Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Crisis in Connecticut and a call for mutual submission

Once again the Episcopal Church has become major news in The New York Times. (One article was carried over to a second page, and featured three photos) This publicity, for the usual wearying reasons, has nothing to do with holiness of life, or Spirit-filled worship, or ministry to the poor, or powerful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, but with a struggle for power in the Diocese of Connecticut. Six parishes in the Diocese, led by St. Paul's, Darien, have withheld their diocesan assessments pending their request for alternative Episcopal oversight. The presenting issue, as is commonplace these days, is ongoing unhappiness regarding the election and consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. The Bishop of Connecticut, Andrew Smith, took a very hard line and, in a sharply worded letter, threatened the rectors with deposition on a specific date—Friday, April 15. [This is only a sketch; readers can find details elsewhere.]

As of this writing, Sunday evening, a report has come suggesting that cooler heads may have gotten through to Bishop Smith. The deadline has been withdrawn and instead, an invitation has come to the six rectors to meet with Bishop Smith and a mediator, Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts. This is welcome news, but—as in most human disputes where issues of power and control are involved—there has been so much digging in and staking out and drawing of lines and circling of wagons that stubborn self-righteousness and naked power plays tend to be predominant factors in spite of an overlay of pious language.

There is another way, however. Bishop Peter J. Lee of Virginia, in a recent address to his diocese, has taken Ephesians 5:21 as his inspiration and has called for "mutual submission" in the Body of Christ. This is the only hope for the Christian community when inflammatory issues are at stake. Bishop Lee describes what each side in the controversy can do in order to avoid the meltdown that is threatening our Communion.

Another interesting proposal, from a different perspective, recommends an approach that might offer a similar hope. Dean Paul Zahl of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, being interviewed by The Witness, took as a text another challenging passage from Paul's Epistles, the discussion of the "weak" and the "strong" in Romans 14-15. Writing from the perspective of "the weak," Dean Zahl pleads with the "regnant," "ascendant" bishops to refrain from taking advantage of their positions as "the strong." It is a gracious argument. However, even those of us who think of ourselves as "the weak" (because Biblical theology is rapidly losing ground in all the mainline churches) must beware of the sin of pride. As C. H. Spurgeon warned, "Pride is a strange creature; it never objects to its lodgings...There may be as much pride inside a beggar's rags as in a prince's robe." (Sermon on Habakkuk 2:4). That warning will serve us well as we seek to practice mutual submission.

Bishop Lee's paper can be found at
(Look at page 10 under "Pastoral Address")

Paul Zahl's interview is on this link:

Friday, April 15, 2005

Eight evangelical affirmations (proposed):

  • Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God.

  • His Crucifixion and Resurrection were the definitive act of God to overcome Sin, conquer Death, defeat the Evil One on his own turf, and inaugurate the new reality called the Kingdom of God.

  • The Holy Scriptures are the true revelation of God's own self, and the Bible is therefore unique among writings and can be trusted as the living and active Word of God.
  • We are incorporated into the new life of God—for now and for all eternity—through baptism, justified by grace alone, through the gift of faith.

  • The Holy Spirit is actively at work in the world shaping both events and people to bring his ultimate redemptive purpose to pass.

  • God in Christ is gathering disciples, the saints of God, who embody his purposes through the ministry of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

  • It is the very essence of Christian faith to bear witness to this story of God, and therefore to make his gospel known to all nations.

  • We look to the future of God, when Jesus Christ will come again in great glory to rectify all things and bring all things to their appointed consummation.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Prayer for our enemies

Note to readers: In February when this blog was brand new I posted a message about praying for our enemies. Few people knew about the website then, so I am repeating this post now. In view of our Lord's express command that we should love and pray for our enemies, it seems disturbing that it this not being done in our worship services. As I have traveled from place to place visiting scores of congregations during the past two years, I have continued to note the pervasive absence of such prayers.

