Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, January 23, 2017

Church Militant theology and the politics of our time

When I was a devout child in my small-town Episcopal Church, I learned all about the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. As I remember it, the Church Militant was described as the church living on earth in the present. The Church Expectant, we understood, was all of us joined together with the saints in heaven, joyfully awaiting the Last Day. The Church Triumphant, we learned, will come into being with the culmination of all things in the arrival of the eternal City of God "coming down from heaven" as in the book of Revelation. Even as a child I always thought these were wonderful concepts and they remained with me.

Samuel G. Freedman, who writes the "On Religion" column for The New York Times every other week or so, has brought these terms to our attention in a new context:

(I am not an expert on these matters, but I surmise that the medieval [perhaps even earlier] terminology must have been altered after the Reformation. If the medieval Roman Church called the middle stage the "Church Penitent," that would have summoned up images of Purgatory, and would have been rejected by the Reformers because of the significant abuses [prayers to the saints, and especially indulgences for sale] of the concept of Purgatory as it was then understood. I imagine that the Church of England must have changed the designation of the second stage to "Church Expectant.")

As Freedman points out, "Church Militant" never meant the Crusades or any other kind of armed or enforced assault on others in the name of Christ. But it should not be reduced to an individualistic interpretation either. The church is a body, indeed it is the Body of Christ, and its corporate nature appears in the world as a force on the socio-political stage, like it or not.

In the  context of the present, then, this surely means a pro-active stance against false interpretations of the gospel. I am committing myself for the foreseeable future (God being my helper) to try to be of some use to fellow Christians in the imperative to resist evil (I Peter 5:8-11). Surely that is one of the meanings of "Church Militant." I will continue to argue that one of the imperatives for the church in this new atmosphere is vigorously to denounce the hijacking of its most important theological affirmations by political and ideological interests

The easiest way to do this is what I am doing now, i.e., putting something on the internet to be read by like-minded "followers." That requires no particular courage. It is simple enough, and relatively free of cost, to use a website to point out the misuse of the concept of the Church Militant by ideologues. It is far more challenging, and more perilous to navigate the cultural and political battlefield in the context of teaching, preaching, and worship in the local congregation. When you are looking out at the faces of people whom you know to have different political convictions, it is tempting indeed to take the line of least resistance.

I attend worship in many different congregations. In recent months, and especially since the presidential election of 2016, I have noticed two contrasting styles.

1) The prayers and sermons are studiously chosen, or appear to be, for their non-controversial nature. The messages are carefully phrased to avoid any sort of offense to anyone. They essentially come across--to me, anyway--as bland and anemic.

2) In some other churches, equal care is taken with prayers and preaching, but there is a slight bit of an edge. No political references are made, no political parties are alluded to, no candidates or office-holders are mentioned, but very specific affirmations are made, in the prayers and sermons, concerning strong biblical imperatives such as "justice in the gate" for the downtrodden and voiceless ("the widow and orphan"); embrace of the "sojourner" (foreigner, stranger, refugee); care for the sick, the forgotten, the voiceless, the powerless; and God as "no respecter of persons."  In other words, there can be no mistaking the subversive nature of the gospel even if politics are not mentioned.

Actually a good argument can be made that the most powerful preaching is addressed to a mixture of people, rather than to a convocation of the like-minded.  Preaching to the like-minded requires no particular care or nuance. It does not acknowledge the presence of Others--who, in the case of the recent election, may actually be members of one's own family. The same effort should be made in the congregation as in the family; that is to say, with unconditional love and yet with conviction about the centrality of certain core beliefs that cannot be surrendered in the name of superficial unity.

(Parenthetically, it must be said that the Roman Catholic church has often been good at this, because, unlike the Protestant churches, it has a teaching magisterium (teaching office) that, however much flouted in the observance, is particularly assertive about biblical social values, with its strong official stand for immigrants, the working class, economic justice, and "works of mercy" in the public sphere.)

 It is remarkable how much Dietrich Bonhoeffer is admired and quoted by Christians of all theological and ecclesiastical persuasions. Everywhere I go, especially in "conservative" churches, he is cited reverentially, and his resistance to the Nazis is almost always mentioned. Yet the idea of resistance is not drawn out and linked to our present situation. Bonhoeffer's letters, essays, and prayers from prison have an unmistakable political significance, and when that is brushed out, the gift of his life is diminished.

For what it is worth, since no one can do everything, and indeed one can only do a very few things well, I am committing myself to "majoring" in three issues:1) arresting climate change, if that is still possible; 2) truth in all matters, including especially resistance to the perversion of language; and 3) preaching and teaching gospel-centered resistance.

Thank you, readers, for your interest in my offerings. May God correct them where they need correcting, and may he strengthen his church for the battles to come.

