Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: Christianity (page 1 of 48)

For Trinity Sunday–John Donne, Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Trinity Woodcut

Trinity Woodcut

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Prayer, Relics, and Miraculous Hope

What started out as a “last throw of the dice” to save the Anglican Communion has succeeded–at least for now. One would think there would be some thanksgiving, but instead there is lots of frustration and outrage. I can understand and respect the frustration that those present at the meeting might have felt as they left–reconciliation when parties are at an impasse usually leaves all sides a little worn and tired, and often, a little bit frustrated–in the sense of not getting what they would want in a “perfect world” of their own design. Reconciled, at least initially, may not mean “happy,” though one would hope it might mean the twinkling of a deeper, growing, joy.

But, I suppose upon reflection, frustration with the discipline leveled at The Episcopal Church is understandable and predictable, both from Episcopalians who do not like the idea of being disciplined at all, or perhaps at being singled out1, as well as from those observers–conservative Episcopalians or members of any number of extramural Anglican bodies in the US, or Anglican provinces around the world–who hoped for the more radical discipline of expelling The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (though lots of folks are incorrectly reporting–or at least headlines are leading people to believe–that this was the result).

So what were the results of the meeting?

First, I think it’s important to note that, despite our tendency to think about ourselves first, the Primates talked about more than The Episcopal Church and sexuality. With that being said, I will talk about other aspects of the Communique at the end of this post. The Primates were forced to release the portion of the communique dealing with the Episcopal Church early, on Thursday evening, separate from the final communique, because of fears it would be leaked and would be subject to spin from whatever media outlet or blog managed to get ahold of it. This despite the fact that the media blackout at this meeting was much better than in the past.

The vote to expel the Episcopal Church failed. So headlines that say The Episcopal Church has been suspended or expelled from the Anglican Communion are simply false. If you read that claim in the body of an article, I might suggest you just put it away and read something else, since it’s likely they’ve gotten a lot of other details incorrect as well.

The way I summarized the portion dealing with the Episcopal Church was this:

We won’t be called on by the teacher, and we’ve been told to stand in the corner, but we haven’t been expelled from the school.

Functionally, what this means is that the Episcopal Church has been (or the Primates have asked that the Episcopal Church be) suspended from full participation in certain committees of the Anglican Communion. The limits spelled out actually continue and put a time frame on an already existing indefinite limit that prevented Episcopalians from being involved in international conversations representing the Anglican Communion to, say, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Indeed, at St. Joseph’s and in the Diocese of Tennessee, we are familiar with one priest that this earlier suspension in 2010 directly affected, The Rev. Carola Von Wrangel, who was the interim for a time at the Church of the Advent in Nashville, and who visited St. Joseph’s in her ministry capacity with Food for the Poor.

This earlier suspension was possible because these are appointed positions and being “suspended” effectively means that the person doing the appointing–usually the Archbishop of Canterbury–simply doesn’t appoint certain people to those bodies.

The new limits are more involved, being related as their are to a body called The Anglican Consultative Council. It will be up to this group to determine how or whether to adhere to the Primates statement.  The exclusion specifically relates to the ability of Episcopalians on certain international commissions within the Communion itself, and asks that Episcopalians not vote on any doctrinal or polity (structural) decisions. As one of my friends, and former professors, who has a very different take on this meeting than me (believing that the primates have overstepped their authority) put it, “in a purely consultative body, there is no distinction between voice and vote.” He brings up an interesting point. Related to it is simply that there have traditionally been very few actual votes taken at these bodies. They’re more tasked with dealing with specific issues, or crafting consensus statements than they are taking up or down votes, especially on doctrine or polity.

Finally, The Rev. Winnie Varghese, a progressive priest from the Diocese of New York with whom many at General Convention became familiar with through the mellifluous tones with which she announced “The vote is open… the vote is closing…. the vote is closed…” made the comment that “Only in the Anglican Communion is not serving on committees for a time considered a real punishment.” I don’t really want to make light of some peoples’ frustration but… OK… yes I do. This needs to be placed in context. There are a lot of people who would enjoy being excluded from committees. Let’s be honest.

All of that said, I think these actions were significant. They are unheard of. And while people may get frustrated with the Primates–fundamentally a teaching body and not an executive or judicial structure–taking such action, I think, absent some sort of spelled out mechanism for dealing with disagreement, these sorts of things are going to remain ad hoc. I think the decisions were hardly surprising, except insofar as they were able to actually come to an agreement at all. I sort of hope that our Presiding Bishop, when he said this was not the result we expected, actually meant this was not the result we hoped for because, honestly, I don’t know how we could’ve expected anything less, short of the meeting simply breaking down, given the last decade of statements etc… from the Communion on these matters, and the previous actions taken to remove Episcopalians from dialogues. Indeed, on Tuesday of the week of the Primates meeting, when a friend asked for my thoughts about the meeting, and what I thought was likely, I indicated that, at the very least, the earlier limits would remain in place, and that there might be some other mechanisms the Primates would have to limit the involvement of The Episcopal Church on some committees etc. I don’t consider myself prescient, so I tend to think it was a predictable response.

What does this actually mean?

My conviction right now though, given the factors in play ahead of time, is that this is a tremendously good outcome that says much about Justin Welby’s gifts in the area of reconciliation, and speaks volumes for his leadership abilities–including the ability to surround himself with good people.  

