Friday, December 29, 2006

PoMo Shopping and the Church

Those who know me realize that for many years now The Economist has been one of my favorite publications. The great thing about this particular news weekly is that it provides a huge array of background materials that help us understand the news and the culture against which the world economy is doing all sorts of things. Unlike so many of its counterparts it does not talk down to its readers, assuming that we have their capacity to digest and discuss serious issues is fearfully limited.

The Christmas-New Year edition of The Economist is always worth looking forward to because it provides what can best be called holiday reading in the shape of all sorts of op-ed style pieces. This year we have a multi-page analysis of the way the brain works, a charming piece on conversation, and a stimulating longish essay on advertising, shopping, and postmodern philosophy.

I have re-read this latter piece several times, because it seemed to have a message that we in the churches need at least to be listening to. Perhaps it could have been re-titled something like Foucault and the Demise of the Department Store, for the point it is making is that the old-fashioned way of selling goods is dead, gone, and buried, and radical new alternatives are being born out of the deconstruction of yesterday's way of retailing.

Let me confess that I rather like department stores, which makes me a less than post-modern person. Their orderly presentation of goods with lines of counters and a careful attention to understated decor always seemed somehow soothing, if an emporium dedicated to commercialism could, indeed, be such a thing. But, we are told, Selfridges, what in days gone by was the epitome of department store chic in London, almost went out of business in the 1990s, while that other British bastion of one-stop department store shopping, Marks and Spencer, is struggling to remake itself after a horrible nose dive.

If you go into a Selfridges store in England today you find that order and standard decor have given way to every brand being given its head to shout the loudest. "There is no hierarchy of goods; watches compete with perfume, luggage with high fashion, cafes with fast food. Shows, action and stunts break up the day. Selfridges calls it 'shopping entertainment.' So successful is it that two years ago a panel of style gurus voted it Britain's coolest brand."

The thesis of this article, Post-modernism is the new black, is that if you think of old-fashioned approaches to retailing as 'meta-narratives,' in today's market they have to be deconstructed, setting people free from externally imposed categories in which traditional retailers want to imprison them. The modern consumer needs to be free to choose... the mainstream has been shattered "into a zillion different cultural shards."

Mass markets are out, yet even as they are being blown apart and fragmented these fragments have wily marketers catering to them. A commentator by the name of Chris Anderson states that "When mass culture breaks apart... it doesn't re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways." How exciting, frightening, unsettling, destablizing.

The message is that in the post-modern deconstructed environment fragmentation is not a bad thing, indeed fragments become valuable niches, and we do not have some anonymous outsider 'editing' the choices that we want to make. The secret of success in this environment is knowing which niche you are attempting to market to. The possibility of an endless array of niches into which we can all dip gives the individual the chance to become "the artist of his own life."

As I read this, and it is one of those items where you aren't quite sure whether the author is being serious or whether there is a degree of tongue in cheek, I found myself thinking about the Episcopal Church. It seemed that some of the things being drawn attention to were a bit like what is happening to us.

If you think of the Episcopal Church as an old-fashioned department store of faith with declining market share, then could it be that what we are experiencing is its shattering into a zillion different religious shards? Each one of these shards is an individual group, congregation or networks of congregations becomes a niche reaching into a particular social or cultural grouping. In such circumstances the believer is free to make choices that suit particular perceptions.

But here's the problem, right now everyone only wants to follow this particular logic part of the way.

Those who hold the power (something postmodernism knows a lot about) think that while we can be creative artists of our own individual faith journey, we don't want to apply this kind of thinking of the structures and presentation of our faith. Like the seried ranks of counters in a traditional department store, there are particular interpretations of canons that are being used to keep us all in order -- their particular take on order. The truth is that when you destroy the meta-narratives you have laid the axe not only to dogma and beliefs, but also to the very tree that contains them.

On the other hand there are those who are happy to fragment, find a bishop of choice, be global, emancipating themselves from this rather tired Enlightenment way of being church, and concentrate on presenting the faith once delivered to the saints. However, these folks have their own likes and dislikes as well as theological convictions that hardly mesh at all with those who think it is entirely right that we can develop a mix-and-match approach to theological discipline.

I'm not one of the world's great shoppers, but I find the Selfridges approach to doing things rather refreshing. There is a huge DaDa-esque Selfridges store in the center of the English Birmingham, not far from my daughter's home. While it can be incredibly confusing, with top class fudge being sold immediately alongside leather briefcases, there is a sense of non-rational order that makes you believe that you are freer to make the choices that you want to make.

