Monday, November 28, 2005

An Object Lesson On How Long Things Take

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon an interview on XM Public Radio between Bob Edwards and Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. Gilbert, who has written ten million words in his lifetime about the great man, was talking about his latest volume, Churchill and America. I am well into it now and it is a great read. If you are a Churchill afficienado, then this would make a nice something from Santa!

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I found myself reading about the way in which the USA and Britain, Churchill using every piece of diplomacy and guile that he had in his toolbox, set up the Lend Lease program. The Land Lease Bill was passed by Congress in the first part of 1941, and allowed Britain to get the resources that it needed from the USA with payments deferred until the end of the War.

One of the hardest things for Britain was that one of the first actions of Harry Truman after V-E Day was to set in motion the process for repayment. My childhoo years in England were shaped by this American presidential action because not only was Britain having to rebuild itself after six years of conflict, but it was also having to make the initial payments for the materiel it had gotten from America. While my peers here were growing up amidst post-war prosperity, if anything, cicumstances in Britain were bleaker than during the conflict iself! But that is another story...

It just happened that not too many days ago I listend to an English economist talking on the BBC, and one of the comments that he made as an aside was that early in 2006 the United Kingdom will make its final payment on the debts incurred by Lend Lease, which began in 1941 and the installments started coming back to the USA in May 1945. Thus, a program that was established nearly 65 years ago, and on which the bill became due three months before I was born, is finally at the point of being wound up.

Several points can be made from this. One is that it is much easier to incur debts than it is to pay them off. A second is that if it had not been for the generosity of the United States, Britain would not have been able to hold the Nazis at bay until such time as America was ready to enter World War Two. If Lend Lease had not happened we would be looking at a very different kind of world today -- one that Churchill imagined would be dominated by tyranny.

A major point, however, is a good lesson for a culture that has been programmed to believe that circumstances can be resolved in 50 episode minutes with ten minutes for commercials! As I have said before, the Episcopal Church did not get into the present mess in five minutes, and it is certainly not going to get out of it in an hour. Britain needed ever single one of those billions of dollars to hold the Axis at bay, but I suspect that even Churchill did not think the UK would still be paying it off when his grandson, Winston S. Churchill, Jr., had begun collecting his old-age pension! When we enter a fray, the consequences are all long term.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Parting of Friends

As you look back over the history of the church over the last several hundred years, there have been times of disruption which have been marked by the parting of friends. Having studied church history as both an undergraduate and postgraduate level, I have had the opportunity to read in depth about certain of those agonizing seasons. Back when I was doing this I didn't expect to find myself living through such a time, yet hardly a week goes by these days when I do not find myself saying goodbye to some other soul alongside whom I have worked in gospel ministry, and who for one reason or another cannot continue in the life of the Episcopal Church -- and I have shed many tears.

Separations like these occurred in the 1660s, when the newly restored monarchy callously sought to get its own back on the Puritans and seemed determined to make it impossible for some of the wisest and godliest to stay in the Church of England. Yet while Richard Baxter and others walked, men like William Gurnall stayed, alongside Edward Reynolds who was to become Bishop of Norwich. While I have never read any record of the discomfort of the severing of ties that took place between the Puritans who conformed and those who left at the Great Ejection, I am sure that there were many sacred friendships that died and oceans of tears that were shed.

Another such period was when the Oxford Movement was in his heydey in England in the 19th Century. David Newsome wrote a wonderful book many years ago called The Parting of Friends, which chronicled the journeys of Christians who had once shared ministry together in different directions. This is the experience so many of us are having now.

After he converted to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman never returned to Oxford, the scene of his greatest ministry during his Anglican days. Yet in one of his biographies there is a touching episode when as an old man the cardinal was traveling from London to the north, that the train stopped in Oxford. As they slowed to enter the station he could see the places that were once dear to him and his mind for days after was flooded with fond memories that had been cut short and lost following his changed allegiance. I suspect there were dear friendships that he wished had not died when he "poped."

If you read Alan Guelzo's magnificent history of the Reformed Episcopal Church, For The Union Of Evangelical Christendom, there are touching pictures of evangelical Episcopalians whose lives were torn from one another when the REC split from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA in the 1870s. Some of my most treasured experiences in recent years have been forged in the process of building new relationships with our REC brothers and sisters -- but why did it take 125 years for us to be able to kiss and begin making up?

