Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year after a Rude Awakening

Our New Year's Eve began at 1.30 a.m. with flashing blue lights, sirens, and emergency vehicles crowding the road outside our house. Usually at that time of the night Lewisburg Pike is totally deserted, but as we peered out of the window we became aware of a small red pick-up truck in the middle of the hillside that slopes down to our house with a police spotlight being trained upon it.

Rosemary said, "We ought to go out and see what's going on!" This is precisely what we did.

This morning I have been surveying the damage, and it is a miracle that the young man driving the vehicle was not killed for he must have been traveling. He left the road some twenty feet before reaching the unpaved lane that leads to our neighbors and is the boundary of our property. He had jumped over a ditch, then flown through the fence onto our property barely missing a huge sycamore tree that would surely have killed him. The wheels of the truck did not touch the ground until he had gone over a small cedar tree some twenty-five feet from the lane. The little Toyota ended up facing the direction it had come, its back broken, leaking gasoline over the hillside.

The driver is very fortunate to be alive today to tell the tale. His stepfather, a local cop and horse farmer who lives just round the corner from us, told me as we shouted greetings across the battered fence that his stepson had a broken nose, possible internal injuries, but seemed able to get himself onto the ambulance. I didn't expect to be spending the wee small hours of New Year's Eve wearing clothes pulled over my pajamas directing a tow truck across what will in few months be a riot of Tennessee wild flowers.

From then on all I could manage was that fitful, dozing sleep which leaves you wondering where all these strange thoughts and dreams come from. These thoughts and dreams were intertwined with situations with which I had been involved during the week.

Most clergy try to take a few days off after Christmas, and I certainly have nothing against pastors grabbing some time with their family after what is for most a busy season. However, it has been my experience that while the week after Christmas should be a time to slow down a bit, it also ought to be a time to be available because this is the decompression period from one of the most stressful periods of the year for families. Every year for the last few years I have been glad that I have been around and "on call" because things have happened that needed pastoral care.

Believing, as I do, that the family is one of the basic building blocks of a stable and healthy society, and that families are under pressure today from everything under the sun, the priority that we give to pastoring husbands, wives, and children has to be high -- whether we are good at it or not. It is not easy being married today, neither is it easy to stay married and provide a stable, happy home, but quite frankly, the alternatives are far worse.

Throughout my ministry I have dealt with people on all parts of the marriage journey, from courtship to divorce court and beyond, and as painful as keeping a partnership afloat might be at times, there is longer and greater agony of picking up the pieces after a failed marriage -- especially when children are involved. I also have to say that adult children are often hurt as badly as little ones. To the couple struggling with a relationship that seems to be failing, divorce looks like an oh, so attractive escape, but the reality is in most of the cases I have seen, far different from the promise.

One of the things that makes marriage so difficult is that we have swallowed the notion that marriage is about happiness or having particular needs met, when it is in fact a lifelong union "established by God in creation" (Book of Common Prayer, Page 423)that takes a lifetime for a couple to meld together -- and there are always going to be times when one, other, or both, don't want to do it. That, however, is why we make vows before the Most High God to love and to cherish through all the vissicitudes of life, until we are parted by death. Even when there is failure in the marriage, forgiveness has to be part of the mix and the importance of the vows remains.

Just in the last few years I have watched couples who were at daggers drawn, marriages in which there was the worst kind of betrayal, do the necessary work that has led to something far better than they ever imagined possible before. The hard work has not been easy, but the fruit is delicious beyond measure. This leads me to believe that in almost any circumstance it is possible to put back together what has been broken. I would also suggest that those prepared to do the work are the ones who have gone further along the pathway of human maturity.

Thus, as the present crisis is forcing us to remake the church for a postmodern world, one of the areas of concern has to be the manner in which we make lasting, healthy relationships that will stand the test of time and the pressures of a destructive environment. This is a world in which the self is now considered to be something fluid and maliable so that I will all the time be responding differently to the question, "Who am I going to be today?", and where I am constantly adapting myself and adjusting myself to present a new image, or where we can trade in old (and perhaps tired) relationships in favor of exciting new ones. What do we have to say to this world by word and example?

The time has come to set the bar high, perhaps higher than is comfortable for almost all of us. Scripture does this, so Scripture has to be the model we seek to live into. It is only as we aspire for the heights that we will begin to live the kind of life that God Almighty and his Son, Jesus Christ, require of us.

And with those words, a bit preachy, perhaps, I say to you Happy New Year, and may God protect us in the months ahead.

Friday, December 30, 2005

A Letter from Jack Taylor

Before Christmas we had a pretty feisty discussion about the importance of marriage on the Toward2015 listserv. It got so feisty that in the end it was necessary for me as moderator to end the discussion. One of the things that I hate in our present climate is that we find it impossible to talk with civility with one another and instead launch into personal invective against one another.

The following piece by Jack Taylor from Dallas was something that I edited from being published on the listserv, but I believe that it puts a human face on the dilemma with which we are wrestling. I publish it here, not because I agree with Mr. Taylor, I do not and my critique of what he has written follows, but because I found it allows us to look beneath the surface at the implications of the two worldviews that are tussling with one another.

What I ask you to do is to read Jack Taylor's words with generosity and charity, and then, if you want, to read my thoughts on his words:

I read with interest Father Richard Kew's essay on his second daughter's marriage and congratulate him. I, too, have given away two daughters in marriage and have fine grandchildren as a reward. His reflections on the importance of marriage between a man and a woman gave me pause for reflection too.