I say this because of the fact that even having another Primates Meeting, or ever having another Lambeth Conference (the decennial global meeting of Anglican bishops), was in question prior to this meeting. Welby spent the first 18 months of his Archiepiscopate visiting the provinces of the Communion and talking with their primates. The fact he was able to get them all to the same table again was a huge victory. The fact that they remained there until the end, with one exception (the Primate of Uganda), and even that Primate affirmed the desire that all the churches of the communion remain together, stands in stark contrast to the predictions of boycott or walkout that plagued the meeting beforehand and during. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of some particular retirements either. There has been significant turnover among the primates, and, as anyone who has dealt with organizational dynamics knows, sometimes it’s better to deal with a contentious issue after certain personalities have left the stage, especially when they had toxic relationships with one another that would blow up efforts at consensus building.

I think the results–at the very least, the willingness to stay together in a Communion–however parts of the Primate’s statement chafe–are a witness to the power of prayer, and I commend those who planned the meeting. There were a number of steps that struck me as establishing a fruitful atmosphere for such discussion.

First, having the Community of St. Anselm praying for the meeting throughout the deliberations. This is a new monastic community established by Archbishop Welby at Lambeth Palace a few years ago. The prior is Anders Litzell, who grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal church, and came into Anglicanism through St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn Il. while a student at Wheaton College (I think this may have been when Bishop Matthew Gunter was rector there). He was later ordained in the Church of England. His ecclesial journey is in some ways emblematic of the community, which has, as part of its core identity and purpose, the coming together of Christians of various denominations and backgrounds:

In addition to the presence of the Community of St. Anselm, there were consistent calls for prayer from members of the Communion (through a better use of the internet and social media than we have seen in the past, I might add. There were even prayer resources posted). Added to the foundational presence of prayer, were items–relics if you will–to inspire holy remembrance. Reflection on where the Anglican Communion came from, on the faith of those who have taken the gospel to all corners of the world in all times. These two items included the top of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s crozier, thanks to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, alongside the book of the gospels given by St. Gregory to St. Augustine. All of this strikes me as very thoughtful and organized.

To top it off, given that one of the main thrusts of the meeting had to be reconciliation, having Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L’Arche community, be one of the presenters, was a great way to get folks thinking about the hard work of community and communion.

Prior to and during the meeting, people were predicting a walkout by as many as fifteen of the thirty-eight primates. During the meeting there were stories written about frustration and supposed machinations in the structure of the meeting intended to “keep conservatives apart,” so they couldn’t communicate with one another or stage a protest. Those reports have subsequently been revealed as false, rejected even by some of the most conservative people present, such as Archbishop Foley Beach, of The Anglican Church in North America (a church that some hope, will one day either replace the Episcopal Church as the legitimate representative of Anglicanism in the United States or at least, be recognized alongside the Episcopal Church).

Without some sort of discipline coming out of the meeting, I believe the Communion would likely have fragmented–or at the very least, would’ve remained frozen in conflict. If the Communion had broken up, North Americans wouldn’t suffer appreciably physically–though I think The Episcopal Church would be spiritually impoverished without our Communion connections–but in other parts of the communion there would be real physical consequence to those broken relationships. I don’t think standing in the corner (especially when part of those limits have already been in place for years) is too high a price to pay to prevent that. Doing so also provides for continued engagement on precisely the topics folks are most concerned about. Break relationship completely, and there’s no means to gain a hearing.

The most important decision

I believe the most important decision of the gathering, and the one upon which all else hinges, is the unanimous decision the Primates made “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ,” as well as their efforts to look “at what that meant in practical terms.” This was the most important decision, and in some ways the most surprising in its unanimity. While it’s true that there’s a three year window during which, following the next General Convention, many primates are probably hoping the Episcopal Church will walk back its decision on marriage (which I don’t think is going to happen) and that other provinces, such as Canada, Scotland, and Aotearoa and New Zealand, will decide not to follow suit (which they probably will anyway), that three years also gives us time. It gives us time, I pray, to find what Archbishop Welby talked about–a means of “disagreeing well,” and moving ahead together.

I do want to note some appreciation for our Presiding Bishop. I disagree with Bishop Curry on a number of issues, but, despite not being in 100% agreement with him, I think we should be thankful that he represented us at the meeting. No offense meant against our previous Presiding Bishop, but I believe Bishop Curry’s manner of expressing his faith is one that could more fruitfully engage with the other primates. I also think that he was able to express the positive reasons behind the actions The Episcopal Church has taken as a body, not in terms of capitulation to culture, but, in the best cases, as part of what many within our body have discerned to be faithfulness to Christ. I think this is a reality that those of us who aren’t completely on board with the changes have to deal with respectfully and thoughtfully. Just as when the people asking for recognition of their relationships are not seen as part of a plot to destroy western civilization, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ, it changes our perspective, so too does it change the dynamic of a conversation when we recognize that a brother or sister who disagrees with us claims they’re holding their position out of loyalty to Jesus. That’s the place where I believe good conversation and debate amongst Christians has to begin.

Episcopal News Service released an article that contained a portion of Bishop Curry’s remarks prior to the vote:

Before the Jan. 14 vote, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the primates gathering Jan. 11-15 in Canterbury, England, that the statement calling for the sanctions would be painful for many in the Episcopal Church to receive.

“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Curry said in remarks he later made available to Episcopal News Service. “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he added. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” {Read the whole article}


How have people been reacting?

