Tagchurch

Sinaia Monastery

Sinaia Monastery, Romania; interior of the Old Church (finished in 1695); by Flickr user fusion-of-horizons

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.

mea maxima culpa

I spent a bit of time and energy trying to convince my Catholic friends that Pope Francis’s apparent pastoral relaxation of the rules for admission to Communion in Amoris laetitia was possibly salutary and in any case not that big a deal. But I did not anticipate this. I am so, so sorry. 

against consequentialism

an unspoken Advent sermon, of sorts

In my recent involvement in the ongoing debate about sexuality and the church, I’ve heard a number of people argue that if conservatives were to treat affirmers of same-sex unions as brothers and sisters in Christ, that would serve to “normalize” or “legitimate” the affirmers. The consequences of such normalization, they say, would be to weaken the witness and testimony of Christ’s church.

It’s natural and in most cases appropriate to think about the likely consequences, outcomes, of actions. But … When people ask Jesus whether many will be saved or only a few — which is basically a question about the general or universal consequences of sin — he begins his answer by telling them to focus their attention on their own spiritual condition: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (And he adds that some of those most confident of their admission will be turned away.) When people ask whether the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed suffered death as punishment for being more wicked than other people, Jesus says: Nope, they weren’t more wicked than you, so repent now while you still can. When Jesus prophesies the death of Peter, and Peter replies by asking what will become of John, Jesus replies: “What is that to you? Follow me.”

I think if you put these passages together they have a common theme: Jesus asks people to obey rather than calculate consequences — and if you are going to think about consequences, focus on the consequences for yourselves of disobedience. If, as I have suggested, we are commanded to treat those who disagree with us on matters of sexuality but “confess the faith of Christ crucified” as brothers and sisters, then that’s what we have to do, regardless of what consequences we anticipate or fear. I say If because my interpretation may be wrong, but the question that I’ve raised is the one question that must be answered before we go any further. Because once we acknowledge people as brothers and sisters then a whole bunch of other commandments kick in. At every stage our only concern, it seems to me, is our own obedience to the Lord’s teaching. To say “But if I do that, then X will happen” is to invite the reply: What is X to you? Follow me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this specific case might be, I have to say that thinking about these matters has been an enlightening experience for me personally. For many years I have understood my own Christian calling as one that encourages reconciliation and mutual understanding. (Let it be acknowledged that I have often failed to manifest the generosity of spirit required to do such work well.) I have tried to do this in a small way politically — hoping to get liberals and conservatives to have more charitable and mutually forbearing interactions, something that I do from my position as a conservative-liberal-socialist — but mainly within the church. I have hoped for many years to get rival Anglican bodies likewise to be forbearing towards one another and to seek common cause. I have tried to encourage cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, in the belief that, given the strong currents of our culture, if we do not hang together we shall most assuredly hang separately. But recently I have found myself grown very weary in well doing, despite the biblical admonition. I have said to myself, You gave it your best shot, it’s time to pack up, go home, and do something else for a change. I told a friend recently that the chief thing I have learned in my years of seeking reconciliation is that people’s enmities are their treasures, and trying to deprive them of those enmities is like trying to take gemstones from the lair of Smaug.

But just in the past few days I’ve come to realize how much my discouragement arises from consequentialism rather than obedience. I have wanted to make a difference. I have wanted to be successful. Even when I have thought of people whose efforts were belatedly rewarded — like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who went to his death thinking that his enormous gifts as a poet had been wasted, had gone for nothing — my real focus has been on that eventual recognition, which Hopkins has surely received in spades. But it’s not possible to reflect on the example of those who did not grow weary in well doing but whose efforts brought forth no obvious fruit — those who, as George Eliot says in the magnificent closing words of Middlemarch, “rest in unvisited tombs “— because nobody knows who they are. If we have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, should we not also have memorials to the unrecognized and unthanked workers of charity and kindness?

In any case, all my mental fluttering about consequentialism has come home to roost. It was a moment of powerful illumination for me when I realized that if I were to say to the Lord that I could see no point in continuing to seek reconciliation among people who did not want to be reconciled to one another, the only answer I would be likely to receive is this: What is that to you? Follow me.