Sadly, I was unable to give my third daughter's hand in marriage because her chosen partner was of the same sex, even though they were able to buy a home together and planned to bear a child together through a surrogate father. The home-purchase and child-bearing are perfectly legal in Texas, but not the fulfillment of their love, commitment and devotion through marriage, and, even more sadly for a Church that blesses all sorts of animals every Saint Francis feast day, even a blessing. They are no longer together, although my daughter once told me if they had been allowed to marry, there is no doubt in both their minds they still would be one.

Now before you criticize any fragility of their relationship, think of your own and if you are married, whether you still would be married if you had simply lived together and were unable to wed. Suppose we lived in a society where only landowners were allowed to wed, or where only those who could afford a dowry were allowed to became brides? Or a society that allowed marriage only among those from identical backgrounds? That would have prevented my wife, a Norwegian, and I, of Scots-Irish and Native American background, from marrying 46 years ago.

That may sound extreme. But think a moment, It wasn't long ago when there were laws that prevented men and women from marrying if they were of different races, and only a little longer ago when African-Americans were required to sit in church balconies and takes communion last. Gays and lesbians are allowed to sit anywhere among the rest of the congregation now, and with rare exceptions are welcome at Christ's table with everyone. But they are not fully accepted at the altar rail when it comes to marriage. That defies Christian logic and Anglican reason. It's as if there was an additional live in Galatians 3:28 that added a caveat beginning "except for".

Many of us in the church and society at large express fear that extending this kind of freedom and equality to gays and lesbians somehow threatens our own families, our children, even the stability of our society. But the greatest threat is not that at all. The greatest threat is the fear and loathing that the perception of such a threat creates among us, not to mention the idea that some of us are better than others and therefore entitled to more rights and privileges. Who among you really believes that and can still claim your Christian love embraces everyone, equally?

Merry Christmas,
Jack Taylor

Richard Kew's Critique and Response to Jack Taylor

One of the things that orthodox Christians often get accused of is insensitivity. Having just enjoyed the delight and privilege of giving away my own daughter in marriage, I can only imagine the sadness that results for a father not being able to share this pleasure with one of his children -- so I feel for those caught in such a dilemma.

However, the implication in what Jack Taylor says is that because there is a broadening of civil liberties going on in our country, and because many states allow for same-sex couples to purchase property together, and even accept the use of artificial insemination to have children, that these relationships should be sanctified by the Christian community. This, I believe, is to make the cardinal error of identifying the legislative activities of a secular state within the context of an altering culture with the values of the Kingdom that are enshrined in Scripture and the church's tradition.

If we accept the presuppositions of a relativistic secular society which sits loose to the ethical values that have shaped monotheistic culture for millennia, I suppose that it can be argued that same-sex couples should have a right to enter into something that they consider akin to marriage. But just because society might want to do this, we do not necessarily have to accept that this is either good for society or the individuals involved.

The church's responsibility is to be faithful, and that faithfulness begins not with human propensities, desires, or policies, but with God's self-revelation that is rooted in the person of Christ, and played out in Holy Scripture. If this is how we live out our faith, then however good-willed we might be, we do not have permission to follow the whims of the culture -- not matter how much our sentiments might desire it. Our responsibility is to take seriously the recognition that God created human beings in his own image as two genders that are complementary to one another. This is the message from Genesis 1 onward that sets apart humankind from every other creature that moves upon the face of the earth.

Jack Taylor argues his case from broadening our definition of marriage by pointing out that we have altered social patterns inherited from the past. I think that most of us would say that all sorts of past cultures acted in ways that might have been inappropriate, but there is a significant difference between the manner in which we organize society from generation to generation, to such a fundamental given of what it means to be a human being, created in God's image, and with a specific gender.

Just because we do not appreciate that certain of our forebears chose to organize society to include slavery, or that it was "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate," and that this has changed, does not mean that Christians are free to redefine what it means to be a man or to be a woman, whatever the contemporary laws of the land might say. They might have been wrong in the past, we could very well be wrong today with the changes we wish to bring to the cultural forum.

Jack Taylor's misperception is to think that moves in wider society to provide certain privileges to same-sex relationships that have previously been reserved for heterosexual married couples, mean the Christians should follow suit. Like others who argue the same case, he uses certain texts (like Galatians 3:28) out of context, as tag lines to justify such actions, filtering his ideas through one particular understanding of what equality means.

Jack then ends with the usual jibe against those of us who do not believe this is right by implying that we are homophobes, scared of extending freedoms to gays and lesbians because they threaten us. For some this may be true, but for the vast majority this is not the case. We actually find ourselves bewildered by how to lovingly apply what we believe to be a divinely given ordering of humanity in a society that thinks that it has a better way of doing things.

This debate over marriage is extremely important, and it is vital that we engage it thoughtfully and sensitively.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Retrospect of 2005, Prospect for 2006

I was driving home yesterday afternoon through the bleak December countryside having made a pastoral call, and as I drove my mind was turning over 2005 as it tried to find some way of assessing it. Certainly, in our family it was a red-letter year with the birth of our first grandchild, the marriage of our younger daughter, and Rosemary and I each turning sixty. But all this happened against the backdrop of uncertainty that is North American Anglicanism, and the joys of family were somewhat blunted by the discomforts we face in the church.

It has been a fearfully busy year for me, with much time given to the episcopal election process here in Tennessee, while continuing ministry in a struggling congregation. It is more than twenty years since I last played a part in selecting candidates for the episcopate, and not only are there more factors that now need to be taken into account, but the consequences of an episcopal election are more momentous than a generation ago. This week we will be announcing our slate of nominees, which means that from hereon out everything in the Diocese of Tennessee is going to be seen in terms of the episcopal election that will take place on March 18th -- and succeeding Saturdays, if we don't get a 2/3 majority in both orders the first time around.

What has encouraged me from our work on the Episcopate Committee is the sheer ability and the rich godliness of some of the people we talked to. We still have people of significant ability and grace in the Episcopal Church who have proven gifts of leadership.

