Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thoughts on electing a bishop

Bishop-Elect John Bauerschmidt

Over the last months all sorts of folks have asked why it has been so difficult for us to elect a new bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. Now that the election is over, and Dr. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop-Elect, perhaps it is a good time to give some thought to this and related questions.

The first and most obvious answer is that we are one of the few dioceses that require at super-majority of 2/3 in each order for an election. This has sometimes been difficult to achieve at the best of times, but when the church is struggling to rethink itself in the wake of the actions of the August 2003 General Convention, this becomes progressively more difficult.

While we in Tennessee have been have been engaged in the battles that have riven the whole church, we aren't any more divided and polarized than most dioceses, indeed, I would suggest we might be in somewhat better shape than many. While people squirm in discomfort at either end of the spectrum, under the leadership of Bertram Herlong, despite the tensions, and seeking to be open to God's Spirit, we are remarkably together.I don't want to pretend more than the facts can stand, but in Tennessee there has been no terrorizing or punative use of canons, and even if one group predominates electorally there has been little if any misuse of power. Yes, tempers have been frayed and relationships are strained, which has been sad and difficult, but much of the reason for this has been that the equilibrium that existed prior to August 2003 was destroyed.

Furthermore, if in episcopal elections the Diocese of Tennessee had been a simple majority diocese like most others, then we would probably have elected at the first meeting of the diocesan convention last winter, and would have been moving ahead under fresh leadership by this point. As one friend from another diocese said of our super-majority system, "It is down right un-American!"

But much more than electoral politics has been playing itself out. This was a different kind of election because it involved a far more careful examination of theology and ideology. During my thirty years as a priest of this church I have watched with fascination and disbelief when in episcopal elections so few of what I would consider to be the vital questions have been asked of the candidates.

Many years ago I was asked to run in an episcopal election in a diocese with what I considered to be an exciting profile of what it wanted from its next bishop. Not surprisingly I didn't get very far, but I was far closer to what the diocese said it wanted than the successful candidate, but his charm offensive was unbeatable. The tragedy is that Episcopalians have generally been so untutored in the basics of the faith that they have tended to judge potential leaders in much the same way that they would elect the homecoming king or queen.

One of the few positives since 2003 has been that in Tennessee theology has moved higher up the pecking order. When someone is being elected to any office these days there are important theological questions that have to be asked, and these must not be sidestepped -- being nice is no longer enough. The truth is that during the last several generations mainline Christianity has turned itself into a theological wasteland, cut adrift from its roots in creedal Christianity and the catholic faith.

When I play a part by my vote of placing someone in any kind of office in the church these days I want to know about their relationship with Jesus Christ, and I want to know their convictions about the cardinal doctrines of the faith. I am concerned to know about their personal lives, and whether they match up to the standards for leadership that are outlined in the New Testament, and I am interested to know what they understand the mission of the church to be as well as the place and authority of the Scriptures.

I do not think we can be too demanding when selecting our leaders -- whether on the ecclesiastical or the secular playing field. I am certainly extraordinarily choosy about those seeking government office, and in one recent local election abstained in some races completely because none of the candidates seemed to measure up. If I expect much from those who represent me in the State Assembly and Congress, then surely I should expect much from those who lead me in the Body of Christ as Scripture proclaims?

We are very good at pointing the finger and laying blame. When looking at the mess that the Episcopal Church has become there is plenty of blame to go around, but seldom have those of us who seek to be obedient to the faith once delivered to the saints looked at ourselves and our own responsibility for this state of affairs, yet this is where we should begin.

Our failure has often been more a sin of omission than commission, for we have been sloppy about attending important gatherings and until it was too late have not been eager to run for elected office. When the biblical truth has been dragged through the dirt in church gatherings we have either remained silent or have defended it so badly that we have done more harm than good. We have put our own little corner of God's vineyard or our own segment of church life, before engagement in and with the whole church -- uncomfortable and unpalatable as activity in the wider church might be.

