House of Bishops: The Cliffs Notes

By Susan Fawcett

Since all kinds of uninformed reporters in the secular media have been adding their opinions to the mix, I thought I'd throw mine in there, which may be worth all the money you've just paid to get to see it, and may be just as objective as your hometown newspaper.

Here's a short, slanted, and totally oversimplified summary of what the House of Bishops' response to the Primates' Communique says (which, for the record, is nothing new at all):

Dear Primates:

First, we still love our gay and lesbian people. We agreed last summer not to consecrate them (though we're not making promises about anyone who might be single), or authorize any prayer book revisions for them, so that you would not write us off entirely. But only for a while. And yes, there are some of us who are doing everything we can short of those two promises to speak up with and for them. (If that troubles you, please see point The Fourth).

Second, we still love you and all of our Anglican Brothers and Sisters (though we're seriously peeved at a particular set of you who are using some seriously sketchy funding to put forward a massive smear campaign, take away buildings that were pledged to us, and give away a bunch of purple shirts to people who couldn't be duly elected to earn them). We love learning from you and with you. We want to follow Jesus right alongside you. We think we have a few things to contribute to you, too. Please don't stop speaking to us.

Third, even though we really do love you, we aren't going to let you push us around and change the rules of how the Anglican Communion works. No, you may not come into our house and tell us how to do things. That was never what we agreed to.

Fourth, since we agreed way back at Lambeth in 1998 that we should ALL be listening to the experiences of gay and lesbian people, and making sure they are treated with the dignity and respect that human beings tend to deserve, we've decided to make that 'Listening Process' a priority. So should you (since you said you would).

Fifth, we'd like to remind you that the Anglican Communion was never meant to be a legislative body. We're more like a family. You keep complaining that we're being 'colonialist,' and thrusting our ways upon everyone else. We think that (how do we say this pastorally? Sigh.) in this situation, perhaps that might be the pot calling the kettle black.

See you at Lambeth!

Bishops, Episcopal Church USA

And, again, totally oversimplified, here is my assessment of the Important Things that happened at the House of Bishops last week. Note that there is no mention of their response to the Communique in this list.

1. Our Bishops underlined for the Primates, for the umpteenth time, that they do not have the authority to make decisions for the Episcopal Church (that would be the job of General Convention, which is made up of lay people and clergy, who are elected to their positions at General Convention. We shan't go into how post-colonial this is compared to other
structures around the world, Thus, there's no sense in getting your knickers in a twist over what the House of Bishops writes to some Primates. If you're going to get upset about something, pick something that matters a little more.

2. The Archbishop of Canterbury joined them, and made some very interesting and refreshing remarks. For one, he suggested that members of disaffected parishes here in the US should look for signs of grace in the Episcopal Church (rather than creating some sort of other structure outside of it). The fact that he spoke candidly to the situation at all was a great gift. You can watch a video of his responses at a press conference here.

3. Our Bishops got out of their purple shirts and out of their offices and out of all the ridiculous yammering about politics, and did something to actually help people on the ground in New Orleans. Thank you.

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

Put not your trust in rulers

By Deirdre Good

Do not put your trust in rulers and in mortals in whom there is no salvation…Blessed is the one whose helper is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who guards truth forever, executing judgment for the wronged; giving food to the hungry (Ps 146: 3-7).

These words from Psalm 146 have been ringing in my ears ever since I read the Bishops' statement from New Orleans released earlier this week: "Put not your faith in princes! Trust and hope in God who alone redresses wrongs and who enacts justice!" Of course, the Bishops have done good work and to reach a degree of unanimity that responds to the Windsor Report while opening a way for full participation at Lambeth and commending a listening process is certainly pragmatic and noteworthy. But what good news does this statement proclaim to faithful glbt persons in the pews or at the altars of our churches every Sunday, in parishes here, in Britain, in Malawi, in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion?

The Bishops declared: We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free. This is a ringing declaration of justice (even if it misquotes Gal 3:28—the text says "male and female") but what does it actually mean in our dioceses or parishes? Does anyone believe gender discrimination doesn't exist on a local level? Just do a tally, for example, of the women and men rectors or clergy in your diocese and you will see what I mean. Or put yourself in place of a visitor to an Episcopal Church. No one can put a foot inside the door without being confronted by distinctions of all kinds from knowing your way around the books in the pews, to seeing whether people look like me and thus whether I'll be welcome. Are Bishops facilitating efforts to eradicate racism in their dioceses? Are dioceses discussing reparations for black Episcopalians?

Maybe the Bishops meant to interpret Gal 3:28 by one of the next declarations: We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church. But is it the case in our parishes? Do I see glbt people like me represented at the altar, throughout the pews, on the vestry, in the diocese? Until I see something like fair representation in all these places (and others), statements like these have no teeth.

I have a job working for a church institution. But I know ordained glbt people who are not able to find employment in the church and whose God-given gifts the diocese in which they live is squandering. I know glbt lay persons who have been let go by their ecclesiastical employers. Where are the voices of bishops, deployment officers, priests and laypersons in our churches speaking out on their behalf or working quietly for justice and nondiscrimination?

So I say to the Bishops of our church: Let's work on implementing what you proclaim in your meeting by employing and promoting ordained and lay women and glbt people fairly and equally in your dioceses. To my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters I say: we always have the power of the purse to leave the church or to withhold our time and our talents to demand change. But if there is some hope that the statements from New Orleans hold out to us: that we have an ongoing and particular place at the table; that without all of us the body of Christ is fractured and broken; then let's take our witness –the angry patient tired but joyous witness of presence—as the church in the world to proclaim the incredible tireless love of God who guards truth forever and who always, always, always, executes justice for the oppressed.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya. Her blog is On Not Being a Sausage.

G-forces shaking up the Church and the world

By Kit Carlson

Forces are at play in our world and in our church, and one of the best assessments I have heard lately of those forces came from a community reform expert. Peter Plastrik, co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy and The Reinventors’ Fieldbook, spoke recently at a training session for community leaders in East Lansing, Michigan. He outlined five forces, five “Gs”, that are affecting communities across America.

As he spoke, it struck me that these forces are the same ones affecting our church.

Plastrik’s “Five G’s” are:

Grand Rapids – as a metaphor for the global economy. The internet, easy international travel, and the ability to move jobs anywhere in the world have changed the economies of communities once based on manufacturing and local enterprises.

Goat meat – as a metaphor for immigration and all the challenges it brings. Consumption of goat meat in the U.S. has skyrocketed as immigrants from countries that eat goat arrive, bringing their national cuisines with them.

Greenland – as a metaphor for global warming. The ice on this large Arctic island is vanishing, and with climate change comes a host of new challenges for each community.

Gay people – as a metaphor for all the cultural challenges surrounding gender, age, and sexuality.

Geoffrey Canada – creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-based organization that seeks to serve 9,000 children, providing support from birth through college. Canada serves as a metaphor for self-empowered citizens, who don’t wait for government or other institutions to solve community problems.

A member of the audience added a sixth “G”, the Graying of America, as the long-promised demographic shift of the Baby Boom into old age begins at last.

Plastrik’s “G-forces” made a lot of sense to me. When people ask, “What is happening to our church?” they often think in terms of political movements -- liberals versus conservatives, progressives versus traditionalists. Instead, one might look at the power of these forces, playing out in the parishes and dioceses and provinces of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion.

G-1: The worldwide Anglican Communion was not so prominent 30 years ago. As the global economy has taken shape, a global Communion emerged in prominence and consideration along with it. And just as a global economy knows no borders, ecclesiastical relationships that cross borders and jurisdictions follow the same pattern of connections that criss-cross the planet and minimize the importance of local communities.

G-2: Rapid immigration into the United States brought Anglicans from around the world into American parishes. No longer is Anglican worship uniform across The Episcopal Church. Inculturation has come to us, and so we sing from many traditions, read scripture in other languages, practice Pentecost every day of the church year. The values and expectations of other cultures become part of our conversations about sex, worship, politics and a host of other issues.

G-3: The churches of the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina understand how climate change can affect our churches and communities. There is more to come, and Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana has already seen it coming. His call for the church to focus on ministries of relief and development instead of on schism and division comes out of hard experience.

G-4: There is not much to say that hasn’t been said about the cultural challenges of inclusion and acceptance of GBLT people. Joan Chittister said it best perhaps … the Anglicans just got to the issue earlier than most.

G-5: Self-empowered citizens, entrepreneurial community activists … the church is full of them. Duncan, Iker, Minns and those who would develop an alternate structure are entrepreneurs in their way. Why wait for the agonizingly slow movement of the Communion and its provinces to address Windsor, gay bishops, a Covenant, or any other issue? Why not set up one’s own alternative diocese, alternative province, alternative Communion?

Finally, there is that sixth G-force, one that Plastrik dismissed as not of interest to him. But the Graying of America, the graying of the Episcopal Church, is a real force. As I look across the faces of my parish, I see a community that has failed to effectively share the gospel with the generations coming after it. There are faithful elders and faithful Boomers … most of whom have grown children who do not themselves attend church, who are not raising the grandchildren in any faith, and who have abandoned religion as irrelevant. The leading edge of the church is dying off, and it is not replenishing itself.

And so the question is probably not – what to do about gay bishops or authorized rites of blessing. The question is really: How will we navigate these powerful forces? In a global, migratory, entrepreneurial, aging, culturally conflicted, climactically threatened world … how are we going to be Church? How will we proclaim the good news of Christ in the face of forces beyond our control?

