TagAnglican

a homily to remember by Jessica Martin

The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission. 


Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017

1st lesson:  2 Cor. 5.14-17 

Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18

 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11 

 

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer  — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united.   They were restored to all that had been lost.

Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common.  Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’

The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen.  We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.

Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage.  On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all.  Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.

The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.

So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.

That, at any rate, is the human point of view.

But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’.  She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.

But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.

Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’.  It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing.  ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  And Mary  Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope.  But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn.  When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next?  What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance.  Somebody is speaking your name.  And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?

Amen.

Anglicans and the echo of history 

There are impulses at work in the Church, on both the right and the left, a desire to sweep away the tired old past and to start over again. This desire is founded on an illusory hope. The demands of “justice,” “love,” or “truth” will not sustain the weight pressed upon them as the single interpretive tool to order the Church’s life. These demands cannot trump orthodoxy, or the rich experience of the Church in the past, which is the context of orthodoxy. History is where God works and reveals his will. Those who want to sweep away the mistakes of the past by escape from it are more likely to perpetuate those same mistakes, in the very process of wielding their own theological and pastoral “broom.” The history of the Church is littered with examples; of course, you have to have a commitment to history to notice.

Bishop John Bauerschmidt

walking apart, walking together

When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.

So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:

It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.

In another post, Clint Wilson writes,

During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.

Bishop George Sumner suggests,

Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.

Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:

God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.

And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?

Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:

The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.

All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Taylorism in Truro

Via Archbishop Cranmer I learn that the Anglican Diocese of Truro in Cornwall is looking for a new employee. The good Archbishop is exercised by this phrase in the advert: “You do not need to be a practising Christian.” Well, that might well be something to be exercised about — but look at the overall job description:

The Strategic Programme Manager will be responsible for leading and managing the Transforming Mission programme from initial set up through to successful delivery. This role requires an individual with exceptional project management skills including the ability to successfully manage stakeholders; implement change and balance multiple projects simultaneously.

The scope of the role incorporates both the strategic leadership of the Transforming Mission programme — first in Falmouth, and then in other parts of Cornwall; and the project management of key programme elements including the establishment of the Student Hub (café) and redevelopment of the Resource Church.

Reading that description, I see quite clearly why you need not be a Christian to do the job: it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity, and in fact may be incompatible with that other religion. What the Diocese of Truro wants to do is practice modern administrative management in the way that monks pray the Hours: purely, for its own sake, and with a studied indifference to any everyday notions of cause and effect, means and ends, purposes. It’s admirable, in a way: it is rare to see the Gospel of Taylorism followed with such apostolic zeal. In the Diocese of Truro there are no human beings, still less creatures made in the image of God who need to be reconciled to that God; there are only “stakeholders” who must be managed, change that must be implemented, projects that must be balanced, programs that must be strategized — and then, on the last day, we hope for “successful delivery.” (Though those who ask of what and to what shall be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

So, in short, not a job for a practicing Christian at all. After all, no one can serve both God and Strategic Programme Management.

The BCP and me

I’m pretty happy with my biography of the Book of Common Prayer. It has some typos and other embarrassing errors that didn’t get caught in the editing process, and I wish I could fix those; but overall, I think I did a decent job of capturing a very complex history in a very small compass, and to make it an interesting story too. The book got largely positive reviews and has sold well, by my standards anyway, and by those of the series of which it’s a part. So all that’s good.

There’s one thing that troubles me, though: Anglicans don’t seem to care about the book at all. Embarrassing admission: when I wrote the book I thought one of the fringe benefits would be the opportunity to go around to churches, and maybe seminaries, to celebrate the inheritance of the BCP and discuss its possible future. But unless I am forgetting something, not one church, or seminary, or diocese — well, let’s be honest here, no one at all has asked my to talk about this book (though I often get asked to talk about other matters, and especially about, well, you know who).

For a while this flummoxed me, but I think I’ve figured it out. Here are my suspicions, laid out in highly general terms:

  • Liberal Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because all of those books embody sexist language for God, a heterosexual definition of marriage, exclusivist soteriology, and many other retrograde ideas from which they hope to escape.
  • Anglo-Catholics aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because those books are all deeply implicated in Reformational theologies that the A-Cs would like to ignore or overcome.
  • Evangelical Anglicans aren’t especially interested in the existing BCP or its predecessors because they want to reach people they think might be alienated or confused by formal language and liturgy.

