Monday, February 27, 2006

Qualities to seek when electing a bishop

One of the major items on my agenda during the last year has been the work of the Episcopate Committee of the Diocese of Tennessee. The result is that I have given a lot of thought to the qualities that make a good bishop. We are now getting down to the wire in the process with the walkabouts by the candidates and now moving toward the convention to elect two weeks on Saturday.

Perhaps it is because I grew up in a system where the people on the ground did not elect their bishops that I have always had a certain misgiving about electing our leaders for it has a tendency to politicize and trivialize. I just pray that the Holy Spirit will providentially guide the process, but in too many instances I do not think we are listening to him.

The problem is that we go about choosing bishops like we select candidates for elected office -- or the college Homecoming Queen! It is more about how a certain individual "came over" than who they are, what they said, what they believe, and how they would lead the diocese in the years ahead -- ten, fifteen, twenty years.

This process should be more like the preliminaries leading up to a marriage than selecting someone to represent me in the state assembly or Congress. Anyone who takes marriage halfway seriously does not rush thoughtlessly into it. This is one of the reasons why the process is so totally inadequate when we get the nominees to meeting the diocese, because who would choose a future spouse on the basis of how he/she performed in front of a roomful of people in 25-30 minutes?

Here are some things that I believe Christians need to be asking as they choose their leaders.

1. It is now so much how this individual "came over" in a short exposure to the people, but whether this person's record is of someone who not only is able to lead, but is able to lead through perillous waters is difficult times. What has been their record as a pastor, evangelist, missionary, leader? Whatever the future configuration of the church, these years ahead are going to be extraordinarily difficult, and will require a leader who is firm but flexible when it comes to guiding a group of congregations through rough seas.

2. We need to be asking whether any of these individuals understand what is going on in the culture, where the culture is leading us, and what the impact will be upon the churches. The 21st Century is profoundly different in almost every way from the 20th, and the church that does not understand this is in deep trouble. If we are looking for someone who will try to maintain the institution in its present form then we are already digging the grave into which most of just about any diocese will very quickly be dropped.

3. Choosing a bishop is a theological act, so we want to know what a person believes, what their relationship to God is through Jesus Christ, whether they are able to be the chief missionary of the diocese. When you are part of a church like ours that tends to defer to the culture rather than Scriptures and Christian tradition in shaping its values, this is a major, major set of questions that need to be asked. Failing to do so is like leaping at the possibility of marrying the Homecoming Queen only to find that there are no compatabilities beneath the mutual physical attraction.

4. Furthermore, we need to be asking if this individual has a vision for the future. Vision is a key component to leadership for as Scripture says without a vision the people perish. We have been prone in the church to elect managers, administrators, compromises in the past, and the result is that we have not had the kind of leadership that will take us to the places where God might want us to go.

5. While a person's charm, wit, and social abilities are important, they ought not to be at the top of the list. Some of the greatest bishops in history would not have been the life and soul of the cocktail party -- indeed, a good number of those who do have such skills have been disasters.

6. While managerial and administrative skills ought not at the top of the list, it helps if someone knows themselves well enough that in leading they are able to guide an entity forward and fill the gaps in their own skill mix. Since the 1960s we have tended to elect people who have claim better administrative skills than they posses, and then who define the episcopate in terms of management and not in terms of leading the People of God where God wants them to go.

7. A bishop should be someone with staying power. The stress of the office is so great these days that I have watched some really good people either disintegrate as human beings or, in order to protect their inner selves, take the course of least resistance. A bishop is someone who is involved in the leadership of a spiritual conflict, and therefore needs to be spiritually, physically, emotionally, up to the task.

8. Good bishops are people of prayer and study of the Word. They are individuals who keep themselves spiritually alert and fresh. They lead from grace that is centered on Jesus Christ, and not out of ego, personal gratification, or in pursuit of any specific political agenda.

9. Good bishops have an inner humility. This is a spiritual grace that tends to get overlooked in our push-and-shove age. This humility allows them to be honest to God and honest with themselves. A terrific place to start when thinking about who might be a bishop for a diocese is Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy 3.1ff., also the vows that a priest makes in the historic Books of Common Prayer (1662 and 1928).

10. A good bishop is someone who knows how to listen to and take good advice and wise counsel from godly priests and laity.

A lot more can be said, but these are just some of the qualifications that we need to be looking for in those who are called to lead us, and we need to deliberately set the bar high. I expect those who lead to reflect Christ's grace transparently -- this should be so of priests and certainly of bishops. Many of our problems in the past two generations have resulted from setting the bar too low.

During 37 years of ordained ministry I have serve in five dioceses in two countries, and under twelve bishops. In addition, I have traveled the Anglican world and seen bishops at work in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific at work. I have many friends who are bishops all over the Anglican world. Bishops who love the office are not impressive, neither do they usually make the kind of leaders that the church needs. The purple passion ought to be a flag to us that a person is not called to this particular ministry.

Postmodernity is not a time when being adept with the skills needed yesterday is going to cut much ice. The episcopate today is more like that of the First, Second, and Third Centuries than that of the 19th and 20th Centuries. If we are looking for bishops who would have made great diocesans in around 1950 then we are condemning these leaders to a life of hell, and creating circumstances in the church that will be very difficult to unravel.

The sort of bishop that a diocese needs today is someone for whom Christ is their all in all, someone who would keep on doing the job whether they were being paid for it or not, someone who is determined that the Gospel is not about the church as an institution, but about the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thoughts Arising From Military Failure

At the beginning of this week a book I had ordered pre-US publication finally arrived. My intention was to skim a few paragraphs then put it in line with the others waiting to be read - but somehow it jumped the queue. While I am still closer the beginning than the end of this substantial volume, I lacked the self-control necessary to scan a few pages and then stop.

Together We Stand is James Holland's history of the Allied battle for North Africa in World War Two. I had seen it in a bookstore in Glasgow, Scotland, last summer, and had wanted it because this was my father's war. He was shipped out to Egypt in May 1940, fought the whole North Africa campaign, crossed to Sicily then Italy, and was not sent home until October 1944. Like so many old soldiers, he talked little about the actual business of fighting, so I saw this as a good opportunity to put the anecdotal stories of his military life in context.

I had not expected the book would help me grapple with the challenge of ministry in this sixty-years-later-world, but it has. I had always wondered why the Allies, primarily the British, were militarily so disasterous for the first three years of that conflict. It was obvious that the absence of the Americans and the shortage of military hardware played a part in this failure, but their fighting record in the latter years of the war was sterling which meant they were not totally inept, so what was it?

My questions were more than answered in Holland's brilliant third chapter where he demonstrates that the Germans, both secretly in the Twenties and then openly in the Thirties, had been preparing to vindictate themselves, while at the same time Britain had been demobilizing and making significant defense cuts. The USA did exactly the same thing. Germany was ready and prepared, Britain had had its head buried firmly in the sand until the very last minute.

