Anglicans and Reformation Day

#ReformationDay is trending on Twitter but probably not among Anglicans and Episcopalians. For the most part we downplay our tradition’s roots in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. When we blow our own horns (which we do rather too often) we usually mention something about the via media, seeking (or following) a middle road between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In fact, among contemporary US Episcopalians, the word “Protestant” may even be something of a negative. We want to distinguish ourselves from those low church folks who emphasize sola scriptura.

The fact of the matter is we are Protestants, even if we want to downplay it. Partly the problem is a matter of definition. What do we mean by the term? If we mean some central doctrinal tenets: justification by faith alone, sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, we have wandered rather far from our roots, which explains why the 39 Articles have been relegated to the “historical documents” section of the Book of Common Prayer. If by Protestant we mean worship styles and forms of devotion, again, most contemporary US Episcopalians are closer to Roman Catholics than were our ancestors one hundred fifty or two hundred years ago.

But Protestant means many things and has meant many things. In the sixteenth century, the very name Protestant came into existence as a result of a political act. Indeed, the most inclusive (and precise) definition of the term for the sixteenth century may simply be those who rejected papal supremacy.

I’ve written previously on Reformation Day here, here, here, and preached a sermon on it here. If you want some ideas on how to celebrate it, Mary Valle offered these tips a few years ago:

  •  Temporarily whitewash an unoccupied stone church—au style de Christo à la Jésus,
  •  Have a wine-into-juice station,
  •  Smash molded-sugar plaster saints,
  • Encourage everyone to bring various theses they might have boxed up in the basement—college, master’s, doctoral—and nail them to a selection of old, warped doors.
  • Rip off  “cassocks,” emerging in layman’s polyester suits.
  • Suggested soundtrack: Anything from the Jesus Music era, Bach, or Mendelssohn. Or no music if you want to go that far. You might!

And an image that captures the heart of Martin Luther’s theology and self-understanding:


Reflecting on the Recent Synod on the Family

There’s been a great deal of discussion and media attention to the recent Synod on the Family held at the Vatican. Western media and progressives were agog at the prospect of a welcome for LGBT people and for divorced and remarried Catholics. Then a few days later, they were outraged when it appeared the Synod reversed course. As one example, the Episcopal Cafe announced: “Catholic Bishops fail to welcome gay, divorced Christians.”

One can understand the wider culture’s inability to understand what precisely is going on in the Synod (I use the present participle because there will be a follow-up next year at which a final report will be issued). What’s more surprising is that even Catholics don’t get the dynamics at play. Witness Ross Douthat, who in his Sunday column in the New York Times seemed to be threatening schism (there’s another living pope, after all), and the absolute immutability of church doctrine over time. Douthat reasserts the importance of the latter to his own Catholicism in a blog post yesterday.

The greatest living American Catholic historian, John S. O’Malley, SJ responds to Douthat and provides background to the synod here. He writes:

Change is in the air at the synod. To that extent Mr. Douthat is right. Moreover, change is problematic for an institution whose very reason for existence is to preserve and proclaim unchanged a message received long ago. Yet, given our human condition, change is inevitable. Sometimes change is required precisely in order to remain faithful to the tradition. It has in that way been operative in the church from the beginning.

Every council in the history of the church has been an instrument of change, and the synod is in effect a mini-council. Pope Francis convoked it for an examination of conscience about a range of questions directly or indirectly affecting the Sacrament of Matrimony. What will result from this examination? We don’t know. Will it be a declaration, a decree, a simple report? We don’t know. No matter what the form, what will it say? We don’t know.

O’Malley knows councils, having written on the Council of Trent and Vatican II. His new book on the history of the Jesuits came out last week and I can’t wait to read it.

O’Malley was one of my teachers and it is to him that I owe my deep appreciation for Roman Catholicism as well as my knowledge of Early Modern Catholicism.

I’ll be interested to see what ultimately emerges from the Synod. As someone who regularly encounters Catholics who have been deeply wounded by the church’s practices around divorce and remarriage, I am hopeful that the Synod will find a way to embrace the lives, faith and journeys of divorced and remarried Catholics.


Thinking about All Saints’


To those who know a little of christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.

Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945).

h/t Wesley Hill

Buried by God, Loved by God; Loving God and Neighbor: A Sermon for Proper 25, Year A

This past week a parishioner sent me an email in which he asked about the relationship between Moses and God. He noted that in the reading from Exodus for last Sunday, Moses and God seemed to be on intimate, even casual terms. They talked together as two friends might talk. Moses asked to see God’s glory and God responded by saying that direct sight of God’s glory would kill him, so God instructed Moses to hide behind a rock as God passed by him, and Moses would be able to see God’s backside. It’s a wonderful story, told in earthy imagery that doesn’t quite seem to fit the majesty of God and doesn’t seem appropriate for the serious matters of the law and Israel’s sinfulness that had previously focused their attention. Continue reading

Well, that’s all right then

Apparently, the GTS faculty will return to work.

