Friday, August 15, 2008

Faith and a Historical Perspective

“For your servants love her very rubble;*
and are moved to pity even by her dust.”
(Psalm 102:13)

The Wanderer Observes:
“Thus the Maker of men lays waste
this earth, crushing our callow mirth
and the works of old giants stands withered and still.”
(Poems and Prose from the Old English, Burton Raffel & Alexandra Olsen)

Watching the news from Lambeth could be very discouraging without a historical perspective. Taking the long view will help you not to over-rate the importance and influence of Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury. There have been far worse Archbishops of Canterbury than he, Royal appointees all. Many of them were not brilliant with eternal light. Take for instance Reginald Pole who was the Archbishop of Canterbury (1556-1558) during the reign of Bloody Mary. Pole acted as her chief minister and adviser sharing the responsibility for the martyrdom of 220 Protestant men and 60 Protestant women. Now there was an effective Archbishop of Canterbury! The martyrs included Thomas Cranmer who was Pole’s immediate predecessor and also the primary author of The Book of Common Prayer. Pole is still at Canterbury. He is buried at north side of the Thomas á Becket chapel in the Cathedral. We are wrong to fear the ephemeral parade of those who cast dirt on Cathedral Walls.

We ourselves, with our roots in our own eternal history of the Church, are the Temple of the Living God. Those Cathedral walls are our walls.

Rochester Cathedral
viewed from the Castle

In the English city of Rochester when you descend from the crumbling ramparts of Rochester Castle and cross the street to enter the Cathedral, you step into a past reaching back to Norman times. Today its faithful bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is a leader in the Anglican Communion, but have all the bishops of Rochester been faithful? Does it in the long view of history really matter? The ancient stones of the Cathedral reach down into the bones of the earth, its towers reach heavenward in prayer. What matters transient men in such places as these? To those who appreciate history the Psalms are still sung by the mossy stones of the ruins of Tintern Abbey and Glastonbury, as well as by the choristers of Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury.

We colonists of the new world have barely enough history of our own to give us an understanding of the Faith that echoes down the corridors of time. It is only by surrender of our shallow insolence and humble submission to the past that we will find a place to stand for the future. “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).

Taking the long view of on Church History is an essential part of a working faith. History tells us that God is Sovereign, and that His redemptive power is at work in the Church today as it has been in the past. Psalm 78:41-32 brings to our attention God’s point of view when we forget the lessons of our own past, “They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe.” One of God’s evident miracles is that the Church survives. Don’t fear. Trust in the One Who rules history. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Our God has brought the Church through much worse times than these.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A New Reformation

We who have prayed for a new Reformation in the Anglican Communion should remember that reformations are a messy, untidy business, and reformers themselves are an odd and uncomfortable lot. Their eyes see into the middle distance and be they bold, bright-eyed, or brittle, their range of vision, though not limited to the near horizon, is not yet adapted to the rolling ages glimpsed by God’s prophets who see with kingdom eyes.

Reformers, reform now, seeking redress, justice, mishpat, that Old Testament sense of fair play, that includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, and keeping promises. Prophets with kingdom eyes seek a kingdom yet to come and when they have the courage they walk their walk on that sea of many peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.

It is the long view of history past and confidence in grace not only present, but future, that keeps me from leaping upon the separatist bandwagon. I know some of our “reformers” personally and I know enough about them to be seriously concerned over the testimony that they bear. I am in fact not at all impressed, but rather quite the opposite. There are some general characteristics that some of them seem to share: often a problem with authority that finds a convenient justification in the misuse of authority within The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Often they are marked by a feeble ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) informed more by Western entrepreneurial attitudes and congregationalist polity (the local parish in splendid isolation is the basis for understanding the Church), than by either Holy Scripture or tradition. They share a fight or flight mentality that smacks of spiritual and emotional immaturity.

On the other hand affluent western Anglicanism is badly infected by a neo-gnosticism that is most dangerous. This neo-gnosticism believes that any way will do, that there is neither evil nor judgment, that salvation is not necessary, and it treats God as though He were a projection of the human mind. One qualification regarding evil must be made clear. For them evil resides in those who would thwart their egocentric ambitions. TEC is rapidly becoming an apostate church, but the answer is to be found not in flight or fight, nor is it to be found in taking refuge in knee-jerk orthodoxy.

