings were informed by reasoning about the Scriptures from the creedal doctrines about what it means to be human in the light of the Incarnation. Moral teaching for humans, in order to be sound, must rest upon solid teaching about God and God’s mission through Christ in the Spirit. While reflection on these mysteries of the faith will continue until the Parousia, with fresh insights into the “faith once delivered to the saints,” there is a large accepted body of doctrine that can no longer be repudiated. Based on this foundation, “Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone,” the development of better and more faithful moral reasoning can go forward.

There are examples of exceptions to the Church’s moral teaching made for pastoral reasons. The African adaptation of the teaching on marriage so as to be able to incorporate polygamists and their wives is a good example. This exception also allows African Anglicans to teach the classic doctrine that marriage is for one man, one woman. One could object that allowing polygamists into the church—at whatever level—is de facto an approval of adultery. That in fact was the initial objection, and on the face of it, polygamy (or polyandry, or its contemporary expression in the West, polyamory), is adulterous in nature. However, the overriding concerns of justice for the wives and children, and mercy for the polygamist, allow the exception to be made. From the biblical perspective, some evidence is found to allow polygamy, as the Mormons will tell you, even though the prophets and the church of the New Testament did not accept it. This ambiguity also gives the exception some sort of biblical backing.

On this basis an exception can be made, and it is clear that Anglicans everywhere now accept it. That the Lambeth Conference came into being to advise on the case of Bishop Colenso, deposed for, among other things, advocating this exception, is proof that this process of approval is by no means automatic or rapid.

However, while a province may make such exceptions, there are limits. Polygamists are not allowed to add more wives, for instance. In particular, when one makes a pastoral exception for a certain group of people, ordaining them to the ministry, and especially the episcopate, is unacceptable. It must be pointed out, however, that the first consecrations of bishops of color were justified as pastoral exceptions made for the sake of mission—while sinfully continuing to deny the equality of those first bishops with others, since they were themselves part of an “inferior race.”

The churches that are dealing with the open presence of gay people in their midst are developing strategies to reach out to them. This Conference recognized that this development in these churches is not the fruit of doctrinal drift or abandonment of the faith. They are trying to create ways of incorporating gay people as part of their mission. As the Lambeth Indaba document states (para. 22), the church exists as the instrument of God’s mission—God is doing the sending, and the church is the extension into humanity of that mission. Furthermore, successive Lambeth Conferences have affirmed for thirty years that gay people are worthy to be received into the church, equally beloved with the rest of us by God.

As those churches trying to accomplish this mission in their context wrestle with the appropriate missional approach to and with gay people, they are trying to discern whether a pastoral exception is called for, as with polygamy, or whether in fact homosexuality can be fully accepted as part of living a holy Christian life for those who are so oriented. As Bishop Gene Robinson has pointed out a number of times, there is still significant indecision in the American context itself.

But I think Bishop Wright put the question squarely: can homosexual practice be validated as an acceptable way of life for those whose sexuality orients them toward it? The answer will clearly outline the shape of evangelism and mission to gays and lesbians, as well as pastoral and ascetical practice with gay people.

Furthermore, while the case of polygamy is instructive from a methodological point of view, there is a difference in essence between polygamy and homosexuality. Comparing the two is, as they say in England, chalk and cheese. The one is clearly a cultural practice in specific lands. The other is a universal phenomenon, albeit with significant variations of practice from culture to culture and society to society. The African bishops continually stated this fundamental difference, often very passionately, and they were right. However, they frequently weakened their case, in fact, by calling for a pastoral exception for gay people similar to polygamists, so that they can be welcomed into the Church but never be allowed to be ordained.

Of course, this is no obscure theological dispute, counting angels dancing on pinheads. The painful dilemma is that elsewhere in the Communion, the more this process develops toward full acceptance in the West, the more the acceptance of homosexuality becomes a weapon used against those churches living with proselytizing Muslims. Moreover, in the European Union and other parts of the First World, gay people are more and more being accepted as full members of society, endued with equal rights, including access to civil marriage or partnerships. This is still not the case in the United States, though full acceptance is growing, which is one reason our own church’s debate is so heated. The EU, for instance, no longer allows rank social injustice toward gays, as prevails in other parts of the world, where homosexuality is still often criminalized. In Europe, as in Canada or the United Kingdom, the social justice issue has been settled not by moral theology but by secular law, leaving the theological question for Christians to wrestle over. The urgency for these Christians is that anti-discrimination laws may no longer allow them to deny ordination to gays and lesbians. These laws require, for instance, that Church of England clergy cannot be denied the opportunity to make a same-sex civil partnership. This has led, oddly, to the requirement that those clergy wishing to enter such a union must vow to their bishop that the relationship is not sexual.

Adding to this mass confusion is instant communications. The ubiquity of the Internet and other media means that every small development in one part of the world is instantly transmitted around the world. Often this transmission is made with an accompanying “spin” to buttress this or that ideology in political struggles of both church and state, further complicating the task of mutual understanding. A perfect example is the ocean of digital ink and video engendered by the Lambeth Conference.

Thus the work of the Communion in addressing this missional question is made much more difficult, because, among other things, the global community has become a village in cyberspace, yet this village is made up of billions of people with thousands of languages and cultural filters. We regularly misunderstand one another in very basic ways. For example, American bishops attending the Lambeth Conference soon discovered, if they did not already know, the truth of the old saw that England and America are two nations divided by a common language. How much greater the opportunity for misunderstanding between people from cultures much more different than England and the U.S…

It is not surprising, therefore, that cross-boundary violations have been justified in the name of some sort of orthodoxy of belief. However, at Lambeth it became clear that the theological issue is not located in dogmatic or systematic theology—matters of faith—but moral reasoning. In our discussions, it also became clear that these interventions in the U.S, and Canada, often in dioceses of conservative bishops, have been driven by issues of political power and status, both ecclesial and secular, as well as money, rather than creedal matters calling for fraternal support of beleaguered faithful. A Rwandan bishop, for instance, began the incursions in 1998, four years after the genocide and five years before the General Convention of 2003. “Rescuing” Americans seems to provide a happy distraction from the lingering wounds of the collaboration of Rwandan Christians, including some Anglicans, in that horrific event. That pattern of distraction from pressing problems has been repeated elsewhere.

What to do? The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a “mutual generous response” to enable us to continue. The bishops’ experience of this Lambeth Conference has begun to rebuild our basis trust in one another, and sharpened very much our regret that many other bishops felt unable to attend. What is needed is space for those churches dealing with proselytizing Muslims to be able to continue their mission with confidence, and space for the churches working out their missional approach to homosexuality to do so in some tranquility. That will require the whole of the Communion to work out, not just those provinces represented at Lambeth.

The Windsor and Covenant approaches have come into being to “mend the tear in the fabric of the Communion.” The Conference has shown that the “tear” in our mutual trust, at least, if not the “fabric,” has been significantly repaired. These processes have tried to bring back together the provinces through proposing structures of reconciliation. The Conference affirmed the full participation to date of The Episcopal Church in these processes.

But these processes are not in themselves capable of helping all of us to move forward in mission. Our faith requires us to seek out the way that Jesus has opened for us to walk in. That way is most certainly not schism, which is the dividing of Jesus’ Body. Schism has never resolved conflict before. Instead, it enshrines the conflict by giving way to the temptation of short-term relief from the conflict. But inevitably, the conflict re-surfaces, and the world is once again treated to the spectacle of Christian enmity toward one another, but almost always on a larger scale.

What we need therefore is a multi-pronged approach. First, there needs to be moral theological reflection in the West, in particular The Episcopal Church, that rests not upon biology or psychiatry to justify the full acceptance of gays and lesbians, but rather deeper insights into the Scriptures and the Tradition as primary supports to make the case. Some will say that is impossible. Others will claim that this or that theologian has already accomplished it. These need to be tested in a public, transparent way.

Second, these churches dealing with Muslim proselytism and the concomitant rejection by ecumenical partners must decide what they really need, in order to have some space to deal with these. The resignation of Bishop Robinson, recently requested by the Archbishop of Sudan, would change nothing.

