Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus is not all it seems

There is much about the Roman Catholic Church that I have come to appreciate over the years: Catholic colleagues whose fellowship has been the source of much blessing, occasional opportunities at Catholic worship that have enriched, and joint projects with Catholics that have been fruitful. Having grown up with a somewhat negative Protestant attitude toward the Church of Rome, I have come over the years to benefit from their particular graces and charisms.

Yet, alas, there seems to be almost an imperialism about the Catholic tradition that allows for little variance from their church's dogma.

Given the concerns Pope Benedict has about the secularism and godlessness of Europe (and so out into all the world), it seems that some kind of common front under the charmanship of the Bishop of Rome would be of great benefit to the churches. This, of course, would require a measure of acceptance of the differing emphases of other Christians by Catholics, especially those of us who are rooted and grounded in the historic creeds and statements of faith of the church. However, it is sad that Rome is not able to stretch that far.

The whole recent flap around the Pope's overtures to dissident Anglicans is an example of this. I understand very well that there are fellow-Anglicans who have lost confidence in the Anglican tradition, and if their own faith is more happily accommodated in the Roman setting, then so be it. But as we mull over the small print it seems to be more hard line than the gentle invitation of concerned fellow-Christians.

A genuine, fraternal invitation, for example, would at the very least turn the expectation of re-confirmation and re-ordination into conditional rites, but Rome seems unwilling to reconsider the 1896 declaration that Anglican orders are, in effect, no orders at all. This un-churching of Anglicans has a tang of dishonesty about it because on the ground in most settings Anglican and Catholic clergy work alongside one another, mutually accept one another's status as ministers of word and sacraments.

The Apostolic Constitution makes it quite clear that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is definitive theologically and doctrinally for all those who move along the path Rome is offering, which, in effect, obliterates theology that is distinctively Anglican and nullifies the richness of the Anglican tradition. You can come in, we are being told, but you have to leave what we perceive to be Protestant baggage at the door.

As I read the small print of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, it is phrased in such a way as to suggest that only certain Anglican liturgical texts will be acceptable for use by those who want to make this transition, which would suggest that anything that does not dot the 'i's and cross the 't's of Roman Catholic eucharistic theology, etc., will be unacceptable. This would then probably declare out of court much of the historic Prayer Book tradition which has been the foundation of Anglican life for nearly half a millennium.

While I don't really wish to nitpick to death this document that codifies an invitation that some are likely to take up, the more I look at it the more I suspect the spirit in which this invitation has been made. It comes from a mindset that because it believes it is the one true expression of the Christian faith, it possesses the trump cards, and can demand rather than entering into conversation accepting the graces and charisms of another tradition.

Last week I cooperated with the most gracious Roman Catholic priest in the funeral Mass and burial of my nominally Roman Catholic brother-in-law. The priest was a prince among men, godly and caring, and the manner in which he presided over the Eucharist was both sensitive and genuinely moving. He was genuinely embarrassed that he could not invite to the Lord's table those Christians of other traditions, so there I sat behind the altar, with my faithful Anglican extended family sitting in the pews (together with a few family Baptists), while the handful of Catholics present took participated in the sacrament.

This to me was an acted parable of the situation in which we find ourselves as two Communions that maybe respect one another, but nevertheless talk past each other. By excluding Anglicans from their sacramental life they are treating us as non-Christians, while at the same time in the day-to-day elements of church life in local communities considering one another to be believers. The are plenty places in the world where Anglicans and Catholics even share the same buildings. If the Catholic priest had not thought me a Christian, would he have allowed me to preach in his church, and would he have accepted that committal by me according to the Book of Common Prayer was appropriate in any shape or form?

In the Apostolic Constitution the Roman Catholic Church is saying, "Well, if you jump through the hoops we think necessary then we will accept you," while all the time jumping through those hoops is a negating of what are already our convictions -- in which they may see inadequacies, but little fundamental heresy.

The challenge facing us is missional, and it gets more pressing as each day passes. While accepting that each church has its own ordering that should be respected and taken seriously, it would seem that the time has come for Rome to be willing to enter a conversation with the same generosity as is expected of Anglican Christians.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reflections on the 20/20 Report of 2001

A couple of weeks ago, while looking for something else, I ran across a copy of the Report of the 20/20 Task Force of the Episcopal Church, produced in 2000-2001 at the request of the General Convention. For a few minutes I thumbed through its pages, remembering the rising sense of excitement experienced by those of us who were part of that Task Force, and drew up the report. Now the Report was far from perfect, but looking back over the work we had done I realized afresh that our prognosis and prescription, if applied, could have done a significant amount positively for the Episcopal Church.

The 20/20 Initiative was deceptively simple: it was to do all that we can to double the size of the Episcopal Church between 2000 and 2020. Such notions have visionary potential, and we felt that as we did our work, this was more about launching a movement rather than becoming mired in a program. Perhaps those of us who were part of the 20/20 Task Force were naive, but we were cautiously optimistic that our recommendations would be taken seriously, and if that happened that they would bring a fresh evangelistic fervor to the church. Doubling the size may have been a little optimistic, but we believed that the Episcopal Church was capable of a good crack at that sort of challenge.

A few days after I had reacquainted myself with the 20/20 Report the 2008 Episcopal Church statistics were published. They do not make happy reading. While numbers may not be everything, they are a record of just about wholesale retreat on every front. Rather than being twice the size it was by 2020, things will be going well if it is only half the size. And like a patient ignoring the doctor's warning after a full physical comes up with some disturbing outcomes, the denomination continues to deny the realities.

We had worked hard during 2000 and 2001 to come up with this Report, which we then took to the Executive Committee in October 2001. It was hardly a fortuitous moment for the nation was still reeling from the shock of 9/11, so grief and anxiety were never far from the surface. But we made the best of the opportunity.

The Executive Council was meeting at a pleasant hotel on the Jacksonville Beaches in Florida, but even before we made our presentation I sensed a degree of hostility toward what we were all about. Our potential agenda was passe, another was brewing and would eventually prevail. We would, no doubt, be indulged, it was highly likely that the product we presented would be watered down to the point of being neutralized, with the institution pulling its teeth and domesticating it. That is precisely what happened.

