Saturday, May 30, 2009

Who Are We?

In Lent of 1849, the estimable F. D. Maurice explained in a sermon just 'who we are' as Christians.

He proclaimed:

This, and nothing less than this, is implied in our Church-life, and our acts of Communion. We are actually taken to be members of Christ, children of God. The words are simple, but, oh what a depth is in them, what an infinite reproach to every one of us!

"The Bible," we are told sometimes, "gives us such a beautiful picture of what we should be."

Nonsense! it gives us no picture at all. It reveals to us a fact; it tells us what we actually are: it says, "This is the form in which God created you, to which He has restored you: this is the work which the Eternal God, the God of truth and love, is continually carrying on within you."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Prayer Book Revisers Take Caution!

Christopher is becoming one of my favorite theologians in the Episcopalian blogosphere.  He writes:

Recently, a commendation was cobbled together from principles of the Quadrilateral with two additional principles added besides toward a vision of what we share in our unity in Jesus Christ and through Him and in the Holy Spirit as participation in the Life of the Holy Trinity. Not only as Christians, but specifically as Anglican Christians. The fifth reads:

The Book of Common Prayer as authorized in this Church in General Convention as the normative standard of worship in this Church.

Nothing in this commendation is new. It's a reframing of what others have handed to us, especially Maurice and Reed Huntington, but also Ramsey, Gore, Elizabeth I, and many, many others. This commendation, among other things, works within a generous framework to nevertheless affirm Prayer Book discipline. Fortuitiously, as at least one author, myself, had not read the latest Cambridge-Ridley Covenant Draft, yet it does seem that those who proposed this Anglican Covenant and some of us who remain hesitant or skeptical of such a Covenant in its juridical and discerning capacity, do nonetheless see need for further elucidation of principles beyond the Quadrilateral: Prayer Book discipline (Common Prayer in a National or Regional Church) and Diakonia (service to the world). The former lends us to God, the latter to our neighbor.

Though the Covenant addresses the Communion and this commendation addresses The Episcopal Church, agreement in this much is not a waste of time or mediocre as so many are suggesting. Further articulation of what it means to be Anglican is to be welcomed, even if what is articulated is merely elucidation of what has been said in other ways by ancestors in faith. This elucidation of Prayer Book discipline and Diakonia could be said to be a co-incidence of what is seen as important and necessary in the life of a particular Church (after all the Quadrilateral began its life here) and the life of the Churches-in-Communion--a deepened elucidation of what it means to be an Anglican Christian

While a shared national or regional liturgy is an assumption of the Church Universal, a la Maurice, and we can see this in most of the Churches even of the Reformation. For example, the Lutheran Territorial Churches in Germany have orders of service to this day. The current situation in the ELCA of do-it-yourself orders and emphasis on "resource" is anomalous, and very U.S. American rooted somewhat in its amalgam history of ethnic groupings and in a trend toward the new. Nevertheless, the Prayer Book is a particularly and peculiarly Anglican take on Church and Communion life, and this way of unity through common prayer needs highlighting, especially in a milieu in which do-it-yourself is all the rage. We are not a do-it-yourself tradition. Some of us became Anglican, at least in part, because of a consistent pattern of worship.

Besides being one of the most careful expositors toward an Anglican ecclesiology, because of his refusal to import other ecclesiological systems Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, and because of his being firmly rooted in an understanding of the historical contingencies and particularities of Anglicanism, Bp Sykes offers an important word on the Prayer Book and its import for our common life:

One should expect, therefore, the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion to express with a certain clarity, but not with overdefinition, the principal features of an understanding of the unity of the Chuch. This unity is implicit, of course, as much in the rubrics as in the text....The linguistic and behavioural order of the congregation needs to express and embody [I would say articulate which assumes both] the priority of Scriptural symbols....The fact that the symbols are part of a system of communication, that they must proclaim and embody 'the Gospel', implies that they are in need of revision, since cultures have their own symbol systems, some of which make it impossible for the Gospel to be heard. Constant and fussy revision, hoever, undermines the significance of repetition, which is a key factor in the way in which human beings are embedded within the Christian world of meaning. Elite groups within the Church [clergy and scholars both--as well sometimes as laity] are occasionally insensitive to the fact that their manipulation of variety or alteration of common texts is an affirmation of their dominance over 'lower' participants in the Church. The repetition of symobls constitutes a major way in which the whole Church exerts subversive power within a culture, adn the preservation of a common text is the delivery into the hands of the whole people of God an equal share in the resources which all will need for their 'vocation and ministry'. (Stephen Sykes, Unashamed Anglicanism, 117-118)

Note something very central to common prayer. It is the inheritance, right, and responsibility of the whole Church, not just experts or clergy. An increasing tendency of localized revisions, usually the whim of clergy, is an abuse. The laity are right to resist.

Further, repetition is central to common prayer. Idiosyncratic or personalized (most often clericalized) changes not only to the text or even to the rubrics, but to articulation in full, including space, music, posture (including orientation of clergy ad orientam or versus populum according to parish custom), and gesture in a particular parish/congregation is to be avoided and changed only due to theological necessity or violation of rubrics (which means, we have quite a range of latitude and clergy should not whimsically make changes to a congregational customary and certainly not without real conversations that may entail thoughtful lay "pushback"). In other words, any changes made should be made on careful liturgical and theological grounds, remain respectful of the congregational customary, and occur only in conversation with the community. A presbyter or bishop who single-handedly (and often, ham-fistedly) imposes his or her piety and latest learning and desires on long-standing and efficacious articulation in a particular parish or diocese is abusing the parish or local Church.

This increases in a social milieu rife with want for the novel and next greatest thing. The point of Prayer Book practice in any given congregation and local Church (diocese) is not novelty and trend-setting, but consistency and constancy. A regular, known liturgy changing only within the seasons of the Church, tells us of God's constant love and leads us to deepened trust. We get God deep in the bones.

