Friday, March 31, 2006

An Appreciation of Alec Motyer

Since I posted a piece the other week in which I mentioned Alec Motyer, various folks have been in touch with me who, in one way or another, have had their lives touched by the Motyers. It seemed that it might be worth saying a few more things about Alec and Beryl Motyer because they have always been a model and example to Rosemary and myself.

I first met Alec Motyer toward the end of my first year in seminary, and then as my second year began I became field education student at his parish, St. Luke's Church, West Hampstead, London, a position that I held for two full years. In many respects those two years were the most influential part of my theological education because not only was Alec a fine scholar, but he was (and is) an extraordinary expository preacher, and a loving pastor.

Before coming to St. Luke's, Alec had been the Vice-Principal of Clifton Theological College, Bristol, one of the three seminaries that was eventually to be merged into Trinity College, Bristol. Alec had left under something of a cloud not long before I became his field education student. While I never knew nor sought to find out the details, it was an experience that I believe tempered the man so that a few years later when he became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, he was ready for that work and excelled in it. His successor there was none other than George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Alec is Irish, born and raised in the Repubic of Ireland, education at Trinity College, Dublin, and ordained in the Church of Ireland, where he served as Curate at St. Kevan's Church, Dublin, before moving to England with his wife, Beryl. What is remarkable about him is that in many respects he looks no different now than he did forty years ago, although his flaming red hair is sandier as a result of streaks of grey. He still has the brightness of spirit and agility of mind that those of us who came under his influence loved and appreciated.

For two years, every Sunday morning and evening, I was privileged to sit under Alec Motyer's powerful preaching ministry. In some ways it is oratorically from another time, but beneath it was a profound and devout respect for the Word of God, and his belief that it is through these inspired words that God speaks to human beings and shapes their lives. It is not the preacher's task to get in the way of the Word, but to rightly apportion the Word so that it forms the lives of those who are willing and obedient enough to put themselves under its authority.

What I gained from these years was not only from his example of obedience, but also an understanding of how God speaks to us through Scripture, and how I might, as a pastor, open Scripture so that it speaks to those for whom I have spiritual responsibility. When I was first ordained my preaching style was a fourth-rate aping of Alec Motyer, although as the years passed and we went our separate ways I was able to develop my own distinctive manner of handling the Word. Yet to this day I often sit during preparation and wonder how Alec would handle the piece of Scripture that I find myself wrestling with.

Actually, Alec's life and mine did not go separate ways immediately after seminary. My first ordained ministry was as assistant in a parish just up the road from St. Luke's Church in North London, and then when a couple of years later Alec became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, at his prompting I found myself as assistant on the staff of the large congregation in whose parish boundaries Trinity College sits. If as a seminarian I had the privilege of sitting under Alec's ministry, as a junior priest he had the more dubious privilege of sitting under mine!

That was not as daunting as I had imagined it might be, and it enabled me to continue learning from this man who had become so important in my life. He and Beryl were important not just for ministry reasons but for personal reasons as well, as I am about to recount.

On October 9, 1966, the second Sunday of the month, as I was standing with Alec in the gathering dark on the steps of the church in the gathering dark following the evening service this woman, a student at the London University college next door to St. Luke's came bounding up. To cut a long story short, within a couple of minutes we had been introduced and set to work putting back together the middle school group that had languished following the ill-health of its former leader.

I confess that for the first few weeks we were thrown together I couldn't stand this female. But Alec and Beryl believed with all their heart in the biblical mandate that it is not good for a man (or a woman) to be alone, and so they nurtured and stoked our relationship. Twenty-one months later this woman became my wife at a ceremony presided over by none other than Alec Motyer! Nearly thirty-eight years later I agree with Alec, it is not good for a man or woman to be alone, and I am thankful that he helped me find my life's partner, Rosemary, even if I was not initially too impressed by her (or she by me).

Alec is a product of an Anglicanism that is a significant part of our tradition, but which is perfectly happy to have full fellowship with those beyond our tradition, particularly on the conservative and Protestant end of the spectrum. He is a low churchman who is still happiest celebrating the Lord's Supper from the north end of the communion table, and who believes pulpit takes priority over sacrament. While most orthodox American Anglicans might regard the Catholics as their nearest denominational neighbors, for Alec it is Presbyterians of a more conservative color. He is very much a product of the definitely Reformational Church of Ireland in which he was reared.

He also taught us to have a healthy skepticism of the excesses of modern scholarship. While he encouraged us to be use our brains and be scholars, which meant reading and learning from the stuff that was being published at that moment, he also made sure that we asked significant questions of it, not necessarily accepting the validity of dominant theories.

For example, the central focus of Alec's intellectual life has been his study of the prophecy of Isaiah, and since retiring he has published two substantial commentaries on this great book. While benefiting from those students of the text who believe that there is actually an Isaianic school and that you can point to two or three different voices within that school, Alec has never been convinced and believes most of that magisterial book came from God's inspiration of Isaiah of Jerusalem. I hazard that Alec has read just about everything ever published in English on Isaiah, but he has not allowed academic orthodoxy to turn his head.

While I have not always agreed with Alec's theses, I am profoundly grateful for his example and teaching that I need not be carried along by what is intellectually fashionable. Rather than being an anti-intellectual or obscurantist mindset, what this does is lead to an independence of mind that does not allow itself to be "tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine..." (Ephesians 4:14).