Would things have turned out differently if we had done some of these things? Yes, possibly, I think so. But whether things would have turned out differently or not is not the issue. We have been baptized, confirmed, and some of us ordained, as members of all the church, but we have not always wanted to engage with the whole church.

But now I have drifted a long way from my starting point. Today, October 31, is the last day in office for Bertram Nelson Herlong as Bishop of Tennessee, and tomorrow he transfers to the rolls of the Church Pension Fund after a long and faithful ministry. At the weekend we elected John C. Bauerschmidt to be the 11th Bishop of Tennessee. One era in our diocese has ended and another is about to begin. Already there are many of us prepared to gather around our new bishop and give him all the support that he needs and deserves if he is to lead us faithfully for a good chunk of the next quarter century. What we can be sure of is that when he retires from office North American Anglicanism will look profoundly different from what it is today.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Electile Dysfunction

During the last few months in Tennessee we have been treated to the political equivalent to mud-wrestling as the two candidates from the major parties have sparred neck-and-neck to win the vacant senate seat. My assessment is that one candidate has been marginally better than the other getting across to the public what he stands for, the other has been a master at getting across to us what he is against.

My heart sank when I saw my first negative ad in August and decided at that moment that as an increasingly independent voter unless the skies fell in I had little desire to vote for the candidate behind that ad. When his opponent began to respond in kind I knew that whatever happened I would probably go into the booth and press the button while metaphorically holding my nose. If we are to believe what each of these candidates says about the other then both of them belong either in prison or some gutter somewhere, which is reality is far from true.

While there is an intensity to this disgusting campaign in Tennessee that reflects what each side considers to be the issues at stake, it would appear that such tactics are now the norm in most corners of the political field. Shame on those who have drowned the noble task of seeking leadership in a foul-smelling ditch, why do we continue to encouraging them by listening to what they say?

Aggressive nasty-mindedness that we see in the realm of secular politics has invaded just about everything today, as had been predicted by many when the Boomers became the ones who set the agenda for our society -- yet the outcome is nothing of any value but rather nausea and gridlock. The same mentality that we see on the political field we see also playing out in the life of the church(es), with the varying sides allied less to the vision and values of the Kingdom of God and more to the policies and blindspots of the prevailing political biases in secular culture.

And talking of elections, tomorrow in the Diocese of Tennessee we attempt yet again to elect a new bishop. A friend the other day wondered which would come first the return of Christ or Tennessee choosing an ordinary! Another, inspired by those hideous medication commercials we are constantly treated to on television pointed out that the Diocese of Tennessee suffers from "electile dysfunction"....

While I think it more likely than not that we will come out of the election on October 28 with a bishop-elect, if I were a gambling man I certainly would not bet the house on it (and am of two minds about whether it would be a good thing or not, although I do not wish to continue in limbo).

Maybe I am getting cynical but it seems there is a touch of crap shoot about a bishop election, for you are not quite sure what is going to happen when the episcopate gathers around a lays hands on the bishop-elect. Sometimes they tear out his/her spine and addle the brain, but at other times (and less frequently) there seems to be an amazing screwing on of the head the right way.

While most of us in Tennessee are finding it difficult to get passionate one way or the other about the slate of candidates we have before us, I have been turning over the words of Admiral 'Bull" Halsey from the war in the Pacific in 1943: There are no great men, ony great challenges which ordinary men are called upon to face up to.

This is a time of great challenges and the stature of ourselves and our leaders is going to make itself plain in the manner in which we face up to and handle those challenges. I am praying today that the priest who ends up being Bishop of Tennessee will be someone who by his election to so fearful an office becomes great in the Kingdom through God's grace working in him, and as he seeks to address the challenges that are before us.

During this individual's episcopate I have no doubt that the whole of North American Anglicanism will reconfigure itself, and the Diocese of Tennessee will not be exempt from this rending and rebuilding among the ruins created by the failures of the last few years. What is clear is that there would be little or nothing left of the Diocese of Tennessee if the integrity of the Gospel is compromised.

