Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Great Dialogue: Bill Franklin and Chris Wells

This is worth watching. Bill was my professor at GTS a decade ago - and a favorite. Chris is a super bright guy who will be leading the Living Church into the future.

Serious Scribbler Award

The gracious Tobias Haller has passed on an award to the Anglican Centrist called the Serious Scribbler Award. It is kind of like doing the 'Wave' on the internet, from what I understand. But I am grateful for Tobias' kind words about this blog. Rules and information about the award are found here.

In following them, I commend the following as Serious Scribblers:

- Craig Uffman, founder and shepherd of the Covenant website. Craig is deeply thoughtful, faithful and capable. His own writing is deep and well-wrought, and the team that he has assembled over at Covenant have done impressive work in a relatively short order. They have managed to create an alternative voice to the kind of liberalism espoused by entrenched institutional leadership, or the insipid and rude tone struck by those at Stand Firm or Virtue. This is the blogosphere constellation of loyal Episcopalians and Anglicans who are certainly 'right-of-center' - if that matters - but more importantly are Communion-minded Anglicans, whose vision of the Church is concerned with unity, integrity and catholicity - while maintaining hallmark Anglican generosity and breadth. I dub Craig a Serious Scribbler.
- Bryan Owen, at Creedal Christian and Chris Epperson at The Eternal Pursuit, are kindred spirits of mine here in the 'Anglican Heartland' as former South African Primate Njongonkulu Ndungane once described it. We are 'centrists' for want of a better word - as strong proponents of the Book of Common Prayer, robust traditional Episcopal liturgy, and the Quadrilateral basics of the faith - and dedicated to the idea that the Episcopal Church can be comprehensive, not beholden to left (or right). Certainly, we have been labelled 'heretics' by those on the extreme right for our belief that glbt Christians are called by God to lives of faithfulness in the church and leadership - with their life partners if so blessed. On the other hand, we have been labelled 'conservatives' by those on the extreme left because we have little interest in the sort of theology offered for so long by a generation of 50's/60's Era Liberal Modernists. Yes, we think the traditional faith as articulated by the Quadrilateral - and amply attested to in the BCP and Hymnal - say all the reasons in the world why we should be including all faithful Christians. Our basis for justice and social equality is rooted not in Modernism or renunciation of the Christian faith - but in the Christian faith itself. I find Nick Knisely also to be a strong voice from somewhere in the Episcopal middle.

- Final props go to Eric Von Salzen who writes frequently here at Anglican Centrist. As an EFM mentor and leading layperson in his parish, Von Salzen brings a fresh non-clerical perspective.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Generous Orthodoxy

I recently posted these reflections over at my blog. I thought I'd also share them with the readers of "The Anglican Centrist" in the conviction that a Generous Orthodoxy is one of the Anglican tradition's gifts to the world (and what better time of the year to give gifts than now?). In comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Generous Orthodoxy looks like and why it's important to you.


by Bryan Owen

The term “Generous Orthodoxy” is sometimes slighted by Christians as though it’s an oxymoron or (if the critics in question happen to be Episcopalians/Anglicans) an instance of “Anglican fudge.” The way I've seen the term disparaged on conservative blogs, critics seem to think that proponents of Generous Orthodoxy are too wishy-washy to take a clear stand on any biblical, theological, or moral principles. It's as though they are equating the term "generous," not merely with "liberal," but with "relativism." And clearly, relativism and orthodoxy mix about as well as oil and water.

Speaking as a proponent for an Anglican form of Generous Orthodoxy, I think this critique is a caricature. Here are just a few sketchy thoughts as to why I think so.

Borrowing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I am committed to:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I believe that a commitment to these four aspects of the "sacred deposit" of the Church makes one orthodox (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

Some might object to the minimalism of this Anglican understanding of orthodoxy (I'm thinking in particular of friends speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions). But I believe that this minimalism is a strength, not a weakness. Luke Timothy Johnson's take on the "blessed simplicity of profession" offered by the historic creeds may also be applied to the orthodoxy outlined above. He writes:

"As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4)" [The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 320].

At the same time, a willingness to sympathetically engage a wide range of secular and theological views, trying to understand those views before deciding whether or not to reject or learn from them, makes one generous. (I'm borrowing language here from a nice piece in the December 30 issue of The Christian Century on the death of William Placher.)

