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).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Beyond General Convention...

I spent Sunday afternoon trying to immerse myself in the US Open Golf championship from the Winged Foot Golf Club rather than allowing the news that Katharine Jefferts Schori had been elected as Presiding Bishop to eat at me. However, when I logged on both on Sunday evening and Monday morning there were emails asking, "Where do we go from here?" I can honestly say that I don't know, although I am beginning to believe I that patience and prayer are the best counsel that I can give.

On Monday morning Ruth Gledhill, the Religion Correspondent of the London Times, was on the BBC World News. She is one of the most respected observers of the world Anglican scene, and suggested that while Shori's election is probably not going to cause a split within Anglicanism, it was yet another straw in the wind that something of this nature is less and less avoidable. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester in England, a visitor in Columbus and an astute leader and theological mind, is saying something similar following the election.

Of all the candidates on the list I would have had to say that the Bishop of Nevada seemed not only the least likely to be elected Presiding Bishop, but also the least qualified. A dozen years in ministry, none served as rector of a parish, hardly seem qualification for leadership of a denomination at a time like this, however able an individual she might be.

Bishop Schori's election is a perfect illustration of Philip Turner's comment in his new book, co-authored with Ephraim Radner. He writes, Episcopal elections in America now turn on how the candidates stand on the issues, and behind each issue stand contending interest groups each pressing their particular cause. Seldom, if ever, does one hear questions asked about the candidate's grasp of Christian tradition, the depth of their life in Christ, or what might be called their wisdom in the Lord. The ability of a candidate to further what is common seems in no way to be a qualification for office. The important thing is their commitment to a particular set of interests. In short, the life of the Episcopal Church has been politicized all the way down, and the result of this process is erosion of the church's communion" (The Fate of Communion, page 141).

I know little about Bishop Schori, and have no intention of criticizing or defaming her -- that would be churlish. Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, whose opinion I respect, says that she is a delightful and brilliant person, although lacking in experience and seasoning. Personally, having known a good few Presiding Bishops going back to Henry Knox Sherrill of the 1940s, who I met about a year before he died, Katharine Schori does not seem to measure up to the stature of most of her predecessors. I wish her well and promise her my prayers, but wonder if her election isn't yet another symptom of the deepening malaise of a denomination lost in the wilderness.

However, her election and actions of the General Convention suggest that our problems have reached massive proportions which cannot be dodged or fudged. Yet these difficulties will not be solved by ranting, fuming, losing our cool, and whatnot, but by much care being taken in fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world to find God’s will and do the right thing. Unilateral action and anger by faithful people will not help but only hinder and hurt both in the short-term and the long-term.

My own spiritual and theological conditioning, which is rooted and grounded in the genius of Anglicanism, shies from division. I have done a lot of study of Scripture on this issue in the last three years, and not only did Jesus call us, his disciples to be one, but Paul echoed the Lord by saying, "Endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," (Ephesians 4:3).

The question puzzling me now is how. Let me quote Philip Turner again, words with which I agree and resonate, but, nevertheless, struggle: Any rejoicing in or acceptance of our divisions can only be read either as failure to get the point of what God is 'up to' in and through Christ and the church or a deliberate rejection of his providential purposes... in the midst of the inevitable divisions that appear in the process of handing over the faith and practice of the apostles, the godly attitude is one which leads us to 'make every effort' to overcome our divisions. To put it another way, in times of greatest stress, 'patience' as well as love and truthfulness, is a power of soul necessary not only for the peace of the church but also for the truthfulness of its witness (Ephesians 4:2). (The Fate of Communion, page 169). I commend the whole passage by Turner from which this clip has been taken.

The question is how to make sense of such an obedience at a time like this. Early this morning as I sat looking out of the window watching the dawn break across the misty newly-mown hay field behind our house, I found myself being forced to think about what continues to be for me the unthinkable as we seek a faithful way forward. Let me say that I lean in the direction of Dean Turner, and am merely pondering the point, not recommending we necessarily pursue it. What I found myself wondering was whether we want to be an ecclesiastical equivalent of Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, nations that have now disappeared from the map.

