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A PROPHETIC EPISCOPATE?

I recently, but obliquely, participated in a conversation on the subject of whether bishops are prophets. The bishop in question pointed out that the Ordinal says a bishop is a prophet. Someone had denied the prophetic role of the episcopate. Well the Ordinal does, sort of in the prayer before the act of consecration, but does not specifically state that the bishop in question is to be personally and specially gifted in that area. In fact there’s hardly a job description in the Old or New Testament –except perhaps Virgin – that isn’t evoked by the prose of the Ordinal when it comes to job possibilities for bishops.

One of the great Anglican Reformation controversies was whether a bishop was an apostle. As if often the case, the real argument was not really about succession at all, but about power and the way power is perceived to have been exercised and the authority claimed for the exercise of such power. Rome’s sin, at least at first, was not so much theological, as moral. It was scandal that shocked the first English Reformers, like the sensitive Thomas Bilney or the convulsive Robert Barnes. When prelates like Wolsey lived in splendor, and monasteries cashed in on the vulnerable, the poor grew poorer. Superstition was marketed rather like fear is today. Money and power.

In extreme response the Protestant leaders claimed that the office of Apostle died out with the Apostles. True there might be an historic succession of bishops, but there was nothing unique about them, except in those areas entrusted to them by the authority and commissioning of the Church. The same applied to priests and deacons. Everyone was a priest, except a priest? Odd that we have shades of all this in the current chatter about mutual ministry, although I’ve yet to see the theory applied to bishops!

As in so many areas, the climate, the passions raised, the context obscured a sensible exegesis. As an aside, I think it high time that someone began the job of doing what Tom Wright is doing for biblical context to our theological, ecclesiological, and pastoral methodologies.

The root of the problem is individualism. Unless the doctrine of the relationship between the Trinity and its Persons with the Church and its mission and ministry are firmly grasped, what happens is that individual Christians, even bishops, start by looking at such titles as prophet, priest, king, evangelist, whatever as alternative job descriptions or terms of empowerment.

In a real sense the Reformers were right. There is only one prophet, there is only one bishop, there is only one priest, there is only one deacon, there is only one “Lay” person. That Person is Christ. Take that truth away, and almost all the job descriptions available to Christians are open to personal misuse and corruption. They stand open to be manipulated by secular corporate and political models. Look at the history of the episcopate as it has presented itself as Roman magistrate, feudal Lord, Stuart courtier, Whig landowner, upper crust patrician, through to modern corporate manager and CEO.

The key is Baptism. In baptism, God anticipates in love, claims us, adopts us, forgives us, and draws us together into Christ. It is “in” Christ” that we move together into the society in which, as God pleases, gifts and talents are offered to us. They are not our possessions. They are trusts. In all things these tasks are offered to us in our weakness and not in our strength. Jesus offered power to servants and not to bosses. Servants know who they work for! A servant, in her or his self, isn’t “royal”! Yet we are a Royal Priesthood, not by nature or ability but because the King-Priest lets us wear His colors.

So what’s all this about bishops being prophets? What is a prophet? In the Old Testament, most were fakes! I love Amos, the non-prophet, who strides onto the scene and roundly denounces profession prophets and priests. Why is Amos a prophet? Because he draws women and men back to the authentic voice and witness of God and God’s purpose. Part of that work is restoring and strengthening community by reminding it of its first love.

The coming of Christ in a real sense alters the prophetic task. No longer is the kingdom something to be anticipated. The kingdom is among us. Its fruition is to be anticipated, but the kingdom is now. The prophetic voice of the Church is the Word of God, Jesus. This voice is mediated to us first and foremost in Scripture, in its grand theme of redemption and restoration and not in liberal or conservative proof texting! Thus the genuine voice of the prophet among us remains, “Thus saith the Lord.”

The task of the prophet is therefore to draw the community into its genuine nature and mission, and to speak truth to the Church and to the powers that be without partiality or bias. The voice of the prophet must be ultimately the voice of Christ.

Bishops, by their very job description may not make obvious candidates for the job. For the heart of the Episcopal office is pastoral, unifying, evangelizing, caring love: Jesus IS the bishop and shepherd of our souls. A bishop is his stand in. In a Church which claims to be comprehensive, this aspect of the episcopate is the more difficult and the more vital. A diocesan bishop in the Anglican tradition, without suppressing real conviction, must be able to step into the shoes and enter the minds of men and women who may have widely different approaches to the almost everything. A diocesan bishop in our tradition is called to live in collegial relationships with colleagues whose inner faith, outward expressions of faith, theological groundings and cultural and social backgrounds, let alone positions on Causes and controversies are often in extraordinary tension with his or her views. A diocesan bishop’s responsibility to the wider Communion and to the Church at large in its many manifestations only compounds the matter.