But I guess the undercurrent of 2005 has been what the future of Anglicanism is going to be in the United States. There is then a trickle down effect from this which influences the life of a diocese and then the congregations of that diocese. It has certainly not been easy continuing to pick up and move forward a young and fragile congregation,when the noises and actions coming out of the denomination seem set on a course to undermine all that you are trying to do on a local level.

What is most frustrating about this is that those who are undermining our ministry seem to be in denial that they are doing any damage at all, despite the statistical and demographic evidence to the contrary. Then there is a particular vindictiveness that for some goes with their opposition of those of us who sit in the historic mainstream.

One of the most painful things in the last few months has been the disgraceful manner in which the Diocese of Rochester declared my former parish, now All Saints' Anglican Church, Rochester, extinct by twisting the diocesan canons to their purpose. Did the parish handle itself wisely? I don't think so, but the pastoral insensitivity of the bishop and the haughty arrogance of the diocesan convention demonstrated to me that there are those on the left who have an unhealthy hatred of what has historically been the Christian faith, and really don't understand the Gospel.

During 2005 I have finally accepted the reality that the Episcopal Church of the USA as presently configured will not continue to exist for much longer, and that our responsibility is to start building constructively for the future. I don't really know what Anglican Communion Christianity is going to look like in North America in the years to come, but I suspect it will include many of us who are part of
ECUSA, many of the more sensible separated jurisdictions both new and old, and I suspect a scad of those in the emergent churches who are exploring Anglicanism from the outside but would happily leap in if there was something acceptable for them to leap into.

I suspect what emerges on the faithful end of the spectrum will be pretty loosy-goosy for a few years, but that some order will evolve from a tangle of networks, structured ecclesial organizations, and floating affiliations. I suspect, also, that at some point, although millions of dollars will have been thrown in the direction of attorneys before it happens, we will see some means emerge for faithful Anglicans to graduate out of ECUSA without the persecution that goes with it right now.

Just as I look back to General Convention 2003 with horror, I look forward to General Convention 2006 with dread. It seems that we are just about able to restore some kind of stability when another one of these sickening events takes place. Conventions do not really seem to represent the thoughtful breadth of the denomination. I suspect that GC2006 will fudge on the Windsor Report because, quite honestly, conventions are events that are totally dominated, and their agenda is shaped by those whose understanding of the Christian faith is on a rapid trajectory away from biblical revelation.

The fudging that will take place on Windsor will probably be the nail in the coffin of ECUSA's relationship with the wider Anglican Communion, and the lid is likely to be put on that coffin in 2008 when the Lambeth Conference meets. Goodness only knows who will be elected Presiding Bishop in Columbus, Ohio, but whoever it is will, I expect, be every bit as disappointing as the present incumbent. I suspect, also, that the new Presiding Bishop is likely to continue the litany of denial that comes from New York that ECUSA is in trouble.

What really has been happening in 2005 is that clarity has emerged between those who affirm a faith, which they consider to be prophetic, and that in essence still thinks it possible to negotiate with and shape the believing in tandem with the prevailing culture, and those who believe that the faith is by its very nature counter-cultural. One of the things that those of us who are biblical and orthodox have yet to grasp, I think, is that the values we hold are so in-your-face to the culture that is emerging, that while we might be mainstream Christians we are no longer in any way mainstream Americans or Westerners. The 'left' in the church seem incapable of seeing this.

For me 2005 was a year when I had options that would have taken me out of the Episcopal Church of the USA, and I confess that there was a strong attraction, however the worst nightmare of those on the 'left' is that I (and many like me) have no intention of leaving. We are the remaining voices of sanity amidst so much insanity.

I believe that we are on the front line of the Christian conflict for this decaying culture. My mantra is that the issues of sexuality are merely presenting symptoms of far deeper challenges about the very nature of our humanity that will engross us as the century proceeds. I was pleased to see that Benedict XVI agrees with me in his most recent pronouncements!

Our task is to be missional -- that is to affirm by our words and actions the great truth that Jesus Christ is the one Way to the Father, and to keep lifting high the Cross as the means of healing the broken, soothing the hurting, and finding forgiveness of sin. We fail in our response to error when we allow church politics to take precedence over faithful proclamation. Thus, my commitment is to keep on building up this congregation that has been committed to my charge -- and using
creativity and imagination as I do so.

Our task is also to be fervent in our determination to discover and live within the context of the truth. Much of what passes for orthodox Christianity has about as much grasp of God's revelation in Holy Scripture, as what passes for Islam understands the content of the Muslim holy book.

Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, and the stepson of one of our clergy in Tennessee, wrote a wonderful review in the Christmas Day New York Times Book Review in which he displayed the very best of Anglicanism and its weakness. In the process of the review I applauded his affirmation that Christianity should engage our intellect and imagination, something that is woefully missing in a lot of what passes
for the faith in our culture.

However, in the same review he blinks and gives away the distinctive uniqueness of the Christian faith in an attempt to be pluralistic and multicultural. His instincts were right, but his theology was sloppy. While he is correctly reacting against the assertiveness of the religious right, his response demonstrates the inadequacy of American Anglicanism when it comes to understanding the fullness of the work of
Jesus Christ. It is against such a backdrop that we are called to be agents of the truth, for indeed, it truly is the Truth that will set us free.

So I come to the beginning of this New Year with both fears and great expectations. I am cautiously optimistic for the Diocese of Tennessee, I am hopeful for the Church of the Apostles, and I am committed to the revealed faith that is affirmed by the Communion. As far as ECUSA is concerned, I will continue to be part of it, but not with great enthusiasm. It has been decaying for a long time, and even at this late
stage miracles might be possible, but I am not holding my breath. To use Old Testament imagery, I think I am one of the 7,000 who has yet to bow the knee; I am part of a faithful remnant. This is not an easy ministry, but then whoever said witness would be a breeze in the hard places.

