This will be my last post. I’m closing up shop, in part because my work is needed elsewhere in the church. The last 5 years in my parish have been simple: love the people and keep things going. But now we are entering a time of redevelopment, opportunity and growth that require much more deliberate attention. I am starting a new church blog at my parish site (its not quite up yet), and I'm toying with new uses of the medium.
But before I go, I’m going to meander a bit about where I think the church is going, the current crisis, and leave with a couple problems I’m thinking about.
One of the central philosophical divides between myself and culturally traditionalist Anglicans is how we describe our relationship between religion and culture. A traditionalist Anglican, in my view, sees Christianity as fundamentally distinct from culture, but asserts the primacy of a peculiar 21st century American understanding of 1st century Palestine. I am agnostic about whether our culture is better than 1st century Palestine. But I live here, now. That is where Christ and Christianity are located for me. I think that the 1st century view of homosexuality is confused, unreliable and incomplete. As the link between property, sexuality and death has become loose, we are forced to struggle with competing traditions – those that have idolized an essentialist, utilitarian understanding of gender; and those that affirm the power of grace to reveal a sort of relationship that has generally been kept secret.
We get into some philosophical confusions when talking about culture because any civilization will have multiple “cultures.” And this is also true with Christianity – Christianity is not really of one sort. We can only talk with precision about the institutions of Christianity and what the institutions assert. What we can do is make connections and make distinctions, acknowledging that they are often moving. Faith is, by its nature, very slippery and almost impossible to define (which is why we use religious language).
I am skeptical about the new alliances between splinter Anglican groups. It will be perceived, by nature of its origins, as being organized not around the "Faith Once Delivered," but around an antagonism towards gay people. These organizations reject the modern bourgeois sensibilities toward homosexual behavior, which has accommodated the biases of modern psychology, combining it with classical marital virtues. But the battle has been won (not really by us, but because of capitalism): most young people are growing more tolerant, and gay people are finding the spaces they inhabit slowly becoming safer and more public. In short, let us continue in the direction we have chosen toward full inclusion without looking back. We’re on the right path.
But not really. The real stumbling block that conservatives continually overlook, and we progressives have accomodated is our system of economic arrangements. I have asked conservative voices to discuss more about the market, but they have generally been silent on the issue, or parroted the opinion page of the WSJ.
I do think that some practical compromises can be reached with conservative churches. Perhaps if a conservative church wants different Episcopal leadership, the diocese may instead charge a “rental” fee for the church building that would go into a broader property support fund. This “assessment” would not go to support the salary of the Episcopate, but for non-religious elements of shared management. The clergy would still be able to pay into the pension, and invited to Episcopal events, but would fall under the canons as a Presbyterian cleric would. The financial benefits of being part of a larger body would still be magnanimously granted to dissenting clergy without harming their conscience. They would, of course, not be part of that diocese’s college anymore, except as having a special license.
The church, however, would have to permit that a “loyalist” body of Episcopalians also be allowed to use the space. No visitations, however, would be required, nor would permission be demanded, but courtesy encouraged.
But TEC still has institutional problems. It will need to restructure. Dioceses will become centers of best practices, employing consultants (the “canons”) who also work part-time in local churches. They will have to become stronger stewards of their resources. As practice, dioceses should ask themselves what would we do if we were not tax-exempt?
Churches will become less able to afford full-time clergy. For this reason, Priests will become bi-vocational, requiring a concomitant change in clerical education. Perhaps churches will become offices for Nurse Practitioner - priests or family lawyer - priests.
The techne of clergy will have to be clarified. In this day, clergy should be competent especially at 1) communication 2) collaboration 3) social entrepreneurship and 4) "coaching." They should bet excellent writers and storytellers; be able to work with other priests and lay people, discarding the lone-ranger mentality that plagues mainline clergy; think creatively about the community’s needs; and encourage people in their work and daily life. Gone is the psychotherapeutic model of the priesthood. Let it die the death it deserves.
