Making Sense of the Mess at General Seminary

I’ve got no wisdom on this awful, heartbreaking, embarrassing situation, knowing almost nothing about GTS except being acquainted with several alums. But I’ve been asked about it by some folks, so I thought it might help to point people to pieces that have helped me understand something of the situation. The first, most important, and perhaps only necessary thing to read is Crusty Old Dean’s ruminations.

Crusty reminds us of several important facts: 1) That even in the seemingly stable and everlasting Episcopal Church, institutions come and go, including seminaries. It may be that General is simply not going to survive. 2) That this conflict comes at the nexus of two significant transformations in our society–the changing role of religion, especially mainline Christianity and the transformation of higher education. Seminaries are caught up in both of these larger cultural forces.

3) (Although Crusty doesn’t explicitly say this)That this conflict, and the quick escalation to “firings” or “resignations” reflects the corporatization of the church and the academy (see the discussion of the Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church for more of the former). In the place of conversation, prayer, and discernment, we have lawyers (on both sides).

I agree with Crusty’s assessment that General may not survive this and that there will be repercussions throughout US theological education for years to come.

Derek Olsen discusses the significance of the changes in corporate worship and daily prayer for the overall life of the seminary and the formation of the students.

The faculty have put up a website that offers some of their perspective.

And The New York Times has an article providing background, including the news that the Seminary Board of Trustees will meet with the faculty.

Oh, and by the way, according to the GTS website, Bishop Miller of the Diocese of Milwaukee is a member of the Board of Trustees.

IfIs the Anglican Communion whimpering to its end?

News reports today suggest that the Lambeth Conference, the meeting of Anglican Bishops from across the world that is scheduled to take place in 2018, has been postponed indefinitely. Although there’s no official word from the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Anglican Communion Office, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori of the Episcopal Church reported at the recent House of Bishops meeting in Taiwan that Archbishop Welby had informed her of the postponement.

The Lambeth Conference meets every ten years and has previously been postponed twice because of World Wars I and II. This time, the postponement is not due to world war but to conflict within the Communion itself. In fact, more than 200 of the 700-plus bishops boycotted the 2008 gathering.

Lambeth is understood to be one of the four “Instruments of Communion” that bind the Anglican Communion together (in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates Meetings, and the Anglican Consultative Council. Jefforts Schori was quoted to say that Archbishop Welby told her that the next Lambeth Conference would not to be preceded by a Primates’ Meeting at which “the vast majority of are present.” Whether such a meeting is possible in the current climate remains to be seen.

If true, this seems to me a very big deal indeed. I’m rather surprised PB Jefforts Schori’s comments were not picked up and explored earlier. The Anglican Communion is knit together by means of very weak threads and the postponement of Lambeth can only mean further disintegration. In the meantime, other bodies are being created that bring together like-minded groups intent on creating their own version of Anglicanism.

Sigh… Madison’s homeless will be left out in the cold this winter

So after all that, there won’t be a comprehensive day resource center for the homeless in Madison or Dane County any time soon. I’ve not blogged about the issue recently but the Town of Madison has decided to appeal the Board of Adjustments’ ruling granting the zoning variance to the County for 1490 Martin Street. The town’s opposition to the site had delayed the purchase and renovation of the facility throughout the summer and into the fall. I attended a meeting last week where the best-case scenario was that the County could take possession on January 1, 2015. The Town’s decision to appeal delays that indefinitely.

This raises two important issues. The first is the immediate one. There are practically no plans in place to provide day shelter this winter. There have been several meetings trying to cobble together the same network of services that were available last winter. There’s been some resistance from providers and last year’s experience shows the need for advance planning and provision for weekends when several of the largest providers are not open.

The second issue is long-term. It’s my judgment that at this point the County should acknowledge that the Town of Madison’s delaying tactics succeeded. I suspect, although I do not know, that 1490 Martin St. was latched to by County Staff as an easy solution. It was already being used as a de facto day shelter and the bureaucrats didn’t expect vocal opposition from the neighborhood (something that can be anticipated with the attempted siting of any such facility). And from my perspective, the County Board deserves some criticism for passing the matter off to staff without engaging in the difficult political of finding and securing a location. Add to that the general opposition of the homeless community and their advocates to the Martin Street location, what we have is a classic example of how not to accomplish something in government.

