Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Can we hold truths lightly?

Grandmère Mimi left the following comment on my post "Still More Questions." I found my reply was getting so long that I wanted to bring it into a post of its own. Then as I was writing it, I decided to cut it way back.

Allen, I would ask Bishop Katharine which truths we are to hold lightly. Are we to hold lightly that it's not permissible to have a two-tiered membership in the church? Are we to hold lightly that it's not right that certain of the baptized members are not allowed full participation?

If I come to see full inclusion as a matter of justice, then how can I hold that belief lightly? I can regulate what actions I take, but I don't understand what she means by holding this sort of truth lightly..One of the reasons I began to write on my blog is that I did not want to be causing a stir in my church by talking about the subject often.

I use my blog as an outlet, or I would explode. Members of my church know who I am now, and a few read my blog. I'm sure some of them don't much care for what they read there, but they don't have to visit. It's not as though I'm standing next to them haranguing them constantly.

We can curb our words and our actions, but hold our truths lightly? I don't think so,

Dear Mimi,

I don’t know why I am so bent on defending Bishop Katharine – or maybe I do. She’s in an impossible situation. Well, not impossible, but very difficult. I can relate to that, for over the past twenty eight years I have served on the board of my housing co-op three times (five of those years as president) and I have had to preside and try to keep peace during some very contentious times.

I still think that you, Jonathan the MadPriest, the folks at Stand Firm, and lots of others are taking Bishop Katharine's words in too wide a sense and maybe also in too literal a sense.

I don’t think she is asking anyone to hold truths lightly in the sense you mean, at least I don’t want to believe that she is.

People on our side believe that we are called by the gospel to the truths you name – our hermeneutic is such that we are forced to interpret scriptural texts in a particular way. We read scripture through the lens of what we see as God’s desire for distributive justice. But there are sincere, faithful people in the church who don’t see it that way – they have a different hermeneutic.

Just as it is true for us that in Christ there is no distinction among persons (male nor female, straight nor gay, and more,) it is true for those on the other side that Scripture unequivocally condemns same-sex behavior.

How can those on either side hold their truths lightly, if “lightly” means something like saying “This is true, but it doesn’t matter much if you don’t agree “ For those on both sides, it matters a great deal.

Some of us hold our truths tightly and wield them like clubs. I think that is what Bishop Katharine is referring to when she speaks of holding truths more lightly.

There's a lot more I could say -- indeed I have it in draft form, but I'll leave it there.

Let me close with this thought. On Sunday we heard a reading from Jeremiah: 23 that started with these words: Woe to the shepherds who have destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord. ... It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.

I think that Bishop Katharine is doing her best not the scatter the flock.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Still More Questions

For the past week I have been trying to put together a post about some statements by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that I first saw mentioned at Susan Russell’s An Inch At A Time. The statements were reported in an article in the Los Angeles Times with the curious title “Episcopal leader seeks to mend church rift.”

I was struck by the strength of the responses in the blogs to one remark in particular: “Perhaps, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could hold their truths more lightly, they might yet find a way forward – together.” [In the article, only the words “hold their truths more lightly” are directly attributed to Bishop Katharine.] People on both sides were offended by that remark. MadPriest called it “stupid,” and several others were even more unkind.

I think Bishop Katharine is uttering the hope that we will all take to heart the advice given in James 1:19b-20a. Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. But Bishop Katharine is fully aware how difficult that advice is. “I think the center of the church has heard the message,” she said. “But it’s more of a struggle for people on the edge of the progressive part and the edge of the more conservative part. Both believe in utter faithfulness that they’re right ... and there’s less patience that God will work all things out in the end.”

At her blog Telling Secrets, Elizabeth Kaeton considers “the Great Divide” in our church “between Evangelical Episcopalians/Anglicans and the rest of us in North America.” She was particularly probing to find reasons that account for the “harsh, often violent rhetoric” coming from the “right” and she proposes that part of the answer may lie in class.

Referring both to her own experience growing up and to an essay called “Not My Father’s Religion” by Doug Muder, a Unitarian Universalist pastor, Elizabeth Kaeton points out that many working class people have no time for the luxuries of discernment and asking critical questions and in fact these particular luxuries can often be perceive as dangerous to survival. Life is harsh for many working class people – people who don’t have much room to make mistakes tend to see life in black and white terms. Elizabeth suggests that this may account for “Evangelical resistance – no, repulsion, actually – to ambiguity and paradox, which, for me, are two of the compelling parts which form the nexus of the Spirit of Anglicanism.”