Friday, December 23, 2005

And now for something completely different...

It was the Monty Pythons who in the 1970s made famous the words, "And now for someting completely different..." After the bracing conversation on Toward2015 during the last week, let me bring that something completely different to the table.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Economist dealing with the catastrophic effect of medical insurance bills on municipalities, and how promises made way back to retirees are coming home to haunt them. Meanwhile, pension and insurance woes are part of the mix that have humbled General Motors and Ford, and they were also major players in the recent transit strike in New York, but they are also in the process of wreaking havoc with Christian ministry.

Last Saturday at our diocesan council meeting in Tennessee we spent the longest time dealing with medical insurance-related issues. Like so many other Christian bodies we are struggling to keep premiums down, while at the same time providing adequate medical coverage to Christian leaders and their families. Smaller congregations are having a particularly hard time, but larger ones are not insulated from these problems. Patterns of insurance that have been standard in Episcopal circles, at least, for decades, are now in the process of being reconsidered, as they are in other traditions and denominations.

Looking on a macro scale, Medicare and Medicaid always seem to have funding problems, while 45-46 million Americans have no coverage whatsoever, while millions more, maybe 20-40 million, have totally inadequate coverage. I say all this even before the bulk of Baby Boomers start to retire, and begin placing untold pressures on an already overloaded and under-funded system.

We were chatting during the break that followed us dealing with insurance-related business at our council meeting, and I was surprised to discover that two of the archest capitalists on the council, men who have been successful in differing businesses, one of them related to insurance, agreeing with me that the system is badly damaged and needs to be re-assessed.

I have made no secret for years of my total disenchantment with our way of funding healthcare in this country, as well as our way of apportioning healthcare services. As a pastor I have walked alongside more people than I care to remember whose lives have been turned upside down by their lack of insurance or inadequate insurance when a crisis has struck. I was never presented with such gut-wrenching anxiety when dealing pastorally with folks covered by the much-maligned National Health Service in Britain, which provides basic coverage for everyone.

Add to this the fact that more and more information about our genetic make-up is being stored on medical databases, and despite all the privacy walls in the world, this is eventually going to fall into the hands of insurers, if some of it hasn't done so already. As the years progress, and as more and more congenital conditions (or potential conditions) can be identified, surmised, and tagged, it will become increasingly difficult for more and more people to get health coverage at anything approaching a reasonable price.

I suspect that in the next few years in the churches we are going to see more and more pastors either going without health coverage, or having to find additional funding or creative alternatives in order to get the healthcare their families need. It is entirely likely that we will see a steady flow of pastors leaving parish ministry because there is no way for them to get healthcare coverage, and we are going to see small dioceses and judicatories like our own here in Tennessee less and less able to cope with the medical pressures that are placed on us -- unless we can reduce the median age and the medical risk levels of our group.

I would go so far as to say that inadequate healthcare could very easily radically hamper the ministry of the People of God, unless we can find constructive way around the present mess that health insurance (and pensions) has become. I came away from our council meeting disturbed by the implications of what I was hearing but feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Rosemary and I have long since bailed out of the church-related system because we get a far better deal from the State, Rosemary's employer. In our case this is what makes it possible for our parish to afford a priest. However, our not being in the diocesan pool means with our very good record when it comes to consuming healthcare resources, doesn't help the Diocese of Tennessee as it seeks to deal with its ballooning problems.

Personally, I have believed for a long time that some kind of single-payer system is the only one that will work in the future, when so much information about what is hidden in our DNA is readily available to those who fund healthcare. I also believe that a single-payer system is probably the only way that healthcare can be provided with the justice that is presently lacking in America's healthcare delivery system. As the Kingdom of God has a strong justice component, we must take that into account in our thinking.

I would hazard that the place for us to begin tackling this issue as Christians is with the theology of healthcare (and tied with it justice and injustice in healthcare delivery), and then to move forward from there to exploring practical ways to ameliorate the intense challenge before our culture. Probably we need also to ask ourselves what we can as a society afford, and what we cannot afford, and then what are the best ways of helping people keep healthy.

So, there's something to chew on over Christmas...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Marriage Again

Why is it that I find myself inundated with what I think are good ideas that have nothing to do with the forthcoming business whenever I am on my was to a diocesan council meeting? This has happened several times of late, the most recent being last Saturday morning. I am sure the bishop wondered what I was scribbling as he launched the gathering.

I had been barreling down the road thinking of budgets and some of the challenges facing us, when from the back of my mind more thoughts on marriage started to emerge. I found myself coming back to ideas I had encountered several years ago in Diarmaid MacCulloch's magesterial volume on the Reformation. MacCulloch makes the point that "The Protestant Reformation... brought a momentous change in direction in the Christian history of sexuality... it reaffirmed marriage..." (page 609).

MacCulloch has his own agenda, and so uses quantities of data to make particular points, some of which are highly pertinent. However, as I have reviewed his chapter on love and sex in the Reformation period it is perfectly possible to unpack material to make a somewhat different point than those this Oxford University professor leads us to.

As I read these pages I find myself realizing that the Reformation was, like all great spiritual renewals, a period when attention was given to the ethical outworking of biblical truth. It was an era when not only was the medieval unbiblical theology that affirmed celebacy as "angelic" called into question, but it was also a time when there was increasing clarification in light of revelation of what might best be described as a confusion of role and identities.

In those years a set of standards was put in place that has, one way or another, prevailed in the West for much of the last 450 years as the general norm. This norm is now in terminal decay. You could say that our generation is living amidst the ruins of biblical standard that had been accepted until the deconstructionist mindset of this post-Christendom age swept it away.

