Archive for June, 2007

The Word of the Lord?

June 28, 2007

I note that Jack Spong is on a rant recently about our liturgical custom of concluding reading from scripture with “The Word of the Lord.” And the expected response: “Thanks be to God.” The precipitating event was attending his local parish church several weeks ago when the First Reading was the story of the prophet Nathan condemining David for his sins (2 Samuel 12).

The story is great. But the concluding line? “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

“The Word of the Lord!” “Thanks be to God!”

I must say I have some sympathy with Jack’s position on this. I have no difficulty declaring that I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God. In fact, I have declared that publicly at least four times — once at each ordination and once by voting for a General Convention resolution attesting to the same.

But that is different from saying that every verse, story, and chapter of the Bible is “the Word of the Lord.” The Bible itself contains progressive revelation and is, in some sense, self-correcting within its very pages.

Perhaps you have shared with me the same experience of having to stifle a smile or some embarrassment by loudly proclaiming “Thanks be to God” after the reading of some lesson in which thousands are slaughtered or babies killed by God.

I think there is a solution to this. Rather than selectively deciding which passage of scripture should be designated as “The Word of the Lord” (a very dangerous undertaking!) perhaps we should just retire the use of such a concluding statement altogether. “Here ends the Reading (Epistle)” is rubrically permitted. As is, I might add, simply letting the reading trail off into silent reflection since the rubrics are permissive (“After each Reading, the Reader MAY say…”)   

Silence is often the best response to the readings. Lectio divina can also include “arguing with” scripture in good Hebrew fashion as well as letting it convict, convert, and save us. Let us not be afraid to wrestle with scripture even as Jacob wrestled with the angel!

Thanks be to God! 

Real “Baptist Evangelism”

June 25, 2007



I just returned from the west coast where I accompanied my wife, Susanne, to the annual conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate. It’s a continuing education event and business meeting for deacons in the US and Canada, and they had over 200 gathered for this one. Not least, I’m sure, because the Presiding Bishop delivered a keynote address and spent some time with the group.

Deacons are often seen as servants who minister to the poor, the sick and the elderly in our congregations. And they do that. Or, they are seen as advocates who speak out for the marginalized and tug the sleeve of the church to remind us of our responsibilities to the lost and the last and the least. And they do that as well.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Bishop Katharine also challenged them, and the church, to take a look at another aspect of diaconal ministry – and that is our mission of evangelism and congregational development! “Instead of bishops and dioceses deciding on where new congregations or faith communities ought to be started by studying demographics and neighborhood income levels or even ethnicity,” she said, “how about asking the deacons (and lay people with diaconal ministries) where the gospel most needs to be heard – and start new communities there?” She mentioned specifically prison ministry, immigrant ommunities, and places where young people live and congregate. 

Perhaps that might be another way for deacons – and the church – to have a “John the Baptist” ministry! In the Gospel according to St. Luke, John’s father Zechariah – on the day of his son’s birth, said “…you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…” (Luke 1:76-77).

And, of course, John did that, “preparing the way” for Jesus by his own preaching, his repentance-baptism, and by stepping aside for Jesus. Peter knew about this aspect of John’s ministry and said, in Acts 13, “…as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘what do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am nor worthy to untie.”

 I think that’s a model for our evangelistic efforts as well. We don’t “convert” anybody – that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. But what we do need to do is to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.”

We need to get outside the doors of our churches and chapels, search for the lost and the last and the least, build relationships with them, and create communities in which people can be introduced to the Living God, to Jesus the Christ, and to the Holy Spirit who will do the converting if we will simply do our part.

So, whether we are lay persons, bishops, priests or deacons, let’s commit ourselves to a “John the Baptist” ministry – going before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways and giving knowledge of salvation to…people in the forgiveness of their sins.


Canada’s “Disappointing” Vote

June 25, 2007

I wonder if Canada’s “disappointing” (to some of us) votes on the blessing of same gender unions is not actually a great gift, allowing us to see where many (even “progresssive” Christians)  actually “are” on this issue.

1. Many of us believe that, while this is a matter of “doctrine” (teaching),  it is not “core” — not creedal, not in violation of what is essential to be a Christian and to be in communion with other Christians.

2. But many of us — while continuing to believe that gay and lesbian Christians are full members of the Body of Christ and, as such, are entitled to exercize any ministry within that Body to which they are called and otherwise qualified — know that we who are in a distinct “minority” within the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and certainly within worldwide Christianity  MUST hear those voices and take them seriously.

We have not done our work on this issue yet (to our shame) and, until we do, we should not be surprised when votes like those in Canada continue to frustrate our efforts.

The Episcopal Church — in my opinion — needs to pay attention to this development, be humble enough to “pause” ( in the words of our Presiding Bishop)  for a season on the “official” sanctioning of same gender union blessings and (even…as painful as this is) consenting to episcopal elections of those in same gender unions.

Otherwise, we run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war in our fight to assure that the Church lives up to its promise to “respect the dignity of every human being” — in the Church as well as in the world!

Deacons, Mission, and New Church Starts

June 22, 2007

It’s a joy for me to be an observer at the annual conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate meeting at the beautiful Seattle University here in the Pacific Northwest. A couple of hundred participants were addressed this morning by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on the topic of mission.

Those who persist in believing that the Presiding Bishop (or the Episcopal Church) now defines the mission of the Church exclusively in terms of the Millenium Development Goals will be pleased to know that her framework for today’s presentation were the Five Marks of Mission defined by the Anglican Consultative Council. (Google “Five Marks of Mission” to see them listed).

I think I was most struck by the PB’s challenge to the deacons (and the Church) to be about the mission of this 3rd Millenium Church in new ways. For example, rather than deciding on “new church starts” by demographic analyses, income predictions, even ethnicity, how about having deacons (and others) tell us where the gospel most needs to be heard and establish new communities of faith there!

Young people, she correctly pointed out, are less concerned about a “spirituality of place” and more interested in a “spirituality of practice.” New church starts and indeed the Church of the future may be less concerned with buildings and more concerned with incarnating God’s mission.

I’ve been following the so-called “emergent church” movement lately and that certainly seems to be among the distinctive characteristics of these young people. In any case, as a longtime supporter of the diaconate,  I was energized by the thought of these devoted deacons — who are in their ordination vows pledged to “interpret the needs of the world to the Church” — providing much-needed guidance to bishops and dioceses seriously interested in planting new churches which can actually be communities engaged in “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Christian “and” Muslim?

June 20, 2007

There have been some articles lately about an Episcopal priest who says she is both Christian and Muslim. I’ve actually had a few phone calls from people wondering what I think about all that!  As I understand it, this priest has recently engaged with Islam, been impressed with its spiritual disciplines, has experienced a new “submission” to God (which is the core of Islam), and how considers herself something of a bridge person between the two faiths — both of which she honors.

I also sense that the “Afro-centric” or at least “people-of-color-centric” ethos of Islam was appealing to this African American woman who, especially in the Episcopal Church, must sometimes feel pretty lonely — even with all our claims of diversity and the fact that we (still) belong to a worldwide Communion which is largely made up of people-of-color.

My opinion? While I honor any honest search for God and truth and believe this woman is embarked on such a journey, my guess is that — sooner or later — she will have to decide. I do not believe it is possible to be both a Christian and a Muslim with integrity…and I believe her to be a person of integrity.

One can honor and explore both traditions and, God knows, we need bridge-builders and interpreters of both faiths, but my experience is that Muslims respect Christians most when we are clear about what we believe, committed to it, yet are able to appreciate and honor their faith as well. Many of us who are Christian would say the same thing about Islam.

I will keep my sister in my prayers — for many reasons. Chief among them will be that she will be granted wisdom, discernment, and knowledge. And that she will remain a person of integrity.   

The Church’s “Golden Age?”

June 18, 2007

There is often a tendency, in the ecumenical movement, to romantize the earliest days of the Church’s life as some kind of “golden age.” We sometimes speak of the “undivided Church” of the first 1,000 years before the Great Schism between the East and West (when what we call today Orthodox and Catholic Christianity broke apart).

So we say things like, “Well, we were one Church for over 1,000 years, and then the Eastern and Western Churches parted ways, so there were two great expressions of Christianity. Then nearly 500 years later the Reformation happened, and Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans began to have their separate expressions…and we’ve been dividing, as Christians ever since!”

And, obviously, there is a certain amount of truth (however simplistic) in such observations. But, if we want to be honest about the matter, the Church has never been “completely one” or completely in agreement, and you don’t have to look much further than the pages of the New Testament to see that!

Less than 30 years after our Lord’s death and Resurrection, we have the chief missionary of the Church (St. Paul) writing to the Christians in Galatia and saying this about the chief apostle of the Church (St. Peter): “…when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other(s)…joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray…” (Galatians 2:11-13)

The issue here, of course, was whether or not to accept Gentiles as Christian converts directly or whether they had to become, in some sense, Jews first. Paul was clear practically from his own conversion that Gentiles should be accepted and included. Peter apparently took some time to come to that position and he, as well as other Christians in the Jerusalem church, found themselves in conflict with Paul and his colleagues about this. It got resolved, of course, over time, and it’s hard for us today to see what all the fuss was about, but it was a “church dividing” or at least a “church challenging” conflict at the time.  

It would be wonderful, I suppose, if Christians always got along and always agreed with each other, but we’re human beings and we don’t have all the answers and we sometimes come to different conclusions about important issues. Christians have disagreed about church order (how we are organized), about modes of worship, about slavery, about women’s place in the Church, and about marriage and the family, and about moral and ethical issues ranging from abortion to homosexuality!

Being Christians together does not always mean being of “one mind” together on any particular issue. What we need to be able to do, though, even when we disagree, is to “keep the main thing…the main thing!”

And what is that main thing? What are we really supposed to be all about as Christian people? Well, the Catechism in the back of our Prayer Book says that the essential mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP 853) That means, I think, that many people are estranged from God and estranged from one another, and our job is to help them end that estrangement — to become one with God and one with one another.  Indeed, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves!

Like the woman in Luke 7 (verses 36-50) and like the debtor in Jesus’ story, some of us have learned that God is a forgiving God! We’ve learned that God, not only exists, but that God’s very nature is love and that there is nothing we could ever do or think which would make God stop loving us, or being willing to forgive us!  We call that “the Good News” and it is news that many people out there desperately want and need to hear!

 They need to hear from us, as the woman in the story heard from Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven!” That’s really the main message Christians have for this world and it’s what you and I promise to proclaim every time we renew our Baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” I will. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” I will.

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” I will. That’s our mission…the mission of the Church!

I wish I could promise that the Church is a perfect place…that we all “just get along”…and that you will never find yourself in the middle of a church fight – whether it’s in a parish, a diocese, the national church, or a worldwide Communion. But I can’t promise you that – because the Church is a human, as well as divine, institution and certainly it is made up of very fallible human beings – like you and me!

What I can promise you is that the mission of the Church is the most important thing you can commit your life to – whether as a young person or an older person, whether clergy or lay, no matter where you spend most of your time on a day-by-day basis. Because everywhere you will find people who need to be reconciled to God or to another person, and your job is to help that happen.

It’s “the main thing” we do as Christians. And, if we spent more time and energy doing that, and less time and energy “un-churching” one another because we disagree about some things in today’s world, we would be carrying out the mission of the Church and would be a lot more pleasing to our God than we must sometimes be today. 

So I encourage you to re-commit yourself to Christ and the mission of his Church. And to hear again the heartfelt prayer we offered to God in our Collect last Sunday: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”   



Council to Primates

June 15, 2007

Well, it’s hard to see how Executive Council could have done anything else. Clearly, the Primates of the Anglican Communion have no authority to impose deadlines or new structures upon the Episcopal Church or any branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I wonder how the Church of England would have responded to similar requests — my guess is, exactly as we have…although the processes would have been quite different.

I would have preferred Council to have re-stated, as clearly as possible, what General Convention 2006 did say — requesting bishops and standing committees to withhold consent from any bishop-elect whose “manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”

I would also have preferred Council state, even more clearly, that General Convention has not authorized a rite for the blessing of same sex unions, nor does such a rite exist in any of our official formularies. “Local option” falls under the general rubric of “pastoral care” and “pastoral provision” which even the Windsor Report allows.

It seems to me that, if Executive Council is “the General Convention” between General Conventions, it could have at least taken that responsibility rather than “pushing this down the road” to General Convention 2009.

Having said all that, I heartily approve of Council’s reassertion of Baptism as our ultimate source of communion and of the acknowledgment that, at the end of the day,  all this church  has to offer the Communion or the wider church and world is “who we are,” not who or what others would like us to be.

Full Initiation By Water and the Holy Spirit

June 14, 2007

Arguably, the most important component of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is its emphasis on the centrality of Baptism seen most clearly in the baptismal liturgy itself (BCP page 299), the Baptismal Covenant (BCP page 304), and in the Catechism (BCP pages 854-859).

This “new” emphasis on Holy Baptism as “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” has had enormous implications for us in mission and ministry, in ecumenical relations, in eucharistic hospitality, and in the way we order ourselves as “church.”

The regular recitation of the Baptismal Covenant by congregations gathered on Sunday mornings for baptisms, confirmations, and on other special occasions has, quite literally, formed the minds and hearts of Episcopalians, particularly around our commitment to “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves…and…striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.”

I wish I could say that we were equally informed and formed by the promises to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” (i.e. by, for example, getting to church every Sunday) or “persevering in resisting evil…repenting…and returning to the Lord” (i.e. by using the sacrament of Reconciliation regularly) or “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (i.e. by inviting people to church more than once a decade)!

I would also like sermons and references to this challenging Covenant to pay as much attention to the contents of the first three paragraphs — which rehearse the contents of our Faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed — as to the last five promises on the content of Christian living.

Nonetheless, the “baptismal ecclesiology” of the Prayer Book has transformed this church for good in many ways and, because it is not universally present in the Prayer Books of other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, is one of the reasons we seem to “talk past” one another theologically in the midst of our “current difficulties” as Anglicans.