Perhaps the time has come to say that we have reached a total impasse in the Episcopal Church, that rather the ripping the whole thing to shreads, let's try and find a postmodern approach to our problems that embraces a similar semi-controlled anarchy rather than fighting against it and each other. This would then allow all the other Anglican jurisdictions in North America to get in on the act like creative mom and pop operations, plugging in to those components of each other and us that they think will work for them. I could go on pursuing this line of thought, but I think readers will get the idea!

In a setting like this there would be no need for General Conventions or the bits of Enlightenment palaver that are left over from the denominational age, and we could have a total free market. Then in that free market we would see what would sink and what would swim, with like-minded networks supporting and promoting what they believe in and all of us getting on, doing our own thing, being our own faith artists.

At first blush this seems more rational than the way we are carrying on at the moment. Those who have driven the agenda for years have been steadily deconstructing the received meta-narrative from our catholic Christian heritage, but for some extraordinary reason want to hang onto the structural meta-narrative. Open up the structural meta-narrative to freedom of choice, and a market-driven economy of faith, and we have a much more inclusive approach to doing things.

Now, I wonder, am I being serious, or is this a little tongue in the cheek?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Writing Daily Devotions

Four years ago I started writing online Daily Devotions. It began for the congregation which I was then pastoring. I was discovering in the lives of parishioners what wider polling had been picking up -- that fewer and fewer Christians were spending time each day reading and studying the Scriptures. Even folks with a high commitment did not seem to understand the importance of a daily prayerful encounter with Scripture, and most did not know how to unpack what the Bible was saying to them.

I have always believed that preaching is not only for the immediate edification of the congregation, but cumulatively the preacher models how on a regularly basis Christians may feed themselves from God's rich revealed diet. A daiy devotional is merely a way of extending that approach to teaching the Scriptures. With virtually everyone online in my former congregation, I had the chance to help them meet the incarnate Word in the written Word first thing every morning when they logged on.

Over the years the readership of the Daily Devotions has grown, and now they are used all over the world. I am not quite sure how many people are receiving them each day because in several parishes they are fielded by one individual who then sends them on to a wider network. My guess is that what began for a couple of dozen folks is now reaching at least 1200-1500, and I have joked that whether I like it or not I have a job for life.

Writing Daily Devotions can be a bit of a chore. When I started doing it our bishop suggested, rightly, that such a thing is very hard to keep up, and doubted whether I would manage it! This is true, but the discipline of writing and sending the devotions is one that has fed me as much or more than those who might receive them, therefore I now do it for my own benefit as much as anything else. I am forced to dig into short passages of Scripture, see what the text is actually saying, and then apply it to the lives that we live today. Sometimes the texts that come up in the lectionary cycle are not particularly easy when trying to teach a crisp little lesson in a few well-chosen sentences!

What has also been a joy is the business of choosing an appropriate collect (short prayer) for the day. During the last few years I have gathered a self of books of prayers from all over the world, and these supplement what can be found in the various rich strands of the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. One observation I would make is that the relative absence of such materials in the USA suggests that Americans are not particularly adept at composing prayers in this way, although the feedback I have received suggests that they love using them.

When I committed my life to Christ on August 5, 1959, one of the earliest things I was taught was the importance of regular devotional reading of the Scriptures, and I was started out with simple bible reading notes. Like a pair of training wheels these got me going, and although I was less than regular at first, little by little the discipline entrenched itself in my life so that today there are no parts of the Bible that I have not read several dozen times, and there are few biblical books that I have not studied in significant depth. By the way, I do believe that constructive biblical scholarship should enrich and feed the devotional use of the Word.

As the years have passed my appetite has grown (and changed). The sweet tangy diet of those teenage years has given way to a palate that, like that of someone who has discovered fine wines, gives great pleasure, edification, and satisfaction. In dark moments as well as in the joys of life, the Lord who sustains my life has met, comforted, nurtured, and challenged me. This, in the Daily Devotions, is what I have wanted to pass on to others, and I know from the correspondence I have received that it is doing just that in the lives of some.