 

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

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.

wisdom for Christians from Jacques Maritain

It is not enough for a population or a section of the population to have Christian faith and be docile to the ministers of religion in order to be in a position properly to judge political matters. If this population has no political experience, no taste for seeing clearly for itself nor a tradition of initiative and critical judgment, its position with respect to politics grows more complicated, for nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception, and nothing is more disastrous than good principles badly applied. And moreover nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatreds, passions of a clan and political phantoms which compensate for the rigors of individual discipline in a pious but insufficiently purified soul. Politics deal with matters and interests of the world and they depend upon passions natural to man and upon reason. But the point I wish to make here is that without goodness, love and charity, all that is best in us—even divine faith, but passions and reason much more so—turns in our hands to an unhappy use. The point is that right political experience cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice. The point is that, without the evangelical instinct and the spiritual potential of a living Christianity, political judgment and political experience are ill protected against the illusions of selfishness and fear; without courage, compassion for mankind and the spirit of sacrifice, the ever-thwarted advance toward an historical ideal of generosity and fraternity is not conceivable.

— Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, 1944 (emphasis added)

The Gospel of Life

Today is the Feast of Saints Basil & Gregory Nazianzen, which reminds me that some years ago I wanted to write a book for the church that took the Cappadocians as our models. I never got beyond the proposal, in part because the editors I talked to weren’t enthusiastic; my idea seemed neither fish nor fowl, too churchy for an intellectual audience and too intellectual for a churchy audience. So I set the idea aside and am not likely, now, to return to it. In lieu of that I’m posting the proposal here.


Heroes. One of my heroes is Paul Farmer. Farmer is a physician who teaches at Harvard, co-edits a journal called Health and Human Rights, and leads an organization he founded called Partners in Health. That last role leads him to spend much of his time in Haiti, Rwanda, and other parts of the world where health care for the poor has traditionally been poor or nonexistent. For a couple of decades now Paul Farmer has done as much as anyone in the world to save the lives of people whom the world in general thinks not worth saving. And key to his devotion is his lifelong Catholic Christian faith.

I have other heroes. Some of them work for Care Net, an organization founded in 1975 by evangelical Christians to provide pregnant women with alternatives to abortion — and to provide counseling and compassionate attention to women who have had abortions. The people of Care Net also share the good news of the Christian gospel with the women whom they serve.

I have at times been in groups of people who know and respect the work of Care Net, but if in those contexts I mention my admiration for the work of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, I am liable to get some suspicious looks. Paul Farmer’s theology is on the liberal end of the spectrum, as are his politics: for instance, he is a vocal admirer of the Cuban government’s health care system. He has had a book written about him by Tracy Kidder, also a political liberal and a thoroughly secular writer; Sixty Minutes, even, has done an admiring segment on him. He’s the liberal elite’s ideal do-gooder. What does that have to do with Christianity?

In other groups, people join enthusiastically in my praise for Paul Farmer — but become nervous when I mention my admiration for Care Net. They hear of an organization trying to provide women with alternatives to abortion and they think of large photographs of bloody fetuses held aloft by abortion-clinic protestors; they think of reactionaries who want to control women’s bodies and keep them barefoot and pregnant; they think of a conservative evangelical church in thrall to the Republican Party. If they saw the institutional history Care Net provides on its website they would be even more worried: “Care Net was influenced by the evangelical leadership of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and Christian apologist, Dr. Francis Schaeffer.”

And yet both Partners in Health and Care Net are pursuing the Biblical mandate to care for the weakest and most helpless among us. In so many ways they are doing the same work, and even are dedicated to the same goal — the preservation and healing of the lives of people made in the image of God. Why must we see them in opposition to each other? (And for all I know they may even see themselves in opposition to each other.) Such an attitude is simply tragic.

And the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.

There have of course been attempts to bridge this political gap, primarily through Catholic social teaching. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago was particularly associated with the notion of the “seamless garment” of life, the necessarily interwoven character of all attempts to promote human survival and human flourishing. Others have adopted the phrase “consistent life ethic” to indicate much the same emphasis. But often these voices have been ignored because they have been perceived as coming from a particular “side” in the already-existing political debate. (Similar criticisms have been directed against Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: many a reviewer has commented that God’s politics seems to be indistinguishable from that of recent Democratic Party platforms.) Moreover, these movements tend to be grounded very specifically in Catholic theology, in ways that can be daunting or confusing for people who do not know that tradition well.

