Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Back in the Sixties, Dr. Francis Shaeffer's first book was published. It was entitled Escape from Reason, and while Shaeffer's style was not what you would call readily accessible, it was profoundly influential in the lives of many of us who were struggling to work out how to think Christianly -- and, as a result, live Christianly. If Shaeffer had been alive and writing today I suspect the content would have been significantly different and the title might have been Escape from Reality.
We live today in a culture that it seems will do almost anything to hide from reality. We entertain ourselves to death, and we think nothing of repackaging facts, notions, and ideas so that they will not disturb our illusions. We refuse to take words (or in the Christian world, the Word) at plain face value, and then we reinterpret and twist them to suit our own preferences and propensities. Our world is one that is much more comfortable with image rather than substance, and puts feelings before objectivities.
This came home to me afresh when talking recently with my younger daughter, who is a physician. As part of her residency in a gynecology rotation she was asked if she would be prepared to spend a morning observing abortions, something with which she found herself as a committed and biblical Christian struggling. Finally she decided that if she was to be able to give adequate advice in the future to her patients, then at least she should have some first hand knowledge of what happens in such unfortunate circumstances.
On that day there were two procedures. One was a gynecological necessity: something had gone so terribly wrong in the womb that the fertilized egg had died as a result of some unexplained deformity. This was, as she pointed out to me, little more than a D. and C. The other was the termination of a twelve-week pregnancy. My daughter told me that she put on a professional face while having to put her heart, head, and emotions on hold for a while.
As she explained to me what happened I realized that what was going on in that medical situation was akin to an escape from reality by means of being trying to cloud what was going on. Before the procedure began an ultrasound was taken, but the patient was discouraged from seeing it. No explanation was given, but the only reason must have been that at that point the fetus looked so much a baby that it might discourage the mother from going forward.
Then the procedure was completed and the pump had done its work, those working in the operating room had to go through the contents of the receptacle to make sure that nothing had been left behind. As it happened all the organs were there: tiny arms, legs, a head, and so forth. Yet all the time the fiction was being maintained that this was merely the removal of something unwanted that had invaded this woman's body.
Even the language that was used in this particular environment was framed to prevent an actual discussion of the mindset behind such medical events. Rather than talking of the options of pro-choice and pro-life, the appropriate terminology was pro-choice and anti-choice. I suspect that behind this was the fact that being able to choose from a vast array of possibilities is the ultimate good in the postmodern world, so language is configured to make it seem that those who believed that a child had been conceived and now discarded were standing in the way of what is best within our culture.
I tell this story not because I find abortion deeply repugnant (which I do), but because it is such a clear illustration of the manner in which we are willing to put up with the distortion of reality in so many areas and disciplines of life. I would go so far as saying that we live in a world that had an inbuilt determination to do its best hide its head in the sand rather than the sometimes uncomfortable and painful business of facing up to reality.
We see this syndrome working itself out in all sorts of settings and disciplines, and I suspect there are probably times when we catch ourselves doing it. Facing up to reality is not a lot of fun, whether it is the implications of climate change and the part each of us might play in it, to the pitiful messes that we make of our own individual lives and relationships -- yet there is a difference between attempting to cushion life's pressures and trying to avoid them.
At the heart of Christian discipleship is the task of facing and facing up to reality, for at its heart is the incarnation and the work of the Cross, which are God's way of enabling us to deal with the tragedies and hardships that reality engenders. Eugene Peterson recently wrote, "We can refuse to permit the culture to dictate the way we go about our lives" (The Jesus Way page 13) and so we should if we are serious about our faith. This means being willing to face up to reality and its consequences, rather than hiding ourselves away from it, and as they say around the part of the world where I grew up, 'calling a spade a spade.'
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Having now celebrated his 86th Birthday, Rev. John Stott has made it clear that after speaking at the Keswick Convention this summer for one last time, he will be retiring to a retirement facility for Anglican clergy in the south of England.
And so draws to a close the public ministry of one of the most substantial Christian leaders of our time, one whose influence will be felt for decades, possibly centuries, to come. It is hard to believe that distinctive voice of his will no longer be heard constantly and consistently enunciating and expounding the Scriptures, which have been his lifelong passion. This, perhaps, has been his greatest example.
John Stott is in many ways a man from another time, yet there are countless numbers in Christian leadership today who would probably not be where they are without his books, his preaching, his speaking, his prayers, or his wise counsel. He has certainly been an example to me of what it means to be obedient to Jesus Christ -- and to the ordination vows that we as deacons and priests in the Anglican tradition take.
I have not read all of John's fifty published books, but I have absorbed enough of them to know that his mind, shaped by God's mind revealed in the Word Written, has helped form my mind and influence my discipleship. I spent several months this winter re-absorbing his magnificent work on the Cross once more, and realized as I did so just how poverty-stricken was my own understanding of the finished work of Christ. Once again he encouraged me to, as it were, reach higher.