I think both Doug Muder and Elizabeth Kaeton are on to something. Understanding class issues is important in trying to understand what is going on both in our church and in other churches.

Yet I find “harsh, often violent rhetoric” coming from people on the progressive side of this struggle as well as from people on the conservative side. It’s my experience that harsh and violent rhetoric and indeed actual violence usually comes from a place of pain (or remembered pain, or fear of pain.) Class issues can account for some of the pain, but there is also pain that stems from actual personal injuries. That means there are injured people in this struggle who are in need of healing.

So when Bishop Katharine says “it’s a struggle for those at the edges of both the progressive and the conservative parts of the church,” she’s absolutely correct, but when she continues “because both sets of people believe with utter faithfulness that they are right,” she’s only partly right. There’s a lot more to it besides believing we are right. Now I can speak only from the progressive side, and only from a small place on this side. From here I see faithful lesbian and gay sisters and brothers bearing witness to the truth that LGBT folk are God’s children just like everyone else and that no one chooses to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or “queer.” Of course, “the current debate over sexuality and Scripture” is mostly about how LGBT people live, not about who we are. (The sad Jeffrey John episode in the Church of England indicates that it is not really as simple as that.)

I suggest that Bishop Katharine is speaking mostly to and about the “center”of the Episcopal Church. It is in relation to that center that she is suggesting that a way forward together might be found if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could hold their truths more lightly. I see the “current debate over sexuality and Scripture” as mostly about authority – authority in the church, authority in the Anglican communion, and the authority of the Bible. But it is also about hermeneutics and about enculturation. Some on the right also see improper accommodation to secular society or even syncretism. It is a debate in which, to use Elizabeth Kaeton’s words, ambiguity and paradox play a major role. Or to use the formulation of John Dominic Crossan, it is a debate about choosing between the radicality of God’s distributive justice and the normalcy of civilization’s retributive justice.

The first chapter of James’s Epistle concludes: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1: 26-27.

Paul, at end of chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians says “I will show you a still more excellent way.” That way is the way of love. Bridling our tongues, and holding our truths lightly are not the same as ceasing to bear witness to the truth, but are rather part of the way that we can beat witness in a loving manner.

I am not completely satisfied with what I have written here and I put it forward as a kind of thinking out loud, much as Elizabeth Kaeton did with her piece quoted above.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.

The collect for yesterday (and indeed for most of the whole week) was composed for the second Sunday in Advent for first English Prayer Book in 1549:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. (Spelling and punctuation from the English Book of Common Prayer.)

At his sermon blog, Ekklesiastes, Tobias Haller posted a sermon for this Sunday last year. The lessons were different (it was year B: Daniel 12:1-4a[5-13]; Hebrews 10: 31 - 39; Mark 13: 14 - 23) but the sermon makes sense even without having heard (or read) the lessons. Tobias began with a reflection on the perception that Episcopalians don’t generally know the Bible as well as we might. He went on to explicate the famous phrase in this collect, often misstated as “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” but actually “hear ..., read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

We Episcopalians do get to hear a good deal more Scripture in church than many of our Protestant brothers and sisters. But that is hearing. As for reading, Tobias commends “regular daily Bible reading, especially through the church’s Daily Office, which is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer starting on page 936 — a program of daily prayer and Scripture. The Daily Office will lead you through all the most important parts of the Bible over a two-year period — and not only you, but the thousands of people throughout the church who will be reading the same passages each day — as if we we’re all part of a huge church without walls — which, if you think of it, we are!”

This Collect was somewhat tendentious in its day. Massey H. Shepherd reminds us, in The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, that the refeference to “all holy Scriptures” recalls Archbishop Cranmer’s criticism “in the Preface of the 1549 book that in the old medieval service books all the scriptures were not read.” That preface is reprinted on pages 866-867 of the 1979 American Prayer Book.

Shepherd also points out that “the Prayer Book set forth an orderly schedule for the reading of the entire Bible during the course of every year.” In his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion J. Hatchett says more correctly that the first Prayer Book provided for the reading of “almost the whole of the Scriptures” in a year. In the word of the first Prayer Book itself:

The old Testament is appointed for the first Lesson, at Matins and Evensong, and shall be read through every year once, except certain books and chapters, which be least edifying, and might best be spared, and therefore are left unread.
the new Testament is appointed for the second Lesson, at Matins and Evensong, and shall be read over orderly every year thrice, beside the Epistles and Gospels: except the Apocalypse, out of which there be only certain Lessons appointed upon diverse proper feasts. (Everyman edition, spelling modernized.)