The Yugoslavs managed to create a network of sovereign nations out of one federal country at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, much disruption, the destruction of the economy, genocide, the entrenchment of hatreds, continuing suspicion, and the agonized involvement of nations and troops from across Europe and the world. The former Yugoslavia has not been a pretty sight and will take generations to recover from this disastrous trail of events.

On the other hand, the Czechs and the Slovaks when they found themselves no longer able to live together in anything approaching national harmony, negotiated the famous "Velvet Divorce" under the leadership of Vaslav Havel, the dissident writer turned president. Today both Slovakia and the Czech republic are prosperous countries in the heart of Europe and part of the European Union. While there may not have been the long history of tension between the two that had existed for centuries in the Balkans, such a bold move that ultimately peacefully divided the land in two could easily have led to much bloodshed.

If Bishop Nazir-Ali is right, if the warnings of the Archbishop of York remain unheeded, if the carefully argued theological plea of the Bishop of Durham has not been listened to, if the anguish of the Global South in the Communion is not enough to persuade the left within the Episcopal Church to draw back from divisive actions, then perhaps the time has come to start talking about talks that might lead to some kind of "Velvet Divorce" that is as amiable as possible – or some way of living under the same roof in a semi-detached kind of manner, not getting in each other’s way.

I hope it is clear from what I have already said that I have no real desire to break up the tenuous unity of the Episcopal Church, nor do I believe it faithful, but it seems that there are those in the church so set upon a course of theological and ecclesiastical novelty, that they do not either want nor value that unity which I treasure on the basis of my faith in Jesus Christ because they think they have the power to get their own way.

There are a variety of convictions living under the roof of the Episcopal Church, but it might fairly be said that these broadly break down into two categories. There are those who are committed to belonging to the wider Anglican Communion, to assent and submit to the values of the Windsor Report, to be part of the historic continuity, and to be in full communion with Anglicans throughout the world and the discipline of doctrine and fellowship that such a relationship demands.

Then there are those who have a distinctly American and postmodern vision for the church. They believe the church is acting prophetically and appropriately and want to press forward along this course. It is also clear that those walking down this path have little desire to be held back from their quest by those of us who because of our convictions cannot journey where they wish to go.

Has the time come when we must recognize that we have are now at an impasse, that patience has run out, and that perhaps the best way forward is a negotiated separation rather than a vitriolic battling that will ultimately be destructive to all involved, to the Gospel, and the only winner will be the lawyers? Personally, I consider this second, third, or fourth best, as almost every divorce is, yet I do not see any will on the left to allow those who stand in the mainstream of Anglicanism to live under a roof with them as anything but harried creatures, or the desire of those on the right to necessarily continue doing so.

There is sadness in my heart, for what I write is not what my inner being wants. While not a theological liberal and innovator, I have been generously supported and loved in my long ministry by many who are. Indeed, I would probably not be a priest today if it was not for a former bishop who nurtured me in the midst of crisis. He and I were theologically poles apart but he loved me and supported my family through the darkest tunnel. There may be truth in the adage that we all need each other, but how can we find a way forward when living under the same roof becomes more and more of a challenge?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

General Convention and the Misuse of Motorcycles

One of our congregation is a managers of one of the rather more fashionable restaurants with the thirtysomething set. The other evening, when work was over, one of the employees of the restaurant was hanging out with some friends in the parking lot. He had had a few beers and was fooling around on his motorcycle -- one of those racy jobs that weaves in and out of lanes traffic on the Interstate going at high speed.

It would seem he was doing wheelies and things, being egged on by his buddies as he did so. In normal circumstances, I am told, this was a fairly responsible individual. My friend, the manager, knew nothing of what was going on outside until the guys who were with him came rushing in to announce that he had had a most horrible accident when he had misjudged his tomfoolery and had hit a curb then a wall at high speed.

