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STATISTICS

Centuries ago I was obliged to take a course in public statistics. The lecturer was utterly crazy. The only thing I remember about the course was being driven by that extraordinary fellow, along with my class mates to a “new town” in County Durham. We spent a good deal of time on the wrong side of the road and when the shattered students arrived at the place it was the wrong day! As a result of this experience, or rather of the course which I found unintelligible I am the last person to consult on the subject. I have always believed math to be an obscure branch of black magic.

 

I’ve just tried to fathom the statistics presented to the Executive Council of TEC about current evaluations of our church’s strengths, or rather weaknesses. You may see them at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/79692388/TECdata. Even someone numerically challenged discovers the figures depressing. The sun belt does better than elsewhere, but that may at least partially explained by the continued migration of the population to warmer climes. This has been going on for years. Many of the migrants are older people seeking warmth and comfort. The one glimmer of hope is that people seem to be giving more to their churches than was once true, but even this doesn’t do much to bridge the gap caused by a loss of parishioners.

 

These figures paint the backdrop to the reported conflict between the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, conducted in public in  what seems to be a turf war. The conflict is unedifying, involves not only different proposals for a new budget but also who has the right to address which House of General Convention. If nothing else it demonstrates just how the mechanics of governance threatens to undermine a desperately needed overhaul of our structure, an overhaul I’ve urged long before we reached this moment in time. Yet how we govern ourselves as a ‘particular church’ is less important, much less important than who we regard ourselves to be as a microcosm of the Church called to minister in the United States.

 

No doubt our loss of parishioners – i dislike the word “member” – has been compounded by the desertion of so many since 2003 and the ensuing law suits. However what seems clear is that the greater problem is our inability to retain younger people or to seem to offer a faith which inspires people who believe in growing numbers that what we offer in our parishes has not a thing to do with what they believe to be the reality of daily living. We have become victims of the culture wars which divide Americans and we don’t seem to speak to those who want something more than a ritual affirmation of their political views.

 

It seems clear that those who want a religious community which says Amen to their politics tend to be politically conservative, while those who regard themselves as “progressives” are less likely to feel they need a church to pursue their aims. In short our church offers itself to a narrowing constituency of liberals and chases away those who believe the Gospel is a religious version of right-wing politics. It’s not that conservatives believe that the Gospel is best framed through the lens of the Republican Party while progressives peer through Democrat spectacles, or it shouldn’t be, but that we seem unable to understand that the Gospel, given its head, both informs and judges all our temporary political and social theories and in a way which disturbs and challenges all our slogans and causes. True, people devoutly believe that what they assert is Gospel based, but truth be told, our church has lost its cutting edge, the courage to preach, teach and worship a faith grounded in the fundamental realization that while Christianity must be enculturalized to speak in a language and context which meets people where they are, it cannot surrender to popular culture uncritically.

 

In the 19th Century, at least in Britain and the US, we lost working women and men because we wrapped ourselves in the culture of affluence, ‘conservatives at prayer’. We were the church of the wealthy and the upper classes, the people who built or adorned most of our church buildings and paid the rector. Nowadays we appeal to upper middle class intellectuals and where these people are in short supply, in cities and towns where the businesses run by such people have evaporated and where their proprietors have gone elsewhere – to the sun – a dwindling, graying minority struggle to keep the roof on crumbling piles and meet the significantly growing cost of paying a priest.

 

Around our buildings, or on the edges of communities now distanced from our buildings are a new constituency, made up not of unchurched families, but of no-churched families, a generation or more from the their ancestors who filled our buildings and regarded them as significant centers of their lives and devotion. The burning question is just how we frame our ministry, lay and ordained, to contact this pool of people to whom the Faith is as mysterious as the goings on in a masonic lodge. We continue to try to attract by our causes  people who look with growing distrust to politicians and political parties. What we don’t seem to offer is a faith which changes lives and gives them the strength to navigate the bewildering complexities of modern life. Christian faith has much to say about relationships, how to raise children, how to cope with tragedy, how to minister to the poor and those made victims of unemployment and financial disaster. That Gospel begins with introducing people to God, the relevance of Jesus and the life of the Spirit.

 

Christian Faith presents the Way through the complicated reality of daily living and yes daily dying. Our Prayer Book wondrously supplies that Way within the community of those called out by God to herald the Kingdom and winsomely demonstrate God’s compassion and purpose. Yet we seem to be offering the stone of adequate governance rather than the Bread of Life.