With anger, frustration, and hurt, or with exasperation that more wasn’t done. Others have been more temperate. Below are a collection of responses from people in significant positions, or whose response I thought was just well written:

The Rev. Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church (the person who chairs the larger of the two deliberative bodies that make up General Convention), wrote a response in which she reiterated the limits of the Primates authority, the commitment that General Convention would not go back on the decisions that have been made, and that she would attend the Anglican Consultative Council as planned, and intends to “participate fully.” She expressed her appreciation for the Primate’s condemnation of homophobia, and of the criminalization of homosexuality, but shared her concerns for LGBTI community, particularly in Africa. {Read it all}

Bishop Matt Gunter of Fon du Lac, someone who supports the actions of General Convention in regard to marriage, but who would otherwise not generally be called a “progressive,” wrote shared his response on his blog, writing in part “It is important to note that this is not about whether or not the Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion. We are. That has not changed. Rather, this is a recognition of the deep disagreement with the decisions we have made. I have argued more or less in support of the position taken by the Episcopal Church. I still believe we are on a faithful path. But, I take seriously the strains this has put on our Communion. It is possible to believe that one is right while accepting that acting on that conviction might come with consequences. And then to accept the consequences.” {Read it all}

Bishop Daniel Martins, of Springfield, (Bishop Dan preached at St. Joseph’s a few years ago when the House of Bishops met in Nashville), writes “The Anglican Communion is absolutely vital to our identity as Episcopalians. It calls us out of ourselves and our time-bound and place-bound needs and perceptions. It resources our life of worship and devotion as we drink from the font of accumulated centuries of Christian experience long before the gospel even reached these shores. Our communion with the ancient See of Canterbury is the primary means by which we connect to the great Catholic tradition, the historic episcopate by which we remain faithful to the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (language from our Baptismal Covenant). Without the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church would be just one more obscure boutique American sect. It’s not an optional extra, but is of the essence of who we are.” {Read it all}

Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, my own bishop, writes the following:

“The Primates of the Anglican Communion concluded their meeting today with the issuing of a Communique dealing with a wide range of issues, including climate change, the rise of religiously motivated violence in many places of the world, and the need for child protection measures in all the churches of the Communion. They committed themselves and the churches of the Communion to the evangelical proclamation throughout the world of “the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

But there is no doubt that matters of human sexuality, in particular the 2015 action of the Episcopal Church in changing its marriage canons to make possible the marriage in the church of same-sex couples, dominated the discussions of the Primates. Members of the Diocese of Tennessee should be cautious in reading the headlines in the media. “Addendum A” of the Communique outlines the actual steps to be taken as a result of the Episcopal Church’s action at the General Convention this summer. Members of our church will no longer be appointed to represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. They should no longer be appointed or elected to standing committees of the Communion, and in internal bodies of the Communion our representatives will not take part in decisions about matters of doctrine or polity.

Some members of our church will be surprised at these developments, or wonder at their sense or logic, yet they were foreseeable in terms of previous developments and outcomes over the past decade and a half.” {Read it all}

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s brief response is shared in the video below, but I encourage you to watch the longer video in which he reflects on some of the background and context as well, which is included later in the post:

In the media and on the internet, responses have run the gamut. Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner has written about the meeting in First Things, saying:

The extraordinary meeting of world Anglican leaders, organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has ended after five days of prayer and deliberation. The meeting’s outcome, articulated in a statement released Friday, has surprised many. When Archbishop Welby called for the meeting of Anglican Primates last September—the Primates are mostly archbishops who head their respective churches—the press billed the gathering as a “last ditch effort to save the Anglican Communion.” Others, claiming inside knowledge of the goings on in Welby’s circle, ominously reported that he was ready to “dismantle” the Communion altogether, in view of intractable divisions among its members. And it is true: Welby presented the Primates with a series of possible ways forward for Anglicanism, that included a radical loosening of relationships.

As it has turned out, however, the Primates decided (“unanimously”) to stay the course of the Communion’s established order, indeed to strengthen that ordering and to maintain the ecclesial commitments that lie behind it. {Read it all}

Some have argued that the results of the meeting, and the consequences announced in the Primates Communique is nothing less than sheer hypocrisy (see Jonathan Merritt’s piece in the Atlantic: The Hypocrisy of Anglican Church’s Suspension of the Episcopal Branch ). I deal with some of Merritt’s critique below in my annotations on the Primates statement itself.

Others have pointed out some of the problematic tones taken by criticism of the Primates:

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently, uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame — implicitly and explicitly — “Asian” culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism. {Read it all}

Others, have called out the rancor that seems to be infecting many responses. The Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson, of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, writes:

“The Episcopal Church – this supposedly high-minded and elevated form of rational Christianity – has succumbed to the nastiest abusiveness of fellow Christians.  Whether it is the veiled racism of referring to “the Africans” or the copious use of various forms of the word “bigot” or casting the acts of the Primates as devious and underhanded – we are reacting in ways entirely out of proportion to the sanction that we have received.” (Read it all)

Hendrickson’s closing is perhaps the best word I’ve yet seen on the matter: “So let’s take a breath and heed Psalm 37, ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.'”

I would encourage folks to watch the video of the post meeting press conference, as well as Bishop Curry’s more in depth response, and then read the Communique in full below.