Today this young man who is only twenty-four lies in the trauma unit of one of the local hospitals. He is being roused from a deep (and then medically induced) coma, and when he awakes he will be told that he will never walk again. While he was wise enough to be wearing his helmet, when he hit the wall he broke his back and severed his spinal cord. The manager of the restaurant is mortified at what has happened and the friends are basket cases.

Tragic as this is, I believe it to be a cautionary tale. This week the General Convention has gathered in Columbus, Ohio. Today the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a fairly clear warning that the Convention should act with care, or there would be tears (double meaning there: tears and tears). He is right and should be listened to with care.

But I wonder whether his words will receive such care. I have been watching Conventions since 1976, and have hung around most General Conventions since 1985 until this year and have watched the dynamics of the things. They take on a life of their own. There may be a lot of responsible individuals in the two houses of the bicameral body, but when they get together they can at times be more like that group of young men who had a few beers after work, then egged their friend on until he injured himself irreparably.

I am at present reading Philip Turner and Ephraim Radner's new book, The Fate of Communion. It is not an easy read but it is stimulating in the extreme and is certainly an intellectual window on all that has been going on through which we need to look with great care. One of the questions raised early on is whether the vision for the church catholic on American soil works alongside America's radical commitment to democracy. More on this when I review the book, but I am of the mind that the Convention lacks checks and balances that would prevent some of the foolishness that we have especially experienced in the last few years.

I am profoundly grateful that Dr. Williams using Archbishop Sentamu as his messenger, sent a stern warning to the Convention to behave like men and women of God who belong to a worldwide Communion that ought to be one of those checks and balances. I fear, however, that the American church's sense that it is a 'special case' will brush the wisdom and pleas of the universal church aside in favor of its own blinkered take on it believes the faith to be. The Archbishop has said as plainly as diplomacy allows what needs to be done for there to be no irreparable damage -- the thought of which he abhors.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Da Vinci Code -- Movie Review

You know, I often read movie reviews, and then find myself shaking my head at the world-weariness of the reviewer who does not seem to be able to find anything good to say about a particular production. During the last few weeks I have read some pretty mean reviews about "The Da Vinci Code," and reckoned that I was getting a lot of the usual shoulder-shrugging that I have come to accept as normal for such types. I gather it even got hissed down at the Cannes Film Festival, a rare accolade!

While I think that some of them have been overly cruel about "The Da Vinci Code", I have to say that if it hadn't have been for the fact that millions have read the best-selling book of the same name, that this baby would have had fearfully mediocre takings at the box office. Hanks acts well, but then Hanks almost always acts well. If you are a Hanks watcher, then this is a fascinating new episode for the man who first caught attention in "Bosom Buddies." There are other roles like Silas, the albino monk, that are particularly well done, but if it hadn't have been for the millions that Sony have poured into the movie for special effects, magnificent settings, and so forth, this would have been little more than an adequate depiction of Dan Brown's story.

And it went on too long. Toward the end I realize that I was not especially engaged with the story but was trying to see if I recognized the location where the thing was being filmed. The film would not have lost anything if another 10-15 minutes had been lopped from it. Part of the reason for the difficulty I had concentrating was that it is incredibly difficult to turn into a screen play a book that is set in so many places like this one. Chapter-by-chapter in the story the writer is able to jump from London to Paris to goodness knows where else, but a movie director has to try to bounce you around the place without losing the thread of the tale. In this it is only partially successful.

Enough for the production itself, what about the tale it told and the message it presented? By and large it was pretty faithful to the book, but as we were walking out of the cinema my wife turned to me and said, "You know, the movie is even more postmodern than the book." Relativism, especially religious, certainly runs riot through its pages, and every effort is made to diminish the Christian faith at the expense of the other spiritual streams that run through this story. The distinctiveness of Christianity are stripped away in a vague kind of gnostic pablum.