There is a very good prayer for enemies in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (page 816), yet I have never heard it used. It has the virtue of being short, simple and inclusive of both enemies and ourselves. It avoids the "we-they" dynamic that poisons so much discourse these days. Here it is:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here is one for St. Stephen's Day, December 26, from Prayers for Every Occasion (Morehouse-Barlow, 1974) :

Merciful God, you gave your son to reconcile us, your enemies, to you: Grant, we beseech you, that we too may learn to pray for our enemies, as your servant Stephen prayed for his persecutors, and, like him, be permitted to see your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And here is another, from the same source. This prayer was written in England to be used at the height of World War II. In other words, the Church of England was praying for the repentance of the Nazis even as they were being bombarded. Sixty years later, we can acknowledge a miracle; this prayer has been at least partly answered. I read recently of a Jewish writer who had established his residence in Berlin. He said that he believed the Germans had accepted their guilt. Here is the prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, before whose judgment seat we all shall stand, we pray, as thou hast taught us, for our enemies; so turn their hearts to you that they may truly repent; and grant that they and we and all the peoples of the earth, being cleansed from sin, may know and do thy will, as you were lifted up upon the cross to draw all men to yourself, our Savior, our Lord and our God.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

John Paul and the Celtic Tiger

Reading the Irish newspapers (Irish Times, Irish Echo, Irish Voice) has been fascinating. You would think John Paul II was an Irishman, so intense has been the coverage. In fact, it was widely claimed that, next to Poland, Ireland was the country where he had the most impact and where the most emotional ties were developed. Indeed, Ireland thought of itself as similar to Poland, a small country which had been dominated by oppressive powers, neglected by the wider world, strong in Catholic faith during a painful history. Therefore the Pope's visit became for Ireland an occasion of coming out before the world. "The Pope came on stage and a nation screamed out centuries of pent-up frustration. We finally mattered." (Sean O'Driscoll, The Irish Voice, April 6-12, 2005)

What was remembered? Over and over, these features were recalled:

1. The intensity of his words to the IRA: "I appeal to you in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and return to the ways of peace."
2. His extraordinary appeal to the young people who turned out by the hundreds of thousands for the Papal Youth Mass in Galway, the "Catholic Woodstock, only without the drugs and sex."
3. The largest crowd ever seen in Ireland, 1.25 million---one-third of the total Irish population in 1979---at the Mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
4. His keen disappointment at not being allowed to take the message of peace to Northern Ireland, because the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten and his grandson only a month before.

Ironically, it is possible that his galvanizing visit helped to jump-start the Celtic Tiger and led to the secularization, materialism and rampant consumerism that characterizes Ireland today. Poland also is a far more materialistic, less fervently Catholic country than it was when Communism collapsed in 1989. Christianity seems to have this effect everywhere that it is taken seriously—-it leads eventually to a more open, more dynamic society and thereby creates more competition for itself. This suggests that authentic Christian renewal is dependent upon alternative resistance groups forming and re-forming within the larger society, a subject to be taken up again from time to time. (Refer to the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Stanley Hauerwas.)

John Paul II

A prodigious, irreplaceable figure has passed from this world into the arms of the Lord Jesus Christ whom he served with such passionate devotion. In my massive file of clippings about this Pope (some admiring, some critical), the articles that stand out most for me are the sections of The New York Times describing his historic two-day visit to New York City in 1979. I do not recall any event of my thirty-five years in New York (with the obvious exception of 9/11), not even the Mets World Series victory of 1969, taking up so much space in what was then called the Gray Lady. "The Pope-Struck Press," quipped a headline in Newsweek, a magazine itself fully engaged by the phenomenon. On Wednesday, October 3, a photo of John Paul---the epitome of health and energy—-covered the entire front page of the Times above the fold, all six columns-—the first time in the 128-year history of the newspaper. It was widely noted by amazed reporters and columnists that no other figure on earth could have mesmerized the world-capital city so completely. Radio station WOR placed a full-page ad with a photo of a radiant John Paul and the title, "A City Needs a Soul."

Sounding what would become his characteristic note of confidence in his role as the servant-leader of Christ for the whole world, he declared to the UN General Assembly, "I wish above all to send my greetings to all the men and women living on this planet." That was in the morning. At nightfall, celebrating mass for 80,000 at Yankee Stadium after a whirlwind day of non-stop appearances, his voice was "still deep and strong." James Reston mused on the op-ed page that the reception was especially remarkable in view of the fact that "he has been saying some things many people do not want to hear." His message has been clear, Reston wrote: "It is a rebuke to the divisions within the human family, to the selfishness of individuals and factions, to the excessive diversion of money from human suffering into military arms and, particularly, to the drift into materialism in the Western world, especially among the young...He is arguing for reconciliation rather than confrontation between the nuclear powers; for a sense of pity toward the hungry of the world, and for freedom of thought and religion in all nations." It was 1979. The collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, in which he would play such a signal role, was underway. As Reston was to write two years later, "In Poland, as Tolstoy tried to tell the Russians, 'Faith is the force of life.' It baffles and terrifies the Soviet Union more than all the divisions and missiles in the West, and it now rests in the hands of the Vicar of Rome." (NY Times 3/29/81)

To America he gave a message specifically couched in terms of admiration for our traditions of "spiritual generosity, industry, simplicity and sacrifice," but went on to warn that "we cannot stand idly by, enjoying our riches and freedom if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our doors."