The agenda which prevailed, and which would start having its most significant impact around the General Convention of 2003, was already gathering momentum. Since that time the church has been divided, financial resources have been dwindling, and the shrinkage has been nothing short of disasterous. Congregations, clergy, bishops, dioceses, have headed for the exits, with litigation being used as never before in the history of the Episcopal Church. Church planting, which was an encouraging component of church life in 2000, is virtually at a standstill, and heads are buried deep in the sand whenever anyone attempts to make honest sense of the truly appalling statistics that get dished up now each year. What is bizarrely fascinating is that no one seems to have the heart to ask the very difficult questions of this distressing reality, or act constructively upon them.

For me, the final chance of an exciting future for the Episcopal Church was nailed into the coffin not during General Convention 2003, but at that meeting of the Executive Council in a comfortable hotel by the beach in Florida in 2001, when the 20/20 Report was received with phony smiles and blue-penciled to death. I think that was when the Episcopal Church broke my heart, what followed from that time was merely a further trampling of it into the dust. That was when I retreated, burying myself back in parish ministry and avoiding the national scene.

It was, however, while I was at that hotel in Jacksonville Beach that I had the worst nocturnal experience of my life. Not long after switching off the light one night, and when I wasn't sure whether I was asleep or partially awake, I found myself face-to-face with a kind of gray featureless creature which was doing its level best to suffocate me. I was in terror, and truly thought I was dead and was being dragged down to hell. My body thrashed as I fumbled for the light switch. When eventually I managed to illuminate the room I was alone, drenched in sweat, heart pounding like a sledgehammer, and frightened out of my wits. It was a long time before I was calm enough to face the darkness again, and try to get back to sleep.

I have spent eight years attempting to make sense of that episode, whose reality is as intense and frightening today as when it happened. Did it emanate from somewhere inside me? Was it something to do with the room in which I was staying? Did it have something to do with the recent events at Ground Zero and the Pentagon? Or, perhaps, was it related in some way to the spiritual conflict related to the Executive Council meeting? I cannot answer these questions with any sense of certainty, which would be presumptuous. It may have been due to none of the above, or all of them may have somehow contributed to this particularly unpleasant situation.

What I do know is that imperfect as the proposals of the 20/20 Report might have been, the Episcopal Church would have been a very different place today if the strategy suggested had been pursued. If a red-blooded 20/20 had happened perhaps there would not have been the agonizing parting of friends, perhaps the financial dilemmas would be ameliorated, and perhaps the challenge would have continued to be planting new congregations, while training to recruit and train the sort of leaders who could nurture these little green shoots and turn them into something significant.

During these last years there have been many casualties, and perhaps I am one of them. I remain a priest in good standing of the Episcopal Church, but my ministry is now an ocean away. I find what I am doing fulfilling, satisfying, and (I hope) making a constructive contribution to the advance of God's Kingdom. However, the temperature of my passions starts to rise when I think of the extraordinary adventure 20/20 would have been as a movement in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Conversation Waiting to Begin

I spent the last couple of days of my vacation reading Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The churches and the gay controversy (London: SCM Press, 2009). The book has sat on my shelf for several months, but this was a good time for me to digest O'Donovan's words, applying his insights to the circumstances in which I am living.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the USA was meeting as I was reading, and each day my spirits were further dampened by the actions the Convention was taking, decisions that are surely moving it beyond the fringes of the Anglican Communion, and perhaps beyond a generous catholic Christianity. These were decisions which the good professor was, I think, hoping to head off with a thoughtful and carefully argued discussion.

I was also reading it following something that had happened in our own family recently, something that was not on my mind when I purchased the book. During this time one of my nearest and dearest came out of the closet and admitted to being actively gay. While I had long suspected this, knowing something for certain tends to color perceptions and raise a whole series of questions. This latest admission probably means that within my immediate family there are statistically actually more homosexual persons than in most others.

The actions of the church and circumstances like these have forced me on several occasions during the last decade to ask substantial questions about human sexuality. I have found myself wondering if there is something that I have missed. My understanding of human sexuality has been very traditional, but I have felt for the sake of honestly that I must go back and examine not only my presuppositions, but also the evidence being presented to me both by current scholarship and the substance of the Bible. Neither in my exploring have I stuck to those writers and thinkers who echo what has been my own position, but have roamed far and wide and, among other things, have been looking to see if there are insights that I have overlooked, misunderstood, or misinterpreted.

I guess you can say that within my own limits I have sought to be as open and as honest as is possible. The exercises have been fruitful, because each time this has occurred I have gained new and constructive insights into the human condition in general, as well as this particular aspect of being human. As I have approached this topic again, among others I have had Oliver O'Donovan as a helpful companion, and for this I have been grateful.

However, this time I have brought a different set of questions to the dilemma the contemporary approach to human sexuality presents because this whole business comes impossibly close to home for me. My questions have been informed by the fact that this is something I am likely to have to deal with face-to-face most days for the rest of my life. The overriding query I have made of myself is how I might do this.

My internal landscape during this last ten or fifteen years of battling over sexuality, both in the church and in wider society, has probably experienced most of the same ups and downs as so many others. Fury, fear, confusion, and now a kind of stoic fatalism have flavored my responses. At times raw anger has led me to say and do things which I have subsequently regretted, at others I have worked hard to find some kind of modus vivendi with those whose convictions have not matched my own. It has seemed to me more and more that we have been presented with a fete accomplis rather than being able to participate in a conversation both whose substance and whose outcome have been far from clear.

Oliver O'Donovan's book was published in the USA as Church in Crisis: the Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion. With all due respects to the American publisher, I believe the British title, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, is a much better description of the book's essence. Yes, the starting point of these ten dozen pages is the crisis in the Anglican Communion that caught light in 2003 with the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but having alighted from that point it ranges over far wider territory much as any intelligent conversation would.