One of the comments I made on emerging into the fresh air was how powerful a medium cinema is when it comes to communicating a message because it can with great skill and subtlety by-pass the mind and go straight to the emotions. As various techniques were used to play up the Mary Magdalene thesis, especially that she appears in Da Vinci's "Last Supper" and was the wife of Jesus of Nazareth, I found myself so fascinated that if I had had little in the way of background information I could have swallowed what was being presented. The question I came out of the multiplex was whether we would ever have the resources or the ability to counter such skilled debunking of the faith. On top of that, such works require an awful lot of money, and the churches have never had access to that.

I don't want to grizzle to much, however. I had an entertaining evening watching this movie, and saw some lovely shots of London, Paris, and the Scottish countryside. The story is interesting even if the author's attention to detail leaves an enormous amount to be desired. I don't think the movie is anything like fair to the Roman Catholic church, although the obviously Catholic characters in the piece were for me some of the more compelling figures. Sophie, the female star of the production and Hanks' sidekick in this helter-skelter chase, is gorgeous with a winning smile and hair that never seems out of place even when the most violent things are going on!

Go and see it if you want to, but take the message with a pinch of salt.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Can A Phoenix Fly? -- Part Two

As I ponder the responses, both published and private, to my last piece with this same title, I noticed a tendency to think of North American Anglicanism just in terms of ECUSA, when the Anglican obedience on this continent has a much wider pull and reach. One of the tragedies of North American Anglicanism has been its tendency to fragmentation, and in this respect (although most Anglicans may not be happy with the comparison), we are much more like Baptists than anything else. I suspect that the roots of so much division are to be found somewhere in the wider American personality, but that is a discussion for another day.

One of the great joys for me during the time I worked on the US Anglican Congress, was to begin to get to know godly Anglican men and women who are part of smaller, separated jurisdictions. I have over the years developed a particular fondness for the granddaddy of all the smaller jurisdictions in the United States, the Reformed Episcopal Church; I suspect that if ECUSA had the same kind of clergy swap arrangement with them that we have with the mainline Lutherans, then I could function very happily in their midst.

So when I talk of North American Anglicanism I mean a much broader swathe of believers than just the old, declining mainline denomination. But I suspect that we need to cut that swathe even broader than that because in the emerging church movement is a great warmth toward Anglicanism. I have been heard to say a number of times in the past that we need to develop relationships with the emerging church types, because whatever kind of Anglicanism is re-born during the next generation or two, they are probably going to need to be part of it.

As I have explored the strengths and weaknesses of post-denominationalism, and as I have sought to understand what it means to be a biblical and catholic Christian as the culture's clothing becomes more postmodern, it has seemed that the denomination as we know it is increasingly an anachronism. This is not to say that 'families' of believers will not continue to affiliate with one another for fellowship, mutual encouragement, administrative support, and so forth, but it is to say that the lumbering top-heavy monster that most denominations have become is a quaint left-over from a bygone age.

Perusing the budgets of the Episcopal Church we can see how much the beast needs to be fed and how little we get from it -- and what I say of ECUSA is said similarly by friends in other mainline traditions. As we watch Ford and General Motors dying on the vine because they are structured for the past, we are also seeing the inevitablity of something a parallel happening in the mainline denominations.

When I was working on the 20/20 Taskforce six years ago, at a time when I was still persona grata in National Church circles, it was obvious that if evangelistic growth was to take place resources of every kind would have to be poured into the grassroots. The denomination could create an environment for growth that would encourage congregations and dioceses to set their eyes on the prize and give a good chance of Gospel expansion. Although there were inadequacies (especially theological) in the report we presented to the Executive Council in October 2001, if it had been acted upon we might have seen fascinating evangelistic things happening.