Add to this a British military culture that "instead of embracing... new technology and applying serious thought to how it could be developed and applied... hid behind the traditions and mentality of the pre-1914 colonial army" (Page 40). When a country has a long history and great traditions the truth is that these are often vaunted at the expense of being ever vigilant.

Not only this, but there was a culture in the army that did not encourage persistent engagement with being a forward-looking fighting machine, but instead ridiculed those who studied the lessons of war, considering them either fools or eccentrics. Young officers who attempted to address the challenge were given short shrift, then packed off to serve on the distant rim of the Empire.

Furthermore, there were social hurdles in certain regiments that had them stuck. Most of the officer corps of the great historic regiments were "largely closed societies where decorum and tradition counted for everything" (Page 41). Being a gentleman took precedence over the highest standards of soldiering in a fast-changing and dangerous world. One cavalry regiment was so incensed about mechanization that as late as 1938 it was lobbying Parliament about horses being taken away!

Is it any wonder that when war did finally erupt they found themselves out-gunned and out-manouvered? They were facing off against a large, well-equipped, contemporary army that had learned the lessons of their failure and wanted to turn the tables on the victors of 1918. The next years were one nightmare after another: Dunkirk, the fall of France, and then setback after setback. In late 1941 came the greatest ever British military defeat with the loss of Singapore, and by mid-1942 Rommel's Afrika Corps looked set to take the Suez Canal.

Not only was Allied equipment inadequate and outmoded, but their strategies no longer worked. Those cavalry horses were symbolic, because if pressed you would have found these soldiers would have much preferred charging across the field on their steeds with swords flashing, than discovering how to take on a well-equipped infantry backed up by Panzer tanks and supported from the air by M-109s and Stucka dive bombers. As late as early 1942 the organization of the British Eight Army under Gen. Auckinleck was more suited to the 19th than the 20th Century.

I could go on because this makes such a wonderful illustration, but I would bore you. It was while preparing my hillside for its spring crop of flowers this afternoon that my mind was chewing on these facts. The condition of the British military in 1939-1942 has so many parallels to today's church, especially the mainline churches. We do the ecclesiastical equivalent of red jackets and flashing swords rather well, all the time kidding ourselves that this makes an impact on the contemporary field of engagement.

Like the British generals and senior officer corps in 1939 we are just not prepared for the intensity of the battle in which we find ourselves, and are using yesterday's strategies in the hope that they will do tomorrow's job. Many in our midst adhere slavishly to yesterday's ideological undergirding and (both conservative and liberal) modernistic theology, rather than learning the lessons of forty years of numerical decline and the virtual loss of many parts of Europe to the Christian faith.

Just as it took several years to replace the likes of General Auckinleck with Bernard Montgomery, a man who understand the challenges the Allies were up against, as commander of the Eighth Army so we are still placing into leadership men and women whose desire is the fiction that we can reproduce yesterday's church in tomorrow's world. This has been much on my mind in the last few days as we have hosted the dog-and-pony show prior to the election of a new bishop in Tennessee. I think that only one nominee had any idea of what we are up against.

Like the British military of 1939 most of these candidates (and the clergy and laity that one of them will soon be leading), are more wrapped up in protecting the institution than making the institution subservient to the mission to which God has called us. I don't say this because I despise the institution, but because I am far more committed to the mission which the institution is supposed to undertake.

Several things happened that saved the British from their own military shortsightedness. The first was that they had the good fortune of getting an overall leader whose stubborn pugnacity gave the people spine. Leadership is crucial. Any battle worth fighting is not going to be won by a batallion of jellyfish. The second was that at certain times and places, crucial holding actions helped shore up this native determination until reinforcements came from the western shores of the Atlantic. A third was that even if they were sometimes slow in learning the lessons of war, they did eventually learn them -- and learn them well.

There are parallel lessons that we can learn. We need leaders with pugnacity and grace who will give us spine to stand firm, and then once in a while we need something that will give us some encouragement to keep hanging in there.

Finally, we need to learn the lessons we are being taught by the circumstances on the ground. One reason why I think that Anglicans might ultimately be better prepared to deal with the rough and tumble of mission in the post-postmodern age is that the faithful among us already have backs against the wall and are being forced to understand what their mission is, by trial and error to get their strategies correct for this time in history, and to recognize that it is not the institution that matters most -- but the mission to which God has called us.

What we need now is some providential blessing, that others might call a bit of luck, and a whole truckload of spine.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Travesty of Justice in Los Angeles

One of the hardest things about this dreadful state of affairs in which we find ourselves in the Episcopal Church today, is to watch godly Christian men and women, whose lives have been totally yielded to the service of the Gospel, being misused and mistreated by those who hold the staff of shepherd of the flock, but seem incapable of acting like a true shepherd. Just this afternoon I heard from my friend, Eddie Gibbs, that he is under imposition in the Diocese of Los Angeles because he is one of the clergy of St. Luke's Church, La Crescenta, that has decided it in all conscience can no longer remain in ECUSA.

So, here is a man who has faithfully served the global church on several continents for more than four decades as a priest, being inhibited in preparation for eventual deposition. The reason is not heresy or immoral behavior, but because the congregation of which he is part cannot accept the plethora of sub-Christian innovations that the left-leaning leadership of his former diocese believe to be just fine and dandy. Quite honestly, this kind of thing is enough to make the angels weep.

I have known and respected Dr. Gibbs for a long time, as well as Ron Jackson, the rector of his parish, and I am saddened and appalled that men who are such thoroughgoing and faithful Anglicans are being terrorized by a bishop and his followers who are steering a course fast away from the Anglican Christianity whose order they claim to be upholding. This is a charade.

Eddie is not the first of my friends who has been shoved down this unseemly path by a rascally interpretation of the canons, and I suspect he will not be the last. St. Luke's have taken refuge in the Ugandan church for the moment, while Bruno of Los Angeles, who has already spent vast sums of money losing three other parishes and their property, sets about losing more money in his attempt to acquire St. Luke's Church. I hope to goodness he fails as in the case of All Saints', Long Beach, St. James, Newport Beach, and St. David's, West Hollywood.

Protests seem futile in the face of such gracelessness and intolerance because they would not be even listened to. Beneath all this God is doing a new work in his church, and I suspect that it will not be too long before names like Eddie Gibbs will be greatly honored in the land.

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Emerging Churches" -- A Review

Emerging Churches -- Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) US$19.99

A Review by Richard Kew

I have been reading excellent stuff written by my friend, Eddie Gibbs, for a very long time. Eddie is the Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Seminary, a former missionary in South America, a parish priest, and one of the other English evangelical Anglican exiles on this side of the Pond. Eddie and Ryan Bolger, who teaches contemporary culture at Fuller, have put together this interesting overview of the emerging church movement that I encourage others to read.

The assumption behind Emerging Churches is that the culture is undergoing radical change and that there are young Christian leaders who are attempting to re-present the faith in such a way that it speaks meaningfully into the changing society. Gibbs and Bolger look at both the American and the British scenes, providing a fascinating overview of some of the things that are going on, and some of the players involved in these attempts to reconnect the Gospel within a disconnected culture.

