Monday, May 30, 2005

Forging a Fresh Vision

The following was posted to my listserv, Toward2015, which can be found on the server:

During the last few days I have had several emails privately and there have been some messages posted to Toward2015 about refocusing of the list on our core essential -- exploring the reality of ministry in the 21st Century. I want to thank all of you for your your helpful insights.

One of the comments that has arisen is whether Toward2015 should be an open listserv or one that is limited to those who define themselves as orthodox and biblical. Certainly, such a notion is very attractive. I, for one, am sick and tired of the fighting and name-calling that spills over onto this forum from the larger church. Indeed, I would be perfectly happy if the fighting and name-calling would disappear from the church never to be heard or seen again, but that is not going to happen any time soon, therefore it shapes the real world within which we are called to live out and think out our faith.

However, what I want to say is that as I look back over more than forty years in ordained ministry or the study of theology, I have benefitted immensely from the presence of ideas and people against whom I have been forced to "cut my teeth," as it were. At each stage along my spiritual and intellectual journey I have found myself confronted by notions and circumstances that have forced me to ask fundamental questions about what I believe, why and how I believe it, and what its implications are in the church and in my own life.

Without this constant poking and prodding I know that my faith and my intellectual life would have settled into a comfortable little mindset that would have stunted my growth, and increasingly disconnected me from the challenges that face the faith within the culture. As I have worked since the beginning of January on a year-long study of 2 Corinthians, one of the things that has come home to me is how both external pressures as well as pressures from within the church played a part in shaping every facet of Paul's faith and ministry. To put it bluntly, the New Testament emerged from a boiling crucible -- so how can we expect anything different?

The value of having people whose perceptions differ on a listserv like this is that they prevent us from getting caught up in our own little postmodern ghetto or tribe which we have carefully insulated from other ghettos and tribes. The hyper-individualistic era in which we live makes it easy for us birds of a feather to flock together and then to reinforce one another's insights and perceptions, to the exclusion of challenging perceptions.

At the moment I am working on a book with someone from a quasi-Presbyterian community church background, whose ideas and perceptions have not been honed and hardened by the cut-and-thrust that we have had to endure in the Episcopal Church, and I can tell the difference. My friend is a highly intelligent and articulate person with theological, bioethical, and medical training under her belt, but having lived this out within a supportive and affirming environment, rather than one that questions and challenges, this has robbed her of some of the intellectual toughness needed at such a time as this.

I am profoundly grateful that I learned my theology in a hostile environment at the University of London, where many of my presuppositions were regularly put out to dry. I felt a lot of times in my undergraduate years that I sometimes faced a hurricane every week as some professor or other tossed off this idea or that. I then had to read, think, and get my brain around not only the notions being fed to me from the the podium, but how those notions related to a robust understanding of what the Scripture teaches. In the midst of this the authority of the Scriptures were constantly under scrutiny from every direction.

It was this experience that brought me to abhor theological sloppiness, of which there is enormous amounts on both sides of the aisle these days, and also doctrinal vacuousness. Then, having been ordained, I was tossed into the bubbling brew that was London in the late Sixties and early Seventies, where I discovered how important it was for the Gospel we proclaim to be able to stand on its own two intellectual feet while being ravaged by all-comers. George Weigel describes the intellectual atmosphere in Europe as being "Christophoic," yet it was that Christophobia which was starting to grow like a weed in those early years of my ordained ministry, and which I had to learn how to address.

Just as my muscles are strengthened each morning when I test them against my exercise bike, so our intellectual and spiritual muscles are strengthened in the cauldron of ideas. It is important to read things with which we disagree, to listen to positions that challenge our own, and to explore whether cherished notions will stand up under this pressure. If they will not, then it is vital that we reassess our position until we find ideas and beliefs that do.

Furthermore, such stretching leaves us in many instances with periods of limbo when we are not sure about something that may until recently have been a lynchpin in our thinking. Rather than running from this experience of ambiguity, it is essential for us to leap into the uncertainty and find an intellectually and spiritually viable way through. Often this means doing the thinking for ourselves, rather than depending on second-hand thought done by others who we believe to be our allies.