I would hasten to add that in want to be relevant culturally, we sometimes sell ourselves (and newcomers) short because it's easier to change our worship than to catechize to our worship. Granted I'm a bit geeky. Nonetheless, if I, a 21st century American of Celtic-Saxon extraction can at the age of 19 enter into the worship of a Greek-speaking Greek Orthodox parish without any exposure beforehand besides icons (and no knowledge of Greek), do we not think we might be able to catechize the interested to our own riches already in a "language understanded of the people"? We're too quick to change rather than patient to be changed. We're too quick to sell centuries of literature and liturgy down the river rather than do the hard work of education to our rite. Rite II is turning 30 this year. I am 34. Many are proclaiming Rite II outdated and practicably doing so by doing their own thing. I would contend we have barely settled into Rite II enough to be formed. Rootedness, stability are not something to take lightly in a sped-up world, and it is we younger people who perhaps know this more sorely:

Finally, in a time marked by sore divisions, we encourage due care and lack of haste in making revisions to or providing for a future Prayer Book, and when such revision or provision is made, that an “appropriate educational component” be provided for throughout this Church before implementation.

Non-Consents in Forrester Election

As I understand it, Kevin Thew Forrester will need 50 yes votes from diocesan bishops with jurisdiction, and 56 yes votes from diocesan standing committees.

Here's the tally of "No" votes that I have.
  1. Easton,
  2. Olympia,(Public letter from Bishop Rickel)
  3. Bethlehem (Public letter from Bishop Marshall)
  4. Louisiana,
  5. South Carolina,
  6. Kentucky, (Public letter)
  7. N. Indiana,(Public letter)
  8. Southern Ohio, (Public letter)
  9. Rhode Island,
  10. Atlanta,
  11. Albany,
  12. Central Florida,
  13. Springfield,
  14. Dallas,
  15. Western Louisiana,
  16. Southwest Florida,
  17. Arkansas,
  18. Mississippi,
  19. North Carolina (He's my bishop)
  20. Western Kansas
  21. San Diego
  22. Texas
  23. Arizona
  24. North Dakota
  25. Hawaii
  26. West Texas
  27. Fond du Lac
  28. Maryland
  29. Central Pennsylvania
  30. Tennessee
  31. West Tennessee
  32. Montana
  33. Upper South Carolina
  34. Central Gulf Coast
  35. Virginia
  36. West Virginia
  37. Alabama
  38. Southeast Florida (by virtue of abstention)
  39. Florida
  40. Northern California
  41. Ohio
  42. Western North Carolina
  43. Puerto Rico
  44. Colombia
  45. Los Angeles
As well, the following standing committees have likewise not given consent:
  1. Alabama
  2. Albany
  3. Arizona
  4. Arkansas
  5. Central Florida
  6. Central Gulf Coast
  7. Colombia
  8. Colorado
  9. Dallas
  10. El Camino Real
  11. Eau Claire
  12. Europe
  13. Florida
  14. Fond du Lac
  15. Fort Worth
  16. Georgia
  17. Hawaii
  18. Iowa
  19. Los Angeles
  20. Louisiana
  21. Maryland
  22. Mississippi
  23. Missouri
  24. Montana
  25. New Jersey
  26. New York
  27. North Carolina
  28. Northern California
  29. Northern Indiana
  30. Northwestern Pennsylvania
  31. Ohio
  32. Oklahoma
  33. Oregon
  34. Pennsylvania
  35. Pittsburgh
  36. Puerto Rico
  37. Quincy
  38. Rhode Island
  39. Rio Grande
  40. San Diego
  41. Springfield
  42. South Carolina
  43. Southwest Florida
  44. Southwestern Virginia
  45. Tennessee
  46. Texas
  47. Western Kansas
  48. Western Louisiana
  49. Western Michigan
  50. West Missouri
  51. West Tennessee
  52. West Texas
  53. West Virginia

Anglican Covenant Section 4 Working Group

The Archbishop of Canterbury has named the folks to take the lead in revising the controverted fourth section of the Anglican Communion Covenant. They are, John Neill of Ireland, John Chew of South East Asia, Eileen Scully of Canada, Gregory Cameron of Wales. Two archbishops, one bishop, and one scholar -- three from liberalish Anglican provinces, and one from a conservativish province. For those on the right who were hoping for four staunch conservatives, they will be very disappointed. For those on the far left who continue to fear the Covenant as something shoved down the world's throat by a power-hungry anti-progressive centralizing party -- sorry, that narrative just won't tell.

What we have here is the exact thing we at the Anglican Centrist have been predicting (happily) for some years now. We have the honing of the Anglican Covenant into something that will be theologically solid on the essentials, and reminiscent of Elizabethan Compromise on the questions of discipline.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Maggie Ross Letter in Support of Thew Forrester

I found this on the Diocese of Northern Michigan website.  On first glance, it looks like it contains a number of historical errors of fact.  It is also very reminiscent of the blend of proper Celtic Christian theology with the New Age sort of stuff being offered by Newell, Thew Forrester and others.  It's better than the Da Vinci Code theology so many have, but not much.  Tell me what you all think:

The controversy over the election of Thew Forrester as bishop of Northern Michigan is a sign of the times, a sign of the great danger that Western Christianity, particularly Christianity in America, particularly The Episcopal Church finds itself.

Forrester is a sign of hope: he understands, along with the earliest and greatest writers on Christianity such as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, that realizing our union with God is the heart of Christianity. He understands with them that salvation comes through the encounter with God in the depths of the soul. God offers us the free choice to turn away from confusion and pain to explore the prayer of silence in its infinite depths. (For an excellent and readable history of union with God in Christianity, see "Becoming God: The Doctrine of Theosis in Nicholas of Cusa" by Nancy J. Hudson). It is the loss of this understanding that salvation comes through seeking the vision of God, from which everything else in our lives must issue, that has led to the flattening of contemporary Christianity in every sense. 