No doubt the scramble is on. We may see a flurry of efforts in the coming days to develop a short-term solution but such temporary efforts bring their own level of uncertainty and chaos, both to the guests who seek services and to those who seek to provide them. Helping people emerge from homelessness and become contributing members of society requires dedicated, long-term engagement. When you’re not sure where you might seek assistance (or a warm place to spend the day) on top of not being sure where you’re going to be spending the night, committing oneself to breaking out of the cycle of homelessness becomes even more daunting.

 

Saying yes to God’s new future: A sermon for Proper 21, Year A

Each Wednesday at 12:10, a small group of us gather in the chancel for the Eucharist. There’s a core group of four regulars in addition to myself, and each week we’re usually joined by anywhere from 2 to 10 others. Some Wednesdays, I follow the church calendar as it commemorates a saint or other notable Christian from the past. Other weeks, I take the opportunity to begin thinking and reflecting about the readings for the coming Sunday.

This past Wednesday, I focused my comments on the rich passage from Philippians 2. The heart of it was probably a hymn that was used by Christians in worship and adapted by Paul for his purposes in this letter. It has been a key text in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, providing imagery and food for thought that has preoccupied theologians for centuries and found its way into our own liturgy and worship. I was going to go all Christology: kenosis, adoptionism, all the rest.

But as I read the gospel at the Wednesday Eucharist, I found myself full of questions about what was going on in this brief and apparently disjointed passage. Later that afternoon, I received an email from one of the regulars asking me to help her understand what Jesus was going on about here. So instead, I’ve been thinking about this puzzling passage and how it connects with our lives.

Key to making sense of Jesus’ teachings here is the context. The lectionary tells us where Jesus was when he said these things—the Temple. What’s less obvious is when he said them. This comes after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. Matthew is quite explicit in his chronology (following Mark closely) and says that after the Triumphal Entry, Jesus and his disciples went to the temple, where he drove out the money-changers, and healed some people. Then they left the city and spent the night in Bethany.

They returned to the temple the very next day and as Matthew tells it, this question from the chief priests and elders is the first of several encounters between Jesus and representatives of the religious establishment. They ask him, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” We might infer that they are referring to Jesus’ teachings and to the healings he has performed, but undoubtedly, Matthew also wants us to conclude that they are asking about Jesus’ authority to drive out the moneychangers. In short, the religious establishment wants to know why Jesus is stirring things up. They may be worried about their own position; they are probably worried about the institution—the temple—with which they, their authority, their power, status and wealth, are bound up. And undoubtedly, they are looking over their shoulders at the Romans, who are ready to quash any sign of rebellion or unrest.

Jesus had done a number of things that asserted his authority. His triumphal entry, riding on a donkey, accompanied by palms and the singing of Hosanna to the Son of David was a proclamation of his messiah-ship. Immediately following that, he entered the temple and disrupted the business of the moneychangers. Now, the next day, he is again in the temple, teaching. All of this is a direct challenge to the religious establishment and to the status quo. Jesus is stirring things up. When the chief priests and elders come to him and ask him by what authority he has done these things, is an attempt to put him in his place, to catch him out, so that they might have him arrested.

But, as is so often the case in Matthew, when asked a question, Jesus replies with a question of his own. His question is a trap for them that they immediately recognize. By asking about the authority of John the Baptist, Jesus is associating himself with the popular, martyred prophet and demanding the chief priests take a public stance on John’s ministry and message. They refuse to respond, but silence itself was an answer.

Jesus follows up his question with a simple parable about a man who asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. When refuses, but then goes to work later, anyway. The other says he’ll go, but doesn’t. It’s an odd parable, but also compelling, for we can all put ourselves in the place of any of the three characters. We’ve probably experienced something very much like that—being asked by a parent to do something, saying yes, and not doing it; or as a parent asking a child to do something. But what does the parable have to do with the question of authority, of the nature of John’s prophetic ministry (and by extension, Jesus’ own)?

Consider this. In the parable, the father has authority over his sons. He tells them to go work in the vineyard. The two respond differently to the request, but later, the one goes to work, even though he had initially refused. We don’t know why; no reason is given. Yet we could imagine any number of reasons, some of them legitimate, for his initial refusal. A single example—he had too many other things to do. What’s interesting is that he, the son, didn’t take his initial no for his final answer. He revisited it later, changed his mind, and got to work. He imagined an alternative, a new, a different future that wasn’t limited by his past experience and his past answers.

After the parable, Jesus comments about the effects of John’s ministry. He was rejected by the religious establishment but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him and even after seeing that, the chief priests and elders refused to accept him or listen to him.