Rather than pontificating, he graciously nudges us to look at issue within the context of the changed realities with which we live in an evolving culture. Each relatively short chapter asks us to come at the topic using tools of ethical and theological scholarship, Scripture, hermeneutics, and measuring these against the substantial doctrines of creation and redemption. Sometimes he speaks overtly about being logical and reasonable in our quest, but on almost every page he is whispering this as if between the lines.

Why is it, he asks, that this one little thing has proved so explosive and divisive? Well, comes back the answer, it depends what you mean by 'one little thing?' How little actually is this? In the fourth century the church as it went through the exercise of creed-making seemed to be riven over one little iota, but in reality that discussion was about a great deal more because at stake was affirming a truthful understanding of the nature of God or one that is idolatrous. Are we, he asks, in a similar situation here?

While never exactly giving a definitive answer to such a question, by leading us along a number of different pathways as we approach the topic he leaves us nodding and saying, "Yes, there is an enormous amount at stake here of which differing understandings of human sexuality are merely the trigger."

Part of what is being said is that we have probably not given as much attention as we should to the changing social climate of the world in which we now live. Certainly since the nineteenth century, and especially within Anglicanism, there has existed a 'liberalism' that has modulated disagreement and enabled diversity to exist within the context of a generous unity. This underlying liberalism has been able to step back, untangle the skein, reconcile conflicting views, tone down exaggerated positions, forge coalitions, square circles, and in the process find a commonsense way through (page 5).

But now "the whole stock in trade of a tradition once defined by opposition to enthusiasm of every kind, seems to have been mysteriously wiped off the software. In its place are radical postures, strident denunciations and moralistic confessionalism" (page 5). Because of the tendency of 'liberalism' to ally itself to 'victim' causes that they believe require a moral and just leveling of the playing field, a situation is created which leads to a face-off with conservatism, both political and ecclesiastical.

"For the theological liberal... the substantive content is indeterminate, and what is wrong with conservatism is precisely that it clings to the past, holding back in reserve from the God-destined character of the present cultural moment... the self-validating ethical convictions of modern civilization are the final criterion for judging all else; they are the very image of God that it bears anonymously as its birthright" (pages 9-10).

While I cannot hope to encapsulate a carefully presented discussion in a handful of words, O'Donovan is essentially saying that yesterday's 'liberal' way of resolving things no longer works because the culture has moved on, but what we do not have, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a "habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly" (quoted Page 7).

Having set the discussion up, the rest of the book examines the dilemma using the finely tuned tools of O'Donovan's trade as a world-class theologian, ethicist, cultural observer, and philosopher. All the time he is nudging us toward the final chapter which is entitled "Good News for the Gay Christian?"

Professor O'Donovan does not step back from saying that there is hard news in the gospel for gay Christians (as well as all other Christians) to listen and respond to, we also need to consider Rowan Williams' question, "How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?" He continues, "For if the gay Christian is to be addressed as a believer and a disciple, a recipient of the good news, he has also to be addressed as a potential evangelist. But we must take this... question further. The good news meant for the human race is meant for the church, too. What good news does the gay Christian have to bring to the church?" (page 103).

O'Donovan demands that instead of making our case with statistics, scientific reports, and so forth, but we should use the words of the evangel for, "if the church speaks not as a witness to God's saving work but as a pundit or a broker of some deal, it speaks out of character... for the gospel must be preached to the gay Christian on precisely the same terms as it is preached to any other person" (Page 110), for homosexuality is NOT the determining factor in any human being's existence -- despite the pressure within the culture to make us think it is such.

Put another way, it seems that what O'Donovan is asking us is as a broken church living in the context of a broken world to speakChrist's righteousness to a shared brokenness, and this inevitably involves our sexuality in all its shapes and forms. In such an environment soft and evasive compromises do not appeal, and neither do they have traction. The touchstone is living the righteousness of Jesus Christ in a world that has presented us with a very different reality. This, he posits, is about friendship, not about "juridical language of justice and rights" (Page 116).

"The gay Christian thus faces in a particular way the choice that constitutes the human situation universally: whether to follow the route of self-justification or to cast oneself hopefully on the creative justification that God himself will work within a community of shared belief" (Page 116). However, if this is to happen not only is friendship a prerequisite, so also is serious patience. The old-style 'liberalism' that used to preside over the church has to give way to something that is differently flavored, friendship and patience being touchstones.

I am only at the beginning of unpacking what this means given my own personal dilemma, but I have to say that it makes a lot more sense than the polarized and polarizing yelling at one another and excluding one another that seems to have been taking place. I have been hurt by what has gone on, and it is likely that I am doing some of the hurting. As I deal with this on a personal level I have been given clues to try to keep the conversation civil and constructive.

On the ecclesial level, it would appear that separation is the only solution being offered by 'liberals' and 'conservatives' alike. Given the gospel of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, neither appears acceptable when tested against the great doctrines of Christianity, catholic ecclesiology, and within a forum where the grace of friendship and the grace of patience surely ought to prevail. "Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time" (Page 119).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tired, Postmodern, and a Generally Depressing Convention

We have been back in the States for the last three weeks but will be returning to our ministry in Cambridge, England tomorrow. This means we have been around for the razzmatazz that went with the launch of the Anglican Church of North America, and now for the spectacle of the General Convention. Having been present at most General Conventions since the last Anaheim convention in 1985, I am glad I am not there. I have to say that what looks to be happening is a sad, sad spectacle, and from the deluge of words coming out of Anaheim it is evident that the Convention is in little mood to take seriously historic Christianity, or to honor the worldwide Anglican Communion.

As a bishop friend said to me in a personal email from Anaheim a day or two ago, the trend seems to be for TEC to become a stand-alone American denomination rather than part of the worldwide church. Clearly, the presence and advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few days meant little or nothing to the majority of the House of Deputies. As the same episcopal friend also said, those who are for inclusion do not seem to realize that for a large chunk of us that means exclusion -- although we certainly have no desire to be excluded from catholic Christianity through the Communion.

