Sunday, August 26, 2007
After half a lifetime...
It is hard to believe that my time here has almost run out and I am in my final days as a resident of these United States. When I board the plane in Nashville on Labor Day to go to my new ministry in Cambridge, England, almost to the day I will have spent half my life on these shores and half my life in the country of my birth. I have lived, worked, and raised children here, and have for nearly a quarter of a century been a Citizen. The challenge of the Cambridge opportunity is a big one, it came as a surprise and in some ways I am surprised to find myself taking it up. Perhaps there is a tad of hubris in accepting something like this that has come my way so late in the game.
As with all moments of parting, these are bittersweet days. What makes them sweet is my growing excitement for what lies ahead, what makes them bitter is the business of leaving a place and a country where we have lived so much of our lives, and where we have been fulfilled and edified. What makes them worse is that I will be apart from my beloved wife for three months, something to which I am not looking forward.
Each day I say goodbye to someone or something that has been important in my life. I know when saying farewell to some that it is unlikely we will meet again on this earthly shore. One thing of which this experience convinces me is that the Gospel is far, far more about eternity and unseen than we in the earth-bound West tend to make it. We would do well to redress this balance.
These have been profitable years, although not without pain and anguish -- but that is always the case with the vocation of ministry. The call which came so long ago to work within the Episcopal Church was unmistakable, and we believed then that God had it in mind for us to play a tiny role as his Spirit's renewed North American Anglicanism. Throughout most of our time here we worked hard in the hope that this vision would one day become a reality. In the midst of the present turmoil I find myself wondering how much of this dream was rooted in wishful thinking rather than realizable fact.
This is not to say that nothing has happened. During these last three decades we have seen a burgeoning of the missionary vision of orthodox Christians within the Anglican tradition here, and were privileged in various ways to play a small part in re-establishing this vital element of what it means to be a faithful witnessing church. Given the nature of the Episcopal Church, this is no small advance, and I suspect that as North American Anglicanism is forced painfully to reconfigure itself, this willingness to exercise a missionary vision alongside the outreach of a global Communion, will become one of the defining characteristic of whatever freshly emerging Anglicanism looks like. If it does not, then it is doomed before it begins.
We have also during these years seen a steady increase in the number of those, lay and ordained, who have a confidence in the faith as it is revealed in Scripture. Year after year there has been that gentle flow of men and women who sense a call of God to leadership, and who also are prepared for their lives to be honed and shaped by the vision that God makes plain in the Word written as they take up their cross daily to follow the one whose death upon the Cross was their means of salvation and eternal redemption. This is a long way from the carriage trade image of the church to which I came in the mid-1970s.
I had thought that we were coming here to play our part in the renewal of the denomination in which we have served, but in recent years I have had to do a lot of pondering and rethinking. As Paul wrote that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Corinthians 4:7), the organizational vessel in which God's treasure is contained is ultimately replaceable, and I suspect that if we could see time from the end to the beginning rather than the other way round, we would have a much better idea of what is going on in the midst of today's confusion.
Out of my introspection on this issue I have come to the conclusion that while the church as an organism that has organization, the Gospel is ultimately a great deal more about the Kingdom than it is about the institution. I confess that there have been times when my love for the institution has gotten in the way of my passion for the Kingdom, and in some respects these recent years have been a radical corrective for me.
I came to realize some time before that fateful General Convention of 2003 that re-formation requires revised structures and we were probably the generation who would live through the early stages of remaking of those structures. Reading between the lines of histories of the Reformation era, I realize that those exciting days of the 16th Century were perhaps every bit as nail-biting as the period through which we are now passing. Reformation then did not happen overnight, and we should not expect the same. Luther may have set the fire of reform in October 1517, but it wasn't until the 1540s that the actual new shape of the Reformation and the Catholic churches began gingerly to emerge.
I take many riches from these years in the USA. One is a far deeper respect for the genius of Anglicanism, while another is a more robust ecclesiology that is much more catholic in many ways. Strangely, this puts me in a place where I am at odds with many with whom I have journeyed during these years, because I have yet to be convinced that attaching to other Anglican provinces and entities is necessarily the right way to go. While I deplore error and have little desire for companionship with it, I also hope that I know my own soul just a little and recognize that in my sinfulness I am capable of creating something that is every bit as inadequate as the fallen and straying church of which I am part.
As an evangelical and catholic Christian, fragmentation does not seem the right way forward, but I am not sure what actually is appropriate. I guess that for me that jury is still out on what is happening. This is a time, perhaps, when we need to combine those biblical values of faithfulness and patience, prayerfully waiting to see where God might guide us -- and guide us he certainly will.
However, fragmentation has taken place, which means one of the major tasks ahead of American Anglicans is to find ways of putting the pieces back together in some coherent form. I suspect that this will be about as easy as returning the contents to Pandora's box and then closing the lid. When there is a multiplication of jurisdictions and bishops, each with ego needs and turf issues, it is clear that all the seeds of significant tension have been sown. Ultimately one has to wonder what damage this does to Gospel ministry, much as those of us who remain in the Episcopal Church wrestle with the damage done by the theological and ethical faithlessness of the denomination.
One of the great blessings I have gained from my years in the Episcopal Church is that I leave these shores with a far deeper appreciation of the liturgical strengths of our tradition. I arrived just as the present Prayer Book was being brought in for trial use prior to final acceptance in 1979. There is much in the 1979 book that I really appreciate, but having said that hardly a day passes when I have not been deeply conscious of the book's significant theological shortcomings, I have wished that in some way these could be straightened out, but looking at the trajectory liturgical revision has been taking I knew that such a thing would never happen.