It's this generous spirit that allows Anglicanism to take seriously rather than shun the findings of the natural and social sciences; to engage other Christian denominations in ecumenical dialogue and to seek closer relationships with them in worship and ministry; to listen to and learn from other religious traditions without sacrificing the dogmatic core of the Church's faith; to take the concerns and the convictions of conservatives, centrists, and progressives seriously without kowtowing to their ideological agendas; and to regard predecessors as diverse as the Church Fathers and Mothers, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Paul Tillich (among many others) as theologians from whom we have important things to learn.

Does The Episcopal Church always do these things perfectly? Of course not. We often fall short. Sometimes we fail miserably. But our failures only underscore the fact that these ideals of the generous spirit of Anglicanism are ones we aspire to faithfully live out in our mission and ministry.

The late James E. Griffiss succinctly sums up the core of Generous Orthodoxy in his book The Anglican Vision (Cowley Publications, 1997) when he writes:

"I believe … that our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” (p. 101).

This via media between continuity and change, and between the Monolithic Church type and the Over-Personalized Church type, is not always an easy one to walk. But it's central to who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition.

Generous Orthodoxy.

It's not an oxymoron.

It's not Anglican fudge.

Quite the contrary, Generous Orthodoxy is Anglicanism at its best.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Third King

By Eric Von Salzen

I was a king. Not just any king. A “King of Orient Are”. And not just any “King of Orient Are”, but the third king. The grim one.


It was the Christmas Pageant at Westminster Presbyterian Church, West Hartford, CT, and I was 10 or 12 years old. I was big for my age (“husky”, not fat), which was why I was cast as a king (the smaller boys were shepherds), and my pre-pubescent voice wasn’t as high as the voices of the other pre-pubescent boys, so I was cast as Balthazar. The grim king.

The three of us processed up the center aisle of the church, carrying our gifts to the Christ Child, all three singing the first verse: “We three kings of Orient are . . . .”. When we arrived at the manger, we each had our solo, singing the verse about the gift we had brought. Gaspard brought gold (“to crown him again”). Melchior brought frankincense (“incense owns a Deity nigh”).

And Balthazar (the grim one) brought myrrh. You remember:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Well, that was cheery! Merry Christmas to all.

Balthazar’s verse sounds more like something you’d sing on Good Friday than at Christmas.

But that’s as it should be, isn’t it? Good Friday is implicit in Christmas, just as much as Easter is implicit in Good Friday. Christmas celebrates the birth of a child, a human child (whatever else Jesus was, he was human). One thing we know for certain about all human beings is that they will die (as the Prayer Book tells us, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or as some less cheerful sage put it, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”). Born human, Jesus was bound to die human.

We celebrate, at this time of year, two Christmases: What I’ll call “traditional Christmas”, and “Christian Christmas”.

I love “traditional Christmas”. Traditional Christmas is Santa Claus, and Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the kids opening presents on Christmas morning. Traditional Christmas is all the familiar songs: religious (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), and secular (“Santa Baby (just slip a sable under the tree, for me)", fun (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and excruciating (“The Little Drummer Boy”). Christmas trees, and holly, and mistletoe, and yule logs – all those pagan symbols that Christians co-opted – are part of traditional Christmas. What would Christmas be like without “Miracle on 34th Street”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “White Christmas”, or “Elf”?

Some good Christians complain about all the materialism and commercialism that are part of traditional Christmas today. But I like materialism and commercialism. In moderation, of course. When I was growing up, the stores in West Hartford Center starting putting up their Christmas decorations on the day after Thanksgiving, and they stayed up until Little Christmas (or, if you prefer, Epiphany). I loved it. I even love it now, living in Florida, when the plastic snowmen appear in store windows in September along with hurricane supplies. Materialism and commercialism are part and parcel of living in this American republic we love. Let’s face it: we are (most of us, anyway) going to be materialistic, and traditional Christmas gives us an opportunity to mix our materialism with a little joy, fellowship, and kindness.

But, having said all that, the fact is that for many people traditional Christmas can be a sadder time than we want it to be, a time of disappointment and regret, a time when we think more about what we’ve lost than of gifts to give and gifts to receive.