Friday, December 30, 2016

In praise of cemeteries

The recent communication from the Roman Catholic teaching office (magisterium) regarding Christian burial is refreshing. It is refreshing because, while being sensitive to current practices, it clearly sets out traditional Christian teaching in a way that people--whether Christians or not--need to hear. Traditional Christian burial is traditional for theological reasons. The Vatican document observes that modern practices, such as cremation before a service and scattering of ashes veer into 1) individualism, 2) pantheism, and 3) syncretism. The specific biblical message of the resurrection of the body is thereby lost, even negated. (Cremation after the funeral service of the church is not proscribed by Roman Catholic teaching, though burial is still preferred.)

This does not mean that disposal of bodies or ashes in unconventional ways in individual circumstances are inevitably gross violations of Christian teachings. If such practices become the norm, however, a serious dilution of Christian doctrine will ensue (and, indeed, demonstrably already has ensued). Here is the link to the Vatican document:,_cremation/1267621

I particularly like this passage from the document:
Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs, Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.
Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

I have loved cemeteries ever since I was a child. The old cemetery in my home town of Franklin, Virginia, is not especially pretty--it's flat, largely tree-less, and too close to High Street--but a great many of my relatives and so many dear friends of my family, are buried there, and so I cherish it. (All four of our children's grandparents are buried there!) When I was growing up, it was a major ritual to decorate the graves with flowers on Memorial Day. I used to accompany my aunt on these pilgrimages, and over the years my sense of being a part of a community of the living and the dead has greatly increased and strengthened. When my mother was buried there by my father in 2007, it was an enormous symbolic comfort to me to have them surrounded by my father's parents and sister (the aunt of Memorial Day), so many other relatives, and so many people that I'd known growing up in Franklin--including my Sunday School teachers! It was as if they were alive still, but not so much as individuals--rather, as a community.

My late beloved teacher and mentor, the great Pauline scholar J. Louis Martyn, told me of going to the cemetery in Texas where his brother and other relatives were buried. I think he had not been there for a long time. He told me, looking thoughtfully off into space,  "I thought it was going to be a place of death. Instead, walking around, I found that it was a place of life."

My great-great grandparents
in the University of Virginia cemetery
I had the same experience of going for the first time as an older adult to the old University cemetery (as it's called) in Charlottesville a few years ago. My grandparents, great-grandparents, and many other relatives (whose names and stories I know well from reading their letters) are buried there.  So were numerous storied names from earlier days at the University of Virginia--names of professors and others that my grandparents spoke of almost daily. It was a joyful, soul-strengthening experience for me. My mother once said that going to the University cemetery was, for her, "like going to a party." A place of life!

Best of all are the churchyard cemeteries. The best funeral I have attended in years was one where the congregation filed out of the church building directly into the churchyard where the coffin was lowered into the consecrated ground, accompanied by the prayers and hymns of the church. This is rarely possible now, since most churchyard gravesites are filled up, but for those who know the histories of the congregations, these burying grounds are precious. I have recently visited Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown, NY. When the rector steps out of his kitchen door to walk over to the church building, he is greeted by six generations of the family of James Fenimore Cooper (of Last of the Mohicans fame), who were loyal members of the parish. My friend Henry S. F. Cooper, who died last year, is now buried with his Episcopal ancestors. I find that very hopeful and strengthening.

New Castle, Delaware is a tiny, authentically unspoiled colonial town prized by the select few who know of it. The centerpiece is Immanuel Episcopal Church on the Green. Imagine my emotion when I found, in its cemetery, the grave of the pediatrician who saved the life of our infant daughter Elizabeth! His grave is surrounded by those of his forebears and the parishioners who knew them. What an incredibly affirming discovery!

Whenever I pass a graveyard on my walks, I stop in. I look for the oldest grave and read some of the inscriptions, and I try to imagine the lives of the people there. It makes me feel part of a great continuum. For a Christian, one of the joys of visiting old cemeteries is reading the biblical inscriptions and prayerful commendations on many of the headstones. It is jarring, today, to move from the old sections of cemeteries to the more recent graves and see the stones with pictures of golf, fishing, sailing, and other hobbies, as if the deceased were not part of a comprehensive community at all, but defined and remembered only by their individual pastimes.

The great writer Joseph Mitchell famously wrote of his fondness for cemeteries. He said that whenever he was feeling down, he would visit a favorite cemetery and come away invigorated. I can understand that. Somehow a cemetery communicates a sense of shared humanity and one's belonging to it--not to mention the overarching providence of God. A place of life!


Here is a list of the most beautiful cemeteries I have visited, in order of beauty (in my opinion) :
1) Hollywood in Richmond, on the heights overlooking the James River
2) Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, with vast numbers of walking paths, majestic trees, and an eye-popping ravine
3) the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, with surely the most lovingly maintained flowers and plantings, and the most elegant tombstones (the travel writer H. V. Morton thought it was the most beautiful in the world) 
Honorable mentions: Essex, Connecticut alongside the Connecticut River, especially lovely in fall; and Greenwood Cemetery in Rye, NY, with ancient trees and the burial place of the great preacher Theodore Parker Ferris.
The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto is beloved by joggers, strollers (of both kinds), and dog-walkers

Just as I was preparing this blog post, a lovely article about family cemeteries appeared in The New York Times, with an endearing photo of a family in their cemetery in Cartersville, Virginia.