Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hands to the Plow

Jesus, the Anglican Communion, and LGBT Pride Day

Sermon for Proper 8
RCL Lectionary, Year C

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 / Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 / Galatians 5:1, 13-25 / Luke 9:51-62

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 27th, 2010

The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California


Jesus, in good rabbinical fashion, offers us a series of shocking sayings today – sayings to shake us, his followers, out of our complacency. Sayings to awaken us to the bracing message of the Gospel. While he turns his face stubbornly towards Jerusalem ( much to everyone’s consternation and distress) he holds up a mirror to us, a mirror that reflects back to us our reluctance, our second-guessing, our hesitancy to live into the fullness of his message, of his Way.

We wrestle, as followers of Christ, with the same things Jesus’ would-be followers wrestled with. We have obligations – obligations to family, to tradition, to institution, to the pressing needs and concerns of our worldly lives. We spook easily at change, we blanch at difference, we resist the challenge those outside our doors pose to us, we seek safety in what we know and fear what we don’t. Jesus deliberately shakes up his hearers and us, shocks us out of our comfort and into a vulnerable, itinerate place – the place of ongoing journey, the fragility of raw humanity on a dusty road, even staring into the face of darkness, death, and dissolution. Only in that way will we “get,” both literally and figuratively, the Gospel. Only in that way, he reminds us, will we fully find God.

Some of you might have heard about our most recent Anglican dust-up. After a series of dueling Pentecost Letters, The Archbishop of Canterbury recently dismissed representatives of The Episcopal Church from Anglican Communion ecumenical councils as a consequence of our consecrating an openly lesbian Bishop in Los Angeles. This led in turn to an uncomfortable conversation between our Church's Executive Council and the Communion's Secretary General. Just where are we and who are we now as The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion? No one’s quite sure just yet. We’re well into uncharted territory, and clear answers are hard to come by.

As if that weren't enough to mull over on its own, our Presiding Bishop was visiting the cathedral in Southwark in the Church of England in recent weeks, when she was instructed by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to not only provide evidence of her ordination status (despite her numerous previous visits), but was told to refrain from wearing her mitre, her pointed bishop’s hat, during the liturgy, because the Church of England is in a very fragile state at the moment as they consider yet again the consecration of women bishops.

Coming at such a raw time for everybody, you can well imagine the result was an ugly all-to-public episode in trans-Atlantic ecclesiastical diplomacy that has become known as "mitregate.” It brought great embarrassment for many in the Church of England, and provoked appeals to 1776 on this side of the Atlantic! Our Presiding Bishop, to her credit, was quite courteous about the whole affair while in England, though upon her return she publicly noted the silliness of the reactivity over the episode. Then she moved forward with her service to the life and mission of a Christian people. But such is life in the Anglican Communion these days. While reactive leadership worries over who’s wearing a mitre and who isn’t, about who’s sitting on which council and who’s being consecrated where and how, while officials attempt to mop up a rude public relations mess and pundits and bloggers like me wax eloquent. . . while the general public roll their eyes over those silly Christians at it again, there are millions across the Communion in dire straits financially, experiencing maddening hunger and debilitating disease, and Creation groans while oil gushes in the Gulf.

It would be too easy to start scoring points against the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for indulging in irrelevancy – especially in these days of the World Cup. Maybe this is some great ecclesiastical showdown on the world stage. Perhaps we could say The Episcopal Church has scored one goal for being dignified in the face of such rudeness, the Church of England for being so unspeakably insensitive, nil. The crowds are screaming from the stands and the feelings are running high. We could leave it there and call it game over, but that would be too easy. Truth be told, Rowan Williams is in an untenable position, and we are, too, and it’s only half-time.

The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury must oversee and we help fund a nineteenth- and twentieth-century institution, the Anglican Communion, that was built largely on the foundation of gentlemen’s agreements between English and North American bishops – yes, all men, all white – beginning at the height of the British Empire. With the freedom of colonial states in Africa and the explosion of evangelical Anglicanism and rising leadership in those countries; with monumental social, philosophical, and theological change in the West and a shift to more democratic principles of church governance here, the old way of Communion just doesn’t work anymore in a diverse Body.

Our Presiding Bishop puts it this way in a recent interview : we are like a great family in which the teenagers are at last growing up. We no longer, in old colonial fashion, turn to (papa?) Canterbury or gentlemen’s agreements to make it right. The institution, with all of its inherent inertia, its enthrallment with regulations, traditions, and old scores, hasn’t kept up with the times and now must leap somehow -- perhaps blindly or at least clumsily -- into the uncertainty of the twenty-first century. The Body of Christ is moving on to serve a rapidly changing world. How will we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem? Will be like Elisha daring to follow Elijah to the boundary of the Jordan? Will we pick up Elijah’s mantle when he departs? Will we dare ask for a double-share of the spirit of prophecy? These questions in the face of deeply conflicted times must keep Rowan Williams awake at night sometimes. I hope so. They would me. "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," after all.

