Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Rowan Williams (Page 1 of 2)

The Message of Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion

The Triumphal Entry
The Triumphal Entry by Pietro Lorenzetti

It strikes me every year that the liturgists who authored the Prayer Book Liturgy for Palm Sunday wanted to discourage long sermons.  More than any other service, the message is communicated at the level of the gut, viscerally.  Very little interpretation or explanation is required beyond simple participation in the service.  A service which leaves us, intentionally, at a moment of great despair, there to linger for a week reflecting on our role in the events that transpired.

And I don’t simply mean our role in the liturgy, obviously, but our role in the events that the liturgy and the readings recount.  In the Liturgy of the Palms, we stand with those who welcomed Jesus‘ entry into Jerusalem with loud “Hosannas” and cheers and rejoicing.  Standing with them, crying out with them, we’re reminded what it feels like to finally have that log awaited desire fulfilled.  To see our most hoped for reality come to pass.  The Messiah has come!  The King who will restore the land to its rightful people.  The one who will settle accounts, restore good fortune, put to right injustices and bring people into line with the sword.  Hosanna! we cry, connecting with the joy they felt, believing that the day of the Lord they had always envisioned was coming to pass, that the Kingdom they assumed God would establish was being called into being.  Finally.  after all these years.  It’s time to celebrate.  To lay palm fronds at the feet of the one who comes, of the Messiah we’ve been waiting for.

But then, something happens, and the Liturgy forces us to confront a sad reality about the great throngs that greeted Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, and about the great throngs of people who have lived and died on this earth in all the years since.  We transition, with the crowd, from shouts of praise and Hossana, to the Passion Gospel where we cry out “Crucify him!”  We learn, through participation, that the people who cheered so mightily at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cheered just as mightily for his crucifixion when they realized that this was not the Messiah that they wanted or expected.  This Jesus.  He was not the Messiah that they expected and this kingdom he announced… it was not a kingdom they wanted any part of.  And so they turned on him to protect what little they had, to guard the things they loved, the things they loved which they thought were dedicated to God, but for which they would crucify God.

And we’re there with them.

We’re put there with them by the liturgy, because we’re there with them in spirit so often in our day to day lives.  Today and throughout Holy Week we’re called to examine our relationship with God.  To examine what exactly it is we’re hoping for, why exactly it is we claim to follow this carpenter from Nazareth.  We’re called to seek within ourselves any evidence that we have, like the crowd, decided to shout “Hosanna,” because we have created a Messiah, a God, in our own image, because we have looked forward to the establishment of a kingdom governed by a law of our making.

We’re called to look with fresh eyes at Jesus and the message of his Gospel, and decide again whether it is a message we can handle, whether we’re willing to continue the hard work of changing our expectations and casting off our selfishness and prejudices in order to truly welcome the Kingdom that even now is coming more and more into reality.

We’re here today, as well, to be reminded of the times when we have said “Crucify him,” by our actions.  To be reminded of the times we have rejected the truth and message of the Gospel by rejecting what it means for us and for all people.  We may never have gone so far as to consciously reject or renounce Christ.  We may never have participated in a “de-baptism” ritual, such as have become popular among atheists in England these days.  Be that as it may, I would go so far as to say that all of us have at some point done something so out of conformity with what Jesus would have us do that we might as well have shouted those words while he stood in front of that crowd.

Our service today invites us to remember that, at least as much as any of the actions of those actually present in Jerusalem at that time, our sin, our need for redemption, placed Jesus on the cross.

In the words of the old Lutheran Hymn:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee

Or as a priest friend of mine put it in one of his sermons:

We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.

Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday… (Fr. Tony Clavier)

The reality is that as humans we are all of us, mixed bags.  Traditional Christian Theology has explained this by juxtaposing the reality that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, with the idea of Original Sin, which, though it can been articulated in different ways, basically means that, if God were to become incarnate today, if Jesus were to return, people today would react the same way they did over two thousand years ago.  The great philosopher Aristotle famously said that humanity “when perfected is the best of animals; but if […] isolated from law and justice […] worst of all.”