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. In 2003, she played the apostle Paul on the world's first internet reality series, The Ark, a project of the Christian humor website Ship of Fools.

Against re-colonization

By Roger Ferlo

It’s been a relatively quiet week here at the seminary in Alexandria, where manicured lawns and tree-lined streets place most of us a world and several social classes away from the ramshackle detritus of New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Nonetheless, we pay a lot of attention to New Orleans these days. Several of our seminarians come from that part of the country, and for two years now many of my students and colleagues have spent days and weeks at a time in that broken city trying to help in whatever way they can. So it was unsettling this week, even a little distasteful, to be asked to refocus our attention on the comings and goings of bishops gathered in New Orleans, rather than on New Orleans itself.

I thought I knew better. No good usually comes of this. In my long experience as a parish priest, there have been few occasions more dispiriting to me than these scheduled gathering of bishops. I say this not because I dislike bishops all that much. I admire a lot of them, count not a few as my friends, and most of the time feel rather sorry for them, isolated and misunderstood as they often are. But I find such occasions dispiriting because, in spite of everything I believe and teach about shared power and shared authority, I find myself buying the press’s line that the power and decision-making in the Episcopal Church in the United States are centered in the House of Bishops, and find myself hoping that whatever they decide this weekend down in New Orleans will set everything right.

And I am always proved wrong. There’s no reason to assume that these men and women will be up to such a task. It’s not their job. It’s a job all of us share. That fact underscores one of the ironies of Anglican history. In spite of our reputation in other parts of the Anglican Communion as a prime colonizer of heretical values and American power, the American church goes about its business in a distinctly post-colonial way. We long ago shed our allegiance to meddling foreign bishops. For two centuries our church has invested decision-making authority in a duly-elected bicameral legislature where both the ordained and the non-ordained have equal voice and equal standing. Meanwhile, many other bishops—particularly in post-colonial western and central Africa, and let it be said, in Great Britain as well, that ancient well-spring of colonizing fervor— have embraced hierarchical styles of leadership and authority that would have warmed the autocratic heart of George III. So also have many of their American admirers, particularly those bishops and wannabe bishops who were happy to participate in the quirkily democratic body we call the General Convention unless and until the votes didn’t go their way. To hear them talk, you would think that the Holy Spirit seems to be at work only when matters fall out in their favor. And now people who could not get themselves elected bishops by their own people in their own dioceses are finding ways to get themselves ordained as bishops under the aegis of foreign primates, self-righteously bent on saving me from myself, and re-colonizing a church that had assumed it had ended that kind of extra-territorial interference when Cornwallis surrendered to American troops in the first place.

So I guess it’s hard for me to be too sympathetic to the goings-on down in New Orleans. I have been an Episcopal priest for over twenty years, and an Episcopalian for more than half my life. In all that time, I can never remember signing on to conform to the theological opinions of foreign bishops. My ordination vows were pretty clear. Like thousands of my colleagues in the ministry, I have done my best to uphold the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the word of God, and to conform to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church. I haven’t been very good at it, but I have kept at it. In that I’m in the same boat as everyone else, including the parishioners, priests and bishops who have served as deputies to General Convention over the years, as I did as a deputy from the diocese of New York in that now-demonized year of 2003. We haven’t been good at it, but we have at least been faithful.

So, as I said, thank God it’s been a quiet week here at the seminary in Alexandria. Our first year students have at last settled in, fired up to serve God in this branch of the Catholic church in spite of all these signs of disarray and fracture. These things go with the territory, as any resident of New Orleans might tell you. It was helpful (or was it a sign from heaven?) that the Morning Prayer readings this week were from the opening chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Brave words, these. Who knows where Paul would have positioned himself in the present fracas. If anyone knew about disarray and fracture, it was Paul, and we know that he was never above fomenting a little disarray himself. But he was faithful. That’s all that can be asked of any of us in the end—fidelity to God’s embracing love as we have experienced it in Jesus, and fidelity to each other, members of Christ’s body, wherever we stand or refuse to stand on the issues that divide us. Signing on to this kind of love will get you pretty far, regardless of what the bishops say or don’t say—no matter what political catastrophes seem to lie in store for Christ’s body, wounded and redeemed.

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

What is the Church for?

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

What is the church for? In a 1938 lecture series on the BBC, collected in her book The Spiritual Life, the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill answered the question in a way that has challenged the church for the past century:

The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.

Underhill appropriately focuses on the church’s mission in and for the world; to her mostly Church of England audience, she is challenging the image of the Church that became comfortable during the long centuries of what Loren Mead has labeled the “Christendom” paradigm, when most people were nominal Christians, even churchgoers, and the mission of the Church was seen as being overseas, far away and directed toward people distinctly “other” than the people in the pews. Mission was done by the institution; for the people in the pews, church attendance was a regular social obligation, to be taken with more or less seriousness depending on one’s particular spiritual needs and dispositions: to be part of a church was to support “a comfortable religious club.”

But Underhill recognizes that the institutional model, the “comfortable religious club,” is not a true embodiment of what the Church is called to be. Rather, each of us has a part to play in the mysterious work of God in the world, the Spirit’s work to restore, reconcile and heal. Her work focuses on the spiritual practices of the individual as guaranteeing the health of the “cells” in the Body of Christ on earth. For her, ordinary Christians, each of us pursuing the work that has been given us, are the ones who carry out the saving work of the Church, “bringing the saving power of the eternal into time.” In this short paragraph she lays out a theology of the ministry of all God’s people – the laos (λαός) – in the world.

Underhill’s image of the Church in the world invites what I might call a “poetic” way of looking at the church, the people of God – seeing the Church as a kind of work of art that communicates something to the world. It might seem that our disputes in the Anglican community about whom we may ordain and who decides how we should read Scripture have little to do with the ministry of the people in and for the world, but actually, poetically, they are important. Because we are an ordered church, our disputes about who we are and how we serve the world have focused, for the past 50 years, on whom we ordain. This may be appropriate to some extent since the ordained leaders of the Church do function as “metonymies” for our corporate identity – they are the parts standing for a whole. So if we claim to be an inclusive community, living and proclaiming the gospel in and for the world around us, it makes sense poetically that our visible leaders should reflect the diversity of the world we live in and the world we serve.

If the world looks at us as a corporate body and sees inclusiveness in our leadership and our practice, then we are communicating something about the hospitality of God. If they see us finding ways to stay together in Christ while holding a diversity of views, that is a revolutionary witness for our deeply polarized times. On the other hand, if all that the world sees is fighting and schism and mutual recrimination, then we are losing track of our real identity and purpose.

I turn to Underhill’s description of the purpose of the church in my prayers for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at this time, remembering that we are part of something much bigger that we believe God is trying to do through us, the people of God, in the world. I take comfort, too, from a beloved hymn we sing pretty often these days, and appropriately so – not least because its title reminds us of who we are: “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”. I was particularly glad that it was part of the Commencement liturgy at Virginia Seminary last June:

Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up,”How long?”
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song. (Hymnal 525)

These words remind us that our tradition’s vision of the church as a “mystical body” is meant to give strength and energy to us as we try to live up to being the “Church visible -- the Communion of Saints “in the world to save the world, a tool of God for that purpose.” This vision does not deny that we have struggles and divisions. But both Underhill’s writing and the hymn call us back to awareness of our greater purpose and calling. It is a vision that sometimes seems improbable, but it is one that we are called to return to and refashion in our own generation, as faithfully as we can.

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at

How big is too big?
How small too small?

By Sam Candler

I must admit that I like large churches. I like the suggestion that their sheer size represents something of the grandeur of God. I like all the programs and mission opportunities they provide. I like the enormously talented staffs that they are usually able to afford. Many people have deep needs met in large churches, and the better large churches really do proclaim the gospel in effective ways.

I grew up, however, in a small church. There I learned much about the idiosyncrasies of community. I learned the values of diversity (when folks got upset, no one could up and leave for another church; we were the only Episcopal church around!) For many years, however, that church remained quite small. Our parish and mission life developed a cycle of boom and bust, up to various renewal movements then down to depressed clergy, then back up to mission trips, then back down to tedious music and dry liturgy. Lately, that parish has flourished with fine and healthy leadership among both its clergy and its people.

By “flourished,” I mean that the parish has grown in numbers of people and in numbers of dollars. I realize, of course, that growth can occur in other ways; but, again, I like physical flourishing and growth. My own parish is quite large, and I know that unless we are growing in people and in dollars, we might just be standing still.

But what if there are limits to growth? Several books on natural economy proclaim that very reality in the natural worlds of farming and energy production. I have eagerly enjoyed those books in the interest of earth stewardship and sustainability. Some scientists claim that the world’s production of oil has actually reached its peak, and we do not realize it yet.

Michel Pollan makes the same sort of point regarding the commoditization of agriculture in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Once we determine everything’s value primarily in terms of its financial cost and reward, in dollar figures, and in “yield per acre,” we actually begin to cultivate crops that are less nutritious and less healthy for us. Finding it cheaper to grow huge supplies of beef and corn with synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones (mostly made with petroleum products), we feed ourselves with items that are missing key ingredients.

At one point, Pollan contrasts industrial production with artisanal production. “Industrial farmers are in the business of selling commodities,” he says, ever more cheaply so that the enterprise can grow profits (page 250). On the other hand, artisanal production, “is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost producer of a commodity” (page 250). Having read that, I considered our own communities of growth and health. Is there a size-limit to the community where Christians can know authentic community and be challenged to mission?

