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.