Sunday, January 20, 2008
Out of the depths...
After one hundred days spent living separately on different sides of the Atlantic, Rosemary and I are now together again under the same roof with our dog and cat, and just a few days ago our container of household goods was backed onto our driveway and out poured the old friends that make our house feel more like our home. Our furniture and treasures had survived its journey across the choppy waters of the North Atlantic in winter.
Yet while domestic life is more settled there has been a sense of anxiety about what is going on in the church back in the USA, together with a sense of distance and powerlessness to do anything. In the next couple of days the Diocese of Tennessee will be holding its convention, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I will be absent. We had a battle at a recent convention over the feasibility of proxy votes, and part of me wishes that I had one! Then hardly a day or two passes without some announcement or event that confirms the steady unraveling of what was once the Episcopal Church.
Every time I think that I might be getting inured to what might be going on something happens that makes my stomach heave, brings tears to my eyes, makes me see red, or just drops a pall of deep sadness over me. Just as it was hard for me to let go of our home in Tennessee, so it is hard to live at a distance from what is going on back in the States, particularly the parting of friends, as John Henry Newman described it.
What is hardest is when people alongside whom you have labored in the Gospel for many years cut off communications with you, probably because they know you will not be sympathetic with the course that they have chosen to pursue. Tangentially, I read a little piece on a website the other day by a woman agonizingly anticipating the break-up of her marriage, and found myself feeling many of the same emotions over the break-up of the church in which I have been a priest for more than three decades.
It seems we have reached such a point in the process of fragmentation of the church where the thinking is that if you are not with us, you are against us - so we just don't want to have anything to do with you. Add to that the inner confusion that we all feel when such things happen, not knowing quite how to relate with or reach out to others who have taken a very different path from the one that we would prefer them to have followed. Also, those who separate are implicitly passing judgment on those who remain by their actions, even if that is not their intention.
In some ways many of the feelings I have been trying to come to terms with are a bit like the ones I had when the Charismatic Renewal began asserting itself. I am old enough to have been there to see almost the beginning of this movement in the life of the church, and have watched it wax, wane, change shape, and mutate over the intervening years.
I was a greenhorn in seminary in London, naive and enthusiastic, when the charismatic thing burst upon us. I remember vividly around the middle of my first term that Dennis Bennett arrived from the United States and addressed a crowded gathering of seminarians after dinner one evening. In the wake of that meeting what had seemed to be the stable life of the college community was disrupted as some received what was being described as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, others wanted to but did not, while others still had profound theological and spiritual questions about whether it was appropriate at all. For much of the rest of that year there were often unspoken dividing lines and uncomfortable tensions as we struggled to come to terms with what was going on around us.
By my final year there most of us had worked out how to live with this new phenomenon, but when we got out into ordained ministry and the movement continue to spread its wings and flourish, we found ourselves dealing with it in our various parish settings. Those tensions and implied judgments were very much part of the spiritual and relational geography of church life - especially if you were (as I was) working among young people. There was a sense of there being First Class and Second Class Christians dependent upon the nature of your experience and the exuberance with which you wore it.
Of course, within the context of these tensions subtly different cultures developed with variant hermeneutical approaches to the Scriptures' teaching about spiritual gifts. Naturally, dependent upon your experience of the Spirit in these circumstances was the line of thinking and acting that you followed.
Thankfully much of the tension that went with that particular tide has ebbed and with it has come to a more holistic and balanced understanding of the nature and ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, the recent unpleasantness in the Episcopal Church has, in me at least, revived that sense of implied judgment that is being made. Maybe I am interpreting this wrong, but there is the sense on the part of those leaving that those of us who remain on the basis of what we believe to be good reasons rooted in Scripture and the catholic faith, are hopelessly compromised. We are Second Class Christians who are not taking Scripture seriously, and consorting with those who have sold the Gospel down the river. Of course, every side considers itself more Anglican than the other, and there are no exceptions here.
Add to this the further complication that some have shrugged their shoulders and said a plague on Anglicanism altogether, we don't want to be part of any of this any longer, and so have gone off to Rome or Constantinople. What has surprised me with some of them is that a few have in a relatively short time done such a flipflop that they are affirming beliefs that they gave the impression just a few months ago were nowhere on their radar scope. Their attitude now is that they have found the true truth and, perhaps, have put on all the Ultramontane clothing necessary to demonstrate their new allegiance, and scorn those of us left squirming in the Anglican pit.
And so far I have just been talking about the so-called "conservatives."
Those on the other and "progressive" side of the theological and ideological fence are demanding an almost subservient loyalty to the institution, and are saying woe betide you if that does not happen -- we will use the full force of the canons against you to get you to comply. This is a wrestling match and submission is being demanded. Reading what some of them write there is an extraordinary sense from many of them that they are correct and enlightened, while the rest of us are lost in Neanderthal thinking and backward-looking obscurantism.
This is all such a muddle of attitudes and mindsets that it is almost impossible to weave any meaningful way through it. Human fallenness and arrogance rears its ugly head at every corner, and perhaps most of us think better of ourselves and our positions than we really should.
I sat this morning for a while with the only book written by my late friend, Michael Howard, God in the Depths. Michael had a sequel in mind for this remarkable little tome, but alas, he died just months before he was due to retire and to get on with that work. The depths (or the deep) about which he talks are that encircling darkness that is always there within the context of the human condition. They are the gale across the heaving ocean, they are the chaos and emptiness that are an intimate part of being human, "they are 'non-being' out of which, in God's hands, things 'become'" (Page 31).
In institutional and ecclesiastical terms this is what we are wrestling with. The depths now roil in the life of the Church, the community of faith having itself been made chaotic. Howard tells us that thius is the opposite of community. "The Church is a partner with the Spirit in the re-creation of the earth through the victory of Jesus over the powers of the deep," Michael Howard wrote, but in the process we will find ourselves embracing the deep by living with doubts, uncertainty, incipient chaos, and mystery (Page 131).
The church as we know it is being swamped by the deep, and perhaps all of us crave for Christ to stand on the prow of the sinking vessel and say to the churning waters, "Peace, be still." But that would be to short-circuit the process of finding our way through the discomfort, fear, and anguish bearing the Cross, being borne by it, and allowing the Cross to form and shape us anew. The Cross clearly has to be the starting point for any rebuilding of the Church, and the Cross is the ultimate place of letting go, the place above all others.
As I look at us all in the Anglican family, especially the Anglican family in the United States, we don't have a lot to be proud of or arrogant about, however we might be preening our feathers. We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, all of us, in destroying a large part of what we inherited, and now seem set on policies that will tear what remains to shreds. There are no simple answers to the questions with which we struggle, but right now every one seems to determined to stand upon their own self-righteousness and to vaunt themselves up. As we do so, we tumble further into the Deep.