Now I would suggest that these principles need to be aimed sharply at not only the practice of episcopacy among us, but to our institutions, forms of government, styles of leadership, from parish and mission level upwards. For sure, our contemporary church prophets, single and collective, while often shocking parts of their own community and giving copy to hungry journalists have not been and are not generally heard or noticed by most people.

When Jesus was prophetic about the poor, he didn’t form a commission or write a best-seller. Jesus told off the powerful and he touched, physically touched, and healed and fed.

When I first came over here, nearly forty years ago, I was shocked to drive in the rural south and see people living in utter poverty. That hasn’t changed. Millions haven’t health insurance. Discrimination abounds. Witness the scandal of Native Americans. Where is our voice as a Church? Yes we have committees and commissions, soup kitchens, emergency medical health clinics and all sorts of in touch projects, but I am convinced that we still are distanced from the poor and the disadvantaged. We are distanced by our structure, by our class, by our prevailing culture, by our often pseudo intellectualism. Our prophets often sound more like Kerry or Cheney than like Jesus. We refuse to be self-critical and we use power to run over those we have deemed unworthy of our fellowship.

One of Thomas Bilney’s first converts was Hugh Latimer. Bilney’s first act was to take Latimer to the Oxford city jail to feed the prisoners. Years later Bishop Latimer famously attacked the ruling junta for its land-grabbing dispossession of the poor. They threw him in the Tower. Now there’s a prophetic bishop.

MISSION?

I see that another congregation in Virginia has decided to go out into the wilderness, set up shop and called in an African bishop as overseer. It calls itself a “mission.” Now I don’t want to be too hard on these people. I understand their dilemma. More of that later.From a New Testament and from an Anglican standpoint, they don’t seem to know what they are doing. Perhaps no one has taught them about mission. The first Christians didn’t go into the world to set up retreat houses or protective fortresses. They went out in mission. The very word speaks of an embrace.

When I was a lad, the present structure of African provinces, except in South Africa, hadn’t emerged. (Do bear with me. A bit of history does help. If we’d read Lawrence, we wouldn’t be in Iraq.) The existing dioceses were formed out of the missionary activity of English missionary societies, all of which were independent of Church control. These societies sent out a bishop and some friends and hoped and prayed there would be success. For the revisionists’ sake I’ll admit they piggy backed on the Colonial power, although that power had little use to these missionaries once they left centers of authority and control.

The main two societies were SPG and CMS, the first High Church, the second Evangelical. Broad Church folk didn’t go on missions. They didn’t have much to say. Being good Anglicans there were some who believed these two societies were a bit tame. So the High Church folk also had the Universities Mission to Central Africa and the Evangelicals the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society. The first believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the second came close to teaching the Real Absence. Imagine what it was like to group these all into Provinces when the winds of change blew across Africa. Talk about impaired communion.

Around the time of Lambeth Conferences, bishops from these areas struggled home for the Conference, and did what was known as the Lambeth Walk. So I met the autocratic +Frank Thorne of Nyasaland (Malawi) in his laced rochet. I’d already encountered some retired bishops from all over the place who gravitated to Walsingham and made the pope look like a protestant. And there were those stern, athletic Evangelical bishops, with very discrete pectoral crosses and rings, who wore black chimeres and promoted “Rugger” and salvation.

Don’t get me wrong. There were saints here. One might not agree with their theology but one couldn’t doubt their self-sacrifice and devotion. They went where they were sent, learnt the languages, lived with the people, often died of exhaustion or disease, or were pensioned off to England. I am not going to argue about colonialism, or even missionary activity. I don’t doubt these people tried to establish Brighton or Cheltenham Spa in Kenya. I don’t doubt that they ignored or misunderstood local culture, tribal custom and acted like Americans in Paris. Nevertheless they were not sacrificing themselves to establish holy huddles of refugees from the world. They were in the world.

But now we see their heirs claiming jurisdiction over scattered congregations in America. The Archbishop of Nigeria, who seems to do as he pleases, suggests that he is promoting mission. If the sort of mission he’s talking about had been established in Nigeria – a scattering of refugee colonies – his Province wouldn’t be as huge and vital as it is today.

