Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Go to the back of the bus"

When the House of Bishops was meeting recently I was far too busy with many other things, worthwhile ministry, so I was able to push what they were up to to the back of my mind. I only really started tuning back in when I drove back from our week-long mission trip to New Orleans, and began to realize that what these men and women in purple are saying to the likes of me, "Go to the back of the bus," or better still, "Get off the bus altogether."

I guess I have known for all the thirty-one years that I have served as a priest of the Episcopal Church: that I am not particularly welcome here, but never has denominational leadership spelled it out so bluntly.

In October 1976, less than six weeks after I had arrived in the United States, I attended a diocesan clergy conference in Massachusetts. I knew virtually no one, no one knew me, and feeling very much like a fish out of water I was keeping my mouth firmly shut. However, this didn't prevent a bevy of my 'colleagues' from cornering me, rounding on me, and castigating me with some of the most vituperative language because of what they thought were the primitive nature of my beliefs. This kangaroo court lit into me without even doing me the courtesy of checking out the facts!

This may have been the first time such a thing happened, but it was certainly not the last, and such harassment has continued with varying levels of intensity through all these years. Now, at last, the point is reached where there is a big enough critical mass of those in political power to castigate us as throwbacks, primitives whose ideas and belief systems are inadequately developed, less than wholly Episcopal (whatever that means), and therefore fit only to squat at the back of the bus, or better still, be kicked out the back through the emergency exit.

What is ironic is that we were told in 1985 by the then newly-elected Presiding Bishop that there would be "no outsiders" in this church. Of course, that pledge was the code language of those pushing the program that aggressive agenda-driven interest groups would get the substantial hearing, but those of us whose Anglicanism might be dismissed as 'fundamentalist,' and therefore, defective, can only ever be seen but definitely not heard. Increasingly, the councils of the church were loaded against us, and despite growth our voice was diminished. Perhaps we are merely 2/3 of a person.

After years of such discrimination it is hardly surprising that many of our number have decided that this bus isn't worth riding, but before they go they are frisked down and forced to leave their possessions and even those things that only have sentimental value behind. Part of me envies those who have gone. It must be nice to be out of the uncomfortable pressure cooker that the Episcopal Church has become; but even if separate theological development takes some of the difficult pressures out of life, I suspect this course is fraught with profound, and as yet unrecognized problems. I would hazard that some of these will be as challenging as staying part of the dying mainline denomination.

If history is anything to go by, world-altering new movements and fresh ideas do not arise from opting out, but by engaging what is going on in creative and courageous ways. In his breathtaking grasp of the nature of faith and history, Herbert Butterfield points out that "The Hebrew prophets in the periods of successive disaster found what might almost be called new patterns in history" (Christianity and History, p. 108), from which he draws the conclusion that it is in cataclysmic times that God opens us up to new insights that will lead us creatively away from the rut and trench warfare into which we have fallen.

I believe we are in just such a time, and it is by surviving in the midst of being maltreated, like the Suffering Servant, that the raw materials for forging the Holy Spirit's new way forward come to the surface. Right now the whole Episcopal Church, perhaps on behalf of a large chunk of our culture, stands under the judgment of God, and we should never forget that.

I can think of a thousand reasons why I do not belong on the bus. I am a wretched sinner saved by God's grace alone, and I reach the end of each day conscious of how undeserving I am of the Lord's goodness and generosity. Perhaps it is good for me, one who is blessed and privileged in so many ways, to spend some time at the back of the bus for there are always new lessons in humility that I can learn only when I am excluded and treated as valueless. However, it does not seem appropriate to cast the likes of me out of this particular bus on the charges that have been trumped up.

I developed a nose for bullying when I was a small and timid boy on the receiving end of many such torments: what has come out of the House of Bishops smells an awful lot like bullying. You don't belong here we are told despite our faithfulness within the tradition of faith to which we belong! One of the things this frightened little kid learned was being on the receiving end was that the only way to handle bullies is to stand up to them. "Grief, no, this is my seat and I am not walking away from it, as much as you might want me to and put pressure on me to do so."

The truth is that great movements begin with seemingly insignificant actions -- whether a humble African-American woman refusing to be intimidated by gross discrimination, or a studious Augustinian monk nailing his theses to an abbey door hoping to get a hearing. These people fermented revolutions because they stuck to their guns in the face of error and falsehood.

This, I think, is where we are today. I do not have a crystal ball so I cannot tell what the future is going to be like. The only thing I can claim is that I have been saying for a long time now that God was going to reconfigure his church. This is happening, and sometimes it is agony to us all.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pictures from New Orleans

This is the Church of the Annunciation, the base from which we are working -- the setting we are playing a small part in rebuilding for mission in this damaged city

Bonnie Lloyd and Pat Smith take a coffee break

Jack Clarke, the youngest member of the team, whose teeshirt "Small but Mighty" sums the whole endeavor of the Christian Gospel up!

The "Sweatshop" Crew working on the production of window coverings for the dorm where volunteers will be staying while they undertake the rebuilding.