While I recommend this book, and I believe there is a lot of information within it that we do well to ponder with great care, I confess that I generally found the material less engaging as I read on. The reasons for this has nothing to do with Gibbs and Bolger who write beautifully, it has more to do with the cast of characters they present to us. I began the book feeling highly sympathetic toward these young pioneers, but as I read part of myself became a little impatient toward some them.

No doubt my impatience was partly that of an older person who discovered some of the things that they are stumbling across a while back, and has that irritation that goes with seeing a new generation having to learn afresh how to re-invent the wheel! Sometimes, also, they did seem a little whinny. But I take full responsibility for my own shortcomings in this matter.

However, there is more to it than that, and I dropped a line to Eddie Gibbs just to make sure that my perceptions were somewhere near target. Eddie responded by saying, that emerging Churches do not represent a cohesive movement -- something that is utterly obvious from this book, and that they are all over the place theologically. Something that again is very clear. Indeed, one of the things that worried me was that in their desire not to be boxed in by the inheritance of an evangelical past, they at times have been throwing out both baby and bathwater.

Let me illustrate this. The other week I saw a piece in Leadership by Bruce McLaren, the guru of the Emerging Churches, dealing with the whole issue of sexuality. It seemed to me that while he was pastorally extraordinarily sensitive, and rightly so, his approach theologically naive and unformed. Emergers don't want to fall into the old legalisms of their forebears, so call themselves things like 'postevangelical,' but the truth is that sometmes they are sitting far too loose to old boundaries, and are in danger doing damage to all boundaries, both theological and ethical.

Yet, as Eddie said to me in his response, "we have endeavored... to let them speak because we think they have some valuable things to say," and it is to these valuable things to which we ought to be listening. The image I found developing in my mind of these Emergers is that they are like the shock troops of the first new wave of re-formation that is starting to tumble over the churches, and I suspect that they will have an influence that is far greater than their numbers can ever be.

Gibbs and Bolger write that there are nine practices of the way of Jesus that they see in emerging churches as they seek to live out and address the Good News in postmodern cultures. "Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activites" (Page 45). Each chapter of the book enlarges on these basic themes.

There is a lot more to the Emergers than being a Gen-X Gen-Y add-on to existing congregations. When this has happened it has not, by and large, been particularly successful. "Both fundamentalist and mainline churches will... face numerous challenges in becoming emerging churches, as both of these forms of church are imbedded in modern culture as well. Those churches that preceded the Reformation (Catholic and Orthodox), and to a larger extent Anglicanism, have many practices that resonate with those of emerging churches" (Page 45).

What fascinated me in reading this book was the emphasis Emergers place upon the Kingdom of God, and their willingness to dismantle past church approaches and practices because they are no longer culturally viable. They are eager to do away with the secular-sacred dichotomy that was an entrenched part of modernity (and therefore all flavors of Christianity that have been shaped by modernity), in favor of making the whole world sacred space.

The theologians who have influenced the emerging nexus have been the likes of Bishop Tom Wright of Durham; the Mennonite, John Howard Yoder; the South African missiologist, David Bosch; and Bishop Lesslie Newbiggin. This primary dependence upon a former generation of thinkers fits well with my own thesis that it takes at least a generation for something fresh to become rooted in the life of the church. The focus of these new churches is obedience to the missio Dei, which means that they are pivoting away from a come-and-visit-us approach to outreach to one which is rooted and grounded in the commandment, "Go!"

As one of the young British leaders says, "In the U.K. people would no more drop into a church for a casual visit than an outsider might drop into a mosque or a gay bar for a casual visit" (Page 51), which means we not only have to rethink the fundmanentals of our theology but also the praxis that results from it.

Here is the problem, as I see it, the Emergers have not yet done the necessary theological work to provide the philosophical and ideological undergirding that the new challenges require. I say 'yet' because it is obvious that this is a voyage of discovery, and there will probably need to be a few more disasters (like the implosion of the Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield, England, a few years ago) before the validity of a measure of intellectual clarity and spiritual discipline becomes patently obvious to them.

When I was a young Christian leader I used to get impatient when my elders urged us, for example, to think theologically about what we are doing. I have learned over and over again, especially in recent years, how important this is. It has been saddening for me to watch many alongside whom I once labored, sycretizing the essence of the faith with so many of the contrary elements of the prevailing, and to use Oden's word, liberted, culture. However, the Emergers are also right press those of us who consider ourselves orthodox (and, perhaps, evangelical) to ask serious questions about how we have allowed ourselves to be trapped modernity so that we have distorted the Gospel -- and to correct the situation.

Perhaps this is one of the ways we might look at the Emerging Churches, that they are a corrective during a time of significant transition. There is a lot that Gibbs and Bolger have put their finger on in their research that has me sitting back and asking questions both of my theology and my praxis, and as this makes me feel uncomfortable, it is probably a pretty good thing.

I was fascinated to read how British emerging churches are relating to the club scene, something whose omnipresence I became intensely aware of when I was in Blackpool a couple of years ago for the National Evangelical Anglican Congress. Whereas old-fashioned evangelicals might look down on the clubbing life, Emergers have found ways to reach into it, learn from it, teach it, and meld with some of the alternatives that are coming down the pike.

Perhaps the great message which keeps repeating itself is that Emergers are not willing to "accept the modern church's truncated form of the sacred. Instead, they create a spirituality for all of life." This is vital because the churches as we have inherited them find themselves as essentially secular entities surrounded by an increasingly spiritual culture (Page 72). This thought alone has given me several hours of raw material to ponder since starting reading this book.

I am writing on a cold February day, but this is the time of the year in England when the snowdrops begin to poke their heads up, flowers that announce spring is on its way. (As you can guess, living in far off Tennessee I miss England's snowdrops). The Emerging Church nexus is like those snowdrops, fragile and apparently vulnerable, but tough enough to survive the icy blasts and to signal something significant is going on.

As Dr. Gibbs says, there is nothing cohesive about this, but it seems to be a primeval urge to be Gospel people in the different sort of world that is emerging. Amidst the good things there is some self-indulgence, over-reaction against a fundamentalist past, half-digested theologies, a certain lack of spiritual and moral discipline, a glorifications of smallness for the sake of being small, and so forth. I could, if I wanted, pick a lot of holes in this wave, but isn't this always the case when people are exploring new ways forward?

I find myself asking all sorts of questions. One that keeps coming to the top of the pile is how might we in the mainstream might give them appropriate support and encouragement, without seeking to tame them or press them into our mold? Then the Emergers themselves need to be asking how they might make what they are working on more accessible to those of us who are prepare to share some of this journey with them.

Undoubtably what is dross will be discovered and discarded, but what is of value will bear fruit as these pioneers drag the rest of us kicking and screaming, perhaps, into a new kind of church in a different kind of world. Eddie Gibbs said to me that the significant Emergers are the ones who are truly missional, and often they have engaged not only the culture in which we live, but also the historic traditions and disciplines, many of which are very much part of our Anglican heritage.