Finally, we all need patience. 64 years after the ordination of the first woman to the priesthood, Florence Tim-Oi Lee, much of the Communion still does not ordain women. Yet it is not “tearing the fabric” of the Communion as a whole. Neither does re-marriage after divorce, though many provinces still do not allow that. As Archbishop Williams pointed out in his final address, we cannot live faithfully without one another: “The global horizon of the Church matters because churches without this are always in danger of slowly surrendering to the culture around them and losing sight of their calling to challenge that culture.”[1]

Challenging culture in San Francisco is radically different than challenging culture in Dar es-Salaam, or Tokyo, or the Solomon Islands. We need to know one another well enough to be able to translate our local mission efforts into terms that other Anglicans can understand. For the mission of God remains the same, everywhere, and the church remains God’s instrument in humanity for that mission. Therefore, ultimately, we must wait upon the Spirit to enlighten all our minds to discern together—not just bishops—the way forward that leads to human flourishing and divine glory.

One perennial clue: that way will always lead us again to the Cross.

[1] Accessed on 6 August 2008 at http://www.aco.org/acns/news.cfm/2008/8/3/ACNS4511

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Canaanite Woman Wants In

In light of today's Gospel - from Matthew 15 - in which the pagan woman with a demon-possessed daughter seeks the healing power of the Lord Jesus Christ, and doesn't take 'no' for an answer - I invite your response to the following pamphlet from Integrity. There is a compelling short piece in this pamphlet by the Rev. Michael Hopkins, whose sermons I have often appreciated. It seems that the thing being requested here falls short of something that would go in the Book of Common Prayer - or would be in any way 'required' or even 'fully accepted' by the Episcopal Church. Of course it goes beyond the kind of moratorium asked for at the recent Lambeth Conference.

In light of today's reading from Matthew, the valid question, though, apart from Lambeth, and Communion issues, is still worth asking and exploring - and listening to people on different sides about. That question is this: 'If Jesus Christ accepted the Canaanite woman, If Jesus Christ revealed himself as Messiah to the Samaritan woman, If God showed Peter a blanket filled with all sorts of things formerly abominable and called the newly clean ... Is there nothing new we can do? Can we still not include people into the full life of the Church -- people who are seeking nothing more than the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ and to affirm their lives of faithful commitment? Is it not possible that people given to a certain affectional ordering are being regarded as thusly abominable based on interpretations of a few passages of Scripture which rightfully do not apply in their case? Is it not possible that we can recognize them as part of the house of Israel - in which we all find our gracious home by virtue of the power of invitation which Jesus the Christ himself has to give?

Here's the pamphlet - it's challenging to many, I know, but in light of Lambeth 1998: 1.10 (which called for the listening process), give it a read.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Creeds Are Essential

I was about to write something in response to a short letter published in Episcopal Life this month, but my friend Father Bryan did it first. Here it is...

'Creeds are Defective'?
by Bryan Owen

That's what the Rev. John Beverly Butcher of Pescadero, CA says in a letter published in the August 2008 issue of Episcopal Life.

Fr. Butcher first made a splash in the pages of Episcopal Life back in June 2008 when he argued that Episcopalians should drop the Nicene Creed from services because it impedes the “natural flow from the ministry of the word into prayer.” He also said that the Creed "is not an essential part of the shape of the liturgy.” I responded to Fr. Butcher on this blog by noting several ways in which the Creed is, indeed, a crucial part of the shape of the liturgy. And I concluded as follows:

We clergy have promised to be conformists. We have voluntarily relinquished all rights to ecclesial (and thus liturgical) disobedience. And when we willfully break that solemn vow, we should be held accountable by the Church. If there was accountability in our Church with this sort of thing, then priests who drop the Creed from the Sunday liturgy and commend doing so to others would be disciplined.

Now Fr. Butcher is making an even stronger negative statement about the Creeds. Here's his recent Episcopal Life letter:

Perhaps you have noticed that the creeds speak of the birth of Jesus and then of his death. There is no mention of the life of Jesus, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the healing power of Jesus

The heart of the gospel is missing. The creeds are defective and need to be taken out of service. Instead, let us proclaim clearly the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus, "The seed of true humanity is within you. Follow it!" Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) 4:5

I'll begin by simply noting that the Church Fathers and other early Christians would be surprised to learn that "the heart of the gospel is missing" in the Creeds. Perhaps even earlier than the second half of the second century - well before what we in the West now call the Apostles' Creed took the form in which we know it today, much less the final version of the Nicene Creed - various "rules of faith" which look a lot like the Apostles' Creed were widely used in preparing persons to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It's an understatement to say that these creedal formulas were regarded by the early Church as an indispensable means for the formation of new Christians and for the reaffirmation of the Church's faith by the baptized. From the beginning, "rules of faith" - and later, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds - were regarded by the Church as succinct, memorable formulations of what is, indeed, the heart of the Gospel. This carries over into late 19th and 20th Century Anglicanism with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral's affirmation (repeatedly reaffirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of The Episcopal Church) of "The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol" and "the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith."

In short, the Anglican tradition embraces the historic Creeds as indispensable means by which we know what is at the heart of the Gospel. So while we do, indeed, affirm (echoing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation and serve as the rule and ultimate standard of faith, the Creeds help us discern what exactly in Scripture is necessary to salvation, and what exactly in Scripture serves as the rule and ultimate standard of faith. As I have written before about the Nicene Creed: " ... like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it."

Fr. Butcher is, of course, correct to note that the Creeds do not include articles about Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power. He regards that omission as proof positive that the Creeds are "defective." However, he goes off track in drawing the conclusion that we should therefore jettison them. For the truth is that the Creeds were never intended to say everything important about Jesus. (I note that even the Gospel according to John says that about itself in chapter 21, verse 25. Should we therefore throw it out of the canon of Holy Scripture?)

The Apostles' Creed was not accepted for use in the Church, nor was the Nicene Creed hammered out over the course of the 4th Century, in order to displace the content of the Gospels concerning our Lord's life, teachings, and healing power. On the contrary, the Creeds and the Gospels are meant to supplement each other. They are not in competition. So Fr. Butcher's conclusion constitutes a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" argument.

And finally, I cannot help but note the significance of the fact that in his letter, Fr. Butcher's example of "clearly" proclaiming the Gospel takes a most interesting form: quoting the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene).

I find it puzzling that after Fr. Butcher expresses the concern that the Creeds omit Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, he chooses to quote a Gnostic rather than a canonical Gospel. Coupled with a call to jettison the historic Creeds, this choice takes on added significance in light of the fact that part of the purpose of codifying the "rules of faith" in the form we call the Apostles' Creed was to combat the heresy of Gnosticism (and the Nicene Creed builds upon that rejection of Gnosticism in addition to its rejection of other heresies). Plus, the Gnostic Gospels do not affirm what the Church means by (in Fr. Butcher's words) "the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus." On the contrary, they deny the full humanity of Jesus, his death by crucifixion, his bodily resurrection, and the Christian hope that our bodies (and all of God's good creation) will also be redeemed and transformed by resurrection.

In conclusion, I cite what I've written before about the Nicene Creed:

As "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith," the Nicene Creed underscores that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths. Christianity is not a recipe for relativism, nor does it affirm subjectivism. It's interesting in this regard to note that the English word "heresy" derives from the Greek hairein, meaning "to choose." The Creed reminds us that Christianity is not an individualistic, "pick and choose what you like and discard the rest" faith. ...

The faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong.

My concern is that the call to jettison the Creeds while quoting a Gnostic Gospel as a warrant for such an action constitutes a rejection of the boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith from other possible faiths. In its appeal to Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, such a move may appear like a good one to Christians who are committed to the this-worldly implications of the Gospel. But besides the fact that such a move opens the door for the private judgment of individual opinions to supplant the faith of the Church, it also sets up a false dichotomy - as though this-worldly and other-worldly hope do not constitute one hope. A thorough reading of N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008) provides a nice counterbalance to this error.

Reflection on Matthew 15 and Inclusion

by Tobias Haller

...To what extent do the heirs of the apostles continue their efforts at exclusion and dismissal? Or will they finally get the message of Jesus’ wish to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that all will be drawn into his kingdom, even the formerly hopeless eunuchs and unclean foreigners. (Isa 56:4-6) All, all, belong to the Bridegroom, and his Bride is not fully clothed until every soul God loves is included in her.