One of the problems of writing Daily Devotions is to keep them from becoming sentimental or overly individualized. In one of my former parishes we had a woman who had made little butterflies and smiley faces her personal trademark whenever she wrote a long-hand note or letter. Much devotional writing is, as it were, flavored in this way. While there might be an occasional place for such a thing, a regular diet is cloying. Over the years I have had to tussle to prevent myself from sliding down this slope.

I believe that the Daily Devotions are meant to be a place where the meaty doctrines that are embedded in the narrative and text of the Bible are brought out and presented in such a way that readers are building a base of solid knowledge of what the Scriptures say, and what they actually mean so they can live them out. They are meant to be mini-works of exegesis, that is extracting from the flow of words what God was saying then, and then how he is addressing us with these words now.

I confess that there have been times when I have shied away from something difficult in the particular paragraph. Sometimes that has been because it is impossible to explain what the writer is actually saying in the space needed, but at times it has been because, perhaps, of a loss of nerve. Scripture can be comforting and nurturing, but it also calls us to account, and asks us to deal with difficult questions from which many of us might withdraw in discomfort or horror.
So, the Daily Devotions are entering their fifth year in January. I hope and pray that those using them will be enriched in their faith. I also hope and pray that the one who writes them week by week will find his mind and heart kept open to all the huge possibilities that God has in store.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Theology of the Cross and the Church's Crisis

Ever-changing circumstances force us to revisit theological convictions, for it is within the fluidities of our lives that we find ourselves find it necessary to confront blind spots or inadequates in our believing.

Following General Convention 2003, for example, I spent much timereconsidering human sexuality. I wondering if perhaps I had missed something or was so stuck in a personal and theological rut that maybe the convention had actually been correct and in my obtuseness I had not picked up on it. Could it be, I thought, that they are being faithful to God's revelation but my preconceptions are preventing me from seeing it?

After several months spent praying, immersed in Scripture and reading all that I could lay my hands on, on both sides of the argument,and weighing the evidence, the conclusion seemed inescapable. While there were areas upon which I needed to tighten up my thinking, what is taught in Scripture and how Scripture has historically been interpreted are closer to God's standards than the direction the Episcopal Church had decided to take. Not only did alternative epistomologies not stand up under critical examination, but neither was the use of evidence outside Scripture being used particularly appropriately by those who would have us think and act differently.

We have now moved on and are watching the wholesale de-construction of the Episcopal Church, as I had expected would happen. The biggest agony of times like these is the parting of friends. Seldom does a week go by without congregations peeling away from the Episcopal Church, often amidst angry accusations, counter-accusations, and often, vituperation. I have dear friends in many of those parishes. The question with which I now struggle is how such behavior by Christians can in any way be considered acceptable, especially in light of the teaching in God's revelation about the restorative power of the Cross and the healing efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Having spent my entire adult life in the ordained ministry of either the Episcopal Church or the Church of England, and having seen more of the dark underside of church life than I would have wished, I have few illusions about people who call themselves Christians. As well as being steeped in the generosity of our Anglican heritage, my own personality gives me a profound distaste for division and schism, while at the same time as an evangelical believer I am convinced we must take with utmost seriously what God has revealed to us and is recorded in Holy Scripture.

So I set off on this exploratory journey several months ago, and now with Christmas upon us I find myself attempting tentatively to draw a first batch of conclusions. The path I have taken has been anything but direct, but the place where I now find myself is digging afresh into the implications and meaning of the Cross of Christ. I rather expected this was where I would end up, for it is in the hardest of work that Christ wrought on Calvary that we discover the hard work and hard things that he would have us do.

If my studies several years ago regarding human sexuality gave me a much richer understanding of what it means to be humans made in the image of the triune God, my more recent pondering has resulted in a more robust understanding of Christ's nature as the second person of the Godhead, and the significance of Good Friday. It is all very well to effusively assert the glories of the nature of Christ's finished work for year after year of one's life, but new vistas seem to be opened up when one asks certain questions of that work and the manner in which it relates to our immediate struggles.

The conclusion I have found myself reaching has been that while neither "side" in our present unhappiness actually denies the work of Christ upon the Cross, all of us seem to be functioning with a less than adequate theology of what the Lord Jesus Christ has actually done, and how his work applies within our context of contemporary discipleship.

If the Cross is the source of our redemption and was the ultimate purpose for the Lord's coming, then Christ did not fail in what he did when he died, but it is we who are failing now in our ability to apply its tincture to our lives and the life of the Church.