I believe that God is remaking the church. I believe that the agonies we are going through in North American Anglicanism are part of that remaking. I believe that we ignore what they Emerging Churches are about at our own peril. I believe that as presently formulated neither ECUSA nor any of the more recent offshoots of it can fully grasp the importance of the Emerging Churches. I believe that we need to be a lot more open to what they are saying and doing -- and to be willing to make the changes necessary to learn from them and open the door for them into our midst. But here's a warning -- it might be worthwhile, but it won't be a comfortable ride.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Strangers and Elders

During the last few weeks I have had a series of experiences that have left me realizing just how much I am becoming out of step with culture as it is developing. I have been grouchy about it, but this has reminded me that a long time ago I made myself a promise that I would try not to grow into one of those bad-tempered old men who glorified the past with comments that begin with words like "Now when I was young...." Yet as I find myself being ushered by Old Father Time toward my senior years that curmudgeonly spirit sometimes pokes through.

It isn't that I think everything used to be so much better than it is today, but as I age I find myself more and more out of place, as if I am living as a stranger in a familiar world. I can't think how others handled this, but at least I have some notion of what is behind it because I am someone who has sought to understand what society is throwing at us. I find myself watching television commercials that I hardly understand, and being depressed that so much that I have valued has become questionable or irrelevant, both within and beyond the church.

I suspect one reason elderly people have a tendency to get gruff and bad-tempered about the world around them is because the culture is changing and developing beyond what it was in their heyday and they are now outsiders. Today the culture turns over ever more quickly, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is easier to feel dislocated and out of place. The instinct is to think that it was better in the old days than now, because at least in the old days we had a part in shaping the culture, we were not the ones being taken where we did not wish to go.

We have a picture of my mother-in-law, my wife, my elder daughter, and my granddaughter, four generations of the same family. Between them they are a record of how much things are changing. My mother-in-law grew up when cars and telephones were a rarity, and was at her prime during World War Two. Now a sprightly 88, she is part of what in the US is the G.I. Generation. Yet as he great-granddaughter sits on her lap who knows what sort world she will grow up to make her mark in? So much is altering that prediction is difficult -- except that I do not like some of the problems she and her cohorts are going to inherit from us.

During the lifetime of four generations in just one family we will have gone from the horrors of the Western Front, to we know not what if Hannah lives her full lifespan and does not leave this world until the last quarter of the 21st Century. Perhaps during the lives of these four females the world will have seen more change than during any other such period in human history. We can be certain that even if extraordinary advances are made during Hannah's life, a large chunk will not be good.

It is against this kind of longer term backdrop that I find myself wondering about all we find ourselves fielding at this moment, and puzzling about how we make the name of Christ known, playing our part in the misseo Dei. What I am increasingly ever more convinced about is that the biblical understanding of the faith is the one that will make a lasting impact for the Gospel, but I am not sure that the way in which we are at present packaging it has the capacity to reach into the sub-cultures and micro-cultures in which more and more people are living.

Reading during the last few days Eddie Gibbs' and Ryan Bolger's book Emerging Churches, I see a lot of experimentation going on that is courageous and could bear fruit, but I also see on a part of so many of these young pioneers that Gibbs and Bolger have talked to, an unwillingness to take theology seriously, to grasp the importance of the richness of the Christian disciplines, or to really wrestle with the some of the broader implications of the Great Commission. There is much that we can learn from these emergers, but I am beginning to realize that there is much that they can learn from us.

And here I return to something I have touched on in my past ramblings. I am increasingly confident that we are in a position where the accumulated wisdom of genuine elders is being wasted by the churches. What we say to faithful servants of Christ is go off and play golf, manage your investments, have fun, take a part-time job on the side, perhaps, what we are not saying is we have a task for you to do passing on the riches from your experience to the rising generation.

There ought to be ways to, as it were, suck the goodness out of senior leaders as they draw to the end of their active/paid ministry, but right now we use them to plug holes on a temporary basis and we keep them very much on the fringe of all that is going on. I guess I am trying to say that I have getting on for forty years of experience, both success and failure, under my belt. I am an ecologist, and I would hate to see that wasted. For the truth is that while we might undertake ministry against an ever-changing backdrop, people in all their fallenness do not change.

I think one of the reasons older Christian leaders are shunted off is that if they are kept in the loop they tend to become a bit of a nuisance by wanting to take over again. Yet even if we can be a pain in the neck sometimes, it is worth having us around as a balance that is so desperately needed.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Religious War?

Somewhere round 1990 I began thinking about the whole issue of religious conflict following a careful reading of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, an Englishman who teaches history at Yale. Several elements in that book set me thinking, and watching the rioting over the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in recent days has reminded me of one of them.

Kennedy cogently points out that there is inevitably unrest in societies and between societies when there is an excess of young men, unable to find adequate employment, and with time on their hands. One of the illustrations he used was of the Vikings, whose late first millennium population explosion pushed them out of their Scandanavian fjords and sent them as raiders across Europe, the Mediterranean, and into Asia. Isn't this one of the problems that Islamic nations have today, I found myself thinking as I watched on television as the Danish and American flags being burned somewhere or other in the Islamic world.

Then I delved into some of my writing from about 8-10 years ago, finding bits and pieces that I have used a great deal in my speaking but I have never published. In 1998 I spent some down time in the summer working on possible scenarios of the environment against which we would be working as we moved into the 21st Century. One of them is entitled Ferocious Religious Conflicts Break Out.

Now, before I share this piece with you let me give you a notion in futuring language of scenarios. A scenario is not an attempt to predict what is going to happen, no one can do that. Only divinely-inspired prophets or lucky fools have ever foretold the future correctly. I know for certain that I am not a prophet -- and I hope to goodness that I am not too much of a fool! Scenarios are really attempts to paint pictures of what might emerge having looked at what has happened to date, having viewed all the variables possible, and then having asked and tried to answer the questions, "what if?"

Each portrayal of the possibilities in a scenario is incomplete, and each has to be modified on an on-going basis to keep up with the procession of changing events and circumstances. Some scenarios will prove to be so badly wrong that a few years on we will look back at them, smile, and wonder that we could have been so stupid. However, they do give us an idea what might happen so that we can be prepared for as
many eventualities as possible.

Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson, in their 1993 book, Russia 2010 write, "'Scenario planning'... is a structured, disciplined method of thinking about the future. We believe that it is an effective technique for tackling questions about the future and reducing complexity. It seeks to open the mind to diverse ideas and to get beyond the tradition and trap of simple extrapolation. It can facilitate an earlier recognition of change, thus promoting flexibility. If successful, it
makes 'surprises' less surprising, and, as such, helps one to 'look around the corner" (Page 8-9).

I posited several scenarios in my thinking that summer. One was that secularism could carry everything before it. A second was that there would be a third great schism (which I think is now happening between orthodoxy and progressive religionists), and a third was that there would be ferocious religous conflict. What follows in what I wrote about ferocious inter-religious conflict in the summer of 1998.