In the early 1970s I came across words from John Stott to which I have returned many times since. They were written in his commentary on 2 Timothy entitled Guard the Gospel and are a warning to us all:

The devil hates the Gospel and uses all his strength and cunning to obstruct its progress, now by perverting it in the mouths of those who preach it, now by frightening them into silence through persecution or ridicule, now by persuading them to advance beyond it into some fancy novelty, now by making them so busy with defending the gospel that they have no time to preach it...

Monday, October 23, 2006


Early each morning I spend the best part of half an hour working out on my exercise bike watching television, jumping between the cable networks, BBC World news, and C-SPAN. This morning, as I was winding the session down I caught a few minutes of a conversation on C-SPAN with Mark Steyn, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who seems to live a transatlantic existence, and about whom I knew very little until today.

I was about to turn the tube off when he was asked a question about politics in Europe and, focusing on Germany, came up with some perceptive thoughts which I have been turning over most of the morning. Before getting to it I have since discovered that Steyn is Jewish by background, Catholic by baptism, Anglican by confirmation, and presently attends a small country Baptist church.

Steyn was commenting on the development of post-Christian Europe, something the chattering classes applaud, and in passing observed that both the present Chancellor of Germany and her immediate predecessor were childless adults, suggesting that this reflected the now-ness and me-ness that prevails in Western European culture. He then went on to state that European culture in general is a great present tense culture that does not have the staying power beyond this generation.

I get the impression from his website that Mark Steyn rejoices in stating his case outrageously, but whatever his motives for speaking as he did, that thought is one that I cannot get out of my head. Having watched culture on both sides of the Atlantic now for more than thirty years he put into words something that I have been sensing for some time now, and that like the great statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream that Daniel interpreted (Daniel 3:31-36), our whole western culture has feet that are mixed clay and seems destined to crumble in fairly short order.

There are plenty of signs that point in that direction, not least our utter self-absorption. Perhaps chosen childlessness is an example of this, as Steyn was suggesting when talking of the German chancellors: there has to be something unprecedented about a culture where a significant proportion of adults have problems with the notion that reproducing the next generation.

Then there is the ecological burden that we put upon the planet. Jared Diamond makes this case very strongly in his recent best-seller, Collapse, basing his findings upon the study he has made of various societies all around the world and across history. Diamond is not a pessimistic gloom-and-doom merchant trying to frighten us with ecobabble, but to use his words "a cautious optimist... (who has) decided to devote most of my career efforts at this stage of my life to convincing people that our problems have to be taken seriously and won't otherwise go away" (Page 521). Whether you like him or not, this is roughly what Al Gore is trying to tell us too.

Just as it is unwise to live beyond our financial means, so also is it foolish in the extreme to live beyond our ecological means and not being too worried about it. God made us to be stewards of his creation not its ravagers. But this tends to be a culture of immediacy, seeking satisfaction now and damning the consequences tomorrow. Would we have run up so much credit card debt if this did not have some truth in it?

I would further add that while our culture has arrogantly shown the Christian faith the door and effectively ushered it out into the cold, it has nothing substantial with which to replace it. Post-Christianism has appeared to have no real ideological base beyond me and the immediate moment, and its gospel seems to be one of consumption and hedonism -- 'gods' that are failing people left, right, and center because they are incapable of filling the all-too-real vacuum. Even the intellectual champions of post-Christianity seem incapable of cobbling together anything like a substantial case for their approach to life, and seem unwilling to do the hard brain work required to make one.

The other week I browsed Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion in Borders on the Bullring in the middle of Birmingham, England. Dawkins is a leading biologist and geneticist who has sometimes been labelled 'Darwin's Rottweiller' because of his commitment to evolutionary theory and aggressive agnosticism that for all practical purposes is atheistic. Brilliant in his field, he regularly strays into the realm of theology and philosophy where, quite frankly, he has not done his homework, yet he wants everyone to follow him.