But there is good news. For while bishops and officials quarrel over crumbling ecclesiastical edifices, the Gospel’s mission continues. I think of the House of Bishops in the Church of Tanzania, who hold that their church's communion with The Episcopal Church hangs by the barest thread because of our inter-provincial disagreements over human sexuality. Yet here we are at Church of Our Saviour, in partnership with Ibihwa parish on the ground in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, supporting primary education for fifty children – many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS. The politicking of bishops matters little in such circumstances. Abstract theological disagreements over human sexuality quickly become irrelevant, when education means a future for a vulnerable life amongst people struggling with unimaginable tragedy and abject poverty.

Closer to home, I think of our youth returning from a mission trip to help with the Appalachia Service Project. I think of our ongoing ministry with the hungry in cooperation with Our Lady Mount Carmel – all theological and ecclesiastical differences aside. I think of the work of the wider Episcopal Church just in Marin County, from a developing food pantry in Contempo Marin to our partnership with numerous churches and organizations in Marin City to start the Hannah Freedom School, a literacy program for at-risk students in Marin City.

Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The Church that focuses on institutional preservation for its own sake is about the spiritually dead burying their own dead. When doing it the old way is the only reason for being, we lose sight of who we are called to be and we engage in a half-life focused on death. But when we re-set our gaze forward as a people on mission for the sake of the Gospel -- a people who are walking the way of the cross, who are putting our hand to the plow of the kingdom of God and not looking back, we regain our lives in Christ. The real Anglican Communion is not found in the formal structures of Lambeth Palace or in the tired strife between bishops and archbishops. The Anglican Communion where Jesus lives is where “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It’s in the places where sleeves are rolled up for mission and justice prayerfully meets compassion, where suffering is relieved and the hungry are fed, where sacramental, embodied partnerships are giving life rather than fighting over abstract ideas and the inconsequential nature of steeples and mitres.

Then there’s Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired cleric from the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bishop Senyonjo inherited the faith of nineteenth-century English missionaries, along with all the Victorian values they brought with them to the British colonies of Africa. But then came to his door a hidden class of people in Uganda, gay and lesbian, fearful for their lives, living in shame for their sexual orientation and in some instances their clandestine loves. Bishop Senyonjo and the church he served had taught that such as these belonged somewhere in the list of vices we hear today from Paul’s writing: outcasts and sinners surely, condemned by the Christian Gospel. But Bishop Senyonjo listened with compassion to their stories in the light of a loving God “from whom no secrets are hid.” And over time, he began to hear in his gay and lesbian sisters and brothers and in their relationships the fruits of the Spirit that Paul also identifies in the same passage: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits of the Spirit stood in stark contrast to the encultured suspicions and hatreds of homosexuality in the greater community, ranging all the way up to proposed laws in Uganda – supported by the Church, I might add – to make homosexuality a capital offense. Bishop Senyonjo was converted in a profound way, and, setting his face towards Jerusalem after his beloved Christ, came out as a straight advocate for these hidden and oppressed voices in his Church and homeland. As a result, he and his wife found themselves cut off from his pension, receiving death threats, and severed from a Church to which he had devoted his life and love. Yet he persists, taking his message all around the Anglican Communion. Why? Maybe he has heard today’s Gospel, too, the call of Christ to move forward in God's love, even if it's toward into a crucified place.

For Jesus, the “Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head,” does not travel alone, but travels with the outcasts and those proclaimed sinners by the wider society. He dines with the unclean and the ritually impure. He talks with women publicly and touches the leper. He hangs out with those proclaimed righteous and unrighteous alike. He faces down the pettiness of self-righteousness and the insularity of the powerful and the narrowness of the traditional. This is Jesus and his new family of the Kingdom on the move, walking towards a crucified place if need be. He is with our sisters and brothers walking this day in the fortieth annual Pride parade in San Francisco, a community of men and women recovering from society-inflicted shame, continuing to struggle for their rights to discern their unique path with God and to seek and celebrate the blessing of the Spirit in their most cherished relationships. Many in that parade have left the Church for obvious reasons. Some have remained by grace and bear with hope the institutionalized second-guessing much of Christianity continues to offer.

