Monday, June 26, 2006

What Is God Doing?

During the last couple of weeks as the General Convention maneuvered the church into deep mud I have been reading Phil Turner and Ephraim Radner's book, The Fate of Communion. In every way this is not an easy read, nor an easy time to readit, but it is the most exhaustive attempt to put the crisis through which we are living in the Episcopal Church into a well-founded theological framework.

I was getting toward the end of the book the other afternoon when I was brought up short when they wrote, A communion-oriented apprach to the temporal assault upon the church in her churches, will move the question, What are we to do? -- the strategic ecclesiological question -- to the question, What is God doing? The first question has no meaning outside the second, and may well simply need to be put aside in its shadow. Here we move into the realm of reflection upon God's providential ordering of the church's life, a form of theological and devotional discipline woefully under-practiced within modern Christian life. The agony of communion itself is apprehended only through such reflection as this (Page 254).

Since reading those words a few days ago they keep returning, demanding reflection and prayer on my part in the light of the depressing outcomes of the General Convention. I was not naive enough to think that GC2006 would, for example, respond to the Windsor Report as the Communion desired, but I had hoped for more hints of level-headedness than actually occurred. The only encouragement I had was reading reports of the Presbyterian General Assembly and realizing that we are not alone in this mess -- although wishing that the Presbyterians were handling it better than we have.

However, that these two great Christian streams are struggling with essentially the same concerns had me returning to the question that Turner and Radner ask, "What is God doing?" I have begun to come up with tentative answers and wish to share these with you in the hope that they will help shape your response to Columbus 2006, which I find myself believing was probably the last General Convention in the old scheme.

My first attempt to answer that question was to reaffirm one of the greatest and most comforting of all biblical truths, that God is sovereign and nothing on heaven or earth can prevail against him. This being the case our task as his covenant people is not to try to find the way through this morasse on our own but to see if through prayer, meditation, thoughtful pondering, Scripture, fasting, repentance, and every other Christian discipline to attempt to discover what his will and purpose is as we seek our way forward.

A key component of such discerning, as Turner and Radner point out, is patience -- not a fruit of the Spirit that westerners in general and Americans in particular are particularly wont to either develop or use. The grace of patience, however, is writ large on many a page of Scripture as part of our response to the living God. I am convinced from my many years of ministry that we almost always complicate issues by rushing to resolve them, often depending on our own strength and insights. Perhaps we are being asked now to learn afresh what it means to wait upon the Lord seeking clarity from him before advancing.

My second response to that question is that before we can move forward one inch God is calling us to repentance. During the last few years the Windsor Report has, rightly, called on those who have divided the church by non-biblical actions to regret and repent of their actions, and if anything came out of GC2006 it was that they were either unwilling or constitutionally incapable of doing so. Yet those on the left of this crisis are not the only ones for whom repentance is the appropriate response. We who claim biblical orthodoxy have undealt-with logs in our own eyes that we have missed as we have eagerly pointed out the splinter in the eyes of those who have missed the biblical mandate.

As I have looked at both sides in this controversy I have been struck by the way in which they have in many respects become mirror images -- and I include myself among those who lined up. We need to repent of many things, but at the heart must be our own culpability in what has happened. Just as it is failures by both husband and wife to destroy a marriage, so it is in this church crisis. Going back forty or more years the orthodox have failed to respond as they should to incipient error seeping through the whole fabric of the Body of Christ, now we are living with the consequences of that.

But there are other things that I see within myself and others that must hurt the heart of God: self-righteousness, bitterness, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and a determination to push our agenda. These are not the fruit of the Kingdom of God, Paul tells us (Galatians 5:20-21). Communion, which begins in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, should leave us "without an agenda" says Rowan Williams, as quoted by Turner and Radner (Page 257).

I find myself, despite my own desires and inclinations, being drawn into a season in which I must humble myself before the living God and seek forgiveness not only for my own grasping fallenness, but also for the part that I have played in this tragedy that is being played out in our midst. The pride of our Anglican heritage has been brought low, these great buildings and fine stones are being thrown down by the living God, and perhaps not one will be left upon another (Mark 13:1ff).

To use another biblical allusion, we are out in the wilderness, which is always the place of transformation. It took God forty years to get Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, but he who guided them into the wilderness was the one who brought them ultimately across the River Jordan. When he had led them into the land Joshua challenged the people to choose this day whom they would serve, "but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15), for "far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord and serve other gods' (24:16).

One of the visitors to GC2006 was Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, England, and he observed that other gods were certainly there to be seen: One tendency that was informing the culture of the convention, in a major way, was to do with the diffuse religiosity of the present-day West. Such religiosity, in my view, has much in common with New Age ideas, vague as these often are, such as nature mysticism, or a sense of oneness with the world around, and pantheism, the belief that everything is divine: God is identified with Mother Nature and also with our own souls. Jesus then becomes just a special example of a god-self. Such a world-view is likely to be optimistic, inclusive and non-judgmental. It regards the world and the people in it as more or less as God intended them to be. Such people should be accepted as they are and, if they wish to be, fully included in the life of the Church without further question.

Nazir-Ali continues, We need to be saved from the consequences of our own thoughts and deeds as well as from the "wrongness" of the world. People need not just acceptance and inclusion but conversion and transformation. The work of the Spirit is not formless, vague and without direction, as some "progressives" would have us believe. It is, rather, that of witnessing to Christ, making plain the words and works of Jesus to us and glorifying both Christ and the Father who sent him. The Spirit is continually forming us so that we attain to the fullness of life in Christ.

The man sharing these words is neither a westerner, nor was he raised in the Christendom world that is our heritage. As an observer looking in on the American scene this is what he sees, and we ignore his wisdom and insights at our peril.

Which brings us back to that question, "What is God doing?" I would love to be able to give a definitive answer to that question but cannot. Much as is the case with my own life, things have seldom worked out as I would have planned or expected. There are times when I have looked ahead and thought that I could see the shape of things, yet no sooner have I told myself this than the earth shakes beneath me and my expectations are roiled. What is true of individuals is true of churches. The foundations on which we have rested have been shaken, and I suspect there will be little yesterday-style stability in the lifetime of most of us.

North American Anglicans are no longer "carriage trade" people, we are now being forced to be a pilgrim people trying to find a way out of the ruins of the past and into whatever future God has in mind for us. Turner and Radner's book ends with a call to holiness, something that North American Anglicanism has hardly modelled for many a long year. Such holiness of heart and mind is something God wants of us in our covenant relationship with him, and perhaps nurturing that holiness is the starting point -- long before considering how the church ought to be configured.

Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner: The Fate Of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

1 comment:

millinerd said...

Thank you for this post, I found it helpful.