a sermon for Pentecost
Throughout the past three years of conflict in our denomination, a question has haunted me. John Kater, who was one of my professors at CDSP and remains a close friend once posed to me the current debate over human sexuality in the Anglican Communion in the form of a simple question: “Can God do something new?”
Last Sunday morning, I was catching up with opening office mail when I happened across a tract written by Peter Toon and published by the PBS. When most of us hear “PBS,” at least if we’ve grown up or raised children or turned on the TV in the past thirty years, we think of public television. This was most certainly not that. It was a tract paid for, published, and delivered – timed, it seemed to coincide with Anglican Communion Sunday – by none other than the “Prayer Book Society,” whose board includes Bishop Keith Ackerman of the Diocese of Quincy, a Diocese where I attended church and taught Sunday School for a time as an undergraduate.
On the cover was the shadowy silhouette of an unnamed bishop, looking to me rather menacing, and the title read loudly: “Episcopal Innovations: 1960-2004.” I didn’t have to guess what the book was about. Over the next few days it bounced between the recycling bin and my desk as curiosity wrestled with my fatigue over the late, great argument in the Anglican Communion.
Despite sophisticated theological language, “Episcopal Innovations” pulls no punches in its assertion of its understanding of orthodoxy. I could not honestly bring myself to read word for word, cover to cover, but the gist from what I read was clear: since the 1960’s, the tract goes, the Episcopal Church has been in a downward spiral, consumed by the “liberal” inclinations of the broader culture, overcome by feminism, liberation theology, the quest for civil liberties, a welcoming of diversity, and other so-called innovations. This is all connected to the church’s turning away from the practices and theology of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and turning towards the apparently unfathomable (read: heretical) theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and its progenitors.
The current crisis in the Anglican Communion, it explains, is precipitated by the Episcopal Church’s heretical march away from being “Reformed Catholic,” and the hierarchical order that should come from that identity. It was this hierarchical order that apparently was more the foundation of our culture before the 1960’s. And this order was important, we are told, because it was the construct that shows us the place of God, men, women, and children in the church, in the household, and in society. The text pointed to the dominance of masculine imagery and the patriarchal cultural milieu of the Bible and posits these as evidence of how God made things – the order we have been charged by Christ to preserve.
The natural conclusion of the tract was clear. With the battle lines drawn, it issued a thinly veiled threat. The current state of crisis in the Anglican Communion, it suggests, is our fault as Episcopalians in the context of the United States, and we are now approaching the brink of decision at our upcoming General Convention. . .one that may necessitate the formation of a new Anglican Province in North America, with the remaining Episcopal Church out of Communion and continuing a decline towards the abyss.
Worlds of Order
I was slightly stunned. . .not that I hadn’t heard much of it before. The Bible was indeed written in cultural universes of hierarchical, patriarchal order. Here are samples of the biblical cultural understandings of the world, in broad strokes:
As hard as it might by for us to imagine, the world, flat as it was perceived, hung in the balance between heaven and the underworld. The sky was a dome beyond which dwelled the domain of God on His throne. Spirits and angels, both divine and demonic, broke God’s hierarchical order and wandered the landscape of humanity. Men were the center of society, the power brokers and holders of wisdom and knowledge. Women’s identity was valued only in relationship with her husband or family. Children were chattel, useful only as far as they were economically beneficial by assisting with the work of the father, or being sold into marriage when they were old enough.
Echoes of these cultural perspectives have come down the ages in various forms – some benevolent, others not so: from the feudalism of the Middle Ages to the dominance of Popes, to the scourges of slavery, the prevention of women’s suffrage, and the abuse of child labor.
But back to the tract, if indeed the Episcopal Church decided in the future to turn the clock back, as we are apparently supposed to do if we are to remain “orthodox” and in God’s good graces. . . shut out women clergy, and toss the ordination of homosexuals, children receiving communion, and the host of other “innovations” of the past forty years out on their ear – well, would I, as the young, white, straight male (a dreamboat, it seems, of the old orthodox hierarchy) want to stay?
