Monday, November 19, 2007

Our Jewish Heritage

I have been reading Jewish Spirituality for the Christian by Harold Kushner. I picked it up on the book table at Convention. I have always appreciated his books. He writes of a spirituality that is simple and integrated as most Jewish theology does. He seems to take argument in faith as a given. It is almost as if instead of “where there are two or more of you…there is always a fifth” which Episcopalians often say, it is “where there are two or more of you, there is always an argument” for Jews. It is not something that scandalizes; argument is of the nature of Judaism. I guess that is why there are so many “Jewish lawyer” jokes. It is because arguing is part of the development of their faith.

Such debate is healthy. As Episcopalians we have always debated in my experience. I always was interested in the debates of conventions. They made me think. Sometimes they were a little uncomfortable, but when ideas are challenged, it does take us out of our comfort zones.

But of late arguments have not been debates. The present difficulties in our Church have been ruined by those who do not debate but who harangue. Mudslinging seems to be the order of the day by many in the Blogosphere. I keep marveling at why we are concerned with Stand Firm in Faith when their writers have already made it known that they have left the Church. I have been saying for almost 6 years now that those who refuse to live by the Constitution and Canons of the Church should find a church where they can be at home. Being ordained under the Canons of the Episcopal Church when one cannot support them is disingenuous at best and a base lie at worst. But what this world-wide fight over who has power has done to faith is by far sadder. We have become unable to debate, unable to discuss the merits of legislation. It has become a matter of win/lose, not a matter of discussion and our witness to Christ is diminished because of it.

What I saw at Diocesan Convention this weekend is a church that cannot tolerate argument. It has come to understand debate as a bad thing. Rather than discuss the significant issues that face the Church we would rather be hyped up by games and forms of “prayer?” that are neither part of our tradition or satisfying to those who have spent time and money to be inspired by the commonality that is called Church. It is as if we have become afraid to allow anything that does not exalt episcopal leadership to be discussed. And even sadder it was a display of a younger group of clergy who do not understand the basic premises of our Episcopal Constitution and Canons.

The diocese is not a safe place for clergy these days. If one does not toe the party line, one can be called into the bishop’s office and warned that you are under suspicion of all kinds of things. They don’t even have to be true. I have had such a warning and have refused to buckle under it. It is also the reason why I am not working in the Episcopal Church these days. I miss my denomination dearly. And while I work in other churches, I will not abandon my faith simply because a young bishop or young clergy who have not fought the fight for women’s ordination or for African-Americans to vote, or for gay folk to live boldly in the Church do not understand the nature of a debated faith. I am trying very hard to not let priests run members out of a parish, or a bishop run me out of the diocese that called me to ordained ministry.

I noticed few retired clergy attended this Convention. I wonder if I too will fall to that temptation. I commented that there were few retired or senior clergy attend Clergy Conference earlier on this blog. I did notice that there were many retired clergy who came to the August Clergy Day which was supposed to be about the issues facing the church. That meeting ended in a major argument simply because the Bishop cannot or will not engage the issues addressed to him by the senior clergy.

Should I retire to obscurity until some future generation understands how to respect their elders and wants to report on what it was like ‘back when’? I don’t think so. I will continue to bring the issues that are facing our church to the forefront. It is a lonely existence but I have faith in a God that taught his people to argue. The time will come when we will once again be able to challenge one another in the Church to address the truth—a truth that goes beyond one opinion or another and embraces all in all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Diocean Convention: A Contact Sport

I have always enjoyed going to diocesan conventions. It is the time when all the clergy and laity of an area gather to claim our common heritage, catch up on long-lost relationships, hear new concepts and work for the common good in the diocese. In some ways Diocesan Convention is like a large family reunion, but it does more than just play soft ball.

Since General Convention 2003 it has been difficult to attend our diocesan convention. The family is separated by the same feud that is affecting the whole of the Church. The paucity of leadership creates a need for the gathering into factions to find safety. Friendships are strained by political issues. Faith is stretched almost to tearing. For many the ministry is only satisfying in our congregations. Attachment to a diocese is pro forma at best. Convention is like going to a family reunion when the soft-ball game becomes a way of working out the family feud.