However despite this, over these years I have transitioned from tacit acceptance of liturgical worship to a deep love of the liturgy. I have visited a lot of Episcopal parishes over the years and seldom have I seen worship conducted in a manner that is either tacky or lacking in reverence. This may seem a strange thing for a priest to say, but the English Evangelical Anglican nexus in which I was formed tended toward ambivalence about the liturgical tradition. The liturgy sometimes seemed to be considered an unfortunate necessity pressed upon us by the church, rather than the vehicle whereby the People of God enter the presence of God.
There were good reasons for this. Evangelicals recognize the need to be able to reach beyond the walls of the church with the Gospel, and therefore did not want anything, including our patterns of worship to be the stumbling block to the outsider coming in to see if he or she could discover (or be discovered by) God. However, within the tradition there is this tendency to fall over backwards and abandon (or nearly abandon) our liturgical rootedness altogether. My American years have helped correct this imbalance, and I suspect that as I return as an Episcopal priest to the life of the Church of England, liturgical casualness among my fellow-evangelicals could well be a point of irritation.
I have also become much more sacramental. I was formed to believe in the power of the Word, so wouldn't have minded if we had had Communion just once a month. I am now grateful that the norm is to gather around both Word and Table each Sunday, the one preparing for the other, and the other reinforcing the one. Some years ago I went to be with a former Southern Baptist on his first Sunday in his Episcopal parish. I was looking forward to sitting at his feet as he opened Scripture - and to this day I remember the text: Romans chapter 7! However, it was not his preaching that left the most indelible impression that morning, but the humble reverence with which he presided at the Eucharist. The pre-America me would never have been able to admit such a thing.
But the shortcomings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer point up what I believe is American Anglicanism's greatest weakness -- its theological vapidity. I am not an Anglican because of the lovely worship or our sacramental life, or any of the various pieces of adiaphora that so many of us enjoy. I am first and foremost an Anglican because of its doctrinal and theological tradition.
I don't know how many times I have heard it said outright or implied in my years here that theology doesn't really matter or Anglicanism is not confessional. I'm sorry, that is just plain wrong: Anglicanism from the 16th Century onward has taken doctrine seriously and is has always had a strong confessional tone. Because so many have come to believe this flaccid approach to theology and the revealed truth, in recent years we have been reaping the whirlwind of the wind that for several generations has been being sown. I think this has been one of my greatest causes of grief.
What startled me when I first came here was that I was pilloried by some because of my theology, and then immediately judged not on the basis of what I believed but on my stance in relation to what was the issue du jour. In those days it was women's ordination, which most of the time was approached not as the theological issue that it truly is, but as an issue of human right. Very early on I realized that not only did many leaders not really know the Scriptures very well, or be particularly interested in growing in their Scriptures, but they did not see that as a problem. Added to that was a very limited understanding of those generations of Christian shoulders on which we as people of this time stand.
It was when I started traveling around the church that I got to visit the seminaries that I started to discover how they functioned and what they perceived their role to be. Also, for a decade I happened to be officed in a seminaries so could see what happened there first hand. Gradually it dawned on me that my understanding of the nature of theological education was not what was going on in most of these places. There was little laying a firm foundation in Scripture, classic theology, philosophy, church history, and so forth, thereby equipping the next generation of ordained leaders for pastoral and missional ministry, but was more about propagandizing the student body into seeing life, ministry, and God in a particular culturally-conditioned kind of way.
In these seminary settings some students rebel, a few are capable of cutting their theological and intellectual teeth in a constructive manner, but significant numbers swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, and in the process often seemed to lose their first rich passionate love of the Lord Jesus Christ. A significant element of this prevailing seminary process is that it is predicated upon a hermeneutic of suspicion when handling the Scriptures, coupled with a sense of disdain for the wisdom of those who have journeyed the Christian way before us, and the notion that we now know better. When coupled with the desperate shortcomings of the Commission on Ministry system in most dioceses it is not difficult to see why leaders cannot lead, and the faith is not growing and blossoming as it ought.
Today's theological confusion is the end product of decades of such conditioning. Perhaps the classic example of our church's theological vacuity was the statement that came out of the House of Bishops in March: a mishmash of inadequate theology coupled with such a spin being put on history that the facts could not sustain. It was a classic example of wanting things to go a particular way, and so tinkering with events, movements, and theology so that it was possible to justify what was desired by the majority.
Theology is not meant for this. Theology begins with God. Theology for us starts with worship of this omnipotent God. Theology goes awry if we do not set out by prostrating ourselves before the living God in awe at his glory, grieving because of our sin, amazed at his grace, and willing to give our all to serve him. Theology begins, like prayer, in the heart of God, and the Lord Almighty then seeks by his love to form us into the people that he yearns for us to be. Theology requires that we work hard to engage God's self and God's revelation with the minds that have been given to us.
Yes, we should read, discuss, debate, perhaps even disagree, but in the presence of God and for the good of the church, not because we are cherishing a certain issue or agenda. It is a long time since such an approach to theology has prevailed in North American Anglicanism. My prayer is not only that the Episcopal Church and the rest of North American Anglicanism allows itself to rediscover God's glory, but that we allow ourselves to be rediscovered by this God of glory.
It is true that God's call is taking me across the ocean to live, but I will not be permanently gone. Ministry and family will bring me back, and I remain a priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Tennessee. There is much about America that I will be desperately homesick for, and there are friendships and attitudes that I am sure I will crave. However, God calls and we must follow -- which is what I am trying to do. I expect when I next put fingers to keys and add something afresh to this blog that I will be in Cambridge, the new kid on the block at Ridley Hall, someone learning afresh the survival skills necessary in the oh so different country from the one that we left thirty-0ne years ago.