Thursday, July 26, 2007

Values and the Tour de France

Michael Rasmussen in the Yellow Jersey

At this time of the year for a number of years I have done my best to keep up with that toughest and most extraordinary of all cycle races, the Tour de France. I started watching about the second or third year of Lance Armstrong's long reign as Tour winner, so fascinated was I by this man's endurance and ability to overcome the agony of his body to win on the horrible slopes of the Alps or the Pyranees.

This year my interest has been no different, particularly so as it has been an extremely open race and there has been no one individual who has looked as if he could win convincingly until these last few days.

Until now it had been enthralling, but this week the whole thing has unraveled as one after another riders and teams have been forced from the race by doping scandals and dishonesty. The 2006 race was marred by similar problems, when winner, Floyd Landis, tested positive for excessive testosterone after he had stood victoriously on the podium in Paris and received the plaudits of the world. More than a year later there is still a huge legal and medical battle going on as to whether he won or not -- and he hasn't raced since then, and probably never will again.

I was driving home from the church last night listening to the sports news and learned of the latest heartbreaker: Michael Rasmussen, the race leader and wearer of the Yellow Jersey, had been thrown out by Team Rababank for lying about his whereabouts in June when he missed some crucial statutory drug tests. This was a body blow because Rasmussen cycled the race of his life yesterday as he won the hardest stage, confirming himself as the winner-elect: in the last three or four days of cycling it was his to lose. Now, not only is he out of the race, but the Dane's career as a professional cyclist is also probably over.

As I drove the rest of the way home I wondered what made these guys do such things, surely they must have known that somehow or other in due course their actions would be discovered, and that there would be hell to play. The temptation in as tough a sport as this is that even the smallest edge means the difference between success and failure. As grueling as three weeks of pedalling around France is, competitors must always be looking for just about anything to keep them going and keep them ahead of the pack, whether it is appropriate or not. But by falling into temptation and taking on board a chemical pick-me-up, some of the finest athletes have not only lost the race but their career and their good name.

All that got me pondering the pervasiveness of dishonesty in almost every realm of human endeavor, and especially in these early years of the 21st Century. It looks so easy to cut corners, tell "little white lies," cheat on your income taxes, mislead your spouse, and most of all, deceive ourselves. We certainly don't trust politicians, business moguls, and the like, and consider them guilty of dishonesty until proven innocent.

A former bishop of mine pointed out to me a long time ago that those of us who are reasonably intelligent, educated, and middle class, are among the most gifted at justifying our actions to ourselves, even when in our heart of hearts there is no justification for what we have done. The Scriptures are right in their assessment of the depth of our sinfulness. Yet I wonder whether our culture even begins to understand this, or wants to try to understand this.

It is disappointed that the likes of Michael Rasmussen have let themselves and the public down by their deceptions, but how do we know what is and what is not a deception? When relativism runs riot who is to know what is right or wrong and whether there are any gray areas? As dear old Francis Schaeffer used to thunder, value words like good and bad, right and wrong, and so forth, do not describe something the prevailing culture can understand because all values are subjective when you function without absolutes -- an ultimate point of reference. Values language is the language of those who walk the way of the revealed faith.

We seem now to be living in a strange world where differing sets of values are given differing sets of credance in differing circumstances. When an athlete wins a race or a game we want that person to have done it with their own ability, not with the help of chemicals or whatnot. When that athlete breaks the rules, then we get serious and throw them out. Yet when we personally come up against values rooted and grounded in God's revelation, rather than honestly seeking to work through the consequences in our daily lives we make special pleading or attempt to turn those values on their head.

Perhaps the time has come for most of us to do some very serious thinking...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Communion Matters

As I have been working with Communion Matters in preparation for a gathering in our congregation, I find myself disheartened. Not only is it confused and confusing, but it seems politically-driven, desiring rank-and-file Episcopalians to concur with special pleading being made by this Anglican province which has run foul the rest of the Anglican Communion. It is designed like a questionnaire whose outcome is already predetermined, and the predetermination is that the Episcopal Church at the very best wants to sit loose to the wider Communion.