This whole exercise is not about sexuality or sexual behavior, but is fundamentally about what we believe the Christian faith to mean and be about. When it comes down to it, it is about our attitude toward Jesus as God's Son, the nature of the Trinity, divine revelation, Christian obedience, and holiness of life. The cavalier attitude of the Presiding Bishop to the creeds and their recitation is evidence that she considers the likes of me as pedantic has-beens rather than those who are on the cutting edge -- but the cutting edge of what?

Yet the truth really is, as you look around the world, that those who are pushing this worn out postmodern melange and calling it Christian are increasingly the has-beens. They seem to have tied themselves to the coat tails of the last dribblings of the least attractive side of the Enlightenment, and it is entirely likely that they will disappear down the drain with them. I say this as an Episcopalian who lives in England and now functions as part of the church under great pressure.

The church in England is wrestling to adapt to an altogether more secular and hostile climate than exists in most of the USA, and what is interesting, I don't see postmodern Christianity standing up very well in such an environment. It is a limp and aging rag. The creative scholarship, for example, is coming from a far more theologically orthodox direction (as can be seen from the recent awarding of the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing to Richard Bauckham for his extraordinary challenge to scholarship in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). Healthy progressive liberal and theologically to-the-left congregations are few and far between, while it the theologically more conservative who are creatively evangelistic that have become the majority of stronger centers of the faith.

This isn't to say that the English church doesn't have a belly-load of problems and challenges, some of which it is refusing to address; but it is illustrative that so-called progressive faith is not flourishing well in an environment which affirms and celebrates many of the values and attitudes it endorses. Picking over concrete evidence from Britain and asking what this might mean for the Episcopal Church of the USA, one can only confess that it does not auger well on this side of the ocean. Looking at the hard statistics about the health of the Episcopal Church that have been coming out of Anaheim, the best interpretation of them is that the church is in serious decline -- if not free fall, and those who say otherwise are clearly in denial with their ostrich necks firmly stuck down holes.

All this is happening in the midst of the deepest recession in living memory, and one that promises to impact us for a very long time to come. Looking at the dire financial state of the Episcopal Church after the Great Depression might be a valuable exercise to help us grasp what the circumstances of denomination, dioceses, and congregations could well be like when the world eventually pulls out of this dive. Money is the mother's milk of ministry, and there are huge problems if there is none, or little or none.

The churches in England that are healthiest are those who approach their Christian witness in a missional manner: which means trying to ask and answer how we take the gospel message and enable it to speak in an environment where the church a bit of a joke -- or worse. Some of them are making whopping mistakes, but at least they are trying! The intelligensia in Britain will generally take every opportunity to denigrate religious people of all flavors, the Church of England in particular. There is little or no social or intellectual kudos to be gained from being a believer in England, and the bulk of the general population doesn't have the vaguest notion of what the Christian faith is all about. There are too many uncanny parallels to the 1st Century.

Yet, there are Anglican churches (and varieties of others) that are packed to the doors. There are some fascinatingly creative experiments being undertaken. The theologically orthodox seminaries are the ones enrolling the majority of new students. The House of Bishops is becoming increasingly orthodox (although they may not want to label themselves that way), and so on, and so on. The end product will ultimately be a church that looks very different from the one we have now, and it is likely to be one that the older folks (like myself) will have our struggles with. But what is more important: our understanding of the right way to express the faith and decline, or a whole new generation being renewed and revived by God to take the message to their lost and floundering contemporaries?

As a priest of the Episcopal Church I honor my ordination vows and I stand with those who stand with the historic, catholic, and evangelical formularies of the faith. I recite the creeds with conviction, I believe Scripture is God's Word written, and I cannot and will not walk away from what is happening.

At the beginning of this decade I was part of the 2020 Task Force that posited ideas and plans for the doubling of the Episcopal Church in the first two decades of the 21st Century. The reverse has happened because that agenda was dumped by 2003 in favor of what Paul might describe as 'another gospel.' I suspect that if the Episcopal Church is half the size it was in 2000 by 2020 it will be a miracle if the present course continues to be followed.

This is a tragedy of monumental proportions, but it does not prevent us from standing firm alongside Augustine, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Hooker, Janani Luwum, Festo Kivengere and many other selfless women and men who have gone before us in the faith. Error disrupts and does damage, but in the economy of a God who is truth it does not ultimately win the day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Times They Are A-Changing

I'm sitting in my office during my lunch hour thinking. For a while I have been trying to make sense of all that has been happening in the last year or two. Not only has my own life been turned upside down by moving back to work in England after thirty-one wonderful years in the USA, but the world in which we live is experiencing ructions that compare with some of the things I have been going through.

All this has been brewing for a long time, but most of us either didn't notice -- or didn't want to notice -- what was going on. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Soviet bloc fairly rapidly disintegrated. After that I spent several years going in and out of Russia when that giant of a nation was on its knees, and wondering what it would look like if something similar happened in the West.

Of course, the rats were gnawing at the innards of western culture and life, but under the cover of the prosperity of the last couple of decades it was easy to ignore them, or to pretend that they weren't really there. As the millennium turned things seemed to get more frantic. The new century properly began when planes controlled by fanatics flew into New York skyscrapers, sought to obliterate the Pentagon, and could have done worse. For a moment people stopped, even came to church for a few weeks, but seemed to want to reassess what they had believed reality to be. But then, as the trauma diminished it was back to business as usual -- and shop 'til you drop.

But the gnawing didn't stop, so that the results were finally exposed when the crafty misuse of complex financial instruments began blowing up in our faces in the middle of 2007. I moved to England soon afterward, and as I shaved every morning that Fall I listened to the financial gurus of the City of London talking confidently on the BBC of the minimal impact these American misdemeanors would have in Britain. I remembered thinking then that this all seemed like so much whistling in the dark, then I tried to bury the thought feeling guilty that I had even had it.

Just as we watched helplessly on September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers collapsed in on themselves, so during the last twelve months we have watched helplessly as the banking system tottered and almost fell, coming within an ace of bringing down the whole economic world as we have known it. Through the grim, bleak winter that has just passed we listened to day after day of gloomy news and agonizing statistics which rubbed salt into already raw wounds. We aren't out of the woods yet, by any means, but things do appear to be more stable since billions and billions have been thrown at the problem.