Gregory, for example, explicitly states what is understood and implicit, that "salvation [is] the purification and illumination of the mind." [Hudson, p. 23]. This is not "platonism;" these early writers are actively anti-Platonist. The body and the created world are integral and inseparable, "the union of the mental with the bodily presents a connection unspeakable and inconceivable." (Hudson p. 19) "Its created being itself makes a true theosis possible." (Ibid. p. 22) Nicholas of Cusa says very plainly that the image of God in us is the mind's ability to transcend itself [by grace]. 

Much of the New Testament speaks of this union: Jesus' continual reference to the Father is a familiar metaphor and the heart of his prayer, particularly in the Gospel of John (14-17). The great kenotic hymn (Phil. 2-5-11) which lies at the heart of the liturgy for Holy Week and Easter, is a way of speaking about the laying-aside of our pretensions so that we may realize the divinization that is inherent in, even the purpose of, our creation. 

These early writers do not speak of "original sin" or an inherited flaw in human nature. They understand that our difficulties arise from yielding to the "flesh" or "passions," that is, our believing that the appetites and distortions that flood into our perceptions are real and then yielding to them, their noise, their distraction. As Pascal puts it, all of our troubles arise from our inability to remain alone in a room. What we need to be saved from is this unreality in ourselves, the noise and chaos of our own minds that trap us in destructive behaviors and attitudes such as anxiety, greed, and dispersal. If it is our minds that trap us, then it is by turning our minds into the silence of God that frees us.

The earliest baptismal traditions do not speak of dying and rising (see Ephrem, for example), or, when they do, the dying is used as a metaphor for the changing of perceptions that is part of the catechetical process (see the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem.) The notion of the human person in this theology of union is exalted, and its aspiration at once humble and positive. But religious institutions do not like its constituents to think too much, or to be too whole. Therefore these fundamental insights about silence and union were suppressed to serve institutional consolidation of power. 

The practices of 1400 years were abandoned, and the institutional focus changed from "putting on the mind of Christ," which focuses us on God in the infinite silence of the mind-in-the-heart, to "imitation," which locks us into narcissistic stereotypes at the most superficial level of our minds, stereotypes which are easily controlled by institutions. 

But this policy has backfired. People are rediscovering the depths for themselves. But when they go to church to seek support for their prayer they encounter only banality, trendiness and a lot of noisy performance art. In consequence, they leave. They have discovered that the institution has cheated them of their spiritual birthright, and are turning to ancient and medieval sources for the support the churches can no longer (and will not) give them.

They reject denigration of the creation God has called good, the Creation God draws ever onward to realize its divinity. Julian of Norwich sums up the entire tradition. She repeatedly asks Christ, "what is sin?" But Christ tells her that he cannot even see sin; he can only see what is like himself, which is us, and all that is needed is to "seek into the beholding." 

It is significant that modern translations of the bible no longer use the word "behold." This word is arguably its most important word in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament. Each time it is used it signals an annunciation, the essential choice of turning away from our own skewed perceptions to be drawn into the light and life of God so that we may be transfigured. "Look" or "see," the words which have been substituted by translators for "behold" by contrast are analytical, and self-reflexive, while "behold" gives us a moment of being "lost in wonder love and praise."

Forrester seems to understand that if the church is to survive it must return to the practices from which the richness and depth of Christianity sprang and by which it was nurtured for more than a thousand years.

Yet the election of Forrester is being opposed by a number of bishops precisely on these grounds. Their writings reveal a shocking lack of knowledge—or a refusal to communicate—the history of Christian doctrine. The bishop of Southern Ohio insists on atonement theology, a theology that comes very late in Christian history and first gets toe-hold as part of a campaign to justify Charlemagne's bloody slaughter and forced conversion of the Saxons (see "Saving Paradise" by Brock and Parker for an extremely readable account of this history). Atonement theology was developed as a means to control, to exploit people's guilt, and it is one of the major sources of our cultural depression and negative aspiration today. 

The Bishop of Southern Ohio objects to a revision of the baptismal service that Forrester wrote "in which references to salvation are replaced with references to union with God." If salvation is not union with God, then what is it? What does the Bishop of Southern Ohio think salvation is? 

The bishop of Southern Ohio further writes that he opposes Forrester because "...our (unrevised) Baptismal liturgy (Book of Common Prayer, beginning at p. 299) is extremely clear about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: we are to turn to him - the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and rose again and continues to invite us into a personal relationship with him - and accept him as Savior." What does he mean by "savior?" How more personal a relationship can there be than to realize union with God through Christ indwelling?

What does this bishop think "turning to Christ" means in a practical day-to-day practice? It means this silent prayer, this beholding in which the humble God, the creator of all, allows us to hold divinity within us, even as we the creatures are held and sustained by that divinity. It means that all our obsessive thoughts and ways, our favorite idols of doctrinal declaration are left behind. 

The Bishop of Southern Ohio appears to be hung up on slogans without any understanding of what they mean in practice. Turning to Christ means putting on the mind of Christ and gazing always on the Father. It is by this means that we realize that we are heirs with him and are saved from our pathological narcissism.

Like many of us, Forrester has turned to meditation to deepen his prayer. He is an active member of a Buddhist community. The bishops who object to his election show their ignorance of this tradition by citing his commitment to the community with whom he meditates as a barrier to his confirmation as bishop. 

But Buddhism is not, strictly speaking, a religion: it does not worship a god or gods, but teaches detachment from mental idols. It is an acutely observed philosophical psychology that uses an elaborate metaphorical system to illustrate how the mind works and while engaging the emotions and the whole person, bringing all to a single focus. While some practitioners may literalize these metaphors and use them superstitiously, this is clearly not Forrester's practice, nor is there any conflict in his practice with Christianity. In fact, many contemplative Christian monasteries encourage the practice of sitting Zen style and actively use Zen texts.