So basically, within the Anglican world there’s a very limited constituency for my book — and, I fear, for the Book of Common Prayer itself. At least, that’s my best guess. I hope that I am wrong — especially about the BCP. Because it is a great storehouse of wisdom and comfort, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to be a Christian without it; and I think there may be more than a few others like me in that respect.

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

Anglicanism and Eucharistic Discipline: A Bleat

For some time now I’ve had reflections on theological and pastoral controversies — some in the Anglican world, some the evangelical, some in both — sitting on my hard drive. I’ve decided to post three of them, not so much because I’m sure they’re all right, but rather in the hope that I can cease to chew these issues over and move on to other things. This is the first of my three bleats.


Anglican practices of Communion have historically been quite variable, with different parishes in different regions at different times choosing to make Holy Communion or Morning Prayer the usual Sunday morning service. But the conditions for admission to Communion have not varied so much. Typically, people baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity who are not “notorious evil livers” and who are at peace with their neighbors are eligible. When there has been a practice of Confirmation — not universal among Anglicans — then that may also have been a condition, though more recently it has been left to the discretion of parents to decide whether to have their children come to the Communion rail.

I might add that when Confirmation has been a prerequisite for Communion, that Confirmation has often been connected to the brief and beautiful catechism of the 1662 BCP, with its elegant invocation of three central texts of Eucharistic and daily worship: the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Communion practices are a useful point of focus to explore a development that concerns me greatly: what looks to me like the abandonment, among all varieties of North American Anglicans, of certain longstanding Anglican practices.

Before I go any further, let me pause to note that I have no stature to debate these matters. I am neither a bishop nor a priest not a biblical scholar nor a liturgist nor a theologian. I am just a layman of some years’ standing — one of the sheep. But, as C.S. Lewis said in his great essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” a sheep at least can bleat. Consider what follows as my bleat.

When an Anglican complains about the abandonment of longstanding practices, he or she usually has the Episcopal Church (TEC) in mind. And indeed many TEC parishes and dioceses have been jettisoning their Anglican, and more generally Christian, inheritance as fast they can manage. One of the key abandonments here has been ceasing to make Trinitarian Baptism a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s table, and I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing practical rejection of the Christian message than open Communion. For, if the traditional view is that Baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation and Communion the sacrament of the reconciled, open Communion effectively denies that we need to be reconciled to God: God is perfectly happy with all of already, so — in defiance of the parable of the Wedding Feast — we’re all automatically welcome at His table, wedding garment be damned.

But I fear that ACNA, or at least some of the parishes and dioceses of ACNA, in their eagerness to differentiate themselves from TEC, have also set aside Anglican tradition, just in an opposite way. I live in Waco, Texas, which places me in ACNA’s Diocese of Forth Worth, and this diocese will admit to Holy Communion only those baptized Christians who affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Now, the teaching of the Real Presence is a strong element in Anglican theology since Hooker, and something that I affirm with all my heart and soul and mind; but to make it a requirement for admission to the Eucharistic feast strikes me as just as un-Anglican as open Communion. Affirmation of the Real Presence is not even in the Articles of Religion, and those were meant to be binding only on ordained clergy. To ask ordinary laypeople to make affirmation that priests were historically never required to make, or else bar them from the great meal of the Church, seems to me indefensible from any historically Anglican point of view. (And I am setting aside the question of whether apprehension of the Real Presence is actually possible outside the experience of its benefits. That Christ is truly present in the sacrament is indeed a truth-claim, but not one that we apprehend in the same way that we apprehend that 2+2=4. But again, we can set that aside for now.) And, equally, to deny that meal to faithful and validly-baptized Christians from traditions that do not acknowledge the Real Presence strikes me as a massive failure of hospitality in one of its most important senses. St. Paul’s notion of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) seems immensely relevant here.

Presumably the exegetical defense here would be that those faithful Baptists and other are “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). But to make access to Communion contingent on holding a particular interpretation of a single extremely obscure verse is surely un-Anglican at best — especially since so many not qualify under this particular interpretation. Could Richard Hooker — who wrote “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” — receive Communion in the diocese of Fort Worth? Could Jeremy Taylor? (“CHRIST is present in the Sacrament to our spirits only, i.e. not present to any other sense but that of faith.”) Could John Stott?

It might be objected that this is a diocesan mandate, not a more broadly denominational one. But that is a very large part of the problem. On an essential matter of the basic practice of the church — essential especially in our age, in which Communion is offered at least weekly and perhaps more frequently than that — a bishop can be dictatorial while the denomination as a whole remains agnostic. (By a similar logic though in a different venue, ACNA priests have the option in their parishes to remove the filioque from the creed. The filioque, about which there have been such bitter and tragic disputes over the centuries, reduced to a parish-level decision — as though it is pure adiaphora!)