As Spring progresses there are suggestions that perhaps, maybe, sometime in the future, we will see some of the slender green shoots of recovery. Meanwhile, the statistics continue to be miserable as hundreds of thousands are thrown out of work, but here and there we see intimations that perhaps not all is lost.

However, all of this is happening against a backdrop of ecological gloom and doom. Constantly, we are being told that the way in which we are living is destroying the planet, melting the ice caps, dissolving the coral reefs, and obliterating any future that our children and children's children might enjoy. This diet of planetary despair leads many of us to shrug, mutter "What's the use?" and keep on living as we are living because, however much we care, there are no viable alternatives being presented to us.

It is into this that the latest peculiarly British crisis has been dropped -- Members of Parliament messing with their expenses. I suspect that the House of Commons is a pretty fair reflection of the cross-section of people they represent, a good number of whom would not be averse to a little bit of nest-feathering of their own if given half a chance. But this for many has been the final straw, and it would be surprising if significant parliamentary reforms were not ultimately in store here. The last time politicians were so loathed, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, it eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, something desperately needed and long overdue.

There is little doubt to me that these gloomy facts are evidence that we have reached the end of a particular chapter in western, possibly even human, history, and that a new chapter might well be in the process of beginning. The trouble is we don't yet know whether it will be better or worse than the one now closing.

I was thinking these thoughts when I read a little piece by Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of The Times of London. In it she quotes a letter received by The Times in the last few days. It read, 'There is growing evidence that society is starting to embark on a process of desecularisation. The role of religion in renewing civil society, human well-being and the growing identity politics are all significant reasons why it is back on the political agenda....Since religion is going to play a more central role in global politics in the future, we'd better try harder to understand it.'

I don't know whether the author is right, but there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that course which our culture and society has been following for so long has run out of steam, and that we are disgusted with ourselves for allowing it to go on for so long. Just perhaps, now is the time when a tired and jaded secular world will look again to the treasures of its religious and spiritual past that until now it has so happily trampled underfoot.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity

The Lost History of Christianity
- The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia
Philip Jenkins
(Oxford: Lion Publishing. 2008
New York: HarperCollins. 2008)

A Review by Richard Kew

I have gained much from Philip Jenkins' writing, and his latest book, The Lost History of Christianity, I have found to be as edifying as his earlier titles. This book is a surprisingly successful attempt to open up a Christian world that is little more than a ghost to most of us in the west.

Jenkins sets out to explore the rise and decline of the churches of Asia and the East over the last two millennia. While much of the hard data relating to these churches has long since disappeared, what evidence there is tells the story of a vibrant faith during most of the first millennium of the Christian story, followed by a steady decline that during the last hundred years or so has accelerated. Professor Jenkins fills out a story of which a few of us might be aware, by drawing upon the remaining shreds of evidence that have been left behind by these believers.

He wants us to know something of the history of a lost Christianity because “a society that today considers itself Christian might in a century or two have equal confidence in its complete identification with Islam, or radical secularism, or Buddhism, or some other religion not yet born. That caveat also applies to specific denominations...” (page 42). Jenkins ends his book by drawing out a selection conclusions for us to ponder in our time. These may not be rocket science, but they demand serious attention.

Philip Jenkins is one of those gifted intellects whose reading is encyclopedic, as is his capacity to absorb, organize, and synthesize the quantities of information he has been digesting. Perhaps one of the shortcomings of his earlier works has been a tendency to overwhelm the reader with so much data that the narrative gets so thick that it loses its vivacity, sometimes with the result that the case being made is swamped by the welter of facts and statistics backing it up. “The Lost History of Christianity,” perhaps because so much of the information pertaining to these eastern churches has been lost or deliberately destroyed, does not fall into this trap.

The result is 262 pages of riveting reading. For a long time now books seldom have the ability to keep me awake if I read them in bed before putting the light out: this was an exception. Oh, I don't want to give the impression that this book is under-researched and based on hunch and intuition, because there are a further 34 pages of endnotes!

We westerners read the story of the spread of Christianity with our perceptions molded by the Acts of the Apostles and our own geographic location. Whether we like it or not our viewpoint is shaped by the fact that our heritage is rooted in the European part of the Roman Empire and what followed it. The result is that we overlook the reality that missionaries headed out from Jerusalem after the Day of Pentecost to every point of the compass, not just westward. In fact, the eastward expansion of the Christian faith is nothing short of spectacular.

In large parts of western Europe the natives did not exactly fall over themselves to accept this new faith, while to the east extraordinary things were happening in the name of Christ. Just as the Roman roads aided the spread of the gospel in our direction, the Silk Road and other trade routes across central Asia enabled the message to move well beyond the borders of the Mediterranean world. If Roman stability assisted things in the west, those pioneers traveling eastward were dependent upon the power of the Persian Empire. And, “as in Europe, early followers of Jesus spread into a world already extensively colonized by Jews” (Page 53).

This glorious history has perhaps been overlooked because of our myopic (and sometimes fretful) focus on Europe, as well as those centuries further on, by the New World and those bits of the globe that were influenced by more recent European colonial ambitions. The churches in the east were sage and mature when those in the west were still trying to find their voice and their spiritual compass.

We may treasure some of the awe-inspiriting stories that brought the message to our part of the planet, but our limited horizons mean that we have never properly noticed the courageous mission to the east with its own set of heroes and martyrs. Within relatively few centuries the Gospel had penetrated Africa as far as Nubia and Ethiopia, as well as all the way from the Mediterranean to the heartland of China. I was amazed to learn of strong and established bishoprics in places as diverse as Tibet and Samarkand well before the end of the first millennium, and that these Christians developed cordial relationships with the pluralistic mishmash of religious traditions that they encountered.