His latest book (wonderfully reviewed in October 22nd's New York Times Book Review) is based upon the assumption that the notion of God is a pernicious delusion. As Jim Holt the author of the NY Times Book Review piece says, "The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and sloppy." On top of this, which I picked up in my own brief browse of the book, was that he did not give any serious consideration to those who painstakingly and thoroughly developed cases that challenged his case and presuppositions, among them Stephen Jay Gould and Alister McGrath. Dawkins approach to debate has something of the flavor of John Shelby Spong about it.

I use Dawkins as an example because his is a loud voice that is part of the broad front attempting to put post-Christianism in place. It appears that most of the critics of the Judeo-Christian consensus which is being swept away have a knack for demolition work, but seem incapable of putting anything satisfactory or substantial in its place. Thus the vacuum remains and expands at the heart of our society.

The tragedy is that within the churches, where red-blooded Christianity does have a substantial response to post-Christianism, there are those who are touting their own post-Christianist flavor.

Leander Keck's The Church Confident was published more than a dozen years ago but much that he wrote still rings true. The former Dean of Yale Divinity School writes that in the mainline churches substantial faith and theology have given way to the bizarre and the banal, with the result that we suffer from "theological anorexia." "The mainline churches have inherited theological wealth sufficient to serve substantial theological fare, but all too often they offer little more than potato skins to those who hunger for a real meal" (Page 46). I certainly see this is so much of our Episcopal futility.

Yet the task of the Christian church is to witness into post-Christianism to something far better and richer, but that seldom seems to be happening. Not only is it the mainline churches that are caught up in their own kind of post-Christian cul-de-sac, but so also are many of the conservative churches, baptizing the American dream rather than challenging it to conform to the great doctrines and values of Scripture.

In this environment then, it seems that the life expectancy of our culture has to be short. Without an ideological base, living beyond it means in every way, and focused almost exclusively on the fulfilment of the self, it is already like a barque that is holed and leaking, it is only a matter of time before it capsizes and goes under. The question then is what will take its place, and where will the churches be? I suspect that before then, however, we could very well see the wholesale (and sophisticated) persecution of the congregations and individual Christians who stand up to post-Christianism, and it could be from this that the solution to the conundrum comes.

Friday, October 13, 2006

"Being A Priest Today" -- A Book Review

Being A Priest Today - Christopher Cocksworth, Rosalind Brown (Norwich, England: 2002, New Ed. 2006. Canterbury Press)

A Book Review

For the last thirty years or so I have been listening to all sorts of explanations and arguments about the priesthood, most of which have seemed minimalist or sometimes just plain wrong. During this period my own understanding of the vocation in which I have spent virtually my entire adult life has developed and matured, usually in fits and starts, and it is in this process of what I hope is healthy growing that I have become ever more uncomfortable about the claims and notions that I hear.

What is refreshing about Being A Priest Today, is that the authors, a man and a woman, both priests and theological educators in the Church of England, is that it starts out with an ontological understanding of the nature of the presbyterial role rather than dealing with function or status. It begins with the God who has called the whole church into its priestly witness with the wider world God has made, a task within which the order of priests plays a particular part, although to quote Rowan Williams "there is no one way of being a priest" (Page 4).

Too much of what I have read and heard about the ordained has either focused on the functions of leadership and the how-to of undertaking them, or it has majored on sociological variables like rights, and whether this particular group is represented within the rolls of the ordained in the life of the church. I have been on a Commission On Ministry and year after year have listened to people implying that because they are who they are they have some kind of right to be ordained, rather than approaching this task with the utmost fear and trembling.

In true postmodern style the priesthood is so often seen as a place of power, and therefore it is vital that "we" (whoever "we" happen to be) have a seat at the table in the palaces of power. To think of the priesthood in this way is sheer bunkem. Cocksworth and Brown do not even bother to address these misperceptions of what priesthood is. This is not a contentious, argumentative work, rather these two set out with gentleness, clarity, and precision to present a far fuller and richer picture of this task to which some of us have been drawn by God, drawing upon Scripture and the richness of the Christian tradition. "Our calling into Christ is simultaneously a calling into Christ's messianic ministry, his service" (Page 5).

