Stanley Hauerwas, Diana Butler Bass, and the future of the Episcopal Church

This past week I attended the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. It may sound pretentious (and to be honest, there’s more than a little pretension to be seen around) but it’s an exciting opportunity to hear from some of the best minds inside and outside of the Episcopal Church and to hear from others how they are innovating and responding to our rapidly changing culture.


I was especially intrigued when I saw that Stanley Hauerwas and Diana Butler Bass would be presenting back to back on the conference’s last day. I’ve long been an admirer of both and expected to be challenged to think in new ways about the role of the church in twenty-first century America. Although I had to leave before the end of Bass’s presentation, listening to the two of them on the same morning provided some gist for thought as the twitter hashtag emerged: #HauerBass.


As I listened to Hauerwas’ lecture, I puzzled over his intent. He spent much of his time revisiting the history of Liberal Protestant theology. Hauerwas has long been critical of the American church’s embrace of nationalism and easy acceptance of American culture and he sounded those themes again. He railed against the privatization of religion that is one of liberal theology’s hallmark, as well as the high value placed on toleration. The critique of liberal theology led him back to Karl Barth and that earlier critique of German liberal Protestantism. For Barth, the shock came when leading German pastors and theologians, including his own teachers, signed a declaration in support of the German effort and Kaiser Wilhelm II at the outset of World War I. Over against this assimilation of Christianity to the German war effort, Barth began to articulate a theology in which the Word of God stands in judgment of all human effort, including religion. That theological position would ultimately lead Barth to pen the Barmen Declaration in which he and others set out their resolute opposition to the idolatry introduced by Hitler.


Hauerwas seemed to want to suggest to his audience that we are in something of a similar cultural situation. Certainly Protestant hegemony is over; Christendom has come to an end, but as he points out the liberal state demands our allegiance and wages war in which we are complicit. Hauerwas argued instead that the claim “Jesus is Lord” is a political assertion and if we are serious in making that claim, our allegiance is not to the liberal state, but to the Reign of God that is breaking in upon us. He also asserted that “Jesus is Lord” is an absolutist claim and that it does not brook “toleration.”


On one level, none of this is new. As I listened to him, I thought back to workshops I had attended over the previous days, as well as my pastoral experience in Madison. At the heart of Hauerwas’ project is a view of the Christian faith that begins in absolutist claims like “Jesus is Lord” and assumes total allegiance. The Christian community he envisions is a gathered community, in conflict with the dominant culture and open to martyrdom. He looks back to the early church and sees Constantine’s conversion as something of a watershed, perhaps even a “fall.” Unfortunately, none of this describes the lived experience of most people living in America. Perhaps it should. On the other hand, most people experience a host of competing claims, from job, family, financial security, and the demands of the marketplace, to the ongoing search for meaning in life. Christianity, for better or worse, is only one claim among many. A common theme in the workshops I attended was the importance that we (as clergy, as communities of the faithful, as the Episcopal Church) find ways to engage people as they seek meaning. I wonder whether in the American context, for many, if not for all Americans, Hauerwas’ assertion that “Jesus is Lord is an absolutist claim” makes any sense whatsoever.

And this is precisely where I wanted to hear Diana Butler Bass reflect. For the culture she is describing has very different contours than the one Hauerwas described. She too talked about the decline of Protestantism in America, pointing out that according to the latest Pew Survey, the percentage of all Protestants has declined to below 50% for the first time in US history (I presume she wasn’t thinking about Native Americans when making this claim). The percentage claiming to be mainline Protestant is now lower than the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. This is a culture in which there are multiple claims on our allegiance, religious and otherwise and negotiating among those claims, making meaning in the midst of those competing claims, is difficult, demands nuance. I think it also inevitably requires allowing a certain amount of ambiguity, if one is at all self-reflective.

I don’t find Hauerwas’ construction of “post-Christendom” Christianity particularly helpful. It might work for certain Anabaptist or neo-Anabaptist communities, but the Episcopal Church is situated differently, and Anglicanism, whether or not the Episcopal Church survives, offers a different stance toward its cultural context. We may be able to develop committed communities of faith made up of disciples seeking to follow Jesus Christ, but we also welcome strangers and seekers who encounter Jesus Christ in our liturgy and may not, for a multitude of reasons, ever make the sort of deeper connection we want and hope. They may never be able to experience and submit to the absolutist claims of “Jesus is Lord” because they encounter other absolutist claims from other sectors of our culture. We must be able to minister to them as well. We must be able to find ways of helping them make meaning in their lives, whether or not they are able to fit into the membership boxes we want to stuff them in. It’s more important to speak their language than to expect them to speak, and accept, ours. Because if we are able to help them find meaning in the contexts in which they live, they will also be able to find God there, and to experience the redemptive love of Jesus Christ.