Those who are leaving TEC to form such extra-provincial entities have a point. Yes our church, at some stage, decided that it is capable of deciding that the Sabbath is on Wednesday, as long as enough members of General Convention vote it in! Yes, TEC has become prey to programs, structures, methods and ideologies which owe more to the local branch of a political party than to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church Catholic. Yes, TEC has joined the Right Wing in believing that it has a special and unique mission to the world, and that the Holy Spirit has joined up. Joseph Smith call home.

Despite all this, or in a funny way, because of all this, what our church really is stands in relief and contrast. Four hundred years ago Anglicans landed in Jamestown and celebrated the Eucharist. Mission was established. That mission was not to provide some ecclesiastical flavor, choice or alternative. Our mission was to be the Church. Simple as that. Maybe it sounds arrogant. We have been arrogant. Maybe it sounds anti-ecumenical. It shouldn’t be. Part of what our claim says is that we are everywhere seeking to draw all, serve all and love all. If we ourselves enable parishes to be places which draw out from the world like-minded people, we have nothing at all to say to our sisters and brothers in that Virginian mission. They are merely copying us under different management. If we create gathered groups containing our kind of saints why can’t others?

The very fact of the diocese reminds us of our mission. Our dioceses are set in territory. I know that most now append “Episcopal” to “Diocese of”, and that is in itself a retreat and fudge. The fact that our dioceses are “of” means that our parishes and missions are “of”. They embrace the surrounding community.

What about anti-gays, or heretics, thinly disguised new agers, lawless bishops and half dead congregations? For goodness sake! Have we forgotten our history? There was Hoadly who made a Deist look like a member of the Network, Barnes of Birmingham, Hervey and his wenches, and shall I go on? Our history is crammed full with examples of heresy, eccentricity, odd movements, crazy bishops and clergy, lay popes and liturgical chaos. Synods have adopted the daftest things. But unless and until our basic beliefs – formularies – are abolished, or the Christian Year and Calendar scrapped, the authenticity of our sacraments and Orders, lay and clerical fatally compromised, we remain the Church in microcosm. At the moment we are largely a church of middle class white folk who hate George Bush. Now there’s a mission. Even our most divisive causes are safely middle class. If we could just put as much effort into returning to mission, as we do squabbling like street gangs about turf, our mission goals might be realized.

While I was in hospital last week, I met needy country folk. They asked me what sort of a priest I am. “I’m an Episcopal priest”, I replied. A look of utter incomprehension crossed the face of my new friends. They live in this county!

However, what was Gregory the Great about when he sent Augustine to start up a rival church in England?

FEAR AND HOPE

In my superior English manner, I’ve often marveled at the ability of people to get scared by threats of terrorists and bombs and goodness knows what. Of course I was a young lad during World War 2, and perhaps the reality of bombs falling from the sky became part of my early experience. The Irish Republican Army and its predecessors had been blowing British people up from the time when Victoria was Queen. So when I watch politicians working on the fears of ordinary people, I want to wring their necks. I in no way downplay the trauma of 9/11 on America’s psyche, but in a sense that has something to do with America’s isolated innocence and her hope for the world.

As a lad I loved the Compline lesson which describes the devil making a dreadful noise as he/she looks for someone to destroy. Up comes the bed sheet. I’m safe under the covers. From St. Peter’s standpoint the world looks a rather dangerous place after all. Perhaps those who warn of disaster in the world or disaster in the church have a point? After all there’s a whole pile of daily examples to cite just to show how bad things are. They are real; or at least some of them are real. No wonder our ecclesiastical Uncle Burps sit before their computers and moan, while Uncle Sid, watches the latest from Iraq or Washington DC.

There are of course those on the other extreme. To them all is good. Eden remains. All that is needed is a few self-help courses, some positive reinforcement and a grand plan to feed the world, and Glory will be here. Those who point out obvious examples of sheer wickedness are part of the problem. I do not doubt that tackling poverty is a desperate necessity and might, just might make the world “better”, but whether it will make the world less selfish, less confrontational, less envious is quite another matter.

Christians are pessimistic optimists. They believe that the world, yes, the world, and not just “bad people” needs to be made over. It’s as bad as that. Everyone needs to be made new, even those who think they have been made new and particularly those who are darn sure they are more virtuous than others. The world is a shambles. Uncles Burps and Sid are right. No amount of program or budget, system or project, act of legislation is going to unshamble the world fundamentally.