We who appeal to the church for understanding and compassion, do not do so in vain, I am sure. Even if we must keep knocking long into the night, we trust that the door will eventually be opened. For I am reminded of another saying of our Lord, (Luke 11:11-12, in the Authorized Version)

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?

You know the rest. I do not believe the church to be so hard-hearted, nor are those of us who are pressing the church to reexamine its past positions on sexuality asking the impossible. The church has shown itself to be remarkably flexible in its interpretation and application of any number of biblical injunctions and restrictions, down through the years, some of them even involving sex and marriage. It is not an earth-shaking abandonment of the gospel — the claims of some notwithstanding — to consider the possibility of recognizing and blessing the relationships of faithful partners in life, who wish to commit themselves to each other under that blessing and in that bond for life.

Those of us engaged in this patient and earnest appeal, though we be ignored, rebuffed, and labeled as less than worthy, less than human even, will not cease from mental toil, nor from prayer, nor from giving thanks for the scraps thus far cast in our general direction, nor from pleading our case, nor from claiming our blessing, though we must wrestle until dawn, and be put out of joint on its account...

From here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

by Eric Von Salzen

The Lambeth Conference is over. It seems to have done no harm, and perhaps it did some good. Certainly it was a great success compared to the disaster of the previous Lambeth Conference 10 years ago.

But as Greg Jones pointed out in a post a few days ago (Lambeth Thoughts, Aug. 9, 2008), Lambeth renewed “calls for moratoria on the consecration of non-celibate gay persons to the episcopate, same-sex unions, and boundary crossing/poaching/intervening by prelates against the wishes/permission of a local bishop who is in communion with Canterbury.” We have our General Convention coming up next year; what are we to do about this? Frankly, I had been hopeful that the controversies in the Anglican Communion over inclusion of gays and lesbians would have been overtaken by events before 2009. I thought that the radicals would have pulled out by now and formed their own “Anglican Communion”, and that those who were left in the “old Anglican Communion” would be able to politely agree to disagree about sexual orientation issues, and that would be the end of it. The Episcopal Church could, I hoped, quietly terminate the moratoria and get back to business.

Part of what I had expected has happened. The radicals who held the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem and skipped the Lambeth Conference certainly seem to think that they represent the “true” Anglican Communion. Those bishops who skipped Jerusalem and went to Lambeth instead, certainly seem to have reached the opposite conclusion. A split in the Communion seems to have happened (we can’t call it a “schism”, because the Anglican Communion isn’t a church, so let’s use “split”). But what I hoped for hasn’t happened. The “old” Anglican Communion is still insisting on the same anti-inclusion agenda. We’re right back at the Windsor Report.

It looks as though the Episcopal Church is going to have to decide next year whether or not to continue the moratoria we have been observing. I doubt that any of us look forward to that decision.

So what do we do? At the end of this post, I’m going to ask the readers of Anglican Centrist to offer their suggestions on this important issue. First, though, I’ll bore you with some of my thoughts about it.

General Convention 2009 has three choices, it seems to me: (1) continue the moratoria, or what the Presiding Bishop calls our “gracious restraint”, indefinitely, (2) end the moratoria, either immediately or at some specified time, or (3) do something else.

The first option, continuing the moratoria indefinitely, has several drawbacks, not the least of which is that it probably won’t work. Even if a majority of both Houses at General Convention 2009 were to vote this way, some dissenters would refuse to honor what they would regard as a capitulation to bigotry and ignorance. Frankly, it’s remarkable (and commendable, in my opinion) that the moratorium on electing any openly gay person as a bishop has worked as long as it has. Supporters of inclusion in our church have been willing to tolerate what they regard as improper discrimination, in the hope that doing so would help promote unity in the Anglican Communion. Their willingness to do this must have been importantly affected by the understanding that the moratorium is only temporary, “a season” of gracious restraint as the Presiding Bishop put it. Seasons are temporary, but by next General Convention the Episcopal Church will have observed the moratorium on gay bishops (de facto and de jure) for six years. Attempting to continue this moratorium indefinitely would invite defiance, and that would not further the cause of unity, either within the Anglican Communion or within the Episcopal Church. (The same is true, perhaps somewhat less dramatically, of the moratorium on even considering the adoption of a rite for blessing same-sex unions.)

An indefinite moratorium probably won’t work internationally, either. A five-year moratorium certainly didn’t satisfy the Anglican churches that chose the GAFCON meeting in Jerusalem over the Lambeth Conference. I’m not even sure that we can say that those who resisted the siren sing of GAFCON and went to Lambeth were influenced by the Episcopal Church’s “gracious restraint”. According to Bishop Mark Sisk of New York (on the Presiding Bishop’s webcast following the return from Lambeth), some of the bishops at Lambeth weren’t even aware that the Episcopal Church had been observing the requested moratoria for the past five years. What have we been beating ourselves up for?

The fact is that the moratoria were instituted as part of the “Windsor process”, and the “Windsor process” has failed. The Windsor Report attempted to foster unity in the Anglican Communion by chastising both sides, the Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada on the one hand, and the (mostly) “Global South” churches that were violating provincial boundaries on the other. It didn’t work. The Episcopal Church has observed the moratoria as requested (I don’t know what’s been going on in Canada; perhaps someone will enlighten me), but the boundary violations have continued and expanded, and the GAFCON meeting looks like the beginning of a new “Anglican Communion”. I think we need to face facts. We can applaud the objective of the Windsor Report to strengthen the Communion, but it doesn’t offer any real hope of achieving that objective.

To me, though, the most serious drawback to continuing the moratoria is that it sends the message that the Episcopal Church really doesn’t mean it when we say that gays and lesbians should be fully included in our church. It would be as though, back in the 1950’s, the U.S. Supreme Court had responded to segregationists’ objections to Brown v. Board of Education by announcing an indefinite moratorium on integration, instead of proceeding “with all deliberate speed”. A temporary moratorium, “a season of gracious restraint”, may be justified as an effort to preserve unity without surrendering principle, but we may have carried that as far as we can. Gays and lesbians in the United States have been victimized, slandered, marginalized, beaten up, and killed in the United States for generations. That long dark age has begun to end in this country, and the actions of the Episcopal Church have contributed to that process. Are we now to say, “Get back in the closet”?

Bishop Sisk reminded us in his remarks on the webcast that ”There are places where . . to be associated with homosexuality is to be associated with evil. Lives are quite literally in danger.” The Episcopal Church’s actions in 2003 challenged those views and, I hope, gave hope or at least comfort to endangered gays in those places that Bishop Sisk described. Yes, it’s certainly true that our actions made things more difficult for Anglican churches in countries with strong anti-gay cultures. We can and should regret that, but we don’t change the reality by abandoning our principles. If anything, we would make it worse if we said to those churches, “Oh well, we never really meant what we said about inclusion, that was just a passing fashion, we’re over it now, sorry about all the inconvenience.”

Well, what about ending the moratoria? Is that a good idea? The concern is that doing that would drive some fence-sitting Anglican provinces, whose Bishops chose Lambeth over Jerusalem, into the arms of GAFCON. I think that’s a legitimate concern. I don’t think that we can assume that the Lambeth-Jerusalem split has reached its final dimensions. Although some foreign bishops may have decided to go to Lambeth even though they didn’t know that the Episcopal Church was exercising “gracious constraint”, if they hear that we announce that we have elected a second “gay bishop” or adopted a rite to bless same-sex unions, they may feel they just have to change sides. If extending the moratoria for a specified period of time would prevent that, it might be worth it. But I just don’t see how these problems are going to change any time soon; I think it will take generations. That means that we’re back to the stark choice between ending the moratoria at General Convention 2009 or shortly thereafter, or extending it indefinitely.

Is there a way forward, a third course of action we could adopt, an alternative that neither ends nor extends the moratoria? I’m not really optimistic that there is such a way, but here’s a thought.

I was struck by something that Bishop Sisk said in the Presiding Bishop’s webcast. He commented that in some cultures just talking about homosexuality is “offensive and shocking, even.” Under those circumstances, he said, continuing the conversation is going to be a serious challenge. This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise (maybe it’s a surprise to Bishop Sisk because he lives in New York). In this country, too, there are a lot of people who aren’t comfortable talking about sex – any kind of sex! – and particularly talking about it in church. “Sexual orientation”, “sexual ethics”, “sexual preference” – sex, sex, sex! It sounds like junior high school.