Alec, like his former colleague and another mentor of mine, Jim Packer, has drunk deeply at the wells of the Puritan tradition. Now sneered at, particularly in many Anglican circles, there was a richness of theological reflection and pastoral faithfulness among Puritans that we would do well to listen to today. The Puritans certainly had their shortcomings, but there was a faithfulness to their theologizing and pastoring that sought to bring the rich essence of biblical theology to play in ever facet of human living and personal holiness.

This stream of Anglicanism continued to have a dynamic life within particular elements of the evangelical movement in the Church of England, parts of Australia, and in other pockets. It is richly composted soil, enabling us to recognize that theological developments that seek to sidestep the normative values of the Christian faith as found in the 66 books of Holy Scripture are ultimately theological and spiritual missteps. This, probably, is something that makes some of us us awkward partners and bedfellows to those who would be more cavalier in their understandings.

Alec Motyer is around eighty now, and despite some ill-health a few years ago, is a spritely energetic man. He and Beryl live on the outskirts of Manchester, England, not too far from their daughter, Katie, who was born, appropriately enough for an Irish couple, on St. Patrick's Day, 1967. When Rosemary and I were ministering in Bristol, Katie was in our Sunday School, but now has children of her own of that age!

I have written this appreciation because I want to honor this man who means so much to me. My life and ministry would have been far poorer without his presence, guidance, and wisdom. As far as I am concerned he is a giant of the Twentieth Century. He is not so proud that he had to get ecclesiastical accolades, for he ended his ministry pastoring a small congregation on England's South Coast. This is a man who has not been in ministry for a good "career in the church," but because he was prepared to accept whatever call the Lord Jesus made upon him. I pray that I might continue to learn this lesson from him.

p.s. You can get an idea of the extent of Alec's writing by Googling his name, or by going to

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Making Sense of Tennessee

We are living through tumultuous times in the Diocese of Tennessee. Had we been a simple majority diocese I suspect that by now Neal Michell would have been bishop-elect, and we would be starting to think about how we move forward together in mission in this weird and wonderful century. But we are not a simple majority diocese, we require 2/3 in each order to elect, which is difficult enough in less troubled times, but given where we are today it seems to be a North Face of the Eiger that needs to be scaled. We gather again on May 6th to give it another try.

But what is behind this? Although the mix is distinctively different, in many ways this is akin to the stand-off that is happening in other parts of all the churches, not just the Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Tennessee has changed enormously in the last dozen years, going from being a jurisdiction whose previous bishop had died in office amidst enormous confusion. Tennessee, despite its ancient name, was, in effect, a new diocese carved out of one that used to cover the whole state, and the previous bishop never really grasped that -- and the dynamics that go with it.

The present bishop, Bertram Herlong, did grasp that reality and began giving the diocese focus and visionary leadership. Virtually all its vital signs show remarkable health, even with some almighty hiccups after the events of August 2003, when the General Convention determined that the sovereign self takes priority over the revelation of the Sovereign God. Yet not everyone in the diocese sees what has happened in this corner of God's Vineyard as progress, and this perception is what has been playing itself out over the last two Saturdays.

The tragedy is that those who have managed to prevent the election of a bishop here have a deep affection for the Episcopal Church of the USA, and do not want its genius to be lost. One can admire their love for the institution that many of us have served for a long time, but if we were to tot up the evidence it would seem to suggest that their approach will further damage this little corner of the church rather than strengthen the institution for mission in the bracing climate that lies ahead.

We live in a very different kind of age from the one that spawned the church structures that we have been used to, and part of the unraveling that is taking place right now is due to the fact that yesterday's structures are totally inappropriate for tomorrow's church in tomorrow's world. It is hard to let go of what is old and familiar in order to move into a different kind of age, but that is what is being asked of us. However, some seem unable to do that, and while seeing themselves as champions of the institution, they are in fact endangering it by trampling over seeds of new life.

This is a postdenominational age, as my friend, Kevin Martin, has pointed out, and one of the challenges to old-line denominations is how we should adapt, function, and fullfill our ministry in an era like this. What is required of us is the ability to modify, to take calculated risks, to see how what we have inherited can be made to work on the different kind of landscape that is emerging.

In the midst of this a good chunk of the received historical structures of North American Anglicanism are obsolute or irrelevant, getting in the way rather than enabling the mission. Indeed, they are wedded to outmoded ideologies and a top-heavy bureaucracy with the result that they seem completely absorbed in their own agenda that there is little room for God's agenda to make itself known.

Those who hold a major portion of the balance in the Tennessee vote are non-parochial and retired clergy, many of them wonderful men and women, but folks whose ministry was exercised in a different time, or outside the steady pattern of parish life that is the front line of the church's mission. I was a non-parochial priest for 18 years, so from personal experience I fully understand the lesser sense of accountability that such folks have to the congregational and diocesan framework of day-to-day church life.

But there are other factors. One is that those who are leading the charge on both sides of this divide are Boomers, and as the history of this generation has shown, we Boomers see things in terms of competing visions. About twenty years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe published their remarkable book, Generations, in which they said that "Unlike their G.I. fathers, who excelled at overcoming crisis, Boomers are attracted to the possibility of fomenting crisis" (Page 314).

