The burden of history and the possibilities of space

I spent the last week with an amazing group of Episcopal clergy who impressed me with their deep faith, their commitment to their ministries and communities, and their passion. Among the matters we discussed at some length, even though it wasn’t a theme of our meetings, was the future of the church in the midst of structural decline, demographic transformation, and a changing cultural context.

As I thought about those conversations, my own context, and my time in Richmond, I was struck by the burdens of history that we carry with us. For most of the clergy gathered together, a common experience was the histories of their parishes. Sometimes the burden of history plays itself out in patterns of conflict that recur over decades and generations. Sometimes the burden of history is the fading memories of a glorious past. Sometimes the burden of history is the sheer weight of a building that was constructed in and for a different time and context that demands enormous financial resources and limits our creativity and flexibility.

We’ve inherited a church that was designed for and adapted to the second half of the twentieth century and while that church served us well, it is singularly unfit for the present moment. Of course, I am speaking about our organizational structures, but the same thing could be said of our physical spaces. They were designed to serve a certain vision of church and to create certain kinds of community. We’ve tried to adapt our spaces at Grace to connect more effectively with our neighborhood and wider community. But our commitments to the integrity of the building and our traditional worship style prevented us from going further to reimagine our worship space for the twenty-first century.

For us at Grace, the burden of history can narrow our vision and our physical space can limit our imagination. But as I walked the streets of Richmond and visited St. Paul’s, I experienced the burden of history on a completely different level. I’m speaking of course of the legacies of slavery, the Confederacy and Civil War, and the Lost Cause.

St. Paul’s used to be called the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Jefferson Davis was worshiping there when he received word that Lee was withdrawing from Petersburg, leaving Richmond exposed to the Union Army. Davis left quietly and began his flight across the Confederacy. In the decades after the end of the war, St. Paul’s fabric was decorated with images of the Confederate battle flag and stained glass windows are said to have the faces of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in images of Moses and St. Paul.

Recently, St. Paul’s has been engaging with its history and with the Confederate imagery displayed throughout its building. A story on that conversation, including the decision to remove images of the battle flag is here. St. Paul’s presentation of its history can be seen here.

A similar debate is occurring at the National Cathedral. Having removed images of the Confederate battle flag from stained glass windows, attention has now turned to the images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The windows honoring the two generals were installed in 1953 with the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

But even if images are removed from all churches, the heavy burden of the past would continue to weigh down Christian churches. So, for example, the imposing statue of General Jeb Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Ave is surrounded by churches: UCC, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, which reminds of nothing so much as the ancient Christian practice of constructing churches and worshiping in the vicinity of martyrs’ graves.

Episcopalians in other parts of the country may breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to address directly the legacy of the Confederacy and slavery. Our historical burdens may be less obvious but they exist if we bother to explore our past in depth. The wealth accumulated from slavery was widely distributed, north and south. Our close identification with the nation and with the American aristocracy has implicated us in Colonialism, the destruction of Native American culture and communities, and has created barriers to our full embrace of our nation’s diversity.

For us to thrive in the twenty-first century, we must not only engage with the sins of our past. We must also be willing to allow our sclerotic institutional structures to die, adapt ourselves to the present and future, and make our spaces places of invitation and welcome to all. A question at the forefront of all our conversations should be how is our space experienced by visitors and newcomers? What do they see and feel when they enter?

 

The Collect for Palm Sunday

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Presiding Bishop Curry (and all the bishops) speak out

There’s an interview in the New York Times with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church:

Q. Do you, as a church leader, as an African-American, feel compelled to say anything about the presidential primaries in which the Republican front-runner hesitated to disavow the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke?

A. It’s not appropriate, and I’m not sure it’s even legal, to make a partisan pronouncement on any candidates. But to articulate the values on which we stand. Love, at least as Jesus articulated it, has to do with seeking the good and the welfare of others before one’s own enlightened self-interest. Our politics must reflect that.

Also, the House of Bishops released a joint statement this week on the political climate in our nation:

“We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

Living with our differences: Update on the Primates’ Meeting

We’ve learned more about the Primates’ Meeting today, from news reports, a news conference, and the official communique. A more nuanced picture of the entire meeting emerges from these additional reports. Participants at the news conference emphasized that the meeting took place surrounded by prayer, that they shared the Eucharist and foot-washing and that overall the tone and tenor was quite different from previous meetings, though difficult.

Today, the official communique from the Primates’ Meeting was released. The full text is available here. It addresses issues like climate change, religiously motivated violence, and evangelism (in an Addendum B):

We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the press conference today, Archbishop of Canterbury Welby sought to parse the precise implications of the communique for the status of the Episcopal Church. He argued that that document refers to consequences, not sanctions, stating that provinces being autonomous, have the right to go their own way, but that if they do so, they can expect such consequences. It’s not even clear that other Anglican or ecumenical bodies would honor the Primates’ decision. Another tidbit, the Primates called for a Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops for 2020 (interesting that it lies beyond the 3-year hiatus for Episcopal Church participation in Anglican bodies).