If we get too large, do we lose the sense of “something special?” I believe that point occurs when we begin to relate to religion as a commodity, as if church is only a delivery system for something sterile and industrial. Some of the biggest mega churches today realize the principle of “artisanal production.” They arrange members in smaller cell groups of study and accountability. These churches are successful both because some larger structure and larger set of resources has enabled them, but also because they remember the uniqueness of small communities of diverse faith.

Small groups, like small parishes, are where different seeds meet with different soils and wonderful fruits sprout. Small communities are where we learn to be fascinated with individual searches and discoveries, those journeys of people who become our true friends. A church, of any size, becomes sterile and lifeless when it begins to speak simplistically and to make faith into a “commodity,” like any big industrial producer.

A church which can change the world, however, knows the values of natural systems; “the efficiencies of natural systems flow from complexity and interdependence—by definition the very opposite of simplification” (page 214) is how Michael Pollan puts it. What he writes about eating, a necessary and natural element of human life, is also true about praying, an equally necessary and natural element of life. Healthier prayer occurs in those communities which are not afraid of complexity. Relatively speaking, those spiritual communities can be large or small. But they need complexity no matter what their size. Healthy churches need complexity and interdependence in order to realize the grand and graceful mystery of life itself.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The Silent Voice

By Steven Charleston

Luciano Pavarotti died. His amazingly vibrant, soaring voice is silent. Around the world millions of people will mourn his passing, even if they knew very little about the art of which he was a true master. Pavarotti became synonymous with opera for many people who had never imagined they would care for his art form. He welcomed them to a part of their life they did not know. Part of his genius was not only in his singing, but in his ability to translate that singing into a message the whole world could hear.

Now his voice is silent. In tribute to this great man, I would invite us all into that silence.

If Pavarotti was dedicated to bringing art to the people, what does his silence have to tell us? At the very least, it should remind us that the effort to share in artistic expression with other human beings is not a peripheral concern for us, but a central issue for the values we proclaim as the church. Justice, community, human dignity: these are the same issues underlying the arts. Pavarotti brought art to the people. What does that mean to us? It means Pavarotti enriched other human beings, those who were deeply aware of his art and those who were only curious. He expanded our range of appreciation and, therefore, of contact. He demonstrated how art can unite us as much as it can inspire us. Pavarotti built community out of the thin air of song. He drew people of widely different walks of life to a single stillpoint of sound. His legacy reminds us that communities are not just bound together by rules, money or power: at our best, we form community through the beauty of our difference and the breadth of our imagination.

The silence should remind us that as the arts go, so goes community. In fact, you can chart the demise of community in America by charting the slow death of its artistic soul. The massive cutbacks in school art programs have robbed generations of children of the option of human expression. As usual, the first to feel the impact are those who can least afford it. The abandonment of our public commitment to art has diminished us. The arts are not a luxury for spiritual life, but a necessity. Art is not just a set decoration for the affluent, it is a voice. It is the people’s voice. The arts are the medium of the poor, the defense of the dispossessed, and the champion of the marginalized. Throughout history the oppressed have found freedom in their right to speak through theater, music and the visual arts. Art is not just for the privileged few. It is for every person, perhaps most especially for those who’s other choices are so limited. Young men and women who have very few chances in life discover strength in the authority of their talent. Art liberates the individual. When we starve the arts, we starve hope. We starve justice.

The silence is growing. Voices are being stilled. It is not a trivial thing to speak up for the support of art in America. It is a liberating thing. People who care about justice must care about the voice of justice: the arts that embody our collective voice as a people of God. That voice of justice finds its resonance in cultural diversity, its authenticity in freedom and its message in the human spirit. If we lose it, we may never get it back. And that’s why the death of Luciano Pavarotti is such an important opportunity for us. Not only to honor the passing of this renowned artist, but to support the principle that guided his career. Pavarotti brought his art to the people. He believed that art belongs to the people. It is their voice. His death prompts us to ask : by whose right is that voice denied? Who benefits when the arts grow weak? What is the real cost of denying access to free expression to a nation’s people? Is it time for us to stop looking the other way while school art programs are starved for support? The passing of Luciano Pavarotti urges us to speak our answer.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS's Stepping Stones.

Odd lots and remnants

By Howard Anderson

I was down in Louisiana at a CREDO conference, earlier this week, and it has occurred to me that as the House of Bishops was sequestered with the Archbishop of Canterbury (the ABC) over in New Orleans, his task in trying to be a unifying force in the life of the Anglican Communion was not one that is to be envied. Archbishop Rowan Williams has four, maybe five Primates colonizing the United States, in an interesting kind of reverse colonization. He has The Episcopal Church. Yup, he’s stuck with us.

TEC has several bishops (to read the press accounts you would think it is dozens of bishops) vying to be the “one true Anglican Church” in the U.S. Further, he has a group of Primates from the Global South demanding that TEC “do what they say,” or be expelled. And they are being led by a Primate from Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, whose province is no longer in the Communion by virtue of a change he had made in the constitution of the Church of Nigeria, taking out all references to being in communion with The See of Canterbury (The Archbishop of Canterbury), the only sure fire way to be in this Communion.

Within the Church of England, the ABC (I have a friend who is a Buddhist priest who refers to him at the ABCdefghij…) has a very muscular evangelical party threatening to make more trouble themselves if he does not take a firm stand on the side of a conservative sola scriptura decidedly not mainstream Anglican stance which, if a student of his had written such a thing, Professor Williams would clearly have failed them. And yet, he is required by his position to doff his miter and politely listen to their demands.

I could go on with the issues that face our much maligned archbishop, who seems at present to be pleasing no one, but I won’t. If the ABC has a sense of humor, (he may well have, I don’t know him) he would have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. There was a grizzled veteran priest friend of mine in Minnesota who used to intone this little ditty every time there was a church fight. “Onward marches the Church of God, trampling each other into the sod.” And it does appear we seem intent on trampling one another into the ecclesial sod. Whatever is happening at the House of Bishops, I suspect that it is not easy for anyone.

But being down here, I have been given inspiration and it’s not just the chicory coffee and Cajun cooking. This time of year in Louisiana, is a time of love. The “love bugs” are mating, and they are everywhere, on everything and everybody, totally oblivious to their impending doom at the hands of whomever they land on. There are piles of them everywhere, joined together in an embrace that will end in the death of the male, I am told. They are so intent on their connubial task, so creative in their spiraling, helicoptering copulating, that nothing else matters. It may well be a metaphor for the Church and its various parties. You see, the life cycle of the love bugs is less than a week. But they are so focused on their mating that they are not paying attention to anything else. It almost seems as if, like the love bugs, traditionalist and progressive Episcopalians are so locked in our struggles, so sure of the rightness of our positions, that we are oblivious to the consequences. And it seems that it is who mates with whom that is the presenting issue. So much energy, money, time and emotional labor is being expended in this love bug dance, that despite our Presiding Bishop’s attempts to keep us focused on mission, we are spiraling toward the same fate as the benighted love bugs.

My friend Margo Maris, a very astute theologian, is here in Louisiana, too, as part of the CREDO faculty. Today I saw her scribbling something on a napkin, her face alight with what was clearly an “I have a good idea” look. I’ve known her long enough to know that when she has a good idea, it usually is A REALLY GOOD IDEA! What it said on the napkin was, “What we all have in common is that we all call ourselves the remnant.”

I think she is right. The archbishop needs to point our to bishops like Keith Ackerman in the Diocese of Quincy, and Robert Duncan in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and their fellow aspiring schismatic bishops that they are, indeed, a saving remnant of orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church. Then he needs to point out to the progressives that they are, indeed, the remnant in the Communion that is still open to the movement of the Holy Spirit who has a nasty habit of “making all things new.” Then he can tell the disgruntled Primates from the global south that they are, indeed, a remnant people (and majority) that God will use to grow and shape the Church. Margo is right. We need to celebrate our remnant identities. While already the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan slipped into a phone booth and put on his mild-mannered Professor Williams hat, and wrote a wonderful collection of essays entitled Anglican Identities. Note the plural: identities. He understands that the whole universe has changed. Is light a wave or a particle? The answer is “yes.” Just as the mysterious three-in-one, Triune God is both one and three, so too, in the post modern era we can have more than one way to be a remnant. Maybe there is common ground after all.

After sleeping on her ideas, Margo said I should add a postscript. She had a wonderful image come to her. She said that when our foremothers looked at all the remnants they had left from years of sewing, they pondered what to do with them. None of the remnants were identical. They were all different colors, shapes, sizes and of different cloth altogether. “How will we make use of these pieces?” they asked. And with other women bringing their remnant pieces, they made quilts for warmth, pot holders to be able to pick up hot pots and pans, and they braided pieces into rugs that we could walk on to keep our feet from getting cold. Hmmm…how will we use our varied, beautifully-colored, odd shaped remnants? Only God knows. And I heard God was a very fine quilter indeed.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy.

Live from New Orleans

By June Butler

I commend the bishops' choice of New Orleans for the House of Bishops meeting.

The theme for last night's ecumenical prayer service was "Humanity Renewed, Restored, Re-centered in God". The use of the Morial Convention Center as the site of the ecumenical service was symbolic of the partial recovery of the city, because the Center, along with the Superdome were the two largest shelters of misery for those seeking to escape the flood waters.