The truth is that what Christians have considered the standard for all is now being relegated to counter-culture status. Marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman is being either sidelined and ignored, and in many instances is being ridiculed as hopelessly outmoded. There has been a huge growth across the western world of casual cohabitation, the progressive polygamy and polyandry of multiple divorces and remarriages, as well as a whole array of experimental domestic arrangements.

Right now in many places marriage between a man and a woman is ceasing to be normative. Just this morning the BBC is reporting on the implications of the newly-passed Civil Partnerships Act in Britain, which devalues what we have traditionally understood to be marriage while raising the profile of alternative arrangements. The laws of many other nations around the world are sliding in this direction, as they have already in places like Canada and the Netherlands.

Yet here is the tension -- the vast majority of the population still seems to look to and crave for the stability, security, and generativity that comes with a lifelong marital relationship between a man and a woman, within which children are brought into the world.

Some will say that folks have just been conditioned to think this way and that this antediluvian way of relating is likely to become far less prevalent. This may be so, and expectations may change as an array of alternatives are offered and experienced.

Yet could it be that Scripture is right? Could it be that deeply ingrained within the soul of human beings is a craving for a faithful relationship with a member of the opposite sex that is nurturing and only ended by death, even though we know such relationships make high and lasting demands? As I go about my pastoral ministry, talking with all sorts and conditions of people, both in and beyond the church, I am convinced that the bulk of the population regardless of cultural and societal pressure is drawn to this way of family life.

I, therefore, am perfectly happy to be counter-cultural. I have no desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we are to be faithful to the Creator God who has revealed himself to us, then however chi chi the smorgasbord of alternative arrangements might look for the moment, believers are called to constantly assert our commitment to marriage whose principles are rooted and grounded in the biblical witness. This is one of our greatest calling cards and something for which more and more will yearn and crave.

However, to make such an affirmation will also make great demands upon us as we seek to live within this covenant and affirm the sanctity of marriage. It requires of us oodles and oodles of teaching and example. We need to challenge at its very root the prevailing mood of the culture that marriage has a ball-and-chain flavor, rather than this being the most freeing, happy, and healthful way for two people to live together.

It will also require that as we prepare couples for marriage, we develop scads of resources to help them live this counter-cultural relationship, and that we be there for them in a whole variety of ways to enable them to find their way through the maze of difficulties that challenge any such covenantal relationship. It is essential that we work hard with, and have our doors open to, married couples as they strive to grow within their marriage and to maintain its stability.

Such concentration on marriage does not mean that we should abandon those men and women whose marriages get into difficulty, and perhaps, come to an end. It does mean that we should stand alongside them as they walk through this dark valley and then enable them to come out of the murk and pain on the far side of such a personal disaster. I heard a divorced and remarried Christian man say not long ago that marital breakup is always sinful, but it also needs to be added that God's grace is sufficient.

Up until now it has been the relationship experimenters who have been considered the radicals and the adventurous ones. Some of their experiments may have been made to work, at least for a while, but just as so many ground-breaking pieces of architecture from the 1960s now look tired and jaded, I hazard that a lot of these alternatives are likely to be seen that way in not too many years. I would like to assert that the real radicals and adventurers are those of us who are committed the biblical notion of marriage being between one man and one woman for life. Maybe the time has come to rejoice in our new status!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


My thoughts have been very much on marriage of late. There are two obvious reasons for this -- the first is last Saturday, on a crisp sunny winter afternoon, I walked my younger daughter, Lindy, down the aisle, and watched her marry John Womack. This is the second time I have "given away" a daughter, and while I had my emotions more under control than when we married off her sister, there was a vast array of feelings that I have yet to have the courage to confront.

Last week a Baptist pastor friend of mine shared with me a quote from Chuck Swindoll as I was grappling with my inner feelings: "No matter how wonderful the groom, the father of the bride feels that he is placing a priceless Stradivarius in the hands of a gorilla." My new son-in-law much appreciated the joke when I shared this with him, which augers well for our future relationship!

The second reason it is much on my mind is that I am reviewing the Marriage Course materials from Alpha with a view to using them for marriage preparation and as an outreach into the area in which we are situated, where I am discovering not a few couples are living in a personal hell with one another. As this is proving to be a particularly difficult area into which to present the Gospel (five churches of varying backgrounds have ceased to exist during my time here), here is a need which might be a point of focus for presenting Jesus Christ.

But circumstances like this do concentrate the mind and get one thinking hard, for whatever label you put upon yourself in the spectrum of Christian believing, all of us have fudged, and fudged badly, on the sanctity of marriage, and its importance in a stable society. I live in the heart of the Bible belt where you would think higher standards would prevail. Not a bit of it: I would say that Southern Baptists and the Church of Christ are just as sloppy about marriage as Episcopalians and Presbyterians. For example, the mother of one of our church members belongs to a little Baptist church whose pastor is now on his third marriage.

It has for a long time been my conviction that one of the points on the ethical downward spiral of North American Anglicanism was the Episcopal Church's weakening of the marriage canons in 1973. I fully agree with my revisionist friends who say that those who claim orthodoxy cannot have it both ways when it comes to the sexuality issues that divide us. Unlike them, I do not believe this justifies changing our values to suit the climate, rather I would prefer to see us recovering what we have lost.

I am increasingly convinced that one of the primary building blocks for putting the Christian faith in the West back together is to not only reassert the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, as counter-cultural as such a fundamental idea is becoming, but also to do all in our power to enable marriages that have been contracted to survive and prosper.