This wordsmithihng deserves careful attention. First, it’s not at all clear that the Primates’ Meeting has the authority to make such a demand of the Episcopal Church. Second, Welby’s efforts to distinguish between “sanction” and “consequence” seem rather lame.

There’s been a great deal of discussion on social media about how the Episcopal Church ought to respond.

“We enjoy a fellowship and communion in Christ that is bigger than any of our difference.” Bishop Curry’s message to the church:

“it means that we have more work of love to do, and that work of love is helping our story and the story of many faithful Christians … to be told and heard, and it really may be part of our vocation in the world to bear witness to that, and it’s a loving witness.”

The link to Presiding Bishop Curry’s video response to the communique:

Can we finally bury the Anglican Communion?

I’ve not paid attention to matters related to the world-wide Anglican Communion for some years. After the relative disaster of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and  the apparent collapse of efforts to create a more binding relationship among the provinces by means of the Anglican Covenants, I suspected the Anglican Communion would continue to exist more as an idea than as reality. When Archbishop of Canterbury Welby announced he wasn’t going to convene a Lambeth Conference in 2018, the reality seemed quite dead.

Not so fast. When he made that announcement the ABC also said he was going to convene a Primates’ Meeting–for those unfamiliar with odd and obscure Anglican vocabulary, “Primates” are Archbishops and other heads of provinces; provinces being national, or multi-national branches of the church.

That group is meeting this week in Canterbury, England. There was much speculation in the run-up to its gathering about what might emerge. Tensions over matters related to full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians continue to cause friction. Would Archbishops from the Global South show up? Would they force action against the Episcopal Church over our decision to permit same-sex marriage?

The Primates have spoken. They have asked the Episcopal Church to temporarily withdraw (for three years) from Anglican and ecumenical bodies:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is representing the Episcopal Church at this meeting. Episcopal News Service offers these words from him in response to the Archbishops’ Communique:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Pain indeed. Whenever relationships are broken, whenever there is division in the church, there is pain. Archbishop Welby himself reportedly said in an address to the Primates:

We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the church. If we exist to point people to Christ, as was done for me, our pointing is deeply damaged by division. Every Lambeth Conference of the 20th century spoke of the wounds in the body of Christ. Yet some say, it does not matter, God sees the truth of spiritual unity and the church globally still grows. Well, it does for the moment, but the world does not see the spiritual church but a divided and wounded body. Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father sent me so send I you”. That sending is in perfect unity, which is why even at Corinth and at the Council of Jerusalem, we find that truth must be found together rather than show a divided Christ to the world.

Powerful words, but they ring rather hollowly this evening.

The Anglican Communion may not seem like a big deal to many Episcopalians. It may not even seem real. And it may be that the Archbishops’ decision will have little impact. After all, the Episcopal Church is not going to revisit its decision concerning same-sex marriage. Other provinces already recognize and perform same-sex marriages and its likely that others will join that group. I’ve long expected that ultimately the communion would divide internally along such lines, even as the church in the US has with a parallel entity the Anglican Church of North America existing alongside the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the powerful forces at work in our society that are changing how people relate to institutional churches. As denominations decline and denominational loyalty disappears, what might any of this matter in thirty or fifty years?

Still, there’s an important role for international relationships with Christians in other countries. Through such relationships we are reminded of the universal nature of the church and through such relationships we can cooperate with Christians in other countries in all sorts of ways. Grace’s membership includes people from England, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Barbados, and Jamaica. Just this past Sunday an African family recently relocated to Madison from another city in Wisconsin visited Grace. How will our congregation be affected by the Primates’ decision today?

Rowan Williams on Laudato Si

Rowan Williams writes in Commonweal

The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.

 

The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33).

 

If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called “ringing the bell backwards,” pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial vision. The pope’s cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the creation we belong with and the creator who made us to share his bliss in communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, eucharist, justice, and social transformation. It constitutes a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict’s major encyclicals.

Update on Marriage in the Episcopal Church: Bishop Miller’s statement

Yesterday, the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops’ approval of the previous day, changing the canons (law) of the Church, and approving trial rites for marriage. My previous post on the topic links to the relevant documents and some of the discussion.

Today, Bishop Miller shared some of his thoughts and suggested how this might play out in the Diocese of Milwaukee:

While I have yet to work out the details, I anticipate I will authorize the use of the trial rites under guidelines similar to those set forth when I authorized clergy to bless civil marriages. As the new rites are marriage rites, clergy will be able to act as agents of the state should they so choose.