No help came for 4 days. I'm sure you remember the scenes from TV. I have never yet figured out how the press could be there filming the misery, but help was so long in coming.

To make certain that we were there on time, we arrived early at the Convention Center. While we waited for the service to start, we were entertained by a choir singing Gospel music. The white folks in the choir were grooving right along with the black folks. I give them points for keeping up.

As the bishops processed into the auditorium, I had to suppress a desire to stand up and cheer when Bishop Katharine passed. She has presence - a quiet dignity and grace about her - that comes through, literally, in passing.

Bishop Duncan Gray of Mississippi read the first lesson, Zechariah (8:3-13), and Bishop Katharine read the Gospel reading, Matthew (25:34-40).

The invocation and the pastoral prayer were given by Bishop Douglas Wiley and Elder John Pierce, neither of whom were Episcopalians. Black preachers often have a way of praying that draws God and his people into an intimate circle. Bishop Wiley's invocation of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and Elder Pierce's prayer did just that. Both were beautiful, and I experienced the powerful presence of God.

When Bishop Charles Jenkins introduced Archbishop Rowan Williams, he reminded us that Archbishop Williams was the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, whereas Bishop Jenkins was the 10th bishop of Louisiana. A tad more history on the side of the archbishop, no?

Archbishop Williams had toured the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and thus was aware of desolation which still remains, for only a very few brave souls have had the courage to rebuild in that area. The archbishop spoke of what we owe to one another. "The bottom line is that what we owe to one another most deeply of all is gratitude - not even respect, not even the recognition of dignity so much as gratitude," he said. "We are indebted to one another.

I am indebted to your existence because I would not be myself without you. A community, a society, that can get to that level of recognition is one that lives from a deeper place." He went on, "If the church does not live by thanksgiving, I don't what it lives by." We owe each other, but most of all we owe Jesus Christ - for life, hope, strength, and joy. As Williams said, "We owe Christ big time, as they say."

He said the help to the city was to buy time for renewal, reconstruction, and restoration of the city of New Orleans, to help it once again to become "a place for the people". He quoted from the passage from Zechariah:

"Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age.

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets."

He said, "What makes a great, godly city is that it is a safe place for older people to sit and children to play in the streets."

After his speech, the bishops went forward with their donations to Dioceses of Louisiana and Mississippi.

The finale was a musical presentation by the Irvin Mayfield Quartet of a slow Just a Closer Walk, I'll Fly Away, and a rousing When The Saints Go Marching In, which brought out the white handkerchiefs waving in the air and drew folks into the aisles in a second line, marching and waving their white handkerchiefs. I caught a glimpse of a couple of purple shirts in the marching group. I'll wager that this conclusion was unique for a House of Bishops prayer service.

June Butler, better known online as Grandmere Mimi, is a native of New Orleans who blogs at Wounded Bird.

Timely Ember Days

By Derek Olsen

In an organization that has structured and arranged its ways of being in and out of weeks and months and years in a succession that passes through decades and crawls through centuries, old ways are covered by new ways, then rediscovered, then forgotten again in tides and waves of memories. Sometimes practices and ways and observances slowly drift to the bottom of the sea of memory and are silted over to be fossilized; at other times they are unexpectedly discovered and brought to the surface, admired for their anachronistic oddity then discarded yet again as obsolete. But sometimes these obscure treasures of time resonate when brought beneath the light of a new sun, revealing a vibrancy to once again be admired and treasured.

This week yields such an observance, or rather a set of them: the Ember Days. The Spirit moves as the Spirit wills and those who live by calendar of the Church come to note, to appreciate, to wonder at coincidences and collisions of observances and events. Indeed—we almost come to expect them. So at this time when the House of Bishops gathers, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and distinguished guests meet in New Orleans, it is no surprise that this week finds us at a time when the calendar itself urges us to pray for growth, for sustenance but above all to pray for the Church.

The Ember Days are of ancient origin. In each season of the year, a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are devoted to fasting and prayer. Formerly, they were Roman festivals to beseech the blessings of the gods: one in summer for harvest, one in autumn for the vintage, and one in winter for the planting of seed. By the second century, Christians in Rome had baptized these observances and sometime (probably in the third century) a balancing fourth was added for spring. In fact, in the early days of Christian practice these four markers anchored the church’s year when its calendar was yet in its infancy—no Christmas yet, no Advent, an uncertain and emerging Lent—just Easter, Pentecost, and the Ember Days…

Originally tied to the earth, to the birth and growth of crops, a new meaning was given to them by the fifth century: the Ember Saturdays became the quarterly dates for the ordination of deacons and priests. Thus, the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays became days of fasting and supplication not just for the earth, but for the Church, for its ministers and ministry. They became a time to pray for the Church.

As the centuries circled the contours of our current calendar began to appear—Advent, All Saints, Feast of the Holy Trinity—and the Ember Days receded, their fortunes waxing and waning as liturgical fashion regarded or discarded them until the Roman Church suppressed them at Vatican II. In our own Anglican world they remain little known and little observed but for postulants in the Church: for these are the days when they are required to write letters to check in with their bishops. The current Book of Common prayer locates them among the Days of Optional Observance and, if you flip to the collects you will find none appointed there in course. Nevertheless, if you continue past the seasons of the year, past the Feasts and Holy Days to the numbered group of collects you will find three under number 15, prayers for “For those to be ordained,” “For the choice of fit persons for the ministry,” “For all Christians in their vocation”—one for each day, provided to pray for the Church.

As media hubbub and heightened rhetoric converge on New Orleans, humming and swarming around the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury like so many gadflies, I invite us to recall and recollect the Ember Days. It is time to pray for seeds, for growth, and for a bountiful harvest. It is time to pray for the faithful, the ordained, and the consecrated. Truly—it is a time to pray for the Church.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

A battle against distraction

By Richard Helmer

Doubtless, much of the media coverage of the House of Bishops meeting this week will be prefaced with the same sound bites we’ve been hearing these past four years. We will hear the words “gay, sex, schism, and lawsuits” in reference to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This places before the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury an important, if not monumental task of leadership as they meet together: a battle with distraction.

The flurry of recent consecrations for the Anglican missionary organizations recently planted in this country by other Provinces, even under protest from the Archbishop of Canterbury, underscores the simple fact that a schismatic conflict within the Anglican Communion has now taken on a life of its own. To some degree, the way this will play out has been pre-determined by those who are willing to break Communion in the name of their purity of belief. Not even the Dar Es Salaam Primate Communiqué’s September 30th “deadline” seems worth waiting for. Threats from self-declared Global South bishops and Primates not to attend next year’s Lambeth Conference, a growing rejection of Canterbury as a focus of unity, four diocesan conventions exploring resolutions that would effectively remove them from The Episcopal Church, and dissenting bishops skipping out on substantial portions of the September House meeting only serve to round out a clear sentence: We are watching the unfolding of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some sort of realignment, some sort of “alternative Communion” is about to be birthed, and it is probably too late to turn back the clock.

Our House of Bishops confronts the additional challenge, then, of avoiding getting caught in the deception that their response to the Primates’ Communiqué, regardless of what form it ultimately takes, will appreciably affect the forces already hell-bent on division.

While many, including Rowan Williams himself, seem to remain convinced that the Windsor Report and its accompanying processes are the only game in town for the Anglican Communion going forward, the credibility of the Windsor process itself and, indeed, the ostensible neutrality of the resulting draft Anglican Covenant have been severely undermined by the Network and Global South leadership in recent months. Most notable was the active participation of Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies in the consecration of two American priests as bishops for the Church of Kenya’s oversight of former Episcopal parishes in the United States. (Try re-reading that last sentence out loud. By itself, it demonstrates how convoluted, confusing, and distracting the situation has become.) These types of consecration are expressly condemned by the Windsor Report – the same one Archbishop Gomez helped to author; the same one he and others then appealed to as a measure of The Episcopal Church’s fidelity in Communion.

The Dar Es Salaam Communiqué itself devotes no fewer than 21 of its 37 sections plus an appendix to addressing the complaints and pastoral needs of a handful of leaders in The Episcopal Church, upset over the confirmation and consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson and then hanging upon that one event a host of long-standing resentments and reason to foment division. The enormous weight of time and energy the Primates have taken on focusing on a relatively small group represents the clear distortions in perspective, if nothing else, from which we suffer as a Communion.

The most important leadership our bishops the Archbishop of Canterbury can offer us at this time may well be an intentional effort to put, at every available opportunity, the current disagreements over human sexuality and the over-wrought voices of division in the life of the Church back into their proper perspective. Some have already started doing this, not least of whom is our Presiding Bishop. So too have a significant number of our Diocesan bishops, a number of whom fall on markedly opposing sides of the human sexuality question. Indeed, part of the March “Mind of the House” statement was a declaration that our bishops, as a whole, would not engage in a losing proposition: the setting aside of the dignity of some of our sisters and brothers and the violation of our internal integrity for the sake of a dubious unity built on threats, distortions, and fear of difference. Instead, they argued that, differences over human sexuality notwithstanding, the substantive Christian tasks ahead revolved around the needs of forging common mission to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world crying out with need. We need not look very hard to find evidence that a large portion of the Anglican Communion, regardless of where they stand on sexuality, agrees with that proposition.