The tale of the eastern church is the story of powerful centers of learning serving literally hundreds of dioceses networked across a landscape that we today think of as having been Islamic from the moment that Mohammed's followers came out of Arabia. Basra and Baghdad were major centers of Christian learning, with equally impressive focal points hundreds of miles further to the east. Christian mission was well established in Arabia, with strong churches led by forward-looking bishops in what was to become the heartland of Mohammad and modern Yemen. Indeed, Jenkins suggests the significant influence of these Christians upon the founders of Islam.

Hugh Jordan, who taught me Old Testament in the 1960s, was convinced that Islam is actually a Christian heresy, a thesis with which Jenkins toys. “Even when Christianity has seemingly been eradicated, we find many traces of it on the cultural and religious landscape. A traveler in today's Middle East sees societies that are so overwhelmingly Muslim, and in some instances exclusively so. In many cases, though, those Muslims are the lineal descendants of communities that were once Christian, and that often maintained their Christian loyalties for a millennium or more. Even if the connection is not by blood, many other Muslims live in nations in which Christian influence was once predominant and shaped everyday life... Modern Christians or Muslims can scarcely denounce the practices of the other religion without in the process rejecting a substantial part of their own heritage” (Page 174-175).

Having made such a sweeping statement, Jenkins then sets about illustrating some of these factors, demonstrating how, for example, strands of Christian piety were translated into Islamic terms and have given substance to various traditions of the Muslim faith. For example, he ponders the possibility of a close link between Islamic devotional practices and the Jesus Prayer, as well as the manner in which the historic Ethiopian and Yemeni Christian approach to Lent gave shape to the Islamic season of Ramadan.

While Christianity may have rapidly collapsed before the advance of Islam in North Africa for particular set of social reasons, it did not crumble and fall when Muslim princes became the rulers of other lands. Even as Islam grew stronger, Christians remained at the core of society for centuries following. Even after the arrival of the Muslims there were courageous missionaries, extraordinary bishops, preachers, and teachers, as well as diplomats, monks, hermits, and daily heavenward focus of ancient liturgies. Jenkins asserts that very often the basis of the learning that gets attributed today solely to Islam during its intellectual heyday, was actually grounded in the scholarship of Christians in major centers like Baghdad – whether it be the study be mathematics and philosophy, or any of the other sciences.

One of the reasons we know little of this story is that at its core were churches whose theological niceties were scorned by the church catholic of the great Councils. For example, there is little doubt that some of the most dynamic missionaries of the first thousand years were the Nestorians, a group expelled as heretics after the Council of Ephesus in 431AD. Yet, Nestorius and his followers could well have been excommunicated as much because of a strong political undercurrent running against them as because they nuanced the nature of the Godhead slightly differently from the majority. However, when placing Nestorius and his crew beside some of the absurd theologies circulating within the churches today, they look like paragons of doctrinal virtue!

As Philip Jenkins draws together the threads of his research he makes some tentative suggestions about churches that once were and now are no longer, and upon which we would be wise to chew. He challenges us to ask various far-reaching questions about our own church and current Christian tradition. “The ruins of Christianity in a particular region might confound Christians who have long been accustomed to seeing the expansion of their faith as a fundamental expectation,” he writes, but asks us to see the long haul of the faith within the broader and over-arching providence of the God who is the Lord of history.

He wonders aloud how we might interpret the apparent disappearance of the faith from what was once its well-established heartland, and what this might have to do with winning the world for Jesus Christ. One brief illustration he draws attention to has fascinated me for several years. This is the “Back to Jerusalem” movement being prayed over and fostered by the growing Christian Church in contemporary China. Could it be that they have properly understood the panorama of the history of salvation when they think of themselves as God's chosen vessels called to take the faith back to Jerusalem from the east along the trade routs of that old Silk Road?

I would love to see a variety of authors write about various facets of this story, making them accessible to the general reader, and providing further insights into some of the broader observations that Jenkins makes. I suspect there is much food for thought for those of us living in post-Christian Europe, for example, as we explore precisely how the Christian churches were eclipsed in the east, how geopolitics played into the hands of the forces aligned against the churches, what precisely was the role of Islam and the rise of the Arabic language, and so forth.

I don't think that The Lost History of Christianity is a book that is likely to sit on my bookshelves gathering dust as so many other volumes do. I am sure that there are assertions that can and will be challenged by more serious scholars than myself, but I am also sure that with broad brush strokes Philip Jenkins has written something that will force us to ask and seek answers to some very difficult questions.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Being an Anomaly

Some weeks ago I met another Anglo-American returnee, a professional woman who has been back in England several years longer than myself. Over lunch she "comforted" me with the news that I have at least another two years of adjusting to do before I will have come to terms again with being back in this country again. I was grateful for Liz's insight because I guess I was beginning to think along such lines myself.

Re-acclimating to Britain has been a seesaw kind of business, positives and negatives mingled with one another in a hodgepodge kind of way. There is the sheer exhilaration of coming into work on a soft spring morning with the sun breaking through the mist over Kings College Chapel and the Backs, only to be greeted when I get to work by something annoyingly English that has me grinding my teeth!

I love the work that I have been called to do, and feel privileged that for the last lap of my stipendiary ministry I am able to do something that could have a real long-term impact on the advance of the Kingdom, but at the same time I realize with every passing day that I am an anomaly. As when a radio station is slightly out of tune, so do I feel about my inability to fit here.

To begin with, development and institutional advancement has a puzzling flavor to many on this side of the water -- and that a priest should be doing it further intensifies that puzzlement. But playing a part in bringing the noble work of gathering resources to the fore is the sort of challenge that I have always relished. I guess that having played a role in widening the commitment to global mission among North American Anglicans over the last thirty years, which was no small feat, getting people used to raising of funds for ministry and mission should be a no-brainer here... but I am not sure that it is. However, my life has been a succession of challenging interludes, so I suppose that what I am doing fits me admirably.

But then the waters are muddied by the fact that I am really much more American in my attitudes than I had ever imagined when I came back. A friend who is the CEO of one of the largest container ports in East Asia, and who was back home for a couple of weeks leave over Easter, with typical North of England bluntness said things about the British with which I found myself agreeing with 101%. His work has taken him all around the world, and the attitudes of the British do not enamor him one little bit. I often find myself scratching my head that this nation once put together the greatest Empire in the world, because now visionary thinking is very much a minority sport in most areas of enterprise.