There is also no comparison of Forrester's situation with the recent de-frocking of Ann Redding, who claims to be both Muslim and Christian. By contrast with Buddhism, Islam is most assuredly a theistic religion and the use of the word "Allah" is vexed. While some might say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God under separate names and that all are children of Abraham, Christians in Malaysia, for example, cannot use the word "Allah" (the only word in Malay for "God") for fear of offending Muslims.

Furthermore, Islam is rigidly hierarchical, while Buddhism and, in theory—in spite of the institutional church's opportunistic adoption of the very hierarchical system that Jesus spent his life opposing—Christianity, are radically dedicated to the sanctity of every human person and to more lateral ways of conducting human affairs, as we recently have heard again from the Dalai Lama.

The link with hierarchy, of course, is key. As long as bishops insist on the slogans of atonement, implicitly undermining the aspirations of their congregations, they hold them in thrall by exploiting their guilt. The self-help industry operates in the same way: its message is that there is always something more wrong with you that needs to be fixed and only another self-help book can tell you how. Institutional Christianity in the West latched on to this idea of exploiting guilt in the Middle Ages to increase its power and wealth, and even changed the Eucharist from a celebration of thanksgiving for our theosis to the notion of sacrifice and atonement. (See the excellent discussion in "Saving Paradise.")

In short, the Episcopal Church is at a crossroads: if Forrester is not confirmed by the House of Bishops, then it will have taken another step along the road to extinction. To return to the essential truth that Christianity is about union with God and that everything else—prayer, interpretation, liturgy, ethics, solitude and community—should flow from that yearning and encounter is institutional Christianity's only hope.

To truly convert the church would require radical re-education of clergy and laity alike, but particularly of clergy. This re-education would include a re-evaluation of what power in the church means, and it would be based on the recovery of the silence tradition, taught and practiced individually and collectively by laity and clergy alike as the starting place. 

As a bishop-elect, Thew Forrester is the first sign of hope that in fact this conversion might be possible. The ignorance displayed by the bishops who oppose him—out of envy, perhaps (for envy they crucified him)—is cause for despair.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Visions of God’s Creation by Robert J. Schneider

Today the Atlantis crew released the Hubble Space Telescope from its robot arm, and watched it slowly drift away. For four days the astronauts replaced cameras, gyroscopes, batteries, and other equipment in order to make Hubble serviceable again, giving it ten to fifteen more years of life and making it an even more powerful instrument of exploration than it was when launched nearly twenty years ago.

In its years of service Hubble’s telescopes have transfixed viewers with images of the universe never seen before. If seeing is believing then we Christians have been blessed with much more to believe in: views of God’s creation that were unimaginable a quarter century ago ( Untold billions of galaxies, with billions of planets; galaxies forming, colliding, dying; enormous gas clouds birthing new stars—all of these magnificent and inspiring sights have given us a window on the universe unlike any we have had before. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows God’s handiwork,” that cry of praise from the psalmist (19:1), has taken on an even deeper meaning for us staring in awe at the depth and breath of these heavens and of God’s glory that shines in its countless lights. Now Hubble can show us even more of the cosmos, more views that surely will take our breath away. How blest we are to live at this time!

These images have brought so much more understanding of the Creation, yet they have not taken away the mystery of it all--if anything they have brought us deeper into that mystery. They invite us to believe even more deeply that Holy Mystery dwells in every hydrogen atom fusing with another, in every planet given the conditions for life, and in every living creature on this planet, past, present, and future, that makes more vivid the web of life. Hubble has shown us what the author of Job (ch. 38-42) knew by faith, that this universe is ultimately incomprehensible. It is good to seek understanding and enlarge knowledge, and rejoice in every new awesome sight that Hubble may reveal, as Job’s God rejoiced and took such pleasure in his creation. But in the end we can only cover our mouths and stand mute before this unfathomable world.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Anglican Covenant Process

It seems that the Anglican Consultative Council at its recently adjourned meeting in Jamaica has approved the first three sections of the Ridley-Cambridge Draft of the Anglican Covenant. I say, 'bravo.' The controversial fourth section was not sent forward as it stands, and needs more revision. Again, I say, 'bravo.' I think the first three sections are perfectly fine, and more importantly, go a long way to rather sufficiently outlining what the essence of the Christian faith and Anglicanism as a coherent fellowship of regional churches professes and practices. Many on the extreme left have not wanted even that much clarity, but I sense that those of us somewhere in the center of Anglicanism, who primarily are concerned with orthodoxy as much as 'generosity' in orthodoxy, feel that putting the basics down in rather clear form is worth doing. (After all, in a sense, isn't that similar to the Anglican/Episcopalian impulse behind our having a Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal which we can point to and say, "This is what we believe.")

As Suffragan Bishop of New York Cathy Roskam pointed out, and perhaps rightly, the controversial fourth section had the ring of a prenuptial agreement to it - and in that sense goes to undermining the covenantal nature of -- well -- the covenant. As I understand a covenant, there is no 'out' clause.

I was interested by the tenor of critique coming largely from the extreme left and right in recent days. Predictably, both are largely against the Covenant in form or process. The extreme left has always been against it, arguing that we "just don't need" any kind of articulation or clarity in the profession of our faith and identity. Behind much of that, I sense, is that the extreme left (in my view) has coupled two elements -- one is a support for the inclusion of married gay persons into all orders of ministry and the other is a lack of support for ...well... any notion of theological boundaries for the good of the integrity of catholic proclamation. The covenant would be sort of a double-nightmare, because it might both seek to prohibit inclusion of partnered glbt folk from ministry, AND, it would be 'confessional.' On the extreme right (in my view) we have the strong conviction that glbt folks are living in sin when in partnered relationships, that such sin should not be blessed or approved of in any way, AND, they are also quite frequently looking for an excess of precision in confessional statements which often looks more like evangelical/Calvinist protestantism than comprehensive Anglicanism. Both groups also tend to be fairly ambivalent to the value of the Communion anyway, and seem to prefer the idea of either a 'radically autonomous Episcopal Church' or a hermeneutically homogenous Anglican Communion.