Perhaps we should take a lesson from great grandma and just stop talking about it. I’m not recommending “don’t ask, don’t tell”. I’m just saying there doesn’t have to be a next "gay bishop”. Why not just announce that from now on sexual orientation will not be a consideration in the election of bishops, priests, or deacons? And then really do it, really shut up about sex. Elect the best man or woman as bishop, and don't say anything about his or her sexual orientation. I don’t think this would require any change in the Canons; nothing in the Canons regarding qualifications for ordination as deacon, priest, or bishop says anything about sexual orientation, and I propose we simply leave it at that.

If people in other provinces decide that a new bishop of the Episcopal Church is gay and want to be offended about it, well that’s their right. On the other hand, they may decide just not to talk about, or think about, who the bishop sleeps with, and they may find that they are a lot more comfortable that way.

As far as same-sex unions are concerned, why can’t the blessing be given without regard to the gender of the parties? We bless houses, boats, pets. Surely we can figure out a way to bless two people without reference to their sex lives. (And, of course, in states that allow members of the same sex to marry, I don’t know why the church should refuse to bless a relationship sanctioned by law.)

This “no sex please” approach is not a perfect solution, of course. Even I can see that it doesn’t solve all the problems we face. If I had a better suggestion, I’d offer it, but I don’t. Do you? If so, please provide it in the Comments. Smart, committed people read this blog. Let’s put that brain power to work for our church.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Lambeth Thoughts

by Greg Jones

The most important thing to have happened these past few weeks is that 650+ bishops gathered with their spouses for intense conversation about Scripture and mission and life in Christ. The bonds formed are the sinew of fellowship and unity in common discipleship of the Lord.

The most challenging thing - for those who did not expect something more 'earth shatteringly legislative' - is the renewal of calls for moratoria on the consecration of non-celibate gay persons to the episcopate, same-sex unions, and boundary crossing/poaching/intervening by prelates against the wishes/permission of a local bishop who is in communion with Canterbury.

In a sense we have moved no further on those questions.

We have already seen that a number of U.S. bishops will not abide the moratoria that apply to them, and the GAFCON churches will continue their incursions as well.

The fact that no process for 'doing anything about it' has been created yet - nor by this Lambeth - is important. If there is to be a process for 'doing something about' those who do not observe these moratoria - it is presumably the Covenant process - and that is many years from completion.

So this leaves us with what looks like a protracted interim period when a call for moratoria has been affirmed by the majority of Anglican bishops - but will likely be ignored by many - and during which time 'nobody will be able to do much about it.'

I think the fact that the Episcopal Church has at its last General Convention and in recent statements officially chosen to observe a de facto moratoria on the consecration of partnered gay bishops, and has no official or authorized rites of blessing (though many bishops permit them as part of non-specific pastoral care directives for the love of all faithful persons regardless of orientation) at some level this brings us closer to the moratoria then those who are actively planting an alternative Anglican ecclesiological community in North America at full-steam ahead.

In other words, I think the Episcopal Church is excercising restraint significantly in many ways - and is by no means uniform in its status vis a vis these moratoria. We should keep that up.

We should keep that up - allowing the decisions of the last General Convention to stand for years to come. In the mean time, we should be building heartily on the relationships formed by our bishops at Lambeth this time around - so that all the orders of ministry in the Episcopal Church may feel the bonds of communion with non-U.S. dioceses and churches. Moreover, in that time, we should allow ourselves to be touched by overseas Anglicans - and to let them to know who we are and how we are followers of Christ as well. We should keep up the maximum exercise of restraint as we have been - following the P.B.'s own lead and the actions of the 2006 General Convention. We should also be moving rapidly forward in mission - following the five marks of mission and also using the M.D.G.s as helpful guides to making a transforming difference in the world.

In the next five to ten years, I believe that we will be able to stand with the majority of other Anglican churches around the world in this way - and that the long-term health of that communion will grow. Moreover, over that period, I believe a sufficiently brief and faithful Covenant will be promulgated - that neither centralizes the Anglican Communion, while perhaps also doing something new and good.

Now is the time for moderation and patience and humility from the Episcopal Church - as well as redoubled efforts at true Gospel Based Discipleship so that we make disciples and make a difference in the world. I believe this way forward will bring the maximum good to our own Church, and to the wider communion.

Bishop of Maryland Reflects on Lambeth

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I continue to be profoundly moved and challenged by the encounters with my colleague bishops across the globe and theological spectrum at this Lambeth Conference. I’m proud to be representing the Diocese of Maryland in this time of unavoidable and rapid change in many parts of the world, in the Anglican Communion, and in the Episcopal Church. I want to share with you some of my experiences and thoughts.

Friday, August 1
Part Four
An Inclusive Church

Bishop Sutton breaks bread at his Consecration. The great struggle before us at this conference is defining what it means to be the Church, and how can we remain in communion with each other despite deep theological differences. The “Church”, of course, is the gathered “body of Christ” of all those who’ve heard God’s call to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and are committed to following the way of Jesus in manifesting the kingdom of God on earth. The Church, though, has always struggled with how to embrace all those who confess the faith of Christ but who differ in their understanding of what it means to follow Him in their particular contexts. This is where we are as the Diocese of Maryland, and this is where we are as Anglicans in a worldwide communion.

I have argued here strongly for inclusion, not excluding anyone of my brothers and sisters in Christ because of their differences. To be a Christian is not to give intellectual assent to a body of doctrine, no matter how passionately the institutional Church has held on to them. To be a Christian is to follow a living Christ who continues to lead us to places where we do not want to go, and calling us to love and embrace those whom we would rather be more like us in every way. The traditions of the Church ground us, but we cannot become slaves to tradition if they have caused us to limit the scope of the reach of Christ in our day. Such has been the unfortunate history of the Church whenever it has found itself on the wrong side of scientific revelations, and on the wrong side of using biblical and theological interpretations that have resulted in the subjugation of people who cry out for justice. Have we not been here before when the Church used Holy Scripture to justify human slavery? Of keeping women in their place? Of persecuting left-handed people? (I’m not kidding here…this was very common.) How many times must our children’s children have to apologize for the mistakes and oppressions their leaders in the faith have committed in the name of Christ?

Some of you may have heard that I have said these things on the floor of the bishop’s plenary sessions at Lambeth. Several conservative bishops – including many from Africa and the Global South – in response to my public call, have sought me out to initiate conversations about interpretation of Scripture from the perspective of an African American who has experienced first hand how people have been abused by well-meaning Christians who’ve justified their prejudice from church tradition and the Bible. I welcome all of these conversations, and look forward to having them throughout the diocese. We may never all agree on all of the issues before us, and we may not agree on what we believe are the essentials of the Christian faith, but there is one thing of which you should have no doubt: the Diocese of Maryland is an inclusive Church, and we will pray, worship, argue and work together, expressing our unity in Christ despite all our differences, for this is what God requires of us. In a world that increasingly knows only how to respond to conflict by dehumanizing, name-calling, destroying and violence, isn’t this good news?

Thursday, July 31
Part Three
The Importance of Communion

What becomes evident after spending many days with Christian leaders from around the world is that there are no purely local problems in the church; we need to think globally about issues. Everything we say and do locally has global impact, and global issues inevitably affect local situations.

Americans are amazingly insular in our thinking, much to the dismay of much of the world. Most bishops here speak at least two – sometimes five or six! – languages, but very few American bishops have ever learned any foreign language. Very few Americans are really aware of what is going on beyond their local communities, and fewer yet have traveled abroad or hold passports. This has resulted in a myopia – “shortsightedness” – about how our cultural patterns of thinking and behavior affect the rest of the world.

The Anglican Compass Rose at Caterbury Cathedral. Click the image for a larger view. What this means for Episcopalians is that we really do need the Anglican Communion more than the AC needs us. Our brothers and sisters across the globe give us insights into the Christian faith that we need to appreciate, and if we were to travel this faith journey by ourselves we would be much impoverished. One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, once said, “A single Christian is no Christian.” Likewise, one local congregation, one diocese, or even one national church alone cannot express the fullness of what the Spirit is doing in the world.