A longer interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry following the Primates meeting:

The Primates Communique, with my comments bracketed and in bold italics:

Continue reading

  1. People have rightly pointed out that the Windsor Report, which in some ways laid the foundation for much of what has transpired since, even though it has not been adhered to completely, condemns the crossing of church boundaries by bishops from one province into another, such as that which happened with the establishment of The Anglican Mission in America (Originally Rwanda, now… well, it’s complicated), The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria), as well as various parishes sponsored by Kenyan, Ugandan, and various South American provinces, which have mostly now joined together into the Anglican Church in North America. I suppose the argument of the border crossing bishops would be that they are not now actively crossing borders, the division now being maintained wholly by the choice of Americans. There is a bit more meat to the charge of hypocrisy related to the criminalization of homosexuality in some African countries, with the support of some Anglicans. But the situation is not exactly the same, because, on the one hand the Communion is dealing with official legislative actions by The Episcopal Church, while on the other it is dealing with opinions and political positions taken by individual Anglicans, which, while including some clergy, it still pretty far out of the scope of something one would discipline a province for. The one charge of hypocrisy that does, in some ways, ring true, has to do with the Anglican Church of Canada, which is not so far removed from the Episcopal Church. The answer to why The US has been disciplined and the Canadians have not, to my mind, is related to the same issues that lead some folks to say that you should claim to be Canadian and not American when you travel abroad. People have a chip on their shoulder about what they perceive–whether rightly or wrongly in any particular situation, as American arrogance. []

On Marriage & Sports Movies

Sermon notes for Proper 22B
October 4, 2015
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16

Imagine for a moment that you are in the midst of a situation well known as the context of a variety of sports films. You know the ones; the hero triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds, accomplishing the impossible, winning the respect and adulation of friends and neighbors.

Think about the climax of films like “Rudy,” with the crowd going wild cheering on the hero, letting them know that they believe in them, that they can do it.

Now imagine what the feeling would be if, instead of cheering on the hero, the crowd looked on in indifference, shrugged,and said “it doesn’t really matter one way or the other…” I would say this wouldn’t be seen as particularly encouraging.

Or imagine that you are about to undertake a task which many find difficult, and of which anywhere from 40% to 50% of those attempting it for the first time fail.  I’m not talking about scaling mountains; I’m referring to marriage.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees who are trying to put him to the test. Now there could be two senses in which they were testing him. The first is political, it could be that they were attempting to get Jesus in trouble with the Herods who ruled the area, who divorced early and often, marrying for political gain. You might recall that it was John the Baptist’s critique of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife that got his head segregated from his body. So there is a possible political undercurrent.

Recognizing that, it is more likely that the Pharisees were attempting to place Jesus on a continuum related to a contemporary debate between two schools of scriptural interpretation in regard to divorce.

The first school, named for Rabbi Hillel was called to the house of Hillel. The second was the named for Rabbi Shammai, and his followers were referred to as the House of Shammai.

The parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew is more clear in this regard, as it adds a detail to the question of the pharisees, who ask, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”

That phrase, “for any cause,” is a huge flashing sign letting us know that the questioners expect Jesus to come down in one of these two camps on the question of divorce. If his teaching is consistent with that of Hillel, then Jesus will affirm that a man may divorce his wife “for any cause,”—burning the pot roast, looking at him sideways, you name it—but if Jesus favors the interpretation of Shammai, then he will only advocate divorce because of sexual immorality.

It’s also important to note the specific phrasing of their question: “can a man divorce his wife…” because that’s what would’ve happened. There were a few exceptions depending upon the wealth of the woman in question, or how influenced the people may have been by Greek culture, but those exceptions prove the rule that only men could divorce, not women. Indeed, this is still the case in Orthodox Jewish communities. I read a story a year or so ago about an Orthodox Rabbi who had made a name for himself by “convincing” husbands to write a “get,” or a certificate of divorce, for their wives by taking them for a ride in a van. That’s quite an image.

At the time, this “any cause” divorce, in particular, left women in an extremely precarious position, subject to the whims of their husbands. It is interesting that, even as Jesus’ teaching so often seems to align with the more liberal interpretation of Hillel, on this question he seems track with the more conservative interpretation of Shammai (if one looks at the parallel in the Gospel of Matthew), or perhaps even stakes out a more conservative position.

But the most distinctive element of Jesus’ response is his refusal to take their question on its own terms. He won’t accept their assumptions. Instead Jesus is going to highlight where those assumptions have gone astray.

This section of Mark’s gospel is in keeping with themes that have shown up again and again since the end of chapter 9, through the middle of chapter 10: the reorientation of concepts of power and authority in the kingdom of God, verses the way power and authority are thought of in human political and social systems. Whether Jesus is welcoming children, who were seen not in a sentimental way, as we see them, but primarily as examples of weakness; or disciples who don’t fit expectations, such as the unknown exorcist, or, as here, rebalancing the power between men and women for greater equity, so that men could not simply abandon their wives on a whim

Again and again in his ministry Jesus has emphasized that the law is first and foremost intended to reveal the purposes and desires of God for God’s people, and that it is only secondarily a source of rules governing behavior. Jesus is attempting to reorient the perspectives of the Pharisees and everyone else, so that they can see the intent of God. In other words from Jesus’s perspective, asking what is lawful is, or should be, the same as asking what God desires. It is not so much about what is allowed, or what is legal.

It is possible that the Pharisees tipped their hand in their exchange with Jesus, when they respond to his question, “what did Moses command you?” By saying, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Jesus asked what had been commanded, and his questioners immediately went to what had been allowed. But this allowance to which they pointed, was an allowance precisely because of that part of us that often puts us at odds with the will and intent of God. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Instead of finding the will of God in what was allowed, Jesus indicates that the will of God for marriage is best seen in the context of creation. “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Because Jesus references it, it makes sense to reflect upon our Old Testament reading from Genesis chapter 2 for a moment, and consider what it reveals about God’s intent for humanity and our relationships.

