Ashes in the Public Square: What do they mean?

There’s a lively debate in Episco-land about the appropriateness of “Ashes to Go” an effort that began several years ago to bring the liturgy of Ash Wednesday into the streets. Here’s a press report from USA Today (last year).

Here are views from several priests. From Scott Gunn:

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is.

From Susan Brown Snook (she wants to take Easter to the streets, not Ash Wednesday):

But Ash Wednesday?  Surely there are more enlightening ways to touch people with God’s grace.  Leaving aside the facts Everett points out – that this quick “ashing” comes without repentance, and directly countermands what Jesus tells us to do in the Ash Wednesday gospel – that is, don’t wear your piety on your forehead for all to see and congratulate, but practice it quietly – there are other problems.  After all, what is the most immediate experience of getting “ashed”?  It is a reminder of our mortality:  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

In past years, I’ve written about my own experiences sharing ashes on the sidewalk as well as my ambivalence about doing so.

As I’ve continued to reflect on it as well as on the arguments pro and contra, I’ve come to think about another aspect of the rite, the imposition of ashes, and of carrying around that sign of the cross on one’s forehead all day.

The liturgy itself focuses on our individual piety: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But immediately upon departing the church, especially if we receive the ashes in the morning or in the middle of the day, that smudge on the forehead becomes a very public display. The gospel of the day cautions us against displaying our piety in public but unless we immediately remove it, the ashes will linger as a reminder to all of what we have done this day. It is a public act and whatever its meaning for us, people who encounter us throughout the day will also attach meaning to it.

This is where it gets interesting, especially in our current American context. With the public face of Christianity so often shaped by people who preach messages of hate, exclusion, and who claim to know what is true and right both for themselves and for the world, people who engage in culture wars over things like “Merry Christmas,” what does it mean to enter the public square with an ashen cross on one’s forehead? That sign of humility and repentance, borne in silence, can offer a powerful counter testimony to the loud and shrill voices of conservative Christianity. What might it convey to passers-by who struggle to make sense of their lives and are struggling to make ends meet? How might the sign of the cross help us bear our public Christian witness with humility, and grace, and repentance?

Even more, while the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and certainly popular understanding of it, may tend to focus on individual acts of repentance, there is also in the liturgy a powerful communal aspect. The lesson from Joel emphasizes communal repentance: “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people.” My understanding of Ash Wednesday has been re-shaped by my experience observing it in the midst of Wisconsin’s protests two years ago.

There was a time when American civil religion involved public repentance–presidents, governors, legislatures would proclaim a day of prayer and fasting. No longer. If they do it today, they are likely ridiculed. As a society, we have lost the ability to repent. We lack appropriate rituals, even language for it. Public repentance is left to politicians or celebrities who have been caught doing something wrong, and for which they will publicly state, “I take full responsibility.,” and go about their merry way. The sinful acts we commit as a society, as a human race, go un-noticed and unconfessed. The very public act of bringing ashes out on to the street can be a prophetic act–a reminder to all those who pass by as they go about their daily business that there is a higher calling, a higher claim to our allegiance than the gods of money and power. It can be a call to our cities and our nation to repent of the sin and violence that occur in our midst and that we commit.

I think there may be no better message that we could proclaim in the public square, in 2013, than an invitation to a holy Lent, a call to repentance, and a reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

 

 

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Setting the record straight: The Episcopal Church and the Press

Articles in various news media, most recently The Wall Street Journal (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), have painted a salacious and distorted picture of the Episcopal Church in general, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori and General Convention in particular. One might almost conclude that there is a coordinated campaign.

The articles, especially the WSJ example, have not gone without response. George Conger, himself no friend of the progressive wing of the Episcopal Church, offers a measured indictment.

Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith has also responded, as has Margaret Waters.

But what it means to be church is not our infrastructure. It is how we serve the world in the name of Christ, who commanded his disciples to love each other as he loved them and to take that love and his gospel to the world. To my little parish, which is twelve miles south of Austin, Texas and worships only about 150 people a week, that means filling the shelves of food pantries, adopting four refugee families in the last two years, adopting an underfunded elementary school, driving for Meals on Wheels, teaching literacy in our local prison and taking care of each other and pretty much anybody who shows up on our doorstep with a broken heart. Jesus cares about that. He doesn’t give one hoot what kind of cross Bishop Katharine carries. Nor does he care about the address of the building from which we do the business that must be done.

And from Scott Gunn:

Alas, since Episcopalians didn’t provide any rude behavior for the media, the media need to try to invent some retroactively. You’ll never see a WSJ headline, “Episcopalians experience grace in listening” or “Christians practice their faith by treating one another well.” Pity.

If the Wall Street Journal wants to attack the Episcopal Church, they are welcome to do so. We can handle it. But I do wish they would use actual facts. I would encourage any Wall Street Journal staffer or reader to visit an actual Episcopal Church. I’ll guarantee you two things. First, it won’t be perfect. After all, the church is filled with humans. But note the second thing, and note it well. It won’t be the rancorous caricature that Mr. Akasie loves to write about.

The Episcopal Church welcomes you! Even error-prone reporters from the Wall Street Journal.

In a very different tone, The New York Times has published an article on the retreat ministry of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

I dream of a church… Reflections on yesterday’s events at General Convention

There was the opening Eucharist complete with sermon from the Presiding Bishop

There were lengthy discussions on structure and various other matters. But perhaps the most important event of the day was the Acts 8 Moment meeting which I’ve blogged about before.

It seems to me that this is precisely the direction the church should move. During the “I dream of a church that…” section, one bishop said, “I dream of a church that makes its decisions in meetings like this,” in the context of prayer and bible study. The question about the future of the church is an important one. The question about restructuring the church is important, but it’s easy to get lost in the details. To begin with mission and vision, to begin with what might be, rather than with what is or what was, is to begin by imagining possibilities.

The Diocese of Maine captured the “I dream of a church” on video:

From Andy Jones

From Steve Pankey:

It was a powerful time of sharing, of hoping for the future, and of mourning for the way things are.  As we prepared to end our time, ready to regather on the 11th, several people stood up and said, “Wait!  We need to actually do something.”  And so, with and empowering word from Andy Doyle, Bishop of Texas, five affinity groups were formed: one to propose candidates for HoD offices, one to draft legislation, one on dream sharing, one on local contexts, and one to pray for the whole thing.

You can add your own “I dream of a church …” on Facebook here:

 

It all becomes clear now: Structure, dysfunction, and the Episcopal Church

Katie Sherrod, a member of Executive Council, has published her version of the budget and restructuring debates in and around EC. With Susan Russell’s from last week, the two combine to offer an alternative narrative to that produced by the Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer, and to offer explanations for the deep distrust among all the players involved. It’s clear that it’s not just the process that’s broken. The institution, structures, and relationships are broken as well. Indeed, so broken is everything that I’m not sure there’s any point in trying to fix things.

My question for all those involved–PB, COO, PHoD, EC, staff, even GC itself: “How can you imagine any of us on the margins of these structures, looking on from afar, can have any trust in any of it, or even any sense that what you do might have a positive impact on what we’re trying to do in the local church?”

Where do we go from here? Can these bones live? I don’t think so. I think there’s only one answer and it’s a complete demolition and rebuild. We’ve got to rebuild from the bottom up, not remodel the existing edifice. Those who are currently involved in running things should be excluded from designing plans for the new structure. They are both too invested in the Church as it exists and too caught up in the conflicts and struggles of the past to imagine new structures and to imagine a new way of being church.

How do we go about all this? There are lots of proposals out there already and I’m not going to add to the mix. Instead, I’m going to urge my diocesan deputation to General Convention to engage in conversations about structure with others and to encourage the development of a process that takes place outside the existing structures of the Church (i.e., General Convention, Executive Council, 815). I’m going to urge them to listen to voices that don’t want to re-open old wounds or rehearse old antagonisms (even if “old” dates only to October 2011, January, March, May 2012). From those conversations may bubble up an alternative way to approach restructuring. It may even be that an already proposed resolution might point a way forward.

Scott Gunn has a great deal to say on these matters. I agree wholeheartedly:

In my view, we should start with a blank slate. “IF we were creating the Episcopal Church from scratch for our time, what would it look like?” Let’s pretend we have no headquarters, no committees, no legislative assembly. Nothing. What would we build? What does our mission compel us to build?

Our question cannot be, does this committee do a good job and are the people who have served on it faithful servants? No, the question must be, how can we do this work? Is there a way to do it without a committee? Do we need a staff office to make this work happen?

There should be no sacred cows. Everything, and I mean everything, should be up for grabs. Except. We are an episcopal church, so we need to continue to understand that the fundamental unit of the church is the diocese, not the congregation or a larger structure. Also, we need a model that supports ministry and leadership by lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Open, clear, governance is necessary.

I’m also going to propose a resolution at our diocesan convention that funds our asking to the National Church only at the level needed for canonical support (apparently 5%). That would free up a great deal of money for us to use in developing programs and networks both internally and across dioceses to do the mission and ministry work we need to do as a church. It may also be that from such efforts a new creation might spring forth.

I’ve found Bishop Kirk Smith’s reflections about restructuring which he places in the context of “creative abandonment,” quite enlightening.

This week in Budget and Dysfunction news

So the Presiding Bishop released her own version of a budget for the 2012-2015 Triennium. The story (with link to the budget) is here. It’s received praise from Scott Gunn, Crusty Old Dean, and Susan B. Snook.

From the comments on their blog posts, and the comment threads on the Episcopal Cafe (read them here), it seems there remains deep levels of distrust toward the Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer. We’ve seen this distrust again and again in the last months, perhaps beginning with Bishop Sauls’ restructuring proposals last fall. As an outsider and observer, I’ve had a hard time understanding where it came from and what fuels it. There seem to be several sources: anticlericalism, knee-jerk resistance to episcopal authority, tension between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, personal animosity between several of the major players, tension between staff at the Episcopal Church Center and General Convention. No doubt I’m missing some of the dynamics involved.

As an outsider, I must say that it seems all a bit petty, a waste of time and energy. Above all, it is a distraction from the very real problems that face the Church.

And then I read this from Susan Russell: http://inchatatime.blogspot.com/2012/06/elephant-in-living-room-coming-soon-to.html. She provides context, going back to General Convention 2006. I wanted to cry, scream, and bang my head against the wall. With everything confronting the church, let’s reopen old wounds, fight old battles, rehearse old resentments.

God help us all!

Same Sex Blessings, Same Sex Marriage

Scott Gunn has blogged his perspectives on the materials produced by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Mission.

I’ve been thinking about them as well, more intensely in the last day or two, and I would like to offer my own thoughts.

A theological rationale for same sex marriage has to begin with the nature of God and with human nature. God created us in God’s image, to be in relationship, just as God in Godself is in relationship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Life-giving, holy relationships are based in mutuality, love, and commitment, and some people can only experience such relationships with people of the same gender. Our fallen human nature and our society make any committed relationship difficult, almost impossible, and any couple needs the support of a loving community and the grace of a loving God to thrive. The church should do all in its power to help such relationships flourish. To forbid the sacrament of marriage to a group of people who need it to thrive and flourish is an offense to God who created us in God’s image, and who created us to be in relationship with others.

The proposed liturgy for same-gender blessings is inadequate. I find it lacking precisely because it fails to locate the basis of human relationship in the imago dei. Instead, it speaks of covenant and blessing (I find it ironic that the same people who praise the liturgy and its theological rationale based in covenant are for the most part opposed to the Anglican Covenant). Frankly, I think the theological rationale for the liturgy is deeply flawed. The liturgy itself is adequate although confusing, but there is a question at its heart, namely why blessing? Why not marriage? On the other hand, the SCLM was specifically charged with developing proposed blessings for same sex unions, not a marriage rite

Given the cultural climate, with many of those who most vigorously oppose same-sex marriage having themselves made a mockery of the sacrament by their own lives (Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich come to mind). Would not a more sacramental, a holy witness be of a couple living out a life-long commitment? Would the church’s blessing of such relationships be a witness and symbol of what marriage might be in this world, instead of the dominant cultural models of short-lived relationships like the recent ones of whichever Kardashian it was, or Brittany Spears? In other words, is there a sense in which two living out a committed relationship for a lifetime, are a sacramental witness to the Christian virtues of love and fidelity, and a symbol of Christ’s love for the church to the whole world?

The question facing General Convention 2012 and the Episcopal Church is how to work with what’s facing us. On the one hand, we have this proposed liturgy for Same Sex Blessings. On the other, there is a continuing push to move toward marriage, and another resolution urging an examination of our theology of marriage. This is work that urgently needs doing. It may be that the outcome of that examination is a revision of our marriage rite, and perhaps our canons. I would like to see us freed from the obligation of serving as agents of the state. I would like to see marriage only as a sacramental rite, which might help us offer an alternative to the contemporary marriage business.

I’m sure there will be lively debates on all these matters at General Convention. In the meantime, Huffington Post is running some essays on gay marriage, written by LGBT religious leaders. Here’s one from Patrick S. Cheng (who teaches Theology at Episcopal Divinity School.) And from Malcom Boyd, commenting on the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite:

One of the prayers says: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” I feel this is our own prayer at the heart of our marriage.

Another prayer in The Book of Common Prayer goes: “Give us grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.” Wow. This is a central prayer for any committed day-by-day life together.

What about a really central question — the deep meaning of a shared life in the context of a world with other people? “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”

I am deeply grateful for Mark’s and my gay marriage and our blessed years together. Our gay marriage binds us to the world around us. Our gay marriage gives us healing and blessing that we can share with others.

This week in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

i.e., talking about restructuring the Episcopal Church

Scott Gunn, in his blogging blue series, has this to say about a resolution to create a task force focused on restructuring:

when this task force is convened, we need to make sure it doesn’t have any of the usual suspects. The same people will bring us the same ideas. That’s not what we need. And if at any point you voted in favor of the disaster of a budget that came out of various committees and Executive Council, you especially should not be on this group. Not that anyone will pay attention to the ranting of a simple blogger.

A thoughtful post from Unapologetic Theology on gnats, camels and General Convention. He puts his finger on what I’ve been thinking, too:

Rather, I’ve come to believe in the concept of “parallel growth change.”

“Parallel growth” is a strategy apparently adopted by some major corporations that face issues similar to the Episcopal Church: outdated structures, bloated budgets, overly centralized and irrelevant systems.

The theory is this: Those interested in change should resist the temptation to battle the system or try to change the dominant, inherited culture – battles that only end up causing turf wars because people tend protect “the way things are.”

Rather, leaders who are in favor of change are encouraged to all but ignore “the system” and concentrate almost all their efforts on encouraging healthy franchises – those local retailers that are doing well in spite of “corporate” policy or procedures.

The analogy isn’t perfect – we’re not a corporation – but how that looks in the Episcopal Church is that people who are in favor of change should all but ignore “the system” and concentrate their efforts on encouraging healthy congregations – those congregations that are growing and mission-minded in spite of diocesan or “national” structures.

Susan Brown Snook is thinking along the same lines:

Let’s put everything on the table at this Convention – the budget, the structures of the church, the shape of Convention itself.  Let’s not spend our time wrangling over niceties in an endless series of resolutions that will make no difference to the church.  Instead, let’s have a conversation about where Jesus is leading us.  Let’s pray and read the Bible and discern where God is calling us to go.  Let’s network and share and listen for the voices of the ones who aren’t often heard – the younger, less experienced people who have a better understanding of the future that lies ahead.