Strauss and Howe, in their more recent book, The Fourth Turning, posit that sometime during the first decade of the 21st Century we would encounter an enormous Crisis. Written before 9/11, it is possible that what took place then either triggered it or was the ominous early warning of a lot that was (and still is) to come. Older and wiser, they now say that "When the Crisis hits, Boomers will need to defuse the Culture Wars at once. Their pro-choice secularists and pro-life evangelicals will need to move beyond their Unraveling-era skirmishes and unite around an agenda of national survival, much as Missionary elders (an early prophetic generation) did during the depression and war. Bommers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them" (Page 325).

The question before us in Tennessee is sobering because there are many difficult choices and decisions attached to it. Those of us who are Boomers in this battle are, perhaps, being forced to face up to what Strauss and Howe call the dark side of our collective persona. We require wisdom that comes from above that will prevail over being hot-headed. We require grace and holiness that will counter self-centeredness. We also need to grapple with what it means to be a people committed to the truth wherever such a commitment might take us. Without the aid of a mighty God these challenges could be considered dilemmas that are mutually exclusive.

Yesterday, between ballots in Christ Church Cathedral I began reading Eugene Peterson's latest volume, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. In its second chapter there is a paragraph that I wanted to shout from the rooftops because it precisely addresses what we are dealing with.

Peterson writes, "I want to counter this widespread practice of taking personal experience instead of the Bible as the authority for living. I want to pull Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self. I want to place personal experience under the authority of the Bible and not over it. I want to set the Bible before us as the text by which we live our lives, this text that stands in such sturdy contrast to the potpourri of religious psychology, self-development, mystical experimentation, and devotional dilettantism that has come to characterize so much of what takes cover under the umbrella of 'spirituality'" (Page 17).

But as I have read these words again today I realize that if I am to be a person who lives his life under the authority of God's revelation, then I personally have to take responsibility for the part that I have played in the stand-off here in Tennessee. Whether our intentions are the very best, and I hope that mine have been, because of our fallenness we cannot help but complicate things. I want to discover in the next few weeks how I might, with others, find a godly resolution to this impasse, and one that will bring such glory to God that the heavens will trumpet forth their praises.

Monday, March 20, 2006

A New Thing?

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece about the theological vacuum that there is among those who believe the whole issue of rethinking our understanding of human sexuality is of God. As I have before, I asked at that time if anyone could come up with an adequate theological response to orthodoxy, and as usual, there has been a resounding silence. I guess it should not surprise me because few 'reappraisers' visit this blog, but stuff does get around on the Internet and I had hoped that somehow or other it would get into the in-box of some of those leading this charge away from received biblical values.

However, I have raised the issue with one or two 'progressive' friends, and it would appear that the only approach they can come up with that gives them permission to move forward is that God is doing a new thing. That is, to assert that God is doing something that is above and beyond anything that has ever happened before in the history of monotheism, outside the canon of Scripture, and having little to do with the on going tradition and life of the church.

What this allows for is an end run on the last 4,000 years or so, and seems to obviate any need for a response to careful historical analysis, and the mindset of the church catholic through the ages. It also obviates any need to respond to careful and disciplined theological analysis that makes it very clear that a revisionist understanding of sexuality has no place in the Christian story.

The manifesto in the Episcopal Church of those who are going down the path that God might be doing a new thing is a document that was presented to the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham, England, last year, and which goes by the unlikely title of To Set Our Hope on Christ. Shallow and thoroughly postmodern in its approach toward Scripture, it asserts that "For almost forty years, members of the Episcopal Church have discerned holiness in same-sex relationships and, have come to support the blessing of such unions and the ordination or consecration of persons in those unions" (TSOHOC 2.0). It believes that this is the gift that we have to offer the rest of the world.

It is not my intention to respond to this document, although obviously I find it totally lacking, but to move forward to discuss the wider implications of what it means for God to be doing a new thing like this in our midst.

First of all, we have to get a clear answer to the question why God has broken completely will all precedent that was set by... God! If we are to be trinitarian Christians believing in the God who has revealed himself, then it is essential that we accept that this deity is eternal, almighty, and immutable. This means that God was, is, and always will be unchanging and changeless, and that in this Almighty God we live and move and have our being.

This also means that what we believe (and have always believed) about this God and God's self-revelation is either wrong, or was revelation just for a limited period of time and now has been superceded. This would mean that we are part of some kind of evolutionary continuum, and not only have we evolved 'upward' but so has God.

This further means, therefore, that if God is doing a new thing, then God is a process rather than all the things that Christians have declared him to be since 325 AD and the Council of Nicea. If this God is always changing, developing, and altering, because we are always changing, developing, and altering, then this God is becoming a different God than the One he used to be. It is also to say that those who are in the know, gnostics if you like, have a better idea of who God is and what God is up to than the whole of the rest of world Christianity.

To say that God is doing a new thing is an attempt to totally sidestep revelation and all our Christian past in favor of an untried and untested future. It also raises such huge questions that it soon becomes apparent that this solution to a profund theological dilemma is actually no solution at all, unless you want to abandon all that the church believes about God, and start again from scratch. It is to happily declare ourselves out of step and out of communion with the whole Christian faith tradition of the last two millennia. This is nothing less than chronological arrogance that flies in the face of To Set Our Hope On Christ's protestations of humility.