Katrina broke the cross from over the old entrance of the Church of the Annunciation. If you look carefully you can see it lying on the roof of the porch

A view of our crew cleaning the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lessons from Visiting New Orleans

From New Orleans, Louisiana

Spring break has brought several dozen folks from our parish, the Church of the Resurrection, Franklin, Tennessee, to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There is something surreal about a trip like this. Last time I was here was before Katrina, and New Orleans was a sweaty, bustling city, while the Mississippi coastline a haven for those seeking to enjoy the warm gulf breezes.

Today there is the jarring interface of normality with something that has hardly been normal at all. As I drove along Intertate 10 yesterday the strange emptiness in the communities on either side of the road has a science fiction flavor to them, as if streets and apartment complexes had suffered a plague of some kind.

We are here to work with the Church of the Annunciation, New Orleans, but I took a side-trip to Pass Christian, where I preached this weekend at Trinity Church. My memory of Trinity from the past was a tastefully designed facility set amidst a grove of live oaks. Today all that remains is the trees made more ragged. The frame and roof of the church are there also with walls that are rough framing stuffed with insulation to keep the worst of the cold, heat, and rain out. The offices and education building are gone -- as are the lovely houses that once abutted the church's site no more than a few hundred yards from the ocean.

But the Gulf Coast is very different from New Orleans. Whereas in Pass Christian I was proudly shown the drawings a the new facility that will rise on the site of what was the old one, in the hard-hit areas of New Orleans things are far from orderly.

I have seen a lot of shanties and barrios in the Global South, as well as the ruins of the Soviet Empire as Russia was emerging from seventy years of Communism, but adjectives used to describe these situations don't work in the New Orleans context. This morning I watched both kids and adults in our group grow quieter and more thoughtful as we were given a view of the Lower Ninth Ward and the devastation nature wrought.

I talked to an older woman named Louise, whose daughter was bringing her to see the site of her former home on Tennessee Street. She had lost everything, even the building in which she lived most of her life had never been found, and she was trying to explain how hard it was to pick up the pieces after such a disaster. "You can never forget it," she said thoughtfully, "Even if at times you can put it out of your mind for a little while."

In Broadmore, the community around the Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans there is a greater sense of order, but listening to Jerry Kramer and various of the folks working with him, it is clear that disorder, even anarchy, are not very far beneath the surface. Frustration levels are high, and the work that needs to be done sometimes seems impossibly demanding. These people rightly feel as if they have been forgotten, and have little but disdain for the politicians who have compounded the mess.

This afternoon I watched as the some of the kids in our group worked on what is going to be the Annunciation Youth House. It was good therapy for them to be out there doing something -- and I hope the activity will help them sleep tonight!

New Orleans seems to me in some ways to be a parable for our culture and the culture of our church. There are places where the city is very obviously broken, and this cannot be hidden. There are places where the place seems little changed from what it has always been. Yet as dereliction and seeming stability exist cheek-by-jowl with one another, their proximity seems much like the various textures of life that we see in the church and culture today.

I have this fear that we might in some ways be moving into a new dark age, and what we see in New Orleans is the practical outworking of that in what was once a significant city. Yet what is seething under the surface, spiritually and psychologically, is also part of that darkness that has begun to envelop us. Just as it is hard to be optimistic about a city like this, it is also hard to be optimistic about our culture and our church.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Let's All Make A Rainbow Crowd

You can hardly call the debate in the Episcopal Church over these last years a debate, it has been more like two sides talking (and sometimes yelling) past one another with others in the middle wringing their hands. This alone has been pretty pitiful given in a church that has always prided itself on its intellectual prowess - very little to be proud of here.

What is worse is that the whole sorry business seems to have brought out the worst in everyone. If you stand on the sidelines and look at the debate, contest, or whatever you want to call it, it is almost as if sometimes we deliberately play into the image which others have of us: the Archie Bunkers (for those old enough to remember him) clashing with aging free love hippies. Frankly, there has been very little gospel grace and humility, but I guess that is the way it has always been when division roils the church.

Most of the comments that I have seen since the Primates' Communique was made public have done little more than demonstrate the truth of a comment made to me last year by a leading Anglican in the worldwide church: the American church has something of a "theological deficit." Few, it seems, are either capable of or want to respond to the Communique theologically, but rather have done so politically, emotionally, and showing a very limited ability at intellectual analysis.

I was misguided enough to think that the worst was past and then the "let's all wear rainbow colors on Easter Day" campaign started shouting the odds. I confess that after one or two experiences in my twenties I have a low toleration threshold for demonstrations of any kind, but really this latest little game has me shaking my head with a wry smile. All I want to say is for goodness sake grow up.

It seems that there is a real childishness about all this, and I wonder if some of those on the right are taking it more seriously than such immaturity deserves. It is sort of "Let's all dress up and dance around the maypole to show those horrid ol' primates just how mean we think they are."

Those foisting all these innovation on the church have never successfully responded to the objections coming from the mainstream of Christianity. What responses there are reflect an inadequate grasp of Scripture and Christian tradition. But this doesn't seem to matter, for where the church has always been is more likely to be blown off with a wave of the hand that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing, while they skip off down a path reflecting the tired values of a relativistic, confused, and secular-pagan culture.