How should we commemorate Reformation Day?

Well, we’re Anglican, so it’s “politically incorrect” to do so (“Protestant” was removed from the official name of the Episcopal Church some time ago). But there was a time when I was a scholar of the History of Christianity in Early Modern Europe, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it still. Franklin Wilson from Luther Memorial Church will be preaching at Grace tomorrow and we’ll sing “Ein feste Burg.”

I’ve come across several pieces on the web probing the commemorations. Lutherans have mixed feelings. Craig Schnekloth wants to bury it; Scott Allan disagrees.

Diana Butler Bass urges Protestants to recover the heart of Protestantism, which she defines as:

The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually.  The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.

That’s a bit too rosy a picture of the Protestant legacy. Whatever protest was at the heart of the early Reformation movements (and remember, they weren’t called Protestants until 1529, twelve years after Luther posted the theses) was theological, not political. Protestants cozied up to power very quickly everywhere; the only exceptions were the Anabaptists, but most scholars agree that their conversion to pacifism was a survival strategy, not inherent in the movement from the beginning. The historical examples of Protestants actually leading protest movements, movements for justice and peace, are relatively rare in the 500-year history of Protestantism–abolition, temperance, civil rights. Much more common has been and continues to be Protestantism supporting the political and economic status quo, sometimes with horrific consequences (the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525; Southern American Christians’ defense of slavery, apartheid, the Nazi rise to power).

It’s fashionable for Anglicans to discount our Protestant heritage, but we should acknowledge the crucial Protestantism had; both in the early years of the English Reformation and in shaping the Anglican ethos in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

If all that is too confusing as you plan your Reformation Day party, Killing the Buddha offers creative tips on how to commemorate the day.

Baptism of Blood

On Saturday, Diana Butler Bass posted an essay in response to the shootings in Tucson. She began by arguing that clergy needed to speak out on the events. Her question was “But who will speak for the soul?” It was a good question and challenged me as I was trying to rewrite my sermon in light of the day’s events.

But the last couple of paragraphs troubled me. Last Sunday was “The Baptism of our Lord” and the gospel reading was Matthew’s story of Jesus’ Baptism by John. As she sought to make a connection between the day’s events and the gospel, she contrasted two types of baptism, the baptism of water which is redemptive and life-giving and the baptism of blood. To illustrate the importance of the latter symbol in American religious history, she quoted Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia, saying in 1862, “All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.”

At the time, I prepared a blog post that was critical of this move. I thought better of it and deleted it before posting. I’ve continued to think about it, and I continue to be troubled by it. The baptism of (or by) blood has a long history in the Christian tradition, going back to the early church, where martyrdom was understood to be a baptism of blood. In Catholicism to this day, an unbaptized person, who makes a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and is martyred, is saved by that confession and by the baptism of blood without water baptism.

Then I came across this enlightening post by Daniel W. Crofts on The New York Times. Croft wrote about the lead-up to the Civil War. His column is about a speech on January 12, 1861, by William Henry Seward, New York Senator, and soon to join the Lincoln administration. In that speech, he sought compromise in order to avoid what seemed like imminent war. While many were critical, abolitionist (and Quaker) John Greenleaf Whittier wrote:

If, without damage to the sacred cause
Of Freedom and the safeguard of its laws —
If, without yielding that for which alone
We prize the Union, thou canst save it now
From a baptism of blood, upon thy brow
A wreath whose flowers no earthly soil have known,
Woven of the beatitudes, shall rest,
And the peacemaker be forever blest!

What did Whittier mean by using this imagery?

The rhetoric of both North and South was filled with violent religious imagery, including “baptism of blood.” One need only think of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It didn’t end with the Civil War. Such imagery returns with every war as we have seen in the last nine years. It’s not unique to America, either. I’m sure one can find similar language in the rhetoric of German pastors during World War I and World War II, or English pastors in the same wars, or ….

Bass is absolutely correct to see a preoccupation with blood in American religiosity. As I child, I sang “There’s power in the blood.” It may be especially prevalent in the South. Sometimes, it’s rather amusing like the fountain that used to be outside the mansion of a mega-church pastor in Spartanburg, SC. At night, the fountain’s water was bathed with red light, to remind passers-by of “the fountain filled with blood. But it’s not just the South. Think of Mel Gibson’s gory spectacle, The Passion of the Christ.

In spite of the excesses, it’s important to remember that the notion of “baptism of blood” can be, and often has been, life-giving and redemptive, especially for those Christians facing persecution. That it has been and is perverted is hardly surprising.


If it weren’t so pathetic, it would be amusing. Clearly the Archbishop of Canterbury (or someone in his office) stepped way over the line. They’re back-pedalling now, promising an “investigation” of the Presiding Bishop’s treatment, although they aren’t moving as fast as the GOP did after Representative Barton’s “apology” to BP yesterday. Still both are public relations disasters.