But reframing the conversation this way at this time remains a monumental task. Much of the engine driving the rhetoric and actions of some of our most vituperative detractors is the simple fact that the combination of sex, the Bible, and lawsuits grabs emotional attention and headlines. Seeking reconciliation and willingness to hold disagreement honestly in community doesn’t.

The Network and Global South can publicly leverage deeply seated prejudices around which to rally otherwise disparate factions. The sad thing is that as the Network, the Global South Primates, and their ecclesiastical allies continue to press their media advantage this way, they risk falling into a very small publicity bed of their own making: a distracted gospel centered on the question of homosexuality…a stunted nub of tradition revolving around a handful of biblical injunctions devoid of context and vulnerable to the exaggeration of fear… an ugly, narrow, flimsy caricature of a great faith. That is not much upon which to build a Christian Communion, alternative, realigned, or otherwise.

Then the danger for those remaining in the greater Anglican Communion is also clear. So long as The Episcopal Church and the broader Church continue to engage the argument on these terms, we are at constant risk of falling into this very same bed.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion and, indeed the world as a whole, need the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Gospel that brings justice to the hungry, dignity to the impoverished, healing to the sick, peace to the war-ravaged, and a powerful message of hope and redemption to a Creation groaning under considerable stress.

Declaring this Gospel in the face of easier sells is a tall order for our House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet this fall. But by meeting in New Orleans, highlighting a city whose people continue to climb out of a dreadful natural and humanitarian disaster, they have made a definite start.

Prayers be with them all as they battle with distraction for the sake of the Gospel.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly at Caught by the Light.

A Proverb for bloggers

By Marshall Scott

So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.

And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”

And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.

So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
[5] Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)

I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?

I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.

In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.

In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.

It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.

But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

The Episcopal Church is
a Protestant Church

By Sam Candler

We hear claims from all parties about the most mistaken resolutions passed in recent Episcopal General Conventions. Was it the 2003 resolution consenting to the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire? Or was it the 2006 resolution calling for “restraint” in the consecration of “any candidate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church”?

My choice for most mistaken resolution might be the one of the year 1979 which removed “Protestant” from our formal name. It was mistaken on at least two levels. First, the removal denied a deep and critical piece of our historic identity. One might argue that the Anglican Church was probably “Protestant” even before the Reformation; here in the United States, we were at one point one of the proudest of Protestant churches.

Secondly, and more importantly now, the resolution which removed “Protestant” from our name was simply inaccurate. For, if we are learning anything in the last several years, it is that many of our leaders love to speak forth, to “pro-test,” in the name of individual conscience and faithful liberty. These claims and Protestant actions come from both the liberal and conservative parties. Liberals claim to declare a new interpretation of orthodox faith for a new generation. Conservatives wander around the world looking for re-alignment and a more perfect church. Essentially, both these maneuvers are Protestant moves.

However, I do not begrudge these Protestant moves. Good Protestantism is always critical of institutions, especially centralized bureaucracies. Good Protestantism, I would claim, exists even in the Roman Catholic Church. That noble and honorable Church, looking solid and immovable, yet contains all manner of progressive thinkers and idiosyncratic reactionaries.

At the best moments of our past, the Protestant Episcopal Church was able to honor both the theological conscience of the individual believer and the classical orders of apostolic faith. We were both Protestant and Catholic, to the frustration of other Christians who always wanted to peg us one way or the other. But we were broader than that, and usually more attractive.

While the world turns its media magnifying lenses towards this week’s Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans, I advise us to look elsewhere for the broader life of the Episcopal Church. I have nothing against this House of Bishops meeting; I am among many who offer my prayers and support and love. It’s just that I believe the breadth and grace of the Episcopal Church exists more specifically in the thousands of parishes and communities of faith which those bishops serve. Most of the bishops in New Orleans probably agree with me; the real “Church” is among our people, not in the ordained positions of leadership.

We are a Protestant Church. How else to explain the diffidence and exasperation which clamors even now right along with the rejoicing and singing? How else to explain that awkward style in which our House of Bishops and House of Deputies act together?

We are a Catholic Church, too. Not many of us want to abandon the historic Christian faith. In fact, our structures appear more Catholic than most of our other Protestant denominational colleagues. The fact that we appear so hierarchical is probably why the generally unknowing public media keeps speaking of schism and looking for authoritarian answers.

We are mistaken if we think that any meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops, or, indeed, any meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, or any Lambeth Conference of Bishops, can affect our relationship with the liberating grace and love of Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us Protestant. No matter what occurs in Anglican hierarchies in upcoming months, our churches and communities of faith will continue in much the same manner – liberal or conservative—as we did before.

By the same token, we are also mistaken if we think that any meeting of those esteemed leaders can change our historic and universal faith. That’s what makes us Catholic. Yes, councils can err; but councils also tend to correct themselves. They tend to correct themselves if we, the members, hold on to each other. They tend to correct themselves if we remain Catholic.

Finally, however, no authoritarian answer will lead us out of our present frustrations. Let us not surrender too easily our own gifts of God’s grace to a legalistic and simplistic authoritarianism. Authoritarianism, whether liberal or conservative, is the enemy of healthy faith; it does legalistic and totalitarian harm in both Protestant and Catholic structures.

The name I most prefer for our dear and historic church is “Anglican.” That word represents deep, broad, and graceful Christianity. But at the 2009 General Convention, I would vote for restoring the grand name “Protestant” to our name. I would vote for including “Catholic” too!

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Hopes for New Orleans

By Jim Naughton

In February, the Primates of the Anglican Communion released a set of “recommendations” to the Episcopal Church; warned that if the Church did not comply there would be “consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion,” and set September 30 as the deadline for the Church’s response.

On Thursday, just 10 days before the deadline, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, begin two days of meetings in New Orleans with the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to determine what sort of response is forthcoming. But much of the drama that one will no doubt find the press drumming up this week has already been drained from the situation.

In inviting the bishops of the Episcopal Church (with the significant exception of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire) to the Lambeth Conference next summer, the Archbishop has already signaled that he is not eager to exclude the Episcopal Church from “full participation” in the various quasi-governmental bodies that help hold the Communion together. And in jumping the deadline and ordaining bishops to work in the United States, primates such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Henry Orombi of Uganda and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya have already played their most potent card to much fanfare, but uncertain—and quite possibly minimal—effect.

But if September 30 deadline has lost much of its dramatic luster, the meeting in New Orleans may nonetheless yield significant results.

One indication of what might transpire is given by the composition of the archbishop’s delegation. In March, the House of Bishops requested a meeting with the archbishop and the Primates’ Standing Committee. But the Archbishop will be accompanied not only the Primates Standing Committee, but the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council. Throughout the current crisis, the issue of which of the Anglican Communion’s four “instruments of unity” would make the final decisions on the issues of sexuality and membership has been hotly contested. The Primates, almost, by default, have taken the lead because they meet more often than the Anglican Consultative Council (every three years) or the Lambeth Conference (every ten). But a significant tide of resistance against primatial dominance has been building simultaneously.

In bringing the Joint Standing Committee, Archbishop Williams is opening up the process, although who will make the final decision (if a final decision indeed gets made) remains an open question. He is also enfranchising the one Communion-wide body not composed entirely of bishops.

Perhaps more important to the issue at hand, the Joint Standing Committee is also the body which commissioned the sub-group, led by Williams himself, to evaluate the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. That report, forgotten after the Primates released their “recommendations” and set their deadline, gave the Episcopal Church relatively high marks. The meeting presents an opportunity for the Joint Standing Committee to make certain that Resolution B033 does indeed indicate that “the majority of bishops with jurisdiction… will refuse consent in future to the consecration of a bishop whose manner of life challenges the wider church and leads to further strains on Communion,“ as the sub-group concluded, and to seek greater clarify on the Church’s stance regarding the blessing of same-sex unions.

On both of these issues it seems at least possible that even many of the more liberal members of the House will be able to say the sort of things the committee wants to hear. A minority in the House doesn’t like the fact that a candidate in a same-sex relationship would not currently receive a majority of consents from diocesan bishops, and hence could not take office. But they acknowledge it as a political reality, and probably wouldn’t mind saying so.

The committee is especially interested in understanding the state of play in Episcopal diocese on same-sex blessings. Can the bishops say that neither the Church nor any diocese will authorize a “public Rite of Blessing” (per The Windsor Report and the sub-group report) or a Rite to Blessing (per the Primates’ Communiqué from Dar es Salaam)? The meaning of the phrase (public) Rite of Blessing has been debated intensely. And as neither the Archbishop nor the Joint Standing Committee has attempted to settle the issue, it is possible that this ambiguity is intentional. If the question is whether Episcopal diocesan bishops are willing to postpone the development of an authorized text to be used in blessing same-sex relationships, then the answer, in all likelihood is yes. If the question is whether every diocesan bishop is willing to enforce a ban on the blessing of same-sex relationships, the answer is almost certainly no.

The first interpretation seems to be the one shared by the authors of The Windsor Report and the sub-group report (although, again, this has been hotly debated). Both documents attempt (with uneven results) to capture the current state of play regarding the blessings of same-sex unions in Episcopal dioceses, and each raises warning in instances when dioceses where steps toward the developments of authorized text or standards were under development. In addition, the Archbishop is no doubt aware that unions are blessed in a number of Anglican provinces, including his own, and an evenhanded Communion-wide ban would be both unpopular and impossible to enforce.

