Monday, May 31, 2010

Does it Really Matter?

Jim Naughton offers a clarifying piece over at Episcopal Cafe today:

Reflecting on Rowan Williams’ letter wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time; writing it was not a worthwhile use of his. The issues at stake have become so trivial—We are not debating right and wrong, we are debating whether there should be trifling penalties for giving offense to other members of the Communion.—that to engage them at all compromises our moral standing and diminishes our ability to speak credibly on issues of real importance.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have to make a decision about whether to accede to the archbishop’s proposal—and I suppose I think that we shouldn’t because it would only encourage him to make other such requests—just that whether we accede or not make very little difference to the world, to the Communion, to our ecumenical partners, to our church, or even to a Communion news junky like me.

Which is why I was of no use to the reporters I spoke to on Friday afternoon; because, God bless them, they had to write stories based on the mistaken notion that all of this stuff still matters, and increasingly, it does not. In attempting to ram through a covenant that marginalizes the laity and centralizes authority in fewer hands, Rowan Williams has unwittingly made it clear that the governance of the Communion is as nothing compared to the relationships within the Communion, and the relationships are beyond his control.

I can't imagine this being more clearly stated. The fact that The Archbishop of Canterbury has very limited authority to act is not a problem, but a blessing. The Communion, after all, is not the domain of prelates, as some would have it, but a fellowship of churches made up of millions of people in real, embodied relationships around common mission. And that common mission is not fundamentally about who's ordaining whom, but about who's fed, healed, and nurtured in the grace of God. This is what we have to offer a world in need, and what our leadership is called to nurture.

The rest is largely window dressing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Measuring Consequences

The Archbishop of Canterbury has just delivered his Pentecost letter to the communion, which commends careful reading. Simon Sarmiento over at Thinking Anglicans offers the appropriate links along with the summary press release.

There will be plenty of response, to be sure, from all sides, but here are a few thoughts I offer upon initial reflection:
  • This letter includes what many have been waiting for:the long promised "consequences" in response to the election and consecration of Bishop Mary Glasspool in the Diocese of Los Angeles. My critical mind notes that her name is the only one explicitly mentioned in the letter. That is a study in and of itself. It elevates her, however subtly or unconsciously, as a scapegoat, while bishops who have repeatedly violated jurisdictional boundaries (also in violation of the Windsor moratoria) remain personally unnamed. This scapegoating, this objectification, risks only feeding the trolls and says nothing about Bishop Mary Glasspool's gifts for this office or the discernment of the wider Episcopal Church in consenting to her consecration.
  • Another troubling aspect of the letter to me is that it continues to empower and validate the self-proclaimed Global South in their meetings separate from the rest of the Communion. I am somewhat puzzled how this may best be reconciled with Archbishop Williams' call for more Communion meetings that he appears to believe would be reconciling. The separate Global South gatherings are, at least from this vantage point, manifesting the balkanization that is widening the chasms, rather than bridging them. The Global South has been seeking validation for their actions through recognition from Canterbury for a long time. Now, they are getting more of what they want.
  • There will be a great deal of ink spilled on the proposed "disinvitation," but I suppose there are far worse consequences. Mark Harris over at Preludium, and Andrew Gerns over at Episcopal Cafe and related comments make a number of astute observations on this front. After all, what kind of Pentecost involves "disinvitation?"
  • My critiques notwithstanding, I think the letter bears out what one colleague said in conversation at General Convention last summer: The Windsor process, however flawed, is the only formal game in town. For the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter, this is clearly in evidence, as Windsor is the measure he employs to draw the consequences, however unenforceable they may be due to the limits of his office's power to govern individual provinces of the Communion.
  • Where I do see a great deal of hope is the letter's appeal to the processes of dialogue -- conversation, engagement at a personal and embodied level around our experiences shared and differing, rather than the more abstracted and more easily abusive dependence on legislating or reporting. Real conversation to reach some mutual understanding is about moving beyond the formal games and into something that may well be more incarnational, and indeed more profoundly Christian. The Indaba conversations at Lambeth 2008 helped begin an unfolding blessing of the Spirit that might have been better undertaken prior to any Windsor reporting or covenant generating -- perhaps long prior to the unsettled controversy over Lambeth 1998 I.10 and whether or not it really resolved, via a pseudo-legislative process, the "mind of the Communion" on human sexuality. But that, please forgive my indulgence, is what we like to call in America "Monday morning quarter backing" on my part. The Archbishop of Canterbury lives in the less-than-perfect world like the rest of us, and must make the best he can of the hand (or pass, if we continue with the American football metaphor) he has received.
  • I am grateful for his careful words and recognition of the limits of his authority to "fix" the situation. I am thankful for his acknowledgment of conscience at work in some of our more controversial decisions. I am glad for the recognition -- healthy, in my view -- that each Province must decide for themselves what they can conscientiously undertake. My optimistic side sees these as early fruits of the Indaba process, a sign that the Anglican Communion might be starting to turn a corner.
  • For our part in The Episcopal Church, I pray we will continue to be more just to the most vulnerable, and yes, chaste (there's that pesky word again!) -- that is honest and acting with integrity in our response.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Summing Up. . .