In 1995 I had an opportunity to talk with Tad Szulc, who had just published a biography of John Paul II. I asked him what he thought would be remembered as this Pope's most important contributions. Szulc named four things (in addition to the most obvious, the hastening of the fall of the Iron Curtain):

1. His "absolute dedication" to universal human dignity, social justice, and religious liberty.
2. His fascination with and encouragement of science, especially astrophysics.
3. His determination to redress ancient wrongs perpetrated by the Church, notably the Inquisition, the condemnation of Galileo, and complicity in the Holocaust.
4. His "unprecedented" efforts to seek rapprochement with the Jews. Szulc described a service of commemoration in the Vatican, where the Kaddish was chanted and grandchild of a survivor lit a menorah, as "one of the most moving things I've ever seen." He also described "his extraordinary emphasis on the human aspect," evidenced by his personal reception of 100 survivors of the Holocaust.

A Roman Catholic nun interviewed on CNN cited another striking innovation of John Paul's. No other Pope in history, she said, had thought to reach out to young people in a special way. The global youth meetings that John Paul initiated have undoubtedly had a major impact on thousands of young men and women.

And one more thing: he was one of the first well-known figures in the Church to identify a phenomenon that is now widely recognized. Back in the days when we were still using the term "third world," he was speaking of the global South. The New York Times reported from the Pope's visit to Edmonton, Alberta in 1984; taking Matthew 25 as his text, he declared, "his voice rising until it became almost a shout, 'In the light of Christ's words, the poor South will judge the rich North.'"

His appeal to Protestant evangelicals

This has been widely noted in recent years, but was already being described even as far back as that first US visit in 1979. He manifested "a repeated tendency to balance sensitivity for the poor with an evangelistic need to ground all social action firmly in a commitment to Christ" (Kenneth Briggs in The New York Times 10/3/79). It has been this never-failing balance between the "Protestant" call to a personal relationship with Jesus and the "Catholic" emphasis on social issues that has contributed to making him a uniquely beloved figure in spite of his manifest blind spots (ordination of women, declining vocations, sexual abuse by clergy in particular).

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

How to honor the memory of John Paul II with ten minutes of your time

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, has been doing more than any other secular reporter to publicize the genocide in Darfur (Sudan). He has identified the most important measures that need to happen in order to stop the ongoing rape and killing of innocent African villagers (about 300,00 dead so far, according to the British government). Doctors Without Borders say that at present, all they are able to do is administer first aid to people who are going to be killed later. Humanitarian aid is not what's needed, but a security force—-precisely the action that would have made the difference in Rwanda in 1994.

Mr. Kristof forthrightly declares that the most significant tribute to John Paul II would be, not flying to Rome for his grand funeral, but mounting an expanded UN and African force with logistical support from the US. He also calls for Condoleezza Rice to visit Darfur immediately. Third, the Congress should pass the Darfur Accountability Act in Congress (the White House has not even taken a position on it).

It is so easy, with email, to send a message to Congress or to the Secretary of State. I went to the local Roman Catholic Church yesterday to light a candle to the Holy Father, but in the same amount of time I could have sent several emails and letters asking for:

1. An expanded security force from the UN with US support. (This is what President Clinton failed to do when 800,000 Rwandans were being killed.)
2. A visit to Darfur from the Secretary of State.
3. A vote in Congress for the bipartisan bill called the Darfur Accountability Act.

I am going to do that right now. Maybe readers can help mobilize congregations that have been praying for Darfur to take these actions.

Jane Fonda (!!) tells us why lifelong marriages are important

It is poorly understood, in our culture, that marriage is not just for the benefit of the individuals concerned, but a cornerstone of the whole human family. A most unlikely witness has come forward to testify to this. On the occasion of the publication of her new autobiography, Jane Fonda, who is said to be an active Christian believer, sat down with New York Times reporter Todd S. Purdom for a long conversation. After discussing her three disastrous marriages, her alcoholism and her activism, she spoke of being introduced to Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter by then-husband Ted Turner. Apparently they were influential in her conversion. "They were practicing Christians," she told Mr. Purdom, "and they were smart people I respected."