That these 'progressives' are prepared to go to such lengths illustrates that not only does the left not understand precisely what it means to be human and made in the image of God, but also that they have totally lost touch with the nature of the triune God in whose image we have supposedly been made (Genesis 1:27, Mark 10:5-9). This is perhaps the most supreme example of cutting off your nose to spite your face, or of demolishing the whole building in which your apartment is located for fear that your home will be repossessed!

Looking at the history of the church, there has been a steady stream of those who have pronounced that God is doing a new thing going back as far as Montanus, a prophetic individual from Asia Minor at the end of the Second Century. His prophecies were claimed to be of a higher order than what God had already revealed, and were finally declared suspect. There were also a variety of strange practices and values attached to the Montanists.

It would seem that a good few of these movements of new or higher revelation have a sexual component to them. Somewhere within them there are individuals who chafe under biblical standards of sexual morality. We have certainly seen this in plenty of 20th Century groups who have made such claims. And here we have such a claim being made again, except this time instead of being on the fringes it is in the heart of the established churches.

I actually had an experience of this phenomenon early in my ministry. In the early 1970s as the charismatic renewal was cranking up and from America's West Coast came the Jesus Movement, I was the assistant on the staff of a young and dynamic parish in North London. A Jesus Movement group had found its way to London and began preying on our fairly large and lively congregation of teens and twenties. This group was then known as the Children of God.

The Children of God had been founded by a Christian Missionary Alliance pastor who subsequently took for himself the name Moses David. He had been a plain vanilla evangelical minister, but as the phenomenon went forward he began receiving revelations which resulted in the Children of God moving away from revealed Christianity. In a relatively short time they went from being a quirky but basically orthodox outfit, to being something entirely different.

Among the revelations that Moses David had was one that opened the doors for a different kind of sexuality. Certainly, his own appetites were met by a variety of women, and not long after this, supposedly under the guidance of God, they launched their "flirty fish" initiative which based upon the teaching of Jesus that he would make his followers fishers of men, sent out a bevvy of pretty young women into the streets to offer their bodies to men as evangelistic outreach.

For more than a year I lived in proximity to this group, and the problems and damage that they did in the lives of individuals. Indeed, one young woman who had gone off and joined the group for a while until her parents abducted her, lived with us for many months, so we were up very close to all that was going on among these people.

If God is doing something new, then I suggest that those who adhere to this notion rather than ignoring objections to their position should provide solid and strong justification for it that item by item, issue by issue tells us clearly why God's nature has changed, and why God's nature even needs to change. We need evidence, we need hard facts, we need solid research and clear spiritual insights to help us grasp the kind of new thing that God might be doing because God's nature is in a process of evolution. Those asserting that a new thing is taking place are the ones who are obligated to clear away without reason of doubt objections to their position, not vice-versa.

We haven't received this, and certainly To Set Our Hope On Christ does not provide anything but the most tentative grounds for accepting this huge sea change that is being claimed is taking place. This is what I might call as a result of my experience Moses Davidism.

In effect, what I am being asked to do as I climb the mountain of faith is to change midstream to untried and untested equipment. Not only that, but I am being asked to put my whole weight on some new kind of rope that was designed by someone who has never done any research on why the old one doesn't work as well as it should. Sorry, I'm just not in the business of doing such a thing.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On the Horns of a Dilemma

Many of you have been watching the episcopal election in the Diocese of Tennessee, noting that we recessed for a week at around 6.00 p.m. on Saturday evening without having elected a bishop, and will gather again to continue the process next Saturday.

It needs to be pointed out for starters that elections in this quirky diocese are always extended affairs, with 2/3 required in each order for an election to take place. Elections have been known to go to 40, 50, or even 60 ballots in Tennessee in the past, although the present polarized state of the Episcopal Church adds intensity to our immediate set of circumstances.

Having said this, I have a sense that we have become the latest small cockpit in which something much bigger is playing itself out in both church and the culture. I find no enjoyment in such things, but it seems that if we are to be faithful to Christ then we have to graciously and lovingly work our way through what might be a stalemate -- and at the heart of faithfulness is the vital business of theological and doctrinal obedience, which has profound implications in the way we live our lives.

I don't want to go into the pros and cons of our election or the electoral process, but to focus attention on what should be the faithful believer's mindset in the midst of such circumstances. Yes, I wake up in the night worrying about what is happening. Yes, I pray prayers that perhaps are sometimes selfish and self-serving. Yes, I am anxious that we will do the wrong thing or elect the wrong person.

But underneath this very human set of concerns has to be a strong affirmation that we serve the living, sovereign God, and that his ways are not always our ways. Didn't Isaiah write, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).

This is a lesson that each follower of Christ nees to be reminded of again and again, especially when we sense that our backs are up against the wall, our heart is in our throat, and there is that horrible sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. I confess that I woke up this morning feeling nauseous and was weak and tense for most of today. But while I have always lived very close to my feelings, they should not be allowed to take control and rule my existence.

Last summer Rosemary and I spend a delightful day on the outskirts of Manchester in England with Alec and Beryl Motyer. Alec has been a dear friend and mentor for just about forty years, and is one of the finest expository preachers and teachers that I have ever encountered. Alec taught me so much not only about using Scripture to edify others, but also how I can feed myself from God's Holy Word.