And now it is happening all over again. As error stalks the Episcopal Church, and a blatantly heterodox agenda is being forced upon it, some faithful Christians are forced to flee, some flee of their own accord, while others of us stay put for a whole variety of reasons, many of which are very good. In a diocese like my own it is at present easier to stay than to flee, but also for me there were solemn vows of canonical obedience to my bishop which I made getting on for forty years ago that are as sacred to me as the marriage vows I made before God to my wife on our wedding day. Besides, I could not live with myself if I were to leave the field in the midst of a conflict that, despite the pundits' brayings, is far from over.

Yet however we read this there is the inevitable pain we experience as men and women we have walked and worked alongside not only say they can no longer be part of what was once a shared mission, but because into these once-fond relationships division have been introduced festering sores. I have every hope that the divisions we experience as others seek refuge in other jurisdictions or under the umbrella of other provinces of the Anglican Communion, will be short-lived, maybe ten to twenty years at the most, but coming together will not be made any easier if we are determined to develop the habit of looking down on one another as if staying or leaving were the more spiritual thing to do.

One of the less attractive sides of the Renewal Movement in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, was a tendency for some who experienced renewal by God in a certin way, to start looking down upon others who had not received that experience of God through the Holy Spirit. There were antagonisms and underlying tensions that took a long time to heal following those circumstances. Once again, friends were parted from one another.

I have tried through these difficult recent years not to cast aspersions on the actions of others that are different from my own believing as Paul urges when he writes to the Corinthians that we be careful of those who have sensitive consciences. I may not agree with the actions others have taken who have gone elsewhere, but I must respect that they may not see things precisely as I do. However, I had hoped that perhaps this time those who parted might find ways of staying in fellowship with one another so that rebuilding can take place together once the demolition begun in 2003 has finished.

Maybe I was naive to think that it could happen this way. But I still have hope.

Monday, November 21, 2005

More on Deconstructionism & the Church

I find it ironic that within a 24-hour period over the weekend I should receive a wonderfully affirming email from the leader of another Anglican body in the USA thanking me for the part I played in the past in bringing faithful Anglicans of various jurisdictions together, and that I should then be accused of being a fellow traveler with Frank Griswold on the Toward2015 Listserv.

Also during this period there has been much pain as my former parish in Upstate New York was dissolved by a revisionist bishop and convention because of their orthodoxy. I stand in solidarity with All Saints', Rochester, certainly not their bishop or the ideology that has done this to them.

So, let me say that as far as I can see Bishop Griswold and I have very little in common except that we are married men who happen to be priests of the same denomination. Also, our daughters were in the same class at Princeton University a number of years ago!

What some of the things said have proved to me is that it is always dangerous to dash out a response to someone; perhaps I made that error in throwing something about grace onto the computer the other day in a rush -- and ill-prepared writing tends to lead to misunderstanding. Let me try, therefore, and clarify what I was attempting to do in the piece "The Coming Demise of Deconstructionism." Either that will help explain, or it will get me into such deep water that I will drown!

For several years now it has been one of my contentions that if we are to grasp the opportunities God is giving us in these difficult times, we must have a clear theology and a precise ideological and philosophical foundation from which we work. What I see on the orthodox side is what might be called the theology and ideology of rebuff as it counters the ramshackle mindsets of postmodernism, which are in the process of slithering over the unreflective and unthinking world and churches in which we live. Just rejecting them angrily and in a mnner that is polarizing is not going to solve the problems facing us.

It is a deconstructionist ideology with its impulse toward subjectivism and relativism that has disrupted the life of the church within the context of a larger society that is unreflectively tumbling in that direction. Deconstructionism is by its nature, I believe, destructive, and thus the extraordinary damage that is being done. However, I am asserting that by responding to deconstructionism in kind the orthodox are, in effect, doing the deconstructionists' job for them.

Scripture is a rich interweave, and what God calls us to is to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. This means that we must listen carefully to all that Scripture is saying, and seek to interpret as honestly and plainly as possible all of that rich interweave of doctrines and ideas that we find in the sacred pages. The tendency of most folks is to concentrate just on one or two that happen to affirm our own mindset and attitude, and thus the balance of Scripture's message is lost.

For example, grace is about the generosity of God toward us, but as Paul points out there is no freedom to sin so that grace may abound. Yes, we are called to be a holy people, but then there is the doctrine of the faithful remnant within the transgressing people of God. How does that fit with the circumstances that the orthodox now find themselves in, in the Episcopal Church? I could go on, but I think I have made my point with these couple of illustrations. If we are to be biblical people we must be fully biblical, we cannot afford to pick and choose -- and then we must work to see how the richness of the message speaks to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. That requires hard, hard work.