The Anglican Communion
The Anglican Communion for 150 years has been a loosely knit global fellowship of churches sharing a common spiritual, ecclesiastical, and doctrinal heritage rooted in the English Reformation. We are catholic in the way we are ordered, and reformed in our theological convictions.

It is as much what Communion Matters does not say, as what it does that offends. It wants us to believe that provinces within the Communion are autonomous and independent, free to develop along lines appropriate to particular culture and biases in a region or country. This is an effort to legitimate actions of the General Conventions of 2003 and 2006 that presuppose a different understanding of human sexuality than has hitherto been held by Anglicans or any other body of Christians ever, for that matter.

Communion Matters totally ignores the consensus reached during the early 1960s that the Communion is mutually responsible and interdependent with one another. This had been the cry until the Episcopal Church began functioning differently.

The Anglican Communion asked the Episcopal Church to step back from this schismatic act. If it believes it is right in its convictions, then first it should set about persuading the whole Communion of the rightness of its approach. So far it has not, nor has it even tried. The Windsor Report of October 2004 laid out a process whereby the Episcopal Church could walk with the Communion or decide to “walk apart,” and we are now well down that road, with a deadline approaching on September 30th.

The Episcopal Church, focused particularly in the March 2007 meeting of the House of Bishops, while asserting the value and importance of the Communion has continued along the walking apart course. Words of praise for the Communion have a hollow ring.

The Via Media
Communion Matters makes particular play of “the via media, the middle way between polarities, as a faithful theological method” (page 5), but then misrepresents what the via media is and how it might be attained. The notion of the Middle Way is rooted in the work of Richard Hooker, the leading Anglican mind of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but Communion Matters has misperceived Hooker.

I can do no better than quote Frank Limehouse, Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent, Birmingham, AL, who wrote, ‘Hooker’s understanding of via media was never meant to guide Anglicanism to a middle way between God’s revealed truth and any other kind of wisdom, leave alone the prevailing wisdom of the world; it was never meant to guide us to a middle way between those who look to Scripture and those who look to experience. For Hooker, even "reason" and "tradition" were absolutely subordinate to Scripture.’

Communion Matters allows human insights to stand either alongside or in judgment over Scripture. Read this carefully: “Ultimately the ‘mind of Christ’ is perceived in community through prayer and dialogue, as Scripture is studied and interpreted and as reason and tradition inform that interpretation” (page 5). For those leading this process the “community” is the starting point, while Scripture is merely a resource the community can use when seeking to grasp truth.

Anglican Christianity has never taught this of Scripture even though there are those who wish it had. The fountainhead of truth is Scripture as it is plainly understood and interpreted, and a task of Scripture is to be the touchstone against which we measure and test ourselves and ideas – much more than an interesting resource. Until recently this is what the Episcopal Church has believed. In the Catechism it states, “We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 853).

Anglican Christianity has always strived for comprehensiveness in understanding the Christian faith, recognizing God’s truth will inevitably be fuller than any one group or individual can grasp. But at the same time there are boundaries and parameters to our believing, and these are set by Scripture, the historic Creeds, the Articles of Religion, and the historic Books of Common Prayer.

The course desired by Communion Matters is far from being a Middle Way but is extreme and beyond legitimate boundaries. Any Middle Way must be grounded in the person and nature of the self-revealing God. The plea for tolerance that we find in Communion Matters is not the traditional Anglican desire for generous comprehensiveness, but is asking us to now tolerate what until now had always been beyond the boundaries of catholic faith and behavior.

In vain I have sought to find any redeeming features in Communion Matters. It says one thing – that it respects and values the Anglican Communion – but it seems to prepared to sacrifice the Communion on the horns of its own insights into what God is like, how God reveals himself to us, what it means to be human, and how we humans should live our lives.

