Do Denominations Count for Anything?

Some years ago there was a move afoot, at least locally, to dismiss denominational differences as essentially irrelevant and to encourage us to all worship together as one in the body of Christ. But what sounded like a wonderful invitation to ecumenism had another agenda that was driving it. Dismissing denominational differences meant to dismiss the traditions, theologies and practices of some churches in favor of consolidation with those of others, and those others were non-liturgical, conservative Evangelical, bordering on fundamentalist churches. I recall preaching several sermons on the theme that for us to engage fully with other traditions as brothers and sisters in Christ we had to be fully aware of who we are as Episcopalians in the Anglican traditions of our shared faith. That was not well received by some who had, in good faith I think, done their best to stock the church library and Christian education programs with almost everything published by Dobson, Falwell & Co. For them, to be real ecumenical Christians meant to cease to be Anglican, and to become conservative Evangelicals in Episcopal dress. It wasn’t a move toward non-denominationalism but a move toward another well defined denomination that held beliefs, perhaps appropriate to them, that were violently inconsistent with how Episcopalians believe. That is not unimportant. It is very important. It is not a matter of one being right and the other wrong. It is a matter of how we define the very core of what it means to be a Christian, what tools we use to become disciples and how we pass both on to the next generation.

The whole argument can be put into one brief paragraph. I believe that denominational differences are important. They express very different ways of apprehending and comprehending scripture, the sacraments, the meaning of ministry and the central doctrines of Christianity. These different ways form Christian identity and illuminate the disciplines and knowledge needed to grow in discipleship. They allow us to enrich one another through the sharing of our traditions. They provide a variety of places in which variety of people with a variety of needs can be more fully nourished with God’s word.

In a day or two I’ll share something of my own experience with what I call “Generic Christianity.”

I am a little curious

A month or so ago I sent a note to the active clergy list-serve in our diocese inviting fellow clergy to take a look at my site and enter into the conversation if they had a mind to do that. Since I’ve heard from very few of them. I wonder if there is anyone from the diocese looking in now and then. If so, please add a comment or two. Whatever comes to mind. Even a snide, underhanded insult would be nice. Now take a look at some of the sites down there in that San WahKeen place out in the California desert. Those people can’t stop blogging back and forth with some of the most colorful language I’ve ever seen come out of a priest’s pen.

What Good is Church Anyway? Who Needs It!

Once again I’ve been involved in a conversation with several for whom church had once been a place that promised truth in a world that does not know truth, safe haven in a world that has been darkened by sin, and saving from the wrath of God that would condemn them to the eternal punishment of hell but for the grace available to them from God by way of Christ through their church. But as they matured in faith and grew bold enough to become curious, ask questions, express doubt, and discover a world of God’s love and light that exists all about them in every day life that same church became a place of oppression, filled with untruth and from which escape was essential for their own well being. They crave God’s presence in their lives, they have nothing against Christianity in principle, and most of all they desire authentic, supportive fellowship with others.

As a priest and pastor I am ashamed that their experiences in church have not nourished their souls, but that is what church is supposed to be about about, and in ways more profound than fellowship, even at its best. The church is nothing more than ecclesia, a gathering of persons for a particular purpose. Fellowship is important for success in whatever purpose is at hand, because it is through fellowship that the gifts and talents of those gathered can be recognized, developed, organized and utilized. Fellowship has the added advantage of providing the ground for friendships to develop between persons who would otherwise have no reason or desire to get to know each other. But the particular ecclesia that is church is to engage the gathering in a purpose that transcends ordinary time and space.

We are called to gather together in God’s name to, with deliberate intentionality, enter into holy time and space. In the best Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, which is also consistent with the tradition of the early church, it means to be in direct, physical and spiritual communion with Christ through the Eucharist. In the moment of the Eucharist we depart from human time (chronos) to enter into God’s time (kyros). In that time we are fed with the holy food and drink of new and unending life. It becomes a time and place to be refreshed, healed, fed, restored and sent out to do God’s work. Being sent out is to be sent in to the world of chronos and into all the opportunities for fellowship that confront us in every sort and condition of human being. It is not God’s wrath but God’s love that we are sent out to proclaim, not our depravity but our creation in God’s image that we are to celebrate. We are God’s beloved children, and if children then heirs through Christ in his eternal kingdom. The world is certainly filled with sin and depravity. We cannot ignore that, but we are called to be agents of light, love, and life in every place that we go and with every person whom we meet. In a most curious way, doing that also reveals the beauty and goodness of all creation, or, as the psalmist said, “in your light we see light.” There are other traditions within the Christian faith that share the same understanding but express it in different ways, so I’m not claiming anything that is exclusively Episcopalian.

What I deeply regret is that it is not the way of all churches that claim the name of Christ. It means that those who have had a bad experience and escaped from it are very hard to convince that they should return to the ecclesia where they can be more fully nourished than ever they could imagine and their great gifts and talents could be joined with others to do even greater works in God’s name. Even someone as great in faith as Bonhoeffer had some of the same feelings of almost despair over the failures of some churches and expressed them well in his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” In them he wondered if we did not need a religionless religion of some kind. In the end he would not give up on that central moment of Holy Communion with God in Christ physically present in bread and wine and shared with one another in love.

Jazz on a Sunday Morning

I like jazz and I like good Southern Gospel. At the 10:30 service this morning, my penultimate Sunday in the pulpit, the choir, aided by piano and bass guitar, adorned our normally very traditional service with the music of Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. For a little variety, a modern jazz trio provided the prelude, postlude and Communion music. Wow! What a gift! The place was lifted off its foundations, and tears of joy wetted many a cheek. One of the joys of this place has been great music in almost every style except that cloying, sophomoric, saccharine praise stuff. We’ve had it in abundance with a terrific choir, a music director acknowledged as one of the finest organists in the country, and visiting musicians from college and university faculties who simply give of their talent to the glory of God’s name. The proliferation of talent that has come through this little valley of ours simply staggers the imagination. And this morning – it was the best. I could neither imagine nor desire a better retirement

A Few Thoughts on Stimulating the Economy

The economy seems to be lurching toward a recession and all of our political leaders are of a mind to “stimulate” it somehow to get it going again. It appears in hindsight that a good deal of our former prosperity was based on irrational consumer spending and a booming housing market based on a speculative scheme designed to enrich a few and impoverish many. A newly skeptical market met the president’s $158 billion dollar stimulus package, announced but not defined, with a resounding plop.

Some think the fed needs to pump some cash into the hands of the working poor because they are the ones who will spend it quickly on essentials of life. But there is not much of a multiplier effect with that. Others think it should go into the hands of the wealthy because it would be just pin-money to them and they would spend it quickly on something expensive. In theory that would create a larger multiplier effect. No one wants to give it to the middle class because they would either pay down debt or save it, and what a waste that would be.

I wonder what would happen if the entire economy became restructured so that Americans adopted a simpler way of life less frantically driven by hyped up consumerism. We would not have to give up much, but we might be less inclined to desire the latest and best of whatever is hot, and delight in using to their fullest those things already in our possession. It would take the wind out of the super salaries and boated bonuses of some executives. Boy, would they be mad! Companies of all sizes would have to find products and services to meet the needs of more people who need less things, but things of higher quality. An awful lot of people would have to define their jobs and careers in new ways, and quite a few, who are now paid extremely well to titillate the public into buying what they don’t need, would lose their jobs. Boy, would they be mad!

But it might be fun to live in a country comfortable with not being NUMBER ONE all the time. We might enjoy producing goods and services of real quality at fair prices for a rapidly growing world market. There is a guy in North Dakota who makes and sells a pretty good beet harvester to countries of the former Soviet Union. I like that.

What would have to happen for that kind of transformation to take place? Obviously it would require some restructuring of the tax code to undo some of the foolishness of the last eight years. It would take a national commitment to link free trade with fair trade. It would require the disestablishment of the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned us. Mostly it would require an American public not so blasted scared of aliens and terrorists, and that would not kowtow to the kind of marketing schemes that have worked so well on them. How likely is that? Not very I’m afraid.

A Few Thoughts on Economic Greed

Wall Street is the place in which those with money to invest can seek out the best opportunities for a good return on their investments in the company of those who need new money to run their businesses and bring products to market. Like any wide open market place, it is also a place that attracts thieves, pickpockets and scam artists of every stripe. And, it is a place that is well honed in the practice of seducing both buyers and sellers by appealing to their greed. That’s pretty much been the way of the market place for tens of thousands of years. The problem, as I see it, is that on Wall Street today the stakes are very high and unbridled greed has become the driving force of the major players who are suppose to be the mediators and facilitators of fair and honest trade. The vicious Ponzi scheme, otherwise known as the subprime mortgage market, is a case in point. Unscrupulous persons were able to take multi-million dollar bonuses for themselves as they unloaded what they knew perfectly well to be an unsustainable investment scheme onto the books of greedy brokers and bankers who, themselves, were able to reap millions in personal bonuses before their companies and shareholders found themselves bankrupt. In the meantime, they all knew that hundreds of thousands of gullible homeowners would be fleeced of their dreams and assets, and they didn’t give a damn. As it is, many of the subprime brokers have gone out of business, the big banks have taken huge losses onto their books, and mortgage defaults are at an all time high. It has affected the economic health of the entire nation. But the perpetrators still walked away with their tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of personal bonuses, so what do they care? For that matter who cares at all? All of this is more important to the security of the American way of life than all the illegal aliens and gay marriages combined. But too many Americans who enjoy finding ways to be morally indignant seem more interested in straining at gnats than confronting anything of real importance. Maybe that’s the greatest sin of all.