I have noted that there are historic relations that link admission to Communion with Confirmation and Confirmation with a Catechism. ACNA is equally Janus-faced about this matter as well. In what the chair of the Catechism Committee, J.I. Packer, admits is a deviation from Anglican tradition, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism is longer, more detailed, and more complex than its predecessors. This, Packer says, is because the new document “is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool” to be used in a variety of instructional contexts. In general, the new catechism is well-made, though sometimes it inadvertently gets into disputed or ambiguous territory. For instance, when it says that “when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the world as we know it will come to an end,” that is only accurate under certain meanings of “as we know it” and “come to an end.” Which makes me wonder whether this is a matter that belongs in a Catechism.

That, however, is not a question I can answer without having a better understanding of how the Catechism is to be used, and that’s hard to tell from the document itself. In his prefatory letter, Archbishop Bob Duncan says that “the degree to which it is used directly for instruction, and the amount of memorization asked of individual catechumens, is left up to the catechist to determine by context and circumstance.” It seems, then, that Archbishop Duncan does see this catechism as an element of preparation for Confirmation — but perhaps only if individual priests choose to use it? It’s hard to tell. And of course nothing is here said about the link between Confirmation and admission to Communion.

So on the one hand ACNA clearly wants to be more rigorous than TEC, not to make the parent denomination’s mistakes again; but, like so many children who rebel, it ends up replicating some of the problematic tendencies of the previous generation. Here’s a detailed and specific Catechism — but only use it when you want to, and in the way you want. Being a faithful baptized believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to get you welcomed to the Eucharistic feast — well, in many dioceses, anyway. Parish priests may add or subtract the filioque at will. There is the appearance of rigor but, on the diocesan and sometimes the parish level, about as much of a choose-your-own-adventure model as there is in TEC.

In the Anglican way at its best, affirmations, expectations, and definitions are kept clear, minimal, and firm. That’s why my favorite Anglican documents are the 1662 Catechism and the Lambeth Quadrilateral. When TEC showed itself unwilling or unable to enforce even the most minimal commitments for belief and practice, ACNA responded with a series of expanded rubrics and statements — most of which are made optional and therefore lack power to compel and unify. Given that ACNA is trying to hold together a diverse constituency, this may be understandable. But that is of little comfort to the poor confused sheep bleating from the pews.

It seems clear to me that the one thing the clergy of ACNA have been able to agree on is that they want to avoid the wishy-washiness that emptied out the doctrine (and the pews!) of TEC. They concluded that in order to avoid such a fate they needed to make their own affirmations more specific and more detailed. But they have not so far been able to agree on what those more detailed statements must be. So increased strictnesses are put on the table — but only as options, at either the diocesan or the parish level.

I am inclined to think that this approach was bound to fail and indeed was misbegotten. The problem with the TEC isn’t that there aren’t enough rules, or sufficiently specific ones, but that the existing rules are so often flouted. Parishes opened Communion and ceased to be bound in their public readings by the lectionaries, or even the Bible. Bishops openly defied the doctrine and discipline of the church they had pledged to defend.

Is it too late for ACNA to rethink all this? I fear it is. But still, I plead: be brief, be blunt, be straightforward. Tell us what the Nicene Creed is, without offering substitutions on the menu. Keep the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table minimal but clear, and police them firmly. (Remember that this is the “spiritual food and drink” on which the followers of Jesus are meant to feed, and that we do not function as well when we lack access to it.) Beware of extraneous forms of strictness, especially if they’re only optional. Be willing to sacrifice some of your own preferences in order to bring peace and understanding to your sheep. Such rules and disciplines as are formulated, obey. In non-essentials let there be liberty, in essentials unity, in all things charity … and in a great many more things clarity.

Here endeth the bleat. Those of you who can instruct and correct me, please do so.

liturgy (from my Sent folder)

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

the Bread of Life

A sermon preached to the Episcopal clergy of Dallas , April 13, 2016. The texts were the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:51 – 8:1) and the “I am the bread of life” passage, John 6:30-35.


Starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, we have in the last 80 years or so seen an endless procession of books offering us strategies for … well, winning friends and influencing people.

It appears that Stephen did not read any of them.