I have to admit that I have not kept up the discipline of reading the Daily Office in recent years. Oremus provides a Daily Office either online or by email and has links to other offices, including one that follows the Episcopal Church’s two year lectionary commended by Tobias.

Today is thirteen days before the start of the new liturgical year and I decided to try again to read the office regularly – particularly so as to read scripture. Perhaps I can keep it up.

I presented the collect above in its “traditional”form because of the phrase “by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word.” Both Massey Shepherd and Marion Hatchett remind us that this 16th century phrase means “by steadfastness and by the encouragement (or strengthening) of the Scriptures.”

Reading and understanding Scripture is hard work, But it is also rewarding work. Reading and understanding 16th century English is also hard work. So hard, in fact, that the talented people on the Standing Liturgical Commission in the 1970's were unable to find a euphonious modernisation of the words "by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word," so they left the phrase out.

In the hymn below, I take Coverdale’s words “comforted me” to mean something like “bucked me up” rather than “soothed me.”

I call on thee, Lord Jesus Christ,
I have none other help but thee.
My heart is never set at rest
till thy sweet word have comforted me.
And steadfast faith grant me therefore,
to hold by thy word evermore,
above all thing,
never resisting
but to increase in faith more and more.

Miles Coverdale
(Hymn 634 in The Hymnal 1982)

This hymn comes from Coverdale's "Ghostly Psalms and Spiritual Songs," published in the late 1530's and is the first verse of what appears to me to be in part a paraphrase of Johann Agricola's 1530 hymn which Bach set as the text of Cantata BWV 177.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Questions

Last Wednesday evening, Liz and I attended the inaugural Graymoor Lecture in a new series sponsored by the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute (GEII) here in New York. GEII is a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. The Friary is located at Graymoor, in Garrison, NY, about 40 miles north of New York City, but the GEII is appropriately located in the Interchurch Center, a few blocks from where Liz and I live. For about ten years, Liz was an Associate Director of the Institute.

Wednesday’s lecture was by Paul Knitter, a distinguished lay Roman Catholic theologian who since last January has been the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. His topic was The Religions Today: Their Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement. What follows are some of the points I took from Knitter’s talk – I have not done justice to the coherence of his presentation and I have almost certainly distorted some of his points. One thing I have certainly left out is the consciously tentative manner in which Knitter was putting these ideas and questions forward.

In the ecumenical movement today, Christians by and large focus on the things we in the different traditions have in common rather than the things that divide us. Using the metaphor of we Christians living in a large ecclesial apartment house in a neighborhood with other religions, Knitter set out the proposition that if we want to get along with the other religions in our neighborhood, we Christians need to work out some internal issues.

Knitter presents three questions that other religions might ask us. Each of the three questions raises additional questions for us Christians.

First, can we be fellow neighbors? To truly answer this as Christians we need to ask are the many religions God’s will? Is religious pluralism more than just a matter of fact? Is it that diversity will not go away because it is not supposed to go away?

Second, can we be fellow peacemakers?
Both the violence of 9/11 and the violence after 9/11 are connected to religion. Religion is the match or the fuel that feeds violence. Can we Christians renounce both physical and religious violence?

People use violence to exploit or to defend against exploitation. It helps both the President of the United States and the Ayatollah to have God on their side.

There seems to be a direct link between claims to religious superiority and religious violence. We have to ask does the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus exclude other incarnations. Knitter says that Aquinas does not exclude other incarnations, although he did not affirm that there were any other incarnations either. This is particularly important in our intraChristian dialogue with evangelicals. Any questioning of the absoluteness of the revelation in Jesus Christ must be done in a way that does not diminish our witness to the universality of Jesus

Third, can we be fellow spiritual pilgrims? Can we engage in a communication in sacredness with other religions?

Is there a religious reality that transcends our own religious tradition? When we take religious pluralism seriously we are being offered an opportunity to learn more about God than we can in our Christian tradition alone. Edward Schillebeeckx has said that there is more truth in all religions than in one (including Christianity.)

If the uniqueness of Christ does not exclude the uniqueness of (say) Buddha, how do we listen? A relevant book is John S. Dunne’s 1978 book The Way of All the Earth. Can a Christian (or indeed any person) draw spiritual water from two different religious wells? How do we do that without diluting our own identity?