The last time I saw John to speak to was at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in England in September 2003. Personally I was still reeling from the blow of the General Convention of that year and felt frightened, angry, and sad. Although it can hardly be described as a proper conversation but more of a chance meeting in the hallway outside the main assembly room, he held my arm wanting to make sure that I was alright. That meant a lot. I suspect our American tragedy of these past few years has been very much part of his prayers.
I first encountered John Stott when I was in my early twenties and he was in his mid-forties. I remember soon after I was ordained John speaking at a junior clergy conference, and as I looked across the room of several hundred eager young men each one was taking notes, we were hanging on his words, learning from the way he apportioned the Word of God. Yet he would never have wanted us to accept what he told us unquestioningly.
Half a dozen years or so later, on a cold, snowy February day in New England, having preached at the parish of which I was then the interim rector, John came to our tiny house and ate lunch. I will never forget the sight of him sitting in the middle of our battered old sofa chatting with and providing entertainment for our elder daughter, Olivia, then four years old.
John is a man who loved children. He made up for his own single state and resulting childlessness by being uncle to countless small kids whose homes he visited in his endless travels around the world. He is not lovingly known as "Uncle John" for nothing!
During the last few years we have watched a triumvirate of extraordinary figures move off the stage of active Christian leadership: two Johns and a Billy. Dr. Graham's public ministry is now, like his old friend John Stott, over. Each of these great evangelical figures, one a Baptist and one an Anglican, has fought the good fight, and henceforth is laid up for them a crown of righteousness which they will receive when they meet their Master face-to-face and hear his, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
The third member of that triumvirate came from a very different background. He was a Pole, Carol Wojtyla: John Paul II. He is already experiencing that fuller life, and is being fast-tracked to sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. I doubt John Stott would be at all comfortable if such a practice was carried out in Anglicanism, yet I hazard these two Johns together with Billy Graham have made a contribution to the advance of the Gospel which is so huge that it is hard to measure this side of eternity.
As I wind up my own thirty-one years of ministry in the United States and prepare to wend my way home to England, I am beginning to realize what a great privilege it will be to serve the Lord at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Ridley was where Rev. John R. W. Stott was trained for ordination during the years that surrounded the end of World War Two.
And to Dr. Stott I say from the bottom of my own heart, "Thank you, John, your witness and your ministry has been an inspiration and challenge for which I am profoundly grateful. May God bless you in these your golden years, your active presence will be missed. I hope, however, that your pen will continue to be active!"
Friday, May 04, 2007
I am a lifelong Anglican, baptized on a spot where Roman children could well have been baptized when I was four months old, and now ordained for more than thirty-eight years. I certainly have had plenty of gripes about bishops, but have always functioned within a context where they are very much part of the landscape -- and always have been. So I don't, per se, have any objection to the office of bishop and the role that it should, might, or could play in the life of the church.
During my ministry, even when we have found ourselves at loggerheads with one another, I have attempted to fulfill my ordination vows of canonical obedience to my bishop, even those bishops whose theological positions (and sometimes hostility) have stretched me to the uttermost. I confess that while I was over-awed by bishops when I was first ordained, today in general this species of ecclesiastical bird does not impress me.
A couple of years ago, as part of the preparation for the election of a new bishop in our diocese, I was charged to put together some studies on the nature of the episcopate which were then shared with all the parishes. I found that a helpful exercise from which came what might be called a personal recommitment to the importance of the office of bishop in the life of the church. However, what it also did was to provide me a lot of data about the history and nature of the office which made me realize just how far our present crop of ordinaries has drifted from anything that could be considered biblical, apostolic, or a historical model of Christian leadership.
The other Sunday the parish asked me if I could give an overview of where we as a province are in relationship with the Anglican Communion, and since then have heard a whole variety of criticisms of the episcopate (among other things) from parishioners -- not least my own wife. As we were driving home from church on that particular Sunday she said something about wondering whether bishops are not now a liability in the church rather than an asset. (She actually has some pretty strong reasons for making such a statement). Let me add, that my wife is no latecomer to Anglicanism, having a lifetime's involvement somewhat like my own except that she is not ordained.
In the past I have loved indulging in those conversations about whether bishops are of the esse (being) of the church, or merely its bene esse (wellbeing), or something else. I have always firmly believed that bishops are for the wellbeing of the church for I do not want in any way to un-church those who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, but whose churches are not governed in the same manner as ourselves. However, in the last few years I have not seen much wellbeing coming from most of the episcopal leadership of our denomination.
A while back I received a note from a diocesan bishop who had liked something I had written but thought that I was being less than generous with his brother and sister bishops. When someone I respect challenges me in such a way, then I believe it is my responsibility to revisit what I thought and what I said. Perhaps I was being less than fair. Since he wrote me I had been doing that, and now find myself saying, "Yes, I did not judge the episcopate fairly in what I wrote, frankly, I was too generous!"