What is needed at this moment is a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories. We need to be taken out of our own time and place, so that we might see what a real Gospel of Life looks like to Christians who didn’t look much like us, think much like us, or live much like us. We need to travel to Cappadocia during the time of the Church Fathers. There we will find one family who, among themselves, practiced the Gospel of Life in all its fullness.

The Cappadocians. Cappadocia is a region in what is now central Turkey. In the time with which we are concerned, it was an economically and culturally vibrant place. To the north is the district of Pontus and the Black Sea. To the west are the shores of Asia Minor, then dotted with great cities — Ephesus particularly well known to us because of Paul’s visit and letter to the churches there. Due south one would have found Tarsus, Paul’s home town, whose great Mediterranean harbor was even then silting up and landlocking it. To the southeast is Palestine. In the late Roman world, Cappadocia was a great crossroads.

Sometime around the year 270, probably in the Pontus region, a woman was born named Macrina. Later she married — we don’t know her husband’s name — and had children. She was a faithful Christian, which it was not good to be in that time and place, for in the year 303, when Macrina’s son Basil would have been around eight years old, the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his colleagues Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius began issuing a series of repressive edicts aimed directly at the Christians of the empire. Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, who was around forty when the persecutions began, described the situation in this way:

This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in March, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere commanding that the churches should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.

And such was the first decree against us. But issuing other decrees not long after, the Emperor commanded that all the rulers of the churches in every place should be first put in prison and afterwards compelled by every device to offer sacrifice [to the old Roman gods]. Elsewhere in the Empire, particularly in the far west and north, these edicts were enforced half-heartedly or not at all; but in Cappadocia and Pontus the officials pursued Christians with real, and frightening, enthusiasm. Macrina and her family fled into the countryside, probably to the shores of the Black Sea, and waited out the persecutions.

The attempts to suppress Christianity waned over the next few years and were officially ended in 313, when Constantine the Great and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom for Christians. Pontus and Cappadocia were safe again, and Macrina raised her children in the Pontine city of Neocaeserea. Later her son Basil would marry a devout Christian woman named Emmelia — her father had been martyred in the persecutions — and move to Ceasarea, which would become the center of this family’s life. Basil established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and, more important, a lay teacher of the Christian faith, celebrated throughout the city for his wisdom and piety.

Basil the Elder, as he came to be known, and Emmelia went on to have ten children. We know the names of five of them: Macrina, Basil, Gregory, Naucratius, and Peter. We know those five names because all of them became recognized as saints of the church — as did Basil the Elder, Emmelia, and the matriarch Macrina the Elder.

Let us pause to contemplate this for a moment: one family; three generations; eight saints.

What did these people do to earn such lasting fame and praise? Here I will offer just a brief account:

  • Macrina the Elder was canonized for her faithfulness in time of persecution;
  • Basil the Elder for his powerful and influential teaching;
  • Emmelia largely for the extraordinary family she raised, though she may also have had an active role in the ministries of some of her children;
  • Macrina the Younger for her teaching of her younger siblings, and as the founder of a community for widows, abandoned women, and orphans;
  • Basil, later Basil the Great, for his work as priest, bishop, scholar, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, champion of the poor and hungry, and founder of the Basileion, the first Christian hospital;
  • Gregory, later Gregory of Nyssa, for much the same work as his older brother Basil did, though on slightly less titanic a scale;
  • Naucratius, for his holy life as a hermit and as a servant of, especially, the elderly poor;
  • Peter, later Peter of Sebaste, for his work as priest, monk, bishop, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and as partner with his sister Macrina on behalf of the poor.

It’s all really quite overwhelming, and, when related in detail (as this book will do), deeply moving and encouraging. What’s especially noteworthy for anyone interested in the Gospel of Life is how seamless the family’s garment of service is. This can be seen with particular clarity in the career of Basil, who moved so easily from advocating for the poor in the pulpit to building the first hospital to combatting Arianism and other heresies of the time. It was one Gospel to him — and, I think, to the rest of his family — one unified model of human flourishing in Christ.