"Foreign Affairs journal is a learned publication you are not likely to stumble across very often in your local mall or on the airport newsstand. Neither is it much quoted in the popular press. However, an article in their summer 1993 edition entitled The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntingdon, an eminent Harvard professor, hit the headlines. Prof. Huntingdon's theory was simple but it made a lot of sense: that in future it will not be ideological conflicts like
the one between Communism and Capitalism which will shape the world, divisions will be cultural, between civilizations.

Between the world's families of civilizations there are fault lines as active as the tectonic plates on which the world's continents float. Before the ideological struggles of the last half century, these have been the places where clashes have taken place, now things are returning to "normal" and this is happening again.

The example which is easiest to illustrate this reality is the explosive situation which has torn the former Yugoslavia apart. As both a high schooler and as a seminarian, I traveled through the rugged beauty of Bosnia, not dreaming that one day Catholic Croats would be at the throats Orthodox Serbs, while both would be snarling at the indigenous Muslim population. A major fault line passes through the Balkans, and this civilizational earthquake is taking place. Other invisible faults
lie between Arabs and Africans, and various East Asian cultures.

Cultures have been sculpted by religious and ethnic factors, thus unsecularlization becomes that much more of a crucial factor as the world returns to conflicts which reflect the clash of civilizations. "As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an 'us' versus 'them' relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion" (Huntingdon -- The Clash of Civilizations).

Where religious circumstances are fluid there is likely to be intense competition between groups. I recently spent a fascinating afternoon with the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria (Peter Akinola's predecessor) during a short visit he made to the USA. He had come directly from northern Nigeria where Christian mission is effectively reaching into traditionally Muslim territory. He graciously sought to play down tensions between Islam and Christianity along that particular fault line, but even if there are cordial relationships between leaders of church and mosque, the same is not necessarily the case on the streets and in the villages. There, as in other parts of the world where Christianity and Islam share turf, there have been violent clashes.

Perhaps one of the most frightening examples of religiously inspired communal disorder in recent years was the destruction of the Babri temple in Ayodhya, northern India, in December 1992. Both Muslims and Hindus claimed this particular spot as a holy site, and violence broke out between the competing religionists for the control of the site. As news of what was happening spread, further rioting took place all over the country, hundreds losing their lives.

The intensification of religious commitments heightens passion and adherence to distinctives. As emotions rise good judgment tends to fly out of the window, and more primitive instincts take over. Even within fairly homogeneous civilizations intense religious and philosophical battles are taking place. In the United States, we are seeing what James Davidson Hunter has called Culture Wars. A conflict
is polarizing between those who are broadly conservative and broadly liberal groupings. Each is seeking to shape the governing principles which shape our common life. Theological liberals, feminists, peace and justice types, and other progressive forces generally line up on one side of the argument, while theological conservatives, traditionalists and middle Americans tend to be on the opposite side of most battles. Those of us who would take the middle ground are being forced to pick sides.

"Family values," abortion, gun control, education, and a host of other issues are being ferociously fought over. So intransigent is either side that our society is further fragmented. If we needed evidence of the growing ferocity of these internecine debates within our culture, the gunning down of doctors at abortion clinics by irrational pro-lifers more than provides it. Each side seems terrified that the other might gain ground and take the advantage.

"Though competing moral visions are at the heart of today's culture wars, these do not always take form in coherent, clearly articulated, sharply differentiated world views. Rather, these moral visions take expression in polarizing impulses or tendencies in American culture." (James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars, p.43, HarperCollins, New York, 1991)

In the years ahead we could find eruptions of religiously inspired feuding on the increase. This could batter the ability of Western democracies to remain intact with the array of human rights we now take for granted. It could also lead to harassment of people with differing religious views, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that organized religious persecution could follow that.

Those of us living and working in the USA need to be working extremely hard to find ways for diversities of religious commitment to at least co-exist with one another. If we are to avoid a deepening of intra-communal distrusts, this will be a fundamental task for the churches in coming years, in cooperation with local synagogues, mosques, and other religious communities. Attempting to develop principles of mutual respect does not necessarily compromise one's commitment to the
essence of the Christian gospel, but it could provide a leavening influence in an increasingly argumentative society.

If we try to do something like this, it will require enormous honesty on the part of parishes and individuals, and a willingness to face up to those prejudices and shortcomings which lurk just beneath the surface of our urbane and good-mannered lives. I am certain that as dialogue and cooperation deepen, we will be forced to let go of cherished ideas and, perhaps, privileges, as we discover their offensiveness to others. Perhaps it will be necessary for Christians to model for others how to be courageous witnesses for our faith, while at the same time respecting and learning to live with those whose faith or philosophy might be
deeply at odds with our own.

If such a process is to succeed, it will be necessary for Christians to have a better understand the substance of the Gospel, as well as other faith traditions. Believing people should be able to separate that which is non-negotiable from the packaging in which centuries of Christian tradition have wrapped the life-changing message. Maybe the hardest facet of such a process will be dealing with those within the churches who are either unable or unwilling to reach out in human friendship to
other religious or aggressively secular communities.

When I worked as a pastor in Rochester, NY, I belonged to an interreligious ministerial association. Christian and Jewish clergy in our area met on a monthly basis for lunch, fellowship, and a sharing of views. Each Christmas we had a more extensive party at the rectory of the largest Roman Catholic church, the meal always being presided over by the elderly monsignor who had been pastor there for as long as anyone could remember.

One Christmas the senior rabbi was sitting beside him as he pronounced the blessing, leading us in the Lord's Prayer. This Jewish pastor joined in as heartily as any of the Christians there. As we were sitting down the monsignor turned to Aaron Solomon and asked him why he had accompanied us in the prayer. The rabbi turned to him, smiled gently, and responded, "Tom, you should realize that it's a good Jewish prayer." We all laughed. But perhaps this little tale is a parable of the kind of reaching out that is necessary if we are to avoid bitter religious feuding in the coming century.

As we look beyond the United States, a realization that religious disputes are going to be more charged and could turn bloody will call for a different, more humble approach to mission. It would be disobedience to refrain from taking the message of Christ to those for whom he died, but far greater sensitivity will be required of us.

There has been far too much breast-beating among Christians about the so-called alliance between the churches and the imperial impulse of the Western powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but we have until now been undertaking our global ministry from base of the dominant world culture. Not only is all that changing, but as we develop our strategies we should be aware of the inflammatory possibilities of our witness. Someone has wisely said that both Christianity and Islam in particular
have 'bloody borders.'

Perhaps there are three questions Christians preparing for cross-cultural ministry should be asking of themselves, then re-asking when they are in their missionary situation:

* How do we effectively incarnate the risen Christ?
* What do we have to learn from past missionary practices, and what do we have to forget?
* Are there historical models for us to learn from?

I have always been entranced by the story of St. Francis of Asissi's mission to the Sultan during the Crusades. Traveling to the Holy Land as a humble pilgrim, he cross the Saracens' lines and found himself in their leader's presence. There he not only had opportunity to speak of his Savior, but he also garnered oodles of respect. As we look backward perhaps there are women and men like him who have much to teach us."