What is interesting is these are the folks who are now lining up to say just how awful the Anglican Communion is, are the very same people who are few years ago were disdainfully writing off orthodox folks like me for not being Anglican enough.

How things have changed! Those who were not long ago saying such things are now making it very clear that they want to walk apart, which means that they really don't consider themselves to be Anglicans any longer. This saddens, but the Lord God has made us free to make our own choices. What these antics point up is just how important it is that faithful Anglicans within the Episcopal Church receive a Primatial Vicar who is able and willing to provide the kind of oversight that we require.

We can only hope that it will not be too long before we get beyond the banal and the bizarre.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Amazing Grace" - Movie Review

Amazing Grace -- The Movie A Review

I grew up with the story of William Wilberforce, the man who led the fight against the Slave Trade in the British Empire. Somehow or other he has always had a place of honor in England, an example of selflessness looked up to as much by non-Christians and Christians alike. Throughout my education he kept reappearing in different guises, but it was not until the late Seventies that I realized just how many fingers he had in many, many pies. Neither did I realize what an influence he had on British culture as well as the future shape of the British Empire, and after the Empire was gone the Commonwealth of Nations.

Given all this history I have with Wilberforce, I wasn't quite sure what to expect when going to see the recently released film of his fight against the slave trade the other evening. Usually I find that movies about people of note, especially Christians, leave something to be desired. But friends I respect had said it was a "Must See" so off we went -- and were not disappointed.

From start to finish I was spellbound. Not only was the movie briliantly executed, but it was about as true to the facts as the cinema can make it. The production tells its story with a mixture of understatement and (sometimes) whimsey that add force and poignancy to what is being said. It would be very easy for a subject like this to get preachy, but Michael Apted's production avoids such heaviness while at the same time not compromising the significance of what was being portrayed.

On the screen we meet William Wilberforce the enthusiastic and sharp-witted young Member of Parliament for Hull in Yorkshire, and we meet this same Wilberforce when worn down by years spent banging his head up against something akin to a brick wall. We see his youthful friend friendship with William Pitt the Younger, the youngest man ever to be Prime Minister, turn sour, renew on the latter's deathbed, and then we are told as the credits roll that they were buried side-by-side in Westminster Abbey.

We see Wilberforce the man of faith, tenacity, and vision, and also Wilberforce battling the laudinum habit that was created by the use of this opiate as a medicine. We are introduced to the beautiful and indomitable Barbara Spooner who, after a whirlwind romance, becomes his wife and partner in causes of which the Anti-Slavery movement was only one championed by these extraordinary 18th and early 19th Century evangelicals.

We are shown Wilberforce in the deepest depression, Wilberforce the man of song, Wilberforce grappling the extent of the evil he was fighting and acting as a general to gather data and finally defeat this evil. What I didn't know but the movie pointed up was that William Wilberforce loved animals and kept a whole menagerie of species in his home, especially a beloved hare. Wikipedia tells me that he was among the founders of what would eventually become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), one of the largest and most influential humane societies in the world today.

Together with people like Hannah More and the other Evangelicals who lived in the Clapham area of South London, William Wilberforce had a profound influence on British society and outward into all the world, a fact only hinted by the movie, but is fully recorded in the multitude of books about the man and his times. My favorite biography of Wilberforce by John Pollock, published in 1979 is, as far as I can see, no longer in print or available.

The endurance and perseverance of these folks should be a model to us today, for despite what were at the beginning insurmountable odds they were prepared to take on an evil and fight it to the end whatever the consequences. The movie does not tell us that Wilberforce used most of his family's financial resources in his fight for good. One of the tragedies of our times is that people of commitment rather than fighting against what they perceive to be evil, after one or two bloody noses step from the ring and walk away. Amazing Grace is a tonic that if taken would seriously stiffen the spine of the faithful.

There are so many fine performances in this movie that it is seems almost unfair to single anyone out -- but the actor who surprised me the most was Albert Finney, who played the priest and hymn-writer John Newton. I have watched Finney in any number of roles throughout his long career, but nothing matches this performance. Tears flowed down my cheeks when his face shone and he said, "I know only two things, that I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior."

It isn't often that you watch a film and the audience is transfixed at the end, but this is what happened in the theatre the other night in Franklin, Tennessee. There was a short round of applause followed by people riveted to their seats as they thought, prayed, and watched the credits go up. Indeed, strangers started talking to one another, sharing their own perception of the last couple of hours or so.

This is a movie that I will buy as a DVD when it is published in that format, and which I will watch again and again. The telling of the story of William Wilberforce ought to rekindle the vision of us all to be willing to surrender everything to change the world in the name of Jesus Christ. It is certainly something to share with young Christians who might be in a position to do in the 21st Century what Wilberforce and his friends did in the Britain of the Georgian and Regency era.

William Wilberforce lived to see the slave trade abolished by Parliament in 1807, but he had to wait until 1833 to see the abolition of slavery and total emancipation in the British Empire -- he was on his deathbed. Parliament ended this mean and wicked trafficking in human souls on July 26, 1833. As news came to his home in Clapham the great Abolitionist said, "Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery." He died just three days later.