Somewhere in the middle of those extremes, however, we find folk who may disagree over the degree and/or timing of inclusion of partnered glbt folks, or their biblical hermeneutic, or their liturgical preferences, but who also can agree that they prefer to remain together and work out the differences. Those, in other words, who are looking for comprehensiveness are willing to compromise -- or fudge (as the extremists always call it) -- generally agreeing to tolerate significant disagreement over important issues. This latter group tend to be the sorts who can remain together despite disagreement over either timing or the principle of the ordination of women, the principle of remarriage after divorce, sacramental theology, or questions of liturgical form.

As I have long believed, the genius of Anglicanism (which transcends any of its member provinces), has to do with identifying and professing a narrow but sufficient bundle of essentials, discerning which very important things are of a secondary nature, and agreeing to tolerate some uncomfortable differences for the sake of the dream that God wishes us to be one.

I think the first three sections of the Ridley-Cambridge draft go a long way in making the essentials clear enough.

What was also interesting in the press conference held by Kenneth Kearon was how conservative interlocutors argued that the ACC, and the leaders of the process, were engaging in word games, a degree of muddledness, and leaving important words vague enough to be understood differently by different hearers. I say this is a funny charge, considering that as I have always understood it, the Nicene Creed itself was the result of such a process. Arguably, it ultimately failed to hold East and West together - but in a way it lasted for a good long time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thew Forrester's Discharge of Chaff

Bishop-elect Kevin Thew Forrester of the Diocese of Northern Michigan has posted a nine-page defense of his theology and practice here.

Kevin is a talented wordsmith and he and I do indeed agree on a few points - these being chiefly that God is love, that God is the creator, that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that, when God's will is complete, "all will be well."

And I do like his phrase, "I behold a cross which reveals the boundless depth and breadth of God's love and forgiveness."

But, again, the trouble is what else the Bishop Elect says. Based on what he says here and in other writings, Thew Forrester believes the cross is not part of God's plan, or that the death of Christ has any intrinsic connection to the salvation God has wrought in Christ.

From 'Approaching the Heart of Faith,' we are led to believe that God's salvation is wrought by the Incarnation alone. Thew Forrester resorts to dubious historical interpretations to diminish the importance of Christ's bloody Cross. He argues that the Church's focus on the bloody cross is a late development, rooted largely in Anselm's desire to promote the Crusades. While for sure there is truth to the claim that medieval piety developed in relationship to the crusader cause, it is nonetheless a Da Vinci Code-like error to reduce the necessity of the Cross for our salvation from such grounds. Notably, the cross and its importance is extremeley well attested to in the Gospels and Epistles -- to say the very least. And while for sure the Resurrection -- as Thew Forrester to his credit rightly points out -- was the main matter of the early kerygma -- that should come as no surprise. After all, seeing folks die on crosses was not unusual to the earliest disciples -- seing folks rise from tombs was. Indeed, though Thew Forrester employs the lovely phrase "Resurrection Paradise," the Resurrection is likewise buried beneath his overwhelming interest in the Incarnation. (See the entry below for an explicit rebuttal of the claims Thew Forrester makes as regards Anselm, etc.)

To this point, precious little attention is paid to either the Resurrection or the Ascension, and this in conjunction with his overwhelming discounting of the imporance and necessity of the Cross. That three of the four key mysteries of the 'Christ-event' are paid short-shrift or largely ignored goes to the concerns folks have about Thew Forrester. Oddly enough, though one of Forrester's axioms is that "recovering this ancient neither discards nor dismisses," that is exactly how he appears to handle what many consider to be essentials of the faith.

To be fair, since much of the criticism against him has focused on his view of the cross, it may be that is why he doesn't speak much to the other key mysteries. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that Thew Forrester is plainly arguing that the key to salvation is the Incarnation, and the cross appears at best to be a tragedy which God did not will, but Jesus nonetheless endured. If that is what he is saying - frankly - that ought to disqualify him.

In his discussion of the Trinity, he rightly attempts to connect the economy of the Trinity with the ecclesiology of the Body of Christ. But, it would appear that this is upheld in some sense over against what the early church discerned to be the relationship between the Gospel and the order of the church. (If any are interested in this, Michael Ramsey's The Gospel and the Catholic Church is the book still to read.)

In his vision of what it means to be a bishop, here I think he again falls off the rails of what might have been a good track. He says he agrees that a bishop is called to be a guardian of the faith. But, he interprets that to mean that the faith received is no more worthy of protection than the faith yet to be received.

In this he reveals his signature move. Since in his view the content of the faith is always unfolding, as a priest (and as a bishop) he would see his leadership in protecting that unfolding. In light of his previous arguments that there are can be no boundaries at all to what "we may know," Thew Forrester appears believe that all aspects of the Church's doctrine and practice are therefore open to change, and not only change, but deep change, and not only deep change, but dismissal and discarding.

This latter point of view undergirds what appears to be his primary modus operandi. His m.o. appears to be that of one singularly focused on innovation (as well as the redaction of doctrine and discipline as seems good to him). He seems to be quite proud to lead a parish which as he says is the diocesan leader in liturgical exploration and innovation. And while that can be a perfectly fine congregational vocation - it does depend on some key specifics. If one goes to the heart of the essential proclamation of the faith as bound up with the church's liturgical expression, and significantly discards or dismisses it, (as we have already mentioned above,) then I think one has gone too far. One can imagine, for example, that if a parish used "Rite III" every week -- in addition to be outside of the canons -- they could pretty much do anything they wanted. We all already know of parishes which do not regularly say the confession or Nicene Creed, and which openly invite the unbaptised to receive the elements. What if an entire diocese largely decided to come up with its own normative forms of baptism, eucharist, etc.? How is this anything but going too far?