One has to remember that those on both sides of the conflict are most often products of some of our vapid American theological institutions. “Let God be true, and every man a liar!” The time has come, not for taking refuge in evangelical platitudes, but for a genuine reformation of Anglican doctrine that is capable of leading us into the future, not merely seeking redress for the ills of the present time. By the way, seeking redress is a necessary and honourable thing and worthy of our attention and energy. History teaches me that the sycophants of neo-gnosticism are only a vapor, a foul but transitory emission, a footnote in Church history illustrating the willfulness of a self-proclaimed prophetic movement of the spirit. Their claim that through them God is doing a new thing is so preposterous that it is absolutely breathtaking.

Now is the time, not for the tickling of ears, but for a fresh restatement of old majestic themes, ancient doctrines made vibrant in new hearts and lives and given voice in the strong poetry of the emerging post-modern age. Truth is ever ancient, ever new. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. The God-man once dead is fully alive and our humanity is caught up into heaven with Him. He is both transcendent and gloriously immanent through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Now is the time to do business with the One God whom we worship in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance. It is only we who are the orthodox confessing Church, who are anointed by the same Spirit. We are the ones who have the mind of Christ.

Certain fundamentals need to be restated: First and foremost the doctrine of salvation including a new look at the sovereign majesty of our Holy God, and an understanding of the nature and reality of humankind. Who is God? Who is man? What is sin? What is the meaning of redemption? None of these things can be taken for granted.

Alexander Pope in poetic rhyme gave voice to the strong bias of the old Enlightenment. “Presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind is man.” Neo-gnosticism twists this to the snapping point, “Presume not God to scan, the proper study of God is man.” The fatal misunderstanding of neo-gnosticism is that humankind is the measure of all things both human and divine. The result is not only theological egocentricity, but an egocentricity of praxis that holds firmly, not to “We do what is right,” but “What we do is right because we choose to do it.” This leads to an intolerable arrogance. Both the heresy of doctrine and the heresy of praxis that are the subjects of concern in John’s first epistle are now defiantly embraced. Jesus is no longer God in the flesh, and the love of one’s brothers takes a distant second place to the exercise of power.

Two things should be noticed. First, neo-gnosticism is leaving the landscape littered with wounded individuals, parishes, and dioceses. Do not underestimate either the pain and desolation, or the terrible sense of rejection and alienation among the faithful people of God. Second, this beginning of a new Reformation is not only reactionary, but to some extent is already theological. Nevertheless the initial characteristics of this reformation are of necessity backward looking. We are after all founded upon the prophets and apostles, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone. We believe what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. We see also a reaffirmation of the authority and primacy of Holy Scripture. This is as it should be. But what is needed far exceeds these backward looking affirmations.

God grant us grace out of this present maelstrom, the wit, the heart, and the single-minded dedication to so grasp these fundamentals that we can restate the vitality of our faith for several generations yet to come. If we only live in a moribund theological past without re-incorporating our historic faith in our hearts in the midst of the turmoil, we may be able to address the need for justice, mishpat, today, but we will not be able to provide a viable theological affirmation for the future.

Our God in not just a God of the past, nor just a God for the present, but a God who must be meaningfully communicated to our children and our children’s children. The mark of true Reformation is not just that it faithfully recaptures the past, but that it leads into an understanding of God’s self-revelation that will stand firm for the ages yet to come.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Will We Speak Up?

All of us within the Church wrestle with those who stubbornly refuse to respond to the truth of the Gospel. Often these bred in the bone rebels against God claim the things of the Church as their own, even the very highest offices. Anybody who has been through the long Lent of Church life has slammed up against the concrete wall of “entitlement” that is so often a mark of these claimants to the privileges of the children of God. They often take the high road assuming a righteousness tinged with viciousness. Every church that has tucked some history under its belt has experienced this problem. Too often the vestibule of the church has a closet full of the robes of the Pharisees and Sadducees who still look for ways to crucify the Christ. Of the traitorous, Sir Launcelot du Lake said, “Hard it is to take out of the flesh that which is bred in the bone” (Mallory). What is needed is not just a heart transplant, but a bone replacement. The very structure of their lives needs to be torn up, so that God in his grace can begin again. They are the ruined pot on the wheel, and the Potter seeks to scrape them off the wheel, pound the lumps out of them, and reshape them one more time.

The problem is that when those within the church who perceive the reality of this challenge say, “Bring out the dead. Bring out the dead;” these bred in the bone rebels cry, “I’m not dead yet. I’m not dead yet. I’m feeling better.” The true children of God then surrender to an enabling sin. We won’t risk rejection by confronting the hard impenitence of these fellow travelers. Why? Because these fellow travelers are often relatives and friends, people we love, people in whom we have invested much, and people to whom are beholden, because we ourselves too often seek approval and applause. Making the modern parenting mistake we fail to differentiate between acceptance and approval. Unlike Archie Bunker we are reluctant to call a spade a spade, because that type of attitude seems loveless and judgmental.