Resurrecting and re-reading what I wrote eight or so years ago I am a
little shaken at my perspecuity, particularly in light of the war in
Iraq, tensions with Iran, problems with Palestine, 9/11, the rising tide
of Islam in Europe, the inability of secular westerners to understand
the sensitivities of the Muslim world, the failure of the Muslim world
to understand either secular western democracies or Christianity, and so
on, and so on.

So, I share this little offering with you asking you to remember that it
was not intended to be a commentary on what is going on in the world
right now, rather an attempt to prepare ourselves for what might lie
ahead as we got ready for the new millennium.

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Turning Around The Mainline " -- A Review

Turning Around the Mainline by Thomas C. Oden (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) Price US$17.99

A Review by Richard Kew

Tom Oden's most recent book is not his most stunning, but it is a useful compendium of resources for those in the mainline churches who are determined not to see their great traditions overturned by what Oden calls liberated theology and its cohorts. Liberted theology is, "doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, morally broad-minded, and above all, sexually lenient and permissive." He goes on to comment, "As a former full-time card-carrying liberator, I know from experience how mesmerizing this enchantment can be" (Page 25).

As well as being a compendium of resources, Turning Around the Mailine is a report of the progress being made by confessing Christians in these historic churches, as well as a theological summary of why it is vital to stay in and fight this battle out. The first chapter of the book is a theological and strategical treasure to the likes of us who are trapped between faithfulness to Christ in the Anglican tradition and the "liberated" unfaithfulness of those who control the political structures, but who have severed their ties with the faith of the communion of the saints in favor of "another gospel."

Oden goes on to assert, rightly I believe, that the major issue before the mainline churches is whether they will submit to their own discipline, or whether they will continue down the path to oblivion using counterfeit theological currency as they tread the broad way that leads to nothingness. There is little doubt that despite the howls of denial on the part of those on the left, the structures that they control are in significant decline -- what Oden would describe as a providential judgment for sin and error.

"Confessing Christians seek to reform their churches, not leave them. Those who split off leave the patient in the hands of the euthanasia advocates, the Kevorkians of dying modernity. The Holy Spirit will not bless willful unnecessary divisiveness" (Page 27). While I realize that many will debate what is necessary division, this is a spiritual battle and walking from the field before the conflict is over is, in my humble opinion, not particularly responsible. I have to admit that the more I see the banal and bizarre dished up by those who adhere to this liberated faith, the more determined I am that I will stand firm against error in the place where God has put me.

Oden's second chapter gives a winsome summary of good reasons for confessing Christians to stay put. "To flee the church," he writes, "Is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love, and willingness to live with incremental change if that is what the Spirit is allowing. Discipline seeks to mend the broken church by a change of heart" (Page 28).

There are sound theological reasons against leaving we are told and Romans 16:17, Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, and Jesus's high priestly words in John 17 are brought into play. There are prudential arguments against leaving also, because even though certain things might look dark, beneath the surface there are all sorts of God-initiated stirrings.

In addition, an exit strategy is self-defeating, dropping all the resources that the faithful were given sacrificially by the faithful into the hands of those who are committed to a message that increasingly defaces what it means to be Christian. Oden turns things on their head and writes, "The idea of 'gracious exit' should not ever mean that orthodox believers exit or split from their churches, but rather that they make it easier for those who repeatedly reject Christian doctrine and discipline to take their leave" (Page 31). The truth is that we who stand in the mainstream of the faith belong here, not the cuckoos in the nest who have sought to grab control.

The reality is that there are two notions of holiness at play here. There is the one which understands holiness in terms of separation from error and unbelief, and there is the other that engages such things in the name of God. Those who argue that an unholy and unfaithful church must be abandoned stand in the line of the Donatists. "Augustine argued that the temporary disunity of the institutional church does not engender its holiness, provided it is seeking to correct its course" (Page 32).

Confessing Christians are the God-appointed course correctors, for we are the valid bearers of the catholic tradition, the respecters of ancient ecumenical truth, not those who seem set on using the church for their own political purposes. "The authentic advocates of the unity of the church are those who most care about its discipline and holiness, with humility and gentleness" (Page 32). Now, part of the armory of those in this camp must be a willingness to be patient -- as were the evangelicals of the Church of England through much of the 20th Century. "To divorce is to give up on the promise of the family" (Page 34).

From this theological base Oden moves forward to outline the nature of the implosion or internal collapse of the mainline denominations, for those who guide these traditions are seeking to defend a diluted liberalism that is wedded to a dysfunctional political and ecumenical agenda. In these imploding traditions the issues reach far beyond sexuality, this item getting the most attention and obscuring "other more salient issues on biblical authority, baptism, ecumenism, financial accountability, and the fairness of representational systems vis-a-vis concentrated bureaucratic interests" (Page 40).

Yet even as wayward liberalism declines there is this extraordinary rebirth of orthodoxy going on. This orthodoxy has a flavor of Lewis's mere Christianity, and if you want to know where the dynamic young theologians, thinkers, strategists, men and women of prayer, evangelists, and so forth are coming from, you need look no further than this renewed orthodoxy. These confessing Christians "attest to the biblical teaching that the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church is promised imperisable continuance, even if particular churches or local bodies or denominations stumble and fall"(Page 45).

So, to summarize what Oden is sayin, "My brother and sisters, be steadfast, I say again, be steadfast." What has puzzled me in this whole crisis is that those who talk the most about being firm in spiritual conflict, those who harp most constantly on Ephesians 6:12ff, have been the ones who have baled out of that steadfastness the fastest. The agony of ministry for me in this is that it is grueling not only to seek to move my congregation forward in terms of the Kingdom of God in the midst of this battle, but that those who I counted on sharing the struggle with me have sought something easier and less demanding.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating chapters in Oden's book is his pen portrait of the left hand side of mainline Protestantism. He sees confessing Christians as being part of a new ecumenism that is rooted in the ancient ecumenism of the historic church down through the centuries, but there is this old WCC/NCC ecumenism that is fixated "on manipulating and managing revolutionary pretenses." It is "trapped in outmoded revolutionary fantasies" (Page 62). There has been a strange baptizing, it seems, of dysfunctionality so that the integrity of the faith is being constantly imperilled as "any harebrained idea is considered equal in truth with God's revelation in history" (Page 65).

In the midst of such scandalous relativism we are called upon to uphold and proclaim the integrity of the truth. Oden is of the mind that those who have bought this mess of pottage are actually on the defensive within the churches. Certainly, from my experience, their revolution is lacking anything that could be remotely described as a meaningful theology and a coherent philosophy, and their constituency is aging and not reproducing itself, but in the Episcopal Church at least I am not sure they are on the defensive except in a few places.