Now I realize that there is much more going on in our crisis than merely imperfect theologies of the Cross, and that we are now seeing the outworking of generations of error, hostility, exclusion, inclusion, etc., etc., but if the Cross is the heart of God's action on human behalf, then we are not even starting to interpret adequately all that is going on unless we bring the Cross into play, seeking to see how its power addresses our circumstances.

A major part of our problem is that all of us, I believe, are working out of a distorted or curtailed understanding of Christ's work in redemption. Indeed, our inadequate grasp of this most significant action of God in the affair of humankind puts us in danger of becoming what Paul called "the enemies of the Cross." We may not hate the Cross and the love which eminates from it, but for most of us ours is hardly an adequate response to such a supreme act of grace for we have cut it down to what we consider to be a manageable size.

A clue to understanding our dilemma is to recognize the divergent courses that have been taken by differing groups within the same faith community for a considerable time. The outcome of this is alienation, the pursuit of mutually exclusive paths, endless finger-pointing which asserts the other side is wrong, the failure to listen to one another or God, and now separation complete with self-righteousness from all quarters, lawyers, courts, winners, losers, pain, agony, and for some, glee. Did we so learn Christ, and where in the midst of all this is the Lord of the Church and the pitilessness he received on a spring day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago?

It is easy to set ourselves up as being right and the other side as being wrong if we can demonstrate that those who stand against us have missed the point altogether. However, what if as we apply the rich doctrine of the Cross to what is going on now, both sides are amiss (or partial) in their grasp of this most cardinal of truths?

While I don't wish to go into the differing perceptions of the Cross in depth, let it be suggested that those on the left have tended to see God's atoning work more in terms of Jesus our great example whose selflessness we must seek to emulate, while those on the right tend to think more of Jesus as the one who shed his blood to cleanse me from my sins. I know this is a parody, but it is close enough to the facts for us to be able to recognize that a more accurate theology of the Cross is so much more than these.

P. T. Forsyth writing just before World War One said that when we speak of the atonement "we are speaking of that which is the centre, not of thought, but of actual life, conscience, history, and destiny. We speak of what is the life power of the moral world and its historic crisis, the ground of the Church's existence, and the sole meaning of Christ himself. Christ is to us just what his Cross is... You do not understand Christ till you understand his Cross." (From his book The Cruciality of the Cross).

Martin Luther, after many years spent in mature reflection upon the Cross, tells us that it speaks of God's solidarity with the downtrodden and suffering, and with all those who the world rejects as weak, foolish, and irrelevant. By its very nature Christ's crucifixion challenges each of our standards of judgment. Jurgen Moltmann, borrowing a phrase from Luther, described Jesus in his magnum opus as the work of "The Crucified God."

The truth is that when we truly allow ourselves to be confronted by the Cross we discover there is absolutely no room for a self-indulgent, self-actualizing mindset. "Many modern spiritualities are very human-centered, stressing their advanges for human mental health and wholeness," (Alister McGrath) or the notion that in our time we know better than our forebears did. Being the people of the Cross turns upon its head many of the attitudes that seem to prevail in much of our thinking these days -- especially when we look at church battles. We have heard too much of the I'm-going-to-get-my-own-way mindset, regardless of the costs and consequences.

But neither does a fair theology of the Cross allow us necessarily to pursue our own agendas, our own ambitions, or to lift high our own desires and expectations. Just as the "health and wealth" Gospel trivializes precisely what Christ taught and did on our behalf on the conservative side of the spectrum, the same can be said to be true of the more subjective attitude toward moral, ethical, and other questions on the progressive side. As Alister McGrath puts it, "To be, or to become, a Christian is to do yourself no favors... To be an authentic Christian is to pass under the shadow of the Cross, not to avoid that shadow" (Roots that Refresh, page 86).

There is an excellent interview by Tim Stafford, brother of the Dean of the School of Theology, Sewanee, with Tom Wright in the January 2007 issue of "Christianity Today." In it Bishop Wright critiques the contemporary appeal of Gnosticism, whose tentacles have reached deeply into the life of the churches, compromising our message (Right and Left) with this particular flavor of neo-paganism.

Wright tells Stafford, "Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn can be part of that transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with withing for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven... Our Western culture since the 18th Century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics."