In our sweet and companionable righteousness we are more righteous than the Jesus himself, who says, “27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). If it is not that, it is another thing; the pathological tendency to over-identify with the bred in the bone sinner. Out of false humility we cry, “You! hypocrite lecteur!--mon semblable!--mon frère!”[1] and thus fail ourselves to see that we are the brokenhearted tender children of God. Will they change? Not if we can help it! Not if we have to speak up!

Here is a prayer that reflects true penitence and a love as tough as Christ Jesus himself: “Break their hearts O Lord, that You may enter in!” The time has come to stop kowtowing to the children of the world within the Church and speak up unafraid with our hearts on fire for God.

[1] You! Hypocrite reader! my likeness, my brother! (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland).

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memories of a Gracious Liberalism

The following article was written several years ago, but still remains relevant.

I remember a fleeting conversation years ago when I was a young and inexperienced priest in another diocese. I stepped into the elevator at our Diocesan House and discovered myself face to face with our Diocesan Bishop. Our theologies were drastically different and he was given to be abruptly outspoken. Said he, out of that ethereal chamber that he seemed to live in, a sort of ex-cathedra, "Some portions of the Psalms are sub-Christian! That's why we leave them out of the lectionary!" After a moment of stunned silence the door of the elevator opened and shut and I was left standing alone. One thing was certainly clear. He had let me know in his own inimitable way that he disagreed with my view of the authority of Scripture.

I was shortly to learn the gracious side of my bishop. In accord with a long-standing tradition in my parish, three dissident members of the vestry turned up in his office in an attempt to remove me. The Diocesan Bishop and his Suffragan Bishop called me aside for a brief conference. Their godly admonition to me was "Stay in that parish until every last one of them is dead or has gone somewhere else!" The second thing that was also clear was that theological disagreement did not imply alienation or lack of support. Throughout the years that followed my relationship with both bishops deepened. We were after all members of the communio peccatorum, the fellowship of sinners even while we attempted to work out what it meant to be members of the communion sanctorum, the fellowship of saints. One moment stands out in my memory. My wife was in the hospital during the diocesan convention. The Suffragan Bishop left the floor of the convention to kneel on the hospital floor by my wife's bed and pray for her.Then theological differences were just theological differences. It is not that we did not feel the issues deeply, but rather that we shared a common sense of the breadth of Anglicanism. But that time has passed.

In That Hideous Strength C. S. Lewis makes the following observation: "If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family - anything you like - at a given point in its history, you will always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse; the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."

There has been an unveiling of a new fundamentalism, but the word "fundamentalism" needs to be more accurately defined for the "post-modern era." Fundamentalism is not a theological position but a mindset, what Erik Erikson refers to as a "totalism." A fundamentalism, or totalism, is a mindset that can be most accurately described as a closed box. What fits comfortably within the box is acceptable, what does not fit within the structure is cut off and tossed away.

There are many kinds of fundamentalists. There are Republican Fundamentalists, Democratic Fundamentalists, Scientific Fundamentalists, Atheistic Fundamentalists, Biblical Fundamentalists, Prayer Book Fundamentalists, and clearly in the Episcopal Church we now have Liberal Theological Fundamentalists. You can always tell fundamentalists by their attitudes. If you don't play by their rules they want you to get out of their box!The change came during a General Convention several years ago when the Episcopal Church attempted to legislate that all dioceses must accept the ordination of Women. While I agree with the ordination of Women at the same time I recognized a drastic shift away from mutual tolerance and forbearance. No longer was disagreement to be tolerated. Now the will of the majority must be forced upon the minority. Unless there are some changes in the way our Liberal Fundamentalists approach things I anticipate that the same type of policy will eventually be placed in effect regarding a mandatory acceptance of the ordination of practicing homosexuals and lesbians and in regard to a mandated obligation to perform same-sex marriages. This will happen regardless of what more conservative members of the Church may feel about them. To expect any less would be naïve. Liberal Fundamentalist bishops are already preparing for that eventuality by forcing their will on the conservative parishes in their dioceses and wherever possible displacing their clergy from active ministry. This was most recently reflected by Gene Robinson in his 60 Minutes interview when he made it clear that if the conservatives disagree they may just have to leave his church. While he didn't actually say "his church" that was certainly implicit in his remarks. I would hasten to say that the Church doesn't belong to Robinson's particular brand of fundamentalism. The Church ultimately belongs to the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Bishop Paul Moore and the Clergy Retreat

There are three things that stand out in my memory of the first Clergy Retreat I attended in the early seventies as a young priest.