. . . my week in the blogosphere. Ah, how the classics still speak to our day!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More on Chastity

Having tired of attempting to engage with abuse from anonymous commentators over at Titus One Nine, I will dare here to draw in some background text to further support my reflection on a more expansive understanding of chastity.

One classical Christian text on chastity is from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, esp. III.12-III.13 (page numbers here are from my recently purchased copy of the 400th Anniversary Edition published by Eremitical Press).

While Francis’ treatment of chastity clearly begins with chastity’s recognizable technical definition of sexual purity, his opening on the subject in III.12 includes this lovely and undeniable springboard into wider meaning: “Chastity is called honesty, and the possession of it honor; it is also named integrity, and the opposite vice, corruption. In short, it has its special glory to be the fair and unspotted virtue of both soul and body ” (121-122).

Francis articulates the need to pursue chastity even while in the married state, even while enjoying sexual pleasure with one's spouse! The conclusion to be drawn is that there is much more to chastity, then, than merely the container (in this case, marriage) of sexual relations. Francis argues chastity demands a context of moderation and avoidance of abuse (123). This I interpret to mean abstaining from the realm of domination and control, which are arguably forms of abuse, however subtly they might be employed.

Late in the same section, he articulates the necessity of chastity for “all classes of people,” as chastity is inexorably linked with holiness and cleanliness of the heart (124) and he references three distinct parts of the New Testament to support his argument. To amplify Francis’ point further, I would add Jesus’ teaching that it is the heart from where all relational vice and violence come, as in Matthew 15:18-20. Chastity, Francis clearly argues, is not simply a matter of sexuality, but fundamentally and most importantly involves the human heart and the quality of all its relationships.

In III.13 (125-126) Francis takes this yet further by asserting that loss of chastity is possible even outside of sexual relations. A quote he attributes to Basil through John Cassian may very well be at the root of a teaching on chastity I was offered by a celibate monk: “I know not what belongs to a woman, yet I am not a virgin.” The implication is clear – it is possible for even the assiduously celibate to be unchaste. There is, simply put, much more to chastity than sex.

Again, I will concede there are disagreements in the wider church at present over what constitutes chaste sexuality. I might even dare to quibble with Francis on what defines chaste sexuality. But that is not at all to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. By Francis’ standards, the underlying -- and more important -- virtue of chastity is found in its direction for all forms of human relating, and that is relating not through abuse (domination, control) but rather through the purity of love, integrity, peace, etc.

Ad Hominemed

For me a bracing study this week in the blogosphere, though to be fair, I knew what I was getting into.

The third chapter of the Letter of James has proven a most excellent and humbling road map again, as it has for many across the ages:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Babel and Big Oil

From a Pentecost Sermon, and with prayers for those battling the slick these days in the Gulf of Mexico.


Lest we think God “fixed” us as a human family, neutered our pride in the primordial story of the Tower of Babel. . . the story continues to stand for a world still very much a part of our lives – one with which we are very much mixed up, whether we are still sorting out the mess brought upon us by the economic and financial crisis, or filling up at the gas pump as we all must while wrestling with our driving addiction to the black goo.

The Tower of Babel is as old as the human family is, and God, it seems, still comes down and shatters the tower, scattering us in our collective arrogance. The disaster in the Gulf, of course, is now all about finger-pointing between juggernauts like BP, the federal government, Transocean, and Haliburton. The fishermen scream for their livelihoods while shop owners, hotel managers, and environmentalists all together sing a chorus of pain even with the trauma of Katrina still all too fresh in their minds. We are like the people who built the Tower now scattered by our own different tongues and agendas while the black crude leaks into our hearts, threatening to poison us with our own arrogant tacit or explicit insistence on drilling deeper, faster, and more profitably. And who pays for the cost of the failed Tower of Babel? We blame big oil. We blame technological advancement. We blame lobbyists and inept politicians. The truth that virtually no media outlet will tell you is that it literally is no one’s fault. But, as we are in the process of discovering, the resulting mess, much like our economic crisis, now is most assuredly everyone’s responsibility.