But that led almost immediately to another even more painful question. Would I be allowed to stay even if I wanted? There are many places we could turn back the clock to in our “Reformed Catholic” tradition. If we turn the clock back far enough, my marriage would be suspect, imperiling my ability to remain an ordained priest. Some of you may remember the anti-miscegenation laws of a prior generation. They touched the life history of the Christ Church community in some profound and sad ways. They prevented marrying across traditional racial boundaries, including Asian and Anglo. That was another way of preserving order, quite defensible by at least one scriptural passage I can think of. And then I wonder, what would that make my son Daniel, a child of Japanese and Anglo ancestory. . .disordered, perhaps?
In yet another two striking examples, not so long ago, anti-Semitism was justified using an “orthodox” reading of scripture, including our hallowed Gospel According to John. It took the Holocaust to finally convince Western Christianity to come to grips with centuries of our evil abuse of the Jewish people. Turn back the clock another few generations, and we might, if we wish, defend slavery with biblical authority.
This is not to suggest that Peter Toon or anyone on the other side of this debate in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion would utter something terrible about my son, want me deposed over my marriage, or attempt to validate the Holocaust or defend slavery. I certainly hope not! My argument is only this: anyone can talk of preserving a particular kind of order in the name of orthodoxy, Scripture, and in the name of God, for that matter. The question remains: How do we as people of faith evaluate which claim to order is correct?
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Today is Pentecost. And we are celebrating the birth of the Church: the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And we turn to our story today from the Bible. But not for instruction on how to reconstruct a hierarchical culture, but for the story itself. And today’s story, with apologies to our sister and brother Anglicans who are considering making a break for the door right now, is most certainly not about order.
It is, I believe, about the chaos of transformation. In Acts, before the Spirit arrives, the scene is reasonably peaceful in Jerusalem. The disciples are gathered together in a room – the old order is still in place. And they receive the crazy gift of language, finding themselves suddenly intelligible to people from all over the Mediterranean. Every conceivable mark of decorum and order is lost. The scene is chaotic enough to encourage some of the observers to wonder if the disciples are drunk, but the strange wonder of the event leaves its mark.
The Gospel of John tells the story from another viewpoint – the doors are locked, the disciples gathered, and the old order, the old way of understanding time, space, and the universe itself, is suddenly disrupted by the appearance Christ among them. He gifts the amazed disciples with the Spirit and calls them into the awesome responsibility of forgiving sin.
In both stories the disciples of Christ are drawn. . .driven even. . .out of the old order and into the world to boldly proclaim the Gospel. What follows is the formation of the Church, and all the controversies, arguments, sweat, and toil that come with it.
The Spirit from the very foundation of our history as a Church answers John Kater’s question that I shared at the beginning. Yes, indeed, God can do something new. And God is. And it’s not always easy to understand. And it most certainly is not always ordered. Certainly, we may not all agree with what God may be doing. Perhaps, I daresay, God may not be “orthodox.”
This is Good News of Pentecost. What binds us together with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion around the world is not order, or even a particular way of understanding the Bible. What really binds us together is Spirit – God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit that we all were touched with in baptism and in our constant turning back towards it.
Here's our "heretical" 1979 Book of Common Prayer theology: our baptism calls us – through God’s Spirit, we believe – to honor the dignity of all people. . .to recognize and truly honor Christ’s face in men, women, children, gay, lesbian, straight, ordained, lay, Asian, European, African, American, rich, poor. . .in our tradition, or out of it. This diversity is inherently disordered, but is made lovely and embraced by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Through this Spirit, God in Christ is creating a new order – what we as Christians often call the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God. It cannot be fathomed by any one of us, but God forges it in the heart of our communities of faith, and each of us has a gift from the Spirit to bring to this new creation.
Pentecost is the way forward for our Church. The 2006 General Convention, which begins this coming week, is likely to be a bit messy – less ordered than many would prefer. So will be the fallout for the Anglican Communion. Some of our brothers and sisters will love their own sense of order and hold their understandings of scripture too dear to stay. Others will find room in the great Spirit of God to remain in the diverse, disordered community of the Spirit, staying present and seeking deeper life even in the strong, conscientious disagreements about the way the world. . .and the church. . . should be. And together we will continue sharing the Good News of a transformative, compassionate God who breaks the old orders and makes the world anew.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
a sermon for Pentecost