As a faithful priest of the Episcopal Church who has spent much of his ministry working within the wider Anglican Communion, I have to caution that the path desired by this provinces leadership is causing great pain, producing terrible disruption, and can only lead to the disintegration of both the Communion and the Episcopal Church of the USA.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

We speak a different language

Paul Tillich's Tomb in New Harmony, Indiana

For several days now I have been unpacking in my mind a meeting that I attended whose subject was supposed to be the proposed Anglican Covenant. While my hopes for the gathering had been less than modest, I had expected more than we actually managed to achieve because we spent the whole time speaking past one another. One priest of an orthodox persuasion came up as we broke up scratching his head and said that he hadn't understood much that was being said by so many of the participants.

This wasn't because he is dumb, but rather because it is clear that we are now at a point in the Episcopal Church where we talk a totally different language from each other. Understanding these languages is now crucial because having acted on the progressive insights we have entered uncharted territory.

For a number of years I have been asking those on the left, the progressive wing, or whatever you want to call them to engage with us in theological debate and dialogue over what divides us, but there has been little or no response. It has irritated me no end that we have not talked theologically about what divides us, but now I am reaching the conclusion that we cannot -- because we have little or no common language left, and our mindsets are a thousand miles apart from one another.

I came away from our meeting the other day as frustrated as from anything I have attended in a long time. It seemed as if the Grand Canyon yawned between us, we had been shouting across it at one another, and only hearing the odd word being said by those whose perceptions are different from our own. I am now convinced that it will be impossible to address the presenting issues until we are able to strip back at least three or four different layers of understanding, and can grasp the presuppositional worldviews that undergird our various starting points.

I am not sure that we are capable of doing this, partly because of the preconceptions that we bring to our understanding of what the other people's worldview might (or might not actually be), and then the baggage we bring with it to the table. The left treats the right as if they were six-day creationists and flat-earthers, while the right is of the mind that the left has sold out every distinctive of what it means to be Christian, and are swimming along with the spirit of the age.

When we look at each other as either Neanderthals or Heretics, it is like one team coming onto the field to play the American brand of football, while the other is kitted out for soccer. Such a game might have entertainment value, but it is not going to get very far, there is no way of measuring a result, and ultimately it will probably end with tears.

I spent a good deal of time in my late twenties, in post-graduate study, trying to get my mind around the contributions of both Freidrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich. It is no accident that the way I felt at a loss as I scrambled my way through Schleiermacher's massive volume The Christian Faith, and then the three volumes of Tillich's Systematic Theology. Actually, it was akin to the way I felt as I listened to the conversation at our meeting the other day. This should have been no surprise to me because Schleiermacher) and Tillich) are very much the forebears of the movement that has put this wedge between us.

It was no accident that Tillich was actually quoted by the facilitator of the meeting which set me thinking, for it seems that Tillich has in one way or another been the patron saint of Episcopal theological education for the best part of half a century now. The problem when grappling with the likes of Tillich and Schleiermacher is that their presuppositions and subjectivity render it almost impossible to grasp and nail down, as it were, the ideas being expressed.

After our meeting the other day one of my colleagues mentioned the writing of Dr. Robert J. Sanders and what he calls The 'Ecstatic' Heresy, an article that I have found helpful in attempting to describe what has shaped the landscape over which we are now trying to move forward (, although I do think in attempting to explain he sometimes cuts corners. He says, "In the ecstatic view, language applied to God is always symbolic since God is ineffable... the task of theology is to reinterpret the faith as relevant to new cultural contexts. Faith is evolving since culture evolves."

Even if Sanders is only half right, and I think he is more than that, it is clear to see how the orthodoxy and the progressive approach to thinking and believing are at odds with one another. "In the orthodox view, doctrines reveal God. They can be variously understood, they reveal mysteries, but they cannot be reinterpreted in terms of categories that have no objective reference to God," but for the 'ecstatic,' "doctrines do not refer to God but to feelings, the depth of reality, the horizon of being. Therefore doctrines can be radically reinterpreted in terms of categories that have no objective reference to God."