Do you ever feel that way at Christmas? I know I do sometimes.

Why is that? There are probably as many reasons as there are sad people, but I think one reason is that traditional Christmas makes us think back on our childhood, about how Christmas was back then. You may be sad because you have happy memories of Christmas in your childhood, or sad ones. If Christmas was happy when you were a child, if your loving parents and family made sure that Santa gave you all the presents you wanted, and friends and relatives shared the joys of the season, you now feel an aching sense of loss, because Christmas is not as happy now that you are an adult as it was then (or as you remember it was then). If Christmas was unhappy when you were a child, if your parents and family were poor in purse or poor in spirit, and Santa didn’t bring you the presents you hoped for, and the season, if not joyless, was at least not as joyful as it was supposed to be, then you, the grownup, look on Christmas as a cheat and a fraud, a promise made and broken.

This is where traditional Christmas disappoints. But Christian Christmas doesn’t.

Now, I grant you that this phrase I’ve coined, “Christian Christmas” is an awkward, redundant one, and some of you may take offense at it. The Christian Christmas, after all, is the real Christmas, the only Christmas, isn’t it? As the bumper stickers say, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, or “Keep the X in Xmas”.

Personally, I don’t think we need to give up traditional Christmas in order to honor Christian Christmas, but I do think we are less likely to be saddened by traditional Christmas if we remember what Christian Christmas is all about.

We celebrate at this season God coming into the world, God’s Son becoming a human being, God with us, the infant Emmanuel. Of course, there’s sadness in this wondrous time of Christmas, because this little baby is going to grow up to die. But the sadness is overcome because we know that in the life of this little child death will be defeated. We cannot imagine how the infant Jesus, as he lay in his manger, adored by shepherds and kings, could foresee what was going to happen to him, that he would grow up to be arrested, tortured, and killed, and then rise again. But we’ve read the end of the book, and we know, here at the beginning, how the story comes out. We know the sadness, and the triumph.

That’s why, I think, that the real Christmas, the Christian Christmas, is an antidote for the sadness that the traditional Christmas sometimes brings. The Christian Christmas isn’t an ideal of a lost era that we can never recover; it’s not a cheat and a fraud, a disappointment, a broken promise. It’s the promise kept.

So grim Balthazar was right to bring myrrh to the infant King of Israel, and to sing about gloom and sorrow, bleeding and dying. And he and his fellow “Kings of Orient Are” were right to join together (along with the whole congregation) in the last verse of the hymn:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice,
Heaven sings
Alleluia the Earth replies

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Our House

By Eric Von Salzen

[As part of the pledge drive at our church, All Saints, Fort Lauderdale, members of the Vestry were asked to address each week-end service. This is what I said. What do you think?]

It is written in the Book of Joshua:

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” [Joshua 24:15]

This church is the Lord’s House, but it’s also our house. It belongs to us, the people of All Saints. We started it, we built it, and we’re responsible for it.

Almost 100 years ago, on All Saints Day 1912, eight women met in the home of Mr. and Mrs. S. S. Walsh for the purpose of founding an Episcopal Church in the growing little frontier town of Fort Lauderdale. To that end, they formed the All Saints Guild. They had no church building. They had no rector. It was two years before All Saints was even recognized by the Diocese as a mission.

But the first service of our church was held six weeks after that meeting, in a public hall over a garage and filling station on Andrews Avenue.

We didn’t get our own church building until 1921, when one of the people of All Saints, the well-known pioneer Annie Beck, found an abandoned church building on Jupiter Island and arranged to have it dismantled and shipped down here to Fort Lauderdale by train, a distance of more than 60 miles. That building was re-erected downtown, across from Stranahan Park, and served as All Saints’ church building for more than a quarter of a century.

In 1949 the people of All Saints built a new, modern, spacious church building here in the residential neighborhood of Collee Hammock. Later, we bought the run-down property next door, which became Brion Park and made All Saints a riverfront church.

The people of All Saints have now just completed the construction of new buildings to continue and expand the mission and programs of our church: New classrooms, a new chapel, a new kitchen, and new meeting rooms.

Look around you. Look at these buildings. They’re yours, you the people of All Saints. Look at the programs of this church, our missions, our outreach programs to those less fortunate than we are, beds around the altar, our education programs for adults and children, our music program, even our clergy. They’re yours, you the people of All Saints. They exist because of you.