What does this have to do with our present ecclesiastical unhappiness? An enormous amount, for it is clear that the Cross in all its stark and bloody glory calls into question the very basis from which all of us have approached these circumstances. Selfishness, power plays, intemperate language, exclusion of those we believe to be in error or don't like, judgmentalism, and so forth, have all been part of the mix. The awe-inspiring attractiveness of Christ's self-sacrifice has been lost beneath the barrage, the Gospel is made to appear ugly, and the mission of the church is being damaged for generations to come.

The other evening I did a little meditation to a small group of people on the woman taken in adultery in John 8. I was impressed again by Jesus's words to the accusers: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). So it is with us in the situation in which we are, we all most slope away because none of us is without sin.

I don't know the way forward or out of the crisis. I do not see anyone backing down, and it may now be that we are so polarized that whether we like it or not are destination may be the bottom of the abyss for both sides of this state of affairs. But the truth is that it is the Cross that puts each one of us, each group among us, to the test. If we are to rediscover, reclaim and regain our mission, then this sign of strength made perfect in weakenss is the one that we should embrace with all our heart, pursuing as if our life depended upon it every implication of it -- for the fact is our life does depend on it.

Perhaps the starting point should be for those of us at odds with one another to gather together at the foot of the Cross, leaving at the door our reservations and dislike of "the other side" or their agenda. God's glory is revealed at the Cross in Christ's powerlessness and weakness, and the Cross gives new meaning to the sufferings we experience. It is out of this that a healthy theology and lifestyle of hope might come.

Miroslav Volf began his extraordinary journey into the theology of reconciliation when, during the midst of the worst troubles in the Balkans in the 1990s, he was asked at a conference if he could embrace a cetnik. The Serbians fighters who were then ravaging his native Croatia, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, killing men, and worse, were known as cetniks.

Volf had been arguing that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ, but now as a Croat he was being asked to give his theology real legs. He shook his head after a long pause and said, "No, I cannot -- but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to." Volf was brought face to face with himself, his faith was challenged, and at its heart was the Cross and how he responded to it. Theologizing was not empty moralizing, it was a spiritual journey, and so it should be for us.

He tells us in his preface to Exclusion and Embrace that the book is about whether we "assign the demands of the Crucified to the murky regions of unreason," or whether we allow ourselves also to be nailed to the Cross in seeking the reconciliatory dimension of redemption. I believe that is the challenge before all of us who call ourselves Episcopalians or Anglicans.

We are not physically killing each other, it is true, but in some ways we are doing the next best thing because we are involved in the process of tearing a church beloved to tens of thousands limb from limb. Our pain may not match that of Christ upon the Cross, but it was on our behalf that the Savior shed his blood, and it is in that blood that we must bathe if we are find any way of being whole again. In fear and trembling, sackcloth and ashes, this ought to be the agenda of us all.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Theology of "Blink"

During the last couple of weeks I have been reading (actually listening on my longish commute each day) to Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Gladwell's thesis is that intuition and first impressions should be taken more seriously than most of us do. Steering us through a number of events and circumstances, he builds a substantial case.

In the Myers-Briggs I am literally off the graph when it comes to being intuitive so I listened with glee to Gladwell's catalogue of notions, but there was also something else going on at the back of my mind. This was because I received a pretty traditional, reason-based education, and that got me asking some substantial questions of the data he was coming up with and the manner in which he was using it.

For example, he launches his book with the example of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles which bought a Greek statue for a phenomenal sum of money after months of painstaking research into its provinence, only to discover that art experts from all over when wheeled in to admire the acquisition had first reactions that were not what the museum wanted. The experts' instincts and intuitions told them that there was something amiss about this piece of sculpture.

Eventually, it was discovered that this item for which they had paid millions was actually created in the 1980s in a workshop in Italy and the aging done had just been enough to bamboozle the examiners who the Getty made use of. Yet even as I listened to this entertaining tale I found myself asking questions. At the heart of them was why was it that only the intuitions of experts immediately questioned whether this was a wise purchase?

The answer is simple -- only experts had spent years and years immersing themselves in the disciplines necessary to recognize the genuine from the fake. These so called intuitive reactions were the product of education, training, experience, the examination of thousands of artifacts, and so forth. There was a lot of sweat, discipline, categorizing, and hard work that led them to make these kind of decisions. We should not minimize the importance of the discipline of such training in the assessments that they made, and were proved to be right.