The other difficult issue concerns the pastoral oversight of theologically conservative parishes that are out of sympathy with their bishop, and theologically conservative diocese’s out of sympathy with the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention. On this front it seems unlikely the bishops can do much better than the Episcopal Church has already done—unless Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori comes to the meeting with another oversight proposal.

A little history is helpful here. In March 2004, the House of Bishops passed a delegated episcopal pastoral oversight proposal which went as far as the House felt it could in guaranteeing sympathetic oversight to any parish that requested it. (The House does not have the authority to force a diocesan bishop to offer alternative oversight.) The plan was commended in The Windsor Report, which said it provided, “a very significant degree of security” to parishes that felt alienated from their diocesan bishop. The Primates, however, felt the need to establish a panel of reference at their meeting at Dromantine in February 2005, “to supervise the adequacy” of these alternative oversight arrangements.

(The remainder of that paragraph reads: “Equally, during this period we commit ourselves neither to encourage nor to initiate cross-boundary interventions. That is a matter for another time.” But do notice that various primates have released themselves unilaterally from the commitments they have made in these documents while continuing to call the Episcopal Church to account.)

The same primates who insisted on the creation of the panel became disillusioned with it, hence the proposal they embraced at Dar es Salaam in February, under which a Pastoral Council consisting of “up to five members: two nominated by the Primates, two by the Presiding Bishop, and a Primate of a Province of the Anglican Communion nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury to chair the Council” would be given broad powers not only to extend pastoral care of certain parishes and dioceses, but to participate in the adjudication of disputes within the life of the Episcopal Church. (In so doing they ignored a generous offer of alternative primatial oversight from Bishop Jefferts Schori that quite likely would have resulted in the same primatial vicar being named, and some of the same bishops, including Williams, being involved in his or her supervision, but would have vested final authority in Bishop Jefferts Schori.)

The Primates’ proposal was roundly rejected in late March by the House of Bishops in a vote that brought liberals and moderate conservatives such as Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina and John Howard of Florida together to rebuff the Primates attempt to exercise an authority that no agreement, written or unwritten, confers upon them. The proposal was also rejected, in June, by the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to accept the bishops invitation to their meeting came just three weeks after it was offered, and was the first indication that he did not necessarily view the Episcopal Church’s rejection of the Council scheme as grounds for exclusion from the councils of the Communion. The invitations to Lambeth were another sign that whatever the Episcopal Church’s perceived transgressions, he still considered himself in Communion with its bishops. He underlined this message by snubbing those bishops who had been ordained by African provinces to work in the United States. (At that time this included bishops of the Rwandan-backed Anglican Mission in America and the Nigerian-backed Convocation of Anglicans in America. The Churches of Kenya and Uganda have since ordained bishops as well.)

To clarify matters further, one of Williams' advisors last week told the Living Church that:

it was a serious misreading of the primates’ communiqué to say that an ultimatum had been given to the House of Bishops to take certain actions by Sept. 30 or face expulsion from the Anglican Communion. The communiqué had asked for certain clarifications from the House of Bishops, he said, but did not envision a breaching of The Episcopal Church’s constitution.

It may be that Williams had determined that he has given the radical conservative faction led by Akinola (and stag managed by his American allies) as much ground as he can. It may be that he considers its jurisdictional innovations more threatening to the future of the Communion than the two North American churches innovations on issues of human sexuality. It may also be that other leaders in the Communion, including some in Africa, have informed him of their concerns that Akinola’s faction may be willing to use other pretexts to plant its flag in other provinces when the moment suits them.

Whatever the case, House of Bishops has an opportunity to improve and solidify the Church’s standing within the Communion by offering the Archbishop and the Joint Standing Committee much of the reassurance that they seek. These reassurances will be all the more meaningful if the resolutions that embody them can be crafted in a way that appeals to theologically conservative bishops still committed to the Church.

It is not within the power of the House of Bishops, the Joint Standing Committee or Archbishop Williams to stop Archbishop Akinola and his allies from breaking from the Anglican Communion. But it is within their power to appeal to the substantial minorities in the Church and the Communion who are uneasy about the course the Episcopal Church has charted, but appalled by the rhetoric and tactics of Akinola and his virulent friends. And there has been no better moment to do so.

Jim Naughton is the editor of the Episcopal Café .

A question of privacy:
Mother Teresa's letters

By Deirdre Good

The publication of personal letters by Mother Teresa to Jesus, her spiritual director, a few clergy, and her bishop -letters that she specifically asked to be destroyed-raises ethical questions. The letters acknowledge God's absence in her spiritual life for some fifty years and contrast the already known public persona to the private reality but this is immaterial. What right does Mother Teresa's spiritual director have to release letters that Mother Teresa wrote either to or for him? Do we honor the requests of the dead or not? What right does the editor of the book, Joseph Kolodiejchuk, have to publish them?

These letters are all that remain of trunk loads of correspondence most of which she destroyed. Perhaps Mother Teresa knew she would be declared a saint. She already recognized the public nature of her witness and work. She wrote to Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., on March 6, 1962: "If I ever become a Saint-I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from heaven-to light the light of those in darkness on earth." Could this kind of sentence mean that she could foresee what would happen to her letters and that she covertly approved of others seeing what she wrote?

Some letters have been public for years. But the recent publication of more must be seen in light of her canonization. Mother Teresa has already been beatified. Full disclosure of her spiritual darkness in a book with carefully controlled commentary and interpretation seems to be a way to contain and present this material before her canonization is complete. The editor of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light addresses this matter only once in the book: "Providentially, Mother Teresa's spiritual directors preserved some of her correspondence. Thus, when testimonies and documents were gathered during the process for her beatification and canonization, the remarkable story of her intimate relationship with Jesus, hidden from even her closest collaborators, was discovered. In contrast to her 'ordinariness,' Mother Teresa's confidences reveal previously unknown depths of holiness and may very well lead her to be ranked among the great mystics of the Church." As a student pointed out in a class discussion, this paragraph doesn't answer the question. But it is the only explanation offered by the editor of the book.

Is it possible the letters signify, not unlike the Virgin Mary, a construction of a feminine portrait of the Roman Catholic Church that can legitimate its own moral failures and justify its moral stances? Mother Teresa was unwavering in her commitment to the Church's teaching on abortion, and she never advocated for women priests. For all intents and purposes, she was loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and teaching of her church. But, as the Catholic Church itself has demonstrated in the many cases of sexual misconduct now surfacing, she did have a "darker" side. One motivation of this re-imaging -- we might even say re-branding -- of itself on the contours of her life is that it represents the Catholic Church's attempt to come to terms with its own past and engage in honest self-disclosure. But the veiled nature of the signification -- the fact that they chose a feminine image to shore up the status quo of a church that has failed to grapple with its own sexual misconduct and other moral failures suggests otherwise. Like the Virgin Mary, Teresa is evolving into a paradigmatic image of the challenges, hopes and fears of contemporary Roman Catholicism. In making these new revelations of her inner life, the church may have changed our perception of her, all the while failing to change itself.

We might also ask about the motivations of the book's publisher, Random House. On September 4, Publshers' Weekly noted "Random House reported an 8% decline in worldwide earnings for the first half of 2007, to 44 million euros ($60 million) while parent company Bertelsmann posted first-half losses primarily due to Napster legal difficulties." Random House CEO Peter Olson indicates that the fall publication list of the next four months (including Bill Clinton's new book Giving) will go some way towards meeting the full year's financial goals.

The extraordinary challenge Mother Teresa's spiritual life poses is in danger of being subsumed into our apparently insatiable desire for personal disclosure, of becoming a vehicle for rehabilitation of the Roman Catholic Church in a particular way, and of returning a publishing house to solvency. But despite the potential exploitation of Mother Teresa's spiritual life and my own deep reservations about overriding the explicit wishes of the departed, I participated in both - I bought the book. And I am grateful both to the author of the letters and to those who made it possible for me to read them. The miracle is that, murky ethical issues notwithstanding, we can witness in her letters an authentic sojourn in the heart of darkness as she carried out her mission to quench Christ's insatiable thirst for all human souls.

Professor Deirdre Good wrote this piece in conversation with Professor William Danaher at The General Theological Seminary in New York City where they both teach.

The Gospel of James

By Heidi Shott

Just yesterday morning, I was thinking about what to write for my monthly deadline at the Café. Several times a day I get flashes of ideas for essays – the commonplace moment somehow connects to some big idea - but then the phone rings or someone says, “hey, did you pick up my shirts at the cleaners?” or I get a pop-up on feedreader with a story about a cop in Glasgow who was attacked by an octopus and I can’t help but click. These interruptions make it hard to be faithful to all the ideas that present themselves for consideration.

But some ideas are more tenacious than others. There’s something in the way they keep rising to the top of my mind that makes them hard to ignore.

The James Taylor concert falls into that category.

In March for his birthday or perhaps in June for Father’s Day, (sadly, I can’t remember) my sons and I bought my husband Scott two tickets to see James Taylor in August. The plan was he would share the second ticket with me.

So one evening a few weeks ago, 50 miles from our quiet village, we sat down to a table at a lovely restaurant near the Civic Center in Portland. The young waiter asked if we were going to the concert.

“S’pose you have a lot of middle-aged people in tonight before James Taylor?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he grinned and concentrated on opening the wine.