Various sites are keeping track of those women bishops who have preached and celebrated in England while wearing their mitres. Among them:

The Rt. Rev’d Mary Tottenham, Area Bishop of the Credit Valley Diocese of Toronto (Canada), who preached and celebrated at Southwark Cathedral on November 9, 2002. More on that here.

Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori did the same in 2008 at Sudbury Cathedral. More on the issue at the Episcopal Cafe and Preludium. Plus, Diana Butler Bass has comment on Beliefnet.

Now we learn that the Bishop of El Camino Real, the Rt. Rev’d Mary Gray-Reeves, is currently visiting the Bishop of Gloucester and is reported to have worn a mitre.

It was clear at Clergy Day yesterday in our diocese that many of those in attendance were outraged by the treatment of the Presiding Bishop and that whatever sentimental attachment that many of us had to Anglicanism, and the respect we had for the Archbishop of Canterbury is quickly dissipating. If the goal was to get the Episcopal Church to leave the Anglican Communion on its own, it may be in sight.

More turmoil in Anglican-land

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a Pentecost Letter to the Anglican Communion in which he responded to the consecration in May of Bishop Glasspool in the Diocese of Los Angeles. In the course of that letter he wrote:

I am therefore proposing that, while these tensions remain unresolved, members of such provinces – provinces that have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion and recently reaffirmed by the Standing Committee and the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) – should not be participants in the ecumenical dialogues in which the Communion is formally engaged.

This seems to imply that the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Church of Canada) should absent themselves from inter-Anglican activities. One might debate whether the Episcopal Church has “formally” breached any of the moratoria (on blessings of same-sex relationships, ordinations of gay and lesbian clergy, and border-crossing).

Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori responded powerfully this week to Williams’ letter. She argued that Williams was seeking to centralize authority in Anglicanism in ways that had been resisted throughout its history. She also pointed out that whatever “formal” decisions had been made by particular provinces, there were many places, the Church of England chief among them, where both ordinations and same-sex blessings occurred regularly and that any move in the Episcopal Church was nothing more than recognizing the reality on the ground.

This exchange has received considerable exposure both in the press and on the internet. Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopalian herself and one of the leading commentators on religion in contemporary America commented that the conflict between Jefforts Schori and Williams is not a clash between liberal and conservative. Both are theologically liberal. Rather, it is a clash between competing visions of Anglicanism—one hierarchical and centralized, the other more democratic.

Jefforts Schori (and Bass) point out the origins of the Episcopal Church in the US in the American Revolution and in the desire to develop independently of the Church of England. Jefforts Schori cites as well the origins of the Church of England in the desire to be independent of the papacy. She goes too far when she tries to connect that with Celtic Christianity and the conflict in the early Middle Ages between Celtic Christianity and the missionaries sent from Rome.

The rise of individualism and of democracy are two long-term trends that have changed all institutions and the ways in which individuals come together to form institutions and relate to institutions. Once centralization and authoritarianism give way to localization and autonomy, it is impossible to recapture them. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are becoming new things because of those developments. The internet has changed how we communicate and how we connect. It has helped us create like-minded communities that span the globe, but it cannot create closer ties or strengthen central authority.

What Jefforts Schori is saying in her response is that the sort of Anglican Communion Williams is imagining is not something the Episcopal Church wants to be a part of. Rather, we want to work together with those who are willing to work with us, whatever our theological views. We will also build networks with people and churches across the world who share our views. Yes, this may mean loss, but it has been happening de facto for over a decade. In fact, this was begun not by the Episcopal Church but by those disaffected with the Episcopal Church who made alliances with (and were consecrated Bishop by) conservative African and Asian archbishops.

As I reflect on recent events and on the controversy that has been going since 2003 (well, in fact, much longer than that), it seems to me that the dust has largely settled. Those who were going to leave the Episcopal Church have left. New structures have been created but how they will develop remains to be seen. I’m sure there are places and people where the controversy rages, but my sense is that in those places and people, controversy will always rage. I will never forget what David Anderson said in response to a question about why he didn’t just leave the Episcopal Church. “I love a good fight,” he said.

I don’t. I love God, Jesus Christ, and the body of Christ in the world. I want to be about the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ in this world. Frankly, I don’t care any more what the Archbishop of Canterbury has to say about the Anglican Communion and about the Episcopal Church’s place in it. Frankly, I don’t care about the Anglican Communion. I care about the Church of Jesus Christ, but of course, the Church of Jesus Christ will take care of itself. It has for two thousand years. It has survived, in spite of the members, laity and clergy, who have done whatever was in their power to destroy it.