I think we could rightly suspect that this is exactly what would "unfold" under the leadership of Thew Forrester in the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

And to put it quite plainly, while I agree that God's revelation is unfolding, for that unfolding to be realized in the normal practice and proclamation of a very small group of people -- which is losing membership at a frightful rate -- in very short order - so as to lead to a form and message quite unrecognizable to so many Episcopalians in various places and contexts -- one might rightly ask the question: "Is it God's will that is unfolding here?" National church statistics reveal that the Diocese of Northern Michigan lost over a third of its baptised membership in the ten years between 1997 and 2007. The average Sunday attendance likewise dropped in that same period from under a thousand to about 700. In the same period, St. Paul's, Marquette, where Thew Forrester is interim, lost twenty-five percent of its baptized membership, and in 2007 had an average Sunday attendance of 75, down from a 100 the year before.

The bishops who have published commentary on their no-votes have already rightly focused on the real issues. And they remain. Firstly, the published writings continue to reveal a theology which is rooted in catholic Christianity, but appears to have adroitly left out significant pieces of the universal whole, and has also sought to take root in other sources, such as Buddhism. This indeed seems more akin to coming up with a Christian-based syncretism than it does putting forward a generously orthodox vision of the Christian faith, suitable for our times and our places. Secondly, his career appears to be one entirely dedicated to coming up with his own stuff and constantly innovating with disregard to the faith and order of the Church as it now is. This is reflective not merely of an awareness that God's revelation will continue to be unfolded, but rather a deep discontent with what we currently uphold as a church of common prayer and practice. Thirdly, as interesting as it may be, the idea of a diocese (again, which is as small as a large parish) having only one candidate for bishop is highly suspect.

While this piece offers some good material - it represents on the whole a cleverly designed discharge of chaff. The Diocese of Northern Michigan has released it into the ether for the purpose of obfuscating the discernment of those yet to have voted in the matter of consent and offering a cloud of material which in some ways seems 'o.k.' and may provide sufficient cover to what is the real location and trajectory of Thew Forrester and perhaps the entire Diocese of Northern Michigan.

An Open Letter to Kevin Thew Forrester

Professor Thomas Williams of the University of South Florida is indeed a progressive on a number of key issues of our time. Yet, like many of our friends here at the Anglican Centrist, he is also committed to creedal orthodoxy. He blogs here. He writes:

Dear Fr Thew Forrester:

I most earnestly beg you to stop talking about Saint Anselm. You simply do not know what you are talking about, and your apologia is not helped by your insistence on perpetuating pseudo-historical claptrap about this great theologian.

In Approaching the Heart of Faith, you quote a passage from Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire in which the authors say that "Anselm's doctrine of the atonement gave support for holy war" and that his "theology and piety crystallized the religious foundations of the Crusades." "Christians," the authors say, "were exhorted to imitate Christ's self-offering in the cause of God's justice." Exhorted by whom? Certainly not by Anselm, who would have rejected any such notion as fundamentally incompatible with his key conclusions in Cur Deus Homo: the sufficiency of the God-man's self-offering and the inability of fallen human beings to do anything on their own to effect a reconciliation between themselves and God. Indeed, the idea that Anselm's soteriology could provide theological underpinnings for the Crusades is not merely a gross libel against Anselm but rather obvious nonsense.

The authors seek to paper over this nonsense by sleight of hand, invoking "Peace by the blood of the Cross." I take it we're to think that the notion of the bloody Cross as an instrument of peace leads naturally to the Crusades. But for Anselm, the peace that is made by the blood of the Cross is peace between God and humanity -- a peace that is entirely of God's own making, that he initiates and sustains because he loves us and created us for himself -- and the blood of the Cross can only be the blood of the God-man, offered once for all as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and (yes) satisfaction. How any reasonable or fair-minded person can think that this soteriology supports wars of conquest and religious imperialism is beyond me.

The authors' casual admission that Anselm "forbade his own monks from joining the Crusades" rather understates the case. Anselm disapproved of the Crusades, period. I would commend to you Sir Richard Southern's wonderful biography, Anselm: A Portrait in Landscape, for more on this point.

What I find most disturbing is the authors' tendentious quotation of a passage from Cur Deus Homo 1.12 in support of the (presumably Crusade-justifying) claim that "When authorities in the Church called for vengeance, they did so on God's behalf." If one actually bothers to read the passage the authors quote, and to attend to its context, it will be obvious that Anselm is not talking about anything remotely like the Crusades. He's thinking of ordinary punishment for criminal wrongdoing, punishment that is carried out by rulers on those over whom they have lawful authority. Moreover, Anselm makes the statement immediately after warning us that we are not to arrogate to ourselves the prerogative for vengeance that is properly God's alone. Either the authors know Anselm only at second hand, or they are deliberating twisting his words to make them carry a much more insidious meaning than they can really be made to bear.

As for the claim that "Anselm's theology helped to provide justification for Christendom to embark on its first pogroms against the Jews of Europe," I should very much like to see some evidence that Anselm's theology -- which is to say, views that Anselm actually held, as opposed to views ascribed to Anselm by people who have never bothered reading him -- played some role in such heinous sins. In the alternative, I should like to see some even minimally plausible argument that takes Anselm's soteriology for its premises and issues in the conclusion that pogroms are well-advised. Seeing neither of these, and being confident that neither of them is forthcoming, I will simply say that Anselm is ill-chosen for the role of all-purpose Bad Guy that he plays in Approaching the Heart of Faith.