The Final Day Looms

January 27 is my last day in the pulpit before retiring as rector, just a few weeks away, and a full year since I gave notice to the congregation. For some reason I’m finding these last few weeks to be filled with apprehension, or perhaps it would be better said anxious anticipation. If anything, it reminds me of that long lost anxious waiting for Christmas morning that I had as a very young boy. I will leave the congregation in good financial health with a pattern of slow membership growth and an outstanding reputation for adult Christian education. Although not an especially large church, our commitment to outreach has meant that we generate financial gifts to those in need equal to about a third of our operating budget. We endured the upheaval over the gay issue with few leaving, more coming, and an atmosphere that is comfortable for both conservatives and liberals. I think the parish needs improvement in its ministry to families with children, although we’ve made huge strides in the last two or three years. Our Sunday School and youth programs are solid but limited in their appeal and they also need a little work. Most of all, I have not done well at inculcating the discipline of holy stewardship among the large middle segment of the parish. We have a few people of extraordinarily modest means who give sacrificially to the work of the parish, and another handful of wealthy families who give with real generosity. But in the middle are far too many who treat stewardship as if it was the same thing as paying dues to the YMCA or country club – with both of those taking priority. I inherited a parish in good shape and am leaving it in better shape but with more to be done. Maybe that’s the best way.

The Blessings of a Storm

By the way, out here in our little valley we had a very unusual wind storm. The wind blew at nearly 80 mph for almost ten hours, and in a very narrow band not more than twenty miles wide. The damage to thousands of trees and dozens of buildings was enormous, but there were no reported storm related injuries. Many of us endured a power blackout that lasted for two or even three days. What it gave us was a greatly renewed appreciation for the miracles of light, heat and water, and a greater sense of our own vulnerability to their loss. Thoughts to ponder bout our modern ways of life.

Commentary on the Separatist Movement

Well, I suppose I must join all the others in commenting on the separatists who are in the process of setting up a new communion under the name of Anglican. It is important to remember that we Anglicans have long endured in a tenuous partnership of two competing views of what it means to be Anglican.

One view has desired to maintain a strong connection with progressive elements of our Catholic roots that included an emphasis on the socio-political teachings of Christ and a vigorous open-ended way of reading and understanding scripture that honored, but was not subservient to, tradition.

The second view has desired to transform Anglicanism into a Calvinist church with a strong connection to an evangelical ethos. The Puritans are the progenitors of this view and their presence and influence in the Anglican Communion has never gone away. Once it seemed a fairly superficial matter of the difference between high church and low church Anglicans, but it has taken on new colors in recent decades. The American version of it has adopted the theology of what the press calls Conservative Evangelicals, but they have kept the trappings of Anglican hierarchy and have endowed that hierarchy with more autocratic authority than has ever been a part of the larger American church. In that way they are brothers of some of the African churches that were established by English Evangelical-Puritan Anglicans and so never had much of a connection with traditional Anglicanism except by way of a church hierarchy that could compete successfully with their own well established ethnic hierarchies. As these churches matured beyond their colonial keepers, they had every reason to use their size and power to establish a uniquely African way of being church that was very intentionally not Western, and especially not American.

Of course, both the history and contemporary issues are much more complicated than that, but I think the overall theme is correct. The more or less natural result is the emergence of a new communion of like minded churches that are almost Fundamentalist in their conservative evangelicalism dressed in an Anglican hierarchy that has significantly enhanced authority to rule. I don’t think the looming separation is an altogether bad thing. It permits traditional Anglican churches to go on with their mission and the proclamation of the gospel unencumbered by those who are unable to find a comfortable place in it. The American church, despite its odd and sometimes rudely arrogant ways, will go on along with other traditional Anglicans in a much healthier spiritual environment. One final note, please read “traditional” to mean progressive, or even liberal if you like, but always consistent with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church including its historic creeds.

Obsessing about the Wrong Things

I follow a couple of other Episcopal blogs that deal mostly with the politics of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Sometimes I even add a comment or two of my own. The conversation does interest me, but I’ve noticed a troubling trend that I’ve seen before in the church, in business and in education. In the church, at least, it is manifested by an obsession with church politics that appears to diminish, if not demean, the central role of proclaiming the gospel. Of course it is true that in every profession there are those who are more concerned with the politics of their trade or professional associations, corporate entity and institutional dynamics than with customers, students, patients or parishioners. Even core products and services have to take a back seat. To be sure, healthy institutional structures and their internal cultures are important because they provide the organization and discipline needed to efficiently, effectively and ethically provide the products and services needed by clients and customers. Institutions really do need to be looked after. Someone does have to pay attention to them. But for some, perhaps too many, those structures and cultures become the raison d’etre, and the needs of those they are called to serve become all but forgotten. It’s a very seductive thing, and in many ways it’s a form of idolatry. Moreover, those who find themselves caught up in it tend to turn inward, excluding the ignorant heathen who are not privy to the inner workings of things, or who might remain naively focused on clients, customers and professional competency. There is even a kind of pagan priesthood made up of those who can accumulate the most inside knowledge and share it in the most enticing way to predict future events. It can happen anywhere, and if it gets out of control it can destroy the very institutions over which it obsesses and the careers of those who obsess. My advice to the church – stay focused on the gospel; don’t let anything displace it. Stay focused on that and you will not err too much.