First and foremost, this reveals that humanity is intended to be a relational creature. Relating both to God and to one another. It is not good that human beings be alone. We are intended to exist in relationship with one another—friends, co-workers, neighbors, family, community. With the foundational—the primordial—relationship being that of husband and wife, as the context for the rearing of the next generation.

It is helpful for us to see the humor in this creation account, as the humor points us toward the meaning. When I read the account presented in our Old Testament lesson today, I couldn’t help but think of a show my son Eli watches called Tinga Tinga. It’s a series of stories or fables from Africa that explain certain things about the world, or specifically, about animals; why does the Elephant have a long nose? How did the peacock get its feathers?

But while these stories tell us something about animals, the scriptural account tells us something about humanity, and even more, about God’s intent for humanity. God says, once everything has been created, “It is not good that man–[the Earth creature, the mud man, which is what “Adam” literally means]—should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18).

And so, as with Adam, God forms creatures from the ground, bringing each one in turn to Adam, who gives them a name. This is done in the hope that one of these creatures will be a match: a helper and partner. So imagine Adam looking at an animal and saying “Long legs, a longish neck, a mane… I name you ‘horse,’” or “feathers, a beak, you go cluck… I name you chicken,’” but after each one, saying “you’re nice, but you’re just not a helper and a partner for me.”

None of the animals God has made, magnificent as they may be, can be a helper and partner for Adam; none is his equal. And that’s what these words mean; there is a search for the appropriate match for Adam. There is a history of interpreting “helper” as though it indicated some subservience, but it does not. It makes to sense to read that into the term, since the it is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to God in relationship two Israel: God is Israel’s helper. So the point of this effort, to make everything “good,” is to find an equal helper and partner for Adam.

Finally, after Adam has named every creature God made and, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner,” God causes a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and God takes one of his ribs and creates the second human. Upon seeing her, Adam recognizes his match and exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” There’s a play on words there as well, in Hebrew just as there is in English, as man is “Ish” and woman is “Ishah.” The point is that Adam recognizes his equal, his match, in Eve.

It is in the context of what this text reveals about the nature of human relationships and about the desires of God for us that Jesus hearkens back to it. If we have truly found our helper/partner/match then we will not abandon them, nor they us. The ideal, the intent of God, is that those who marry would marry for life. And this is good news. This isn’t about God’s judgement on those who don’t keep rules. Again, Jesus is trying to shake up peoples’ thinking. We often approach this passage in the same way as the Pharisees, seeking a way to justify or explain marital breakdown. Marriages ended then, just as they do now, because of hardness of heart. Because of our inability to love one another as we ought to, because of shortsightedness, selfishness, because of our inability to be faithful, or our inability to forgive. Jesus’ teaching is hard, it is true, that’s why the disciples, at one point following his teaching on marriage and forgiveness, say “it would be better not to marry!” (Matt. 19:10).

But it is good news because it means that when we are setting out on a task that is so difficult, at which so many stumble, God is rooting for our success. God is in the stands cheering us on saying “You can do it!” How much better does that feel, and how much more encouraging is that reality, than imagining that, in regard to one of the most difficult and important tasks many of us will ever undertake, God might be indifferent?

Once again, this is not about judging those who have divorced. It’s about the reality of God’s hopes for our lives and our relationships. God desires the best for us. The success and the flourishing of all of our relationships, including our marital relationships. To think about that, it might be helpful to consider that, when God says in Malachi, “I hate divorce,” (Mal. 2:16) God is speaking as one who has endured the pain of infidelity, as recounted in Jeremiah (Jer. 3). Just as God desires a whole and intact relationship with his people, so does God desire that the relationships his people have with one another, including marriage, be successful, resilient, and in keeping with God’s hopes and purposes for our lives.

The good news for us, is that God wants us to flourish. God is cheering us on, especially when it’s hard. And for those of us who are struggling in our marriages, we can take heart that God wants us to succeed—just like the heroes in those sports movies, who have the deck stacked against them but somehow come out on top. I thank God for that. Amen.

Featured image: The Creation of Eve by William Blake.

My latest on Covenant: You can run on for a long time

My latest post at Covenant, on secrets and judgement. Johnny Cash gets in there too:

In March, Michael Cover wrote about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. I have not read the book, but I have watched the Masterpiece Mystery series based upon it, Grantchester.I enjoyed the series and appreciate a depiction of clergy dealing with personal issues that rise above buffoonery.

One issue the show brought into stark relief for me, is the tension that builds between Sidney’s desire to investigate and seek the truth — and to share that truth with his detective friend — and the expectation of pastoral discretion. How often can Sidney betray the confidences of his flock before he is no longer trusted by any of them?

The juxtaposition of Sidney’s compulsion to investigate, and his use of his pastoral role to gather information, highlights a contrast I’ve noted between one of my past jobs and my vocation as a priest.

Before I went to seminary I spent four years working as a private investigator in my dad’s investigative agency. But while I was officially employed for four years, I had many more years of exposure, if not experience, as I started going with my dad to work cases — largely worker’s compensation cases in the early years — when I was around seven years old.

This formed me in the experience of knowing things about people that others do not, and in keeping that knowledge largely to myself. (Of course, until I was ordained, there was no absolute requirement of secrecy).

Since I have been engaged in pastoral ministry, and my dealings with the people of God have revealed that the secrets that sometimes come to light are incredibly convoluted, I have been reflecting on the difference between the role of an investigator and the role of a priest.