Being A Priest Today is a book that needs to be read with care, it is not something you can rattle through in an hour or two, and it is even dangerous trying to scan passages that look less significant because you can be sure that you will miss some of the treasures that lie buried deep within what is being said. Certainly, anyone who cherishes the misconception that priesthood is about power will have been forced to surrender such an idea by the end of the opening chapter. If you fail to do this, then you miss the point of the book in its entirety.

The authors tell us, "There is only one Christian priesthood, and that is the priesthood of Christ, the priest into whose ministry we are gathered through baptism and by faith, and in whose life human identity is perfected," (Page 9)and this priesthood is focused on the perfect sacrifice Christ has made for us, and just as he is one whose life was lived entirely for others, so is that the reality with the ordained who are presbyters in the priestly community.

The opening chapter, which is the key to all that follows, revolves around a masterly unpacking of Paul's charge to the leaders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. As I went through this exposition I circled the words about priestly ministry that seemed the most significant: "teaching... protecting... faithful evangelistic preaching... catechetical teaching... care of the Church... the towel a symbol of authority... tears... the mantle of suffering" (Pages 12-13).
If the Body of Christ has been called into being by the Holy Spirit, priests are to function as men and women radically dependent upon the workings of that same Spirit. It is not only an office that shapes the church's life by what it says and how it instructs, but it is one that is called by that self-same Spirit into a life of prayer and of holiness "that will be an example to the Church" (Page 21).

Today such holiness sounds a radical (almost innovative) idea, but not only do Cocksworth and Brown back it up from 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20, but also from the charge to the presbyter in the 2nd Century Canons of Hippolytus, but also from the bishop's charge in the contemporary Roman rite for ordination of priests. It is this call to holiness that, as far as I can see, is then filled out in the remainder of the book, beginning with the fact that the priesthood is a call to being for the Other and being for God.

The priesthood is about being for worship, the Word, and prayer. It is about living holy lives, being agents of reconciliation, and as men and women of blessing. Each of these chapters is chock full of substance and challenge, and my copy of the book that I read on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in a 767 over it, is as marked up with underlinings and marginal notes as any book that I possess.

There are sweet quotes like, "Our vocation is to combine a passion for God's living word with a joy in living in God's world" (Page 84), or "Polishing and perfecting the saints, ourselves included, is a lifelong vocation to holiness" (Page 153).

Living in the midst of the angst that is the Episcopal Church, and watching beloved brothers and sisters tearing apart, and tearing one another apart, I found myself particularly challenged by the chapter "Being for Reconciliation." God, we are told, would stop at nothing to reconcile us to himself, and we as those who preside at the Eucharist, the rite, as it were, of reconciliation, have a special responsibility for this ministry both in the church and beyond.

If our task is to minister to those seeking reconciliation to God, hearing confessions and pronouncing absolutions, then this has profound implications for the way we as clergy live our lives amidst so much division and bitterness. The church should be the body which, by its own determination to be reconciled with one another, shows forth what God's purpose is for all people -- yet how far we are from that reality. "The tendrils of reconciliation run widely and intricately throughout God's world, the tap root is the reconciliation of God in Christ who is our peace. We who are reconciled to God ourselves are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation" (Page 179).

Yet the reconciliating power of the Gospel is not some lowest common denominator kind of thing, sentimental mushiness, or brushing differences under the rug that is so often presented as reconciliation, rather it is something that cannot and does not contrive to sidestep the Cross, God's supreme reconcilatory act. Reconciliation is painful for all involved, including the reconciler.

The truth is, and this bubbled through this whole book, there is a tremendous amount of suffering and pain that are part and parcel of the priesthood -- because the Christ we follow is one whose life was shaped by suffering and pain. And so it is that we our sent out in mission -- which is the burden of the final chapter of the book.