When I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles I find myself remembering Frederick Buechner’s line: “Nobody ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”

And yet, when Stephen chastises his audience for their failures to listen to the prophets, while we’re told they are enraged, they keep listening. They keep listening, perhaps, because they realize this is the sort of thing that prophets do. Only a few years earlier they had heard John the baptizer talking to them in this way, demanding their repentance. And of course a long line of prophets had preceded him in such denunciations. Possibly by this point in the history of Israel listening to this kind of speech had become a kind of performance art, something that people might talk about later on and say, “Now, that was good. He got us worked up there, didn’t he? Of course, he’s no Jeremiah, but still…”

But then Stephen goes too far. Denouncing the children of Israel for their unfaithfulness – well, that’s par for the course, that’s part of the game, is it not? But saying that this Jesus who was so recently crucified, who suffered the most shameful of deaths, is standing at the right hand of God? That cannot be tolerated.

To “stand at the right hand of God”: this is, after all, a Messianic designation — see for instance the opening of Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It seems likely that it was this claim for Jesus that broke the crowd’s patience with Stephen — especially since many of those listening to Stephen had shouted, not many days earlier, “Crucify him!” But in any case Stephen goes to his death, the first martyr for the cause of Jesus the Christ.

If we turn from this pivotal event in the early life of the Church, and go back in time to our Gospel reading, a moment from early in Jesus’s public ministry — here too we have a scene describing an encounter between a prophet and his audience, but this one is less contentious. No one is enraged; no one gets stoned; but the audience is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical.

(This is one of those relatively rare instances when the lectionary gives us only part of a story; you can’t really make sense of what’s happening here without looking a little earlier and a little later in the story. It’s easy to see why the lectionary-makers did this: John 6 is so rich, and so absolutely central to the Gospel, that it gets broken into small chunks for our rumination. But we need to keep a somewhat larger piece in mind when when we’re chewing on one of those small chunks.)

Now, the skepticism of this crowd is not invincible. They’re willing to be won over. All they’re asking for is a sign. In general, Jesus is extremely unsympathetic to demands for signs: as he says elsewhere, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” But this time he lets it go — which is interesting, because if a crowd ever deserves a good tongue-lashing, it’s this one.

Why? Because they had just received, one day earlier, a sign, an astonishing one: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus had filled their bellies, and they liked that, so they’ve climbed into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find him and get a refill. Jesus knows what they want, and says so — this is from just before our passage for today — :“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

So he’s onto them, but they’re still determined to wheedle something out of him. “Look, Rabbi,” they say — they start this conversation by referring to him respectfully as Rabbi, teacher — “we’re not here for the food, far from it, we just want you to demonstrate your authority so we will know that you are indeed speaking and acting on God’s behalf. So what would be a good sign? … Now, how about manna, or something like manna — bread, maybe? That worked for Moses.”

A transparent ruse! And yet Jesus does not lash out at them. He is remarkably patient. He just wants them to understand the situation. They got fed yesterday, but today they’re hungry again. In fact, even if what they really wanted was a sign, they would be hungry for a new sign tomorrow, too. Signs are not any more filling than bread. Wouldn’t they prefer the bread from God that gives life to the world?

Indeed they would. They like this idea very much. On the basis of this offer they elevate their respect for Jesus: before he had been Rabbi but now they call him Lord — Kyrie. Now, this is a curious form of address. It doesn’t mean the LORD God, which is why many modern translations render the word as “Sir.” But that may be misleading too, in the other direction. That Messianic passage from Psalm 110 I mentioned earlier — “The LORD says to my lord,” etc. — in the Septuagint “my lord” is also Kyrie.

So this crowd is treating Jesus with extreme deference — as long as they think they have a chance of manipulating him into providing them this bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. Because wouldn’t that be great, to have such bread? Maybe it would last a long time; maybe it could be stored safely; maybe they wouldn’t have to row back and forth across the lake to chase down this rabbi, or prophet, or whatever he is, to get more of it.

Unfortunately for them, Jesus doesn’t cooperate. He simply says: “I am the bread of life” — a statement that means nothing to them. (If we follow the rest of John’s narrative, we see that this is but the first of a series of “I am” sayings, some of which — especially “Before Abraham was, I AM” — get Jesus into a lot of trouble. But I don’t think anybody could have read a claim to divinity into this first “I am” statement. It only seems portentous in retrospect.