Knitter thinks the Holy Spirit can be of help here and notes that the Orthodox, “not encumbered by the filioque,” seem to have an easier time with this. The Incarnation can be thought of as specific and local. Thus the kenosis [Jesus' emptying of himself] means that Jesus forewent the transcendent, that is, anything but the limited and finite. A kenosis of the transcendent leaves open the possibility of another kenosis. (We do need to use our judgement and distinguish between good and bad elements in religion.)

The point about the Orthodox was confirmed by Metropolitan Mykhayil of the Ukranian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of North and South America and the Diaspora (UAOC). Another account of the lecture can be found at the UAOC website. Here is a picture there of Liz and me listening to Dr. Knitter answering Metropolitan Mykhayil.

Now that I've gone personal, let me add that I had a chance to see some friends whom I haven't seen in a few years -- both Friars and Sisters of the Atonement.

Liz and I expect to hear Paul Knitter again in a couple of weeks when he addresses the Friends of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, and then again in February at his installation.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Note: I began writing this on Sunday, November 11th, but I didn’t finish it until Monday. I decided not to change the time frame.

Yesterday I posted about John Dominic Crossan’s God & Empire and the question he poses, “How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in an American Empire facilitated by a violent Christian Bible?

I woke up before dawn this morning, and as is my wont I signed on to the internet. Generally while I compute I listen to BBC Radio 3. I wrote yesterday without consciously thinking that today would be Veteran’s Day, but this morning when I heard the bells of Big Ben on the BBC at 6 AM, I realized immediately that it was Remembrance Sunday at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

(And I didn’t have a white poppy or even a red one, but then we don’t do that very much here anymore and according to the Veterans Administration ”The wearing of poppies in honor of America's war dead is traditionally done on Memorial Day, not Veterans Day.“ So much for Flanders Field.

When Liz and I are at Heart Lake, we usually attend the Heart Lake United Methodist Church – in part because we can walk to church, in part because over the past 20 years we have become part of the church family, and in part because since the organist died early last year Liz plays the piano when she’s there, to the delight of all but especially of Judy, who is very musical but doesn’t really play the piano, though she tries – she’s a great guitar player, though.

The Heart Lake Church is quite small – this morning there were 15 of us. The ministers in the conference (or at least those we know of) moved around this past July, so the pastor has only been there about four months. Today, he was away, and one of the lay leaders conducted the service. There were also special speakers from the Gideons, both at Heart Lake and at the larger New Milford church which is part of the same UM charge.

Anyway, we walked to church – it’s about half a mile – and I was roped into sight singing the bass part of “We Gather Together.” By the third verse I almost had it right.

Andy, the lay leader, has a habit of reading sentimental poems about the faith to us, usually at the beginning of the service. But today Andy interpolated “The American's Creed” into the middle of the service:

"I believe in the United States of America as a Government of the people by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a Republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my Country to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies."

When I first heard it this morning, I thought it blasphemous and jingoistic. It certainly has no place in Christian worship. Now that I have found it on the web and had a chance to read it again, I still think it has no place in Christian worship but I recognize that the first paragraph is a powerful statement of the belief American’s have about ourselves – I’ll call it the American mythos, using the Greek word to try to avoid the negative connotations attached to the word “myth.”
In August and September 2005, six of the 92 soldiers in the local National Guard unit were killed in two separate incidents in Iraq. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was quoted by the Associated Press as saying "I've yet to meet a Pennsylvania soldier on a welcome-home ceremony who said, 'This is a waste of time, we're endangering our young people, we ought to get out now. Everyone believed we were making progress and believed we were there for the right reasons and that's what I try to tell the parents to offer them some consolation."

It’s hard and it’s painful for people to question the truth of the American mythos. Most of us still believe that we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” and it’s a wrenching thing to come to even suspect that we are wrong. It’s hard to suspect that the story we tell about ourselves is false. It’s painful to contemplate the possibility that the United States of America is not “a Government of the people by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed” nor “a democracy in a Republic;” but rather an Empire, both within and outside its borders.

In the 1979 Prayer Book of The Episcopal Church, several “new” canticles were provided for the Daily Office. (Of course, these were introduced just as Morning Prayer was disappearing from our regular liturgical life.) Canticle 11, from Isaiah, contains the line “Violence shall no more be heard in your land.” I pray that it may be so.