Much of the rest of the book is taken up with a very helpful selection of the theological statements of the various renewed and orthodox bodies in the mainline churches. All these demonstrate that whatever its other weaknesses, the confessing movement has a clear, firm, biblical, and catholic underpinning to its activities. Not only that, it is obviously missional and committed to the fulfilment of the Great Commission, and obedience to the missio Dei.

Meanwhile, "The mainline elite has become so fixated on friendly sentiment, hypertoleration, and superficial unity that it has tended to brush under the rug all norms except egalitarian political correctness. Much liberal leadership has become so narrowly politicized, and so out of touch with the lay constituency, that the faithful no longer can take at face value any of the facile promises of the leadership" (Page 71).

There is a lot of good stuff here, and while I think that Oden's own Methodism, an environment in which the confessors have made good progress, colors his insights into the experience of confessing Christians in more embattled denominations, he has a lot to say to us. Oden tops and tails the book with the notion that we need spine for this endeavor, and we must exercise our backbone within the context of denominations that are in deep crisis -- crisis of faith as well as a crisis of numbers. Those of us who are mainline Christians find ourselves up against "powerful voices within the denominational leadership (who) grossly diminish Christian teaching, refuse to follow reasonable discipline democratically arrived at, and discriminate unfairly against those who disagree with them" (Page 21).

Fairly recently I met a group of faithful Episcopalians whose commitment to the orthodox faith leaves them outcasts and pariahs in a congregation to which some of them have belonged for half a century or more. They asked me to spend time with them so that we might together begin to find ways forward for them. In their parish they have sought to be gracious, and as a result have probably not been as forceful as they might have been, but all opportunities to voice their biblical perceptions have been denied them, such is the insecure "tolerance" of their rector.

Their dilemma is multiplied thousands of times over in the Episcopal Church at this time. So it is that I come back to the sovereignty and providence of God. The Triune Creator who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ put us where he did for a time like this. There will be many skirmishes that are part of the wider conflict, but we can firmly assert that while some of those struggles will be lost, the Almighty One has a plan for his church coming out of this and our task is to find our role in that plan. Oden is a good companion as we do our thinking and praying.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Unpicking the Newark Resolution

Just as I was going to bed last night I picked up my email and found amidst the clutter a copy of a resolution from the Diocese of Newark to General Convention. As I glanced at it I realized that not only did this reflect a significant ignorance of catholic Christianity, but also of Anglicanism. Furthermore it is deeply flawed by the contemporary addiction to radical relativism, non-rationality, and an inability to think in a disciplined manner. I thought this might be a place just to review what Newark is saying.

TITLE: The Importance of the Anglican Communion

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention declare that the Anglican Communion is a precious gift which we treasure, that there is and always has been a wide diversity of disciplines practiced by various parts of the Communion, and we therefore affirm the right and obligation of every province to apply the Gospel and its values to its specific cultural context, and to respect the decisions that other provinces make for their people.

This resolution, as far as I can see, does not accept that within Anglican Christianity there are any real boundaries, instead they would rather major of DIVERSITY, a slippery word that is usally twinned with INCLUSIVITY, an equally eel-like commodity. Yes, there is a significant cultural variety within the Anglican world, and having traveled to a lot of places I have seen this. This is inevitable in a global community of Christians because we are made up of people of many races, languages, ethnicities, tribes, and nations.

However, what is absolutely clear about Anglican Christianity is that the overwhelming majority if these many peoples within our fold may express their faith with external differences appropriate to their culture, but they affirm the same fundamentals of the faith, and seek to live by the same ethical and moral principles. Thus, the notion of diversity being affirmed here is different from the diversity we find within Anglican Christianity.

However, working from their own idiosyncratic relativistic presuppositions they then go on to say that every province has the right to apply the Gospel to its own specific cultural context. Certainly, one of the important elements of an effective missiology is to to contextually appropriate, but what they imply by this is that they can shape what they consider the faith to be to their particular culture. We are commissioned by Christ to translate the Gospel into the culture, not to adapt the faith to the prevailing culture.

Furthermore, if we are going to affirm the principle of contextualization, why should we stop at a particular national culture? This one huge nation is made up of many cultures and regions. The chi-chi relativistic ethics of the Diocese of Newark might be just the thing in their part of Northern New Jersey, but why should they, for example, impose them on the very conservative part of Tennessee in which I live and work and where such things are considered offensive by a vast majority of the population?

If we are going to be contextual in this way why stick with such a huge unit as a province? The Gospel is a grassroots thing, and our mission is to reach the grassroots, if we are to be consistent to their inner logic then we must go down to the very basic cultural contexts of every community and make our decisions there. At least every diocese has the right to adapt to its own cultural environment, but why not every parish or small cell group? Of course, the outcome would be anarchy -- but then we have that already...


One of the core characteristics of the Anglican tradition is that we have always placed a primary value on pastoral care. This means the constant application of the Gospel to the current contextual reality. This is one of the reasons that the Anglican Communion has chosen to be autocephalous in structure. Each national church is independent so that it can determine how best to apply the Gospel to its own specific context. The spiritual needs of the United States are likely to be somewhat different in specific ways from those in Africa or Asia. The Communion has always allowed the national churches to make their own decisions about how to minister to their people and to respect each other's obligations to make those decisions.

Now we start getting into real trouble, because yes, Anglicanism is a pastoral tradition, but it is a great deal more than that. It is pastoral within the context of a theological and ecclesial continuity. What Newark is doing is to break that continuity so that pastoral can then means letting everyone do what is right in their own eyes. And, no, Anglicanism is not entirely autocephalous. The Communion has always talked about Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, which means that when we act we act in accord with our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the Anglican world. There was a big push (led by an American) in the 1960s to assert our Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, and how here is an American diocese in the maverick American province denying that reality.

Yes, the spiritual needs of the United States have a different flavor than, say, Singapore, but it is the same Lord and same Gospel that needs to be applied appropriately in all places within the parameters of what is legitimate catholicity. Besides, if Newark are saying that they do not want other parts of the Communion to lay their trip on them, why shouldn't Tennessee or South Carolina, or Texas turn round and say to Newark, what right do you have to lay your cultural trip on us?

The problem is that Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence have to be worked at, as is the case in all human relationships, and the Neward diocese doesn't really want to work within the discipline of those relationships as part of the larger communion of saints. Rather, as has so often been the case with we westerners, they want to act imperially and unilaterally, and then say that it is too bad if you don't like it. I suspect those who put this together howl at some of the actions of the United States around the world, but do they not see that they are acting in just the same way? Our present troubles should be teaching us biblical humility in the midst of our fellow-Christians, but I am afraid we have yet to even begin learning that lesson.

We see the current crisis as a difference over what is doctrine and what is discipline. Those who desire the Episcopal Church to revoke its decision regarding The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson see the Episcopal Church as having abandoned the doctrine of the Bible and of the Church. We who uphold the election of Bishop Robinson see the matter as one of how that unchanged doctrine is applied to our current societal context. In the heresy trial of The Rt. Rev. Walter Righter in 1991, we formally decided that the formularies for doctrine, i.e. the Creeds, are silent on the matter of human sexuality, and therefore a core doctrine is not at stake.
Much of the debate concerns the role of Scripture in Christian decisions about behavior. This also is a matter not covered by the Creeds. It is covered in the tradition, but with much variation of approach. Therefore, much disagreement should be expected and tolerated before breaking communion.