David McCarthy, Rector of St. Silas Church, Glasgow, was with us for the weekend to conduct my daughter's wedding, having been her pastor in Scotland for six years, and he was talking about the wrestling (or lack of it) being done by the British churches as they struggle with the civil unions legislation that has been passed. This legislation effectively devalues traditional marriage while raising the profile of other approaches to domestic partnership. This has created real challenges for marriage, but the flip side of that is that we should, perhaps, now be reasserting the value of this holy state.

Meanwhile, in the last few days I have been sent an article from the Washington Times that begins, "Polygamy rights is the next civil rights battle." Actually, you can probably make a better case from Scripture for traditional polygamy than some of the other alternatives now on display. However, I should imagine that what so-called polygamists want is something that enables multiples of people to live in some kind of legally-sanctioned relationship with one another, and that within this menage anything goes sexually and in every other way. Such households must by their very nature be unstable, especially in the context of the instability of today's society.

I shudder for the wellbeing of children brought up in such an environment. Having spent much of yesterday minding my five-month-old granddaughter, I would have hated for her to grow up with such identity and relationship confusion. As I have cradled this precious child in my arms, and as I baptized her on Sunday, I pray that she will grow up to be a woman of God not a confused individual not knowing who or what she is.

Which brings me back to my point that the time is upon us when we need to re-emphasize the importance of marriage, and also to do all in our power to enable husbands and wives to live the lives in partnership until parted by death that the Almighty intends. In such homes children can be raised in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and hopefully discover for themselves how to become mature men and women able in due course to covenant in marriage with a partner of the opposite sex. We in the churches must help this happen in every way.

I believe that such homes is what a vast majority of people want, but most of that majority have not the slightest idea how to make a healthy marriage and happy home happen so much damage has been done in the last 40 years.

I have been delighted as I have read Nicky and Sila Lee's The Marriage Book, which is a really accessible tool for building a lasting marital relationship. This is one of the resources my daughter and her new husband have been using in their marriage preparation, and I have found it both thoughtful, godly, and very practical. Within the context of Alpha's Marriage Course, which I think we may do at Apostles, this is one of the best ways of challenging today's malaise and laying a new foundation for tomorrow.

I write all this as someone who has been married for thirty-seven years, and who values this relationship more than anything else in life except his faith in Christ. But it has not always been this way. When we were in our late thirties, Rosemary and I came within an ace of coming apart. From that agonizing experience (as well as the other setbacks that have happened in our life together) we know how hard marriage can be, especially when the culture is beckoning with all sorts of false alternatives, erotica, the sex industry, experimentation, and so forth.

Both Rosemary and I now fear that we will outlive the other, for after nearly forty years of knowing each other within the context of our common faith in Christ, and I shudder at the thought of life without her. Of course, this is likely to happen, but it is one of those things we would rather not dwell on!

The truth is that despite all the pressures upon it, marriage is an honorable state given to us by God, and that for most people this is going to be the place where we can experience a fullness of life that is impossible elsewhere. This is not to say that marriage is necessarily for everyone, or that we should lack charity, grace, and generosity to those whose marriages have not survived the rough and tumble of today's living, but it is to say that Christians should work their hardest to make successful marriages the norm and not the exception.

If we were to start now concentrating on this one area of human life and relationships, I believe that faithful biblical Christians would have created a whole new church and culture within a generation or so. In the midst of so much "creativity" in human relationships now is the time to applaud and work for success in this most basic relationship, that which began between man and woman in Eden.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

More on Language and Meaning

On Toward2015 Eric Turner wrote:

The challenge that I see is daunting indeed. When the meaning of language is in the hands of the hearer (or reader), then I don't even know how to have a conversation. I cannot count on my words meaning anything resembling what I intend them to mean, nor can I be confident that what I hear another saying is vaguely like the idea in their mind that they are attempting to transmit to me. Without shared language, relationship, even at the most rudimentary level, is impossible, reconciliation is meaningless and as a society we would be doomed to anarchy.

You are right, Eric. It is no accident that postmodernism traces its roots to the anarchism that prevailed in France in the 1960s, and its product is intellectual, linguistic, theological, philosophical, etc., anarchy. The problem is that anarchists when they take control, as they have done in the Episcopal Church, become unyielding tyrants.

Stanley Grenz pointed out, "the postmodern ethos is centerless. No clear focus unites the diverse and divergent elements of postmodern society into a single whole. There are no longer any common standards to which people can appeal in their efforts to measure, judge, or value ideas, opinions or lifestyle choices" (Grenz: A Primer of Postmodernism, page 19).

Language is, we are told, socially structured, and those on the anarchist end of the spectrum believe that they are doing us a service is loosening the deadening social holds from the past that limit the capacity of language, and then beginning the process of reconstructing it. The words become more fluid because the whole worldview behind them is no longer tied to yesterday's objectivities. Language, they believe, is one of the instruments that detains us within an outmoded mindset, but the truth is that as we loosen our grip upon language as we have received it we find ourselves moving away from notions of objective reality.

The difference between an orthodox Christian and a revisionist Christian when it comes to the manner in which we handle the text of Scripture is that those of us who are orthodox seek to unlock its meaning using objective, scientific, and empathetic tools to interpret what the author intended. The postmodernist believes text and interpreter must engage in dialogue as equals, or even with the text subservient to the reader, so that there can be an intersection between the horizon of the author
and the horizon of the interpreter.

The truth is that this creates exactly our environment, for as the Windsor Report put it, we begin to handle the text in such a manner that it echoes our predispositions rather than informing and shaping them from the mind of the author. The postmodern deconstructionist goes as far as saying that the text's meaning cannot be confined to the author's intention or even the reader's understanding and that it is meaningless to claim that any one interpretion of a text is necessarily correct in itself. As I engage with revisionist theology I am constantly coming
face to face with such anarchy.

