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SAINTLY?

Anglicans don’t seem to be much good about choosing saints. (I’m using the word Anglican because it reaches wider than “Episcopalian” and serves better as an adjective!) The problem is that we are not sure what a saint is and we are a bit uncomfortable about the whole notion of some group or other sitting around a table coming up with a list of suitable deceased people who can meet the approval of a Provincial Synod, and perhaps be included in a heavy tome sold by church bookshops to further litter sacristies or clergy bookshelves. Perhaps we know that originally, in those blessed days -even days were saintly then – there were neither provincial synods nor committees, standing or otherwise.

 

 

Once the Church stumbled into the saint business, it seemed pretty clear that New Testament heroes were saints, even if they weren’t without sins or faults. If you were reading or listening to the “Philemon” lesson last Sunday, rather than judging whether the reader was pronouncing those names correctly, you would have noticed saintly Paul being manipulative and ‘snarky’. Peter betrayed his Lord. Thomas doubted.

 

 

Churches were built over the graves of saintly martyrs and soon were called by that saint’s name. Local people began to revere a man or woman, or woman or man, whose life and deeds inspired them. The experts call that a cultus. The Jim Jones’ group of besotted followers is called a cult in a sort of devilish reversal of definitions. The Devil has his heroes.

 

 

I find it easier to describe what a saint isn’t. Top of my list is that a saint isn’t someone whose passion is for a cause that describes his or her own condition or circumstance. Such a person may be called an advocate but that doesnt necessarily denote heroic virtue. I don’t mean that a saintly person can’t champion a cause. It just shouldn’t rank above daily, perhaps hourly praise and love for God: a similar love for creation and all created things for what they are rather than for what they aren’t. I can just manage to love the skill and care involved in the creation of a bedbug, and perhaps the wretched thing has a purpose, although I must trust God on that one and wish he hadn’t bothered, but hand me the bug spray. A saint is found to have prayed hard, adored intentionally, interceded regularly and confessed honestly. It was by performing such tasks that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. Perhaps being nice or nasty is a character trait, both of  which can be worked on. Being good is a gift from God and increases as a person cooperates with God and loves neighbor. Yes, this is all about love, or rather about loving, but I didn’t mention that because the word has been sentimentalized. It has become all about feelings rather than doings. You can’t feel your way to sanctity. The list of virtues above is applicable as a rule for us all. Rule? Hang on, perhaps that’s our problem. We’ve succumbed to the idea that spontaneity is next to godliness. It isn’t. Being saintly is a hard, disciplined slog.

 

 

As I list these positive virtues I begin to realize why Anglicans are uncomfortable about saints. Their qualities make us feel rather uncomfortable. They are so religious! Anglicans are reticent folk. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves and we tend to think that the call to a holy life is fine in theory, but impractical and, well, perhaps a bit odd. We tend to think of clergy in the same way, unless they fall from grace and then we are indignant that they didn’t live up to a standard we think to be impracticable and rather odd. It was by performing religious tasks, that is praying, that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. I better say that again. Goodness is God’s gift to us. We didn’t inherit it from grandma, or learn it from our parents. The notion that doing good makes us good at praying is an upside-down idea. Praying makes us good at loving.

 

 

We’ve all probably met a saint without knowing it. Most saints are never canonized and never recognized. Whether recognized or not these holy women and men lift up the Church, its calling and mission and support it by their intercessions. If we get to know a saint, either a living one or one who is much more alive than the living, we will probably experience one of those embarrassing moments, when, in the words of the hymn, “we want to be one too.” What we do at that moment is up to us, or rather a matter of our allowing grace to pierce our cynicism. To succumb to grace (the word grace means gift) is the beginning of a disappointing life. Every time we really try to be saintly we will fail. “Following the good example” of saints, the substitution made in collects for the old idea of asking for their prayers, invites failure. I can no more become saintly by imitating Saint Bede, than I can become a concert pianist by sitting at a piano and imitating one. But perhaps if I practice my scales, and get a teacher, I may learn to knock out a tune on the piano and if I learn how to pray I may become someone who is saintly, probably not very saintly but who knows? I’ve strayed a bit from wondering how someone is recognized as a saint to how one becomes a saint, but I thought if I started by giving suggestions about how you may become saintly you’d be too embarrassed to read on.

SIT DOWN (Sermon for August 28, )

PROPER 17, 2016 St. Luke 14: 7-14

We all need to be noticed. Being lost in the crowd can be a frightening experience. Recognition feels good. Unfortunately it can become a drug, driving us to extremes in order to feel the rush of pleasure experienced when someone important smiles and speaking our name, guides us to an adjacent seat at the dinner table.