This is your house, as well as the Lord’s house. I don’t have to tell you that. You know it. I don’t have to tell you that, like your home and your family, this house of worship and its family need to be maintained and supported. You know that.

I’m not here to tell you to make a big pledge to support the operations of your church home. How much you pledge is your decision to make. The only thing I ask – I beg – is that you make your pledge soon. Fill out that pledge card and send it in SOON. So the church knows how much money we’re going to have next year to operate and maintain your church. So your Vestry can decide whether we can replace your leaking roof, so we can decide whether we can hire a sexton to keep your property in repair, so that we can decide what outreach and mission programs we can support.

And so that the Vestry won’t ask me to call you up at dinner time some time next month and pester you for your pledge. If I have to do that, the only person who will hate it more than you, is me.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

George Clifford's New Piece

“This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire.”
- Brother Joseph Brown, one of seven Benedictine Anglican monks who lived at Mount Calvary Monastery in Montecito, which was destroyed by fires that swept through southern California (New York Times, November 19)

I wonder how many Christians really understand Brother Joseph’s remark?

My recent essay at the Episcopal CafĂ©, “An Alternative Province? Why Not?” sparked a surprisingly large and disappointing response , leaving me pessimistic about the number who understood Brother Joseph’s comment. The response to my essay was surprising in that a couple of conservative websites republished the post suggesting their approval. I had not expected conservatives to find my perspective agreeable. Let me be clear. Those leaving the Episcopal Church (like those remaining) are equally wrong to pursue property issues in the courts. Indeed, departing dissidents should honor the branch of Christendom that heretofore has nurtured them in the faith and depart by respecting a polity that assigns moral (and arguably legal) ownership of property and other assets to the national church through its dioceses. Individuals are free to depart; Church canons provide no mechanism for a parish or diocese to depart, as these are integral elements of the national body. Attempting to secede violates the trust that binds us together as God's family.

Those departing need to remember that even as their views about gender determining eligibility for ordination or the morality of same sex relationships do not put them outside the pale of the body of Christ, the converse is also true: those with whom they disagree remain part of the body of Christ. None of those issues, no matter how passionate or strong one’s views are, is a litmus test or definition of Christian identity.

Funds given to the Church are just that, given. That is, monies once donated become the Church’s property. Who contributed the money or other assets is irrelevant in Anglican polity. Once received, the resources belong to the Church for use in God's work, a truth symbolized in terming donations received in worship “offerings” and the priest blessing them.

Frittering away precious resources in a physically and spiritually starving world is equally scandalous, whether the Church or dissidents pay the legal bills. My local newspaper’s front page this morning featured two stories that nearly brought me to tears: a teenaged Eagle Scout allegedly murdered by four friends and the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak. Court battles over who owns what Church property provides no hope in either situation. Nor will court battles, regardless of who prevails, change anyone’s views about the issues that divide us. Courts and lawyers are important instruments of social justice; however, the scriptures exhort Christians to resolve their disputes without litigation.

The Presiding Bishop has helpfully observed that departures number only about one hundred thousand in a Church of twenty-three hundred thousand. Those leaving are a small percentage of the whole Church and their exit in no way threatens the Episcopal Church’s existence or vitality. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury has emphatically clarified that those who have left, should they wish to become an Anglican province, must comply with all established procedures for achieving that status, a process requiring years. In sum, the remarks of the Most Reverends Jefferts Schori and Williams suggest that the Episcopal Church should focus on its ministry and mission rather than devoting substantial and unwarranted time and energy to the sad but inevitable departure of the unhappy and bigoted few.

Normally, an author feels gratified when his or her writing attracts considerable attention. Yet the obvious depth of attachment, both among those departing and those remaining in the Episcopal Church, to property and other assets disappointed me. Material resources are important. However, my experience and observation is that human commitment and vision, not lack of material resources, are the real limits on Church ministry and mission. People, within and without the Church, respond enthusiastically and generously when afforded meaningful opportunities to engage in life-giving ministry and mission.