I’ve been approached many times at this conference by foreign bishops seeking to have some sort of relationship with our diocese, since we are (accurately, in comparison to the vast majority of dioceses) perceived to be large, wealthy and diverse. Could it be that the Diocese of Maryland is being called to take on a greater, more prominent role in the Anglican Communion? What if we had an expectation that every single parish in our diocese were to take on some global initiative, relating to some other Anglican parish, diocese or entity overseas?

Wednesday, July 30
Canterbury Cathedral and a Day in London

Part One
Canterbury Cathedral

Stained glass -- St. Thomas Becket kneels before altar with monk attendant. Christ Church Cathedral, North aisle, Canterbury, England.  Click to learn more about Thomas Becket. Last Sunday we had our first conference eucharist in this historic and majestic house of prayer, the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion. It’s history goes back to 597 A.D. when St. Augustine was sent here by Pope Gregory the Great as a missionary, and he established his “cathedra”, or bishop’s seat, in Canterbury in southeastern England. In 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral, and it’s been the destination of millions of pilgrims since his martyrdom in the 12th century. It’s an awe-inspiring sacred space, and I’m happy to say that I wore my bishop’s vestments of rochet and chimere for the very first time at this great Cathedral.

What’s particularly interesting for the Diocese of Maryland is a large plaque prominently displayed on a wall in the cloistered area that has the following words on it:

“In Memory of Thomas John Claggett, First Bishop of Maryland and First Bishop Consecrated in the United States of America; Chaplain of the United States Senate; A Direct Descendant of George Claggett, Three Times Mayor of Canterbury and Alderman of the City Between 1599 and 1638.”

I said a prayer for Bishop Claggett at that spot in thanksgiving for his ministry, and I prayed in thanksgiving for the honor of being one his successors in Maryland.

Part Two
An Unforgetable Day in London

On Thursday, July 24 the bishops traveled to London to demonstrate our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) by marching in a “Walk of Witness” in support of eradicating extreme global poverty by the year 2015. It was an impressive sight to see hundreds of bishops in purple cassocks march through the center of London past the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and other landmarks of government and finance to Lambeth Palace, the official residence and offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the palace grounds there were speeches given by several ecumenical guests, including an impassioned speech thanking the Anglican Communion for its stands on economic justice given by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown. It struck me that it would be a wonderful thing if our Church were known more for its words and actions about love, mercy and justice than it does for its endless internal bickering about “who is in and who is out” of God’s favor and who is eligible for church leadership.

Bishop Eugene and his wife Sonya meet Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.  Click here for a larger view. After a lunch in the expansive gardens at Lambeth, it was off to our Garden Tea Party hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. As if meeting the head of the British government in the morning were not enough to impress us, it was an unimaginable treat for me to represent the Diocese of Maryland before Her Majesty on that sunny afternoon…that’s right, you read it correctly…Sonya and I had the high honor of being one of the few chosen to have a conversation for a few minutes with the Royal Crown. She is not only the Head of State in the UK, but also Head of the Church of England, and it was in that capacity that the Archbishop of Canterbury introduced the Bishop of Maryland and his wife to the Queen of England! He had properly briefed her that I was the first African American bishop elected in Maryland, a state that had practiced slavery, and she asked me about that and the present state of the church in the Diocese in our brief conversation. Without revealing all that we chatted about (I am a gentleman, after all, who wouldn’t dream of tattling on his new best friend!), I can say that she is an utterly delightful woman who knows how to make small talk!

Presiding Bishop Piece in the Times (UK)

by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori

The recently-concluded Lambeth Conference provided an opportunity for bishops from around the Anglican communion to discover the deeper realities of the contexts in which each seeks to spread the gospel.

One bishop from India reported a legislative requirement to obtain a magistrate's certificate before baptising a convert, with a prison term of several years and a significant fine as the penalty for proceeding without legal sanction.

A bishop's spouse from Africa reported the church's difficulty in supporting widows who are pressured to marry the dead husband's brother (even if already married), or else forfeit their children and property.

Bishops from Madagascar told of cyclones that destroy their people's homes and crops, often several times a year, and how they seek to build strong church buildings that can be havens from the storms as well as seats of learning.

Western bishops spoke of the church's pastoral role in seeking to provide sacred support for same-sex couples living in monogamous, life-long relationships.

Bishops from Africa and Asia told of the difficulty of evangelism in majority Muslim societies. Sudanese bishops sought partnerships as they seek to resettle returning refugees and rebuild a devastated church structure. A Tanzanian bishop lamented the difficulty of biblical study without libraries or access to the scholarly tools Westerners take for granted. Japanese bishops spoke of the church's inability to address social change when Christianity is such a small part of society. And bishops from countless places spoke of their gratitude for the support of others as they struggle with natural disasters, corruption, war, disease, hunger, climate change and counterproductive social pressures.

Given divergences that look interplanetary in degree and scale, what does this diverse body have in common? Certainly a recognisably common framework of worship, descended from the Church of England. A reliance on sacred scripture, in common with tradition and reason, also characteristic of roots in British Christianity. And a passion for caring for their flocks – the hungry, the sick, the aged and infirm, widows and orphans, and the forgotten, as well as those who know no good news.

But the forms and structures of the various provinces of the Anglican communion have diverged significantly, in ways that challenge those ancient ties to England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Those provinces are the result of evangelism tied to colonial structures, whether of Britain or her former colonies, and that colonial history has still to be unpacked and assessed. The present attempts to manage conflict in the communion through a renewed focus on structural ties to old or new authorities have generated significant resistance, both from provinces who largely absented themselves from Lambeth and from dissenting voices among the attending bishops.

The Anglican communion's present reality reflects a struggle to grow into a new level of maturity, like that of adult siblings in a much-conflicted family. As we continue to wrestle, sufficient space and respect for the differing gifts of the siblings just might lead to greater maturity in relationship. This will require greater self-definition as well as decreased reactivity. Jesus' own example in relationships with his opponents and with his disciples will be instructive.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Nathan Humphrey Post

This provocative post comes from Fr. Nathan Humphrey, a priest in D.C. who blogs at Communion in Conflict. I find much here that resonates with my feelings. Though he admits to venting here - and is speaking from the heart - he raises an often neglected point: leaders in the Church do have power, (and not merely clergy,) and it is a certain kind of power - and we mustn't fritter it, waste it, or (what's worse) misuse it. It is not the kind which many seek (political, commercial, military, etc.), but it is a kind of authority, influence and stewardship of resources. The power we have as leaders in the Church is intended by God, I believe, for the mission of God -- and that mission includes, among other things, reconciliation in the name of the Holy Trinity, and toward the end of finding our lives in Christly mutual submission and love. While it is indeed a mark of mission that we seek a transformed and just world - we so often see our own private, sub-corporate, national, sub-cultural ethical priorities as "Truth" or "Justice" - and then use our powers toward those perceived goods, being willing in that pursuit to forgo reconciliation, wider unity, mutual submission, etc. In other words, we very often abuse our power (generally self-righteously) for the sake of an end we have become convinced is 'The' end, and thus further states of antagonism and division.

... I think I've pinpointed the nexus of my ecclesiological anger, however, in the underwhelming lack of authentic generous initiatives I've been able to find on the blogosphere. (Admittedly, the blogosphere is perhaps the wrong forum in which to seek such initiatives.)

For instance, I read this post by Mark Harris, a left-leaning Episcopal priest whose analysis is often quite insightful and whom I think tries to take a common-sense, even-handed approach to controversial questions. But in this case, all he can offer up by way of "generous initiatives" are carping about the proposed covenant and a prescription for what I've characterized elsewhere as separatism. Where's his own generosity? This is nothing new, and I'm disappointed. Of all liberals I should think capable of generosity and initiative, it would be Mark Harris.

I was equally disappointed by Leander Harding's response to my question, because again it was about "them" and not "us." Again, of all conservatives I should think capable of generosity and initiative, it would be Leander Harding.