What Aristotle believed could only come by law and justice, as Christians, we know can come only through Grace.  Living well means saying yes to grace.

Rowan Williams makes the observation in his book Tokens of Trust:

“Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is, Jesus; the one who says ‘yes’ to him; and the one who says ‘no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live. Through our lives, we swing towards one pole or the other, towards a deeper ‘yes’ or towards a deeper ‘no’. And in the middle of it all stands the one who makes sense of it all. Jesus—the one into whose life we must all try to grow, who can work with our ‘yes’ and can even overcome our ‘no’.” (p 76)

Palm Sunday with it’s liturgy is here to remind us that we all move back and forth on that continuum, that we all say no and we all say yes.  The challenge of the Christian life is to say the yes more and more and the no less and less.

Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico

As Williams puts it in his book Resurrection: interpreting the Easter Gospel:

The condemning court, the murderous ‘city’, [i.e. Jerusalem, or more generally the world as opposed to God’s will] is indeed judged as resisting the saving will of God; but that does not mean that the will of God ceases to be saving. The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17; cf. Luke 23:34), and God still waits to be graciously present in ‘times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19). And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their savior.” (p3)

If we are looking for hope in today’s bleak retelling of the Passion and death of Christ, it is that when we recognize our complicity in evil, we do not have to stay there.  We are not finally condemned.  Just because we may find ourselves resisting the saving will of God, that does not mean it is not saving.  And that is good news to hang onto as we mark the way of the cross this Holy Week.

Books referenced:

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Archbishop Rowan Williams’ sermon at All Saints’ Margaret Street, London

Sunday 01 November 2009

For the 150th year of the consecration of the church, All Saints’ Day.

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-65:25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us.’ (Hebrews 12.1)

When Etty Hillesum the young Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz, was on her way via the transit camp in Westerbork to the train that would take her to the death camps, she scribbled a few last notes to friends. And in one of those notes she tried to explain what she believed was going on: ‘Someone [she said] has to take responsibility for God in this situation. That is, someone has to behave as if God were real. Someone has to make God credible by the way that they meet life and death.’ And she — at first sight a very unlikely candidate for this dignity – attempted to do just that to make God believable by her life and her death.

Witnesses establish the truth by giving evidence. It really is as simple as that. When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died. The saints are the people who recognise that arguments will finally not win the day. God does not make himself credible by argument. God does not respond to our doubts, our intellectual querying, our uncertainty, by delivering from Heaven a neatly annotated list of logical propositions with which we cannot disagree. (I’m afraid that Professor Dawkins can bang on the doors of Heaven as long as he likes if that is what he expects to happen.) God deals with us by our life and a death, by Jesus. And God continues to deal with us by lives and deaths that make him credible, that make Jesus tangible here and now. All those people who flocked into Westminster Cathedral a couple of weeks’ ago to pay their respects to St Therese of Lisieux were recognizing that in her Christ became tangible for her generation and for ours and that is what the Saints do.

{Read it all It’s worth it.}

Eight Years After

Today is the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01 and I’ve spent part of the morning reflecting 9.11Ribbonon that day and the subsequent years with their story authored so much by those attacks and our responses. On the one hand, I agree with Stanley Hauerwas who has maintained that 9/11 is not the “day that everything changed,” in the sense that–for Christians at least–everything changed in approximately 33 AD, over a three day period, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and later rose from the dead. That changed everything. I also agree that the initial response, the way in which people were encouraged to “go shop” was anemic and revealed a rot in our soul as a nation. a rot which, some might say, has been exposed all the more by the causes our current recession.

And yet. And yet at the same time, for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, the world changed decisively on 9/11/01. A father or mother never made it home from work. A boyfriend who worked for the FDNY died while seeking to save another from the collapsing wreck of a skyscraper. A child in the daycare and never made it out, despite the efforts of a parent to reach them. A Franciscan giving last rites became the first recorded victim of the attacks. People fell with rubble from the sky and for those who saw, and for those who loved them, the world did indeed change.

Who can blame people for seeking a return to normalcy–even a normalcy identified with shopping–in the face of such a painful and terrifying experience. I certainly can’t.

