Sacred Mountains, sacred encounters, listening: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2020

Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas. Continue reading

The Anglican Communion: Why even bother anymore?

In the run-up to the Lambeth Conference 2020, there has been a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing among US Episcopalians about the actions, invitations, and statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

For those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of Anglicanism, the Lambeth Conference is one of the so-called “Instruments of Communion” that connect the various churches that claim affiliation with the Anglican Communion. It is a conference of all Anglican bishops, held every ten years (although delayed this time because of strained relationships over full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church). All of the bishops gather to build relationships and attempt to make statements on various topics of perceived importance. Traditionally, one of the high points of the conference is tea with the Queen.

The last twenty years have seen increased conflict within Anglicanism over matters of sexuality. The conflict was exacerbated when Gene Robinson was ordained Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the first openly gay bishop in a long-term relationship. That precipitated the departure of a number of dioceses and congregations and led to the formation of the Anglican Church of North America. More recently, the Episcopal Church authorized rites for same-sex marriages.

As preparations for Lambeth accelerate, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he would not issue invitations to the same-sex spouses of bishops, a decision that aroused the ire of many in the Episcopal Church and led to statements from the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies of General Convention, Executive Council, and the House of Bishops.

Another of those “instruments of communion”–the Anglican Consultative Council–is currently meeting in Hong Kong. News was made when the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that the body couldn’t discuss his disinvitation of certain spouses because of British law. Unsurprisingly, this statement was met with outrage by all of the usual suspects.

In addition, Archbishop Welby has invited representatives from the Anglican Church of North America to attend as “non-member observers.” The invitation was met with derision from the leader of ACNA, Foley Beach who wrote in response:

For the Anglican Church in North America to be treated as mere “observers” is an insult to both our bishops, many of whom have made costly stands for the Gospel, and the majority of Anglicans around the world who have long stood with us as a province of the Anglican Communion.

At this point in my life and ministry, I find all of this more amusing than concerning. As a parish priest approaching ten years in my current cure, local issues far outweigh issues of national or international concern. In addition, my closest clergy colleagues are pastors of congregations of other denominations as we work together to address matters that cross denominational boundaries like homelessness, racism, and economic inequity. With the deep political and cultural divisions in our country, with white supremacy running rampant and resurgent anti-semitism expressing itself in killings in synagogues, with the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants, with climate catastrophe, whether the spouses of bishops are invited to a Lambeth conference seem of little importance in the larger scheme of things.

The Anglican Communion is a product of British Empire and colonialism. Its persistence is evidence of the continuing legacy of that history. American Episcopalian continued infatuation with it seems to be as much about the continued appeal of English culture and history, as well as the monarchy. Where our privilege is vanishing before the incessant tide of secularism and Christian nationalism, the fantasy that our church, as small as it is, has global significance because of the “worldwide Anglican Communion” is both persistent and attractive.

Still, I wonder whether it’s time to move on. The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the larger Anglican Communion seems more abusive than life-giving. We want to be accepted as full members. When the Archbishop of Canterbury or some other entity treats us as second-class, we react with outrage. What if we just went our own way?

The “Instruments of Communion” are products of the Age of Imperialism and Colonialism, and the post-World War II efforts to build certain kinds of international institutions. Many of those institutions are showing signs of collapse–the European Union is one prime example.

My question is: In the absence of such formal structures, what might relationships among Anglicans look like? I suspect very much like they look right now on the ground, with work being done by individuals, ecclesial entities, and dioceses across the globe, building relationships of trust and support that are informal but sustaining. Globalization means many things, but one of its products is the ease with which we can connect across the globe via social media and shared interests. Maybe instead of spending all of our energy licking our wounds over our treatment in the run-up to Lambeth 2020, we should work at building those other relationships that aren’t dependent on the Archbishop of Canterbury, gatherings of bishops, or instruments of communion.

Furthermore, in the face of reports that membership in religious bodies has hit an all-time low in the US, maybe it’s time for us to get over the presence of ACNA. There’s a new ACNA congregation in my neighborhood, which I discovered by the postcards they send out before Christmas and Easter. Initially, I felt some anger at the thought of invaders encroaching on our territory. This past Easter, as I was driving home and saw their sandwich board out at the street, I felt gratitude for their witness and prayed silently for their success. With an overflowing crowd at Grace that day, and feeling the exhaustion after Holy Week, I know we can’t reach everyone who is desperate for God’s love in our city, and if my ACNA nieghbors can reach some, I welcome their presence.

Living with our differences: Update on the Primates’ Meeting

We’ve learned more about the Primates’ Meeting today, from news reports, a news conference, and the official communique. A more nuanced picture of the entire meeting emerges from these additional reports. Participants at the news conference emphasized that the meeting took place surrounded by prayer, that they shared the Eucharist and foot-washing and that overall the tone and tenor was quite different from previous meetings, though difficult.

Today, the official communique from the Primates’ Meeting was released. The full text is available here. It addresses issues like climate change, religiously motivated violence, and evangelism (in an Addendum B):

We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the press conference today, Archbishop of Canterbury Welby sought to parse the precise implications of the communique for the status of the Episcopal Church. He argued that that document refers to consequences, not sanctions, stating that provinces being autonomous, have the right to go their own way, but that if they do so, they can expect such consequences. It’s not even clear that other Anglican or ecumenical bodies would honor the Primates’ decision. Another tidbit, the Primates called for a Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops for 2020 (interesting that it lies beyond the 3-year hiatus for Episcopal Church participation in Anglican bodies).

This wordsmithihng deserves careful attention. First, it’s not at all clear that the Primates’ Meeting has the authority to make such a demand of the Episcopal Church. Second, Welby’s efforts to distinguish between “sanction” and “consequence” seem rather lame.

There’s been a great deal of discussion on social media about how the Episcopal Church ought to respond.

“We enjoy a fellowship and communion in Christ that is bigger than any of our difference.” Bishop Curry’s message to the church:

“it means that we have more work of love to do, and that work of love is helping our story and the story of many faithful Christians … to be told and heard, and it really may be part of our vocation in the world to bear witness to that, and it’s a loving witness.”

The link to Presiding Bishop Curry’s video response to the communique:

Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure: A Sermon for June 29, 2014

I had a series of conversations this week that had a common theme—the spiritual journeys we are on in our lives. My conversation partners differed in many respects. Some were members or friends of Grace, some were newcomers, seekers, one was a woman I met at a gathering at the university. Of all of them, the most interesting journey was that of Peter Reinhart, the bread baker, teacher and writer who visited UW this week. Peter was raised Jewish, encountered yoga and eastern religions in the sixties and early seventies, found his way into an intentional community that combined aspects of new thought, eastern religions, and Christianity and eventually with that community joined the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. Continue reading

Sad ironies in Episco-land

So today I came across two very similar stories from diametrically opposed sides of the Anglican/Episcopal scene in the US. Bishop Robert Wright had to defend himself because he recommended a book by Rick Warren for Lenten reading. “What could have you been thinking?” was the response he received from progressive Episcopalians.

Word came from Nashotah House, one of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church, that Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori will be visiting this spring. In response Bishop Jack Iker of one of the breakaway dioceses has resigned from the board and the conservative blogosphere is apopleptic.

Now, I’ll make my confessions. Yes, I’ve read one of Warren’s books–A purpose-driven church–and i didn’t find it particularly interesting. And in my nearly five years in Wisconsin, I’ve never stepped foot on Nashotah House property. The invitation to the Presiding Bishop does not make my visit to “the House” more likely, but it does change my perception of the institution considerably.

We are a deeply divided church and a deeply divided culture but the work of God in Jesus Christ is first and foremost the work of reconciliation. Both Bishop Wright and Bishop Salmon, the Dean and President of Nashotah House, are doing that hard work of reconciliation and I for one pray for them, their efforts, and for our ongoing need to reconcile across the theological, cultural, and political divides that separate us.

Bishop Wright’s letter is available here:

Bishop Salmon’s video explanation of how the invitation to the Presiding Bishop is here:

An Untidy Church: Archbishop of Canterbury on Division and Disagreement


The chief legislative body of the Church of England is currently in session. It’s been an eventful week with the fast-tracking of legislation for women bishops approved by a wide margin.

They are also debating the Pilling Report on human sexuality which called for “facilitated conversations” to help Christians with different perspectives on human sexuality to understand the positions of others. The report also advocates “that clergy, with the agreement of their Church Council, should be able to offer appropriate services to mark a faithful same sex relationship.”