It is also odd that you would chose Julian of Norwich as an alternative to Anselm's teaching on "peace by the blood of the Cross." By contrast with Anselm, who uses the word 'blood' only twice in Cur Deus Homo (both times when someone else is the speaker) and gives no attention at all in that work to the physical agony of Jesus, the Lady Julian fixes our attention on the bloodshed and suffering of the Cross. Consider:
Then I suddenly saw the red blood tricking down from under the crown of thorns, hot and fresh and very plentiful. (Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing, 45)

[T]he bodily sight of the plentiful bleeding from Christ's head remained. The great drops fell down from under the crown of thorns like pills, as though they had come out of the veins; and as they came out they were dark red, for the blood was very thick. (50-51)

And after this I saw, as I watched, the body of Christ bleeding abundantly, in weals from the scourging. It looked like this: the fair skin was very deeply broken, down into the tender flesh, sharply slashed all over the dear body; the hot blood ran out so abundantly that no skin or wound could be seen, it seemed to be all blood. (59-60)
And Julian is as clear as Anselm that the suffering and death of Christ are on account of sin and for our sake:
It is true that sin is the cause of all this suffering. (80)

And so now we have reason for grief, because our sin is the cause of Christ's suffering; and we have reason for lasting joy, because endless love made him suffer. (126)

Look and see that I loved you so much before I died for you that I was willing to die for you; and now I have died for you, and willingly suffered as much as I can for you. (76)
Repeatedly quoting "All will be well" from Julian, as though it were her only message for us, does as great a disservice to the richness of her thinking as your caricature of Anselm does to his.

Nothing I say here constitutes a positive defense of Anselm's soteriology, let alone an affirmation that his soteriology is either complete in itself or binding on all Christians. (Anselm himself emphatically denies that he has said the last word on the Incarnation and Atonement; he denies, in fact, that any last word on those mysteries can ever be said.) I do not ask that you accept Anselm's account of why God became incarnate. I ask only that you stop mispresenting Anselm by repeating the preposterous slanders against him that are made by people who mistake invective and invention for sober scholarship.

Yours faithfully in Christ,

The Rev'd Dr Thomas Williams
Professor of Catholic Studies and Professor of Philosophy

Saturday, May 2, 2009

We Should Absolutely Stand Up for the Essentials of the Faith

In an article by Frank Lockwood for the Little Rock Democrat-Gazette, retired bishop Rustin Kimsey is mentioned. Mr. Lockwood, who is very interested in the case of Thew Forrester has this section:

But retired Bishop of Eastern Oregon Rustin Kimsey says the church is diminished if it rejects nonconformist thinkers, including Thew Forrester, the late-Bishop of California James A. Pike and retired Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong.

Spong is known for denying the divinity, virgin birth, bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

“I mean there are a lot of things that Jack Spong has said that I don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be a bishop, for heaven’s sake,” Kimsey said.

“I’m very dismayed by this [opposition] because I think it undercuts the basic genius of the Episcopal Church: to be bigger than we’re behaving right now, to be more buoyant and more understanding of other viewpoints and welcome them,” Kimsey said.

By referring to the genius of the Episcopal Church as having to do with an essentially borderless belief-system, Bishop Kinsey errs in at least two ways.

First, from my perspective, he speaks of the Episcopal Church as having its own form of genius - which I'm not sure as an Anglo-Catholic I recognize. At most I would prefer to identify the genius of the New Testament, the Scriptures in general, the creeds or catholic Christianity as read through the lense of Anglicanism - which yet remains but is hardly restricted to the Episcopal Church. I indeed am a dyed in the wool loyalist and servant of Christ in the Episcopal Church, warts and all, but I'm not sure I recognize a particular genius to my beloved American branch of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church - other than that which we share with other Anglican churches -- and many non-Anglican churches -- around the globe. Certainly, beyond the particular genius of Anglican comprehensiveness which we generally attribute to the Prayer Book's history largely in England, but then in the U.S. also - I'm not sure I see much else. Our extreme similarity to the constitutional organization of the United States is frequently lauded, but I'm not sure we should totally buy into that. First of all, the United States is a nation not a church. Secondly, the United States actually has more clarity in its tripartite governance then the Episcopal Church. Moreover, our church's polity (and I do not buy into the diocesan argument put forward by the ACI) is nonetheless as likely to be perceived as a defect as a form of genius. Indeed, as I point out in my article in the current Anglican Theological Review, the deep political embrace in our church's constitution and canon of Western enlightenment/republican/democratic ideals and forms is one which faithful Anglicans have wondered about for sometime. As folks ranging from Newman to Stringfellow have noted - we may well be as beholden to powers and principalities in our very polity as the Church of England and Rome. We just give those powers different names, and check and balance them in different ways, some not successful.

The second, and more serious error in my view is to continue perpetuating the sophomoric notion that we should glory in an ideal of a borderless set of doctrine and discipline -- as if a body need not skeleton, cell wall, nervous system, or the salutatory differentiation of internal organs and systems.

In both instances, the glorification of the autonomy and particular genius of the Episcopal Church over against any apparent concern for ecumenism or communion with fellow Anglican churches, and the apparent disdain for clarity and obedience regarding doctrine and discipline, while bizarre, are not new. In fact, this attitude seems to be the defining one for many observers of the Episcopal Church - internally and outside -- for over a generation. Since, at least, well, the time of Bishop Pike.

It seems to be fading, if the number of non-consents to Thew Forrester is any measure, and hopefully giving way to a new-old attitude which seeks to uphold the genius of the catholic faith, while also exploring certain expansions of the boundaries of church order and discipline which God is understood to be calling for - in a discernment which roots this apprehension in the framework of the essentials of the faith itself.

In other words, if we expand the boundaries of church order and discipline (primarily for the purpose of including persons heretofore left out), it needs to be done because we believe the God of Scripture and Tradition, in discernment performed with the gifts of memory, reason and skill, is calling for it. And, importantly, others outside our own church should likewise be capable of affirming that. (Not of course everyone, but some.) Such expansions must not be made simply because "they feel right" or because Hollywood, Harvard or contemporary norms of happiness commend them. Notably, we would be looking at questions of order and discipline, not items of core catholic theology.