I expect this Diocesan Convention to be no different. I have yet to see the resolutions that are being presented. I know the ones I am presenting. I also know the changes I have suggested to the Canons. They are difficult ones, to be sure. But if we treat them as the soft-ball game, they will never do what they are intended to do.

I have proposed a couple of canonical changes: One to help the failure we have had had in the diocese with regards to the search process for new rectors. I have commented a couple of times on this blog and are available if one scrolls down.

There is one change in the diocesan canons calling for the reinstatement of all who are considered “priests in good standing.” This means that a priest member of the diocese who was not under any disciplinary charge could be considered for a parish, as supply clergy, or interim (if they were so trained). This status of “priest in good standing” was an important one when I graduated from seminary. It allowed parishes to call clergy to serve in their parishes without interference from the bishop. It allowed parishes the freedom to develop their own directions, maintaining that balance between being diocesan and being congregational which has so characterized the Episcopal Church in CNY.

Being a “priest in good standing” meant that bishops had to respect their clergy as being somewhat free agents and adult contributors to the mission and ministry of the diocese. Bishops could not reign by fiat and neither could clergy. It required the best of all to work together for the benefit of the entire diocese.

Nowadays, the status of being a “priest in good standing” means nothing because the bishop has ways of excluding a “priest in good standing” from the work of the church without due process. Technically this should be against the canons of the church. But at some point in the revision of Title IV, the term “priest in good standing” has been lost. Consequently the bishops may do as they please with the clergy that are listed in their dioceses. They can prohibit a priest from working in their home diocese by fiat rather than by any kind of legal process. It makes the priest, not a prophet but a pawn. It conflicts with every concept of the balance of powers in the Episcopal Church. It is also demeans the position of clergy and especially that of rector.

In the canon I have proposed, I have merely asked for the reinstatement of the position of priest in good standing.

I have also offered a resolution asking for the publication of the Shaffer Report. The Shaffer Report is the document produced by the investigator into the entering of a priest’s retirement fund, and the changing of his pass code by diocesan personnel. It was a report that figured significantly in an ecclesiastical trial in which the bishop refused to make the report available. Since the Diocese paid for the investigation, it is appropriate for the Convention to direct the bishop to make this report public.

Will this report show misconduct by diocesan officials? I don’t know. That is not the point. But when a bishop is willing to allow this document to undermine the whole of his case against Fr. David Bollinger, and waste $187,000 of the diocesan budget, it is time for us as a diocese to call him to account. The lack of trust of bishop AND of clergy by the bishop needs to be addressed. It needs to start being addressed by the Convention. Bishops, clergy and laity must be accountable to the Convention and it is time to call for it.

The sad thing is that our family soft-ball game has turned into tackle football in the diocese. The penchant for maiming one another professionally and spiritually is great. We must take back the dignity of our Diocesan Convention and remind ourselves we have a sacred trust to run the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Central NY.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Faith and Belief

In a post on the House of Bishop and Deputies’ website, the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter reminded us that there is a difference between faith and belief. It was good to hear that distinction made again.

Faith is what is given to us. It is a gift from God. It comes very early in life and everyone gets it whether we identify it as such or not. But faith must be developed for it to be operative, for it to serve us well. Faith is how we can accept something without having proof. We suspend our need to have all the facts before us to recognize the value of putting our trust in something. It is the water upon which we float. It is the air upon which we fly. We cannot see it or at times cannot feel it, but it is how people grow into knowing that they do not have to have all knowledge but can affirm that something is present to us without our sensate powers confirm it. Faith is a capacity, not a body of knowledge. It stems from acquaintance with the truth of the person, object, or community in which the person has faith. It is more a matter of a relationship rather than doctrine

Belief, says +Righter, is that body of knowledge or agreed upon tenets which a group claims best describes their relationship with God, or non-god. Belief can be in a body of hypotheses of science but it does not denote a relationship with the object of faith. This distinction is an important one for those of us who claim faith in Jesus Christ. Belief in Church doctrine does not mean we have faith. Assenting to a body of doctrine is no more faithful than believing in the theorems of geometry. Faith requires that we must enter into a relationship with the one in whom we have faith.