It is important that we bring our uncertainties into the arena of discussion, for it is there that they are shown the light of day and can be profitably explored. I have somtimes found in such settings that I have grasped my opponents' positions better than they have themselves, and as a result my own position has been enriched and strengthened.

I have an overriding belief in the sovereignty of God. That is, that the self-revealing God is Lord of the univere and the all-powerful holder of time and history in his hands. Scripture teaches that God is the source of all truth, and as we explore the truth in the company of the Christ, and within the context of his faithful people down through the centuries, this truth will set us free. But just as in the record of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of Cyrus, Israel's enemy, as "my anointed" (Isaiah 45:1), so there is a place in God's sovereign plan for the creative engagement of ideas, even ideas that we perceive to be false. The truth is that most of us are unwilling to explore the richness of divinely-given truth until we are challenged to do so.

I have found myself time and again coming back to a magnificent book published a dozen years ago, and which came from the fertile mind of Leander Keck, former Dean of Yale Divinity School. In "The Church Confident" he suggested that for mainline Christians there are four possible courses of action.

One is to become a counter-culture, determined to be a pure church. This is the option that some of our number have followed, but for many of us, and for a variety of reasons, this does not work. As Keck says, the whole of our history makes us tone deaf to such a summons.

A second is the trend that has deeply gouged into the life of our churches, that of "a social activism grounded in the assumption that the church must be the avant-garde of leftward social change -- the flipside of the rightward assumption that it should be the vanguard of the restoration of Christendom" (page 76). This is, Keck points out, a piece with secularization and is part of what I would call a questionable anthropocentrism. He writes in summing up the problem of this approach that "a truly inclusive church either becomes a replica of a pluralist secular society or a sect composed of those who agree on a particular kind of inclusivism" (page 79). Keck is truly perceptive in this observation.

A third approach is that championed by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas that we be resident aliens. "The resident alien church is more concerned to be authentic than to be pure. And for its beat it listens to the Bible and the Christian tradition rather than the pounding rhythms around it" (page 76). This is a much more attractive option, but Keck did not believe this a viable approach in the early 1990s. I would suggest that we have moved on a lot since then as society has drifted further from Christendom, and the Christendom model of being church has crumbled further.

However, he comes up with his notion that "instead of being a community of resident aliens who, like some refugee and immigrant communities, enjoy the advantage of residence while eschewing public life, this vocation entails commitment to being a long-range influence for the common good. The image that comes to mind is that of dual citizenship, for that points to the necessary and inevitable tension that exists between loyalty to society and loyalty to the kingdom of God" (page 85).

This will require, he says, "patient and persistent pursuit of the ordinary that attitudes are formed and understandings are matured. Renewed and confident churches know that in the long run the character and quality of their steady routine is more significant than a frenetic 911 style." This is something that our tradition teaches us over and over again. It is in the routine of the Daily Office, the Holy Table, and the consistent exposition of God's Word, that lives are shaped and formed for the long term.

What we are attempting to do in the midst of the postmodern malaise is to bring into being churches of this kind. Authenticity takes priority over purity, because we know that purity is impossible. Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God takes precedence over any loyalties to the ragged remains of the Episcopal Church, yet it is within this context that we test the substance of the Gospel. It is also within this setting that we will be on the receiving end of the brickbats that come from those whose ideas we consider to be what Keck calls in another place "banal and bizarre" of those who would rework revealed truth and the tradition.

I leave the final word with Leander Keck, "...a new era is dawning. If in this yet ill-defined era the churches are renewed within because they recover their confidence in the gospel, they will be able to offer the 21st Century a vital witness to the truth about God -- and about ourselves.

Perhaps it is not too much to hope that in the closing years of this wretched century (remember, this was written in 1993), in which human ingenuity managed not only to turn technological marvels into unprecedented horrors but to legitimate the decimation of missions, we will see the beginnings of a sobered view of the human condition. The mainline churches, by contributing the wisdom of their heritage to such a rethinking, might desist from sanctifying utopian illusions and, instead, forge a vision of a new Christian humanism for Adam east of Eden" (page 121).