“RESISTING FUNDAMENTALISM SINCE 1784”

For the past couple of days or so a page has appeared on Facebook which proclaims “The Episcopal Church, Resisting Fundamentalism since 1784”. Let me begin by being characteristically pedantic. Fundamentalism is a term which was first used at the beginning of the 20th Century as a rallying cry among Presbyterians who feared their denomination was being taken over by those who were taking seriously what we loosely term Biblical Criticism. The word “criticism” even then carried with it overtones of negativity in the same manner as the word “myth” presses buttons nowadays. In theological terms both words are neutral, with no particular relationship to devaluation or untruth. The fact that they worry non-scholars warns us that in the modern world, Christian scholars have the difficult task of pursuing study while having a duty not to create stumbling blocks for ordinary Christians. After all the Gospel is for all and not merely for an elite. Yet because Christianity involves the mind and reason, scholarship is an important vocation and has been since Paul and John probed deeply into the meaning of that which Jesus did and taught. Recently a good deal of nonsense has been proposed by those who reject the word religion as being something negative and in opposition to faith.

In short at the moment when the Episcopal Church became a particular church within the Anglican Church, no one was resisting fundamentalism. Indeed the Episcopal Church survived in part because of the witness and passion of evangelicals, a group often dismissed today as being fundamentalists despite the fact that Anglican evangelicals have embraced much of Biblical Criticism in their biblical scholarship.

My unease about the slogan to which I draw your attention has another dimension. A particular church which seeks to describe itself as existing over against some other form of Christian expression narrows itself, in fact becomes as reactionary as the body from which it distances itself. The slogan is sectarian.

One understands that many converts to Anglicanism in America enter our red doors to escape forms of Protestantism in which they have felt oppressed and constrained. Fair enough. Similarly many converting from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism are driven by similar motives. Again, fair enough. Yet one hopes and prays that their conversion is conversion to rather than conversion against. One also hopes that their aversion to elements in their former church homes isn’t a means of avoiding disciplines which are merely Christian in the odd belief that Anglican churches are places where one may believe anything or nothing, or worse still places where their secular political and social beliefs are embraced unquestioningly. Our Liturgy, our Creeds, our submission to Holy Scripture as God’s revelation demand a positive and yes a submission of mind and heart and lifestyle. When we perhaps clumsily proclaim that Anglicans have no theology of their own, we say something important but not something vague. We embrace the faith of the Church with a capital C. When we state that human language cannot fathom the mind of God we don’t mean that God has failed to reveal in Jesus all we need to know and believe for our salvation. If God has not so revealed himself he is not a God to worship and adore.

Anglicanism offers and presents at its best the way of salvation which takes seriously not merely selected proving texts from the Bible, nor a religion which panders to local political opinions and parties, but fundamentally -there’s that word – foundationally or basically a vision which takes seriously the Church, the ministry, the sacraments and a treasury of spirituality, personal and communal through which cultures, races, nations may apprehend and embrace the Gospel of Jesus the Lord. It seeks not merely to offer a way of death or after death, but a way of life which embraces the whole person in their context. Anglicanism at its best is not dismissive but admissive, neither belittling intelligence nor confounding what we sometimes patronizingly term a simple faith.

If we are to recover our patrimony we must tell our story without indulging in dismissive parody. We have no title to superiority, called as we are to servanthood, compassion and mercy, to be reconcilers in a divided nation and world rather than contributors to division and arrogance. Can we not rather advertise ourself as “The Episcopal Church, Telling the Story of Jesus since 1784”?

WHO OWNS WHAT?

No, I’m not going to blog about who owns church property. It is known that I’ve opposed  TEC going to secular courts to enforce its own discipline. It is clear that Scripture deplores such action. It seems clear to me that to do so in the United States breaches the separation of church and state. In a sense it also weakens our own authority to keep order in our own household. Inevitably it leaves a legacy of ill feeling which will remain a smoldering reality and impede any future attempts to normalize relationships between Anglicans in America and it’s a shocking misuse of money contributed to dioceses and the national body by our parishes and missions, a majority of which struggle to survive let alone engage in mission and outreach. Our property disputes sully our reputation in the eyes and ears of unchurched and non-churched people.

 

What is on my mind today is another matter altogether. Who owns Word and Sacraments?  Anglicans recognize that Word and Sacraments, core doctrine and sacramental life belong to the whole Church. They are not owned by bits and pieces of the Church, “particular” churches and denominations. The Scriptures, essential doctrines enumerated in the Creeds, the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons and the sacraments exist as marks and evidences of the whole Church, the Church God called to himself and established by the Spirit in Christ.