One of the baffling challenges is how to be fully biblical within the context of these strange and modern animals called denominations, and within denominations that are part of a culture that is driving itself through deconstructionism down a road that takes it out of the Judeo-Christian worldview altogether. This, I think, is the huge challenge in which we are engaged, and woe betide us if we do not engage in it -- and the theology of rebuff does not allow us to do so.

One of the problems of this position I hold is that for reasons that sometimes puzzle me, trying to be wholly biblical is seen by others as compromise. I am not prepared to play the polarization game, despite the fact that I have wounds and scars from other wounds as a result of this dark time that has descended on the church and culture. But neither am I prepared to do the deconstructionists' job for them, and nor am I prepared to compromise the whole counsel of God as understood within the context of our Anglican and catholic tradition.

I believe something beautiful from God can emerge from all of this if we are prepared prayerfully to find a truly biblical way forward. That will not be easy, and it will take time, but God always justifies himself. One of the best lessons I had of this was the years I spent working with those who had endured the communist captivity of the church in Russia.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Coming Demise of Deconstructionism

I want to try an idea out because it is at the root of what I have been struggling with.

Eugene Peterson became a friend of mine before he was famous, and I have very often sought his wisdom and advice when I have reached one of those points in life where I am bewildered and like Robert Frost in his poem have two (or more) roads to choose from as I journey through the wood of life.

I was talking to him the other day and he mentioned that he had been doing a blurb for a new book by Tim Stafford that is soon to be published by InterVarsity. In it Stafford says that in our baptism we are given solidarity with all the baptized, the whole Body of Christ, whether it be the craziest off-the-wall evangelist who makes us cringe and want to curl up in a corner, or those on the left whose whole ministry seems to be a celebration of packaging the zeitgeist and then marketing it as if it were the faith. Those words have hung with me because the issues we are wrestling with in the church clearly have a sacramental flavor.

I confess that I hate being identified with some of the things with which I have been forced to be identified with because of my denominational background, but I am equally uncomfortable with dividing the church further. Like another friend with whom I have been in email correspondence recently, Kevin Martin, I once went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher In Jerusalem and saw there the epitome of nauseating division that is displayed to the world every day on the traditional spot of Christ's resurrection. Did we so learn Christ? Would I honestly be able to look myself in a mirror in the morning if I have done something to further divide the seamless garment of Christ?

Deconstructionism is by its very nature destructive, although deconstructionists deny this. Walter Truett Anderson, for example, one of the gurus of this flood in our culture, denies that there is anything negative or nihilistic about this mindset that is at the heart of so much postmodern thinking. However, I would honestly have to say that living amongst the damage done by the deconstructionist/reconstructionist mindset as it has incarnated itself in the church, Anderson is wrong. Not only does deconstructionism undermine the substance of the faith, but creates and environment that engenders a response from those with an impulse to orthodoxy that further rips and shreds.

When we break away from the whole that has been invaded (and even taken over) by deconstructionist thinking and attitudes, do we not allow ourselves to collude with those who have done the destroying and as a result further intensify these divisions? Radical individualism and fragmentation are hallmarks of a culture that is at war with itself because an innovative approach to doing, being, and thinking has been injected into it, and those of us who contest this progressive impulse in the wrong way are prone to respond in kind. Rather than countering the ideas that are doing the destroying, we walk away from the field being contested, circle the wagons, and shout epithets.

My wife has just come back from her latest battle with deconstructionism, this being in the field of literary criticism. She was told that she had written an excellent PhD dissertation by her supervisor and others at the University of London, but there seems to be one member of her panel who is blocking her degree because of her very traditional approach to literary criticism. What is interesting is that deconstructionist thinking has now peaked in academia, and her doctoral supervisor suggested that it is ironic that by holding to an older approaches to lit crit she has, in fact, become avant garde! Fancy, he told her last week, being withheld a doctorate because the old-fashioned is becoming fresh, new, and exciting.

What the literary world seems to be starting to discover is that deconstructionism is not something that has staying power for the long term. The Christian world is, I believe, going to discover exactly the same thing. The problem we have amongst those of us who affirm orthodoxy is that no one seems to have the patience to wait for God to justify himself and reveal his hand. In his Essay on Truth, Francis Bacon wrote, "What is truth said jesting Pilate, and would not wait for an answer." What I see with so many of our contemporaries is that they will not wait for that answer either.