This much is clear, though: Jesus is telling them to stop thinking of their bellies, stop trying to manipulate him into performing a work that will get them what they already want. They need to turn to … to him. Not to his message, not even at this moment to the Father who sent him, but to himself. (“I and the Father are one,” he will explain later. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”)

So, no, he doesn’t cooperate. And, we’re told in verse 41, the crowd “grumbled” about him. They’re not angry — not yet — but they grow irritable. He isn’t what we thought he was. Or thought he might be.

If you take the whole of John 6 and link it to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, you can see the arc of the natural, unredeemed person’s attitude towards Jesus and the message of the Gospel. First curiosity; then perhaps excitement; then discontent; then hatred. What begins with the gathering together to hear a new voice ends with the flinging of stones, or, if we do things judicially rather than in the heat of temper, the nailing of a body to a cross.

And this happens because we want Jesus to give us the food we already know, already like. In our natural state, we can’t abide it when he insists on giving us instead the food that, though we refuse to acknowledge it, we desperately need. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is this: only when they do not yet know what Jesus offers do the people in the crowd make requests of him. Once they hear what he has come to give them, they turn aside. They go away.

May we never turn aside. May we never prefer our familiar food, our daily bread, to the food that Jesus offers: himself. May we say, this day and every day, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And may we be granted the great, great privilege of sharing this food with others who have never tasted it. Amen.

I’m not an Episcopalian, or even particularly religious, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me that one of the books I most enjoyed this year was Alan Jacobs’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013). It turns out that the story of the Anglican prayer book is a great yarn: a tale of theological dispute and refined prose style against a backdrop of the mafia-like power struggles of England’s royal families. Jacobs is a tactful historian, who doesn’t assume that his readers know much about English history or religious doctrine. But I imagine that even a reader who knew a great deal would enjoy the snap of Jacobs’s telling, as when he describes an early disavowal of transubstantiation as “palpably crabby.” If you’ve ever wondered why the Church of England has failed to substantially revise its prayer book since 1662, or what the jokes in Victorian novels about church candlesticks are really about, this is the history for you.

Because he came to faith dramatically, he has few prejudices about which tradition to inhabit. “I am a spiritual magpie,” he says. As well as speaking in tongues (a Protestant practice), he adores the sacrament of the eucharist (a Catholic one). He also says the morning and evening office, Book of Common Prayer version, in the chapel of the palace, every day. “Today it was Psalm 51, which is penitential. If you come in thinking how brilliant you are, it’s good to say that psalm.”

The routine of regular prayer is immensely important in overcoming the ups and downs of human moods, he thinks. For his own spiritual discipline, Justin Welby uses Catholic models – the contemplation and stability of Benedictines, and the rigorous self-examination of St Ignatius. And, in a choice that could not possibly have been made since the 16th century – until now – the Archbishop’s spiritual director is Fr Nicolas Buttet, a Roman Catholic priest.

That simply reminds us that evangelization is always an overflow of something else – the disciple’s journey to maturity in Christ, a journey not organized by the ambitious ego but the result of the prompting and drawing of the Spirit in us. In our considerations of how we are once again to make the Gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to men and women of our age, I hope we never lose sight of what makes it compelling to ourselves, to each one of us in our diverse ministries. So I wish you joy in these discussions – not simply clarity or effectiveness in planning, but joy in the promise of the vision of Christ’s face, and in the foreshadowing of that fulfillment in the joy of communion with each other here and now.

When we say that the word of God is not bound, we say that death itself can be the living speech of God, as the Word was uttered once and for all in the silence at the end of Good Friday. Cranmer speaks, not only in the controlled passion of those tight balances and repetitions in his Prayer Book, but in that chilling final quarter of an hour. He ran through the downpour to the town ditch and held out his right hand, his writing hand, for a final composition, a final liturgy. And, because the word of God is not bound, it is as if that hand in the flames becomes an icon of the right hand of Majesty stretched out to us for defence and mercy.

Shocks there have been. Nobody in 2002 saw what was coming. That’s why many of us, courteously disagreeing on some issues, have remained convinced that Rowan was the right man for the job. Shallow, polarizing analyses remain irresistible for commentators; many in the church go along for the ride. But Dr Williams is a thinker’s thinker. He burrows down into an issue, reads it up, mulls it over, prays it through, and then speaks his mind. We have needed that. He is a classic Anglican theologian: not one for big, clunky systems, but solid, deep and rich in his study of the Bible and the Fathers. To hear Rowan expounding St John or St Augustine is to encounter Anglican theology at its best. Watch him translate that theology into pastoral mode: with children, say, or praying quietly with someone in the wings of a conference. Like all loveable people, he can be infuriating. But loveable none the less.

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