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OOPS AGAIN

For contraint read restraint. I have amended the text.

IN A WORD

It was George Bernard Shaw who said that the British and Americans are divided by a common language. As my friend Bishop Whalon points out “scheme” means something quite different to an American than to a Briton. One might say that we are all divided by our pre-conceived notions concerning what lies behind the use of words placed together to convey or perhaps obfuscate meaning.

These considerations are very much to the fore as we seek to evaluate the answers our bishops recently provided to the primates particularly on the subject of who may or who may not be elected and consecrated a bishop and whether priests may bless same-sex couples. In a real sense these are “new” concerns about ideas our parents or grandparents never considered. They never considered such issues because few people if any thought about either subject. It is not that they perhaps held strong religious convictions on these subjects. Asking my grandfather whether two people of the same gender might be married would have been on the order of asking him whether he was in favor of the internet or blogs! Knowing my grandfathers, or at least one of them, asking whether a person who habitually had sex with someone to whom he was not married might be appointed a bishop would have elicited rude remarks about his doubts about the sexual nature of clergy. He probably subscribed to the three sex theory: there are three sexes, men, women and clergy.

Now mere novelty is no ground for rejection, although given the conservative nature of a goodly proportion of human beings, it is a natural reaction in those who are born “a little conservatIVE,” rather than “a little liberal,” as W.S. Gilbert reminded us: yes the chap with Sullivan. Novelty can also mean some idea which is recent and has yet to be tested fully. A blog run by people who do not head my fan club recently posted a poll asking whether they would change their minds on the above subjects if the Anglican Communion came out in favor of both, or if, in twenty years the three major branches of Christendom so did. Might even a doubter say yes? Similar questions were posed to those opposed to the ordination of women when the matter came to the vote in TEC thirty years ago. Many hedged their bets by suggesting that if a General Council of the whole Chuch approved the ordination of women they would obey. The likelihood of such a Council is so remote that the question is safe. Not in my lifetime but perhaps in God’s lifetime; or not?

In such contexts Anglicanism in pursuit of its destiny to comprehend often seeks ways to remain old-fashioned while giving a glimmer of hope to those who style themselves “progressive.” Framing such a policy often demands a good deal of verbal dexterity of the sort which produces a frisson of horror among the precise, who hate compromise as the policy of the devil in hell, and who are certain they are on the Lord’s side. Anglicanism has never been a comfortable place fo the rigorists unless they were able to huddle in a party ghetto and forget that the rest of the church existed.

Even so I find myself uneasy with two linguistic devices used by the bishops in seeking to frame a response to the Primates which would be satisfactory and yet preserve the hope of progressives, those who believe that not only doctrine develops but so do our bedroom habits.

On the matter of the ordination and consecration of bishops the text, following the earlier reply from GC 2006 urges bishops to “exercise restraint” in not giving consent to the election of persons whose lifestyles are controversial, and in a commentary, those who are gay and lesbian living in non celibate unions are specifically mentioned. Now what does “exercise renstraint” mean? Does it mean, as the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates judges, that the bishops will restrain themselves by not giving consent or does it mean that the bishops will restrain themselves by not giving consent to perhaps most elections of this sort? Why were the words “exercise restraint” used? Is it a pat on the back saying, look how disciplined we are going to be?, or is it a loophole? Or does it merely act as a code to say to gay and lesbian people, look we still love you?

Again, what does it mean when the bishops say that they will not authorize “public” liturgies and blessings for same-sex unions? Does it mean that they will not authorize same sex-blessings of an ad hoc nature at which extempore prayer is used, or will not authorize same sex blessings at which are used authorized liturgical texts (but there are no such texts so they can’t mean that) or that they will permit “private” rites using a liturgical text approved by the Ordinary but not by the church, but are any religious rites “private”? Are the bishops saying that they will not permit clergy in their dioceses to perform same sex blessings, period? Is the language merely clumsy, awkward, intended to disallow while giving hope and comfort to gay and lesbian parishioners or does it merely mean what it says, whatever it says?

One realizes that facilty in language isn’t a modern virtue. We may indeed live in an age which does not value precision, except in science and medicine, and which seeks to avoid absolutes. Perhaps the American language as it is evolving or developing encourages obfuscation. Perhaps it was designed by politicians? One has enormous sympathy for the plight of those Anglicans who seek to perpetuate comprehension and to make space for all who wish to avail themselves of our altars. Yet hitherto this was done not by obfuscation of language but by tolerance of diversity in the context of doctrinal clarity in matters essential and those other matters which stem from core doctrine. When our bishops issue statements they do so both to the city, that is their own constituency, and to the world. They owe both winsomeness in expression and clarity in words. By clarity I do not mean the sort of bullying “orthodoxy” espoused by those whose confidence in their virtue enables them to sniff out and expose heretics of every sort. After all we are all invited to eat with publicans and sinners. To be clear does not mean to be “in your face”, rude or arrogant. Our Lord is the example of humble clarity, always pointing to that which is good. He reserved his judgment for religious bigots and religious humbugs, the sure and the evasive while warning that compromise may be deadly. Indeed it was perhaps his association with sinners and certainly the clarity of his claims which unleashed the frightening power of religious and political establishmentarianism. Judging by the text of the New Orleans statement, our bishops are in no danger from either front.