However, the denomination, led by those whose agenda had more to do with sexuality and redefining what it means to be human, gutted the report, sidelined forward thinkers and actors, and then changed the agenda. The outcome of this is the disaster that we now have on our hands. It is extraordinary hard work to grow congregations, particularly when the culture is in full flow against the biblical faith, and it is much easier to marry the spirit of the age -- which is precisely what ECUSA has done, thus destroying what was its last great hope.

However, as our bishop here has put it, all that has happened does not mean that God rescinded the Great Commission, and even amidst the ruins of what might of been we have work to do. As a mission congregation pastor I have learned to my cost that the actions of the General Convention made my work a hundred times more difficult and significantly reduced funding. This is one of the reasons I find myself shuddering what the General Convention will come up with this time to further hamper the progress of the Gospel.

If Anglicanism is to re-emerge as a potent force for the faith in North America, then like Anglicanism in so much of the Global South it has to be thoroughly biblical and thoroughly missional. This is going to mean faithful Anglican believers finding ways to cooperate and work together. Structure must follow mission, rather than the other way round. Whether inside or outside of ECUSA, faithful Anglicans have an obligation to get together and work together with other believers from other traditions for the biblical faith here in the USA.

Today's world is a bracing climate that takes pleasure in humbling bloated organizations, and ECUSA will not be spared. The car companies are today's poster children of this reality, but in the corporate world we watched this sort of thing going on for a quarter of a century or more. The structures of ECUSA are already living on borrowed time, and as funding further dries up so retrenchments will take place until they are forced to face up to changing realities: whoever is elected, the one at the helm when this takes place will be the next Presiding Bishop.

In the marketplace customers and shareholders ultimately dictate terms, in the ecclesiastical marketplace it is members in ordinary congregations. If structures are divorced from the concerns of the grassroots, then they have already hollowed out the foundations from beneath their feet.

But there also have to be ways of enabling faithful Anglicans to cooperate with one another. One of the tragedies of the fragmentations of the last decade is that folks who once worked together closely now seldom even talk to each other. Not only has the rending of the church broken relationships, but we all then become so intent to build up our own little empire that we do not have the time or spare energy to ask how we might share our resources our outward reach to the glory of God. I believe that part of the thrust of John 17 is that Jesus meant Christians to work together because their effectiveness is decreased when they attempt to go it alone.

If Anglicanism is to experience a resurgence, then whatever our present jurisdictions we are going to have to get beyond our present circling of our own set of wagons to address the bigger and more pressing task in hand. This will require generosity, grace, and humility -- characteristics that are in short supply. It also means that there need to be leaders who are willing to draw divergent groups together, and be prepared to let go of what they perceive to be their power and authority for the benefit of the larger whole.

But just being buddy-buddy isn't going to do it. Those who have separated themselves for ECUSA have done so for what they consider to be good reasons, and at their heart is theology. A worthy Anglican churchman said to me when I was in England several weeks ago, "I perceive there to be something of a theological deficit in the Episcopal Church." That, I told him, was a massive piece of British understatement! However, not only ECUSA can be blamed for theology-lite, the same has to be said for many Anglicans outside ECUSA.

It is vital that the faithful take this deficit in hand. As J. I. Packer said in Nashville a couple of years ago: from the pews upward we have a massive task of biblical re-education on our hands, and we fail to do it at our peril. But it is not just in the pews that a demanding and faithful theological education needs to be undertaken, the institutions that train men and women for leadership have the same challenge before them. I would hazard that we would not be in the mess we are today if the seminaries had been faithful to the revealed faith and doing their job properly. In some cases those seminaries teach almost anything but the revealed faith. I hazard that many of our clergy could not, as Windsor puts it "walk together" with the Communion because they do not really know what historic Anglican Christians believe.