Our leaders, yet again, are failing us. Not because they are failing to stop same-sex blessings and gay bishops, or because they are pushing same-sex blessings and gay bishops in the face of clear moratoria, not because they are boundary-crossing or failing to observe that moratoria, not because they are pro or con the proposed Covenant, but because they seem to be incapable of acting Christianly in the midst of conflict. Rowan Williams is (for the most part) succeeding in this. And I know many liberals and conservatives who want to move us forward, but I get frustrated when I hear that my friends think the best way to move forward is to avoid or ignore the conflict and focus instead on other "more pressing" issues, such as the Millennium Development Goals or world missions. What I want is for us all to continue to fight the good fight within our own contexts, to stand up for what we believe is right, but to stay committed to each other in so doing.

A decade or so ago, I had hope that my generation, Generation X, and perhaps also the Millennials, would not repeat the mistakes of the Baby Boomers, that when we were entrusted with power we would not abuse it in the same ways. Specifically, I hoped that we would live into the third core value of Gathering The NeXt Generation: "We value our relationships in Christ over issues that divide us." This pragmatic statement recognizes that issues do divide us idealogically and in many practical areas, but they need not separate us from each other in Christ, that is, in Christ's one Church. I used to think that the fissiparousness of my Boomer elders was due to the relational dislocation of the 1960s, but that the children (and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) of divorce such as I might carry our woundedness into the Church in a redeemed way, rather than a tired old recapitulatory way. But when I see young, bright leaders such as the star bloggers on the left and the right using their newfound power to break apart the family of the Church, I think that the sins of the fathers are being visited upon the sons of the latter generations.

How discouraging to behold my peers, more interested in winning their battles for control over the direction of the Church than in bringing people into relationship with God and each other in Christ. I do not question the integrity or sincerety of the convictions that lead them to abuse their power. Each side believes that what they are doing is serving the heart of the Gospel, and that people's souls are at stake, either in that if they fail, people will be damned for eternity, or that people will live the rest of their earthly lives oppressed and marginalized and denied the justice that Christ longed to usher in with the Kingdom of Heaven. I understand your agendas, folks. I just don't think they're the right ones.

The sad thing is that I agree with parts of each agenda, not in a wishy-washy way that's seeking to stand "in the middle of the road." There's no inherent virtue in being idealogically moderate. I agree that salvation and justice are part of the Gospel. I just think each side is idolatrous in how they have used political tactics to try to move their versions of the Gospel forward. I'm with Rowan Williams when it comes to searching for a truly Christlike way forward, and I'm with those who worry about what kind of "sacrifice" we're really talking about when that rhetoric comes up: sacrifice-as-kenosis or sacrifice-as-scapegoating? (More on that in a separate post.)

My point here is to beg all communion-minded people not to let the liberal and concervative activists get the upper hand, because if they do, they're going to strangle the life out of the Church, despite their best intentions to renew it....

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Fool For Christ

By Eric Von Salzen

In this post, I’m going to criticize the teachings of a bishop of the Episcopal Church. If you think it’s foolish for a mere mentor in Education for Ministry to take issue with a bishop, you’re undoubtedly correct. Still, remember Paul’s words: “If you think you are wise in this age you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Several years ago, a friend suggested to me that learning about the scriptures, the history of the Christian church, theology, philosophy, and so forth in EFM – however interesting it might be – was worthless in terms of developing or increasing religious faith. In fact, he said, if you want a model of Christian faith, don’t seek out a theologian; instead, find an ignorant, uneducated Bolivian peasant. The peasant will have more faith than all the professors in a school of theology put together.

My friend may well be right. I can’t endorse his idea based on observations, because I’ve never actually met a Bolivian peasant. But I can imagine that a strong religious faith would be found in a community where religion and culture are strongly interwoven, where the same messages of faith have been heard generation after generation, where arguments against the faith are rarely heard and never heeded. In that community, my friend’s peasant would have no need of EFM, or any other kind of academic religious study.

That, however, isn’t the world I live in. I live in a world in which religion is often compartmentalized off from daily life, where the “real world” is the secular world, where the proponent of religion is often regarded as a naïf if not a scoundrel, and it’s sophisticated to be an atheist. And for better or worse, I’m part of that world. For me, religious education has been an essential element in the development of my religious faith.

And this brings me to Bishop John Shelby Spong. I’ve heard about Spong for years. His is one of those names that have become part of the popular consciousness. If you ask the man or woman on the street to name a contemporary religious figure, Spong’s name is likely to come up – it won’t be the first one mentioned, or the second, but after the Pope, and Billy Graham, and some televangelists, by the time they get to number 10 or 15, they’ll certainly mention Bishop Spong.

I also knew that Bishop Spong was regarded as unorthodox by people whose views on religious matters I respect. I’ve noticed that when “conservative” or “centrist” Episcopalians want to give examples of where the “left wing” of our church goes off the rails, they usually complain about “people like Spong”. I’m not sure who else there is in our church who is “like Spong”, but certainly Spong himself is a familiar symbol.

On the other hand, I have friends who seem to me to be good Christians, God-fearing folk, regular church attendees, who like and admire Bishop Spong, and regard him as a good influence on the church. (This admiration may mainly be due to Bishop Spong’s opposition to discrimination against women and gays. If so, I honor him for that, but it isn’t the subject of this post.)

So here I was, holding myself out as being knowledgeable about religious matters, an EFM mentor, a blogger on Anglican Centrist, yet I’d never read any of Bishop Spong’s books.

Therefore, I went to Barnes & Noble last week and bought a Spong book. There were quite a few to choose from, but I picked A New Christianity For A New World, for several reasons. First, it was one of the few Spong books that didn’t have the word “Bishop” in the title or subtitle (“A Bishop Rethinks” this or that, “A Bishop Speaks”, etc.); second, it seemed to deal with large, general issues (unlike his books dealing with specific issues like human sexuality, or the role of women, etc.); and third it was the most recent Spong paperback on the shelf. And now I’ve read it.

It seems that I picked the right book. Although I can’t certify that it’s typical of his oeuvre (in his preface he suggests that it represents a further evolution in his thinking, beyond his earlier books), he describes this work as “a final Spong book” to “spell out the future shape of Christianity.” Just what I was looking for. Sort of the Spongian equivalent of The City of God or the Augsburg Confession.

Bishop Spong’s thesis in this book is that “theism” is dead, but that religion generally and Christianity specifically can survive in the post-theistic world, if they follow his recommendations.

Bishop Spong doesn’t define what he means by “theism”. (I’ve always understood that word to be a kind of generic heading under which to list all the different notions about the divine – except the notion that there is no divine, which is put under the separate heading of “atheism”.) The closest Spong comes to explaining “theism” is to say that “I do not define God as a supernatural being”. The key word in that statement seems to be “being”. Depending on what you mean by “a being”, a lot of orthodox Christians could agree that God isn’t a “being”, yet not think that they have thereby declared the death of theism.

Bishop Spong doesn’t try to disprove the Christian (or Judaeo-Christian) concept of God; he simply declares that “we” can’t believe in it anymore. “God, understood theistically, is no longer operative in our belief systems, no matter how hard we try to hold on to this premodern deity”, he says.

Other “death of God” advocates have argued that religion was invented to explain the mysteries of the natural world, and science has now rendered religion unnecessary by explaining those mysteries. Bishop Spong does mention the “gap-filler” function of religion and the increasing irrelevance of God for that purpose, but this is a secondary point. The main function of theism for him is to ease our existential anxiety.

Bishop Spong tells us that God is the result of human evolution. He explains that when human beings evolved to the point that they became “self-conscious”, they realized, as no animal does nor any pre-human ancestor did, that they were mortal, and it scared them. They found themselves in a chronic state of danger, where mortality was inevitable, and the world was so vast “that they were reduced to a sense of themselves as almost totally insignificant.” To cope with this anxiety, they invented politics, fire, and – “the most powerful coping device of all” – “the theistic concept of God”. This “insight”, Spong assures us, must be believed because it came originally from Sigmund Freud.

I confess that I have trouble reconciling what seem to me to be two conflicting ideas. If theism is the device whereby we human beings cope with mortality, and we are still mortal, how can we have abandoned theism without having first found a satisfactory substitute coping mechanism? Spong doesn’t address this problem; he doesn’t really seem to be aware of it.