But lest you think I’m just going to beat up on our shared secular arrogance, The Tower of Babel was very much part of the story of the institutional Church across the ages. Make no mistake. Think of the historic crusades and heretics burned at stakes, of popes, kings, and princes assuming totalitarian control over belief. We consider the dangers of declaring and judging what is orthodox – what is right teaching – and what is heterodox or wrong teaching – and then declaring our divine authority over the fates of other human beings. If that isn’t the arrogance and pride of Babel, I’m not sure what is.

We must consider the tired refrain these days in old ecclesiastical institutions like The Episcopal Church, where the old isn’t working so well anymore, our institution is struggling with too much expense, too little revenue, too little flexibility in an era of rapid change. We look at our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers struggling with yet another dreadful scandal built on a tower of power and control not unlike Babel’s. We look at our so-tired struggle with the wider Anglican Communion over sexuality – sexuality, you see, is far easier to fight over than the dreadful hungers and disease of a suffering world. We tried to build our own Tower of Babel in the heyday of Empire and in the post-war boom, and now some of us in the wider Church wring our hands and even go to battle over whether or not our Tower to God may be “going out of business.” But I say maybe the reality is that the God who abruptly ended the Babel building project is very much in our midst putting our institution as it was out of business. Why? Because, as Jesus taught us, in order to have new life, we must die to our old selves. In order to be in the business of the Gospel, we have to set aside our obsessions with the business of preserving an institution. That was a lesson of Easter, after all.

And the good news, the Gospel of Pentecost, is that God does not leave us babbling there at the foot of our crumbling edifices. For our Acts reading for Pentecost points us to a new primordial story that redeems the toppling of the Tower of Babel, and ushers in the new life of an ever new and renewed Church – not merely an institutional church mind you, but a new and ever renewed church born of water and the Spirit. The story of the Spirit coming amongst the disciples in Jerusalem centuries ago is about the birth of this new community – not one built on “too big to fail,” or “bigger, faster, better,” or even the hubris of demanding we all be or believe the same way, but built upon the diversity of the human family itself. Diversity is no longer a simple, harsh cure to our arrogance, but an avenue to the renewal of life, by the ways in which it undoes and remakes the old order – the way in which all is made new. And it is so crazy that we might be declared drunk on the wine of life, like the first apostles were. Yet it is only morning!

Is it not the Spirit’s unbounded wonder these days that we talk about diversifying our economy rather than relying on a handful of juggernauts to sustain us? Is it not the Spirit’s wisdom to suggest that the abundant energy around us demands a diversity of approaches rather than the singular dependence on drilling harder and deeper for more crude? And is it not the Spirit’s work that when communities like ours embrace our wide variety, our diversity of gifts, we grow, despite the declines of the larger institution?

And if you find that a little bit to “out there” to grasp, just look around you. Where today do you find community as wide-ranging as ours, where people young and old from every walk of life gather together in the generosity of common prayer and share from a common cup and a common plate. Where we break bread, splash water, and celebrate the new life we are offered by our unpredictable but ever-loving God. Where we are cured of our hubris not simply by the toppling of our Towers, but by the simple proclamation that our God in Christ lives. And how do we know that’s true? Not through simple deduction or force of saying it over and over. We know, because we see the many fruits of the Spirit in our lives, each in our own way: we feel the hope, we follow the thread of love. Even though it is often buried by all our concerns and worries, it breaks out of the tomb again. It blows among us, and alights upon us as a dove bringing promise of renewal. It is the challenge our diversity and difference brings into our midst that breaks through the stone of our hearts and causes us to offer our myriad diverse gifts and sing praise together in unison.

This Church, this Body in the Spirit, is the new community. It is the new creation after the ending of the Tower of Babel. We all know in our hearts the juggernauts that are “too big to fail” will indeed collapse now and in the future. We all know our empires will continue their cycle of rising and falling. We know that our dependence on oil will and must come to an end. We know that no institution, even a church institution, lasts forever. But the hope is what we celebrate this day – a promise not just for us, but the promise of the Gospel for all of the human family – for all of creation – in all of our glorious, abundant diversity of gifts. The gifts of ingenuity and imagination that the Spirit brings – gifts that will conquer the oil slicks and renew our common economic life. A Spirit that will restore health and justice to the planet and to our shared peace. A Spirit that will re-build our community for a new day, start our community afresh as it did to the scattered peoples gathered in Jerusalem that Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. The Spirit that will wake us up to become the creatures of God we are called to be: each unique individually, but together, an image of our wonderful God who is creating new, diverse life for all eternity.