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Reflections on the Changing Character of Classic Anglicanism

Classic Anglicanism can be compared to many things, but the exquisite beauty of a mature landscape or the subtle magnificence of a fine wine which the palate learns to appreciate are two analogies that come to mind. I have spent a lifetime discovering how to appreciate the richness of this tradition, which is mine as much by an accident of birth as personal conviction. Yet just as I am really beginning to appreciate its majesty I am watching it being devoured in a battle that seems to have some of the characteristics of a deathblow.

Anglicanism is an approach to catholic Christianity that has been forged and tempered by past conflicts and antagonisms. It has had this ability to marry a rich diversity of Christian expressions and experience in such a way that it enables us to live with some of the inevitable ambiguities of the life of faith. Classic Anglicanism also allows for the occasional maverick voice as well as a (sometimes grudging) respect for the convictions of the minority. There have been seesaw swings of influence and relative weakness as the variety of traditions within Anglican culture have rubbed against one another, almost always enriching one another in the process.

Alas, such mutual respect and comprehensiveness is now under threat as never before. The mature landscape is being plouged under. Polarization has taken place to such an extent that the internal debate that has always enriched Anglican Christianity has given way, in the United States at least, to angry accusation, counter-accusation, and what seems to be crass attempts to use raw influence and political power to impress its will on others. Why is it that ever since I heard then newly-elected Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, say in 1985 that there would be no outsiders in the Episcopal Church, that I, a mainstream classic Anglican if ever there was one, has felt and been treated more and more as an outsider?

Now we are hopelessly polarized. Perhaps it is no accident that this polarization reflects the deep polarizations that there are in our culture. I have during these last weeks watched with fascinated horror as the United States Senate has marched toward what has become known as "the nuclear option." The present majority seem determined to modify patterns of action that have made the Senate marvelously distinctive in American political life so that they can attain what they want regardless of the minority. Moderates have been unable to stop inevitable, and the subtlety and beauty will be lost and replaced by the tyranny of the majority -- and, inevitably, deeper polarization and recriminations.

These same polarizing forces are rapidly wringing the life out of what remains of the Episcopal Church, with the political majority (I do not think they are a majority on the ground), pressing an agenda that reaches far beyond the richness of classical Anglican comprehensiveness. The response of many of those who are being wronged as a result of all that has taken place is either anger, depression, or flight. There is hardly a thoughtful and reflective orthodox Christian in the Episcopal Church that I know who has not at least considered this last course of action. I certainly confess to have considered it, although my flight would have taken me back to England and not out of Anglicanism altogether.

Perhaps we should have realized that when the Boomers became the dominant force within the church and the culture they would rip its fabric to shreads. Our generation, sometimes aided and abetted by the Silent Generation before us, seems to have been more intent on destroying what it has been received rather than conserving, building upon, and enriching it.

Yet here is the interesting twist. Despite this tale of woe, there are still those outside the Anglican fold who look at the treasures of classical Anglicanism and say, "We want it... this is what we have been looking for all our lives."

The other evening I had dinner with Phil Harrold, an Episcopalian who teaches at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio, and a couple of his students. Neither of these individuals was raised in an Anglican setting but each is drawn to its richness. The face of ECUSA might be extremely off-putting to these fine young pastors, but the substance of Anglicanism is like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. That which the power brokers of the Episcopal Church are so eager to discard, putting the questionable insights of Freud and Jung above those of Scripture and the on-going tradition, these eager and enthusiastic Christians are willing to pick up revive, enrich, and carry forward -- and I am prepared to help them.

I don't know what I had hoped for myself by this point of my ministry, in my sixtieth year, my thirty-seventh year in orders, and celebrating this weekend the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. If I listen to my ego and attempt to be honest, I suspect that I would have preferred to have been like one of those older priests of the early days of my ministry, who we looked up to with a certain degree of awe and whose measured words and wisdom were generally respected.

That is not my lot, however. Instead, I find myself still in the trenches, under God attempting to put together a new congregation that carries within it the riches of classic Anglicanism but adjusted to the stressful demands of the 21st Century. In this ministry there are few of those strokes and acolades that I would have appreciated. There are times when I get up in the morning wondering if I am a fool to be doing what I am doing -- but then I have to remind myself that we are called to be fools for Christ's sake.