Theirs has inspired the struggle of a Church like The Episcopal Church that has recently opened our ears and hearts to their lives and stories. . . and made them our own. This is no longer about our ministry to LGBT people, but about our ministry with them. Like a family coming together out of the closet, this is no longer about "them," but about "us." We journey together towards Jerusalem and through a crucified place, thrown off ecumenical councils, punished by The Archbishop of Canterbury and our sister churches in many places and ways, on the receiving end of cries of heresy and bearing the umbrage of many at home and abroad. In two generations we have taken bold steps that leave us a minority – albeit a growing minority – in the greater Christian world, and we have yet further to go. For instance, it was only last summer that for the first time transgendered members of our Church were able to speak publicly about who they were and what they have experienced in the Church on the floor of our governing bodies. We have yet to settle the controversial questions of marriage and blessings in the context of our traditional liturgies. We are tangled in lawsuits as a few of our sisters and brothers attempt to depart the Body and try to take the property with them. An expensive courtroom battle becomes a painful, woeful recourse when the Family of God cannot live with difference. We quarrel just as the apostles did on the road to Jerusalem. But Jesus walks on – his face is set – leading us on just the same.

Jesus’ call to us today is one of mission above institution. In God’s kingdom our goodness of our institution is measured only as far as it serves the Gospel, only as far as it brings healing in grace, only as far as it is willing to set aside complacency for the rigors of relationship, only as much as it is willing to make tradition live for a new generation, to reinvent the old way of doing things for the needs of those who are with us in the holy present, and those who come after us in the hopeful tomorrow.

Are you challenged by this Gospel? I am. We all are together. But we are reminded in our hymn this day, that old hymn, with an ancient idea that stems from Jesus teaching now nearly twenty centuries old: the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. It is not a foundation made of cement or stone. Nor is it a foundation of portfolios, stocks, and savings accounts. Nor is it a foundation of old traditions bound up in pretty places or enshrined in canon law. It is a foundation of humanity and divinity made one in Christ – crucified by the world and raised again by God, and breathing ever new life among us in the Spirit.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Primus Contra Pares?

It has been a very rude couple of weeks in Anglican Land, indications that there is a level of desperate grasping settling into some quarters: a quest for control rather than honest engagement.

What took the cake -- er, mitre -- was the pressure placed on our Presiding Bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office to provide documentation of her ordination status and to refrain from wearing the symbols of her office while visiting Southwark Cathedral in the Church of England. This suddenly and inexplicably had become "policy" for our Primate following her numerous similar visits (and those of her predecessors) with no such requirements. True to form, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was courteous about the whole thing. But the discourtesy directed at her appears to many on both sides of the pond either a petty, misogynistic display of power or else a diplomatic blunder of the first order. Lots of coverage on this over at Episcopal Café.

Update: A solid five days after the media coverage began, an "official" explanation from Lambeth Palace is made public. What an embarrassment this has caused the ABC.

Then came Canon Kenneth Kearon's visit with the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church within the past 24 hours, where he was confronted with insightful, direct questions about all the recent efforts to marginalize The Episcopal Church in various bodies of the Anglican Communion. Lelanda Lee posted tweets on the discussion that ensued, while Lee Crawford offered to these questions the kind of embodied witness true understanding demands.

Update: Katie Sherrod, a member of Executive Council, offers a vivid, telling account of the conversation with Canon Kearon.

I don't know what kind of advice The Archbishop of Canterbury is receiving these days -- but if it's advice to generally irritate The Episcopal Church and make himself look petty, then it's working. The best that can be surmised is that his office is under considerable stress while the Church of England is trying yet again to settle the matter of women in the episcopate and where attempts to control the behavior of other provinces of the Anglican Communion is proving (rightly in my view) elusive. Oddly enough, I imagine most of the de facto members of the Church of England could hardly care less -- either about women bishops in their own Church or who gets consecrated in other churches of the Communion. While they live in the twenty-first century, the hierarchy of their established church seems stuck in retrograde -- perhaps moving back towards the nineteenth.

So much for Primus inter Pares (first among equals). This whole effort appears to style The Archbishop of Canterbury's office as some kind of impoverished magisterium. And, to paraphrase Bishop Marc Andrus, impoverished magisteriums (or Empires, or what have you) tend to attempt to control what they can, even if it is the inconsequential and ridiculous. Perhaps the new mode of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relationship with the Communion is "Primus contra Pares." It would better encapsulate the increasingly overt conflict between hierarchy and equality that we are now witnessing. And -- in no small irony -- it echoes the confrontation between divisive imperial social structures and the unifying Gospel to which Paul (of all the apostles!) points in this week's reading from Galatians.

The test for us is to remain dignified in the face of less-than-Christian behavior. Kudos to both our Presiding Bishop and our Executive Council on this score in the days of the World Cup:

TEC: 1
ABC: nil

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seeking Meaning

Searching for God's deep meaning in the current Anglican tangle of difficult disinvitations and painful uncertainty, sometimes poetry is more healing than prose.