 

It has often been remarked that Anglicanism has no doctrine of its own. We look to no particular human agent as a creator or founder of a theology or system. We honor many men and women whose insights have enriched the Church in history. Special honor has always been granted among us to the Fathers, the theologians of the undivided Church while we recognized that their “theology” was not a single-minded “take” on Christian faith, but reflects their historical context and the issues in play during their lifetimes, but whose thoughts continue to enlighten contemporary Christianity. Yet we always test their insights at the bar of Scripture and in the light of Tradition, the mind of the Church Universal in time, space and place. Valuing an Ignatius, an Origen, an Augustine, an Anselm, a Luther or a Calvin or even a Hooker, doesn’t make us their slavish disciples: we are mere Christians.

 

This understanding reminds us that in our particular moment in history we are no more children of a particular trend in modern theology and its commentators than we are of those who have gone before. This realization bids us distrust what I call “denominationalism”, the odd idea that the company we keep in families and groupings of Christian churches involves our subscription to a religious form of tribalism, one which has emerged as the tragic fragmentation of Christianity evolved and continues to evolve or indeed devolves. Being an Anglican or an Episcopalian isn’t a subscription to a discreet brand of Christianity, but rather a reflection of where we belong in family terms. We may and indeed should value the ambience and furniture of our part of the Christian whole, but these things must be tested and apprehended as gifts which reflect that which is given, the property of all Christians.

 

I value, for instance, the first sections of the Anglican Covenant. These sections enumerate the common faith Anglicans cherish as offerings to the whole Church, and not as evidences of our own exceptionalism or unique nature. We hold these truths as articulations of the revealed Faith given to God to his Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, the Bride and Body of Christ. They proclaim to all people our fidelity to that Church and our faithfulness to the mission of the whole Church until Jesus comes again.

 

I have never attended a baptism during which a child or adult is made an Episcopalian. I have never attended an ordination which made the ordinand an Anglican or Episcopalian bishop, priest or deacon. I have never read marked and inwardly digested an Anglican Scripture, or recited an Episcopalian Creed, or celebrated an Episcopalian Eucharist. Never.

 

Now this principle involves a certain trust. I must assume and trust that all these gifts to the whole Church are faithfully administered within the fragment of the One Church in which I have been called to serve. Were I to lose that assumption and trust two problems would arise. How would I resolve my doubts? How would I then proceed?  Implicit in being a catholic, a member of God’s Church Universal is the understanding that my private doubts are not issues I may resolve on my own terms. I must seek counsel and advice from other Christians and be guided by the counsel of my contemporaries and by the voices of the whole Church in what we call history or better, The Tradition. No action, even that of an individual Christian comes without consequences. Leaving one’s parish, or even ones “church” has consequences and the worst of those consequences is the rending of the Body. What matters is not my offense at the actions of other Christians, or of a particular church meeting, synod or convention, but what is taught and practiced in worship and doctrine, or one should say the doctrine reflected in that liturgy and worship.

 

At many moments in church history parts of the Church, sometimes large parts of the Church have tolerated and permitted teachings and practices at odds with that which the Church believes and should practice. As individuals we all from time to time live and express things which are not Christian or orthodox. So it is with the companies of Christians who share that which God has given to his Church. Yes in such times our duty is to be faithful to the “faith once delivered to the saints”. But every time we contribute to fragmentation, whether as particular parts of the Church or as individuals we ourselves deny the Church’s essential marks as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

 

Living into this realization is an antidote to regionalism, sectarianism, particularism or denominationalism. It spurs us to pray for and seek unity and concord. It spurs us to greater visible unity among ourselves as Anglicans worldwide, it tempers our stressing our individualism as parts of “national churches” and makes us yearn to be one with our brothers and sisters across the globe. Further it drives us to seek the maximum measure of cooperation with Christians in other bodies.

 

Above all it prevents our apprehending for our own part of the Universal Church, the title of “church”, at least as something particular or peculiar, something  with the ability and right to do its own thing and go its own way. Yes we belong to “the Church”. Yes our own “brand’ possesses that which the Church is, but not as our property or declaration of independence but as a shared inheritance as members of the Church throughout time and space.