The outcome is an approach to living, speaking, and believing that is highly speculative and totaly inconsistent. It leads to such thinking as what is right in one environment or setting may not be right in another (The Presiding Bishop's heresy). The problem with this is that the postmodernist cannot be consistent, and attempts to steal orthodox clothing, assuming that there is such a thing as right and wrong. If we are going to be truly contemporary in our thinking then we must
effectively say that something that is right for me, that self-actualizes me, is not going to necessarily be right for someone else. Furthermore, because it is right in this particular instance, need it always be right?

One of the best things I have learned from this postmodern melange is that there is no such thing as a totally independent, objective observer, and that we all stand and interpret from within the continuum of time and history. This inevitably colors my response to truth, text, God's revelation, whatever. Thus, in a way when I engage the text my horizon does intersect with the author's horizon and I am bound in some ways to understand the author through my own set of presuppositions.

This means that I must, among other things when reading and interpreting, be always checking to see how much of myself is getting in the way of what I am interpreting. However, I also have to challenge postmodernists to ask how much of themselves is getting in the way of the text, and whether their resort to relativism is not itself an attempt to castrate what words might say in order to ease my own discomfort as I encounter those words.

This time last year my brother was in Dubai in the Persian Gulf, where he had worked for several years in the late 1970s. At that time he build a 38-storey building that rested on compressed sand. The question I kept asking was what would happen to that building when the compression finally gave out. My brother was never able to find out because while he was there that structure was dynamited in order to make
way for something new and improved.

It is my assertion that postmodern thinking and its concomitant deconstructionism is like that building in Dubai, standing for the moment on a bed of compressed sand. In due course the inconsistencies and irrationalities that are the sand on which it is build are going to come to the fore, and the whole thing will come tumbling down -- but not before it has done a dreadful lot of damage. When this happens, however, this is not to say that we will return to Enlightenment rationalism.

Frankly, I believe that the revisionist theologies that have done such terrible damage to the mainline churches, particularly ECUSA, are far closer to their "sell by" date than most of their adherents are willing to accept. Yet while they are still around we find ourselves having to engage them, flaws and all, while all the time finding orthodox and biblical ways of engaging the culture which they reflect.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Yesterday's Language, Tomorrow's Needs

How hard it is to explain today's and tomorrow's realities using the language of yesterday -- that is something that seems to have come up on Toward2015 in the last few days. Quite honestly, the words "liberal" and "conservative," which still meant something a generation ago, have had their meaning scoured out, re-worked, even totally obliterated, in the rough and tumble of this deconstructed postmodern world.

As a result of today's climate I find myself wishing that I had taken much greater care in my studies of linguistic analysis in my student days. I think if I had done that I would have been much better equipped to work my way through the language quagmire in which we now find ourselves wallowing.

Someone who comes to the USA from another English-speaking country become quickly conscious of how eel-like words can be. Words which on one side of the Atlantic mean one thing, I quickly discovered when I arrived here, mean something slightly or totally different in this country -- and they may change their meaning again if I go to another part of this country. Thus, until you have adapted (and that can take years) you are in constant danger of miscommunicating. Often this can be entertaining, but I have been in circumstances where for a time it has really soured relationships because I have said something that has been totally misunderstood.

Those of us who are older, and who are much more children of the Enlightenment, are prone to use language differently than those who are natives in this emerging culture. We are also prone to carry with us the language and categories of the past and then to attempt to interpret today's realities through this grid. The words 'liberal' and 'conservative' are a case in point. I have honestly reached a point where I still use them because they are convenient shorthand, but am not necessarily sure what they precisely mean.

Yesterday evening I watched Prime Minister's Question Time on C-SPAN, which is one of the most entertaining shows on television. I always chuckle when I realize that a party of the left sits on the government benches on the right of the Speaker. Meanwhile the primary party of the right sits on the left, but alongside them is another party of the left, that calls itself Liberal Democrat. These folks used to be to the right of the Labour party, who are the major party the left, but now may be to the left of them -- or not, depending on where you are standing. Confusing? Of course it is, and so is the way we use language today because the categories we are attempting to describe do not fit onto yesteryear's Procrustean Bed.

The world we live in now has moved on from the world that these words more correctly described, and now we should be struggling for descriptive terms to use of the emerging world, and are failing miserably. Part of the reason for this is laziness. One of the problems that we have is that whereas the Enlightenment tended to think in terms of either/or, the post-Enlightenment world functions in terms of both/and. That I am theologically thought to be a conservative because I believe we have a responsibility to conserve the deposite of faith that has been entrusted to us, does not preclude me being a political and social liberal on certain issues, and a political and social conservative on others. Then in other aspects of life, this may be turned on its head again.

The truth is that I am not sure that I want to be pinned down to these categories any longer. My obligation as a faithful servant of Christ is to seek to be his obedient servant, and to place myself within the Scriptures and their worldview, which means that I am very likely going to be an uncomfortable fit in most places on the culture's spectrum of ideas and obligations. Gospel ideas are radical, conservative, progressive, traditional, forward-looking and even at times a little reactionary, and the challenge before us is living into them and finding a way beyond yesterday's terminology. It is our limited way of thinking that reduces the to just one point on this color-spectrum

The starting point of the task before us is to work hard to grasp exactly what is going on within the culture and then to seek to find the language that is most descriptive. The deconstructionist mentality that is now at play tends to believe that I can take words, use them, and interpret them according to my own lights. The result is that we lose our ability to properly communicate for in some way or other, language must represent reality rather than merely our own individual perception of what we think reality is.