Churches should also be more experimental with their internal architecture; have services in the afternoons and week-days; and open up their musical traditions. It is probably harder to make these changes in mainline churches than in conservative ones
Over the last 3 years I’ve become quite distressed at the uses and misuses of the word “liberal.” My own perspective is that to be an “evangelical” is to be liberal. It is the evangelicals who were able to critique the oppressive hold that the Catholic Church had upon the minds of millions of believers. It was this critique that opened up The Word releasing it from the hold of the Magisterium. And this liberality has been good both for the Catholic Church, given incentive to improve its internal moral architecture.
Liberal Protestantism is one great meme in our American identity – and I say this as someone who has deep connections to another culture. Liberals have more closely affirmed God’s role in individual conscience; reminded the church that it too requires humility; and a deep sensitivity towards cruelty. Liberals affirm two essential things: that individual agency (and choice) is worth respecting; that individuals can and may change their minds without outside coercion. These are both contestable. One can affirm that the church takes primacy over the individual; and that coercion is justifiable in changing a mind. It is liberal Protestantism that has affirmed the democratic nature of our institutions – at great cost, I submit, to its own existence. It is this history that the Archbishop doesn't accurately comprehend.
Over the next couple months I’m going to be spending much time reading and thinking about two concepts: what will the consequences be of our culture moving towards a predominantly visual medium? What will this do to our comprehension of scripture? If, there was a 14 hour drama about the bible, after which, by an act of God, all bibles suddenly disappeared? What would people remember about scripture? To what extent would the 14 hour drama become the “canonical” text? The pre-modernists often refer to a set of ideas they call “the faith once delivered” which, from my vantage point, is a general body of memes, cultural proclivities, and central texts with a particular hermeneutic that are fundamentally static. My intuition is to interrogate this sort of reduction of faith, to examine what is hidden within the foundations people have. My goal is merely to describe lives accurately, for it is in human lives that God works - and sometimes our "foundations" merely hide needs that have been kept secret (security, rootedness, etc).
My interest is not IF such a tradition exists – it clearly exists for some – but is the FOD a written tradition only? Is its sudden appearance as an idea (yes, I know the biblican citation, but it seems a bit new in our currenct context) just an indication of its corruption or transformation? But why written over the visual? How do we see the FOD in action? Is an emphasis on the written an elevation of the intellectual over the physical?
My second question has to do with geography. The notion of “flying” bishops is merely a symptom of our cultural context. Flying bishops would have been unheard of 70 years ago. It is remarkable that many southern churches, for example, are suddenly willing to submit to African episcopates (although one wonders what would happen if they were actually living nearby) over the issue of homosexuality. How is the internet making these connections plausible? To what extent is cyberspace transforming how we think of our physical locations? What are the consequences of a church in NY that becomes connected to the church in Rwanda? What happens when they start sending their assessment there instead of the diocese of NY? I’d like to know how we can talk about this new terrain we’ve been thrust into - the virtual vs. the concrete. I'm not sure what the boundary between the two is.
Granted, I have some biases toward a written text (which is why I submit to teaching and preaching holy scripture) and toward physical rootedness (which is why I’m against flying bishops). But how do our electronic tools destabilize our use of the written word or physical intimacy with other persons?
Ironically, it is the churches with a “pre-modern” cosmology who are using the electronic tools of modern life most successfully. Liberal, mainline, traditional churches are burdened with 1950s style of worship, buildings that are old and burdensome, and a fairly obscure, uninspiring theology that is accurate, but distant from the lives of persons.
But that's enough for now.
I would like to thank my regular readers of my blog. Everything written here has been for one purpose: to praise Jesus Christ as Savior, and to make the risen God known to all.
I unceasingly trust in His mercy, seeking to know his Love in His
I have hoped that this blog would bless Him as He lives in my life and in the life of the church, be it Pentecostal, Catholic or in the small corner of hope we call the Episcopal Church, my struggling but faithful and joyous home. He is present in it, and here I praise His Eternal Name, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Lord, there is no one like You. (Jer 10:6)
And blessings to you also. May your hands be His hands, your courage be His Courage, and your power be His Power, your Love be His Love. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do (ecclesiastes 9:7).
In the name of the blessed Trinity.