I love that American expansiveness that says, "Let's give it a try," and I caught that bug in my three decades in this States -- something that makes me very much an anomaly on the British side of the Pond. What is lovely, however, is that it is not entirely dead. There are great successes that people have when they think and act that way, rather than playing protective games that erase the excitment that comes when taking a calculated risk.

Two sayings from my American years have indelibly imprinted themselves on my consciousness. One is from Martin Luther King, who said that if a man has not found anything worth dying for, then he isn't fit to live (remember King spoke before gender inclusive language became the norm). The other is that we need to take on challenges that are so big, that unless the Lord is in them they are bound to fail. That's what gets my juices flowing.

But such thinking doesn't cause much of a ripple here, and yet could unleash such talent if it was tried. It isn't that such big picture thinking isn't possible but that there is a tendency to shy away from it and play safe. I guess I have never been too good at shying!

But another thing that makes me an anomaly is far more personal, and that is that even when I am trying to be extra careful I find when speaking with others that I am often slightly out of tune. A very funny joke flops, a throwaway remark is interpreted in the wrong way, or in some way or another I find myself talking past someone -- even when being scrupulous in my choice of subject or words. While my accent might sound almost English when I speak, beneath the words that come out is a mindset and worldview that is thoroughly transatlantic and at odds with Old World attitudes.

We really are two great peoples divided by a common language, but when that becomes personified in one individual who isn't quite sure which of those languages or thought worlds he inhabits, then the confusion is complete. This then carries across into everything else from the way in which we "do church" to the manner in which we make decisions, explore interesting ideas, or seek to find our way through difficult sets of circumstances.

It is interesting that the things about which Americans get passionate are somewhat different than those which light up the sky for Brits. It does seem to me that the British are much more inclined to accept uncomplainingly what is dished out from those in power and authority, and yet there is a certain kind of assertiveness and posturing among leaders in the States that would never go down in this country. Then, while most of the "loud mouths" on the American scene come from the Right, often the very far Right, in Britain they tend to be more measured, less bombastic, but are also distinctively leftward leaning.

Whereas secularism has eaten away at the heart of each nation in its own way, I would have to say that because there is still a healthy civil religion in the States, there is still something of a soul in public life most parts of the country. Here, such a thing is very hard to find, and it is de rigor in the media to ignore, denounce, or find fault with all things religious and religious people (always very carefully and respectfully if they are Islamic, but with utter disdain if they have anything to do with the Church of England!).

But then there are wonderful things about England that I am treasuring. This afternoon, for instance, I took my bike and headed out across the fields and along the Fenland ditches for miles, listening to the birds in the air and watching the little clouds go scudding across a gentle blue April sky. In the distance on the horizon were the towers of Cathedral in Ely, whose diocese is this year celebrating the 900th anniversary of its founding.

And then there is Cambridge itself. It is crammed to overflowing with some of the brightest people I have ever come across. World-class discoveries are coming out of Cambridge laboratories and hi-tech facilities with monotonous regularity, and at a social gathering you might find yourself talking one minute to a learned barrister and the next to an inventor who is bubbling over with ideas. On top of that, I wouldn't have missed Maundy Thursday at Kings College...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Manure and the Church

For my special Lenten reading this year I have chosen Eugene Peterson's book, Tell it Slant. Asking us to consider the way we use language, Peterson takes us through Samaria with Jesus as he went up to Jerusalem in Luke's Gospel, opening up the parables that are the heart of the Lord's teaching. Early this morning I got to what Peterson calls the Manure Parable (Luke 13:6-9).

Here is a parable that I have read for years, puzzled over, but never really properly understood -- and had certainly not seen in light of the struggles that the churches, especially the Episcopal Church, have been going through in recent years. But Eugene Peterson has not only shed fresh light on my understanding, but has also given me some helpful insights into the way we have all been handling ourselves, especially through the last half dozen years.

The parable goes like this:
Then Jesus told them a story: "A man had a fig tree planted in his front yard. He came to it expecting to find figs, but there weren't any. He said to his gardener, 'What's going on here? For three years now I've come to this tree expecting figs and not one fig have I found. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?' The gardener said, 'Let's give it another year. I'll loosen the ground and dig in manure. Maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn't, then chop it down.'"

When I saw the subject of the chapter this morning was manure, I have to admit that I wasn't particularly excited. I thought I might skim over the pages so that I was soon somewhere more interesting. But from the outset it grabbed me. Here is Jesus leading his disciples through the sometimes dangerous country of Samaria where religious wars are common and even bloody, but he is challenging the natural response which is "Chop it down!"

"So much of the time it is not complecency that threatens but its opposite, impetuosity. We see something that is wrong, whether in the world or in the church, and we fly into action, righting the wrong, confronting sin and wickedness, battling the enemy, and then we go out vigorously recruiting 'Christian soldiers' ... we solve kingdom problems by amputation" (Page 69).

He goes on to point out that manure is not a quick fix because it takes a long time before anyone begins to see that it is making any difference. What we want is results: which means chopping down the tree, clearing the ground, making a fresh start. Spreading manure is neither glamorous or exhilarating work, it is the slow solution, but "it's the stuff of resurrection."

He quotes George Adam Smith, the great Victorian Scottish expositor who says when commenting on some of Isaiah's prophecy that "we are not warriors but artists... after the fashion of Jesus Christ who came not to condemn... but to building life up to the image of Christ." What a wonderful description of the nature of Christian ministry and relationships during difficult times.

The trouble is, we don't have the patience for manure -- cut it down, make a fresh start, if we are Christian soldiers then those who disagree with us must be the enemy.

Peterson goes on, "Manure. The Psalms are prayers worked into the soil of our lives to shape our imaginations and obedience so that we live our lives to shape our imaginations and obedience so that we live our lives congruent wit hthe way God works in the world and in us, works in a world of violence and antipathyu without becoming violent. One of the most repeated sentences, repeated because we are so impatient to 'cut it down and get on with it,' is 'O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; His steadfast love endures forever... His love never quits.