A Catalog of Names

It's amazing how many names one can garner for oneself in parts of the Anglican blogosphere in a matter of hours. Here are a handful thrown indirectly and directly at me on just a single thread:

1. Humpty Dumpty
2. Revisionist
3. Gnostic
4. Heretic
5. Deconstructionist

I am sincerely glad I don't live in the sixteenth century. Otherwise, I might be on a cart right now headed for a rather unpleasant barbecue!

Or perhaps these days, such monikers should be worn as badges of honor.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Chastity

From a reflection just published at Episcopal Cafe:

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

Update: Kendall Harmon responded to this essay over at Titus One Nine.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Climbing a Masterwork

Beethoven: Piano Sonata #21 in C, Op. 53 "Waldstein"

Richard Helmer
performed live at Church of Our Saviour Mill Valley, California
May 8, 2010
The Waldstein has been my small mountain for a while now. And sometimes, you just have to climb those small mountains, even if you're not sure you're ready.
It was a blessing to play this for such a sympathetic and loving audience. There is more work to be done, but I feel grateful to have gotten this far with this immortal masterwork.
Herr Beethoven keeps me hard at it!
Photo from the performance by Terry Peck
Grotrian piano provided by JB Piano, San Rafael, California

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Matter of Growth

I commented on this thread at Episcopal Cafe earlier today on the subject of church growth. Frankly, the subject is starting to wear quite thin on me, because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but I am increasingly convinced deadly spiritually.

Standard congregational development schema I was taught to appreciate involve the transitions between various sizes of parishes -- family, pastoral, program, etc. The jargon goes on from there, and leads. . .well, where? Nowhere much in my view, and many of our leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering why. We often talk about "cultural change" in our congregations as though it is somehow divorced from and devoid of the language of the Gospel, which is not simply about system theories or whatever else is hot right now, but about the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God's loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.

I write this all with a straight face. I am a child, both literally and figuratively, of the institutional church. I am beholden to it at present both by vow and income, and I indeed wish to see it thrive and flourish. But it will most certainly not by navel gazing and hand-wringing, nor by romanticizing the blip of high mainline attendance in the 1950's, from which we are still declining. . .or perhaps a better word is recovering, as we move towards a more real place in a world where people are free to seek out spiritual community that nourishes their hearts, minds, and being.

I'm all for congregational development, building the church up and all that. Just ask anyone in the parish I serve. Our numbers right now are good and modestly improving, though, not because we've been good congregational developers and I've taught the theory well, but because we've identified the tangible spiritual needs in our community and have begun the hard work of addressing them. Because we've identified gifts in our community for leadership and ministry and empowered them. Because I've struggled to set aside the egotistical notion that I, as parish priest, can "save" the church and at times have managed to get the hell (literally and figuratively, again) out of the way.

At the end of the day, a lot of congregational development writing and talk is about ego -- feeding the ego by possessing "how to grow a church" through specialized knowledge or methodology. Or feeding the ego by romanticizing a supposedly greater past. Or feeding the ego by projecting current trends in a straight line and claiming we have control over the future, or at least some special knowledge about it. Or feeding the ego because "my family and I depend on this job." None serve us or the Christian Gospel at all well. We need to stop if we are to move forward. Idolatry is one way to talk about our egotistical obsessions. Idolatry is one way to talk about much of our chatter over church growth.

Growth is not the goal here. It is only the natural, God-given outcome of living faithfully into Christian mission. And growth has a great deal less to do with numbers than it does with the vibrancy of ministry and the freedom of the Spirit to move in community.

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth:

No one wants to join a community wringing its hands and navel gazing over its own demise.

Nor does anyone want to simply become a number to prop up a flagging institution.

The real questions we need to be asking are those like these:

Are we endeavoring to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God?

Does our institution serve our mission of Christ Jesus to transform hearts and reflect God's work in the world? Or do we distort our mission to serve the institution? This is a simple (but not easy) matter of correctly ordering the carts and horses.

Are people finding spiritual nourishment, hope, and empowerment for ministry and service in their communities both within and beyond the walls of the Church?

If these criteria are being addressed with intention in people's real lives and grounded experience, growth of all kinds may very well follow. If they aren't, institutional death is a natural outcome.

We all fear death of institutions we love, of course. But at the end of the day, and indeed in God's gracious reign, we are not children of the institution.

We are God's children. We are people of the resurrection. And that's what truly matters, even as we face decline in many places.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Dear Johannes

Johannes Brahms:
Sonata for Piano and Violin
in G Major, Op. 78

Tiana Wimmer, Violin
Richard Helmer, Piano

Recorded live at Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
May 8, 2010