(Submitted by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark - Annual Convention, January 28, 2006)

Now we get to the interesting stuff, for here begins the work of deconstruction, and we are basing it upon the flimsy evidence of an ecclesiastical court ruling that was deeply flawed, and not upon the mind of the whole church. There is, you notice, no attempt to defend their actions from the base of Scripture, but just to infer that those of us who accept that God's authority is known through the written word are wrong, while they have a position that is at least allowable, but by implication is correct. One of the things about the deconstructionist mindset is that there seems to be a minimum of intellectual rigor or honesty. This is reader receptiveness at its most extreme, and already the thoughtful in academia, for example, are recognizing that deconstruction as an approach does not have a long shelf life.

We also see a misuse of the Creeds, which were never intended in a thousand years to be summaries of the behavioral implications of the substance of what we believe. The Christian faith as we Anglicans understand it, is a great deal more than what can be stuffed into the Nicene Creed. Wanting to limit the essence of Christian discipleship to the historic Creeds is like suggesting that everything I need to know about American citizenship is summed up in the Pledge of Allegiance!

Hidden within this resolution is the typical strategy of so many of those on the "progressive" end of the spectrum to keep repeating something constantly enough in the belief that if it isn't true or correct, then it will become true and correct. I studied theology in one seminary and two universities, and I have no doubt that the knowledge of Anglicanism, church history, theology, and Scripture that this resolution displays would have received a failing grade in all those places -- and, by the way, only one of them was on the orthodox end of the spectrum.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Blight of Short-termism

A couple of weeks ago, hot on the heels of similar announcement out of Detroit by General Motors, Ford unveiled plans to close a dozen plants and prune their workforce by 30,000 in the next few years. So, here are two of the great icons of American industry in trouble, and from all I have heard and read there are probably several other large companies that are facing difficult times ahead -- and a key component of all this seems to be short-sightedness.

Indeed, short-termism is a huge problem thoughout out whole culture, whether we are thinking of politics, commerce, or the Christian community. Just this week the Administration has announced a budget that has built into it a huge deficit, and this on top of the nation's debt has doubled in the last five years -- just as pension and healthcare bills for seniors are about to skyrocket. Again, part of the problem seems to be thinking in the short-term of how can we get elected again, and not what are the implications for America, the next generations, and the world, by racking up unimaginable debts year in and year out. Whatever smoke and mirrors economists may use, the time has to come where settling up of debts is necessary -- and China is wriggling a little and showing signs that it might eventually call the USA on this one.

Let's go back to the auto manufacturers for a moment because the scenario that surrounds their demise is a little easier to grasp than that of the government. For years the car companies have been coasting along thinking that massive profits that were wracked up by churning out trucks and SUVs would keep on coming in forever and ever, and that Americans would always want these gas guzzlers that have the rest of the world shaking their heads in amazement.

That might have been the case a while back, but the writing has been on the wall for a number years now that gasoline was not always going to be cheaper at the pump that bottled water. Indeed, most forecasters were predicting significant price rises somewhere in the middle of this decade: and they have proved right. The auto manufacturers just did not seem to be listening. They KNEW best, now even the most optimistic analysists are worried that their day could well be over.

The reasons for the fuel price rises that have folks fleeing to hybrids and something smaller are multifold, but here are a few:

* China and India, with their billion plus populations, have not only been developing their industries for a while now, but because of this were becoming massive importers of petroleum products. Sheer demand would inevitably push prices up. Americans are part of the world, they do not live in a bubble insulated from the rest of the world and the ebb and flow of trade.
* Certain oil producers have either reached peak production or are close to doing so (possibly even Saudi Arabia), and while it is being furiously debated all over the world, it is increasingly likely that we are getting close to having used up 50% of all known oil reserves. When that happens with a finite commodity, prices are bound to rise.
* Until fuel prices started to rise significantly there was no incentive for Americans to conserve or look for alternative fuels. But they suddenly shot up and the charge is on for something else.

Then the auto companies had competitive problems of their own:

* Their workforces were aging, which would raise all sorts of questions regarding healthcare and pension expenses. Just this week GM have decided to abandon their old-style pension fund in favor of 401k plans because they could no longer carry that pension burden.
* That while the quality of American cars was improving, the Japanese and others have kept on raising the benchmark in terms of efficience, quality, as well as price, and technology.
* They seemed to assume that Americans would always prefer to buy juggernaut vehicles with a nice profit margin related to them, rather than trading down when fuel became too expensive.

I could go on, and surely there are all sorts of other issues and concerns that enter into the mix with these and other major corporations who are now struggling. Behind a lot of it has been that they have spent their time surveying the quarterly profit and loss statements, rather than looking to the horizon and wondering where they might be in five, ten, twenty years or more into the future. Most have not even begun thinking adequately in the long-term, and as a result their planning, thinking, research and development have lagged far, far behind their competition elsewhere in the world.

American auto companies have, for example, improved the quality of their product, but to where the Japanese were maybe 12-15 years ago. The Japanese took and ran with hybrid technology, the Europeans took and ran with deisel technology, but the Americans had their heads buried firmly down several huge great holes in the ground. Instant solutions preclude the development of the finest quality.

It seems that there is a close relationship between short-term thinking and instant gratification. We now live in a culture where if I can't have it now, then its almost as if it is not worth having. We seem to have lost our ability to defer pleasure and gratification. A symptom of this is our addiction to credit card spending, and another is our endless quest for pleasure and entertainment. As Neil Gabler says in the title of his book that life now apes the movies. What he means by that is that we allow fiction to share reality rather than the other way round.

All this impinges on the church and the way that the People of God go about their business. The big megachurches around here are fiercely competitive, attempting always to put on the best performance on a Sunday along with the most attractive programs during the week. Now, while there is nothing wrong with doing church well and benefiting numerically, a by-product is roving bands of consumer who never advance in discipleship one whit. Churches as a result tend to cease majoring as communities of faith and take on other characteristics.

Few churches, mainline or conservative, seem to have grasped that building up Christians is for the long haul, lifelong, and this needs to be done within the context of genuine community -- which is also something that does not happen overnight. We talk about the Christian faith being a journey, but we have this tendency to turn want to turn it into a quick stroll around the backyard.

Impatience is one of the greatest shortcomings of our culture, and it is deeply ingrained in the life of the churches. We see it everywhere. People think they can use the one-minute-manager approach to growing in the faith. Episcopalians think that if the problems of the primary Anglican franchise in North America that took 300 years to get into this pickle cannot be solved in 30 months, then they are opting out and will create their own. Success and failure in church-planting is not judged by what God is doing in people's lives but in numbers.

I would love us believers to become really countercultural and try to turn our backs on this short-termist mentality. But perhaps I am being too optimistic to think such a thing could happen.