In some ways I see September 11th as the day the old world reached out and dragged the new world back in. The myth of America as separate and above the rest of the world (terrorism, like political instability, is something that happens somewhere else, not here) was destroyed that day, and our policies, carefully developed to walk the line between securing our separateness while remaining engaged with the outside world in military as well as economic ways had to adapt. The myth was destroyed, but the desire still strong, along with the hope, of holding on to some of the reality of the safety and isolation we’d so long enjoyed from those other, less practical peoples on the globe.

September 11th did change things. It changed people’s plans, their hopes, their dreams, their lives in hurtful and dramatic ways. And it is in these individual stories, these individual lives that the true impact of this crime is revealed.

I’ve been rereading Rowan Williams’ Writing in the Dust, the book he wrote as he reflected upon his experience of being in New York City on that fateful day, and I would like to share part of it with you on this anniversary:

Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile. That moment of ‘making room’ is what I as a religious person have to notice. It isn’t ‘pious’, it isn’t language about God; it’s simply language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness. It’s a breathing space in the asthmatic climate of self-concern and competition; a breathing space that religious language doesn’t often manage to create by or for itself.

God always has to be rediscovered. Which means God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him. Saying something for the sake of another in the presence of death must be one place of rediscovery. Mustn’t it?

Careful. You can do this too quickly. It sounds as though you’re gratefully borrowing someone else’s terrible experience to make another pious point. And after all, not everyone dies with words of love. there will have been cursing and hysteria and frantic, deluded efforts to be safe at all costs when people knew what was going on in those planes. and would anyone want their private words of love butchered to make a sermon?

It proves nothing. But all I can say is that for someone who does believe, or tries to, the ‘breathing space’ is something that allows the words of religious faith for a moment not to be as formal or flat or self-serving as they usually are.

Christ the Holy Silence

Christ the Holy Silence

The morning after, very early, I was stopped in the street in New York by a youngish man who turned out to be an airline pilot and a Catholic. He wanted to know what the hell God was doing when the planes hit the towers. What do you say? The usual fumbling about how God doesn’t intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of ‘policy’ on God’s part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrifical work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is. Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God’s refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of the Christian faith. He has made the world so that evil choices can’t just be frustrated or aborted (where would he stop, for goodness sake? he’d have to be intervening every instant of human history) but have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.

I do believe that; but I don’t think you can say it with much conviction outside the context of people actually doing the action and the prayer. In the street that morning, all I had was words. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t help. He was a lifelong Christian believer, but for the first time it came home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crises.

Perhaps it’s when we try to make God useful in a crises, though, that we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment. Perhaps the words of faith will rise again slowly in that space (perhaps not). But don’t try to tie it up quickly.

Rowan's Rule

Archbishop Williams

Archbishop Williams

Since taking office, Archbishop Rowan Williams has been faced with near constant criticism from every direction.  For liberals he seemed a traitor to their cause, while conservatives viewed him with suspicion or down-right disdain.  Not much has changed in this, though in a best case scenerio his leadership could be seen as providing space for the formation of a moderate coalition within world-wide Anglicanism which has a chance of making it through the current conflicts and affirming the Anglican Covenant while shedding the folks on the extremes of left and right.  While many have hammered Williams for not leading at all, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is, in fact, leading and leading in a manner that is consistent with his theology–not an easy thing for anyone to do, let alone an Archbishop in an established Church and head of a conflicted Communion. What is clear is that Archbishop Williams has inhabited Lambeth Palace in a time of definite change, challenge and transition.  It has been a period of setting course into the future, even if the destination will remain murky for years to come.