Manure. God is not in a hurry. We are repeatedly told to 'Wait for the Lord.' But that is not counsel that is readily accepted by followers of Jesus who have been conditioned by promises of instant gratification, whether American or Assyrian. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, one of our great modern Isaianic prophets who has extensive experience with violence in two World Wars, wrote, 'The greatest temptation of our time is impatience, in its full original meaning: refusal to wait, undergo, suffer. We seem unwilling to pay the price of living with our fellows in creative and profound relationships.' Like Isaiah, he was ignored" (Page 72).

But we are in a hurry. We are pushing to put things right, and to get them right here and now -- even if it means pushing God out of the way but, of course, in the name of God!

"Manure. Silence. Manure reentering the condition of 'Let it be done to me,' submitting to the silent energies that change death into life, the energies of resurrection. Language consists in equal parts of speaking and silence. The art of language requires skills in not speaking quite as much as skills in speaking. Much mischief and misunderstanding result from talking that is not embedded in much listening. When we listen we are silent. I like Saul Bellow's comment, 'The more you keep your mouth shut, the more fertile you become.' Silence is the manure of resurrection...

... The Manure Story is free-floating throughout the journey through Samaria -- as it is in the journey through America. It is ready for use whenever we come up against animosity, against antagonism and impetuous indignation and are prepared to counter the opposition with violence, whether verbal or physical. But the story comies to its most powerful and incisive expression in words Jesus spoke from the cross..." (Page 73).

As I look at the ruins around us as well as the promise of more to come, there is great enlightenment in the words of Jesus, and Eugene Peterson's insight as we seek to understand them. This is a little story for the church in our time. It is a story that points the finger at our impatience that fails to allow the manure of divine grace to slowly filter its way into our relationships, our disagreements, our politics.

This is a story that speaks volumes to those of us whose impatient wielding of power has us hurling vituperative lawsuits at those who can take no more and want to walk away.

At the same time it is strong medicine for those who have lost patience and walked away saying "Chop it down" as they have departed -- and sometimes those words are spat out with agonizing viciousness.

We have become warriors and abandoned the artform of the Christian faith. It is little wonder that there is a swathe of destruction all around us that is the ecclesiastical kin to the path taken by a tornado through a densely populated suburb. I know that is a good analogy because I have had just such a thing happen to me.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

We No Longer Take A Newspaper

For the first time in my whole life I live in a house that does not have a regular subscription to a daily newspaper. This is not to say that we are no longer keeping up with the news (although it is SO bad that often I would rather bury my head in the sand), rather it is a vote of no confidence in the quality of daily journalism. While I find journalism leaving a lot to be desired everywhere, in the UK it seems to be particularly unattractive.

I read a newspaper so that I might learn what is going on in the world, and while I realize that I am going to get it funneled to me through the perceptions of the writer, I have reached a point where I am tired of the journalist propaganizing me for his or her particular agenda. Since my initial first-hand encounters with the press in the early 1970s when I discovered that their description of events at which I was present did not seem to jibe with what I had seen and experienced, I have been leary of the media. Over the years, on those rare occasions when I have been interviewed, I have concluded that rather than listening to what I am saying and engaging with me, they have instead been looking for a hook on which to hang a story that might have a whiff of controversy about it. Since the dreadful fall of 2003, after a particularly painful episode, I have avoided dealing with journalists altogether.

It seems to me that if we want to get a rough idea of what is actually going on then we need to gather our news from a whole variety of sources, taking into account the innate biases that these sources might have. One newspaper with its own editorial line is no longer enough, and if taken needs to be supplemented by all sorts of other publications in various media formats. Neither is one broadcasting source enough, whether it is the BBC or the Fox News Channel, each of which has their own bias despite their vaunted claims otherwise.

These days we find ourselves primarily drawing on the Economist, the BBC (both domestic and the World Service), the online New York Times, CNN International, CNBC, Bloomberg, the online Tennessean, the online Times of London, and the headline services that appear on AOL, Yahoo, and other internet portals. The important thing is then to measure reports from different sources against one another, mentally debating their reports and assertions. I know that I am going to get much more serious reporting of current events from the BBC World Service, the Economist, and the NY Times, but then unlike AOL and Yahoo they don't give me interesting little snippets of information that provide some flavor for our worldview.

I think it is the Times of London that has disappointed me the most since returning to England. This once great icon of serious news reporting seems to have lost its way in the rough and tumble of the highly competitive newspaper market in Britain, and as a result the perspective of its reporters and correspondents leaves the reading asking questions about what actually is going on. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum the popular daily tabloids are about as helpful as the average weekly tabloid found at the supermarket checkout in the USA! This might be amusing, but it needs to be remembered that it is these that are shaping popular opinion.

The media that I have missed most since returning to Britain has been National Public Radio and the wonderful current affairs programming of Public Television. NPR has always said that it has modeled itself on the BBC -- well, I would have to say that in much of its handling of the news it has surpassed the Beeb by far.

The funny thing is that I don't feel anything is missing now that a newspaper is no longer delivered each day to our home, which rather surprises me. I rather like it that twice a day the New York Times plops into my online intray, and despite the howls of some that the Times is too liberal there is something stately about the way in which it handles the stories and issues that are concerning the world. I am actually looking forward to Amazon beginning to sell the Kindle outside of the USA because I intend to buy one -- and could very well subscribe to have the NY Times delivered to it!

I guess, therefore, that there are two reasons why we no longer receive the delivery of a newspaper. One is that the journalism is not of a quality that we actually want to pay for it, and the other is that we are actually find ourselves being ushered further into the electronic age of news delivery services. However, I am old-fashioned enough to say that if a newspaper is worth buying then I would jump for it. When we were recently on vacation in Vienna we read the International Herald Tribune, a publication that I think is a real winner.

There is increasing talk about newspapers going under in the midst of the economic crisis, and of journalists losing their jobs. Perhaps one of the ways this could be prevented would be their willingness to publish the quality that would make you mad not to subscribe to their publication.