The relative handful of those leaving with their mutually incompatible theologies, to their dismay, has not caused the Episcopal Church’s numerical decline over the last fifty years. Part of the real explanation for that decline is that a Church caricatured as the party of the wealthy and powerful at prayer should expect inner conflict and pain when it strives to incarnate more fully God's inclusive love that transcends wealth, race, gender orientation, ethnicity, etc. Part of the explanation is also that we Episcopalians have focused on internal issues and institutional maintenance (conventions trying to legislate theology and ethics; attempting to preserve an aging, poorly located physical plant; perpetuating once useful activities that no longer serve today’s needs; etc.) rather than ministry and mission.

Perhaps, God has a badly needed message for us in the sad departure of our more narrow-minded brothers and sisters, a poignant reminder to prioritize ministry and mission ahead of institutional maintenance. Like the monks of Mount St. Calvary whose hospitality and ministry I have enjoyed and cherished, all parties in the current controversies can benefit from a painful and costly lesson in keeping one’s priorities correctly ordered. The monks will continue to serve, moving in the direction they sense God leading. The Episcopal Church should do the same, declaring the truth about property ownership but prepared to exercise costly grace in our actions rather than to compromise our priorities. Now is the time, the season, for us in the Episcopal Church to respond to God's vision for us, God's calling, to incarnate Christ's inclusive, life-giving love for all, at home and abroad. To do otherwise has intangible costs that far exceed the dollar value of any disputed assets.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Anglican Church in North America Numbers

The new denomination called The Anglican Church in North America has received what appears to be only 'theoretical' recognition from the GAFCON leadership - but the exent of which is unclear, nor is which primates it includes.

Curious to me is their claim of some 100,000 members, which is sometimes presented not as total membership but as (ASA) or average Sunday attendance. Let's see if either claim is accurate with some educated guessing.

As far as I can tell, the ACNA is a unified entity comprised of the following groups:

  • Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria) or 'CANA'
  • Anglican Mission in America (Rwanda) or 'AMiA'
  • Ugandan congregations
  • Kenyan congregations
  • Southern Cone dioceses/congregations
  • Reformed Episcopal Church (19th century denomination)
  • Forward in Faith
  • Anglican Communion Network
  • and some Canadian groups.

With some 63 congregations total, the CANA folks have a few very large congregations, so maybe they have 20,000 people. CANA on its own is the size of a medium size Episcopal Diocese, (but with some six bishops.)

AMiA has a bunch of growing church plants in seventeen missionary networks. I'm not sure about membership here - but I'm guessing it's around 20-25,000 based on the congregations I know about. This group has a strong growth model to be sure. Again, AMiA already is about the size of a medium sized Episcopal Diocese.

The Ugandans and Kenyans have dozens more congregations - but again - I'm guessing it's maybe three thousand people.

Southern Cone had dozens of congregations before the recent departures of majorities in four dioceses - Quincy, San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Fort Worth. Pittsburgh had about 1/3 stay in TEC, so about 10,000 left. Fort Worth and San Joaquin had about the same number leave. Quincy, well only about 800 left. Probably about 40,000 here now - at best. The Southern Cone group adds up to a significant sized 'diocese' as compared with The Episcopal Church. About the same size as the Diocese of Washington for example.

The REC has about 14,000 members - about the size of a smallish diocese itself.

The Anglican Communion Network equals zero - because it's realignment members have already been counted in the above groups (CANA, Africans, Southern Cone, etc.) where they all went over the past two years, and those not realigning from ACN (dioceses and parishes) can't be counted here. Forward in Faith, like the Anglican Communion Network, consists of realigners and nonrealigners - and the realigners are almost certainly already gone to overseas jurisdictions. So, that adds no new folks.

The Canadians maybe represent another 3,000, max.

So, the ACNA just might have 100,000 members. But, it would be surprising if 100% attended church each Sunday. Judging solely from the averages in Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, Fort Worth and Quincy, ASA tends to run around 40% of membership. Applying that to the whole ACNA means we're talking about 35-40,000 maximum on a Sunday.

By my educated guess the total membership is about 5% of the size of TEC, and the average Sunday attendance is also about 5%.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Anglican Church in North America

by Greg Jones

If you read a newspaper this morning, you probably saw that yesterday a group of folks have formed a new Christian denomination calling itself The Anglican Church in North America. It is claimed that the new entity has some 100,000 members in North America, and will seek to be recognized as an official province of the Anglican Communion. Certainly, The Anglican Church in North America will soon receive recognition from the giant Anglican Churches in Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda (with many millions of members each), as well as from the miniscule Church of the Southern Cone, (with a few thousand members in the Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.)