On the other hand it is God’s purpose to restore Eden and God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Nor does that mean that we abandon our programs and budgets, projects and legislation and sit back while God works. The balance is understanding that our proposals also need a radical make over. How do we get truth and unity in the church together? How do we balance justice and mercy? Well I think I know that we all have to be delicate with the justice side. We are much too likely to be unjust. These contradictory aims are really no such thing, but when we decide to choose one rather than the other, we get neither.

An old missionary hymn begins with the words, “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.” It is God who is working his purpose out and we need to be in that purpose. That takes a bit of humility.

CHEMO

Finally, today, I was told I have a rare disease named Waldenström’s Macroglobulinemia. The doctor then asked if I was ready to begin chemo. “When?” says I. “Tomorrow,” came the reply.

I report at 9: 30 AM to have a pic line inserted and then I’ll be taken to the ninth floor to begin the treatment. They will let me out on Saturday afternoon, with bags of nasty pills to take. This will happen for the next four months.

If you don’t hear from me for a few days, don’t give up on the site. As my African Grey Parrott says, “I’ll be back sooooooooooon.”

Do keep Pat and the family in your prayers.

Tony

ON BEING A PRIEST

ON BEING A PRIEST

I was able to celebrate this morning. Three weeks ago I was unable to get through the early service, and since then I’ve spent my time at home, or at the hospital being cut into, drawn out of and generally explored. I’m coming to terms with being a priest with cancer and what that means to me, my family and the congregation I serve.

I celebrated the sung Eucharist this morning. It wasn’t all according liturgical Hoyle. I sat a good deal, preached from a chair, didn’t pass the peace, and stood a discreet distance from those leaving church at the end of the service. Of course the service really doesn’t have an end, or a beginning, but that’s a story for another day.

The church was almost full. I sensed the empathy between the congregation and this member of the congregation. Much of it was about mutual need. The priest was there. I needed the care and love of the congregation. Mutual need.

I have titled this blog, “On Being a Priest”. Those of you who are in tune with the present developments in thinking about priesthood may detect introductions into the theme of “mutual ministry” and perhaps wonder whether “mutual need” is an appropriate response to the phenomenon of a “poorly” parson meeting to make Eucharist with a congregation.

I’ve been reading Bishop Kenneth Stevenson’s “The Mystery of Baptism in the Anglican Tradition”. He explores different aspects of an Anglican approach to baptism through the thoughts of “classical” Anglican divines of the 16th and early 17th century.

I have to confess that one of the things about contemporary Episcopalianism which makes me uneasy is what I believe to be a rather odd concept of “covenant” or should I say a potentially odd concept of this Reformation doctrine. Certainly the Reformers and their heirs in the Church of England re-asserted the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people, of which baptism/confirmation was the outward and visible sign. I include confirmation because the Anglican Divines included confirmation and not to enter into an argument.

What was being asserted was the God-initiative in the business of being and becoming a Christian and being included in the Kingdom which is now and is to be. Perhaps the most important question asked, therefore was in what manner was baptism “efficient.” What was the relationship between what was done at the font and what occurred in the “heart” of those baptized? What was the connection of what God intends for the Church and the actual nature of those who profess and call themselves Christian?

That question is contained in every doubt we express about the “efficiency” of the church at its every level. If God has really done this, why does the church do that? That leads me back to the question of being a priest. We are told nowadays that everyone is a priest. That is true. I remember remarking at a conference between Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Nonconformists in England years ago, that Roman Catholics believe that no one is a priest except a priest and that to Protestants everyone is a priest except a priest.

What I can’t accept is that a priest is merely a sacrament machine for that leads back to priestcraft in short shift. Because I think that our Reformers were largely right about covenant I believe that God calls out from the priestly people presbyters, elders entrusted with the “efficiency” of Word and Sacrament.

What does that mean? In older times every community had its “story teller” who pointed to certain places and to certain stories in order to remind the village of its heritage and its purpose. Such people were regarded with awe and perhaps some superstition! In Medieval Europe they pointed to the churchyard, the church, the maypole, and recited the family trees of villages and the deeds of the famous. The story belonged to all the villagers. The story continued in all the villagers. Neither belonged to the story-teller, but in a real sense, the past, present and future depended on the faithfulness of the story-teller.