Alec is an Old Testament scholar who is spending his retirement getting onto paper the treasures of a lifetime of parish ministry and seminary teaching. As we were parting in July he gave me a copy of his most recent book on Exodus (The Message of Exodus - J. A. Motyer. IVP, 2005) which about a month ago I began using to aid me with my daily bible reading. I could not have picked up anything more appropriate to help me negotiate through a difficult situation like the one we find ourselves in in Tennessee, or the difficulties that confront us in the wider Episcopal Church.

These recent years of ministry have been among the hardest, and there is many a time when I have wondered if somehow I have misread God's guidance. So it came as a needed reminder in those early pages of Alec's book, as he orients us to God's working among his people during the Exodus, that there is mystery in the divine government of history, "whether on a national, domestic or individual level: the great and loving God is in control, and because he is truly sovereign he works out his purposes in his way, not ours... He offers no explanations, but grants his people a sufficient insight into his ways, his character, his intentions and his changeless faithfulness so that, however dark the day, they can live by faith and be sustained by hope" (page 19).

Not only was this classic Motyer, but it is rock-sold biblical theology, neither weak nor sentimental, telling me that I am where I am because the sovereign Lord has put he there, much as he put the children of Israel in Egypt initially for protection but after 400 years in such agony that they were crying out for release. These have been dark days of ministry, but even in the gloom there has been evidence of his hand and the hope of his grace -- and I saw it again in church this morning.

The story of the Exodus is a story of seemingly endless delay, muddle and confusion, then the quick and decisive hand of the Lord, before again wilderness wanderings require much patience. The experience of these Old Testament People of God was akin to those things that we today find ourselves wrestling with. God may be sovereign, and he may be protecting his people, imparting promises to them, and giving them hope, but we need to remember the words of Paul to the Christians in Asia Minor that it is through many hardships that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

This seems to be a message for our time, especially to those of us who are North American Anglicans. "It is not God's way to explain himself... so the biblical account provides us with no pat answers to our questions, but it does provide us with a framework and context within which we can begin to make sense of the days of darkness which have ever been the lot of God's people throughout history... We see him working out his own schemes in his own way, on his own scale, to his own time plan and according to his own wisdom, and we find the assurance that, although the days were dark, it was all right, it was all planned and it will all be well" (page 31).

So during these weeks I am soaking myself in the way the Lord provided for his people in Egypt, and gently but lovingly my dear old friend has been telling me afresh that "there is a contemporary reality about the word of God, so that when we read Exodus we are not just learning of the past, we are learning for the present" (page 33). I want answers to huge questions as I agonize over the horns of dilemmas of which our episcopal election is only the latest, but instead I am reminded that God is God and that even in the darkest days his loving reassurance is that all is OK, and it will ultimately be well.

Meanwhile, I am where God desires me to be, and while it might sometimes appear to be a wilderness journey into nowhere, God understands precisely where he is taking us and how long it will take. Our responsibility in these circumstances is not to waver, but to be faithful, especially when there is a high price to pay for that faithfulness. We think of the Exodus as a wonderful release from slavery, but often forget that when Israel left, many of them left homes, neighborhoods, gardens, and even Egyptian friends that they loved and cherished. Obedience always involves discomfort and letting go.

All this puts our Tennessee travails into perspective and reminds me a cold, damp London night in early 1967 when the rubber of Motyer's teaching hit the road of my life. I was Alec's field education student at his then parish of St. Luke's Church in West Hampstead. It was late by the time my responsibilities were finished and he drove me to the Underground station. Sensing that I was in agony about something he lovingly coaxed my problems from me.

"Alec," I remember telling him, "I'm just not happy, I'm not happy."

There was loving sternness in his lilting Irish voice as he responded with words that have, perhaps, been an ever-returning watchword in all the years since then, "Richard, you were not called to be happy, you were called to be faithful."

My record of faithfulness has been patchy, but God's record of faithfulness has outshone my wildest dreams. Alec Motyer is now an old man, and I am getting there, too, but this lesson taught when I was a seminarian I have passed on to others over the years.

I share it now with my brothers and sisters in Tennessee as we live with on the horns of our immediate dilemma. I share it too with those faithful men and women who sense that they are embattled by the storms that have swept over the Episcopal Church, and for whom misery in some form or another is an almost constant companion. I share them not knowing where God is leading or what God has in mind. As the author to the Hebrews puts it,"You have need of endurance, so that when yhou have done the will of God you may receive what is promised" (Hebrews 10:36).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

With or Without -- A Review

With or Without: A Spiritual Journey Through Love and Divorce by Cameron Conant (Orlando: RelevantBooks.Com, 2005) US$12.99

A Review by Richard Kew

I met Cameron Conant several weeks ago at a social gathering, a delightful thirty-ish who told me that he had recently published his first book. I had so enjoyed the time I had spent with Cameron that I had soon logged into and ordered With or Without, not really knowing what to expect. I can report that the book was well worth the purchase price.

I wrote Cameron the other day and told him that one of the first adjectives to come to mind about that book was "charming," but that really doesn't work because the topic is a demanding one. It is charming because it is wonderfully written, but the raw agony of marrying, trying to hold the relationship together, and then it coming apart makes this a worthwhile but not a comfortable read.