The first was this: the day time events of the retreat were held at wealthy estate in the Diocese of Massachusetts. The host had graciously provided an open bar for the clergy for their refreshment. I was stunned to see several clergy obviously drunk very early in the day.

Second, Bishop Paul Moore came down from New York to lead us in several “retreat” sessions. I remember with startling clarity that he told us that “premarital sex”’ was perfectly alright. According to his daughter Honor Moore, in a recent New Yorker interview, his sense of shame and embarrassment over his own bisexual behavior made him look with compassion on others in similar situations. Living a double life and letting others think that he was wonderful, and having that justified by his daughter as heroic, as making him a great visionary, is part of the problem that the Episcopal Church is having today. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). While on one level Paul Moore was moved by compassion for the poor, his own flagrant immorality made him a leader in the break down of marriages and families in our society and has grievously contributed to the sorrows of the poor, especially the countless fatherless children of the very poor he thought he was serving.

The third was that “Ben” Arnold, our Suffragan Bishop announced his divorce. That was a matter of personal grief to me who knew Ben as a compassionate man with a genuine concern for others.

The Clergy Retreat left me in shock. Even though my seminary experience gave strong indications that alcohol abuse and sexual immorality were problems within the seminary that I attended, it had never occurred to me that the seminaries were a mirror of the church and of my diocese, as I was about to experience it.

Prior to attending seminary my experience of the church as a layperson in that same diocese was of a vital, if somewhat liberal, parish church. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer was formative in my personal spirituality. I remember with delight Sung Morning Prayer and the congregation singing the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini. Some years before, on the “Canterbury Trail”, I had visited Canterbury Cathedral and was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of coming home, coming home not necessarily to the Episcopal Church, but to the Anglican Communion and its long and sometimes troubled centuries of history. That sense has never quite left me but it stands with sharp and painful contrast with that early Clergy Retreat and the recent divulgences of Paul Moore’s daughter that her father had all the while been living a actively bisexusal double life, that if known and addressed would have had him defrocked in other parts of the country. These revelations make a certain perverse sense out of the nature of that Diocese of Massachusetts Clergy Retreat.

I have to ask the question: at what point do we say that we have had enough; that with the prophets and saints of old that we actually regard a sin as sin, instead of being willing to allow the sinners themselves to sweep it under the edge of the carpet saying, “Now, now, that’s alright”? Does God cast a blind eye to these things? “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you. Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!” (Psalm 50:21-22).

God is tearing the Anglican Communion apart as a direct result of the flagrant immorality of The Episcopal Church which is still sweeping its sins under the edge of the carpet, saying “Now, now, that’s alright.” No, it isn’t alright, God is not at one with the callous immorality of The Episcopal Church. He never has been.

Monday, February 25, 2008

No Quarter!

"Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm; Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake wind and fire, O still small voice of calm." - John Greenleaf Whittier

One wouldn’t off hand think of a Quaker poet knowing about “the heats of our desire,” but why not? Our image of Quakers is obviously neither historical nor accurate. Where did we think the name “Quaker” came from if not from some similarity with even fleshly earthquakes.

In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, OSB, 23/4/51, C. S. Lewis says with apparent amazement “I’ve had enough of it on the opposite flank lately, having fallen among – a new type to me – bigoted and proselyting Quakers!” So much for the image of Quakers.

What Lewis says next is prophetic fifty-five years later, “I really think that in our days it is the ‘undogmatic’ & ‘liberal’ people who call themselves Christians that are most arrogant and intolerant. I expect justice & courtesy from many Atheists and, much more, from your people [Dom Bede was Roman Catholic]: From Modernists, I have come to take bitterness and rancour as a matter of course.”

Why should we have a sense of outrage at our modern liberals just because they continue the same behavior. Our faithless ‘progressives’ behave like they have no faith and we are surprised? One should remember that it was the liberal Sadducean priesthood that pursued the Christ until he was crucified. Merely beholding the man scourged was not enough. If they are true to type we should expect no less from them in the Episcopal Church today. Liberals are no strangers to blood lust, and that surfaces quickly if they are crossed or thwarted. Who, or what, drives such people? Our battle is not against flesh and blood, yet the roaring lion seeking someone to devour always seeks incarnation in those who can do the most damage.

Southern Civil War commanders understood the immediate challenges even if they misunderstood the larger issues. The enemies were “the violators of our hearths and homes” . Today they seek to destroy the very life and meaning of families. Stonewall Jackson was effective because he knew both that he had to fight, and he knew how to fight. “General Lee, if it please God, we will kill them all.” While you may not be comfortable with Jackson’s political conclusions at least recognize that you are in a battle with an enemy that will show you no quarter and act appropriately.