After considerable discussion of her mother's suicide, her famous father's unwitting cruelty, and her traumatic adolescence, Mr. Purdom asked her if she had had a hard life. She said, "It's been very complicated." He said, "Isn't everybody's?" Ms. Fonda's response ends his artful account of the interview, as follows:

"Nobody's had a simple life, but I know many people who've had"—and here she pauses to compose herself—"a normal life, and what I mean by that is a life without major crises and traumas, without any deep psychological wounds, and there are people who have been happily married to the same person and I love to be with them and I wish so much I'd met someone with whom I would now be celebrating my 40th or 50th wedding anniversary." (The New York Times 4/5/05)

What's important here, it seems to me, and profoundly encouraging for couples who are wondering if they are going to make it to their next anniversary, is this striking testimony to the upbuilding effect that long marriages have on everyone that they touch. Jane Fonda's word "happily" can be questioned—-there may not be very many "happy" marriages—-but a long, stable marriage is a great gift of God to his world, and couples who are granted this grace can quietly rejoice that they are often a comfort to others.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Ruminations about John Paul II

The Incarnation and the Resurrection reflected in one luminous death

As the pope lay on his deathbed, Camillo Cardinal Ruini said, "He is already with our Lord and Saviour. He already sees and touches the Lord." British reporter Laura Collins, in a thoughtful news account, observed, "Such majestic rhetoric sat strangely alongside the detailed [medical] bulletins [about urinary tract infections, failing organ systems, and septic shock]," but, she continued, these "brutally clinical [reports] were issued in line with the Pope's wishes. The clarity was in contrast to the secrecy and confusion following the sudden death of his predecessor, John Paul I, which led to rumours that he had been poisoned. Bishop John Flack, the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Holy See in Rome, said that the frank nature of the bulletins was because the pope wanted to show that death was not something to fear. "He is not frightened of death," added Bishop Flack. "A lifetime of prayer and study of the Bible all contribute to his serenity and peace."

Ms. Collins added that it was no longer an oddity to hear a Protestant talking so emotionally about the pope, because "he had reached out to all humanity in his mission of peace and love." [Laura Collins, writing from St. Peter"s Square in Rome, The Mail (London), 4/3/05)

An additional thought about that "strange" juxtaposition of clinical detail and transcendent interpretation:

The fact that such bulletins were issued simultaneously exemplifies not only a characteristic Judeo-Christian frankness about bodily life—for better and worse—but also the material, incarnational nature of Christian faith. The Christian disciple does not seek to escape from physical facts but affirms that God has embraced the physical facts, indeed has inhabited them (the Word became flesh), and that therefore we may at any time behold the reality of God precisely in the midst of the least "spiritual," most unattractive mundane phenomena.

All the articles about the pope's impact in the first fifteen years of his papacy have mentioned his intensely physical presence. That was when his relative youth and health permitted him full range of his powers. It was that physical charisma that electrified people from every walk of life during the period when he was still able to kneel and kiss the ground at every airport, swing babies and children into the air, make eye contact with hundreds in crowds of tens of thousands. The final ten years were the obverse. It was remarkable that a man who had taken so much delight in his physical prowess was determined to let us see his deterioration. There was great humility in that, a willingness to be used by God to the last breath of his earthly life. As many have said, the pope's very public decline and death have instructed and enriched us all—-not only, however, in the sense of setting an example, but also by embodying Christian trust in God's limitless pity and love for our frail human flesh. From this body of death (Romans 7:24) we will be raised to life eternal by the power of Christ's resurrection.

Roman Catholic dilemmas, Anglican dilemmas

As the Roman Catholic Church begins the process of electing a new pope, it is striking how much their problems and challenges are mirrored in the Anglican Communion. Analysts are noting that the cardinal-electors must make some very difficult decisions in their voting. Should they favor a European who can speak effectively and personally to the rich, capitalist, liberal and secular global North where the influence of the Church is steadily weakening? Or should they choose someone from the global South who will represent the numerical superiority and steady growth of Catholicism there (and the corresponding proliferation of competing Pentecostalism, which worries the Church of Rome a great deal)?

These competing claims sounds a lot like the problems facing the Anglican Communion, which is markedly losing vitality in its Northern strongholds but exploding in Africa. A second similarity is that all the mainline denominations in the US must now face steep competition from the more openly evangelical churches, in a manner similar to that confronting the Roman Catholics—-particularly in Latin America—-by Pentecostalism.