Over the last 20 years we’ve been to a lot of events at the Civic Center. Once years ago I paid for my sons to ride the elephant at the circus, then they chickened out so I rode it with one of their friends. I’m against elephant riding in general, but I’d bought the damn tickets. We’ve seen Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby. We’ve gotten backstage passes to see the Barenaked Ladies twice because our only famous friend, Ned Steinberger, is a friend of the bass player.

As we took our seats on the floor of the Civic Center, eerily near the spot I bestrode the elephant, we saw that the place was sold out. It was sardined with people of the boomer persuasion. We played a game of spotting people under 30 with the couple to my left (you can do that in Maine). “There’s one!” chirped the 50-something engineer-type beside me.

“Well, yeah, she’s under 30, but look, she’s with her mom,” Scott said.

“Right,” he said, disappointed, “doesn’t count.”

“Our son is here,” said his wife. “He’s 32. But he won’t sit with us.”

One night in the lazy summer of 1982 - the summer Scott and I painted the barn on my family’s farm, played a lot of badminton and didn’t do much else - we drove to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see James Taylor and his band. Most people were on the lawn with their blankets and buckets of beer, but we had tickets inside. It was a great show but I didn’t notice that anyone in the audience seemed particularly old, including James and Karla Bonoff who opened for him.

At this concert, however, there was no opening act, no band, just James Taylor, his guitars, and a fellow musician playing various keyboard instruments to complement the show. He started out with a wave and hello and launched into “There’s Something in the Way She Moves.” He had all 8,000 of us from the intro. His untouched voice; his deft, self-deprecating manner; all was a balm. Just about everyone in the room had either come of age with or grown up with these familiar songs, depending on their place on the boomer continuum.

I remember first hearing “Fire and Rain” played by my brother Jim, ten years my senior, around 1970. By the time I started high school in 1976, I was listening to “Greatest Hits” every night as I nodded off to sleep. “You’ve Got a Friend” was the last song on Side A and my record player would click off all by itself. The cover of the “JT” album spent several years mounted on the wall next to my bed. He still had hair back then.

In college, Scott and I listened to “Flag” and “Dad Loves His Work” on the 15-hour road trips between school in Boston and his home in West Virginia. After we were married and terribly lonely working as teachers in Micronesia, pining for mail and books we hadn’t already read, two copies of “That’s Why I’m Here” on cassette arrived from different friends on the very same day. Years later, I listened to “New Moon Shine” over and over during those first quiet winter months of doing little else but sitting and nursing our twin sons. This extended soundtrack of my life, our life together, is an odd and precious thing.

It’s crazy to think that this man who I don’t know nor will ever meet and, moreover, have no desire to ever meet, has accompanied me through these last 35 years. At the concert an alarming number of people felt compelled to shout personal greetings to him, which he absorbed graciously. The concert ran three hours with four encores. We got our money’s worth certainly. We had a nice dinner out, alone, like a real couple on a date. We talked about the first concert 25 years before in Saratoga when it took us 45 minutes to find the car, back when we never suspected we’d be together all these years later.

As a person of faith, I can’t help but wonder what it is about James Taylor – this gawky, bald, 60 year-old - that draws 8,000 busy middle-aged Mainers to buy tickets and sit on folding chairs in a dusty ice hockey rink/monster truck arena…and to be able to hold that attraction for 40 years. As someone who thinks a lot about marketing the Church, I can’t help but wonder what we’re doing wrong. The song that we’ve been gifted with is a million times sweeter than “Sweet Baby James.” If you read the Gospels with a fresh eye, it’s hard to escape that the person of Jesus is wildly attractive and charismatic. Read the Gospels cold, and you know why the fishermen of Galilee dropped their nets to follow. Talk about backstage passes!

But what are we doing in this Episcopal Church of ours? On what are we focusing our attention? We’re not so great at crafting an achingly sweet soundtrack that draws people back again and again and again.

One of the most disheartening stories I ever heard as a diocesan communications officer was from a single mom who had stopped going to one of our churches. Bumping into her after not seeing her for a few years, I asked why she’d stopped attending. She told me that she’d arrived one Sunday with her two daughters and someone caught her before she sat down to remind that it was her day to provide snacks and juice for coffee hour after the service. Her life was complicated at that time and she’d forgotten.

“I panicked,” she told me. “I had exactly $25 in my checking account, but I was too embarrassed to tell the person who chided me for forgetting. That I didn’t have any money wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years.” Though I knew this woman was doing better now, I could see how much it cost her to recount the story. “I grabbed my girls, drove out and bought juice and crackers, and set them up in the parish hall. Then we left and we’ve never been back.”

If only we knew how to flip the switch to be better at this stuff. If only we knew how to absorb the winsome attractiveness of Jesus and offer it freely to everyone – people we agree with and people we don’t, people we find interesting and people we don’t. In the James Taylor model, despite his addictions and demons so publicly chronicled, there’s a guilelessness, a generously proffered gift, a constancy over time, that his admirers are drawn to. It’s not a bad model after all.

That night James sang:

“The secret of love is in opening up your heart It’s okay to feel afraid But don’t let that stand in your way ‘Cause anyone knows that love is the only road”
It sounds so dumb when you see it on the page, but it doesn’t when you hear it sung in a sweet and familiar voice. In that way, it’s a little like being a Christian. I’m open to ideas for how we can work on our song.

I started this column last night with my laptop in bed. I was going great guns when Scott said, “Time to turn out the light.” So I woke up this morning and finished it. I’m just glad I remember who to send it to.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

Encountering Akinola, Part two

This is the second of a two-part article.

By Frederick Quinn

Half way down Douala Street was a walled compound of tin-roofed cement buildings of various sizes, Bishopscourt, headquarters of The Church of Nigeria and Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, with whom I visited on March 31, 2000, the week after his public presentation as head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria.

The bishop was once a carpenter. That was evident early in our interview when he sprung up frequently and barked orders at workers stringing electrical lines in his office. He recalled an encounter when he was a lay catechist in Kebbi in Nigeria’s North, in the 1970s. When the regional Archdeacon came to town, looking for the congregation’s leader, Peter was up on the roof hammering in nails with the workers. Later, as a young priest in the new Nigerian capital of Abuja, government workers mistook him for a construction foreman because he was always arriving in their offices with an armful of building plans.

The fifty-six-year old Prelate was in constant motion, leaning toward visitors one moment, then bouncing up and down on his sofa seat to make a point. Peter J. Akinola was born in 1944 in Abeokutain, in Nigeria’s thickly vegetated Yoruba South. His father died when he was four years old, “and I have no memory of him. Later people told me he was a good and descent man.” Money was lacking for school, so an uncle in Nguru, Youbi State, in the faraway North, said, “Come and you’ll find some job.” A conventional Christian, Peter sang in the church choir, taught Bible classes, and graduated to lay reading lessons at the evening service.

By 1968 he had moved from a job as a postal worker to becoming a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, with his own shop and showroom, and several employees. He was doing well, but strange dreams intruded. “I found myself telling my age-mates and friends not to drink, go to the cinema, have so many girl friends. I heard them saying, ‘look, Bishop, if you don’t like our lives, get out of here.’”

“Then one fateful day in October I came to my workshop. A church representative was there with a letter asking the parish to send two young men to Zaria for seminary training. My uncle, who had brought me there many years ago, said, ‘Peter, the church council met and looked around the whole church and you are the only one they recommended. You should go for the interview.’ I could not refuse my uncle.”

“That night, I had a very clear dream. I was rebuking my godmother, a very saintly woman. She said gently, ‘Peter, what are you doing?’” Peter made the trip, taking with him 4,000 Nigerian pounds to buy supplies for a lucrative government contract recently awarded to his carpentry shop. He thought the seminary interview would be brief; he would flunk, and be sent home. At Zaria, the warden of the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, Jeremy Hinds (“This man was so influential on my life, I named my first son for him”) gave him the key to Room 12. “I waited for the interview on Saturday, but on Monday they told me ‘you can start classes. We do not have to interview this man. The Church Council said this was their candidate.’ Peter returned to Nguru, returned the money advanced on his furniture contract, paid off his workers, and headed for the theological college where “I grew stronger in the faith, grew stronger in the Lord. I came out tops in my class.”

Suleja was an isolated truckers’ stop, a crossroads on the North-South road when Peter was assigned there in 1978. The parched region soon became Nigeria’s new capital and Peter headed out on his Honda motorbike to visit newly arriving government workers in their homes. “Parlour churches” formed, Anglicans met regularly in living rooms or under large trees, and truckers made their buketria, an edge of town trucker’s cafeteria, available to Anglicans and Roman Catholics for Sunday worship. It was a time of explosive growth for the Church. Growing numbers of catechists and lay readers headed out as missionary teams into villages on Friday nights and returned on Sunday evenings, preaching wherever they could find listeners.

In 1979 Peter left Suleja for three years at Virginia Theological Seminary. Hoping to return to Nigeria as a seminary professor, he was instead assigned back to Seleja for three more years. “I cried and I cried and said ‘No way!’” In Nigeria, bishops assign clergy to parishes and Peter was told, “We need a pioneer, someone who is not only a pastor but a builder.” He stayed in Suleja from 1981 to 1984, and then became Provincial Missionary from 1984 to1989. By 1985 twenty-eight Anglican churches had been built in the new capital. Following established Church Missionary Society precepts, each church should be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing.