The next adjective I explored was "mature," because Cameron demonstrates a capacity at handling such an anguished topic that is delightfully GenX-ish, but then at the same time is more perceptive than most folks who are many years his senior. It illustrates how this Christian man was really determined to learn the hard lessons that come from being part of a broken marriage, and to put it in words that will help others struggling in similar ways. He does not settle for flip answers, he does not apportion blame unjustly, and he makes himself agonizingly vulnerable by his stark honesty.

I couldn't help comparing With our Without to the job C. S. Lewis does in A Grief Observed, as he attempted to lay his soul bare as he marshalled all that was going on inside himself following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Lewis did not try to hide his innermost being, and neither does Cameron Conant as he worked his way through the death of his marriage. I see in Conant's book a man who has been forced to grow up quickly and move beyond simple answers to difficult questions that will probably plague him forever.

I was touched by the portrait of 'Sara,' his former wife, a woman who he obviously loved with ardor, but who herself was wrestling with familial and personal inner darkness that brought her own cloud into their marriage. I found myself feeling intensely for this woman, and the inability that each of these young people had in completing the other in a manner that would have enabled them to fullfil their vows about their relationship ending only when death intervenes. When I had finished reading the book I found myself wondering where 'Sara' is now, how she has recovered from this trauma, and what she is up to.

I read this book the week before we began The Marriage Course at our church, one of the products of the Alpha family of resources. I had been immersed for several days in Nicky and Sila Lea's The Marriage Book which is a wonderful tool for helping couples strengthen their relationship, and now I spent several evenings hitting the wall of marital breakdown with Cameron. It was a sobering juxtapositioning.

While I find it hard to identify what might be the target audience for this book, it is one that I would commend, not least because I think it entirely possible that Cameron Conant will possibly be a name that you will be hearing a lot more from in coming years. This is a man who is just finding his voice, and I hope that he does so with much grace because I am sure he will speak volumes of God's mercy to his generation -- as well as some of us who are a bit older.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The AT&T Solution?

Last Monday we awoke to the news that for a cool $67 billion the new-look AT&T had taken over our local telephone company, BellSouth. There seems to be a certain irony in the way that things go full circle, for now we are back to having a handful of telecoms after two decades of confusion and an alphabet soup of companies.

However, the telecom world is at a far different place today than it was when old Ma Bell was split up, with cable companies, wireless, satellite, and voice-over-internet outfits muscling in on a business which communicates more data than it does the spoken word, and is growing exponentially. It will obviously continue mutating, but in the midst of all this change that familiar name, AT&T, with a slightly modified logo is there at the front of the pack again.

Yet it isn't the same AT&T that split out the Baby Bells in the 1980s. This company cut itself into a number of pieces, then those pieces shuffled themselves and did some merging, then some other smaller telecoms got in on the act. Meanwhile they were selling bits and pieces of themselves to each other, until finally what had started out as SouthwesternBell took over the remnants of AT&T - and the venerable name. Now, AT&T had already sold its Wireless service to BellSouth, but as it has taken over BellSouth it has the piece back again.

It sounds confusing, and it is confusing. Hardly had these companies started to settle down to a new way of doing business than mergers and acquisitions altered their configuration so that they were forced to work out new ways of doing business again. However I am not sure than there are many people who would want to return to the controlled and truncated service that old Ma Bell used to offer -- or the prices that had to be paid for the privilege of making use of them.

What has this to do with the Gospel and the Church? Quite a lot if you think about it. What the telecoms have been doing is adapting and adjusting themselves to a wholely different world that has come into being in the last quarter century. Pundits have been noting for a long time that changing technology changes the culture which changes the way goods and services are delivered in that culture. This must change those who do the delivering.

The telephone companies are a fine example of how that process goes ahead. Nothing is tidy, there are countless loose ends, and then there are gaps to be filled. For example, BellSouth provide our landline service and until a couple of years ago our local telephone service. Meanwhile, ATT was our long distance provider. When a snafu with BellSouth happened soon after we moved into our present home we switched our local service to ATT, which means we get ATT service over BellSouth lines.

It is more complicated than that because we get our cellular mobile service through Verizon, the other major player in America's telephone galaxy, although for many years we were with ATT Wireless before that. We are now waiting for VerizonWireless to inaugurate their broadband service in this area because we will then get our broadband through that because living in a rural area there is no DSL provided by BellSouth, and the local cable provider hasn't seen fit to hook up houses on our street!

I suspect you are bored out of your minds by the meanderings of the Kews and their communication needs, but I am getting to the point. The Episcopal Church of the USA has been the primary franchisee of Anglican services in the United States, but like old Ma Bell and the lumbering old auto companies, it doesn't work in the world of today. It runs a top-heavy bureaucracy in New York, and demands fealty from its regional clans (dioceses).

On top of that instead of providing services for mission, the denominational structure gets in the way as it works out the implications of theologies that were fresh and shiny in the Sixties but are now as dated as over-sized cars with fins and Beatles haircuts. Like most tired old bureaucracies the denomination not only keeps on doing stupid things (or enabling stupid things to be done), but it also seeks to maintain its fealty over those who are embarrassed to be associated with it.