There is, one of Gladwell's detractor's comments, a kind of New Age attractiveness about saying intuition enables us to by-pass disciplined thinking and training, and this reflects the backing away from disciplined thinking and problem-solving that have become normative in our culture. American children are some of the worst in the developed world when it comes to rationally and constructively handling information and solving issues that are presented to them, and this seems to be becuase school spend little time teaching such disciplines.

Not only do we see it is schools, but we see it in every facet of our lives. Certainly this is true in the battles that we have been having in the church, and in this the church reflects the culture. Stances are taken and statements are made that are based more upon culturally-biased instinct and intuition than upon the basis of disciplined thinking.

Words, for example, are used in such a manner that they are subtly (or not so subtly) redefined in order to make a point. Recently Presiding Bishop Schori has started talking about affirming the Millennium Development Goals as an example of "deed-based evangelism." She does this on the basis of the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant that we proclaim "by word and example the good news of God in Christ." This, quite honestly, is sloppy use of the word and notion of evangelism, a stretching of the essence of this less than adequate Covenant to its limits, and then putting two and two together so that we come up with the five of "deed-based evangelism."
Evangelism has to do with the proclamation of Jesus Christ by word and action, the Crucified One, who brings in his Kingdom, and a fundamental component of this is surrendering of our lives to his risen Lordship. While it might be admirable and right as disciples for Christians to invest time, treasure, and talent in activities that come under the various headings of the MDGs, to call them evangelism is to be sloppy with language, or not to understand what evangelism is.

It is also an attempt to divert our attention from the fact that the direction being taken by the Episcopal Church has been disasterous when it comes to the multiplication of disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. Evangelism by word and action is about living Christ and talking Christ is such a way that lives are transformed and brought under the reign of Christ. While it might compassionate and right to enable an infected woman in India to have medication to help treat HIV-AIDS, we kid ourselves if we think this is evangelism, for we have not shared Christ with them in a personal mannerv at all.

What the Presiding Bishop says sounds nice, but when we dig under the surface it is obvious that her understanding of the revealed faith (and evangelism) is limited, to say the least. What is baffling is that Bishop Schori was trained as a scientist, and one of the components of the scientific methods is clarity of definition -- but when it comes to theology and the response to the fundamentals of belief, she does not seem able to bring her scientific disciplines to play in her theological reasoning. One of the things this reflects, of course, is the total inadequacy of her theological education.

We have in the mainline churches much too much theology of Blink and far too little that is based upon the systematic and disciplined principles of the believing. Carefully developed dogmas are blithely abandoned in favor of notions that are grabbed out of the progressive atmosphere of our times, notions that under examination either stagger or do not stand up, yet they are presented as givens, sometimes givens that are not under any circumstances to be questioned.

The fact is that we have gone on like this for too long. I would pray and hope that those who shape the lives and ministries of future leaders would make sure that they are formed to think and use information in a reasonable, logical, consistent manner.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

First Person Singular, First Person Plural

During the last several months I have been studying the book of Nehemiah, as well as attempting to place it within post-exile Israel. It has yielded much that has been helping me deal with the difficult our circumstances in the Episcopal Church. There is little doubt that we, like the Jews in Nehemiah's time, are living among the ruins, and part of the task that God has set us is, like the faithful in that day, to find our way through thew confusion.

While there is much that has grabbed at me from this fascinating glimpse into God's guidance of his people through distressing times, it has been the prayers that Nehemiah prayed that have become a highlight. Not only is there an honest vivacity about them sprinkled throughout the thirteen chapters, but they are a healthy mixture of first person singular and first person plural.

When Nehemiah confesses his sins he also confesses the sins of Israel going back generations to the great disobediences of Israel which have led to this pretty pass in which they now found themselves, and then having confessed he prays, "Lord, what do you want me to do about it" (Nehemiah 1:4-11). That pattern of personal prayer is later taken up at a corporate level by Israel gathered in Jerusalem, and as they humble themselves before God making confession for the sins of their fathers and mothers in whose footsteps they tread, and then re-affirming their covenant with the Almighty (chapters 9-10).

I have been working on this at a time when I have become aware of the rumblings of debate in Britain as the country moves toward the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire next year. The Church of England has already voted in synod to apologize to descendants of those who endured the horrors of the Middle Passage and were enslaved in America and the Caribbean, but the pot has been stirred by recent comments by Tony Blair labeling the trade as "profoundly shameful" while stopping short of a full apology (

Last week there were pages and pages of short responses to this story on the BBC website, very few of which were willing to accept that those of us living today have any responsibility in these dastardly things that our forebears did (

Putting these two situations alongside one another, we are confronted with two different approaches toward sin, evil, personal and corporate responsibility. Nehemiah and the people of his time felt it incumbent upon themselves to confess sins they did not personally commit, but of which they were the heirs. Men and women in our time say what matters is the here and now, and there is no way that two centuries removed we can ameliorate the blame of those who went before us, even if we have been the beneficiaries of what they actually did.