In his new book, Rowan’s Rule Rupert Shortt begins the long process of reflecting upon Williams’ tenure on the Throne of St. Augustine and while this process will certainly continue, and perhaps won’t begin in earnest until his retirement, Schortt lays a solid foundation to build upon.  Jordan Hylden of First Things provides the following insightful review, stating that while there ha been a tendency among the less well-versed on both the left and right to consider Williams a run of the mill theological liberal,:

In fact, Williams is best viewed as part of the rebellion against the rebellion of the 1970s, working alongside his colleagues Oliver O’Donovan and N.T. Wright to bring the Church of England away from the arid liberalism of Honest to God and Don Cupitt and back to its roots in Word and sacrament, prayer and worship, tradition and Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy. While many of his professors busied themselves with demythologizing the gospels and re-presenting Christian doctrine as anthropology, Williams insisted that Christianity at its core is answerable to God’s initiative, and most particularly so in the unique revelation of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Very much against the grain of British academic theology of the day, Williams’ first book, The Wound of Knowledge, showed through relating the history of Christian spirituality that “the theologian,” as the fourth-century monk Evagrius said, “is the one who prays”—which is to say that theology must always grow out of the encounter in worship and prayer with the surprising and extra nos Word of Christ, rather than taking its agenda from modernity. And in his second book, Resurrection, Williams showed that the church’s message of forgiveness and new life rests entirely on its real encounter with the risen Christ, who unexpectedly returned to his disciples from beyond the grave.

Likewise, although critics have pointed justly to a certain degree of fuzziness on the sources of authority (Scripture, but not quite? Or the church’s tradition and language, but what parts from which church?), Williams has always been forthright that the church’s authority is God in Christ, who speaks through Scripture, sacrament, and our ongoing reception of the same.

Arguably, it is just here where Williams parts company most with theological liberals—he insists that the first task of theology is to listen to God’s revealed and redeeming voice, and he truly has sought to hear this voice in Scripture and tradition. By thus placing Williams in his proper theological context, Shortt has performed a genuine service to those who would prematurely write off Williams as just another Anglican liberal. While Williams does not always line up with traditional positions, Shortt shows that it is simply misleading to view him as of a piece with the standard liberalism represented by Gene Robinson and Katherine Jefferts Schori.

All that is not to say, of course, that Williams is beyond criticism. Shortt certainly does not regard him as such, and points in particular to Williams’ views on politics and economics. One friend of Rowan’s, according to Shortt, averred that Williams’ politics “have always come out of a different and less sophisticated part of him.” The chief trouble, as Shortt sees it, is that Williams has not shown himself to possess a particularly subtle voice on the right use of state power, or a very helpful understanding of the genuine benefits of free-market economics for the welfare of the world’s poor. More often than not, Williams is prone to broad condemnations of war and globalization.

Shortt also notes, however, that Williams has elsewhere been quite critical of the “childishness” of utopian politics, which wrongly supposes that hard choices do not have to be made about the distribution of scarce goods, and that peace will simply break out when social constraints are removed. The puzzle, for Shortt and many other observers, is why Williams has not followed through on his own best insights.

Williams has also been criticized for lack of emphasis on the central truths of the Christian faith, and for pointing too much to how the gospel unsettles our judgment and not enough to the blessed assurance given to the saints. Shortt quotes Eamon Duffy, who argues that Rowan’s version of the Christian tradition at times “can seem like a never-endingly argumentative seminar, constant upheaval without any point of rest or leverage.” The judgment is, to a certain extent, sound. Particularly before his enthronement as archbishop, Williams’ work gave great weight to the apophatic moment in theology—to the need for our words about God to be open to judgment and the possibility of saying more.

But in his new role as the most visible Christian bishop in a very secular and uncomprehending England, Williams appears to have taken this criticism to heart. As Shortt points out, his recent book Tokens of Trust is a clear and winsome introduction to the basics of Christian faith; his short guide to the desert fathers, Where God Happens, was very well received; and his most recent book on Dostoyevsky’s fiction is (viewed from one angle) a profound apologetic for the Christian faith in response to the shallow and naively optimistic atheism of Richard Dawkins. Williams the archbishop, it appears, is not the same man as Williams the professor.