 

St. Luke, reputed to be both a doctor and an artist paints a picture in vivid colors and not without a tinge of humor. One sees Jesus, in the home of a pious rich man, leaning against a pillar as guests bend over to see if they have a place at table close to their important host.

 

 

Don’t think of a modern dining room table, or “high table” at a banquet. Jesus was looking at a number of low tables against which were arranged couches, which looked rather like an antique chaise longe. One lay down, head on large pillows, and faced sideways. One doesn’t know whether there were place cards. Perhaps at a feast to which the important and the self important were invited, there may have been cards. At any rate one imagines the scene as the guests frantically seek recognition, a recognition granted by being close to influence and power.

 

St. Luke quotes Jesus: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 

He told them a parable.” A child once defined a parable as being a heavenly story with no earthly meaning. Nothing could be further than the truth in this case. But we must be careful. This isn’t a useful story to share with the upwardly mobile or a lesson in etiquette. Episcopalians are often described as the former and alleged to be obsessed with the latter. We may seem to be more interested in good taste than in good theology: more intent on success than salvation. Congregations, if they can, spend a good deal of money on vestments, furniture, choirs and organs, guitars and studied, tasteful informality. Evangelism is back in fashion. The finance committee hopes and prays that the Jesus Movement will bring people of means who will solve the budget crunch. Perhaps such people will be asked to come up higher.

 

Jesus, having annoyed the guests by delivering his short, withering story about snobbery, suddenly moves the message, addressing those who have sought recognition from their puritanical host but now addressing them as potential hosts. Instead of inviting to dinner those who inflate their egos because they are seeking recognition, they are to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

Notice the last phrase. The host of the feast to which Jesus has been invited is a Pharisee. The word means a Righteous or Pious one. A hundred and fifty years earlier Israel was a province of the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The local governor encouraged the Jews to adopt Greek customs and religious observances. A Jewish priest and his sons rebelled and founded a society to uphold and preserve the Jewish Law and religious observances. In Jesus’s time these Pharisees attacked those who compromised with Roman culture. They believed that by keeping the ritual and moral law they would, when the Messiah came, be “repaid” with the best seats at the table. Those who obviously didn’t observe the law were to be shunned. They had no place at the table. That they were poor, crippled, lame and blind was proof of their depravity. If they were responsible, respectable, Torah-observing people they wouldn’t be poor or ill. At the very least the sins of their fathers were visited on them.

 

Leaning against a wall in the dining room of a Pious One, Jesus quietly disturbed the religious and social order. More than disturbing it, he overthrew it. No wonder they planned his assassination. How could religion as an effective moral force against power survive such an assault? “He takes down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” So sang Jesus’s holy mother, so often that it is quoted in the Gospels. Jesus had learnt well.

 

Of course the poor and ill are not automatically to be seated next to Jesus at the heavenly banquet any more than the rich are to be rejected: Jesus does seem to suggest the rich may have a harder time, particularly where wealth and self-righteousness combine to form character. That’s not the point here. The point is, if anything, more troubling. We are called to seek out those we don’t often see in church on Sunday. We may champion them, feed and clothe them, but what about asking them to kneel next to us at the communion rail? We may share with them daily bread, but what about the Bread of Life? Jesus, the Host, invites all who work and labor to enjoy his peace and rest.

 

If we could hear the Jesus who as Risen Lord deigns to be our guest this morning, what parable would he tell? How might we react?

Calling the Shots

http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/07/20/calling-the-shots/?platform=hootsuiteCalli

 

I care for two small missions. One is so small that half the members serve on the mission committee and all are involved.

 

The second is larger, with an ASA of around 30. A group of about a dozen do all the work and call the shots. I don’t mean that they ignore the views, wishes, and ideas of the rest: sometimes they would be delighted to hear from them.

 

Both congregations have representatives at the deanery and diocesan level.

 

I work in a largely homogeneous diocese (Springfield). We have one parish that some might call progressive, but if it were elsewhere in the Episcopal Church it would be very moderate indeed. Our last diocesan synod came shortly after the 2015 General Convention, which adopted a resolution removing impediments to same-sex marriage, but left it up to diocesan bishops to determine practice in their own diocese: some could allow same-sex marriages in their dioceses, others could forbid them. Our bishop chose the latter. In doing so he reflected his own views and those of most people in the diocese, but not all. The tensions showed in diocesan synod. Traditionalists called the shots. Progressives “lost.”