This is not to say that language does not have some fuzzy edges, as in the case of an American English-speaker conversing with an English English-speaker and an Indian English-speaker, when it will be necessary on occasions to clarify the manner in which certain terms might be being used. However, most language is plain. When I say the word "horse" I should mean an animal that may be a variety of sizes, various colors, and can be used for riding, as a beast of burden, or for hauling transportation or farm equipment, I should not mean something that I have decided the world "horse" means.

This is the way the word "truth" is being used now. Because of the innate relativism in our culture, it is perfectly normal to hear people talking of as if there was a whole variety of truths, many of which are mutually exclusive of one another, but all of which are true.

My thesis is that if we are to understand (and then describe) what is going on we are going to need to be careful in the way that we use language, and that it is impossible to continue allowing yesterday's language (with all its baggage) to do the work expected of it today and tomorrow. Yet we are not working to move beyond this impasse. It will probably take a while for a new concensus to be reached, but this should not preclude us from taking the effort to push this descriptive task forward.

There are certain writing tasks that teachers will give their students to help them develop their vocabulary. One is, for example, to describe a screw without using the word spiral! Perhaps we should start looking for ways to describe our present realities without using the words "liberal," "conservative," "traditionalist," "revisionist," etc., for most of these descriptives belong to a world that is fast disappearing.

Personally I am at a loss to know how to describe myself. I conserve the Gospel as delivered to the saints, therefore that makes me a conservative, but I believe that there is an intense generosity in that Gospel, which makes me a liberal. I believe that that essence of the faith goes to the root of humanity's problems, and that makes me a radical, but as I live within the on going life of the church from the apostolic age until now, that must make me a traditionalist because I honor the tradition. I believe that the Gospel speaks volumes to now and tomorrow, and that must make me a progressive, but it challenges the values that have emerged in today's society (and which some in the church have taken on board), and I suppose that makes me a reactionary.

If I listen to the way others see me and describe me, almost all of these terms have been used of me, but affirmatively and perjoratively! Usually, the folks using such descriptions are Enlightenment-soaked folks who continue to see life in terms of either/or and find it difficult to grapple with the subtleties of both/and.

Do you see the nature of the challenge that we have before us?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

An Interesting Oil-Related Theory

There is an excellent spread in the December issue of WIRED magazine dealing with the oil, oil prices, and alternative fuels ( WIRED's piece needs to be put alongside the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs (FA), in which there is an interesting piece about the global hunt that is on by China for resources.

Here's WIRED's thesis: while it might hurt to pay $3, $4, $5 or more for a gallon of gasoline, the more expensive this stuff gets the quicker we will move beyond the fossil fuel economy to something more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Because the price of crude has been artificially cheap for so long, there has been little incentive for the large energy companies to go looking for something that works better and does less damage to the ecosphere. But the world is changing.

The FA piece begins with the words, "An unprecedented need for resources is now driving China's foreign policy... Twenty years ago, China was East Asia's largest oil exporter. Now it is the world's second-largest importer; last year, it alone accounted for 31% of global growth in oil demand." And don't forget India. India's economy is on a journey that is as impressive as the Chinese, and because they do not have China's infamous one-child policy within the next generation there will be more Indians than there are Chinese.

It didn't require the brains of a rocket scientist a few years ago to see that sometime early in the 21st Century there would be a huge increase in demand for oil. This was bound to hoist prices to unbelievable levels, and would leave those who are not looking for or at alternatives floundering the the dust. Jeremy Rifkin was writing about this in the Nineties, although his projections of moving toward a hydrogen-based economy were rather too optimistic.

I was laughed at when I bought my Hybrid three years ago (you can look back on the archives of Toward2015 and see some of the things that were said of me on this forum). Today those same folks who pulled my leg mercilessly are now sidling up and saying things like, "My Suburban gets just about 20 miles to a gallon if I nurse it carefully, I am thinking about a Hybrid next time." When I bought my hybrid, while I was definitely making a statement about the environment, I was also making a statement about my pocket book because my reading had led me to conclude that the low prices we were paying for fuel could not continue for much longer. I guess you could say that in 2005 I hit the jackpot!

However, continuing this aside, as a Christian I believe that it is imperative that we function as good stewards of God's creation that he has entrusted to us, and trying to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases is one very effective way of doing that. You can imagine my thoughts this morning when I was cut off by a guy in a huge SUV that he then gunned like crazy going up a steep hill -- on the back on the SUV prominently place were several Christian insigia! A great witness that, selfish driving coupled with an unthinking hunger for the world's non-renewable resources. I wondered if there was any consistency with the Gospel here.

Back to WIRED magazine. What the author does is to illustrate how a steady price for oil at ever-increasing levels makes more and more attractive alternative sources of energy. For example, with oil right now selling in the $30-$70 range per barrel, it is feasible to create a diesel fuel from coal, to create biodiesel from vegetable oils, and increasing ethanol production. Over $70 a barrel, where it is likely to be in coming years, methane hydrates come into play, as does hydrogen and mining oil shale, and it will be back there e'er too long, you can be sure of that.

"For the better part of a century, cheap oil has fatally undercut all comers, not to mention smothered high-minded campaigns for conservation, increased efficiency, and energy independence." When the benchmark price for crude was, as it was for years, merely $20 per barrel, none of these things had a chance of getting off the ground and nor was it worth investing in alternative resources -- most of which will do far less damage to "this fragile earth, our island home" than the gas guzzlers that so many of us drive.

Could it be that Saudi Arabia will be put out of business by the genius who works out how to transform water into its constituent atoms, releasing their power and turning themselves back into water again? Its a nice idea, and not beyond the bounds of possibility in the future, if the desert kingdom has not used up all its reserves by then.

As WIRED says, "Smile when you see the big black $3 or $4 out in front at the gas pump. Those innovators need all the encouragement they can get. Shale oil, uranium, sunlight -- there's enough energy out there for a dozen planets..."