This has also shown itself to be true in Rowan’s conduct during the ongoing Anglican struggles about homosexuality. It is well known that as a professor Williams had been quite forthright in his support of same-sex relations, but he changed his tune after becoming archbishop. Many liberals have seen this as Williams’ great betrayal of their cause, charging him with giving in to conservative bullies or of sacrificing truth and justice for unity. Shortt, for his part, makes it clear that he believes Williams ought to have taken a firmer line on the advancement of same-sex unions. But all the same, he does step back and allow Williams to make his defense.

As a bishop, Williams believes that it is his responsibility to teach what the church teaches. “The bishop,” Rowan argues, “does not make decisions, doctrinal or disciplinary, alone: The church decides, and the bishop’s unique role is to guarantee all that the church decides.”

{Read it all}

Rowan's Rule

More Rowan Williams Books:
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Rowan Williams: Communities of the Resurrection

In his book Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel Rowan Williams makes the following observation about churches as communities of the resurrection:

The church’s work of judgment, its critical role in the world, is a nonsense (and worse) if criticism is not built into its own life and structures.  Only a penitent church can manifest forgiveness–a tautology, perhaps, but worth saying.  A merely critical Church can reproduce in horrifying forms precisely those oppressive and exclusive relations which it exists to judge.  it will pass sentence upon those beyond its boundaries, and so will be concerned about those boundaries and their exact definition. It will, explicitly or implicitly, see ‘belonging to the Church’ as a matter of fulfilling conditions of membership; so that it possesses criteria by which some believers can be cut off when necessary from its life. It thus encourages that attitude between believers or groups of believers which is almost preternaturally alert to failure and delinquency. I am not speaking simply of certain kinds of Irish Catholicism or Welsh nonconformity (such as have been immortalized by James Joyce or Caradoc Evans); soi-disant ‘ radical’ Christianity is capable of the same level of pharisaism. a former Archbishop of Cape Town has written searchingly of the temptation, in a situation of acute political strain in conflict, to ‘bludgeoned’ the opposition with accusations designed to engender guilt rather than (in the widest sense) conversion, and converted action. The exposed situation of the prophetic or protesting group often seems to require for its security the firm projection of guilt on to the dissident or lukewarm; and any sense of judgment and grace or hope flowing together from the awareness of forgiven-ness and the prophetic group is pretty elusive. (Williams, p 46-47)

Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel

A Word in Time: An Open Letter to the Anglican Communion | Covenant

A number of the authors at Covenant have been working on an open letter in recent days.  The following is the final version which has been posted over at Covenant.  Please read it all.

August 25, 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We the undersigned contributors to believe that “a word in time” is now needed in order to assist the Communion to move forward in a constructive manner following the Lambeth Conference. We would like to speak such a word by specifically addressing the points Bishop Bob Duncan raises in his email to Bishop Gary Lillibridge, which has now been made public with Bp. Duncan’s permission. Our reflections are offered with all due respect for Bishop Duncan as a dear friend to some of us, and one whom those of us who know him personally admire as a stalwart in the faith. Bishop Duncan’s words are quoted in italics with our reflections following.

A Word in Time: An Open Letter to the Anglican Communion | Covenant

Alan Jacobs | more than 95 theses – Archbishop Rowan

Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College and I often read his contributions to The American Scene and Touchstone.  He attends an Anglican Mission in America Congregation.  I would like to share some of his recent reflections on Archbishop Rowan Williams with you:

Yet I must say that, like many Anglican traditionalists, I have often been frustrated with Rowan in his role as Archbishop. Primarily it is his apparent passivity that has frustrated me: I have wanted him to take action, to do things, to shape events for the cause of orthodoxy, but he has persistently refused to intervene in the life of the Communion, and to some extent in his own Church of England, in clear and overt ways — in political ways. I and many others have wanted him to be a leader and this above all seems what he has refused to be.

But in these past few days I have been wondering whether there might be a method in Rowan’s madness — or rather in God’s. Might it be possible that while Rowan is most certainly not the kind of leader we want, he is precisely the kind we need? That his leadership is not that of a Churchill but rather a Desert Father? We want decision, action, clearly set plans; Rowan offers prayer, meditation, stillness, silence. He models those disciplines for us, and in so doing (silently) commends them.

What if that is what we Anglicans actually need?

{Read it all}


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