It is for this reason that folks like Tobias Haller, Christopher Evans, Derek Olsen, and many others, are to be lauded for finally saying out loud: 'let's keep the faith, and also, in accordance with that faith, find a way to include as many as possible into it.'

Friday, May 1, 2009

This is Not What the Baptismal Covenant Upholds

Among the things that have many so alarmed about the election of Kevin Thew Forrester to the episcopate -- not merely in Northern Michigan, but for the whole church -- is what looks like a deeply different religion than that upheld and proclaimed by the Book of Common Prayer.  It is not a matter of slight differences - or even a question of pushing the limits of our usual Episcopalian latitude.  No, the faith proclaimed by Fr. Thew Forrester, and it appears to be shared widely in the diocese where he ministers, is intentionally and thoughtfully articulated, believed and put forth.  There is a degree of integrity to it, to be sure.  But, it is not the doctrine or order of the Book of Common Prayer.  Simple as that.  It truly is - something sufficiently different as to warrant being its own denomination.  That so many seem so comfortable with such a deep and categorical departure (this has nothing to do with inclusion my friends) is what bothers so many of us who hold dear to the essential elements of the Christian faith sufficiently and widely-enough put forward in the Quadrilateral of creed, sacrament, scripture and historic episcopate.

The following statement is exactly the kind of articulation of an alternative faith which is normative and fully supported in Northern Michigan - and is exactly the sort of faith which bishop-elect Thew Forrester holds dear.

Please, I invite your comment.

Already One God
On the 19th of February, 2007, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, meeting in Dar es Salaam, released a Communiqué. We, as the Diocese of Northern Michigan, offer our response.

Unity is a Grace

We recognize that a basic challenge to us in the Anglican Communion is centered in our vision of who God is and who we are. In classical theology, we only exist because God exists in us. The ramifications of this insight are both profound and extensive. Unity is not an achievement. Unity is not, in its most basic sense, a work of human hands. Unity is a grace. Unity is a given.

We affirm the theological truth that we are always already one in God; otherwise we would not be. The tragedy of the current moment, which is recurrent throughout history (remember the conflict that led to the first council in Jerusalem), is that we fail to see this unity and so we grow anxious and afraid.

In our anxiety, we tend to confuse the absence of conflict with love. Love is patient and love is kind, to be sure. Love also knows conflict is a part of the human condition, as we respond to God’s invitation to remove any and all boundaries to the scope of God’s eternal embrace.

Listen, Learn, Lead

We acknowledge that our Communion is in conflict. We know this conflict in our parishes, in our dioceses, in our church, in our culture. We often fail to recognize, however, that conflict is not resolved by assuming the agenda of the person across the table and making it our own. Years of interfaith dialogue have taught this truth. Conflict is not resolved by the denial of who one essentially is. Decades of ecumenical dialogue have taught this truth.

Conflict is resolved through honest recognition and respect of who we all are, in our diversity. The Anglican Communion is itself rooted in this mutual recognition and respect among its Churches. Unity may not be collapsed into uniformity, making one parish’s, dioceses’ or Church’s polity or ethics determinative for everyone else.

Because God is always already present, leadership begins with being receptive to what someone has to say. Leadership is about continually learning and being transformed in heart, mind and body. Leadership is a response to this learning, which is a continual movement of the Spirit.

We invite all to God’s table. What we expect, in turn, is that those who come to the table likewise recognize the right, by being children of God, of everyone else to be at the table.

Baptismal Ecclesiology

We proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ that everyone and everything belongs. We are continually being created in the image of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Baptism confirms this most basic truth which is at once, the Good News: all is of God, without condition and without restriction.

We seek and serve Christ in all persons because all persons are the living Christ. Each and every human being, as a human being, is knit together in God’s Spirit, and thus an anointed one – Christ. Jesus of Nazareth reveals this as the basic truth of the human condition:

God is more in me than if the whole sea
could in a little sponge wholly contained be. ~Angelus Silesius

We strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, because each person embodies the living God. Life is inherently and thoroughly sacramental, which is why we love one another without condition. We stand with Meister Eckhart who, when he gazed deep within himself, as well as all about him, saw that "the entire created order is sacred" as it is grounded in God. We do harmful and evil things to ourselves and one another, not because we are bad, but because we are blind to the beauty of creation and ourselves. In other words, we are ignorant of who we truly are: "there is no Greek or Hebrew; no Jew or Gentile; no barbarian or Scythian; no slave or citizen. There is only Christ, who is all in all." (Colossians 3:11).

Everyone is the sacred word of God, in whom Christ lives. This baptismal vision of a thoroughly blessed creation leads us to understand the reason for the incarnation in a new way:

People think God has only become a human being there – in his historical incarnation – but that is not so; for God is here – in this very place – just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago. And this is why he has become a human being: that he might give birth to you as his only begotten Son, and as no less. ~Meister Eckhart


Because each and every one of us is an only begotten child of God; because we, as the church, are invited by God to see all of creation as having life only insofar as it is in God; because everything, without exception, is the living presence, or incarnation, of God; as the Diocese of Northern Michigan,

We affirm Christ present in every human being and reject any attempt to restructure The Episcopal Church’s polity in a manner contrary to the principles of the baptismal covenant;

We affirm the full dignity and autonomy and interdependence of every Church in the Anglican Communion and reject any attempt of the Primates to assume an authority they do not have nor have ever possessed;

We affirm the sacramental gift of all persons, their Christ-ness, especially those who are gay and lesbian, and reject any moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions and consents of gay bishops, as it would compromise their basic dignity.

August 11, 2007
Standing Committee
General Convention Delegation
Et. Al.