I have a feeling, however, that I am doing something. What I am doing is playing a small cog-like role in what might be the re-emergence of genuine Anglicanism, as a coalescence takes place from within our fold and from beyond it. It seems to me that the young emergent churches, who met in conference here in Nashville last week, will have a part to play in this new kind of Anglicanism that builds upon what we have received, not what ECUSA seems intent on destroying.

If this is the case, then I am content. The apostles seem not to have been feted and honored in their own time, and so I feel a little ashamed that I should expect such a thing for myself -- a much less important mortal than any of them were.

Rosemary and I grew up amidst the ruins of England following the Second World War. We watched as heaps of rubble in the heart of London and other great cities were turned into something new, sometimes magnificent, sometims jerry built. What those early years of our lives taught is that nothing is permanent, and that everything can be rebuilt. Classic Anglicanism is too rich a treasure to go under, but we cannot expect the tired and corrupted old wineskins we inherited to last forever -- as new wine surges forth, so new wineskins are required, and that is what is going to be emerging in coming year.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Trinity Sunday, 1970 to Trinity Sunday, 2040

Trinity Sunday this year is the 3rd Sunday in May -- as was the case in 1970. I guess I keep track of this bit of trivia because it was on Trinity Sunday 35 years ago that I knelt before Robert Stopford, Bishop of London, in St. Paul's Cathedral, and was ordained to the priesthood. Stopford was one of the last of the English prince-bishops, a man who had had "a good career in the church," as they quaintly put it in those days. Some of my class of twenty-three who were ordained on that day hoped that they would follow in Stopford's footsteps, others of us intuitively knew that for most people good careers in the church were a thing of the past.

All of us were serving in "Swinging London." Mary Quant had wowed the world with the miniskirt, protests against the war in Vietnam occasionally rocked the streets, the arrival of the pill had changed sexual mores, and in the previous few years the drug culture had left the Bohemian world of art schools and had surged into the mainstream on the coattails of the Beatles. Some things don't change, however, because the Rolling Stones were touring then -- and they are touring still!

Bishop Stopford had had a good career in a church which still acted as chaplain to the wider society, and we had been trained for ministry much in the same way that he was. Yet something we discovered when we had appeared as deacons in our newly-minted collars a year earlier, was that the ministry for which we were preparing when we entered seminary in 1965, no longer existed. The whole culture had totally turned over in those few years that we were digging at the books at the University of London and at seminary.

Much of the confusion in church life in those times was to know what we were supposed to be doing. Our ordination class was rebellious and stroppy, but with good reason: the sort of post-ordination training we were getting had absolutely nothing to do with the issues we were dealing with in the parishes where we served as curates. I remember a day wasted when a sweet old priest came to lecture us on something like the appropriate way to call on the sick in hospital, at the very time I had spent a week chasing a young man around London who was tripping badly on LSD. We had little clue how to deal with this kind of epidemic.

Our ordination class divided into roughly four different groups. There were the socialists with a radical theology who saw their ministry in terms of changing the status quo and bringing justice to housing developments, slums, and downtrodden neighborhoods. There were those who I would describe as the sports jacket and pipe types, whose Jesus was that rather bland figure who emerged from the collision between latitudinarian Anglicanism and watered-down 19th Century liberal theology. You could expect to meet these guys at the pub, and they were bound to apologize first before saying anything about the faith. Then there were the Anglo-Catholics who were so eager to now be called "Fah-ther," and these subdivided into the straights and the lace-clad gays.

Finally there was the two of us who were evangelicals. We were looked upon as rather odd because we married an old-fashioned kind of Anglican Protestantism with a passion for leading people to faith in Jesus Christ, and a commitment to Holy Scripture as God's Word Written. We were in the eyes of our peers more like mainline versions of the Jesus Movement, which happened to be emerging at that time, rather than priests of the established Church of England. Yet, and this is what puzzled our contemporaries, we of all our group happened to be the only ones ministering in parishes that were growing -- and growing younger. How could such a passe approach to believing have any legs?

Yet the Church of England was a big tent, and we were tolerated if not properly understood. Our way of believing, our colleagues were firmly convinced, would disappear as enlightenment advanced. I suspect, however, that the ordination class in the Diocese of London this year is made up predominantly of evangelicals of various flavors, and a few ardent Anglo-Catholics. Of course, what would make today's ordination class different is that it will contain women -- we were all male in those days, and one of the great debates was whether we would see women priests during our active ministry.

I paint this picture not only to reminisce, but also to illustrate how much things have changed as the older ones among my contemporaries are starting to retire -- and some have passed beyond the grave. During these 35 years in the west, Anglican Christianity has been struggling with all other flavors of believing, to work out how from within our rich tradition we can speak the faith meaningfully into a very starkly different kind of world.

Some have emphasized holding onto the traditions so that there is a bastion of security in the midst of sometimes terrifying insecurity. Others have gone with the flow, much as the Episcopal Church has, so that any distinctives are now ceasing to be seen. Others still have been asking and trying to work out how we can speak the biblical truth from the context of a church that is so shaped by our Christendom past that it may appear to all outside it as hopelessly irrelevant.

I am increasingly of the mind that we have yet to reach a tipping point of change. All that I have experienced through my ordained life has merely been preparatory for the crucial decades that now lie ahead of us, decades in which much of our pitiful ecclesiastical in-fighting is going to appear not only ridiculous but counter-productive. That is not to say that truth in unimportant, but we will need to find different ways to defend it.

In 35 years time the shape of my ministry will probably be seen as dinosaur-like as my take on Bishop Stopford who ordained me priest. Everything is heading into the hopper, including the structures that until a year or two ago seemed all too permanent.

I am seriously beginning to wonder, in an effort to be more united in the context of an increasingly hostile environment, whether we will not see some kind of rapprochment between faithful, historic Anglicanism and the See of Rome. I suspect that there will have been all sorts of other reallignments by then in the wake of amicable and nasty splits in every denominational tradition. I suspect also that a lot more of the initiative for the leadership of the church will come from the laity than is the case now, and I also think that the role of priest-pastor-minister will have changed quite radically.

These churches will be working in a very different world, with China as the most likely candidate for dominant superpower, and the Chinese church of some quarter to half a billion, ardently taking the gospel into all the world. It will be a world where global warming will be a real issue that folks will be confronting every day, and who can tell whether diseases like Ebola might have broken out of Africa and spread around the planet. It will be a world in the west that is predominantly older rather than younger, and in Asia where the radical imbalance between males and females as a result of today's selective abortion, will be a major destabilizing circumstance. It will be a world that is far less stable than today.

I suspect also that by that time the social experimentation that is going on now in the west will have shown itself to be immensely damaging to both the morale and the stability of society. In Europe, at least, a new moral fervor will be developing at the behest of the rapidly increasing Islamic population (When I was first ordained I used regularly to pass one of the very few mosques functioning in London, now there are hundreds).

As I say, what I have experienced in my 35 years as a priest has merely been the preface to what is coming. Hold onto your seats it is going to be rough (but at times exciting) ride. But as we look at all that this change will mean, Trinity Sunday reminds us that our God is unchanging: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit living in relationship, and drawing us into their community and fellowship with their One-ness.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A Strategy of Recovery

I have been interested by the responses I have received to my last piece, both on Toward2015 and personally. I recognize that many Americans who share my orthodox Anglican faith are disheartened, and sense that the battle is lost. From hereon out, as they perceive it, it is a rearguard action which will inevitably end in defeat.

I understand their misgivings and confess that there are days when I feel that way, too, however I do not believe that defeat is inevitable. But first we need to define our terms. For starters, I do not believe that we are in a contest for the worn-out structures of the Episcopal Church because they are already beyond our reach, and besides, most of them are irrelevant. I suspect that the actions of the General Convention 2006 and the Anglican Communion will play a role in significantly reshaping what tomorrow is going to look like, and those structures will be declared even more irrelevant.

Maybe I suffer from the shortcoming of being brought up to believe that even when you have your back against a wall and all looks lost, you keep on fighting the good fight. Churchill's "We will fight them..." speech, made almost exactly 65 years ago, and perhaps his greatest, was not delivered when things looked hunky-dory, but at that moment in 1940 when the British people believed that what would be required to save them from the wrath of Nazi-ism was a miracle. This is exactly what they received at Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain.

Perhaps I have drunk too long at that old-fashioned well which says you stand firm on your principles, and you do all in your power to protect them, whatever the odds and whatever the consequences. Churchill knew exactly what he was doing in 1940 when he took power in Britain, and he knew precisely what it would cost -- the wholesale destruction of the British economy and the loss of the British Empire. But the principles upon which Britain stood were more important than these. Despite those miracles of 1940, from 1939-1942 the British people saw very few victories or encouragements, but their bulldog determination reflected that of their leader.

Under God, I suppose this attitude has always been the one that I have clung to when the going has got tough, as it has so many times in 36 years of ordained ministry. But I also believe wholeheartedly and without reservation, that the future of biblical Christianity is as much at stake here as trinitarian orthodoxy was at stake in the 3rd and 4th Centuries when the Arian crisis rocked the church. When I had the opportunity to leave the Episcopal Church some months ago and go back to my homeland to minister, that was when I realized that to leave now would have been to admit that error is stronger and more powerful than truth.

So, as has been asked, when "the triumphal actions of the liberals" are as dominating as they are, isn't restoring Anglican Episcopal Christianity more or less impossible? In the short term and from our human perspective, I would hazard that this is so, but need that be the case in the medium and long term?

1. It is wrong for us to define ourselves vis-a-vis those with whom we disagree. Episcopalians have had the infuriating habit of doing this for a long time. We need to define ourselves in terms of who we actually are. In this part of the world being an Anglican is "Not-being-Baptist!" This isnt' good enough. We need to have clarity about who we are, what we believe, and a positive way of affirming our identity -- because our identity is clear, great, a treasure, and something God-given. I find it much more pleasing to know that I am an Anglican Communion Christian in fellowship with a wonderful worldwide church, rather than an adherent of a little elitist American high church unitarian universalist sect, something that seems to be in vogue in the structures of ECUSA.

2. It is right for us to work hard to gain clarity when it comes to our theological foundations. This is what Trinity and Nashotah need to be working on in terms of leadership for us, as well as engaging those in the trenches in the process. Theology is not primarily clarified in the hallowed halls of Academe, but in the day-to-day struggles of parish ministry. We need to work especially hard to see where our theology is infected by the spirit of this age and to cleanse it, for if it is weakened by the zeitgeist it will not sound the clarion call of Christ into postmodernity.

3. It is right for us to develop the outline of a long range strategy, and then to stick with it. Of course there will be need for course corrections, etc., but these will be necessary. This was the way that John Stott and others led Anglican Evangelicalism out of a pitiful wilderness beginning with the tiniest patch of land in 1945. Today more than three-quarters of those training for leadership in the Church of England are evangelical and orthodox.

4. It is right for us to develop our own structures, networks, institutions, ministries, and so forth, and to put our heart and soul into them believing that what we are doing is creating something that will supercede that which is dying -- i.e. the 815-oriented structures. Hierarchies of the kind we have lived with for so long are a thing of the past, networks and horizontal ways of organizing are the thing of the future. They will take over the church whether the hierarchies like it or not. In these circumstances we might need to give some lip-service to the structures that are still there, but no more than is absolutely necessary.

5. It is right for us to major in what we do well, which is planting new congregations, reviving old ones, being pastors, teachers, evangelists, those who are equipped by the Spirit of God to be the People of God on earth. We want to be in the business of winning those beyond the church's doors to faith in Jesus Christ. This is where the wisdom of the likes of a Kevin Martin comes in. As I travelled the church for two decades it was not difficult to see where faithful ministry was taking place when compared to places where folks were going through the motions. Take my word for it, going through the motions is very much the flavor of many on the left.

6. It is essential that we do the political work necessary to maintain our strength where we can. This is something I leave to others because I am politically not so bright. However, this means using intelligence and prayer to move forward. In some dioceses I recognize that this is well-night impossible, but I believe in others there is a lot that orthodox people can do to put their stamp on what is happening. The caveat is that you can expect to be fought all the way, you can expect to be misrepresented, and to be misused, but if the true Israelites will come out of their caves and their holes in the ground there is a mighty host that will walk with us.

7. It is vital that we pray. Prayer is the fuel of any movement, and it is creating a movement that we are talking about. No work of God advances if it does not advance on its knees. As we pray, as we tune ourselves into the mind of God, then the miracles will start to happen, indeed, some of them are happening already. I am fond of quoting Prof. Herbert Butterfield of Oxford some time back, "History belongs to those who pray."

8. We need to use our intelligence, but we also need to be ready to both fail in some of our endeavors, as well as not get everything that we believe is right the first time around. I presented a motion to our diocesan convention in January that I did not expect to make it, it was intended as a signal of where the orthodox would want to go if they could. To my surprise we got it. It doesn't always happen like that, but we need to think about keeping coming back with what we believe to be right until it displaces the error that has been enthroned in the heart of the church.

9. We need courage and tenacity -- and above all we need leaders. It is not for old guys like me to keep on stepping up to the plate, it is for the next generation of Anglicans to say what sort of church they believe God is calling them to be part of.

What I have outlined above is not a program between now and General Convetion 2006, but an outline of what we need to be doing for the next 30-40 years. Unless an awful lot happens to improve longevity, the likes of me will not be around to see the fruits of such a strategy, but the next generation and the generation of my granddaughter to be born next month will see the fruit.

Anglicanism in North America will look very different in that far off time. There will be a rump of revisionists living off the innate spiritual curiosity of the American left, and also on the endowments built up by faithful people that they have commandeered. But there will also be convergences with those outside of the Communion now but on the Canterbury Trail, and, I suspect, some kind of rapproachment with Rome. It has the potential of being a powerful tool in God's hands -- but a lot will depend on how we handle ourselves in the next few years.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Reclaiming of the Church

At the place where Frogmore Street meets Dundale Road in my home town of Tring in England, there once stood an elegant old Victorian building on several acres of land. It fell into disrepair and was finally purchased by my father's construction company during the 1960s. The Victorian structure would have required a lot of repairs, but it could have been made to look as good as new. However, it was eventually torn down and replaced with a quiet close of houses that we thought at the time looked oh, so, contemporary and chi-chi.

Whenever I am back in Tring I shudder when I pass that close of homes because those places that we thought looked such an improvement forty years ago now reveal in a stark manner just how ticky-tacky the new, modern, contemporary, 1960s actually were. The same thing was happening all over England at that time, as hideous monstrosities in concrete, steel, and glass took the place of buildings that had style and a human scale. Housing that was hailed as a great advance in the Sixties has become many of today's slums.

What was happening architecturally was also happening in the broadest reaches of the culture. Deconstructionism was on the march out of France, and the Beatles were proclaiming they were more famous than Jesus Christ. The 1960s were a cocky, self-confident, age, and those of us who belong to the generation that came of age in those heady times have carried with us many of these characteristics. It took me a long time to finally accept that although some good things happened in the 1960s, when all is said and done they were a time when irreparable damage was done in the western world.

This was the time when theology and church life went awry as well. The death of God theologians were hailed for the groundbreaking things they wanted us to believe. Tillich's views rode high, and in New Testament studies Rudolf Bultmann was king. This was the time when the bishops of the Episcopal Church refused to find James Pike guilty of the heresy that he clearly adhered to. I had lunch a few weeks ago with one of the few remaining bishops from that time, a gracious man, but his reasons for acting as he did seemed bizarre and thoroughly out of touch with biblical and catholic Christianity.

There was a termite quality to all that was happening in those days, gnawing away as it was as the heart and marrow of the faith in the mainline churches, until here we are now watching the shell of the structures we inherited coming apart -- helped along by the wrecking ball that the 1960s crew is still wielding. The instinct that many of us have had is to walk away from the damage that has been done and build our own ticky-tacky structures appropriate for the 21st Century, structures that surely have built into them our own contemporary strain of termites and death-watch beetle.