This is very much what I saw happening last week. Speaking personally, the way that I understand God's nature is that although omnipotent, majestic, beyond our fullest comprehension, God has in his grace revealed himself to us and that self-revelation enables us to grasp the principles of the divine nature, our response to them, and the enabling of belief and holiness that are concomitants of this. Those on the other side of the spectrum not only do not think in these terms, but are puzzled by them because to them "God is always beyond concepts and language... Since God is beyond language, every attempt to verbalize God is partial and inadequate, with the result that differing partial truths, even when they contradict, can be harmonized at a higher level in God."

The challenge before us now is to work out if it is even possible for these two approaches to the nature of the divinity to coexist in any way, shape, or form. Can we talk, or are we like someone who speaks only Chinese trying to hold an intimate conversation with someone who only speaks Arabic? Is it possible that there are folks who can act as interpreters? If we cannot interpet to one another, what should be the next step?

Blowing one another off does not work. The consequence of this is the bitter, bitter disputes that are in the process of ripping North American Anglicanism to shreds. But right now we don't seem to be able to do more than blow one another off, talk at cross purposes, get angry, bring lawsuits, walk out in a huff, shout, scream, denigrate, and so on, and so on. There is serious theological and anthropological work that needs to be done, but it will not be done while the major players on the field are not only unwilling to listen to one another, but also unable to communicate with each other.

The great missionary statesman, Canon Max Warren, was one of my mentors. He told me about a year before he died when talking about his son-in-law's work in dialogue with the Hindus in India, that we can never enter into cross-religious discussions honestly until we are prepared to be converted by the other person's viewpoint. Perhaps this is the level of vulnerability that is required by us at this point.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Jesus Way and the Chaos in the Episcopal Church

A Kind of Applied Review of Eugene Peterson's book, "The Jesus Way" (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2007)

Like many others, during the last several years I have wrestled over what is the appropriate and godly way to respond to the crisis that has enveloped all of us in the Episcopal Church. Like many, I have explored a variety of options in terms of action and attitude, and come away dissatisfied. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to maintain a balanced commitment to revealed truth, countering error, reconciliation, grace, forgiveness, the unity of the church, and biblical moral and ethical values. I can't think how many times I have wished that there were some simple formula that could be readily applied.

For many years I have bought and read everything Eugene Peterson writes, for there are few theologians who marry, as he does, careful scholarship, perceptive pastoral insight and an abiding and tested commitment to catholic values of the faith. So, a couple of months ago I picked up Peterson's latest extended essay on pastoral theology, The Jesus Way.

I started into it thinking it would give me helpful insights into my own personal discipleship, which it has, but it has also given me clues to help me address this thorny ecclesiastical controversy in a manner that is worthy of my Lord. Certainly, Peterson does not come up with those illusive easy answers, but identifies patterns of believing and being from the Scriptures, the life of Christ, and his contemporaries that if taken seriously have the capacity to begin the process of breaking the present impasse.

And impasse it is, with none of the actions of any side within going anywhere other than digging us ever deeper into the mire. While fudging the issues before us is not going to be a solution, neither is the hand-to-hand combat which we are treated to each day. It occurs to me that Eugene Peterson's insights might help us find our way out of this dark jungle of our own making.

On the very first page he forces us to pay attention. "My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living 'in Jesus' name'... The whole North American ways and means culture, from assumptions to tactics, is counter to the rich and textured narrative laid out for us in our Scriptures regarding walking in the way of righteousness, running in the way of the commandments, following Jesus" (Pages 1, 3).

Straightaway, Peterson raises all sorts of questions not only about how we are immersed in our culture, but also how our own faith has been shaped as much if not more by the influence of the culture upon us than seeking to follow the mind of Christ. He talks of the eucharistic life to which we are called, which now should shape our whole being "as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken, and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing."

Then he goes on ominously to point out that this "is not the American way. The great American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise... We can't gather a God-fearing, God-worshiping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation. When we do, the wheels start falling off the wagon. And they are falling off the wagon. We can't suppress the Jesus way in order to sell the Jesus truth" (Page 6), and yet this is what we are trying to do.