It is my prayer that the Lambeth Conference and many other Anglican gatherings in the future will provide opportunities for us to share some of these perspectives and learnings with our sisters and brothers even as we learn from them their own emphases and priorities for mission and ministry.

In Communion?

June 13, 2007

Our current Prayer Book is the first to define the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass…) as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s day.” That was a huge shift for us and it’s hard to remember that only forty years ago, many Episcopal Church’s would have offered the Eucharist only once a month at the main service. Morning Prayer (a service of Scripture, song, and prayer) three Sundays a month; Holy Communion once.

There are still some of our churches which follow that pattern, but they are in the distinct minority today. Ecumenically, there is a real re-discovery of the centrality of the Eucharist and more Protestant churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian) find themselves increasing the frequency of their celebrations of the Eucharist. This has been one of the real fruits of the ecumenical movement.

Of course, this development also presents challenges. What about small Episcopal churches (and there are many!), churches which cannot afford a fulltime (or maybe even a part-time) priest? How about those Episcopalians who have become accustomed to, and deeply value, at least weekly celebrations of the Eucharist when their church does not have access to priestly ministry?

Well, that has often driven new experiements in “ministry development!” Ministry teams, made up of lay persons, presbyters, and deacons who may be trained locally, ordained and commissioned by their congregation and diocese, and who function in non-stipendiary ways in service to the church. The Diocese of Nevada (from which our Presiding Bishop recently hails) and the Diocese of Northern Michigan (which our late friend, Jim Kelsey, served as bishop) have pioneered some of these efforts.

Being “in communion” is defined and celebrated these days by being able and willing to receive Holy Communion together. Officially, we can receive this sacrament together with all those who are baptized with water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; who repent of their sins; and who discern the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some churches (like the Roman Catholic) hold to a liturgical discipline which refrains from offering or receiving Communion from other Christians until all issues of faith and order have been resolved and a relationship of full communion has been officially reached.

All this is why it is so distressing when some members of our own Anglican family refuse to receive Holy Communion with, say, our former or current Presiding Bishop because they disagree with our positions on some theological or ethical issue. They are, in a sense, “excommunicating” themselves since one refrains from receiving the sacrament, historically, when one perceives sin — not within someone else — but within oneself and wishes to avoid “eating and drinking judgment upon themselves” (I Corinthians 11)

And when bishops refuse to receive Communion together, it is hard to see how we are — truly — an Anglican Communion today. We may be a “wannabe” Communion, but sadly, we are currently more like a federation of churches.

That’s why, with all its present imperfections, we may need something like an Anglican Covenant to give shape to this global fellowship of churches, at least for those of us who desire to be “in communion!”

The Peace: Not An Early Coffee Hour

June 10, 2007

Although it may be hard to remember, the re-introduction of the “Passing of the Peace” in the eucharistic liturgy was one of the most controversial of the changes effected by the revision of the Book of Common Prayer (perhaps second only to calling God “you” rather than “thou”)! There are a few hold-outs today, grim-faced folks who sit on their hands while their sisters and brothers in Christ greet one another in the name of the Lord, but most people have come to rather like it.

Whether or not they understand what they like is, of course, another matter. The liturgical exchange of the Peace is not an early coffee hour!  Placed in the Roman rite (and in some Anglican usage) just before receiving Communion, the gesture is supposed to be a liturgical acting-out of our desire to “first be reconciled” to our brothers and sisters before coming forward to “offer our gift at the altar,” and to eat of the Bread and drink of the Cup.

I rather like where it is placed in most of our churches, however, which is right after the Confession and Absolution and before the Offertory. It provides a natural break in the liturgy, between the Ministry of the Word and the Preparation of the Gifts, and suggests that we are willing to DO something in response to our being forgiven for our sins against God and our neighbor.

But it is the Peace of the Lord that we are sharing with one another, not the latest parish gossip! That doesn’t mean it has to be done in a stiff or formal manner. It does not mean that we must only ritualistically utter “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” But “Hey, Jack, what’s happening?” is probably not quite sufficient!

“God’s peace”…”Shalom”…”the Peace of the Lord”…even “God bless you”…seem a little closer to what liturgiologists (ancient and modern) had in mind when they made this part of the central act of Christian worship. Grateful and joyful that we have been forgiven from all our sins and reconciled to God through confession and absolution, the least we can do is express our willingness to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers in that same Lord.

Perhaps you have had the experience, as I have, of being “forced” to exchange that Peace with someone in the congregation with whom you really are estranged. It can be a powerful moment! That doesn’t mean one has to dash all over the nave, finding someone to be truly reconciled with!  But such moments provide the context and memory of what this simple, liturgical moment is supposed to be all about. After all, we need to be reconciled to God and to one another…

That We All May Be One!