 

However, we are a kind group and so there was no sign of the pain and anger demonstrated at last week’s General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, when it seemed to reject the first reading of a same-sex marriage resolution and then, after discovering a miscount, reversed itself. Perhaps the matter was made worse because a dramatic pastoral response came immediately for progressives when they seemed to lose, but was not immediately given to traditionalists when the vote was reversed. To give him his due, the Canadian primate apologized movingly for such oversight.

 

If our congregations seem at peace with themselves at the local and diocesan level, it stops there. This has been true of the Diocese of Springfield now for more than half a century. It was therefore heartening for us to hear our fairly new presiding bishop assure us that we have a valued place in the Episcopal Church. I’m sure he means it. Bishop Curry has a large heart. Perhaps it is churlish to wonder what he means by “valued.” One may be valued because one is useful, or has valuable insights. On the other hand, one may be valued rather like an aged relative, a relic of a long gone age, valued like an antique sideboard.

 

Let me grasp the nettle. In company with many in this diocese, I oppose same-sex marriage. How on earth may I be valued? Surely I must be a hard-hearted bigot, a homophobe of the deepest die? I probably have a statue of Donald Trump next to that of Our Lady.

 

Have patience with me as I propose why I should be valued: because I am a human being. I’m baptized. Therefore, like you, I belong in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, a.k.a. “the Jesus Movement” in these latter days. How good, bad, or indifferent a Christian I’ve turned out to be remains to be seen.

 

But I don’t believe people of the same sex can be married. Notice I said can, not may. I don’t believe the matter is one of permission, like divorce, but of possibility, like my being able to climb Mont Blanc. It has nothing to do with whether I like or love someone, or whether I endorse this or that group (I’m not good at belonging to groups.) I don’t doubt the state may permit same-sex marriage. In America, the state is separate from the Church. (I wish it wouldn’t steal the Christian vocabulary, you know, words like marriage and matrimony, but there it is.)

 

I have a view that I suggest the Church should value. I don’t believe that doctrine should be legislated, period. This was once a fairly common view in Anglican circles. The great shifts in doctrinal emphasis (I prefer emphasis to development) in our tradition have occurred as “voluntary” efforts. Jeremy Taylor, Henry Hammond, John Cosin, out of jobs and influence in Cromwellian England, proposed a Catholic emphasis. The Wesley brothers, George Whitfield, Fletcher, Toplady, met, prayed, preached, wrote hymns, and transformed the church in an evangelical direction. The Tractarians met in a country rectory and wrote Tracts on apostolicity. Their message echoed across the Anglican world. Anglican bishops began to meet at Lambeth, to lead us not by binding and dividing legislation, but by example and counsel.

 

Since World War Two all this has changed. We’ve made over our synods in the image of national secular legislative assemblies. We’ve created ruling parties, funded lobbies, and adopted all the tricks of secular politics. In the process we’ve won battles and alienated many. We now believe that anything is possible by majority vote.

 

Now, had the issue of how the Church is to respond to those who are attracted to someone of their own sex been discussed, worked on, and considered in practical ways in our congregations, there would have been passion, division, liturgical confusion, and the common sense of the people of God invoked, in the context of the normal life of the church.

 

Practical pastoral experience would have informed the debate until, at some time in the future, what emerged would have been accepted, amended, or rejected long after the heat of passion and partisanship dissipated. In both the Evangelical and Catholic revivals there were parishes in which things went on that infuriated bishops and scandalized many. Permitting such lawlessness just couldn’t be tolerated. Where the Church chose power, the right to enforce its will, it made martyrs but effected little else. Where the Church chose to follow Gamaliel, extremism was tempered by wisdom. The Church was able to do much, but at no time did it deny the teachings handed down by the Apostles, simply because it eschewed the legislative option.

 

Discussion, experimentation, and biblical and theological hard work done in the Church should never focus on individual and corporate rights — for the only claim we have is to mercy — but rather on our duty to our Lord as members of his Body. Far from weakening our claim for justice (and mercy), an emphasis on corporate duty establishes equality. Majoritarianism creates novel and shifting forms of inequality. That our underclass is traditionalist in no way justifies the system.

 

We cannot keep dividing, purifying ourselves until only the elect remain, and we join the Plymouth Brethren in exclusive isolation.

ALONE IN STATE

He lay there, alone in the church he led for a decade. The mitre Louise had made for him by Wippell, alone distinguished the scene from any other perhaps old fashioned funeral. The scene was so evocative of the man whose strife was finally over, sixteen years after he was diagnosed with cancer. He was a private man, a privacy sometimes mistaken for loneliness, sometimes for aloofness, until a smile lit up his mutton-chopped framed expressive face and a quip put his interlocutor at ease. He could be stern, but always with reconciliation in mind. He could infuriate the powerful to whom the exercise of power seemed necessary no matter the effect on relationships.

 

Edward Lloyd Salmon always believed that Jesus called us into relationship with God and each other. There it was, nothing more, nothing less. He became fascinated with systems that promoted healthy relationships, not merely as theory, but as means to restore and strengthen the fabric of families, churches and communities. Within days of his death his large fingers, appended to huge hands were still pecking out words of encouragement to a leader who left the church, a young priest in conflict with his bishop, a parish in an uneasy relationship with its diocese and a troubled couple. Called to the ministry of reconciliation, he practiced what he preached. The practice was not without pain. He was misunderstood, rejected by erstwhile friends and humiliated by the powerful.

 

Yet when he died one of the finest tributes came from the bishop of one of the most progressive dioceses in our church. Alas, the pile of letters of condolence contained not one word from our church’s leadership. Six years ago he and other bishops were ordered to recant their opposition to a theory that locates power in the church in the hands of a few elected officials. To Ed. Salmon, such a location and concentration of power was the very antithesis of his  theory and practice of Christian relationships. Fear of division over sexual matters issued  an ecclesial version of the Patriot Act. Ed. Salmon believed that a theory of coercion, born in panic, hastened division and schism. He grieved to see his former diocese, in which he had labored with success for seventeen years, one of the few dioceses that grew in an era of decline, split and wander into mutual recrimination. He loved the Episcopal Church, into which he was baptized and confirmed in rural Mississippi. (One of his oldest friends was a black seminarian with whom he traveled to VTS each term, forsaking white privilege in that segregated era by staying in black friendly places on the way.)  And there he was, aged seventy-six, after a life of service to the church he loved, accused of  disloyalty.  He recanted. But he remained convinced that a policy of division was the antithesis of the Gospel.

 

We spoke together often of how the church might respond with affirming pastoral care to LGBT people without requiring men and women to renounce the holy vocation to which Jesus calls them in Matrimony. Called at a moment when most seek a leisurely retirement to be dean of Nashotah House, he affirmed its historic mission as an Episcopal Church seminary to train ordinands in academic and formational excellence and its accidental vocation to welcome and train ordinands from separated Anglican churches. When he invited the then Presiding Bishop to visit the campus he was stung by the level of vituperation aimed at him by traditionalists to whom that which divides is all important. Not for Bishop Salmon. He believed that all that was important was the relationships we enjoy together because Jesus came, died, rose and lives for us. How we respond to such love is often inconsistent, messy, self-serving and even hypocritical. Yet in our response there is to be discovered relationships in themselves godly and redeeming.

 

I was privileged to be included among the “outer family”during his last years, to be welcomed and to share in his last battle. It is tragic that in the divisions that beset us, the unity of Ed. Salmon’s vision is dragged out of focus by being appropriated by factions. He didn’t join factions. He wasn’t an Anglo Catholic or an Evangelical, a progressive or a traditionalist. At heart he remained a mere Episcopalian, what might be called a Southern Catholic. His religion was developed and defined by Scripture – he loved the Gospel stories -and the Prayer Book. He loved his family, his dogs, his house and his routine. He loved to be on the road amassing friends and encouraging relationships. He was the last Edwardian. I miss him. May he rest in peace.

BUT WHO LISTENS?

I was glad to read the recent “Word to the Church” unanimously adopted by the House of Bishops at the conclusion of their retreat held at Camp Allen.  Such unanimity is a rare phenomenon for our church is divided between largely right of center laity – the proverbial person in the pew and even not a few priest at the altar and bishop on his cathedra- and those who exercise authority among us.

 

After the defections of the first decade of the twenty-first century we are a much more homogenous group that at any time since TEC organized itself. This makes getting unanimous or nearly unanimous votes easier to obtain among our bishops. To be able to comment on the state of affairs in the nation, with its accompanying polemics, deep partisan divisions and ad hominem attacks without blushing or perhaps being wiped out by thunderbolts indicates that the days of war are largely gone from among us. Much credit must rightly go to our new Presiding Bishop who, despite a serious illness, has directed the church’s attention towards reconciliation and evangelism. His Easter message bids us to believe that Jesus died and rose again and that the resurrection is not a myth but rather the sure hope for all people. (My cavil is that I don’t believe the myth that Christians can create the coming Kingdom by our love. We can and should announce the Kingdom and seek to create a more caring world, but the Kingdom will come “like a thief in the night” as God alone decrees.)