All this helps us understand what Jesus is getting at here. The chief priests and elders came to him, trying to trap him. They were secure in their power, secure in their understanding of Jewish law and what it meant to be faithful to God. John, and Jesus, were offering different interpretations, offering transformation to the worst of sinners and social outcasts. They heard John’s and Jesus’ words of hope and promise, and imagined a different, new future in which they were no longer limited by the pasts they had lived. By contrast, the chief priests and elders couldn’t imagine an alternative future, an alternative world in which God accepted and loved tax collectors and prostitutes. They could only imagine a future like the present in which they lived.

Our pasts can often limit our imaginations. The burden of history, personal or institutional, can be onerous indeed. For us at Grace, we can sometimes feel weighed down by the thick walls that surround this building. Its space, its legacy can narrow our perspective and make it difficult to imagine new ways of being church and being community here. Our history, the conflict we have experienced over the years can frighten us and make us timid. But we are imagining a new future in this season as we embark on our capital campaign and plan for renovations that will adapt our space to our current context.

We are all burdened by our pasts. We struggle with decisions we have made that we have come to regret. We live with the pain of broken relationships and other things that shape our present lives close off our futures. But God is beckoning to us, offering us a new future with new possibilities, a future in which God invites us to leave the hurts and regrets of the past behind, say yes to God, that we are God’s beloved children.

The Presiding Bishop will stand down

Katharine Jefforts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has announced she will not seek reelection in 2015. Elected in 2006, PB Jefforts Schori is eligible for reelection according to the rather complicated rules laid out in the canons, and there had been considerable speculation that she might do so.

She writes:

I believe I can best serve this Church by opening the door for other bishops to more freely discern their own vocation to this ministry.  I also believe that I can offer this Church stronger and clearer leadership in the coming year as we move toward that election and a whole-hearted engagement with necessary structural reforms.  I will continue to engage us in becoming a more fully diverse Church, spreading the gospel among all sorts and conditions of people, and wholeheartedly devoted to God’s vision of a healed and restored Creation.

Previously, the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop had issued three essays laying out the nominating and election process, the current roles and responsibilities of the office, and how the office has changed over the centuries. Those essays are worth reading and available here:

Meanwhile, the Task Force on Reimagining the Church (TREC) has issued its own vision for changing the structure and governance of the Church. It envisions a vastly expanded set of powers for the Presiding Bishop while streamlining various governing bodies. That document has received criticism for reducing the participation of laity and democratic process.

An Atheist has a mystical experience: On reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book has been on my reading list since I first heard about it and it’s well worth the read, if somewhat dissatisfying in the end. Ehrenreich is the author of among other things, Nickled and Dimed in America, a feminist, activist, and avowed atheist (unto the fourth generation). It turns out she had what she identifies as a mystical experience as an adolescent. Now, much later in life, she re-engages with her younger self by rereading the journal she kept during her childhood and youth. She attempts to make sense of what happened to her. Here’s how she writes about it:

At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time–the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a glorious tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Looking back from the distance of decades, Ehrenreich can make sense of what happened scientifically. She notes that she must have had “dissociative disorder” and that the episodes (this wasn’t the only one) often occurred in connection with the bright light of the sun. So, when she left LA for college in Oregon at Reed, these episodes became much less frequent because of the climate in the Pacific Northwest.

Ehrenreich, for all of her atheism and scientific background, is unwilling to explain her experiences solely in terms of physiological processes. Instead, she claims some sort of external referent which she calls “the other” (drawing on Rudolf Otto, of course, but also Philip K. Dick). So, years later, in the Florida Keys, she comes to understand it:

as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts–the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way–that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces–from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon  thunder–there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She notes that this presence, this Other, is not benevolent and rejects (or remains uncertain) whether the Other is single or multiple. In fact, in her interview with Jeff Sharlet, she accepts the term animism for what she experienced.

It’s a fascinating read for two reasons. First, because you get the sense that the clearheaded, incredibly intelligent, passionate woman who’s writing in her seventies is in many ways the person who experienced the world similarly fifty years earlier. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the acerbic comments about parents or teachers or classmates could have been shared by the teenager, but it’s still amazing to get the older woman’s take on her younger self.

The second fascinating thing is to see how this mystical experience works on the scientific atheist. It doesn’t bring her into conventional religion, by any means, but it does make her less certain about herself and her life. She has opened herself up to the possibility that there are realms of experience and reality that are not yet (and perhaps never will be) susceptible to scientific scrutiny or explanation and she seems at peace with that.

Jeff Sharlet’s conversation with her in May: