Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who's In? Who's Out?

(These are some thoughts about the Gospel that will be read on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 1.)

In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Suddenly, he is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit, who recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God. This story raises lots of questions for me, but the most important ones have to do with who’s included and who’s excluded.

What was this man with the unclean spirit doing in this holy place? Shouldn’t he have been excluded? Where were the ushers? I am reminded of an Alice Walker story, “The Welcome Table.” In that story an old African-American woman attempts to enter a white church during Sunday worship. The ushers don’t know what to do, until their wives instruct them to throw her out. After being thrown out, she continues down the road, telling Jesus her troubles, especially the injustice of being thrown out of church by people whose children she had helped raise.

Some years ago I asked a group of parishioners, “Who is excluded from our worship?” They were shocked by the question because, of course, we didn’t exclude anyone. “What about people who don’t speak English, or who are deaf, or who can’t get up the front steps?” Although we don’t usually think about it, there are people who are excluded from our worship, and perhaps there always will be. Try as we may, there are barriers that are very hard to overcome.

For many years and in many places, children were routinely excluded from worship, at least from worship with the rest of us. Sent out to Sunday School just before the sermon, to return, at all, in time for Communion, children were not expected to part of our worship. In The Episcopal Church of my childhood, we were taught that there are two sacraments that are “generally necessary to salvation…Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.” (The Catechism, 1928 Book of Common Prayer) There was a problem with that in practice because baptized persons who had not been confirmed were excluded from Holy Communion. That has changed and in many congregations the newly baptized receive Communion as part of the celebration of their Baptism.

The work of inclusion is still challenging, whether those who have been excluded are children, people of color, gays and lesbians, immigrants, or people of a different socio-economic group than the majority of church members. And the challenge isn’t just about letting people in the doors; there are ways that we shut people out of real participation in our worship. I think that perhaps is the greatest challenge, the ongoing work of making worship accessible, liturgy in which all those present have a real chance to participate. And beyond that, making life together in the congregation open to newcomers.

The man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum recognizes who Jesus is – something the disciples don’t get for a long time, and maybe not until after Easter. Perhaps there’s another lesson for us in this – those whom we have excluded are often great sources of spiritual wisdom when we have the grace to let them in and listen to them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

O Canada!

During my fall sabbatical as a Proctor Scholar at Episcopal Divinity School, I found a wonderful new friend in the other Proctor Scholar, Wayne Stewart, a Canadian Anglican. Both of is audited a course with one of the longest titles in recorded history: The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Communion: Imperial Impulses and the Post-Colonial Church. Taught by the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity, the course considered not only current relationships within the Anglican Communion, but also the history of mission in the Communion, and especially in The Episcopal Church. Professor Douglas is the obvious person to teach such a course - he was the only seminary professor from The Episcopal Church on the design team for the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

The reading list for the course included books by Kevin Ward, a lecturer at the University of Leeds; Episcopal priest Mark Harris; Miranda Hassett, soon to be ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of New Hampshire; Ephraim Radner, professor at Wycliffe College in Toronto; Philip Turner, Vice President of The Anglican Institute; Bruce Kaye, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia from 1994 to 2004; and Professor Douglas; as well as a collection of essays edited by Douglas and his EDS colleague, Kwok Pui-lan, William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality. That collection, Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century, included essays by scholars from England, South Africa, the West Indies, Tanzania, Canada, the United States, Brazil, New Zealand, and India. (A copy of the list is posted here.)

During class and in discussions over meals, Wayne and I both wondered why it was that The Episcopal Church, rather than The Anglican Church of Canada, was the target of so much criticism from conservatives in the Communion. Although The Episcopal Church has a partnered gay Bishop, there are now three or four Canadian Dioceses that have approved official rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, something which has not happened in Episcopal Dioceses. Wayne would often say that the Canadians had tried to take some of the heat off their southern neighbors, but that their efforts were futile. Somehow, we concluded, conservatives prefered to attack The Episcopal Church, often comparing the decision to ordain the Bishop of New Hampshire to the decision to invade Iraq.

The United States government, and US institutions, including The Episcopal Church, are easy targets. The US has, particularly during the past eight years, demonstrated a frightening ability to act unilatterally, pursuing its own often narrow interests and ignoring the legitimate concerns of others. The US is frequently seen, with some justification, as a schoolyard bully. I often agree with that assessment, but I am deeply troubled by that kind of characterization of The Episcopal Church, to which I have belonged for most of my life and which I have served for more than thirty-five years.

I propose two challenges for members of the Churches of the Anglican Commnuion. For those of use who belong to The Episcopal Church, the challenge is to be very mindful of how we act in our realtionships with Anglicans in other parts of the Communion, especially Anglicans in the southern hemisphere. We can be arrogant without even knowing it as we fall prey to the myth of American exceptionalism. Humility and a profound commitement to listening are very much needed as we continue to explore how we can remain in communion with sisters and brothers with whom we have some serious disagreements.

For Anglicans who are upset with the actions of The Episcopal Curch, the challenge is not to allow legitimate anger about US government actions to color their assessment of The Episcopal Church. Conservatives have legitimate concerns about the actions of The Episcopal Church, but equating those actions with the invasion of Iraq does not help any of us move ahead in finding ways to work together as Anglicans. The missio Dei, God's work of reconciliation in the world is too important, and our participation in it is too urgent.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Being Called Into the Reign of God

The Revised Common Lectionary for this week provides us a study in contrasts.

In the passage from Jonah, we get Jonah's second chance to answer God's call. We recall that when God gave him his marching orders to go east to Nineveh, Jonah headed west instead. After a close encounter with a big fish, Jonah is given this second chance to go to Nineveh and preach. This time he goes and follows orders, although we know from the end of the story that he was less than happy about this. And here's the contrast. The people of Nineveh don't need a second chance - they repent right away.

In Mark's account of the calling of Andrew, Peter, James, and John, there is no need of a second chance. For whatever reason, these four fisherman down their nets and follow Jesus. Jesus calls them and they follow. In this sense, as in so many others, Jesus is not a typical rabbi who would wait around for potential disciples and would send them off on their own when they were qualified to be rabbis themselves. It is Jesus who calls, and not the disciples who request admission to his rabbinical school. And there is no graduation, no time when we stop being disciples of Jesus.

We might wonder, as Christian have for centuries, what moved these four fisherman to drop everything and become disciples of Jesus. Such wondering is probably beside the point. The point, as Mark tells the story, is that they did. Jesus comes proclaiming that the time has been fulfilled and that the reign of God is near. This is Good News - or one might say - news of the victory of God, for that is how the Greek word was often used, for news of victory in battle. God is victorious, but the announcing of that victory comes with an invitation, a call, first to repentance, to changing one's life direction, and second to believing this Good News. Belief is not simply a matter of intellectual assent to the truth, but of trusting and acting upon that truth. To use an analogy suggested by the idea that the time is fulfilled, a husband's intellectual assent to his pregnant wife's announcement that it's time is not enough, action is required if she is to get to the hospital for the baby's birth.

What is being birthed in us is what was already birthed in Jesus, the reign of God. That reign is present in Jesus and it is perhaps enough to say that Peter, Andrew, James, and John see that and follow. Do we see that in Jesus, and in one another? Do we see in one another lives that are being live towards God and not towards the world's idols? Do we see that in ourselves? Are we willing to let the reign of God be in us as it is in Jesus?

Thursday, January 22, 2009


There has been a lot of blog space given to arguments about whether or not a Diocese of The Episcopal Church can secede and affiliate itself with another member Church of the Anglican Communion. Much of the argument from those who see secession as possible is centered on the legal standing of Dioceses as incorporated within their respective states. While it may be true generally, as some have argued, that a religious corporation has the right to associate itself with or disassociate itself from whatever other religious organization it chooses, I think that Episcopal Dioceses do not have that right.

The formation of new Dioceses is governed by Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It begins, “A new Diocese may be formed, with the consent of the General Convention and under such conditions as the General Convention shall prescribe by General Canon or Canons.” Dioceses are the creations of at least two bodies. In the case of a Diocese that is created by the division of an existing Diocese, the General Convention and the Convention of the existing Diocese. In the case of a Diocese that is formed by joining together of two Dioceses or parts of two Dioceses, the General Convention and the Conventions of the two Dioceses. In the case of a Diocese formed in an area where there is no existing Diocese, by the General Convention and “a Convocation of the Clergy and Laity of the unorganized area called by the Bishop….” That same section concludes with the mention of one very important requirement for any new Diocese and a description of the relationship between the Diocese and the General Convention: “After consent of the General Convention, when a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention and approved by the Executive Council of this Church, such new Diocese shall thereupon be in union with the General Convention.”

All Dioceses of the Episcopal Church are “in union with the General Convention” and must have given “unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church….” One can look in the Constitution and Canons for a description of how a Diocese can seek to be no longer in union with the General Convention. All that one will find is a provision in Canon I.11.3.b for the transfer of “a Missionary Diocese beyond the territory of the United States of America” to another Church in the Anglican Communion. Such a transfer is only possible after consultation between the Bishop of the Missionary Diocese and the Presiding Bishop, and with their mutual agreement. The Presiding Bishop is then “authorized, after consultation with the appropriate authorities in the Anglican Communion, to take such action as needed for such Diocese to become a constituent part of another Province or Regional Council in communion with this Church.”

Some have argued that because secession is not prohibited in the Constitution and Canons, it must be allowed. Canon I.11.3.b supports an argument against that position. Realignment, to use the currently popular, is provided for in the Canons for this one circumstance, that of a Missionary Diocese outside that United States that is incapable of functioning as a jurisdiction in union with the Episcopal Church….” If realignment were to be possible for Dioceses within the United States, then the Canons would have provided for such realignment, just as the Canons provided for realignment in I.11.3.b.

What then is the status of the realignment votes of Diocesan Conventions? Under the religious corporations laws of their respective states it may appear that those votes are legal and effective, but under the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, such votes are not allowed and have no effect. For example, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still a Diocese in union with the General Convention because, having made an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons, the Convention of the Diocese has surrendered any rights to secede. The deposed Bishop of that Diocese and others may wish to form a new organization, perhaps called the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and seek membership for that Anglican Diocese in some other Church, but this new Diocese has no rightful claim to the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, nor to the assets of any congregation within the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, including assets of congregations whose vestries have voted to align their congregations with the new Anglican Diocese.

Unfortunately the resolution of this business will be in the hands of civil courts, simply because those who want to realign want to lay claim to the assets of the Episcopal Dioceses and their congregations, and are largely basing their arguments in favor of realignment on the religious corporations laws of their respective states. While I am no fan of civil litigation, I believe that it will often be necessary in defense of the polity of The Episcopal Church.

The status within the Anglican Communion of the new Anglican Dioceses that have placed themselves under the authority of member Churches of the Communion will be determined by the Archbishop of Canterbury in consultation, I assume, with the Primates of the Communion. It has long been true within the Communion “that no two Bishops of Churches in communion with each other should exercise jurisdiction in the same place; except as may be defined by a concordat adopted jointly by the competent authority of each of the said Churches, after consultation with the appropriate inter-Anglican body.” (Canon I.11.4) Without a concordat between The Episcopal Church and whatever Churches in the Anglican Communion that have taken authority over these new Anglican Dioceses, I think that it is impossible for these new Anglican Dioceses to be part of the Anglican Communion. That seems to be the view of those who maintain the Anglican Communion’s website, and I can only hope and pray that that is an indication that the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


A fair number of evangelical Episcopalians seem to be hoping that the Primates will discipline the “revisionist” leadership of The Episcopal Church and establish once and for all that the only acceptable Anglican position on same-sex intimacy is to be against it. That is, of course, the position of the Roman Catholic Church and of many other Churches. From time to time we hear “slippery slope” or “domino theory” assertions that accepting same-sex intimacy will lead to acceptance of sexual abuse of children and bestiality.

While I find those “slippery slope” assertions absurd, there is a real “slippery slope” and we need to beware of it. This time the Primates are being asked to make an authoritative statement about the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture with Reason and with reflection on Tradition. Once we have granted the Primates that authority, what will be the next ethical or theological question upon which they will decide to speak authoritatively? There are plenty of proscriptions and prescriptions in Hebrew Scripture that they can choose. Perhaps they would choose one of my favorites, Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” Would that mean that we can longer take interest from any money that we might lend, directly or indirectly, to “the poor among” us? Or perhaps they would choose Leviticus 19:19, “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”

Of course, these two examples would be considered by most of us to be rather silly, but there are serious theological and ethical issues that the Primates might choose to address. Many of those issues are ones about which Episcopalians and other Christians have disagreed with one another in good faith. The Primates might decide to address the issue of Christian participation in war and make an authoritative statement that such participation is not allowed or an authoritative statement that conscientious objection to participation is not allowed.

I think that we need to careful about what we ask for. It is my experience that once a person or a group of people have been given authority to act it is well-nigh impossible to rescind that authority. The Primates, as sinners like the rest of us, might just come to enjoy speaking authoritatively and might find ways to enforce their Primatial Bulls. If that is what some Episcopalians want, they are welcome to it. However, if the Primates are ever granted that authority, it would be a betrayal of Anglican tradition.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


The Gospel according to John has stories of the calling of the first disciples of Jesus that are different from those we find in the synoptic Gospels and it is not a good idea to try to harmonize them. John's accounts continue two intriguing ideas - finding and being found by Jesus and coming to see.

The story of the calling of Philip begins with Jesus finding Philip. That poses questions about why Jesus was looking for Philip and what there was about Philip that moved Jesus to find him. We might also ask those questions about why Jesus went looking for and found any of us. Unless we are delusional, we know that our being sought and found is pure gift, not something we deserve, but something that God desires out of love.

After being found, Philip goes to find Nathanael and tells him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Now, that's a very odd way to put it. Philip didn't find Jesus, Jesus found him. But perhaps we can be gentle with Philip and imagine that there was something in him that was ill at ease, that was yearning for something, probably without even being able to name the something. When Jesus finds him, Philip is surprised and realizes that in Jesus he has found and been found by the very something that his heart desired.

After Nathanael makes that blunt and honest statement about his own prejudice - "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" - Philip tells him to come and see. As we read the rest of the stories about these disciples in John's account of the Good News, we see that it takes them a long time to see the truth in Jesus. In fact, as Jesus himself tells them, they can't grasp the whole of that truth until after his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is that way with us as well. Even though we have the Gospel accounts, it still takes more than a lifetime for us to see. As Paul tells us, "now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face."

Come and see is not only about seeing who Jesus is, but about seeing who we truly are. It is in our relationship with Jesus, within the community of faith, that we come to know ourselves. It is in following Jesus, in being his disciples, that we are freed from the false selves that the world, and we ourselves, have manufactured. We need not be hard on ourselves about those selves. Many of them were manufactured to protect us, we thought, in our often very difficult lives. Others were manufactured to win favor with others - our parents, our teachers, our employers. But as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we come to see that we don't really need those false selves, that the love that Jesus has for us is enough.

I was stuck recently by what is not a linguistic connection, but a linguistic coincidence. Find is a word we get from Old English and found - as in the founding of this nation - is a word we get from Latin. But coincidences can often suggest truth to us. Our life in Christ is founded on our being found. It is only because God in Christ seeks us and finds us that we have this gift of abundant life. Our being found is the founding, the absolutely essential beginning, of that life.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:9)

Monday, January 12, 2009


Several years ago I heard the story of a woman who was very ill. One of her friends said that she was somewhat surprised that she had never heard the woman say, “Why me?” The woman responded, “Why not me?” In a world where there is sickness and all sorts of disasters, why should any of expect to be immune?

Our son told me recently that he had angered some of his acquaintances when, after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, he pointed out that people in many other places had been living with terrorist attacks for many years. Why should we assume that we would be immune? Why should we think now that winning the war on terror means no terrorist attacks on the US, rather than no terrorist attacks anywhere?

There is from time to time talk about American exceptionalism, the strange notion that we are different from the rest of the world’s people and that the rules for us are therefore different. We assert that we have the right, for example, to possess nuclear weapons but Iran doesn’t. Now, I don’t think Iran should have nuclear weapons, but I don’t think the US or Russia or the United Kingdom or France or China or India or Pakistan or Israel or any other nation should either. No exceptions.

I had hoped that after September 11, 2001 we might develop a deeper commitment to solidarity with the rest of the world’s people, learning from the experiences of that day what so many others experience – fear, uncertainty, and incredible vulnerability to forces that they and we cannot control. I had hoped that we might develop a deeper compassion for those who do not have the incredible privileges that we enjoy in this country. I had hoped that we would use the time that we are given on this earth to make things better for what one my friends calls the least, the last, and the lost. It is sad that my hopes have not been fully realized, that, in spite of some signs of hope, we have far too often seen ourselves in battles against “the other, the enemy” and not in a struggle for reconciliation, for solidarity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed last summer's Lambeth Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion. In that address, Rabbi Sacks made a distinction between a covenant of faith and a covenant of fate. In the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis, God established two covenants, a covenant of faith with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, and a covenant of fate with Noah and all humankind, and not only with humankind but with all life on earth. In making that covenant, in Rabbi Sacks's words, "God says: Never again will I destroy the world. But I cannot promise that you will never destroy the world -- because I have given you free will." I believe that we need to recognize that we are bound together with all people in such a covenant as we suffer together, sharing our fears and our tears, as we did after September 11, and sharing responsibility for shaping the future.

If another terrorist attack happens in our country, and I certainly hope that one never does, perhaps we will not say, “Why us?” but let the experience move us into greater solidarity with those whose daily lives are marked with terror and poverty and disease, and to accepting our shared responsibility for shaping the future.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A New Province?

There has been a lot of talk in Anglican circles about the creation of a "new province" of the Anglican Communion with the formation of the Anglican Church in North America. I have very little to say about this new religious body. People who once belonged to the Episcopal Church (TEC) or the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) are free to form a new denomination and to choose for it whatever name they like. I am not even much concerned that people will mistake congregations of the new denomination for ones of TEC or ACC, although I admit that may be more of a problem in Canada than in the US. There are already lots of other denominations that have attached Anglican to themselves and it hasn't created too much confusion. I am not even much concerned that this new denomination will become a member of the Anglican Communion. I think that that is highly unlikely, but even if it does happen, I will find a way to deal with that new reality with some grace.

What does concern me is the continued use of provinces when referring to the member churches of the Anglican Communion. I believe that it is a fallacy - and a dangerous one - to think that the churches of the Anglican Communion are provinces. To call them that leaves unanswered the question - provinces of what? Surely not the Church of England. Some might argue, that they are provinces of the Anglican Church. I would argue there is no such thing as the Anglican Church, except in those churches of the Communion, like the Anglican Church of Canada, that have chosen that as their name. There is a Roman Catholic Church with what I would call provinces, i.e., administrative units, throughout the world, but the Anglican Communion is not the same sort of creature that the Roman Catholic Church is.

The member churches of the Anglican Communion are not administrative units of a world-wide church. They are autonomous churches within a family of churches that have historical connections to the Church of England. They do not all govern themselves in the same way. In some of the churches, e.g., bishops are elected; in others, they are appointed. Although the worship of all these churches has its origins in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, there is great variety as each church has adopted liturgies that are appropriate for its own context.

I think that it is well past time for us to stop referring to the member churches of the Anglican Communion as provinces. Continuing to do so only reinforces a misunderstanding of what the Anglican Communion really is. Far from being held together by a centralized administrative structure, an Anglican Vatican, the Communion is sustained and enlivened by missional relationships. You can find monks from the Episcopal Church teaching in a theological college of the Anglican Church of Kenya. You can find a priest from the Episcopal Church and his wife serving on the staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. And you can find an Episcopalian from the diocese where I was raised and ordained (Western Massachusetts) serving as a Young Adult Service Corps missionary at Itipini Medical Clinic in Mthatha, South Africa.

It is not at all surprising that the Anglican Communion is at its heart relational. A dominant emphasis of Anglican theology is the Incarnation. The God whose very nature is relational - Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an eternal relationship of love - has chosen to be in intimate relationship with humankind and all creation by sharing human life. I have often said, and will continue to say, that in the Incarnation God has said unequivocally that God wants to be God only in relationship with us.