Whether it likes it or not, reconfiguration is going on, much as the birthing of the Baby Bells played a large part in the development of today's emerging telecom scene. The old structures are trying to force the old top-heavy structure to stay together, with its tidy diocesan lines and money coming from the grassroots up the chain of command, and the grassroots are increasingly deciding that such a dinosauric approach is for the birds. This is like trying to hold dry sand in your hand on a windy day.

For a start, in increasing numbers of places the passage of money along the chain of command is faultering. In other places congregations or whole blocs of congregations have severed themselves in favor of something less onorous and compromised, and are networking themselves into a healthier church in other parts of the world. There is, like in the day of the Baby Bells, a bewildering array of entities that in one way or another are seeking to be faithful, and that see the old structure as beyond retrieval.

Add to this that there are those who remain in the old structure but are less of it than of the healthier global church with which they identify, and the additional fact that some of the older splinterings of the Ma Bell structure are feeling their way back into the mix, like the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Province in America, and you have something that is far from tidy.

We don't know how all this will play out. The old ECUSA is aging and despite denial to the contrary by those in the boardrooms, the statistics say it is in increasing trouble. I might want to continue pretending that it is Anglicanism in the United States, but that is about as realistic as General Motors believing itself to be America's car company. Because the old ECUSA is in a state of decline something new, streamlined, and healthy could emerge from all these other things that are going on at the moment, and I suspect that we would see this outcome in 15-20 years.

What ECUSA forgot, to use the late Peter Drucker's assessment of the mainline churches, is its core business. It has become absorbed in itself rather than the task that Jesus set the church of making disciples. It has been more interested in protecting its monopoly than seeing ways in which the Good News can be made to work in this topsy-turvy world of today. Just as General Motors has been telling Americans that they should like the cars they produce, Episcopalians and others are shaking their heads and saying, "Nah," and taking their business elsewhere.

The exciting thing, if we use the AT&T analogy, is that there is life beyond the present confusion, but that life will look very different from what things are like now. I suspect that General Convention 2006 will be the last that many of us will take much notice of. The way ahead looks distinctly unclear, but who when the Baby Bells were spawned imagined the sort of world that has come to pass? Yet the Lord is sovereign, he will purge his church, he will help it reshape itself for mission, and those who cannot get with his program will eventually wither and die.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Revolution WIthout A Theology

In the last few days I have heard from several priests who have either said to me something to the effect that the period since the last General Convention has beeon one of the worst in their entire lives, or that they are not sure they can take much more of what the Episcopal Church keeps dishing up. These are not selfish individuals, neither are they soft, indeed one of them is doing extraordinary ministry in the most ghastly circumstances. Each of these pastors has sought to be obedient to their ordination vows, but they have found themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. Sharing much of their discomfort, I have spent much time in recent months attempting to make sense of this unparalleled time in our ecclesial life.

We are living through a crisis that has many dimensions, but at heart it is a theological crisis. What a church sows that also will it reap, and we are now reaping the 'benefits' of several generations that have been spent cumbering the church with theologies that have minds of their own, and have as good as disconnected themselves from the mind of Christ. After the General Convention in 2003 one of the things I did was to review the teaching of Scripture and read an array of publications on all sides of the sexuality issue, reasoning that perhaps there was something I had missed, something I had accidentally misunderstood.

I came away from that long exercise with a new appreciation of just how deeply imbedded in both God's revelation and classic Christian theology is the fact that humankind is made in the image of God, male and female, and complementary to one another. I also came away realizing that the materials I had read from the leading thinkers on revisionist side seemed to handle the Scriptures and church's received tradition in a one-sided, patchy, and entirely inadequate manner. They were skating over the surface, they were putting novel contemporary spins upon the text, and tended either to ignore or to discount approaches or exposition of the text that countered their own -- they seldom considered them important enough to answer.

The result has been that I have during the past three years consistently asked of those who have plunged the church into crisis to provide a consistent theology to undergird and justify the course that they wish the church to take. I have talked to clergy and laity, I have talked to church activists and politicians, I have spent time with seminary professors and academics, asking them to give me a defense of their actions that I can get my teeth into, when something has been forthcoming (and it hasn't be often) it has at the best been thin and anaemic.

To be sure, there has been fuzzy statements about rights, or about the superiority of our contemporary psychological understandings, but there has been little evidence of careful theological work. At the best, theological responses have tended to be the tired wriggles used to suggest that when Scripture talks it doesn't actually mean what the plainest interpretation of the text suggests that it does mean, or that this doesn't actually apply in 21st Century America. Indeed, there is little to make me think that much effort has been made to seriously address the multitude of questions raised by the likes of Robert Gagnon and others.

What I am hearing from the left of this argument is what might be described as a sticking plaster approach to theologizing. As objections are raised from a substantial theological, ethical, and philosophical perspective questioning the homophile approach, those who adhere to these views come up with something that resembles a sticking plaster that can be placed over a breach in their defenses here, and a breach in their defenses there. Ultimately there are so many pieces of plaster that they have started to overlap one another and thereby have provided a rickety 'wall' that they consider to be an appropriate response.

I am forced to conclude that while there could be a scad of theories that have been rustled up to legitimate this departure from Christian norms, there is no fundamental set of theological principles that can be configured to justify actions. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History at Oxford, and an actively gay man, has admitted as much in an aside in his monumental work on the European Reformation. "Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity" (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700, page 705). This means the only way forward is to discount Scripture and historic theology, finding other justifications for actions taken.