As always, Tobias Haller rises above, this time in a moving elegy that -- with an economy of words -- points us in the direction to which we are all called.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Two Anglican Bishops on LGBT Rights

Bishops Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda offer up their pastoral perspectives on the ongoing life struggles of our LGBT sisters and brothers around the world. Both bring their own experience of being marginalized and threatened to their witness.

They remind us that theology is hollow if it is not worked out in the real, incarnate lives of God's people; that it is in humble, loving engagement with one another that our hearts, minds, and lives are transformed by the Gospel.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Engulfed in Oil

How poignant our son's first-grade work becomes in these dark days of big oil:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Heremeneutics of Power

Both Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, and Marc Andrus, the Bishop of California, read the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost Letter through hermeneutics of power -- colonial, imperial, and ecclesiastical -- and find it much wanting when held up against the Gospel and the story of Pentecost.

I find their perspectives remarkably clarifying: the sort of grace we so need during a time of conflict.

We live in great concern that colonial attitudes continue, particularly in attempts to impose a single understanding across widely varying contexts and cultures. We note that the cultural contexts in which The Episcopal Church’s decisions have generated the greatest objection and reaction are also often the same contexts where women are barred from full ordained leadership, including the Church of England.

As Episcopalians, we note the troubling push toward centralized authority exemplified in many of the statements of the recent Pentecost letter. Anglicanism as a body began in the repudiation of the control of the Bishop of Rome within an otherwise sovereign nation. Similar concerns over self-determination in the face of colonial control led the Scottish Episcopal Church to consecrate Samuel Seabury for The Episcopal Church in the nascent United States – and so began the Anglican Communion.

We have been repeatedly assured that the Anglican Covenant is not an instrument of control, yet we note that the fourth section seems to be just that to Anglicans in many parts of the Communion. So much so, that there are voices calling for stronger sanctions in that fourth section, as well as voices repudiating it as un-Anglican in nature. Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.

We are distressed at the apparent imposition of sanctions on some parts of the Communion. We note that these seem to be limited to those which “have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion.” We are further distressed that such sanctions do not, apparently, apply to those parts of the Communion that continue to hold one view in public and exhibit other behaviors in private. Why is there no sanction on those who continue with a double standard? In our context bowing to anxiety by ignoring that sort of double-mindedness is usually termed a “failure of nerve.” Through many decades of wrestling with our own discomfort about recognizing the full humanity of persons who seem to differ from us, we continue to work at open and transparent communication as well as congruence between word and behavior. We openly admit our failure to achieve perfection!
The Bishop of California:
The [2008] Lambeth Conference was explicitly advertised as a non-legislative meeting; indeed we voted on nothing. However, lo and behold, through a non-transparent “consensus building” process, the bishops present (and so, in Archbishop Rowan’s thinking, the Communion) have affirmed the three moratoria put forward by the Windsor Report.

Here it is also important to note that the Windsor Report itself has been reified and given the status of a central Anglican document of faith and order, not by the test of time and use, but by the Archbishop and those who agree with him saying so.

When an Empire and its exponents can no longer exercise control by might, an option is to feint, double-talk, and manipulate. Such tactics have been in the fore with Archbishop Rowan since the confirmation of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The deployment of the Windsor Report and the manipulation of the Lambeth Conference, as cited above, are prime examples. The archbishop’s Pentecost letter is the most recent example.

In the Pentecost letter, it looks like he is disciplining errant provinces of the Communion, while only a little concentration shows that the underlying goal is to assert his power to be the disciplinarian. Archbishop Rowan is intent on a covenant with punitive measures built in. The bishops of the Communion expressed their distaste for a punitive covenant, and so the archbishop has stepped up to be himself the judging authority he has been unable to build into a covenant.

Other examples in the Pentecost letter:

  • All three moratoria are supposedly to be attended to, but the packaging of the letter on the Anglican Communion website makes it clear that it is Mary Glasspool’s consecration that has galvanized the archbishop into action.
  • The archbishop says that primates of disciplined provinces are free to meet together. Surely these primates do not need the archbishop’s permission to meet together. This is another example of promoting the illusion of the archbishop’s power.
  • By taking offending provinces out of the conversation with ecumenical partners, the archbishop subtly implies that such conversation is dangerous and contaminating, exactly as was done with Bishop Robinson and LGBT voices in general at the Lambeth Conference.
That this is Archbishop Rowan’s Pentecost letter, given the layers that are not meant to draw us into more and more limpidity, but rather to obscure, I am saddened by such an offering from a theologian who has produced work of great profundity and luminosity in the past.
I think the message is pretty clear. As far as The Episcopal Church is concerned, the Windsor-moratoria-covenant game is up.

And not a moment too soon.