We accept your offer of reinstatement to our positions, and the salaries and benefits outlined in our contracts in effect prior to September 25, 2014. We look forward to being able to do this as soon as possible. Like any member of the Seminary’s faculty we agree to abide by the terms of the Seminary Constitution, Bylaws and policies. Given some of the confusion that has arisen about these texts in recent weeks, we will need you to provide us with copies of them: this would help us as we seek together to work within them. We are pleased to see that during the “cooling off period” all of the parties’ respective legal arguments and positions will be reserved.

A letter from the Rt. Rev’d Clifford Daniel 3d, a member of the Board of Trustees, may shed additional light

. I am hopeful that the Executive Committee and Board’s invitation to the Faculty to a return to the prior status through the remainder of this academic year will be received in a positive way and that the faculty assume their prior positions. I am encouraged by the decision of the Executive Committee to engage a skilled, qualified Christian mediator who will call the Dean, the Board, the Faculty, Students (and perhaps representatives of the Alumni/ae Association) together to engage in a prayerful, structured and disciplined process of mediation and reconciliation. Following graduation in May 2015, we as a community can come together to determine where we are and where we need to go. Part of the process must be mutual conversation, confession and repentance as necessary steps toward reconciliation.

The Shame of Being Episcopalian

On Friday evening, I received an email blast from Interfaith Worker Justice. It’s an email list I’d been on since 2011 and the protests at the State Capitol in Madison. Back then, I offered Grace’s hospitality to people of faith and somehow, my name was added to Interfaith Worker Justice email list. I’d always meant to unsubscribe because as important as the issues they raise are, my energy, time, and passion are focused in other directions.

On Friday, however, the issue wasn’t the minimum wage but the events at General Theological School that began with the firing of 8 faculty, a decision that was affirmed at the Board of Trustees meeting this past week. As I read the email I felt the shame rising in myself to know that once again the leadership of the Episcopal Church seemed to be acting immorally, unpastorally, and in ways antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ. In spite of my shame and embarrassment, I recognized the irony of the appeal to the Presiding Bishop in the petition that the email highlighted. The PB had been on campus in the days after the initial firing of the faculty (taught one of the classes as a “replacement) and is an ex officio board member.

Others, most notably Crusty Old Dean and AKM Adam have laid out the labor issues at stake and the offense that that the Board of Trustees is acting in ways that General Convention has denounced (or would denounce) if it were occurring in corporate America or perhaps in foreign lands. As a former academic myself, and as a former short-term faculty member of an Episcopal seminary, I was always uncomfortable with the effort to view relations between faculties and administrations in light of labor law. I always thought (and still do) that the labor model distorts what ought to be happening in colleges, universities, and seminaries, especially when those institutions claim to be church-related. I know the necessity of it, but I think it diminishes the mission, purpose, and quality of relationships all around.

In fact, what bothers me most about the situation at GTS is not so much the labor issues at stake. It is not even the claim made by many that the actions of the Board of Trustees go against church canons and the gospel (although they seem to). What bothers me most is that this seems to me to be an extension of a trend we have been witnessing for the last decade in the Episcopal Church–the insistence by the leadership to seek recourse to legal remedy, to defend prerogatives and property against every claim, to pursue a scorched-earth policy in protection of the institution, and to offer reconciliation after the trials are over (but while the wounds are still raw).

What’s happening at GTS is not unlike what has happened to bishops (remember the PB declaring that the Bishop of South Carolina had abandoned communion?), to dioceses, and now to a seminary. A petition that appeals the Presiding Bishop to take action?

It’s doubly ironic that all this is occurring as we’re still digesting the recent report from the Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church with its recommendations for a stronger “CEO” as Presiding Bishop, a smaller Executive Council, and contract workers as church-wide staff. We are eyewitnesses to the restructuring of General Theological Seminary with its evisceration of faculty governance and lasting damage to a community of formation. I have advocated strongly for the need to reform the structures of the church, but if what emerges is less shared governance and more centralized power, count me among the resistance.

What I fear most is that over the last decade we have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

Bishop Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York (and a member of the GTS Board of Trustees) has issued this statement:

it is my hope that we may yet find a way to work within the structure provided by this resolution to continue to press forward toward that which we still believe must be done, and that is to reinstate the eight faculty in full, and to do that this week.

Bishop Breidenthal (Diocese of Southern Ohio) has also spoken publicly in defense of the fired GTS faculty.

Whose image do you bear? A Sermon for Proper 24, Year A

There are few aspects of our culture that are more contested than the relationship between religion and the state. Whether it be questions concerning the meaning and limits of religious freedom, as we saw recently in the controversy over the contraception mandate or the city of Houston’s over-reaching subpoenas of pastors’ sermons, or whether governmental meetings can begin with prayer, it seems that almost every week, there’s a new battleground over the free exercise of religion. That’s the case even though a recent poll suggested that most Americans would like more religion in politics, not less. Continue reading