Yet it seems to me that destroying in order to replace the broken with something new is itself an inappropriate way of carrying on, wherever we can we should be seeking to repair and restore. I know that this is not possible everywhere, but in many places I think it is a lot more do-able than many might realize.

Actually, what is happening might turn out to be very good for us in the long-term.

Firstly, we are being forced to look beneath the surface at the real philosophical and theological issues that confront us. This is a time when there is no place for sloppy doctrine grounded more in pop psychology and a "feel good" entertainment mindset, whether with a conservative or a progressive flavor. This is a time when we are being asked to dig down deep into the resources that we have inherited from the centuries and begin rebuilding with materials that will last -- not cheap composites and ticky-tacky.

Secondly, while it will take a while, we are being freed from the tyranny of a centralized structure that thinks it knows best, and is prepared to squander millions trying to prove it. The denominational structures of ECUSA which we took so seriously as recently as a decade ago, have become little more than a costly irrelevance. As 815 Second Avenue, the Executive Council, and even the General Convention, become more and more of a bizarre postmodern circus, more and more folks are tending to ignore them -- and certainly cut off the spicket of money flowing in their direction.

Thirdly, we are seeing just how wrong have been many of our choices for leaders. The Episcopal Church has got the bishops it deserves because we have been thinking in terms of charm, good looks, Sixties-style management skills, when we have been out voting for these creatures. The places where progress is being made is were bishops focus their lives on Jesus Christ, preach the Gospel as revealed in Scripture faithfully, have thick skins and strong spines, and are prepared to begin making the sort of changes that are necessary if the church is to speak the age-old message into an even more hostile century than the last. Just as the Counter-Reformation swept away their corrupt 16th Century predecessors and remade the church, the same is true of our time.

Fourthly, the old diocesan structures that have been so disconcerting, are themselves in the midst of a shake-up. In August 2003 in most dioceses the implied trust that existed between the grassroots and the leadership dissolved. The laity are now voting with their feet and with their money. Dioceses like Newark are telling us that as many as 1/3 of their congregations are on the edge of becoming unviable -- what a great advertisement for their revisionist, 1960s-shaped theology and practice. If I were a bishop rather than the priest of a small, poor mission congregation, I would be having far more sleepless nights than I am getting. The old structures are finished, new horizontal networks are taking their place, whether the powers that be like it or not.

David Bailey was trying to explain to me the other day that times like ours when change is taking place on a giant scale are times of disequilibrium. Our desire in these times is to seek stability and equilibrium, but that, David assures me, is the wrong thing today. As soon as we restore a temporary balance we are missing the opportunities of being put out on the cusp by God to be creative for his Kingdom.

Last week, the Bishop of Northwest Texas told the faithful members of his largest congregation to vacate their buildings because they had reached the conclusion that they could no longer remain part of ECUSA. I don't know what the folks at St. Nicholas, Midland, are going to do, but after giving thought to friends who are members there my next thought was something like, "What a stupid man this bishop is. Instead of seeking to find a constructive way forward for both this congregation that has lost trust in a denomination that has turned its back on truth, and for his diocese, he has cut off his nose to spite his face. He sees the episcopate in terms of power not in terms of servanthood. He thinks like a captive of Christendom, not a prophet of the post-Christendom possibility."

It is this kind of self-destructive behavior that should encourage the faithful to hang in there, rebuild from the grassroots, and watch for a multiplication of assinine moves by those who have sold out to the spirit of the age.

I have said some pretty angry and brutal things about ECUSA in the last couple of years, but I am at the point where I am ready to reclaim the noble title "Episcopal." I am thankful to be an Anglican Christian, and I am grateful for the potential for mission that there is an an Anglican/Episcopal way of being a follower of the Lord Jesus. I also believe that as the 1960s termites do their worst they are preparing the ground for a new kind of Anglicanism to move forward in the future. Now is not the time to walk away but to re-engage, get the bug man in, and start re-ordering our household.