When next I write on this topic, theology and theological education are the issues that I will address.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Eat This Book -- A Review of Eugene Peterson's book

Eat This Book -- A Conversation in the Art of Spirital Reading by Eugene H. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

A Review by Richard Kew

The other day I heard of a large congregation in a denomination whose theology and style mean it presents itself as far more conservative and orthodox than my own. Indeed, they make great play of their willingness to place themselves under the authority of Scripture. The pastor of this congregation was discovered to have been sexually involved with a female staff person for a considerable time. When the matter came before the staff and the board there was a strong move to retain that pastor's services before it was headed off by a vigilant staff person who pointed out that this man had contravened the very fundamentals of Christian morality.

The point of this story is that it does not matter where we look today, the churches are being shaped more and more by the prevailing culture than by the mind of the God who called them into being. It is voices like that of Eugene Peterson who remind us that if we are the People of God then we cannot allow ourselves to be formed by the culture, we must put ourselves in the place where we are formed by God -- which means rediscovering how to read, nourish, and form ourselves through our drenching in God's Word. He says, "An enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading" (Page 82).

Eat This Book is a slender volume by Peterson standards, a mere 180 pages, but it took me two months to get through it. Part of the reason for this was that I did not have the time to sit down and read it with a lot of continuity, but part of the reason was that even if I had had such time, I would not have been able to hurry along because there is too much in here to rush over.

I consider Eugene Peterson as one of my mentors. I joke that I knew him before he was famous, which is true. Back then I was drawn to seek his friendship and counsel because I perceived a person who (to use a quote from John Updike that he uses early in this book) had discovered "that truth is holy, and truth-telling a noble and useful profession" (Page 8). Eugene Peterson is a truth-teller, par excellence, someone who had been captured by the truth, was determined to follow it wherever it might lead, someone who I felt worth learning from and make a model for my life.

This book is the second of a series in pastoral theology, and is all about what it means to be in the business of the Truth. For Peterson this is about getting on with what Austin Farrer calls "the forbidding discipline of spiritual reading," which is the text being used to form our souls. The task is forbidding "because it requires that we read with our entire life, not just employing the synapses of our brain. Fordigging because of the endless dodges we devise in avoiding the risk of faith in God. Forbidding because of our restless inventiveness in using whatever knowledge of 'spirituality' we acquire to set up ourselves as gods..." (Pages 9-10).

This gives a flavor of the book. This volume not for the fainthearted. It is not for those who are interested in fashionable spirituality or culturally acceptable and ecclesiastically respectable religiosity. This book is about absorbing the Book so that the one who reads might run. "Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assumulated, taken into the soul -- eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight" (Page 11).

The last several paragraphs I have just looked at the introduction to Eat This Book, and it took me several days get beyond them into the rest of his carefully crafted case. He begins that case with these words: "The Christian Scriptures are the primary text for Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is, in its entirety, rooted in and shaped by the scriptural text. We don't form our personal spiritual lives out of a random assemblage of favorite texts in combination with individual circumstancs; we are formed by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the text of Holy Scripture" (Page 15).

And so the stage is set for one of the most eloquent pleas I have ever encountered that the People of God have body, mind, and soul captured the the substance of the Word of God. This is a message that needs to be heard by chic and trendy Episcopalians, learned Presbyterians, arm-waving Pentecostals, miracle-obsessed Charismatics, Pope-loving Catholics, and every other believer wherever they are on the spectrum. Peterson does not accuse any of us of not being biblical, but he suggests in as winsome a way that there is a strong possibility that all of us have fallen short of what it means to delve into the heart of the living God who has revealed himself in this library of books that we call Holy Scripture.

I want to pull the Scriptures back from the margins, Peterson asserts, for that so often is the place to which the church and individual Christians have consigned it. It is only when we do this and digest the Book with the passion of the prophets of Jerusalem, Babylon, and Patmos, that we discover its words are like honey on our lips and in our stomachs. "Holy Scripture is something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized" (Page 20).