It is less clear what other Anglican recognition the new group will receive. To be considered a province of the Anglican Communion, it would take two-thirds of the Anglican primates to assent, along with that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the approval of the Anglican Consultative Council. Most doubt that such would be forthcoming. I frankly don't think it will.

What I think is more likely is that some of these large African provinces, in conjunction with their very small North American and South American partners, will become an alternative branch of Anglicanism altogether. The leaders of this new branch boycotted the Lambeth Conference last summer, held an alternative gathering in Jerusalem, and have already made numerous statements questioning the legitimacy the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Anglican Consultative Council - the three oldest instruments of unity in the Anglican Communion. They have prepared for, and are poised to declare themselves the authentic expression of Anglicanism on Earth, and are doing so largely by challenging the faithfulness to God of the Episcopal Church, and any who do not accept their demands. They have already said that they are going to move forward with or without the assent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference or the Anglican Consultative Council. Nigerian Bishop Martyn Minns said as much in today's New York Times.
Yes, I'm afraid that we are witnessing the division of the Anglican Communion, plain and simple. However, it won't be neat or tidy, or liberal vs. conservative. Indeed, it is not merely the division of the Anglican Communion, but the division of the conservative movement within the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. What was once a much broader coalition of traditionalists, has become smaller with this new action. Notably, the strongest conservative dioceses have all chosen to remain within the Episcopal Church, namely Central Florida, Southwest Florida, South Carolina and Dallas. Likewise, strong theologically conservative provinces around the globe continue to regard the Episcopal Church as a sister province, with whom disagreements are to be voiced and dealt with by conversation not separation.

But, life goes on. I remain committed to a vision of the Church in which we are bound up in baptism in Christ Jesus, and whether we agree with each other or not on a host of issues, if we call Him Lord, we are one. Moreover, while I don't believe in a perfect church, I do believe in a perfect Lord God, and following Him in discipleship and mission is my number one priority. I also happen to believe that our parish, our diocese, our Episcopal Church, and our Archbishop of Canterbury are also committed to One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. To me that's all I need to stay united, and why I believe those who break communion and fellowship are misguided in so doing. Nonetheless, we have many neighbors in our city and world who belong to other denominations - many of which broke away from the Church of England or Episcopal Church at some point in the past four centuries or so. Our call is to reach out in Christly love to them just as to those in the world which know Him not.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Is Advent a Penitential Season?

by Bryan Owen

I’ve often heard Episcopalians emphatically say that Advent is not a penitential season. Thinking of Advent in penitential terms, they say, represents an “older” (i.e., defunct) theology from earlier times and earlier Prayer Books. By contrast, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer takes a strikingly different view of things. Now we focus on themes such as watching and waiting, preparing, pregnancy and birthing. Advent is not Lent – not even a mini-Lent. So away with the color purple, on with the blue, and leave all of that focus on sin and repentance for its proper season: Lent.

It’s certainly true that each season of the liturgical calendar year has its own unique themes and integrity. But it’s also true that themes of one season can and often do overlap or intersect with themes from other times of the year. Lent, for example, is not just a penitential season. Here’s what liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell says about the fullness of Lent:

“Penitence … is not the only Lenten theme. As we have seen, the second lenten eucharistic preface speaks of Lent as a time to ‘prepare with joy for the Paschal feast’ (BCP: 379). Joy, love and renewal are as much lenten themes as are penitence, fasting and self-denial: and we need to remember that it is within the context of preparation for our participation in the Feast of feasts that the lenten penitence is expressed. Our penitence is not the penitence of those who have no hope of forgiveness, but of those who have been redeemed by the dying and rising of Jesus the Lord” [Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse Publishing, 1985), p. 29].

If we sometimes miss the themes of joy, love, and renewal in Lent, then perhaps we also sometimes miss the themes of sin and repentance in Advent. True, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed upon watching and waiting. The 1st Sunday of Advent focuses on the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the consummation of God’s purposes for the world. And the 4th Sunday of Advent centers on the pregnant virgin Mary, mother of our Lord.