{Read it all}

The featured image is The Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach 1472-1553. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Cleanse Your Temple: Sermon for Lent III, Year B 2015

Date: March 8, 2015
Place: St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22

When I was in college I was president of a student organization that brought in various speakers to address topics of interest in the humanities. My senior year we had read an essay by the theologian that you may have heard me mention from time to time, Stanley Hauerwas. I still enjoy Hauerwas’ work, and appreciate the fact that he is an honorary canon theologian at Christchurch Cathedral. At the time I didn’t know that much about the theological landscape and so had no idea when I contacted him at his office at Duke University that his schedule was booked up for appearances and speaking engagements a year or two out.

But he agreed to come and speak at our university, a fact for which I’m grateful. His topic was Just War and Christian nonviolence the two dominant ethical traditions within the church related to how we respond to violence and evil. At the end of his lecture, I asked him the question that had occurred to me which related to this gospel passage. I asked him what a person who holds to Christian nonviolence has to say about Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. Hauerwas, who is known for one-liners responded: “if you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!”

As I’ve been reflecting upon this Gospel passage during the week, those words have continued to present themselves in my mind. “If you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!” Jesus having performed a miracle at the wedding and Cana of Galilee, and having gone through Capernaum, goes up to Jerusalem. While there, being a pious Jew, he goes to the temple to worship. And upon entering he sees something going on that so angers him – a cold calculating sort of anger – that he goes and makes a whip of cords, a scourge, and returns to the Temple and drives out those people selling livestock for sacrifices, those selling doves, and the money changers. He uses the web to drive the cattle, he overturns the table of the money lenders, and pours their coins out on the ground in the temple courtyard. Then, turning to those standing there, he says don’t make my father’s house a marketplace.

This event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, has been one that has evoked a great deal of comment. It’s one of the few places recorded in the Gospels were Jesus gets angry. There are a couple more he gets frustrated, or at least were his actions could be interpreted as frustration. But this event stands out starkly as the clearest example we have of Jesus’s anger. And it is an ambiguous event in some ways because people have wondered what was Jesus so angry about?

As has been pointed out by commentators both ancient and modern, the money changers and those who are selling livestock and those for sacrifices were not doing anything that in themselves was evil or sinful. I mean, it’s pretty natural. You have a need to offer a particular sort of sacrifice, and rather than hope that there is a lamb or calf without blemish or that fits the other requirements in your flock or heard that year, and rather than bring this animal with you all the way to Jerusalem, why not simply by an animal that fits the criteria at the point where you need it. These folks were providing a service. Likewise with the money changers, if you’re going to the Temple and you are going to offer a monetary gift, the last thing you’d want is to offer a Roman coin with a big graven image of the Emperor with the words “The God, Caesar Augustus” or some such. It would have been blasphemous. So the money changers offered the opportunity to exchange this blasphemous currency for something known as the Tyrian shekel, a coin that’s rather than an image of any person, had an image of wheat.

Some commentators have been wondering what it is that causes Jesus to become so angry at these people. Weren’t they simply providing a necessary service? Well, I think the phrasing used by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels is instructive. In John’s Gospel Jesus says “do not make my father’s house a marketplace.” In the synoptic Gospels he’s even more clear and to the point: “do not make my father’s house a den of thieves” (Cf. Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13). Jesus’ concern does not seem to be that these things are occurring in the Temple in and of themselves. Rather Jesus’s concern seems to be what people’s focus was. The temple was to be the place for people came to worship God. The sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers, however in turning the Temple from a place of worship into a marketplace had transitioned from enabling worshipers, to actually impeding worship. In other words, their focus was not to ensure that people were able to worship God, but rather, they were concerned with their profit. And there is an intimation that perhaps they weren’t only concerned with their welfare, but that they were perhaps taking advantage of others. Much as the tax collectors of the day made their living by collecting as much as they could over and above the amount they were required to send on to Rome. It seems that rather than making a fair wage, those engaged in selling in the Temple, were taking advantage of others.

This seems to be why Jesus says in the Synoptics, “stop making my father’s house a den of thieves!” These folks were inserting themselves between worshipers and God. They were thinking of themselves and not others, and people believed that they had to go through them to get to God. And so, when we look at it from this perspective Jesus’s actions make perfect sense and are in keeping with the frustration he expresses at the Pharisees among others who presume to put themselves between people and God. Jesus is concerned, is that people be able to have a relationship with God.

When Jesus is asked by those who witnessed his actions, “give us a signed as to why you do this” Jesus responds by telling them destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it. Well of course, his questioners think this answer is absurd. The temple has been under construction for 46 years they point out. But as the disciples understood when looking back from the post-resurrection context, Jesus was talking about himself and not the building of the temple. In this statement Jesus is making a claim about where the presence of God is to be found. The presence of God is no longer to be found in the temple, but rather in Jesus himself. This is the radical claim that separates Jesus from other critics of the Temple at the time. None of them would have claimed that God was uniquely present in them. But this is precisely what Jesus is saying.