When I was a Roman Catholic it was clear that Roman Catholicism did not make much distinction between faith and belief. The Church IS the Faith, not the bearer of faith for Roman Catholics. I knew many Christians who had deep and abiding relationships with Christ, Mary, God the Father, etc. I never wish to disparage the faith of those who find faith as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. But for the average pew sitter, their Faith is what the Church taught. When I became an Episcopalian, I moved into clearer understanding of faith.

Often we Church folk often disparage those who are not churched as being without faith. T’ain’t necessarily so! Just because people do not find the conjunction between the Church and faith does not mean that a person is without faith. However we are likely to think that if a person is an Episcopalian he or she believes what the Episcopal Church teaches, or a Lutheran is a person who believes—subscribes to the body of doctrine that Lutherans profess.

Therein lies the problem. We, as Episcopalians are people who have given a wide berth to doctrine. We profess creeds in our liturgy, but we don’t sign our lives away to be doctrinally sound. We see doctrine as something that is fluid and developing like faith. It is the reason we are having the problems we are having in the Episcopal Church at present. We HAVE been fuzzy about what we believe. And I for one love that fuzziness. Those who need more structure to their belief systems find the Episcopal Church lacking. The neo-evangelicals who thump their Bibles like Baptists want the black and white of the printed page of the Bible to articulate their belief. The Roman Catholic wannabes demand a magisterium to articulate their belief structures. The interesting thing is that the Anglican Communion has been lacking in those belief structures from our inception. And as the US-based arm of that Communion, we have consistently sought not to be doctrinal.

Bishop Righter is spot on when he names Bishop Spong as one who makes us think. No, I do not believe in everything that Spong says is correct. For that matter I do not believe that the Bible is always correct. (I do believe and assent that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation! But then again, salvation is a gift from God, not something that I need to know or assent to.) We have plenty of instances where the Bible contains errors. And the Bible if taken at face value has stories that are beyond belief. But this does not lessen my faith in God, because my faith is not IN the Bible. My faith is IN God—in that relationship that happens when I trust and step out into the unknown with only God to guide me.

I do not understand those who need belief structures to have faith. I love the stories of faith. I relish the wonderful one-upmanship of Jesus when he catches the Pharisees or the Sadducees when they are trying to set a trap for him. I find the on-going faith of Hebrew Scriptures give me insights into how God effected the lives of my spiritual forbearers. But I do try to keep those stories in their setting, not bending their meaning beyond belief. Jesus told those stories to encourage faith. If anything, Jesus’ mission was to tear down the barriers that had been erected by temple authorities that kept “the unworthy” from knowing God.

I do not deny that belief structures often are what help the neophyte to come to faith. But we cannot profess a mature faith in belief structures, because ultimately creeds, covenants, doctrine are all made by us—mere mortals. Faith is what is given by God.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Beloved and ++Katharine Jefferts-Shori

My friend Elizabeth Kaeton, Chair of the Standing Committee of Newark and rector of St. Paul’s, Chatham, NJ writes of the Presiding Bishop’s visit to their clergy conference. I am so taken with this report of ++Katharine that I have included Elizabeth’s description here. You can read the whole thing at ( I never have gotten that link thingy down.)

Bishop Katharine made a brilliant connection with the story of Genesis 1 and the baptism of Jesus. God said, "This is my beloved, with him I am well pleased," which is an echo, she reminded us, of God saying at creation, "It is very good."

Further, she connected the story in The Garden with the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, reminding us that Jesus was able to resist Satan because he had just been baptized and had a very clear sense of his identity and the fact that he was 'beloved' of God.

I absolutely resonated with her point that our understanding of our identity frames the way in which we view the world and the language we employ in our conversations about God and religion and the human enterprise.

If we believe ourselves to be wretched and fallen human beings, that sin came into us in the Garden by the temptation of Satan in the guise of a snake, we have a very different understanding of ourselves and the world than if we believe ourselves beloved of God - sons and daughters who claim our inheritance of eternal life through Christ Jesus because we, like the rest of creation, are worthy and, indeed, "very good."

The Evangelical, more Calvinist position begins with the wretchedness of humankind, and pretty much stays there, being eternally if not daily thankful for the salvation and redemption of the human condition by the suffering (emphasis on suffering) and death of Christ Jesus.