When he turns from theism in general to Christianity, Bishop Spong gets a bit more specific, and I think we can begin to see what he means when he says that theism is “no longer operative.” To show that Christianity is no longer operative, he asserts that both the story of Jesus’ “miraculous entry” into the world, and the story of his “miraculous exit”, have “been rendered literally meaningless by new knowledge”. Bishop Spong asserts that the “deepest problem” with the birth story is that it “reflects a premodern understanding of the human birth process” that we can no longer accept. Back in the First Century, he explains, “people did not understand the woman’s role in reproduction”, but now, thanks to “our expanded knowledge of genetics, biology, and reproduction”, we do. Because both parents contribute to the child’s genetic makeup, the result of Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit could not be a “divine child in human form”, but a half human and half divine “monster”. I wonder if Bishop Spong has ever heard of Francis Collins, formerly the head of the Human Genome Project, and a committed Christian. Dr. Collins’ book, The Language Of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, is proof that you can understand modern genetics and still find theism “operative”.

As for the “exit” story, Bishop Spong asserts that astronomy disproves the Ascension. First Century Christians, he explains, imagined a three-tiered universe, in which Heaven was located just above the sky, so “to get to heaven, where God dwelt, one simply had to rise, as Jesus did in the ascension story, into the sky. But when Copernicus and Galileo challenged the accuracy of the three-tiered universe, they rendered this possibility null and void.” Can Bishop Spong really suppose that any serious Christian would find her faith rendered “inoperative” by the discovery of the stratosphere? To the best of my knowledge, even Biblical literalists who insist that the Earth was created in seven days in 4004 BC because “that’s what the Bible says” don’t deny the existence of the upper atmosphere, or even interplanetary space, on the basis of the Ascension story.

What Bishop Spong is refuting is not Christianity, but some weird parody of Christianity that he has created in his own imagination. This is a simplistic, village atheist performance that isn’t even challenging enough to be interesting.

But what is interesting is that, having asserted that theism is dead, Bishop Spong can’t stop talking about God. He proclaims that “the reality of the God-experience overwhelms me every day of my life.” “I have walked beyond theism,” he says, “but not beyond God”. The reader may be perplexed – I am perplexed – about what the heck he is talking about when he speaks of a “post-theistic God, the God who is not a person but the source of that power that nurtures personhood”, a God that is “nebulous and yet as real as a holy presence”, “a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless”, “the reality underlying everything that is”, “the ultimate source of life”. Go figure.

Bishop Spong even argues that the death of theism needn’t deprive us of our Jesus. He asserts that “I cannot remember a time when Jesus was not important to me”. For him, he says, Christ “is the source of godly empowerment who calls me beyond my boundaries”; he is “not an example to follow”, but “a vision that compels”, “the doorway through which I enter the holiness of God”. This may not make much sense, but give Spong credit for one thing: Unlike some modern “followers of Jesus”, he avoids the cop-out of claiming that Jesus was a great moral teacher who we should follow but not deify. “The content of Jesus’ teaching,” Bishop Spong concedes, “was not terribly original.”

So, if Christ is not the Son of God (because there is no “theistic God” to be his Father), and if he was just run-of-the-mill as a moral teacher, how does Christ become a compelling vision, a doorway into the holiness of the post-theistic God? Bishop Spong’s answer seems to be simply that in our western culture, we’ve inherited “Jesus, who is called Christ” as “the primary symbol in our faith-story”, and the “Christ-figure will continue to be our central icon, the gift we have to offer the world.”

I puzzled over these assertions for several days after I finished this book, and I went back and re-read several parts of it to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I’ve concluded that Bishop Spong really means what he says. He really does feel a “God-experience” while he nevertheless denies the reality of a (theistic) God; he really does find that a First Century rabbi with nothing original to say is his “doorway” into “the holiness of [the non-theistic] God.” He’s apparently able to do this because he’s been steeped in religion – and particularly the Christian religion – his whole life. He finds that he can still enjoy the feeling of being Christian, can use the name of “Christian”, even though he’s rejected the substance of Christianity. I understand that a person who has had a limb amputated may continues to feel a phantom sensation as though the missing limb were still there. This may be something like what Bishop Spong feels about God and Christ.

Phantom religious faith may work for Bishop Spong, and it may work for some others, but I don’t think it can work for the church, not for long. I’m typing this post on my laptop. If I pull out the power plug, I can still continue to type for some period of time on battery power. But after a while, I must either plug back in, or my screen will go dark. You may be able to enjoy the God-experience for a while without God, but if you don’t plug back into the source of that experience, your screen will go dark.

Bishop Spong thinks that in the modern, secular era, “we” can no longer believe in a (theistic) God and a Christ who is the Son of that God. If Christianity is to survive, he claims, it must radically transform itself into the non-theistic faith he advocates. Yet when I look around, I find thriving churches that unapologetically worship the theistic God that Spong says is no longer viable in this age. If Spong were right, shouldn’t we see people flocking to “non-theistic” churches? Have I missed that? Try a little thought experiment with me. Suppose a new church were opened in your community, and the pastor announced that its services would “celebrate the long human journey from the first form of life in a single cell to the complexity of our modern, fearful, human self-consciousness.” (This is the liturgy of the future, according to Bishop Spong.) How many congregants do you think that church would have after six months?

I don’t dispute that Christian churches face a modernity challenge today. We sometimes use archaic language that fails to convey the true meaning of our faith to contemporary listeners. We sometimes hang on to practices and traditions that no longer make sense in today’s world. Some of our churches still revel in the glories of the Middle Ages, while others embrace the modern world up to, but not including, 1859. We do have to change, but we don’t have to give up God and we don’t have to give up Christ. Spong is wrong about that.

On the contrary. Rather than water down the Christian message to a mere “icon”, as Bishop Spong would have us do, we need to proclaim it with confidence. But we need to proclaim it in language that modern listeners can understand. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the first Christians the gift of languages, so they could speak the word of God to those around them, each in his own tongue. The language changed, but not the message.

Bishop Spong says that “we Christians today know that we possess neither certainty nor eternal truth.” A mission for Christian education, it seems to me, is to prove him wrong.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Times of London Editorial on Rowan Williams

When the Archbishop of Canterbury delivers his final address tomorrow to more than 650 bishops attending the Lambeth Conference, he can allow himself a note of joy and quiet pride. The conference has gone far better than he or even the most optimistic Anglicans could have imagined. There has been no formal schism. No one made a show of walking out. There have been no angry public speeches, accusations or defiant votes. Those attending have found in their hearts a way to remain in communion with each other, whatever the divisions on doctrine, biblical literalism and the ordination of gay priests.

Credit for much of this must go to Rowan Williams. By focusing on the Anglican Communion as a Christian community and not as a political organisation, he has ensured that the bulk of the discussion has been on those issues where Christians believe their message to be vital: poverty, global harmony, faith, prayer and charity.

Raw politics has been avoided, and the most contentious issue - Anglican attitudes to homosexuality - has, rightly, not been allowed to monopolise episcopal time and attention but kept in the context of beliefs, and commitments seen as core to the 38 self-governing provinces.

Dr Williams wanted to use this core, summed up in the proposed covenant, to keep a balance between a unitary structure, as in the Roman Catholic Church, or a loose grouping of independent churches akin to the Lutheran federation. This would allow a degree of latitude to each Church while giving the others a right to expect common standards and practices. The covenant was not agreed at the Canterbury gathering, and may not be formalised for another ten years. But it is a vehicle for preventing politicised issues, such as gay bishops, from defining the positions of the provinces.

Whether by design or by accident, the Archbishop was helped by the absence of the traditionalists who decided before their earlier meeting in Jerusalem to boycott Lambeth. By doing so, they avoided confrontation, but also removed the elements of grievance and contention. Indeed, the sharp criticism of Dr Williams's leadership and the provocative claim that his office was a “remnant of British colonialism”, voiced in The Times by the Archbishop of Uganda, were blunted by coming from outside the mainstream.

The other inspired innovation was to avoid contentious votes and adopt instead the African indaba, a way of resolving conflicts in small groups around a metaphorical campfire. The cameradie, however, should not mask the fact that divisions remain, and not only within the Church. On issues such as gender and sexuality, the Anglican Church remains, in this country, still at odds with the generally accepted social climate. Dr Williams should not allow the Lambeth truce to impede those seeking a more liberal and open approach. Time may change attitudes, but he needs still to point the way.