 

One hundred years ago there was hope that what we call the ecumenical movement would teach us all these truths and spur us under God to repent of our “unhappy divisions”. But nationalism, ecclesiastical nationalism has thwarted that movement and dimmed its vision. The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” is no longer observed significantly among us and even our own “Communion”, a word as strong as and synonymous with “Church” has experienced division and even schism. If we are to be faithful to our particular Anglican and Episcopal charism or grace, we must discover once again our mission to “speak peace to those who are far off and those who are near” , in short practice being the Church. God helps us.

THE TRIVIAL ROUND, THE COMMON TASK

 

For a few years now, Episcopalians have been offered a variety of extra liturgical texts and hymns with which to supplement the Prayer Book. I sometimes think that we are becoming more and more like denominations which do not enjoy the heritage of Common Prayer. Clergy seem to want to introduce new elements in weekly worship and to enjoy designing services which contain much which is not familiar and not normal.

 

I really don’t see how we are to be nurtured and grow in faith and love, from which comes all good works, unless we embrace our Prayer Book and permit its words sink in to become the bedrock of our “spirituality”. Common Prayer requires liturgical texts which are normal or at least that has been the source and foundation of the Anglican Way until now.

 

If clergy and worship committees now emulate non-liturgical churches and visit upon eucharistic communities constant change, we will lose that which I believe to be one of the gifts Anglicanism has enjoyed: to be a people rooted and grounded in the liturgical heritage of the Western Church within the Anglican tradition.
Twice in the last six years, if I may be personal, I have been gravely ill –   largely as a result of the cure rather than the disease – and it has been the spiritual foundation in which I have grown throughout my life, the words of the familiar liturgy, the psalms and prayers, the sacrament brought to me when I couldn’t be with the people of God, which has sustained me. I would commend the good habit of Daily Offices, of Word and Sacrament which form the treasury of corporate and personal devotion, and urge that we value and treasure the normality of a fixed liturgy to which we are heirs. I am not opposing liturgical flexibility or innovation, as long as it is remembered that it is familiarity in rite and ceremony which sticks in our consciousness and through which we grow “into the fulness of the stature of Christ.”

THE AMERICAN ORDINARIATE

Yesterday the Pope officially established an American Ordinariate. Yes it’s a wretched word, to which my spellcheck and ear take offense. A couple of people have written fairly negative blogs about this event which have made me examine my own reactions. For those of you who are not up on this news, or wonder what on earth an ordinariate might be, here’s my reflection. An ordinariate is a grouping of people into common purpose and identity within the Roman Catholic Church. In America it seems to have been used to identify that church’s ministry to the military thus far. Now it is being used in a rather different manner. The new Ordinariate is a “place” in which Episcopalians and other Anglicans may establish parishes within existing Roman Catholic dioceses which may use familiar liturgical texts based on the Books of Common Prayer and presumably the ceremonial and hymnody familiar to Anglicans. What portions of these texts will be permitted remains to be seen. One notes that the new website of this grouping exhibits some prayers which have been used by Anglicans for centuries.

Married Episcopal and Anglican clergy are to lead these new parishes after ordination to the Roman Catholic diaconate and priesthood. One former Episcopalian bishop, Fr. Jeffrey Steenson, formerly Bishop of the Rio Grande, received and ordained anew a few years ago heads the Ordinariate. His former episcopal status has not been recognized -this is true of a number of Church of England bishops who have recently converted to Rome. In that most are married, they are not eligible to be consecrated as Roman Catholic bishops, for while Rome has married priests, it follows, in common with Orthodoxy, the practice of confining the episcopate to celibate clergy. St. Peter would not have been acceptable. Thus priests appointed to head these Ordinariates will have a limited jurisdiction. Although they may wear episcopal regalia they cannot ordain or assist as bishops in the ordination of other bishops.

In that all, clergy and laity, who are incorporated into these groupings must accept all Roman Catholic teachings and renounce their former convictions about the catholicity of Anglicanism, this pastoral provision is perhaps rather nostalgic . They have moved “place” and renounced who they were, but may keep their baggage, or some of it. This may be viewed as an enormous act of charity on the part of Rome and should be viewed as such. In some manner it reflects a recognition given by the second Vatican Council, which detected in Anglicanism a shade or reflection of something “catholic” which may not be as apparent in other Western Christian separated ecclesial communities. Perhaps the full force of that recognition has now been dulled by the recent pronouncement of the Roman Curia which effectively unchurches most non-Roman Catholic bodies and praises Orthodoxy somewhat faintly by remarking that the great churches of the East, although “valid”, lack that fullness which it is claimed only unity under the papacy grants.