This week, the Episcopal Church celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the consecration of Barbara Harris, a stark reminder that although we are partnered with the Church of England through the Anglican Communion, we very different in many ways.

There are also similarities, of course. The conversations we’ve been having about LGBT inclusion at Grace are not all that different from those proposed by the Pilling Report. And like the Church of England, there are still deep divisions within our denomination. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed General Synod yesterday, urging the Church of England, the worldwide Anglican Communion, congregations, and individual Christians to find ways to live faithfully with disagreement. His words are passionate, powerful, and challenging:

So, for example, if we are to live out a commitment to the flourishing of every tradition of the church there is going to have to be a massive cultural change that accepts that people with whom I differ deeply are also deeply loved by Christ and therefore must be deeply loved by me and love means seeking their flourishing.  We cannot make any sense of Philippians chapter 2 and the hymn to the Servant unless we adopt that approach.  The gift that Christ gives us, of loving us to the end, to the ultimate degree is meaningless unless that love is both given and received, and then passed on. …
Yet what lies on that journey? Well, it is certainly an untidy church.  It has incoherence, inconsistency between dioceses and between different places.  It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that.  It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.  It’s a church that speaks to the world and says that consistency and coherence is not the ultimate virtue, that is found in holy  grace. …

Let’s bring this down to some basics.  We have agreed that we will ordain women as Bishops.  At the same time we have agreed that while doing that we want all parts of the church to flourish.  If we are to challenge fear we have to find a cultural change in the life of the church, in the way our groups and parties work, sufficient to build love and trust.  That will mean different ways of working at every level of the church in practice in the way our meetings are structured, presented and lived out and in every form of appointment. It will, dare I say, mean a lot of careful training and development in our working methods, because the challenge for all institutions today, and us above all, is not merely the making of policy but how we then make things happen.

We have received a report with disagreement in it on sexuality, through the group led by Sir Joseph Pilling.  There is great fear among some, here and round the world,  that that will lead to the betrayal of our traditions, to the denial of the authority of scripture, to apostasy, not to use too strong a word. And there is also a great fear that our decisions will lead us to the rejection of LGBT people, to irrelevance in a changing society, to behaviour that many see akin to racism. Both those fears are alive and well in this room today.

We have to find a way forward that is one of holiness and obedience to the call of God and enables us to fulfil our purposes.  This cannot be done through fear. How we go forward matters deeply, as does where we arrive. …

Read (or watch) it here:

No King, No Bishop: Some reflections on “The Primer on Ecclesiology”

The House of Bishops Theology Committee released to the public its “Primer on Ecclesiology” last week, just in time for Thanksgiving and Black Friday. An earlier version of the document was presented at the Fall House of Bishops Meeting and I offered some comment on what we learned then here.

Crusty Old Dean provides a thorough reading of the document in his inimitably crusty style. He asks a number of pertinent questions and points out various places where the document is less than accurate historically. These misrepresentations are problematic because as the document states in its introduction,

The study of the Church begins with history and governance: how it came to be and how it makes decisions. To understand how and why The Episcopal Church functions the way it does today, we must start with its origins in the Church of England.

A lack of adequate historical understanding results in inadequate ecclesiology. I will leave aside a discussion of developments in America. What concerns me are certain misrepresentations of the History of Christianity in Early Modern England, matters about which I actually know something.

The first major problem I want to highlight has to do with the sixteenth century. It is quite true to see Henry VIII’s efforts to gain control over the Church in England in light of similar efforts by his contemporary European rulers. Kings did it; even the city councils of Imperial cities in the Holy Roman Empire used the Reformation to gain power to control the clergy in their territories. But to say that the matter was “purely a matter of governance and political power” and that Henry had no religious, theological, or ecclesiastical motives is a serious misunderstanding of the mindset of early modern rulers. Kings believed that not only would they be answerable for their own sins on the Day of Judgment but also that they would be held responsible for the Christian faith and morality of their subjects. It’s impossible to separate the motives of sixteenth-century people into distinct categories of religious and non-religious.

The primer’s discussion of developments after Henry is even more confused and confusing. It seems the authors are attempting, as they did in Henry’s case, to distinguish cleanly and completely between religious and non-religious spheres. So, for example, a sentence like this:

After his death, the first Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549, and a second Book in 1552, while Henry’s son Edward was king, reflecting the growing importance of doctrinal concerns to the Church.