That American way of church comes in all sorts of different flavors, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, Protestant or Catholic, and so forth, but all of them reflect our consumer mentality, so we pick and choose what we want, as well as our ways and means of being the church. Let's face it, in whatever shape or form it presents itself the American church is uncritically American. (It is probably true that in other parts of the world the church is uncritically British, Kenyan, Australian, French, Chinese, and so forth, but right now the challenge before us is our American blind-spots).

Yet we are called to live in the world by making Christ the King. "If Christ is King, quite literally, every thing and every one, has to be re-imagined, re-configured, re-oriented to a way of life that consists in an obedient following of Jesus. This is not easy." Indeed, it requires a lifelong work of total renovation beginning with the first word of Jesus's ministry, "Repent!"

I didn't become a Christian so many years ago just to prop up a decaying ecclesiastical structure. I became a Christian from the secular background in which I was raised because Jesus grasped me, and set about the process of reworking me into his own image. I have wanted to walk the Jesus way, but often have stumbled and fallen headlong. Then the word "Repent" has echoed in my ears and by God's grace I have been able to pick myself up and carry on. But I have to do this in partnership with fellow-travelers within the church, across the globe, and down the corridors of time.

A Christian is never a Christian in isolation, and as a follower of Jesus Christ I am called upon to function within this great continuum of God's salvation initiatives taken in history. The Jesus Way demonstrates the reality of this by spending a huge chunk of the first part of the book talking about facets of the way of faith of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, the Isaiahs, on the shoulder of whose insights and discipleship the way of Jesus is built.

Peterson introduces us afresh to great notions and concepts of Scripture, such as what it means to be God's servant, what is the nature of sacrifice, and the place of prayer in this momentous journey. Yet "the way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped -- it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him" (Page 18).

The question we are being asked by a statement like this is about how prepared we might be to pause, reflect, engage in prayerful conversation with one another and Christ, and whether we have it within us to continue forward on a path that might well be in process of diverging from the way, the truth, and the life. "To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us" (Page 22), and I wonder for how many of us this might be true. I know that I fall very far short.

This battle within the church is, I think, not so much about the issues, important as these are, but is about Jesus Christ and what should be the nature of the discipleship to which we have been called. Toward the end of The Jesus Way Eugene Peterson identifies several other ways taken when Jesus was incarnate upon earth, and as I read his descriptions of the contrasting ways of Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus, I found myself squirming uncomfortably because the way many of us are carrying on compares more to the approach of these characters than the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Herodian way glorifies size and wealth. It is the way of power, influence, and conspicuous consumption. Yet the Jesus way stands in stark contrast to it and is reflected in the life of the young woman, Mary, when Gabriel brought her news that she was to be Messiah's mother, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Perhaps, Eugene Peterson surmises, the burden of this prayer was something Mary taught her first-born son. Certainly it is reflected in the Gethsemane prayer of "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

If we are journeying on the Jesus way then we pray ourselves into the identity of slave (Greek: doulos). "The more exalted we become, the more prominent the position in which we are placed, and the more important we become in the economy of the kingdom of God, the more subservient we become. 'Servant' was the prayed identity for Mary," and by implication it should be our identity, too. In our battling I see little in any of us that tells me very much about servanthood, but a great deal about our fascination with power, influence, and making end runs on one another.

I do not pretend to know the right way forward, although I hope I am earnestly seeking it. Neither can I stand in judgment over the actions others might have taken, because there is much in my own record of which I am thoroughly ashamed as I seek to measure myself by the way of Jesus. However, it does seem that in the struggle for control and power the whole notion of Christian servanthood has been one of the casualties.

Having described the true task of the priest Peterson wants us to think about Caiaphas, pointing out that "sometimes priests, impatient with being servants of God and God's people, insist on taking control of the relationship, managing God's business and our salvation. When this happens... we end up with Caiaphas" (Page 224). He goes on to say that "priests are at their best when we don't notice them. The moment we begin to notice, we become wary. When he or she, whether laity or clergy, pretends to do God's work for us, an alarm sounds" (Page 226).