While the waiting might be far longer than most Americans have patience for, I suspect that in terms of the flow of history we may not have to wait very long at all, a generation or two at the most. If I live as long as my father did (he died in his 86th year), then I suspect I will live to see this happen.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Anglican Evangelical Corrective

As well as being a rich, historic, and honorable tradition within Anglicanism, rooted in our catholicity as well as our Reformation heritage, Anglican Evangelicalism is also a significant corrective. When Evangelicalism is weak, dysfunctional, or sidelined, then Anglican Christianity in that area of the world suffers. On the other hand, when Evangelicalism is in a position to dominate, a pugnaciousness tends to emerge, and with it there is often an element of pharisaism. The truth is that Evangelical Anglicans need the balance of the other traditions just as much as the other traditions need to listen with care to what Evangelicals are saying.

My whole adult life and ministry has been exercised as an Evangelical. I am what they would call in the Church of England an Open Evangelical, an adjectival clarification that probably speaks for itself. The Fulcrum movement in England best expresses the hopes and aspirations of this particular group of Evangelicals on those shores ( I am profoundly grateful that I have been nurtured and formed in this particular school of Christian believing and being, for I believe that there is no better way to be a follower of Christ than as an Evangelical Anglican.

However, because I have been an Evangelical for so long I am acutely aware of Evangelicalism's weakenesses, failures, and shortcomings. No incarnation of Christian faith is perfect, and Evangelical Anglicanism is certainly incapable of making claims to perfection! But as I have said already, even if it is not perfect it is very much a corrective. The thing about correctives is that they are not necessarily comfortable to be around -- do you remember what it felt like to have braces to correct the alignment of your teeth and the nature of your bite?

I believe it is part of the genius of Evangelical Anglicans to be prepared to ask the difficult questions, and not to give up until those questions have been adequately dealt with and answered. Because evangelical Christianity gives such great weight to the place of Scripture in believing, then Evangelicals are unlikely to be satisfied with trite answers, or answers that try to finesse or avoid the thrust of what God has revealed in his Word.

The truth is that Scripture itself is not a comfortable set of documents to live with, for through it God is always challenging us to address our sins and fallenness within the context of our redemption by the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the indwelling Spirit. Those who live under the authority of Scripture, therefore, will ask of church and culture the questions that they might often want to sidestep, and should stubbonly keep asking those questions.

This is not something new. While historians may argue about the precise roots of Evangelicalism, it certainly came to its first English-speaking fruition in the 18th Century. At that time all sorts of social and political evils bestrode the world as industrialization began taking root in Europe, and then later in North America. For example, it was Evangelicals who determinedly called church and society to rethink their attitude toward slavery and the slave trade, and on the basis of Scripture's overall teaching about the nature of God and the nature of humankind.

When William Wilberforce and his colleagues set out on this noble crusade, they did so not with the backing of the entrenched leadership, but with the backing of priests like John Wesley and John Newton. As they worked on this project for year after year, being constantly rebuffere, they were not exactly the most popular people in either church or state. But Scripture's teaching about human dignity and its implications ultimately prevailed.

The same is true today. Being an Evangelical is still not popular because if we are faithful to the calling of the Word Incarnate through the Word Written, we are not prepared to be rolled over by the culture and the manner in which the values of postmodernity and a post-Christian culture are invading the church. The whole debate about human sexuality is an example of this. Evangelicals tend to believe that what is happening in the church has little to do with prophetic faith and much more to do with the invasion of the church by the prevailing culture. In such circumstances biblical principles are made subservient to other agendas and worldviews.

What is the task of the Evangelical in this situation? It is to keep on asking the difficult questions and pressing for answers. I honestly have to say that although in the last few years I have probably read several thousand pages on all sides of the sexuality debate, I have yet to see those who are advocating innovation even attempt to adequately respond to the fundamental thrust of Scripture, or to defend the hermeneutical tools that the bring to this work.

Ian Douglas in his conversation with Paul Zahl about the Windsor Report says, "I am not arguing that there is a mandate in the Bible for same-sex relations. I simply do not see such." Ian is not alone among those on the theological left having to admit such a thing, but then he goes on to say, "On the other hand I do not see the prohibitions as strongly as you do...." (Ian Douglas and Paul Zahl: Understanding the Windsor Report. Church Publishing, New York. 2005. Page 34). Here we see the divergence between Evangelicals and others -- Ian Douglas wants to put other categories alongside Scripture to modify the plain thrust of the words, while the avowed Evangelical, Paul Zahl, affirms what Scripture says with great clarity from Genesis 1 onward.

So then, what is our mission as Evangelicals in a broken church? It is to be that corrective, hard as it often is. Whoever said following Jesus and being true to his Word would be easy?

Our task is to put the church's feet to the fire and say with Article XX of the XXXIX Articles or Religion that The Church hath power to decree the Rites and Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity to Salvation.

I love Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 10:4-6: The tools of our trade aren't for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.