A priest is usually set in a “place” and is there to point to font and altar, to tell the story contained in Scripture and in the living tradition and to be a constant reminder of who we are and whom we serve. The reminder is not merely verbal. It is tactile. The benefits of Baptism, the treasure meted out in the Eucharist, the story told as the Word is read, taught and preached, extend into pastoral care and leadership. The care of the priest is to guarantee the “efficiency” of the covenant and to submerge the self into the priestly in sacrifice and thanksgiving. In celebrations of joy and grief, in expressions of remorse and utterances of love the priest is a constant reminder that those who sing and those who grieve are in God’s covenantal love, in God’s grace, and are in the called community of the Church, supported by the offerings of those who are “dead” and those who are alive.

Mercifully many of these duties are “automatic.” However daft Conventions may be, however weak our theology may be, however destructive we may be, the priest is also a “sacrament” because the Church is THE Sacrament. The words and actions a priest utters and performs are the “means of grace.” The Church IS, not because of what it does from time to time, but because of what God does in and through the Church through the gifts given to it. This is no excuse for priestly foolishness, for deadness in orthodoxy or the selfish excitement of the iconoclast. Yet the gates of hell shall not prevail. Despite us those covenanted to ministerial priesthood are “efficient” instruments, in “efficient” parishes and dioceses. I’m not sure about National Churches!

SACRIFICE

Being confronted with cancer opens all sorts of thoughts, particularly at this time of the night.

I was thinking of the utter absurdity of things called platelets running around stopping red cells being produced, boring holes through bones and finally killing their “world” and with it themselves.

Inevitably I thought of the Church. No new thoughts. St. Paul wrote a couple of letters to the Corinthians on the subject. A few years later Clement, the bishop of Rome wrote to the same church telling those Corinthians off. Like the two ladies with the baby in the Solomon story, getting what they wanted was almost as important as the life of the church.

The problem is that all this sacrifice business has never been something most want to embrace. True, there have been barmy old hermits, strong women, even a few holy bishops who have given themselves. Fighting is so much more interesting than dying –although it leads to the same thing –particularly if one is right. So we talk about Jesus’ cause and inevitably get it wrong. Or at least we get the means by which Jesus is going to achieve his cause all wrong.

Certainly liberals and conservatives are equally “pie in the sky” about the outcome. Both sides believe that one day everything will be put to rights. There will be no more poverty, abuse, injustice: the earth will be saved and will be good as God intended. Read the Millennium literature. Isn’t that what it is all about? Look at systems theories. They aim for mature parishes in which all is well.

Some think that “kingdom come” arrives when the Church becomes pure and faithful and all the rules are kept, or at least that kingdom will not come until the church stops meddling in all sorts of what seem to be secular fads. I read recently that a bishop abroad said that the wheat must be separated from the tares now. He should be told off for assuming God’s role.

We used to have heroes to help us. Who are now our heroes? Anglicans had monarchs who were supposed to be good. In America Episcopalians had the upper classes, the important people in village and city and country. Starched dresses and collars in the front row decently reciting Mattins.

But who do we have now? Movie stars, sports heroes? Pop psychiatrists and the writers of Find Your Real Self in 5 steps, or is it 10? But what happens if we dig deep and find that we are selfish, self-absorbed, centered on pleasure, on our rights, on what the world owes us? What happens if we find that we are violent or lustful or chronic users; or bitter and resentful?

Jesus taught that getting to kingdom come involved walking into self-surrender and even death. I was thinking about that at one of the General Convention Eucharists. I had a fantasy. I dreamed that the leaders of all factions walked to the altar at the offertory. Each bore on a proper and liturgical cushion a note containing details of the cause for which they fought. They placed these on the altar, turned, and walked out, and we all followed in silence perhaps muttering “And here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, our selves, our souls an bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee;” that is if we were old enough to remember those wonderful words. Suddenly the hall was empty. The elements lay lonely on the Table. And Jesus wept.

The problem is that in the midst of all this chatter about Baptismal Covenant we have forgotten two things. The first is so obvious. We are baptized into ONE church. So says the Creed. We are thus one, entirely one, inseparably one with fundamentalists and pentecostalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, Copts and Armenians, not to speak of Anglicans everywhere. So we can’t separate or be impaired even if like Jonah, we pretend we have escaped. To think we can be alone is pure sectarianism.

Secondly, the Creed trumps the Catechism. Baptism is primarily “for the forgiveness of sins.” It is only when we offer our incompleteness, or dysfunction, our pride and self-satisfaction, only when we die, and behold we live, that we can even begin together to live into Christ’s promises and be faithfully Christ’s Church. I believe that we as a church have to drop all our pretensions and give up, just give up in faith and fear. Then begins the Kingdom in us all.