A subject like this is so big that it is easy to lose the substance amidst sweeping generalizations so I will personalize it. I was born and raised in Britain, and it is very likely that my forebears have been in those islands since at 1066. Over the generations they intermarried with the Saxon people who were there before them, who in turn had intermarried with the Romans, Celts, etc., who they found there when they arrived. This means that t he soil of Britain and the blood flowing through my veins are hopelessly intermingled.

Our family have never been famous or influential people, and given the part of England from which we hail I doubt whether any of my forebears were actually involved in the business of enslaving people. However, despite being of humble origin, I am sure some of my ancestors smoked the tobacco imported in those slave ships, and also benefited from some of the advantages that ensued for English folks as a result of that huge segment of the "export" economy.

Furthermore, although the British Empire altered its stance toward slavery before it really started to boom in the 19th Century, I suspect the huge economic benefits of slavery did much to shape the nation's prosperity, from whose fruits I have obviously benefited. This means that in some way or other I am implicated in what happened and need to work out a faithful and biblical response to this reality. An apology seems a fitting starting point, but so also should I seek forgiveness before the living God for what happened, and then work to make sure that men, women, children, are not dehumanized in the same way in today's world.

But what bearing does this have on the situation in the Episcopal Church? As I seek to answer this question this is where I am likely to have brickbats hurled at me -- and probably from all sides.

Like everyone else I read the to-ing and fro-ing of charge and counter-charge, accusation and counter-accusation, and I during these last three or four years have being filled with such rage at times at the church's willingness to continually shift further and further from the anchorage of God's self-revelation that it has seemed to eat me alive. Like so many who share my theological perceptions of the wrongness of the direction we are taking, I have lashed out and blamed others for all that is befalling us in the process of wallowing in my misery.

Yet my reading of Nehemiah is forcing me to rethink if I am to be faithful to Scripture. Together with the men and women of his time, Nehemiah was prepared to accept responsibility for something that was patently beyond his influence. It had been a century and a half since the sins of Israel had resulted in the razing of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the carrying of the people into exile, what part did he have to play in all that? Yet he prayed, "We have acted very corruptly against you..." (Nehemiah 1:7), bringing all these failures and shortcomings to the gracious, heavenly Lord.

All of us who are part of the Episcopal Church have, I believe, to accept some responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves and to contribute more than fury or self-righteousness to find a way through this long dark valley. There has been a lot of "them" and "us" language used, illustrating just how deeply we are riven, and I have been as guilty as others in using words in this way. But thinking and speaking like this does nothing to bring any kind of resolution -- "we" is, perhaps, a far better word to use as we the shape our prayers, which in turn reflect our attitudes.

Yet I find myself being pushed further because Nehemiah's praying and the circumstances that emerged from his faithfulness suggest to me that we are unlikely to find a constructive and God-honoring way through these challenges until we can together start taking responsibility for all that has happened: all of us in the here and now, as well as the previous generations who set up this mess by action or inaction, belief and misbelief. The implications of being willing to think in such a way are huge, and I am certain that I have not even started to unwrap them, but what I am increasingly certain is that we are wrestling with the consequence of corporate, institutional, and multi-generational sins and evils, much as the Jews of Nehemiah's time were.

The circumstances with which we are wrestling are the product of, as well as advancing the cause of, the radical individualism that now reigns supreme and virtually unchallenged in our culture. Perhaps the time has come for us to be prepared to be much more critical of such individualism and where it might lead us.

I am constantly being asked how all this is going to end and I have virtually no answers. Like so many who share my convictions I have been marginalized by the denomination and have little leverage or influence. Which means that the only option left to me is to stand amidst the ruins and to pray; but not prayers of fulmination against "those of have done this," rather prayers of confession that "we" have failed the living God and all we can do is throw ourselves at his feet in sackcloth and ashes and ask for a crumb of his grace to be measured out to us, the least deserving of his people.

The question must be, is anyone prepared to join me?