More to come.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Last Monday evening, I attended a talk by John Dominic (Dom) Crossan at Union Theological Seminary. The topic was Crossan’s recent book God & Empire and the evening was a preview to a consultation "New Testament and Roman Empire: Resistance and Reimagination," scheduled for April 2008. But it wasn’t that much of a preview of the more general scholarly conference upcoming in April – the evening belonged to Crossan. On the way in, I decided not to buy Crossan’s book, but after hearing him I decided to buy it.

In the epilogue to the book, Crossan has written:
I have spent the last thirty-five years thinking about earliest Christianity – from the historical Jesus, through the birth of Christianity, and on to the apostle Paul – and attempting to live within its visionary program for our world. Earliest Christianity arose within the Old Roman Empire, and America, we are told, is the New Roman Empire. Three questions are then obvious for anyone who is both Christian and American today:

How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in the American Empire?
But then another question appears beneath that one:
How is it possible to be a nonviolent Christian within a violent Christianity based on a violent Christian Bible?
Chapter 5 brought those two questions together into a third question:
How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in an American Empire facilitated by a violent Christian Bible?
In this book, I have attempted to answer that last question on the deepest level possible – on the level where the radicality of God‘s nonviolence constantly challenges the normalcy of civilization’s violence and where the normalcy of civilization constantly negates the radicality of God.

I have only barely begun to read God & Empire, but in his talk on Monday, Crossan pointed out that there are two strands in the Bible – the God of vengeance and the God of love, or to state it another way, the Gods of retributive justice and the God of distributive justice.. How do we choose between the two? Crossan provides a way forward through that thorny problem – a way that resonates with me.

In a recent comment on her blog, Wounded Bird, Grandmère Mimi wrote “In a sense, I think that I make my faith up as I go along. I am neither a theologian nor a Scripture scholar, therefore, I see mine as more of a simple faith.” I’m not a Bible scholar either nor am I a theologian except insofar as all of us are theologians if we think about God at all. But that’s a pretty significant exception – or maybe I mean we all have a theology, whether or not we consider ourselves theologians and especially whether or not we are members of the guild of theologians.

Our theology affects how we approach the world as well as how we approach the Bible. Mimi gives us an account of a faith journey from trying to achieve holiness – closeness to God – by pleasing God through “being good” to the recognition that holiness has nothing to do with “being good.” God’s presence in our lives in unconditional. There’s a good bit more to Mimi’s post and I recommend it.

Of course, not all “who profess and call themselves Christians” share the same vision of God. Mimi writes being “drawn more and more to reading the Gospels with closer attention to the words and actions of Jesus,” and of “another spiritual awakening that I believe has drawn me even closer to God, with a stronger desire to follow the way laid out by Our Lord Jesus Christ, sinner though I am.” I resonate strongly with that testimony.

To my mind, Dom Crossan, along with many other New Testament scholars, helps us to confirm that what we see in the words and actions of Jesus is really there – that this is a Way worth following. It is a Way that is profoundly counter-cultural – and if Dom Crossan is correct, it is counter to civilization. Crossan quotes Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress:

Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. Civilizations vary in their makeup but typically have towns, cities, governments, social classes, and specialized professions. All civilizations are cultures, or conglomerates of cultures, but not all cultures are civilizations.

Our culture is indeed a civilization – with domesticated plants, animals, and human beings and with towns, cities, governments, social classes and specialized professions. Our culture is institutionally both cruel and violent and our culture also sanctions cruelty and violence by individuals. I’m not going to expand on that – it’s obvious enough to me and I hope to you.


A few weeks back, on one of the comment threads at Father Jake’s, Luiz Coelho, The Wandering Christian, announced that he was taking a break in part because he was bothered by the tone of comments in recent threads there.

I think the rhetoric gets heated because of the pain of what we’re going through in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. As I write this, I am about forty five minutes away from the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York, once the center of unabashed Anglo-Catholicism in my hometown, but now a center of neo-orthodoxy, pastored by Anne and Matt Kennedy. For those who don’t know, Matt Kennedy is a very talented blogger at Stand Firm – one of the websites of the self-styled reasserters. Matt Kennedy generally writes well, but I will say that he his writing seems to me to me to be too tendentious to be taken really seriously. I may expand on that last statement in a future post, and to be fair, I should say there are some on the “liberal” side who are also far too tendentious.

More on this later.