If there was such a thing as a consistent homophile theology it would have been trumpeted from the housetops a long time age. While I have not kept up with every turn of the debate in recent months, and it seems that the left is bored by the thought of such intellectual discipline, and does not even consider it worth finding an overarching theology to justify their actions. Indeed, they are riding the tide of the zeitgeist, and right now that crowns them with glory, and separates them from those of us who used outmoded thought forms to pour scorn on this exciting adventure into an unknown kind of future.

Yet this radical, new, exciting approach to sexuality is the jewel in the crown of a whole a significant departure from the manner in which we have understood personhood and identity in the past, and the one who married the zeitgeist is soon widowed. What is taking place is nothing short of a revolution. The problem is that because these revolutionaries lack any consistent ideology, they are in fact allowing the currents to sweep them along. They are like the foolish man in Jesus's parable and are building their house upon sand. The wind and the rain will surely come and beat upon that house...

During the years since the General Convention I have become convinced that sexuality is merely the first salvo in a long and increasingly bitter battle about the nature of our humanity. Either we are made in the image of God or we are just another life form on the relentless continuum of evolution. If, as this latter approach implies, our culture considers that it has "liberated" itself from any notion of divine given-ness about the present status of the human race, then there is nothing of distinctive, permanent, or ultimately of any lasting value about us.

I posit that those who have taken us down the revisionist road have, perhaps unwittingly, aided and abetted deeply troubling trends that as they reach maturity could radically alter the nature of humanity forever, or in a worst case scenario lead to its liquidation. There are enough balls in play in culture and in the sciences whose trajectories could have consequences that are far, far beyond anything that those who are pushing the homophile agenda could ever dream, imagine, and believe to be acceptable. This then points up another component of this whole conundrum, and that is that under the influence of a non-rational prevailing mindset the 'progressives' seem to have severed the tie between actions and consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.

Bird Flu

As I have pointed out on several occasions, the possibility of an avian flu epidemic is something churches have to consider seriously -- but I don't see too many doing it. I have for the last few months been part of the list, and Dr. Tim Foggin, the owner of the list and a Christian physician from western Canada, has been getting to us lots of good and helpful information.

This group is not filled with hysterical over-hype, much as some of the media outlets have handled it, but contains good information about avian flu and responses we should make to it. Slowly, here and there, people are discovering that Christian communities need to be involved in thinking about this possible reality, and need to be planning with it in mind. Now the Bishops of Toronto, Huron, and Nagara in the Anglican Church of Canada have created a working group to consider the implications of a possible pandemic.

However, I see very limited thinking and preparing going on in the United States. Indeed, while cases of avian flu among birds are in Europe, Asia, and Africa, there is that strange sense that we ought not to be bothered about it, but this is typically American ostrich-like behavior. But we need to be warned that any disease of this kind, if it jumps to humans and then can be spread human-to-human will be global. Period.

This virus has a similar structure to the one that caused the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 in which upwards of 20 million people died, so should it break out and mutate to infect humans with ease, then we can expect that it will cause considerable disruption, and the possibility of significant loss of life. Having said that, if it were to follow the 1918 pattern most of those who catch the disease are likely to recover and then get on with their lives. My father had Spanish Influenza as a little boy and went on to live to the ripe old age of 85!

The time is here for congregations, dioceses, and every kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction to begin thinking about the protocols that needs to be developed to handle the possibility of a pandemic -- and that may include suspending activities for several weeks. The Department of Health and Human Services has produced a "Faith-base and Community Organizations Pandemic Influenza Checklist" that has good advice in the run-up to a possible health crisis like this. In these highly polarized and divided times this, brothers and sisters, is something we can and should do together: viruses are no respecters of differing theologies...

It is important, for example, that we identify those connected to our congregations who are most at risk: the elderly, the disabled, the very young, and those with particularly complex health problems already. These are the ones who need to be most protected, but there are lots of simple personal hygene activities that would increase our chances of not getting sick. For example, I have already told myself that as soon as there is an outbreak of human-to-human avian flu anywhere in the world I am going to temporarily move our congregation from a common cup to individual "shot glasses." We may even need to think about developing food banks and means whereby our parishioners can get the basics of life, for a lot of commerce is likely to grind to a halt for a season. In addition, there could very well be sporadic rashes of significant unemployment.

The pastoral challenges to pastors will be great, and we need to develop ways of keeping in contact with each of our congregants as many people are going to avoid public places and meetings like church services. We need to be thinking of alternative ways of ministering to spiritual needs, as well as ready ourselves to conduct an increased number of funerals. The last summer I lived in England in the 1970s was one of the hottest on record and I conducted more funerals in July and August than ever in my ministry, this is wearying and spiritually-demanding work -- particularly if the grieving are not known to you and are frightened themselves.

Clergy may not be in the front line of those fighting a possible pandemic, but we are in the mix of helping to feed the souls of society as well as maintaining society's stability -- as you can be sure there will be a lot of hysteria. If people don't come by that hysteria naturally, we can be certain that there will be voices and media outlets that will feed any frenzy.

Meanwhile, we don't know whether this will happen, or when. The message is to be vigilant.