The outcome has, admittedly, been a setback to convergence with Roman Catholicism. But this was always less urgent than preventing acrimonious splits within Anglicanism. By concentrating on the spiritual, his forte, Dr Williams - albeit a wilier politician than realised - has lifted the sights of a Church in trouble. He may even have led it into calmer times: no small achievement for a much maligned primate.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bishop Terry Brown, Melanesia

Bishop Terry Brown of Malaita in the Province of Melanesia works in a church founded just a century and a half ago. Some 200,000 members strong now, there have been numerous martyrs for the faith there, including the missionary bishop John Coleridge Patteson in 1871, and seven in just the past few years.

Bishop Brown writes:

I was confirmed in The Episcopal Church, by a black bishop of Massachusetts. I was made deacon and ordained a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, in the diocese of Fredericton, a Loyalist diocese, by a bishop whose ancestors ran away from the American Revolution because they distrusted liberalism, political and otherwise.

I was consecrated a bishop in the Church of the Province of Melanesia, a global south diocese, where all the Millennium Development Goals score about 3 out of 10, even though we are great dancers.

And to make matters worse, my own sexuality is "dodgy". I live in and am a part of all four worlds -- The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of Melanesia and the pained world of gay and lesbian laity, deacons, priests and bishops.

Yet I am a bishop of a diocese that is full of life and has had much growth. In my last 12 years as bishop, I have confirmed 10,000 candidates. The diocese is deeply involved in evangelism, education, medical work, liturgy and peace and reconciliation.

My life as a bishop in all four worlds is possible only because of my faith in Jesus Christ. I had a conversion experience in which I felt deeply loved by God. That, the Eucharist, the life of Christian friendship and community, and Scripture, have sustained me through thick and thin.

From my perspective, do I have any suggestions for the text of the final Reflection?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” There are many other competing kingdoms, do not bow to them.

As much as is in you, try to maintain communion and friendship with all, whether inside or outside the church, however deep the disagreement.

Reject the Puritan option. We are Anglicans, not Puritans.

Exercise restraint and urge others to do so, whether locally or globally. Not everything has to be said or written about.

Be very careful in using typologies to classify people, theologies and churches. We are all the children of God, redeemed, with all of creation, by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you have not done so, accept all the gay and lesbian people in your midst, in all their complexity, pain and celebration.

Finally, let the conversations (even debate) continue. Television has finally come to the Solomon Islands, so we now have the privilege of seeing BBC interview both Gene Robinson and Greg Venables. In our case, I do not think the church will thereby collapse. But in other situations, that may not be the case, and the endless talking to the media of both may be destructive. That is my final suggestion -- remember that whatever you say publicly in this wired age, will go to every corner of the world. Honesty and prudence are both Christian virtues. We need to learn to balance them.

Thank you.

Bishop George Packard

Bishop George Packard has served as the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies for seven years. His tenure has been notable for his leadership in support of those deployed in the Iraq War, the response to September 11th, and Hurricane Katrina. He is the bishop for all Episcopal federal chaplains serving in the military, federal prisons, and Veteran's Affairs facilities. He also supports the care for all other chaplains by coordinating the training and advocacy for diocesan healthcare, prison, emergency responder, and maritime chaplains in the life of the Church. Because of extensive travel he also serves as the bishop-in-charge for Micronesia in the southwest Pacific.


If the Anglican Communion would just turn over their troubles to my 40 member indaba group everything would be fine. We had a break through as an American female bishop likened our church to siblings arguing in the back seat of the family car. There was a murmur of final understanding since there had been a wonder if those Episcopalians were coming unglued. No, just poking each other the way kids do. "But we stay together and that's what makes unwanted boundary crossings by South American and African bishops so confusing." She said.

I was re-playing that fateful day in Minneapolis in 2003 in my mind when we confirmed Gene Robinson's consecration and how no one gave much of a passing thought to how this news would impact anyone in this room. Some have been beaten and called members of "the gay church" in cultures where sympathizers like that were stoned, others have died...not because of Gene but because dioceses have rejected the HIV-AIDS assistance from the American church's tainted money.

The conversation--for the Americans and the Canadians--had real remorse in it: we acted without care for the greater family and we were deeply sorry. I'm not saying the consecration wouldn't have happened but the hurt of disregard for them--which was plain and evident--would not have been there.

Then Bishop Michael of Sudan continued as he said that his church was only getting used to thinking about homosexuals now with that he composed a prayer right on the spot emphasizing his point. After the entreaty to "Our dear Lord" it was as sensitive a summary of their uncertain lives in his land that I had ever heard. We were silent. (I wonder if this Lambeth is about where had hoped the 1998 meeting would have been in the appreciation of basic gay lives and rights.)

The bishop went on to say that we had to give he and his people some time; elevating gay persons into leadership positions of authority was confusing to him and his congregations. "Can't a baptized person get into heaven without you making him a bishop for awhile?" He had us there. As he was speaking I wasn't sure if the nods were in sympathy or agreement. It seemed like both and it came about as there was an acceptance of North American remorse.

The atmosphere in the room had changed. Said our facilitator, "We seem to arrived at a special level of trust." And that seemed to hold true for the heretofore stilted conversations about the Covenant too, that code of conduct we have all been dreading. Now, there was a growing consensus around the things which make us an affirmed, communion of churches in search of a grace-filled process which would come to the rescue when we get out of sorts with each other. It had been the meanderings in recent years for the right venue to discuss this which has been so maddening.

If we could only come up with a process of soft intention, setting our minds and hearts in the way Christ would want us to behave when things get enflamed...sort of a compact indaba.

Why Not This Covenant?

Over twenty years ago, in 1984, the Anglican Consultative Council put forward a basic notion of the Christian mission in general. The 'five marks of mission' formula has become the basis for Anglican discussion of mission since then.

The five marks of mission are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
Now, it occurred to the the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism a few years ago that perhaps this was the best basis for the Covenant suggested by the Windsor Report. The notion that we need to come together in self-giving and self-restraint for the sake of the mission of God is very compelling I think.

Here is what they put forward in 2005:

A Covenant For Communion In Mission

...God’s work through Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is to seek to heal [the world's] hurts and reconcile its brokenness. The preamble reminds us that as Christians we are called to share our relationships in the mission of God to the wider world, bearing witness to the kingdom of love, justice and joy that Jesus inaugurated...

Nourished by Scripture and Sacrament, we pledge ourselves to:

  1. Recognise Jesus in each other’s contexts and lives
    The nine points begin with Jesus Christ, the source and inspiration of our faith and calls for those covenanting for mission to look for, recognise, learn from and rejoice in the presence of Christ at work in the lives and situations of the other.
  2. Support one another in our participation in God’s mission
    Point two acknowledges that we cannot serve God’s mission in isolation and calls for mutual support and encouragement in our efforts.
  3. Encourage expressions of our new life in Christ
    Point three asks those who enter into the covenant to encourage one another as we develop new understandings of our identities in Christ.
  4. Meet to share common purpose and explore differences and disagreements
    Point four provides for face-to-face meetings at which insights and learnings can be shared and difficulties worked through.
  5. Be willing to change in response to critique and challenge from others
    Point five recognises that as challenges arise changes will be needed as discipleship in Christ is deepened as a result of both experience in mission and encounters with those with whom we are in covenant.
  6. Celebrate our strengths and mourn over our failures
    Point six calls for honouring and celebrating our successes and acknowledging and naming our sadness and failures in the hopes of restitution and reconciliation.
  7. Share equitably our God-given resources
    Point seven emphasises that there are resources to share – not just money and people, but ideas, prayers, excitement, challenge, enthusiasm. It calls for a move to an equitable sharing of such resources particularly when one participant in the Covenant has more than the other.
  8. Work together for the sustainability of God’s creation
    Point eight underscores that God’s concern is for the whole of life – not just people, but the whole created order – and so we are called to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.
  9. Live into the promise of God’s reconciliation for ourselves and for the world
    This last point speaks of the future hope towards which we are living, the hope of a reconciled universe – in which ‘God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ for which Jesus taught us to pray.

We make this covenant in the promise of our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.