The traditional Anglican position has been to hold all three chapters of the Genesis account in tension - the fact that we are beloved of God and the fact that sin is in the world.

The idea of free will celebrates the gift of our God-given gifts of intelligence and reason, but does not negate the presence of evil in the world, nor our capacity to make wrong decisions and choices. But, neither does the capacity to make bad choices negate the inherent goodness of our humanity.

The truth is that God is a mystery, and we do well to understand that the best evangelism is one that invites others into a deeper experience of this mystery - not the certainty of answers set in cement tablets.

Bishop Katharine then did just that and had us meditate on the image of God coming to us and saying, "YOU are my beloved, with YOU I am well pleased."

After a time of silence, she invited us to share our insights. It was so much easier for many of us to concentrate on how others were beloved of God and how God might be pleased with someone else. Anyone but us.

Bishop Katharine asked us to consider how our conversations with each other might change if we began in a place of affirmation rather than a place of harsh judgement.

Comment: I have always had problems with the Protestant concept of the “Total Depravity of Man”. This is more of a Calvinist understanding but I find plenty of that theology in Luther’s writing too. What if Augustine was wrong about Original Sin? Pelagius thought so.The whole of the Medieval theology would have been turned on its ear.

The Protestant theology of the 16th century came out of a post-plague era convinced that that pestilance had been punishment for immorality rather than the results of the failure of social contracts and social structures that had been so neglected because of war and squander that basic health and hygene had been neglected.

The response to the humanism of the Renaissance that was spreading over southern Europe was to solidify this idea of the total depravity of humanity and find salvation in the free grace of God. It was an important idea for its time. But this sense of the depravity of humanity will be the death of our own era if we do not confron it. I am grateful to ++Katharine taking it on in her wonderful non-judgmental manner. I have not ever seen a bishop who is so self-differentiated as she.

What if all the ‘stuff and bother’ that has confronted the Church since General Convention 2003 was precisely what needs to happen to the Church, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion? What if what needs to happen for the Episcopal Church is to be small enough and singular enough to become the leaven for a society that would like to be selfish and self-agrandizing. Only the Episcopal Church has the contacts in society at present to really address the domination sinfulness of our present generation. What if the call of the Episcopal Church is not to be the Church of the Socially Accomodating but to become the small Church of the Niggeling Conscience? It won’t make us popular but it will allow us to live out our Christianity with integrity.

Bishop Jefferts-Schori begins her theology not with our ‘falleness’ but with our ‘belovedness.’ I must admit that I have not felt ‘beloved’ in the Episcopal Church of late. I have received a message of my ‘falleness’, my sinfulness, my error for being gay even though I know that this is not of my making. It is hard to stay present to God who is telling me of my ‘belovedness’ when those I have respected in my Church are telling me different. I do not disagree that I am fallen and sinful but it is from my own sins, not those of previous generations, or Eve or for some unknown reason that I attracted to members of my own sex. The grace I know is because God has loved me even at my most unloveable. It is there that my loving must begin. It must be willing to love those who are the most unloveable—ARG! It is so difficult yet so necessary.

I must admit I am an old fan of Matt Fox’s Original Blessing. I have not followed his work since he left Rome and became an Episcopalian, but I did appreciate how his work addressed the loss of basic worth that Original Sin has engendered within Christendom and how it has subjected people. Even how we have come to regard others as sinful before regarding them as “good” gives fertile ground for the negativity that is so present in today’s culture.

Such terms as Last Judgement, Justification, Redemption, even the word Salvation have taken on meanings which were never envisioned when they were first coined. Today I believe we must be willing to explore new ways of discovering our ‘blessedness’ so that we can hear the ‘blessedness’ in others. We are going to have to find new ways of discussing our faith. We need to find new ways of articulating the relationship between God and humanity and the realtionships that we have with one another. The language of psycology helps better that the language of law upon which most of our traditional language of theology is based. But the language of mysticism—that constant trying to verbalize the ineffable, is what is going to be the most important.

We are not well schooled in the language of mysticism. Clouds of Unknowing, Interior Castles, Original Blessings are hard to unpack and are fraught with imprecision. But what else is the description of God and God’s actions. No more scholasticism in theology. We need to start with everyone’s “belovedness”