OOPS

I forgot the courtesy link to Sermons that Work which is:

http://www.dfms.org/sermons_that_work_90371_ENG_HTM.htm

A SERMON FOR NEXT SUNDAY

( I wrote this for the Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” and it may also be found on their web site.)

Do you sometimes get turned off by “religion talk”? Or do you think that the vocabulary and jargon used by many Christians somehow makes an ordinary idea so religious that it doesn’t apply in day-to-day living?

Such a word is “grace.” It sounds so pious and out of reach. So when a prayer, one of those lovely compact “collect” prayers, talks of God’s grace going in front of us and behind us, we sort of shrug, say “fine” but really don’t think it means very much at all.

The prayer – collect – today is a reminder of the story about God’s glory in visible form, as a great light, which went in front of and behind the children of Israel as they escaped Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land. Yet escaping from Egypt and looking for a Promised Land seem so very far from our experiences at work, or at home, even in church. Surely, sometimes we would love to run away. Maybe we pray that one day we will go to heaven. After all, why else would we be in church today, singing these hymns and saying these prayers? God seems to like that sort of thing for some unknown reason, so we do them. Perhaps we get some comfort and some hope. But as to the practicality of all this, perhaps some of us or most of us reserve judgment.

The readings today try to give practical examples of what “grace” means. Inevitably they are stories about, or reflections on “grace” set in a very different world than ours. No cars, no supermarkets, no global warming, no politicians – it all sounds wonderful! But what have two stories about lepers and one bit of advice to young Bishop Timothy have to do with high blood pressure, a fight with the teens or our parents, and mortgage payments, or even job insecurity?

Leprosy was once the scourge of all illnesses. It was incurable. Those with it were shunned and shunted off into separate places, ostracized and feared. Some people with AIDS feel that way. Even the word “cancer” or admitting one has that disease instills an irrational fear in some people. So the condition then may well be translated into our feeling alone, misunderstood, helpless, and perhaps actively shunned. Feelings of being alone and helpless surely attack most of us at one time or another. Feeling misunderstood often happens in the classroom or the office – and frequently at a vestry meeting! While the scene recounted in the Bible stories today may be unfamiliar, there are plenty of modern equivalents and experiences.

General Naaman’s problem was that he thought his condition and status required a dramatic response, a unique form of treatment, not merely a dip in a foreign river on the orders of a prophet who hasn’t even the courtesy to come out to meet this important dignitary. The lepers whom Jesus heals have a different problem. They take a miracle for granted, and all but one shrugs and gets on with life. Only one is thankful.

In both cases, we see that what gets in the way of grace, of receiving a gift, is pride in one form or another, that deadly sin. We think we are the only person with our problem. No one has had this problem before. To suggest that God has a universal answer, something as simple as merely doing as one is told and accepting a simple gift in a simple manner is just too much of a stretch – or should one say a stoop? Merely accepting, as Timothy is told to do, that Jesus is sufficient, that:

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself.”
Merely accepting is the clue to wholeness and a life lived within God’s gifts.

In a few minutes perhaps you will leave your seat and go to God’s table to receive promised gifts, the grace that goes before us and behind us, guiding and keeping us in the midst of everything. How on earth can a crumb of bread and a sip of wine address my extraordinary needs and problems? Or perhaps I will reach, take, and get on with life without a thought of “thanksgiving,” the word from which “Eucharist” derives.

Almost all healing is not the result of being “zapped” by God, but the result of being given an opportunity to anchor oneself in that which has been given, and an opportunity to live life with a new and different perspective. I accept the bread crumb and the sip of wine as a promise that I died with Jesus in baptism and rose to life, eternal life – something that starts at the font and not at the death bed.

So, as St. Paul reminds us, we are given the extraordinary gift to endure, to get on with life, a life made new and special because we are able to be thankful. Endurance doesn’t sound like much fun, but Christianity isn’t about fun, it is about cross-bearing, self-sacrifice, self-examination, admitting one’s faults and sins which get in the way of our vision of God. Yes, endurance made splendid, because we are given the gift of thanksgiving, of gratitude that we have been placed in the company of those who have gone before us in patient endurance; in the company of those who walk with us in joy. And we are given the gift of gratitude to be in the company of those who will come after us and who will endure as witnesses of the Christ who came, died, rose again and ascended into heaven and who restores everything and makes all things new.

Accepting simple gifts as the answer to what seem to be complicated needs takes humility. Accepting simple gifts when they work with thanksgiving takes a good deal of humility. Humility and being thankful are two sides of the same coin – a coin if you will, given to us by Jesus, who is equal with God but who empties himself to us and for us