We must be careful here, because of the fraught history of Gentile Christian interpretation of this passage, filled as it is with examples of the denigration of Judaism, discussion of how the sacrificial system was backward and has been supplanted etc. So to be clear, what is being discussed here is the movement of the holiness of God, the presence of God, the Shekinah, from the Temple to another place. This is not something that is foreign to Judaism. It is instead discussed as something that has happened multiple times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness the presence of God was with them in the pillar of cloud and later in the tabernacle (the tent) which served as a precursor of the great temple in Jerusalem. Within Judaism itself there has been an ongoing concept of the idea that God’s glory, God’s holiness, the Shekinah can move. After the destruction of the first Temple, this was the understanding that explained the distraction. Jews came to see the destruction of their temple as evidence of the fact that God’s holiness had left the building so to speak. And it was the absence of God’s holiness that explained the destruction. There were rabbinic stories–the inheritors of the Pharisees–which explained the destruction of the second Temple in similar ways. One of the most moving stories told to me by the Rabbi that taught the history of Judaism course I took in college, was of the chief priest during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans who climbed to the pinnacle with the keys to the holy of holies and threw them up into the air and as a hand–a divine hand–appeared and grabbed the keys, pulling them up into the sky. All this is to say the notion that God’s holiness can move is not something unique to Christianity. Indeed to the degree that is present in Christianity it is part of the shared inheritance that Christians have with modern-day Jewish believers.

What is unique about the Christian claim is about where God’s holiness now resides. For Christians the claim is that God is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that God is uniquely present in each believer and present in the world through the body of Christ, the people of God. Us in Christ, Christ in us.

So Jesus, in cleansing the temple, is not doing so out of a sense that this is the only place that people could possibly worship God. Indeed in John’s Gospel you’ll recall, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman and has an exchange with her in which he says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers will not worship on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but will worship in spirit and in truth; for such the father seeks to worship him (paraphrase of John 4:21-23). So the problem was not that folks were defiling the Temple in some way, except insofar as they were inserting themselves between God and the people who came to the temple to connect with God. And so Jesus cleanses the Temple. We likewise are called to cleanse temples. We are called to rid ourselves and our communities of anything that prevents us or others from having relationship with God.

If we find a temple that needs cleansing, we ought to cleanse it!

But since we are now worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and there is not a particular place where we say we are in closer proximity to God than others per se, then we are called to look not only to our communities but within ourselves to determine what sort of cleansing needs to take place.

As the early biblical commentator Origen put it, “When are there not some money changers sitting who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned? When are there not those who are inclined to merchandise, but need to be held to the plow and the oxen, that having put their hand to it and not turning round to the things behind them, they may be fit for the kingdom of God?” (Origen, “Commentary on John,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 393 to 394).

And looking to ourselves we can consider St. Augustine’s sermon on this passage. Augustine has this wonderful imagery he uses, of Christ having made the whip of cords out of the very sins of the merchants and moneychangers. In other words he envisions them being run out of the temple metaphorically, by their own sins. Taking up that imagery, and combining it with some imagery from Psalms and some of the Gospels, Augustine warns us that we can sin, and then sin in order to cover our sin, with the result being that we take a single sin, one cord, and bind together with others until we have a rope. A rope with which to bind ourselves. Much better he says that we be scourged now with the small sins and be preserved from being bound by long ropes of sin and cast into the outer darkness (Augustine, “Homilies of the Gospel of John,” Post-Nicene Fathers, 70-72 )

If you find a temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!

Lent is the perfect time to discuss the cleansing of our temples. We’re all temples of the Holy Spirit; what in our lives is getting in the way of our faithfulness? Of our relationship with the father? Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor, could we not lay out for ourselves the cords of our sins, and making a weapon of them, cleanse our hearts, casting them out and reorienting ourselves toward God? If we want to talk about what this means, I think this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the process of confession and absolution. When we confess – and even during this general confession that we have in our services, I hope that we’re all thinking about particular sins which are separating us from God and one another – we are laying out before us the cords that could be turned into rope. But the very act of remembering, of calling the sins to mind, helps to deprive them of their power and in turn gives us the opportunity to once again be faithful. Lent is a time of introspection and reflection. Perhaps we should put this active, if violent, imagery to work and understand that when we confess, when we pray, when we ask for forgiveness – these are the tools with which we can run off the things that separate us from God.

And if we want to temper the aggressiveness or violence of this imagery a bit, we can do so by considering the fact that this action is not taken in order to make us worthy of God, or of forgiveness. It is rather taken, out of gratitude for the forgiveness already received, for the reconciliation already achieved.

In seminary I had a T-shirt that had a slogan on it that amused some of my class mates, and I know that one Episcopalian theologian, Paul Zahl, also had this T-shirt. It said “I bring nothing to the table.” The reality of that slogan is that there is nothing that you or I can do to win God’s favor, or to earn our salvation. But out of gratitude for what God has done in my life, I can reflect upon the ways and I have fallen short of the great gift I have been given, and I can seek to live a holier and more faithful life, a life where I am more closely identified with Jesus. And so as we come to this table–this altar–today let us recognize that we bring nothing with us with which to purchase the grace of God. Instead we come to this table and receive the grace of God, and having been bought by it, enabled to cleanse ourselves and be more like Christ, not out of necessity but out of gratitude. Amen.

The Same Lord is Lord of All

Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15

Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that  “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1

The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.

To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2

There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3

Continue reading

  1. Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ []
  2. As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 []
  3. Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). []

The Grace of a Guarantee

Sermon notes & Background research for Proper 13 A 2014, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 9:1-5

Recording (Note: the delivered sermon differs from the text, as this is more background information etc… and the sermon is delivered without notes in most instances):

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

When I was in High School one of my close friends shared a story with me, about something that had happened to him when he was in elementary school. More accurately, it was about something he did while in elementary school, and its repercussions. A female classmate of ours had come up in conversation because of some recognition she was receiving, and he mentioned to me that they had once been friends in elementary school, but that he had said something to her that resulted in her slugging him. No… it was nothing like that… remember, it happened in elementary school. You see, our classmate was–is–Jewish, and as a naive elementary school student, when he heard this revelation one day, he blurted “But Jewish people don’t believe in God…” at which point, he received due penalty for his sin, in the form of a fist to the face.