I am sure to some that this sounds harsh, but we need to assess what the primary functions of the bishop are. They are called to be a focal point of unity in the Body of Christ, they are called to uphold the catholic doctrine and faith, and they are called to be the primary missionary of their diocese. Looking at the actions of the Episcopal Church's bishops over the last few years, it seems that the overwhelming majority have failing grades in each of these areas.
Every effort has been made by much of the Anglican Communion, for to generously accommodate the perceptions of the Episcopal Church, and to maintain unity, but that seems to be the last thing in the world the House of Bishops wants. Indeed, many in that majority are determined to walk apart from the rest of the Communion to which we belong and of which, until now, the Episcopal Church has been a respected member. The House of Bishops then asserted a populist American personality in a kind of in-your-face manner, effectively turning its back on the catholic heritage of the Anglican Communion.
More than that, by their actions they are trying to close the door to continuing catholicity for literally hundreds of thousands within the Episcopal Church who have affirm historic faith and have no desire whatsoever to cut ties with the 80+ million brothers and sisters in Christ that we have around the world. They claimed to be standing up for a minority, but in the process they have excluded from their convictions an even larger minority. This is a tragedy.
Meanwhile, the missionary task of taking Jesus Christ into the communities where we are situated and then into all the world, has been dreadfully damaged -- and not just in those so-called traditional, conservative, Network, or Windsor dioceses and parishes. Most statistics make pretty depressing reading these days, and it is not those dioceses with a strong orthodox component who are being forced to sell their cathedral or the like. Without being able to at least hold their own numerically and in the process recruit a steady flow of younger people, both parishes and dioceses have little hope of much of a future.
As we look around the church, congregations have been forced to close, few new congregations have been planted, and there has been little or no growth in countless parishes which once were moving forward in a healthy manner. Add to that the decline in giving which is reflected in budget deficits at all levels, and the reduction in the number of vocations to overseas ministry, and it is obvious that our ability to be obedient to Jesus's Great Commission is severely jeopardized.
Bishops should have that Great Commission written on their heart, and be leading the people forward in this great adventure, but instead they are often in denial that anything is wrong, or have confused perhaps interesting peripherals for the heart of the Gospel. Then the response to these and so many other failures is denial. Organizations and entities that are in denial are usually in trouble, and there is little doubt that The Episcopal Church has so major problems that, being led by its bishops, it is refusing to address.
One of the reasons for these difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves is that I am not sure that the episcopate of the Episcopal Church has for a long time understood properly what the role of a bishop should be as the servant leader of the servants of God. The model for being bishop that has prevailed for so long is that of the secular corporate Chief Executive Officer, the President of a company with a number of outlets in a particular geographical region rather than a Pastor, a Preacher, a Person of Prayer, someone who sits at the feet of Jesus Christ and humbly leads forward those to whom they have committed their lives.
When a healthy model of what it means to be bishop is removed for any length of time, it should not surprise us that the model that is put in its place is going first to be inadequate to the task, and then will begin to decay or degenerate into something else. This is what has happened! The most recent statements coming out of the House of Bishops demonstrate that these men and women have little idea of the classic roles of leadership that they ought to be exercising - and neither do they possess the theology that should under-gird it. If their documents are anything to go by, their theological capacity is somewhere between patchy and non-existent.
Now, criticism is cheap and easy, the question is whether it is even possible to begin reforming the episcopate. Certainly, the will to reform needs to be there, and right now I sense that is probably missing. However, a starting place might be for them to explore the nature of their task in light of what Scripture teaches, especially the Pastoral Epistles, and also the models of episcopate that prevails in the sub-apostolic church and in churches where there has been healthy spiritual and discipleship advance. What needs to be asked is what the episcopate is actually about, and then how these insights can work in the 21st Century circumstances in which we live.
For those of us who value bishops, we might redouble our prayers for them, but also encourage our own bishops to think about what the challenges and opportunities might be if they were to step aside from the received model of leadership that has come down to them in the last 40-50 years, and move forward by going back to our roots.
For the orderly governance of the church, we need canons, but it would also be incredibly creative and helpful if bishops would stop hiding behind those canons, or using them as zingers to help them maintain their power. Do they not realize that they are servants, and that their mitre is not a crown?
I suspect the Episcopal Church has not yet reached a low enough point where it is prepared to really address the issues that are before it, and certainly the bishops are going to be difficult to budge. I suspect also that those in leadership would have little or no intention of listening to the insights that come with my set of convictions. However, I guess what I am doing is putting some ideas on the table that might percolate into the system together with other people's notions, so that we might in due course be able to move forward in a healthy way.