By Christ's time the priesthood had become as much about power, privilege, and influence, as it was about being the intermediary between the people and their God. Peterson gently reminds us that if following Jesus means walking the path of servanthood, then in no way can it be turned into a path of privilege rather it is about taking up the cross daily.

Jesus always accepted that healthy spirituality requires an institutional structure. Despite how compromised the structures of his day were, he did not separate himself from them. He didn't, like the Essenes sheer off and form his own exclusive, ascetic regimen isolated from the wider community, and when in Jerusalem he worshiped in the Temple the megalomaniac, Herod, had built, and that was governed by that sly old fox, Caiaphas. Certainly, there seems to be a lesson we can learn here.

The prayer of the Jesus way in these circumstances is the prayer of Thomas, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). "No matter how much we know, we don't know enough to know what Jesus is going to do next. And no matter how familiar we are with the traditions and customs and privileges that go with being on God's side, we aren't familiar enough to know how Jesus fits into it" (Page 242). Such a prayer should have us thinking twice and thrice about the words we say and the actions we take in the midst of so much confusion.

Finally we come to the way of Josephus, a man who was beginning well and then was seduced by the spirit of the age. He had, among other things, trained as a Pharisee, but he ended his days living the life of a wealthy ease in Rome having sold his soul and integrity for personal wellbeing. Josephus was an opportunist with natural charm and great charisma. Perhaps these are dangerous gifts in the hands of religious leaders, certainly we have seen much misuse of them in our day.

Force, in one way or another, was the flavor of each of the other religious and social alternatives of Jesus's lifetime, yet despite all the errors the early Christians made, this was not one of the traps that they stumbled into, for as the Epistle of Diognetus puts it, "force is no attribute of God" (Page 260).

No, the Christian way, that which sought to walk in the footsteps of Christ was one in which they prayerfully sought to find their way forward, seeking to be "of one accord." If you don't buy Eugene Peterson's book for any other reason, then I would encourage you to purchase it for his extraordinary exposition of 'homothumadon,' the almost untranslatable word that keeps cropping up in the Acts of the Apostles. It means roughly being of one mind, being of one accord, experiencing the fire of the Spirit in the midst of community.

"The difficulty of experiencing homothumadon is that typically we aren't paying any attention to the resurrected Jesus, and don't know what to look for, or are impatient in the waiting, or are distracted by more glamorous and riveting events and circumstances that promise shortcuts" (Page 263).

I would posit that at the heart of many of our problems is the reality that we have yet to even attempt to follow the Jesus way.

"What stands out as we consider all these dismissed options is that following Jesus is a unique way of life. It is like nothing else. There is nothing and no one comparable. Following Jesus gets us little or nothing of what we commonly think we need or want or hope for. Following Jesus accomplishes nothing on the world's agenda. Following Jesus takes us right out of this world's assumptions and goals to a place where a lever can be inserted that turns the world upside down and inside out. Following Jesus has everything to do with this world, but almost nothing in common with this world" (Page 270).

Yet our battles are being fought out using the goals and attitudes, ways and means, of this world. Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do now is to step back, and even if a few of us look to see how we might live the Jesus way in the midst of the confusion, something beautiful for God would be born, rising as a phoenix from the ruins.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Actions of Bishop Geralyn Wolf

Almost as soon as I had posted yesterday came the announcement that Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island had taken action in the case of Rev. Anne Holmes Redding.

As most of you are now aware, the bishop wrote to her diocese, "After meeting with her I issued a Pastoral Direction giving her the opportunity to reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam. During the next year she is not to exercise any of the responsibilities and privileges of an Episcopal priest or deacon. Other aspects of the Pastoral Direction will remain private."

There is both grace and discipline in the bishop's action, and from what I have read there has been an appropriate response from Dr. Redding. While this is far from the end of this incident, I cannot but help thanking the Bishop of Rhode Island for the sensitivity and forthrightness that she has shown. Let us pray that in their pastoral relationship, Bishop Wolf can provide Dr. Redding with both oversight and space to work through what it means to be a servant of the Living God.