There has been a baffling array of offerings presented in the last generation or so and labelled as spirituality. The extraordinary thing is that when the culture calls something spiritual the churches jump onto its bandwagon. Eugene Peterson is not against spirituality, but he doesn't have a lot of time for the ersatz spiritualities of our age. Christian spirituality "means going against the cultural stream in which we are incessantly trivialized by the menial status of producers and performers, (and talking to clergy) constantly depersonalized behind the labels of our degrees and our salaries. But there is far more to us than our usefulness and our reputation, where we've been and who we know; there is the unique, irreproducible, eternal, image-of-God me" (Page 23).

This leads him on into some strong Trinitarian theology, for it is only by allowing ourselves through Scripture to be enveloped by the wholeness of GOd that we discover precisely what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the incarnate second person of that Trinity. So having plunged us into the nature of the Godhead, Peterson brings us back to the text of Scripture the place where the Triune One reveals himself, for if we are to discover God in these pages then we need to take what we find with the utmost seriousness.

It is Eugene Peterson's belief that every man and every woman is capable of entering into a fuller understanding of Creator and Redeemer by becoming a bible reader. The living God speaks to us through Scripture, he asserts, and as we seek to live out obediently what the Word says to us we find ourselves in the presence of that living God. He leans heavily on Calvin's assertion that all right knowledge of God is born of obedience.

Peterson also challenges us to careful exegesis of the text. This, he says, is neither small-minded nor is it pedantic. "Exegesis is the care we give to getting the words right. Exegesis is foundational to Christian spirituality. Foundations disappear from view as a building is constructed, but if the builders don't build a solid foundation, their building doesn't last for long" (Page 53). As we look at what has become of our own denomination and as we then look at the slipshod way that Scripture has been treated, it is hardly surprising that lacking an adequate foundation the building is toppling.

The first part of Peterson's works is a pretty demanding theological work out, but all of it is good stuff exceptionally written. I did not learn anything new, but I was asked in a fresh way to consider old truths that too readily get overlooked. After this theological work out Peterson becomes more practical, and provides in the second section the best presentation of the Lectio Divina that I have ever read.

"Lectio divina is the strenuous effort that the Christian community gives... to rehydrating the Scriptures so that they are capable of holding their own original force and shape in the heat of the day, maintaining their context long enough to get fused with or assimilated into our context, the world we inhabit, the clamor of voices in the daily weather and work in which we live" (Page 88).

Lectio Divina is a way of handling the Scriptures that abandons any attent to take control of the text, but to allow the text to take control of us. It is not a linear process but one that allows us to read and loop the words back into the moment-by-moment business of thinking and living. It is learning to listen to the Word that was first spoken and which we now encounter as written. I will not bore you with the details of Peterson's instruction about Lectio Divina and will allow you to read them for yourselves. However let me end my comments on the lectio with his final statement on the issue that "it is astonishing how many ways we manage to devise for using the Bible toi avoid a believing obedience, both personal and corporate, in receiving and following the Word made flesh" (Page 117).

The final section of the book is Peterson's own meditation on the history of biblical translation and his own experience of doing it as it grew out of his own ministry a number of years ago. The fruit of that work was The Message, a paraphrase that stands alongside J. B. Phillips' great paraphrase of an earlier generation.

What Eugene Peterson says at the end of the book in reflection on his own ministry is that "I wanted to gather a company of people together who read personally, not impersonally, who learned to read the Bible in order to live their true selves, not just get information that they could use to raise their standard of living. I wanted to counter the consumer attitude that uses the Bible as a way to gather religious data by which we can be our own gods, and then replace it with an attitude primed to listen to and obey God, to take us out of our preoccupations with ourselves into the spacious freedom in which God is working the world's salvation. I wanted to somehow recover that original tone, that prophetic and gospel 'voice' that stabs us awake to a beauty and hope that connects us with our real lives" (Page 176).

In short, what Eugene Peterson does here is give us an in-depth guide on eating this Book, the greatest of all Books, God's revealed Word.