I didn’t witness the event, but I got a good laugh out of his recounting of it. And I gave him a hard time about his ignorance, but of course, I couldn’t tell you when exactly I came to an awareness of the details–including the theism or non-theism-of other religions. And I can even see, based upon his protests, how he could’ve come to that conclusion, so closely was Jesus identified with God in his upbringing, and then also hearing that Jews do not share our faith in Jesus. But as humorous as this particular event is to think about on one level–probably more so for me, since I know the parties involved–it points to something dark at the heart of our own faith.

In many–ok, most–cases, religions are ambivalent about other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue is really still in its infancy. But religions that developed out of a particular faith, especially when the parent faith rejected the new insights or ways of considering the divine, tend to have particularly fraught relationships with their predecessor and sibling religions. This has certainly been the case with Christianity and Judaism. Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner, who teaches at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto has highlighted what this tension has meant for Christians:

The Jew, quite distinctly, becomes a “heretic” and the “heretic” becomes a “Jew.” In other words,intra-Christian discord becomes completely coincident with apostasy and/or the denial of Christ, and Christian division is read in terms of religious antagonism in a strong modern sense. Those who “call themselves Christian”—“heretics”—are in fact the same as Jews and Saracens…1

As Radner notes, this polemic gets mapped on to intra-Christian divisions, so that every time someone who says of Roman Catholics “They leave Christ on the cross,” also negatively compares the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism, this more fundamental division is revealed. As one commentator put it: “The point Radner is driving home here is profound. By showing how Jews came to be understood as heretics and later Christian heretics become to be understood as as Jews (i.e. apostates), Radner is suggesting that Christians have been so bad to each other because we were so bad to the Jews. Thus, the inability to handle division and conflict internally, or inability to see the conflict as internal, is a result of how Christians have understood themselves over against their Jewish religious ancestors and neighbors.”2

All of this challenging history makes my friends comment, and others like it, ominous, even if they are not particularly informed by the tradition. They come out of this context, and so, they have an edge to them that we cannot deny. That edge is provided at its root, in large measure, by this section of Romans (chapters 9-11). From the beginning, many Christians have used the phrase “The Rejection of Israel” to describe this section of Romans. It is a phrase that cuts in two directions, but by far the sharpest is in the direction of claiming that God has rejected Irsrael/The Jewish people. The reality is however, that Paul is emphasizing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, but that a portion of the Jewish people have rejected Christ because of a misguided reading of the Torah.

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  1. Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 2065-2068). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []
  2. Furry, Tim. “Radner’s BFB, Part I” from Theology Studio. Radner offers many pertinent thoughts on this matter–pick up the book!–here are a few that really hit home: “But just as in Rwanda it is inescapable that a central element of the violence was that Christians killed, not simply that killers “happened to be” Christians, so, in the case of the Holocaust, there is a consensus that we must face the fact that Christians killed Jews and that these identities given in terms of violent hostility were not only self-consciously defined but carefully supported by religious arguments and traditions. There is no longer any question but that elements of Christian theological understanding and practice—and not only discrete (and somehow Christianly uninformed) acts by Christians—motivated these killings, if in ways that were hardly exhaustive.”
    Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 904-909). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []

Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, part II

sufferlittlechildrentocomeuntomeSeveral months ago I posted some thoughts inspired by a little research on the history of English (primarily, though not intentionally) church architecture. I was interested in looking at the way children were or were not welcomed in worship by our predecessors. I think this is important because I have a feeling that many of the issues the church is facing today come, at least in part, from a sort of social or institutional amnesia. We’ve forgotten what it means to play, learn, converse, and therefore, worship, in a multi-generational setting.

This lack is exemplified in nothing so much as the drive to program for children and the difficulty in finding adults willing and able (whether because of schedules or lack of formation on their part) to volunteer to lead such programs.

In my first post, Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, I made the following statement: “All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.”

While several months have passed, I am no less interested in reflecting on this question, and trying to come up with some “traditioned innovations” that might help us–at my parish, St. Joseph of Arimathea–or elsewhere, to face the question of properly passing our faith on to our children (and our adults, might I add!).

In keeping with this interest, I recently picked up (or rather, downloaded, then picked up my Kindle) the book When Children Become People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting information in this book, and I heartily commend it to you.

Of particular interest to the question of how, in the early Church (or let’s just say the church of the first four centuries) children participated and were nurtured in the faith, is the description of the role children played in worship.

First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service, and took part in it. They were lectors (readers of scripture), they sang the responses–with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults–joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.1

Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:

From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship. 2

In looking at this list, the questions arise: in what ways could children be involved in our worship today? How can such liturgical involvement translate to a better grasp of scripture and the Christian traditions?

  1. “It is in any case indisputable that boys served as lectors from a very early age. This is confirmed by a decree promulgated by Justinian in 546, which laid down the minimum age of eight for those who were to assume the office of lector.153 The need to establish a minimum age may be related to the desire of ambitious parents-or (perhaps more likely) poor parents-to ensure a future career in the clergy for their sons.”
    O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3827-3829). Kindle Edition. []
  2. O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3898-3899). Kindle Edition. []

Worshipping as the whole body of Christ

I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture  with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.

As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England.  Take a look:

Haseley Church, Oxon.

Haseley Church, Oxon.

I wonder what you notice about the lay out?

When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service.  Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?

Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.

Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?

What would be the possible benefits of this?

Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.

Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers […]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.

All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.


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