There had been lively, passionate, divisive, even fatal debates over doctrine in England since the 1520s. Henry had executed both Evangelicals and Catholics who refused to toe the theological line. At times, reformers seemed to hold sway; other times the conservative Catholic party seemed in charge. Under Edward, it becomes clear that the Evangelical party (to call them “Protestant” is misleading; it doesn’t fit the English scene in the Tudor period) was setting policy.

Crusty points out the enormous problems in the brief treatment of Elizabeth. The Elizabethan Settlement is usually dated to 1559-1560, with the publication of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Supremacy. Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pius V only acknowledged the reality on the ground. The document overlooks one very important issue in the development of the settlement and the need to distinguish between the roles and competencies of Crown and Church. Elizabeth was a woman. A great deal of Henry’s desire to have a son was general uncertainty about the fitness of women to rule kingdoms and to have a woman as head of the church was an affront to many churchmen and reformers. John Knox fired off “blasts of the trumpet against this monstrous regiment of women” in which he voiced his opposition to Elizabeth’s reign. The attempt to distinguish “the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head and the Crown as the governor of the church’s temporal existence” was in part an attempt to remove the possibility that Elizabeth, a woman, was “head” of the Church of England.

Crusty’s takedown of the paragraph on the seventeenth century is worth repeating:

The historical narrative here is confusing and problematic.  Cromwell and the Commonwealth are called the “zenith of Presbyterian experiment in the church of England.”  This is simply inaccurate.  Cromwell was an Independent (what we could call a Congregationalist) and actually introduced religious toleration.

He also alludes to the primer’s consistent and misleading of the terms “spiritual” and “temporal” to distinguish the roles of clergy and laity (or church and crown). The ultimate example of this confusion comes somewhat later in the document where it distinguishes between the clergy’s responsibility for worship, “the Church’s principal act” and the laity’s responsibility for finances.

Looking at the discussion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in light of this distinction between spiritual and temporal, it becomes clear to me that the document is attempting to do something quite interesting. Its construction of the Elizabethan Settlement is an attempt to make a connection between the Church of England’s structure and governance with that of the Episcopal Church, each being adapted to the local context. Thus:

While the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has only a formal role in governing her Church, she symbolizes the considerable power that the laity exercise across England. This original balance of her great ancestor’s Settlement has been a key element of Anglican provinces around the world, including the Episcopal Church, the first Anglican Church outside the British Isles.

In other words, the Elizabethan Settlement, with the Crown as “governor of the church’s temporal existence” and the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head become the foundation for both the Episcopal Church’s hierarchical structure and for the existence of General Convention with its lay representation.

This is deeply problematic in at least two ways. First, it attempts to map onto the sixteenth century our categories of religious and secular (although using the terms “spiritual” and “temporal”). “Spiritual” in the sixteenth century did not mean what it means today. The English Bishops were lords “spiritual;” that is to say, they sat in the House of Lords by virtue of their appointment as bishops, yet exercised vast political power both in Parliament and in their own dioceses. “Spirituality” in the sixteenth century referred not to some nebulous, internal, religious state or mode of being; it referred to the clergy as an order, with unique political rights . The term “spirituality” used in our contemporary sense first appeared in France in the 17th century. To give just one obvious example of the Crown’s involvement in “spiritual” affairs in the 16th century: forced conformity to the Church of England. Elizabeth famously said there were “no windows into men’s souls” but she certainly demanded that everyone in her realm outwardly conform to the Church of England doctrine, discipline, and worship.

This raises the other difficulty I have with the document as a whole. As I read through it, I kept thinking of James I’s statement at the Hampton Court Conference, “no king, no bishop.” To tie the structure and governance of the Episcopal Church to historical developments in sixteenth and seventeenth century England ties the Episcopal Church to the English monarchy and to the Church of England’s establishment; in other words, “no king, no bishop.”

Of course, the Elizabethan Settlement is part of our history as Episcopalians, but the decision in the 18th century to bring the historic episcopacy to the United States was a theological decision, a creative response to the new political reality that emerged after the Revolution, born from the product of almost two centuries of the inculturation and adaption of Anglicanism to a new environment. That decision is clear evidence that the episcopacy is not dependent on monarchy for its existence,nor is the English monarchy’s involvement in the Church of England a determining factor for the laity’s involvement in the Episcopal Church. A primer on ecclesiology in the Episcopal Church should make that clear.