Drs. Cocksworth and Brown use a plenitude of resources to make their case from the Apostolic Fathers, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard to liturgical rites from around the world and a richness of traditions. They quote John Donne, George Herbert, Michael Ramsey, Richard Baxter, and John of the Cross, as well as John Wimber, Oswald Chambers, Eugene Peterson, Julian of Norwich, and Barbara Brown Taylor. The text is enriched by the delightful poems and hymns of Rosalind Brown. This is not a book with a party flavor or a narrow bias, and neither is it one that is for the faint-hearted.

If you are a priest and you read this book, be ready for your presuppositions and practice of your vocation to be changed, as well as any sense of satisfaction that you might have with your own sanctification. If you are a layperson reading this book, then not only will it raise the bar for your own discipleship, but it will help you to challenge (graciously, I hope) your own clergy in the exercise of their ministry among you.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Seminaries in a Post-Christian Landscape

I have spent the last few days in England, and have been hanging around one of the theological colleges of the Church of England. It has been good to interact with the students and faculty, I have enjoyed the liveliness of the worship in the chapel, and the sense of mission that so many of the people have here.

Britain is far from an easy setting in which to do ministry, so it is encouraging to see so many gifted men and women who are willing to offer their all in the service of Christ, who gave his all for them. What has struck me about this place is a determined integration of right believing with right practice, and of scholarship that is rooted in a Kingdom-driven approach to ministry.

I was chatting the other morning with the principal, somehow we got onto the subject of monastic models and I found myself talking about Thomas Cahill's marvelous book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, that made such a splash in the USA a few years back. The thesis of the book, if you remember, is that when the Roman Empire collapsed Ireland became the refuge for Christian learning, many of the treasures of the ancient world finding their way into the various monasteries that existed there.

After a century or so, as the worst of the "dark ages" began to ameliorate themselves, it was monks who spread out from the Emerald Isle and took back to Europe with them both learning and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of the great monastic foundations that became beacons of hope and centers of learning throughout the northern part of Europe can trace their origins either directly or indirectly to Irish missionary monks.

How The Irish Saved Civilization is not a book that made it in the UK as it did in the USA (Surprise, surprise), but as I outlined its theme the principal's face lit up and he said something like, "Wow, the theological college model we have pursued for so long is one that is broadly Benedictine, but a Celtic model makes a great deal more sense for this day and age, with the seminary being the base from which mission is undertaken as people go out from there into the hostile culture around them."

I thoroughly agree with him. I believe that in some ways we are entering a different kind of "dark age," and that in the economy of God there is a need for places that will stand firm, remain faithful, preserve the deposit of the faith, and then communicate by word and deed the message of salvation to those around them. Could it be, I wonder, that the seminaries could be the Celtic monasteries of this age?

Yet it is obvious that not all our seminaries are doing the job in the way that they should, whether you measure them against a Celtic or a Benedictine model. The majority of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church are a very mixed bag, many having either modified or seemingly turned their backs on the undergirding essence of the deposit of the faith. The question is whether they are able to be these beacons of hope that are required. Given the performance of the leadership of ECUSA in the last few years I have to suggest that most of them are the reverse.

That reminded me of an illustration used many years ago by Richard Lovelace, a Presbyterian, and then Professor of Church History at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In one of his books, where he was talking about spiritual renewal, he likened a seminary to a garden sprinkler. As the sprinkler swivels around and around the water that gets sprayed over lawn or garden brings rich greenery and colorful life. However, it only takes a few drops of acid to get into the mix and an entirely different result is the outcome.

Lovelace commented that while some seminaries have a spiritual dynamic that is like water being sprayed out from the sprinkler, enriching the lives of the churches around them, there are some seminaries who produce acidic water that will ultimately destroy all those who, as it were, nestle in their shade.

As I look at the woes of the church to which I belong I cannot but confess that the seminaries have played a huge part in our demise. Acid rather than the bracing fresh water of the Gospel has been their product. So, if we are moving into a dark age, then whatever strategies we puruse, it behooves us to do something significant about seminaries so that they might be centers from which mission, ministry, and "civilization" go forth.