[Sidebar: I think it’s especially noteworthy that, in contrast to much of the pop theology about the “End Times,” the Eucharistic preface for Advent affirms that, because Jesus Christ has redeemed us from sin and death, and made us heirs of everlasting life, “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP, p. 378). What a refreshing antidote to the fear-mongering, shame-based theology found in the “Left Behind” series!]

In addition to other themes, and directly contrary to what many now say about the season, Advent shares much in common with Lent. Consider, for example, the collect appointed for the 1st Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211):

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Written for inclusion in the 1549 Prayer Book, the language of “cast[ing] away the works of darkness” alludes to a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans assigned in both the 1979 Prayer Book and the Revised Common lectionaries as the epistle lesson for Advent I in Year A:

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:11-14 RSV).

One striking feature of this collect’s allusion to Romans is its focus on very specific sins which Paul – and the Episcopal Church – call us to “cast away.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer thematic focus on sin and repentance than this. And if liturgical scholar Marion Hatchett is right, this collect’s call is not just for one Sunday in Advent. “From 1662 until the current [1979] revision,” Hatchett writes, “this collect was to be repeated daily throughout the Advent season[Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 166; emphasis added]. In other words, since the 1662 Prayer Book, the intention behind the inclusion of this collect is to put our need to repent of specific sins front and center from Advent I through Christmas Eve. That sure sounds like a penitential season to me.

But there’s more. Consider the collect appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211):

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Taken in conjunction with the appointed gospel readings – which, in all three years of the Sunday lectionary cycle, focus on John the Baptist, with particular emphasis on his fiery preaching of impending judgment for sin in year A of the RCL – this constitutes as clear a thematic focus on sin and repentance as anything found in Lent.

Then there’s the collect for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 212):

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

The RCL readings are less emphatic about sin for this Sunday, but the collect puts us right in our place before God: we are powerless to do anything to save ourselves, seeing as “we are sorely hindered by our sins.” And so the themes of watching and waiting are here intimately connected to our sinfulness and our need for redemption.

Now here’s the collect appointed for the 4th Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 212):

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It’s only on this, the 4th Sunday of Advent, that the gospel readings shift our attention to the coming nativity of Jesus with a focus on Mary. But notice that even on this day, the collect suggests that we need God to purify our conscience. It’s not heavy-handed, but in a subtle and beautiful way it connects the Advent themes of preparation and repentance – as though we can only have room in our hearts and souls for the coming of the Christ child only after we’ve cast away (with God's help) the works of darkness.

To sum up, the first two Sundays of Advent include a major emphasis on sin, repentance, and the need for redemption. This emphasis remains, but lets up a bit, on the third Sunday and even more so by the fourth Sunday. But the themes of sin and repentance are present throughout the entire Advent season. This suggests that it’s only after we’ve done the work of repentance for three Sundays that we are finally ready to shift the focus to Mary, not because pregnancy is a sin, but because we won’t have room in our hearts and souls to receive the gloriously good news that God is coming to us as a baby through her womb until we’ve “cleaned house.”

Is Advent a penitential season? That’s like asking if Lent is a season of “joy, love and renewal” (Lee Mitchell). While it’s not as ominous as The Great Litany or the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the answer is “Yes, Advent is a penitential season. And it's also a season about watching, waiting, judgment, consummation, pregnancy and giving birth.” The penitential dimension of this season can be clearly seen in the collects and lections appointed for the Sundays of Advent.

Why, then, do we sometimes hear clergy and laypersons so emphatically deny that these themes are an intrinsic part of the Advent season? I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we are increasingly uncomfortable with theological concepts like “sin” and “repentance,” and perhaps especially at a time of the year when our consumer culture is in high “feel good” gear. It's just so much easier (and more fun) to go with the path of least resistance and join the party. By contrast, themes of sin and repentance convey the clear message that we need to change, that we need transformation in order to be ready for Christmas, that we need to wait for the celebration in God's time, and that it’s inappropriate and even unfaithful to jump the gun by celebrating too early without doing the hard work of repentance in the light of God's grace.

That’s a strikingly counter-cultural message for a time when many churches are all too eager to embrace in part if not in whole the consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas. But the message is right there in our Prayer Book.