Let us pray for a godly outcome to this strange situation.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Implications of the Episcopal Muslim Priest

I suspect some of you will think that I am fixated on the case of Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, the self-proclaimed Episcopal Muslim. I am not sure that I am, but her situation raises (in one way or the other) so many substantive issues -- not least the nature of the Godhead himself.

During the 1990s I got to know Leonid Kishkovsky, one of the leaders of the Orthodox Church in America, and unusual for an Orthodox priest in that he has also been heavily involved ecumenically. Among other things, Leonid is a past president of the National Council of Churches, hardly a right wing body! We were, if I remember correctly, talking over dinner one evening about the agendas people bring to believing and what might be the core requisite doctrinal convictions necessary for Christian believing.

I recall Leonid saying that he could cope with a breadth of belief, but it was when folks started messing with the doctrine of the Trinity that he found himself getting extremely uncomfortable. We kicked this around for a while, and I felt that by and large my friend was making a pretty good case. During the years since then I have watched as ecclesiastical wrecking balls have moved ever closer to deconstructing the Nicaean Creed. Certainly there have been individuals in the church who have problems with it, but they have been less blatant about their rejection of its central tenets than Ann Holmes Redding.

It is not that Dr. Redding's circumstance is strange, although it is, but stranger still has been the lack of appropriate response by the bishop of the diocese in which she is canonically resident, and also the almost-affirmation of her stance by the bishop of the diocese in which she is geographically situated. She clearly is in open denial of substantial truths concerning the nature and person of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it seems that those under whose authority she ministers are either unwilling or unable to enter into dialogue with her or take the appropriate disciplinary action. (See additional comments at the end of this piece)

So we have this bizarre reality now prevailing where priests and whole congregations are not only being shown the door, but are being subjected to draconian and bitter legal action because of they are attempting to actively work out what it means to live with the affirmations Christians have always believed. Meanwhile, another priest who has denied the very substance of her ordination vows, thereby de facto revoking her commitment to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church, not only gets away with it, but has complimentary articles are written about her by a church publication!

There is nothing take-it-or-leave-it about the Nicean and Chacedonian truths concerning the nature of the Trinity, and especially the fullness of the person who is the second member of the Trinity. These are not adiaphora, these are at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, God's Incarnate Son.

Ann Holmes Redding has now clearly become a test case. If she is not put under any kind of discipline for her heterodoxy then it confirms that subjective relativism is the name of the game, rather than even the mildest form of catholic creedal believing. Jesus may be honored in Islam, but that faith honors him as something far less than the Son, God's ultimate revelation of his being, love, grace, and nature.

If Redding is Islamically faithful, then she probably believes that Mohammed is the bearer of God's ultimate message to humankind, which Islam affirms. If this is the case then she had relegated Christ in such a way that genuine Christian believing is made extremely difficult. However, if she believes that Jesus is God's only-begotten Son as stated in the Nicaean formula, then she is flying in the face of all that Islam believes about Christ. Christianity and Islam's understanding of Jesus of Nazareth are mutually exclusive of one another.

While such evisceration of truth leading to irrational relativism is as strange as anything that has come up in recent years, it is merely part of the amazing continuum along which much North American mainline religion is traveling.

Within the Episcopal Church, this relativistic tide is the environment that is leading to the wholesale rejection of the Anglican Covenant by dioceses, individuals, seminaries, and so forth. As I have studied the Covenant it seems to me to be little more than a 21st Century re-presentation of classic, historic Anglicanism. But historical Anglicanism is not what this tide of change is all about. Instead we prefer to stroke and be stroked by the Zeitgeist -- from this will come all manner banality.


Within a very short time of me posting this piece, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island place Dr. Redding under Pastoral Direction. We owe Bp. Wolf a great debt of gratitude for the manner in which she has handled this situation both with loving pastoral care and firmness. (

Nevertheless, the principle that I spell out here is one we need to ponder upon for it cuts at the very heart of a Christian understanding of the nature of the Godhead and the manner of redemption.

Richard Kew