 

This leads me to my point. When Harry Truman was President, he turned to the then Presiding Bishop to head a Civil Rights Commission. Even then, at the height of our numerical strength, we numbered around 3000,000 members. Among those parishioners were members of Congress, judges, ambassadors, governors and other prominent citizens, in disproportionate number to our actual strength. In short, we had influence. Today we are less than half the strength and our influence has dwindled.

 

We tend to function as if we still had a ready hearing. But who listens? As we have shrunk, we have become the more partisan. The conservative party at prayer has become the progressive movement in church. Our General Convention adopts a huge number of resolutions on political and social matters unheard or read by the powers that be. Our largely right of center laity either bristles at or ignores these resolutions. Thus when our General Convention or in this case our House of Bishops has a non-partisan, objective “word” for our church and hopefully through Episcopalians to the nation, who listens, who hears? In large part we have squandered the utility of our national pulpit because we haven’t the discipline to give objective moral guidance to the church and nation, or we simply assume that our political opinions are gospel. (Conservative denominations make the same untroubled assumption.) Separation of Church and State thus becomes a legal fiction as “culture”, or rather “cultures” inseparably connected to national dogmas, shape the manner in which Church, or the churches, frame the content of the the Christian Faith.

 

The bishops had something to say, something a troubled nation needs to hear. I hope that message gets a wide hearing in our congregations. I really do. But I fear that if our bishops wish to regain their moral authority they must prove that they have forsaken the recent past, a past in which they engaged in church politics as divisive as that which we witness daily in the media. Yes, we have lost our own sisters and brothers to separated churches, but we have lost many more because they were caught in the middle, and saw much passion and little love as congregations, dioceses and the church divided and fought. If they had a voice now,surely they would cry, “Physician, heal thyself.”

 

 

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

THE LAMBETH WALK

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his capacity as chief bishop of the Anglican Communion, has invited his fellow primates to a meeting at his home next January. (A primate, variously enjoying the title of archbishop or presiding bishop, is the senior bishop of one of the 30+ self governing churches which have historic roots in the English Church. Communion has its root in a Greek word, used in the New Testament to describe the relationship that exists between Christians and their local churches with God and with each other.)

Archbishop Welby is asking the primates to come together to pray, to invoke the Holy Spirit, to examine the recent history of the Communion, to contemplate the future and to be honest with one another. None of those objects seems to be controversial. His invitation of Archbishop Foley Beach of the break away Anglican Church of North America may dismay the official Anglican Churches in Canada and the United States. He is not a full participant and it is difficult to see how a full and frank discussion about the causes of disunity -those that drove people out of the two churches; those encouraged by overseas intervention – may be successfully achieved without his presence. All this is very much in line with the reconciliation process, forged in South Africa and Northern Ireland and refined by the people at Coventry Cathedral. One of those people was Canon Justin Welby.

There has been much speculation about what the Archbishop is up to. Those on the left think that Welby is being realistic and will suggest that the Communion reorganize to be a sort of ecclesiastical Rotary International but with fewer rules. That would leave “progressive” churches to enjoy the word Anglican while being free to do as they please without constraint. Those on the right, if they brave attending at all, hope that the archbishop will propose throwing out the offending provinces and re-creating the Church as it was when Edward VI died. Both want the authenticity that comes with claiming some sort of genealogical heritage without having to offer up anything. I think both misjudge the archbishop.

Justin Welby is a convinced Christian with his roots in evangelicalism. This does not mean that he hasn’t been refreshed and renewed by Catholicism, the sacramental and spiritual disciplines of the historic church. Nor should one think that he is devoid of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. He is not likely to be impressed by nationalism masquerading as ecclesiology, either in its American of Global South variations.

I will leave further speculation to the English newspapers, and those whose fear overrides hope. We know a few things. The invitation has gone out. The primates are to assemble, pray, invoke the Holy Spirit, review the events and decisions of the past forty years, and consider the future of the Communion as chief bishops of their own churches and collectively leaders of the Communion. We know nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps the best response is for Anglicans across the globe to similarly pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide the thought and actions of our Chief Pastors.