In order to understand why the way of life offered by this single Cappadocian family is so important an example for us, we might turn to the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Here Ezekiel is lamenting the circumstances that led to the collapse of Israel and the carrying off of its people, including Ezekiel himself, into captivity in Babylon. The fault, he says — or the Lord says through him — lies with the “shepherds,” the elders of Israel. The Lord denounces the shepherds thus:

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. . . . My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

Several things are noteworthy about this passage: the powerful condemnation of sins of omission, for which most of us tend to excuse ourselves; the opposition of ruling “in force and harshness” — domination — to compassionate care; and especially the bringing together of very different forms of suffering.

There are five categories of sufferers in this passage: the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. It’s pretty clear that the first three apply in equally literal ways to sheep and to people: the Lord is accusing the elders of Israel of neglecting the physical sufferings of the people. But the remaining two categories have an equally clear metaphorical meaning when applied to people, as they do throughout the prophets (“All we like sheep have gone astray”). The Lord clearly says that the elders of the nation have neglected the spiritual as well as the physical needs of the people — they have been shamefully negligent across the board, obsessed instead with maintaining their own power to rule.

The behavior of the shepherds of Israel is a lamentable inversion, then, of the gospel that our Cappadocian family practiced. What the shepherds “did not” the Cappadocians did, like the two groups Jesus contrasts to each other (“those on his right” and “those on his left”) in Matthew 25, a passage that strongly echoes Ezekiel 34. It is by striving to see ourselves in these two distant mirrors — and not by situating ourselves or others on today’s American political map — that we 21st-century Christians can find our proper roles in Christ’s Kingdom, can find the genuine Gospel of Life.

I plan to narrate the story of this great Cappadocian family immediately after the book’s introduction (which will say in more detail many of the things I say in the opening paragraphs of this proposal). The family’s story is a powerful one, and will provide a host of examples that I can draw on throughout the book.

The Image of God. The next stage will start from a question: What was the biblical-theological model that our Cappadocian family was living out? What were their key principles, their core convictions? (Note that for us, as for Basil and his fellow Catholic bishops, sound orthodox theology and reverence for Scripture are indispensable to our lives in the Kingdom, and properly inseparable from the kind of work usually called “social ministry” or “compassionate ministry” — as though it is neither social nor compassionate to preach to all the story of Christ crucified.) My answer will follow a sequence of propositions that follow from the belief that all of us are made in the image of God. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in his great sermon “On the Love of the Poor,” “Do not despise those who are stretched out on the ground as if they merit no respect…. They bear the countenance of our Savior.”

  • To be made in the image of God is to have dominion over creation.
  • To be made in the image of God is to be in communion with God and with one another.
  • Because we are fallen beings, the image of God is defaced in us, but it is not erased. We still show it imperfectly.
  • We sin against the image of God in our neighbors when we fail to see that “they bear the countenance of our Savior,” and try to exert dominion over them instead of embracing communion.
  • To follow Christ, to live in him and be conformed to his image, is to have the image of God in us restored.
  • We are made in the image of God and yet — sometimes because of sin and sometimes because of the variety of created beings — we are all in some sense weak.
  • The Biblical picture of God centers on his compassion for all forms of human weakness.
  • Insofar as we are conformed to the image of Christ, we too will exhibit that compassion for weakness.
  • And we will do so all the more because we too experience weakness and hope that people who are stronger will have compassion on us.
  • To be in communion with one another is to give and receive help appropriate to our weakness — to be blessed through giving and receiving compassionate love.
  • To be in communion with one another is to acknowledge that we are many members (organs) of the body of Christ and will therefore pursue different aspects of the one Gospel of Life.
  • We are not the primary agents in the economy of love: as the Lord says later in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

The unpacking of those propositions, and their relation to one another, will occupy more than half of this book.

What to do? The last major stage of the argument will simply ask “What do we do now?” The answer will involve five categories of action:

  • Discern the weak among us;
  • Identify the different forms of weakness;
  • Know our own weaknesses;
  • Pray to see the image of God in all other human beings;
  • Trust in the strength of the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13).

With our hearts encouraged by the example of one great ancient family, and our minds fortified by the theological principles they embraced, and our wills committed to the necessary forms of action, we twenty-first century Christians will be prepared to live out the real, the full, Gospel of Life.

For Michaelmas: Jacob Epstein, St Michael’s Victory over the Devil (1958), Coventry Cathedral

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