After some years of ecumenical hope, Rome seems now to have returned to a clearer articulation of its claims to be the one, true church. Fair enough. As far as Anglicanism is concerned, we haven’t made things easier for Rome. While engaging Rome in official discussions – and the documents forged by Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the ARCIC talks are substantive and important – we have gone our own merry way, particularly in the West, as we have admitted women to Holy Orders and in North America embraced the ordination of gay people and same-sex blessings of unions. We struggle with the problem of how we may react to what we may, or may not believe to be movements of the Holy Spirit while not isolating ourselves from other Christians and even those in our own family. Certainly in the United States we retain more than a tinge of our traditional fear of “popery”, readily lumping Roman Catholics into the same status as fundamentalists, and ignoring Rome’s often enlightened approach to the problems of poverty, and its opposition to indiscriminate abortion and the death penalty. The not inconsiderable presence of former Roman Catholic clergy and laity in our midst factors into the presence of anti-Roman Catholic prejudice.

Yet progress has been made. Anglicans no longer identify Rome with the Anti Christ, or fuel their imaginations with  polemics about the Marian martyrs, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer and many priests and lay people who were executed for their faith during the reign of “Bloody Mary”. We recognize each other’s baptisms: Anglicans may be unchurched but not unChristianed!  We now pray together, even worship together. Sixty years ago almost none of this was the practice. We continue to talk officially. I have some sympathy with the Roman view that official talks with Anglicans is rather like wrestling with an octopus. What one arm embraces, the other shuns. Our own growing confusion makes it almost impossible for us to talk with each other.

The Ordinariate is not a place where Anglicans may remain Anglican while embracing communion with Rome. Its membership must accept all Roman Catholic teachings. It is perhaps significant that almost all those who joined separated Anglican bodies, those whose leadership has worked for union with Rome, have opted to remain where they are. Joining the Ordinariate isn’t merely a matter of Rome recognizing rump Anglican jurisdictions. It is not a haven for disaffected Episcopalians. This being true, the creation of this “place” for converting Episcopalians and Anglicans should not disturb us. Rather we should rejoice that converts have found their home and be glad that they are to be permitted to live into elements of a tradition forged over these past centuries by men and women of faith, who while not to be commemorated as saints and divines, have lived and died in the faith enshrined in our Prayer Books, spirituality and tradition. And perhaps that reality poses a difficulty for Rome. How is it that such people have exhibited the fruits of the Spirit which stem from hearing and receiving the Gospel and the Sacraments of the Universal Church, and that in such abundance? This Anglican tradition of teaching and spirituality, of “formation” demonstrates formidably the Work of the Trinity even among “schismatics”.

That question poses another one. Setting aside the real tragedy of disunity which weakens and compromises all parts of the Universal Church in its work and mission, in what manner does our incorrigible refusal to accept Papal claims to universal sovereignty limit the grace of God among us? Cannot Rome imagine just how the clothes of Imperial Rome and the behavior of past occupants of the See of Rome alienate and obscure our ability to recognize in her communion, as it is in practice, those marks of the true Church we embrace in theory and would love to be restored?  Certainly we have our own historic and contemporary baggage, much of which clouds our own mission and vision in the communities we serve. There’s plenty of room for shame, and none for triumphalism. I am convinced that church unity will only emerge when all portions of the Divided Church get real about themselves and own up to our corporate sins. I am delighted that Rome appreciates much in our qualities of worship and spirituality. There is much about Roman Catholicism I cherish. I am glad that converts who also cherish their past are being given a home. I wish them godspeed.

A final word about the vexed question or “valid Orders”, or ministerial authenticity. In no area perhaps do we all collude in a process which seems to tell God his own business. How dare we question that which the Christian community does in ordination? Certainly there are ordinations which are “private”, that is not for a Christian community or for a Christian community. Such are obviously not actions of the Church. Certainly Anglicans are right to want to see the episcopate as what we used to term “the fount or Orders” for the simple reason that this emerged very early on indeed as the practice of the Church. It is also true and obvious that the ministries of all the ordained are limited and compromised by our divisions and that in very practical ways. But to state that God is not involved when Christians set aside those they believed to called by God to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, simply because certain laws or rites have not been employed, seems to me to be a frightful act of arrogance. This is an arrogance to which Anglicans may be as prone or complicit as members of the Church of Rome. I believe that re-ordination is normally as sinful as re-baptism. It should only be practiced in cases where clear evidence exists that the former action lacked an essential element. It should never be employed to make a point in a game of ecclesiastical politics.