In 1989, Akinola, completing five years as Provincial Missionary, gave a progress report to the Synod of Bishops, after which a senior bishop told him, “Peter, you are not properly dressed.” “I raced back to the hotel for my cassock, and someone called me, ‘The Primate wants to see you immediately!’ I wondered what I had done wrong. The Primate handed me a paper and said, ‘Give me your reply quickly.’ I cried, and yelled, and screamed. That was the last thing I had ever thought of in my life, to be named a bishop. There were rumors of other senior bishops who were interested in the post, those who had trained in Britain and elsewhere. Canons and archdeacons and graduates of old theological colleges were around, and I was not part of any of those groups.”

In November 1989 Peter became bishop of Nigeria’s twenty-sixth diocese. (There were one hundred twelve dioceses in 2007). Bit by bit the church added additional institutions, medical dispensaries, schools, rural development projects, and a large primary school. Bishopscourt includes an office block and meeting rooms, clergy housing, and a five-bedroom bungalow for the Archbishop (who has six children), plus a ninety-room guesthouse to provide relatively cheap accommodation to Christian visitors to the nation’s capital, with proceeds being used for mission work. A small bookshop featured flyspecked copies of the deceased media evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman’s I Believe in Miracles and a sampling of the self help spirituality and success books increasingly popular in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s population, divided into over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, was estimated at 135 million persons in 2007. The country faces daunting problems. World Bank estimates place per capita GNP at $260, average life expectancy at fifty-two years. The adult literacy rate is 57% and the probability of dying before the fifth birthday (both sexes) is 14%. Christian and Muslim populations are roughly comparable, with a 10% edge usually given to Muslims. Possibly seventeen to twenty million of the fifty-some million Christians are Anglicans. The growth of the church in Nigeria eclipses that of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain combined.

The Singapore Ordinations and Archbishop Akinola’s Disruptive Future

What about the Singapore ordinations? (On January 29, 2000, two American clerics were irregularly ordained as bishops in Singapore by two prelates from Rwanda and Singapore, and two retired American bishops. Their goal was to set up a conservative “Anglican Mission in America," but neither the American Church nor the Archbishop of Canterbury had endorsed their election.) The Nigerian bishops are all for them, Archbishop Peter Akinola told me on March 31, 2000. Although he had participated in the Lambeth discussions on human sexuality, he stated, “Scriptures constantly tell us a faithful union in heterosexual marriage” is the only norm for personal human unions. What happened in Singapore was expected.”

“We are looking at this in a global perspective. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians are in the United States and many feel they cannot worship in the Episcopal Church. They go elsewhere or they do not go to church. The issue is having episcopal supervision for them.” Neither then nor later did I ever hear an overseas Nigerian, Kenyan, or Ugandan in the United States say anything like what his dissident white male supporters and Archbishop Akinola kept repeating was a cry from unhappy Africans for Episcopal supervision. Africans in America were concerned about finding employment, homes, and educating their children, and avoiding an immigration dragnet. Some pastors warned Kenyans to steer clear of situations where they would encounter law enforcement agents.

When, toward the end of our conversation, I raised the issue of the place of gays and lesbians in the church, his face came close to mine, “Brother, the Bible says,” he replied, his voice lifting in intensity both times I raised the subject. Akinola’s manner was in your face, and he listened only to the extent that a visitor’s comments touched a subject for which he had a set piece answer.

Twice during our conversation he referred to Bishop John S. Spong’s Lambeth remarks about the backwardness of the African churches, which stung him badly. “We will respond to him,” Akinola said with determination, like a kid on the block that had been hit by a brickbat, planning his retaliation, and I knew the subject would not end there. Later I reread some of Spong’s writings. He was not a favorite writer for me; much of his work was intentionally provocative and thin of scholarship, although I would agree with many of the positions he has taken. In this case, the language that set Akinola off was a comment like:

One of the things that’s so obvious about many of the Africans is that their education is an evangelical education about the Bible. It’s almost no education. They’re wanting to say that Darwin wasn’t right; that Adam and Eve are the first two people in the universe. You know, I haven’t run into that sort of argument in my country in a long, long time. But it’s still there.

What about the ordination of women? “In Nigeria, it has not begun yet. This is not for any biblical reasons. When the time comes, we will do it. At present there are divisive forces in this country. Women’s ordination would divide the church. We cannot have a divided church. I’m not going to stampede into any position that divides the church.” Far from a stampede, a Nigerian survey taken several years later showed 80% of clerical and lay leadership opposed women’s ordination.

As we left, we had a prayer together, from which I remember the lilting cadence of the Archbishop’s voice, and the strong, callused hands of the carpenter. I tried to keep up contact with him, but it amounted to nothing. I included an entry on him in a book profiling ninety African saints, martyrs, and holy people and left two suitcases full of vestments and altar furnishings with him, gifts from the Altar Guild of National Cathedral.

Over the next seven years Archbishop Akinola’s actions proved far more disruptive than his inaugural sermon remarks in 2000 suggested, and he appeared unconcerned about the controversy they caused, and growing antipathy toward him. Akinola appeared to relish a lively verbal street brawl. Detractors would find him a tantrum-throwing foot stomping bully, defenders an unalloyed defender of the true faith. Few would claim he possessed the middle range of executive skills as reconciler, negotiator, and enabler.

On June 19, 2007 he was voted out (72 to 33) of the presidency of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella group representing over fifty million members and composed of representatives of most Christian bodies in Nigeria. Although he had completed building of the National Ecumenical Center in Abuja, a shell of a building under construction for sixteen years, his abrasive managerial style had cost him support, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria was drafted as a candidate to replace Akinola when his first four-year term ended. In what was traditionally an automatic vote that would make Akinola vice president, the Association’s three hundred member General Assembly similarly rejected him. Nigerians cited his rigidity, his closeness to the departing chief of state, and his intransigence toward Muslims as reasons why change was needed in the association’s top leadership.

Elsewhere, Akinola left a path strewn with controversy. He had pointedly refused to take communion at primates meetings in Ireland in 2005 and Tanzania in 2007 with the heads of the Episcopal Church in America. His reported remark about the Archbishop of Canterbury to another prelate at the Dromantine, Ireland, meeting, “He will do what we tell him,” won him few new followers at Lambeth Palace.

In 2005 he sent an inflammatory letter from a group of porous membership called “Global South.” Its membership and finances are undisclosed. Calling Europe “a spiritual desert” he challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury “to do something about a British law allowing civil partnerships” because it gave “the appearance of evil.” But Akinola included the signatures of three other conservative bishops to the document, they claimed without consulting them, and the trio objected loudly, accusing him of “megaphone diplomacy.” The Archbishop kept pushing. In May 2007, despite objections from Canterbury and the American Church’s Presiding Bishop, he ordained an English cleric, Martyn Minns, as Bishop of the Nigerian Church in the USA. This was part of a Grade B coup attempt by a handful of dissident American bishops to claim leadership of the Episcopal Church in the USA for their own splintered factions.

During August 2007 Akinola also issued a lengthy pastoral letter, large sections of it apparently written by Minns, called “A Most Agonizing Journey Towards Lambeth 2008.” It said the Anglican communion was on “the brink of destruction” and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appeal for unity was “highly questionable.” Failure to heed such warnings said the document “is like going to bed and ignoring a naked flame in the house.”

Akinola’s charges did not go unanswered in Africa. Both Nobel Prize laureate and Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, and his successor, Archbishop Njononkulu Ndungane, have taken pointed issue with Akinola, saying the latter’s energies were wrongly focused on sexual issues when Africa was wracked by war, poverty, and disease. Akinola’s had curiously stated, “I didn’t create poverty. The church didn’t create poverty. Poverty is not an issue, human suffering is not an issue at all, they were there before the creation of mankind.” The dean of the Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa took a different position. “Very few of us take the homosexual debate as a top priority issue,” Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana remarked, “Most African Anglicans want to get back to basics and concentrate on poverty, disease, injustice and the need for transparency in governments.”

Akinola’s leadership record has been sadly mixed. His undeniable skills as a builder are evident, as is his lack of tolerance toward others. A door slammer in a world of increasingly numerous door openers among Christians, he has called attention to himself for his inflammatory statements while, at the same time, failing to gain the wider following he and his backers anticipated. Deliver an ultimatum, throw a tantrum, and denigrate those who have a different position represent his largely unchallenged modus operandi.

The abysmal lack of information of many his followers in America about Africa contributes to the problem. Not many of the recently proclaimed members of the Churches in Nigeria, Uganda, or Kenya in Northern Virginia and Southern California could easily locate Abuja, Kampala, or Nairobi on a map. Fewer such people have been to Africa, or are conversant with the moral dimensions of contemporary African problems. Such issues include the long-standing Darfur refugee crisis, the pandemic presence of HIV/AIDS, the widespread presence of female genital mutilation, a problem in thirty African countries brutally afflicting over a million young women a year. Political pluralism and transparency are likewise widespread civic needs in many African countries. When America listed its reasons for going after Sadam Hussein, a leading African news magazine (published in Europe) profiled several African heads of state it said deserved similar treatment, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

In short, there are no lack of religion-related developmental issues the church could focus on in Africa. The efforts of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to link mission and the United Nation’s Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) represents an imaginative and life-enhancing step in that direction.

Finally, the vision of Christianity Akinola and his supporters present does not reflect the breadth and depth of religion in Africa. Scripturally, it represents a burnt out school of biblical literalism and one-line quotes often taken out of context, the last remnants of a colonial church tradition, one where a handful of African bishops rigidly follow in the footsteps of a departed generation of autocratic British mentors.

The Roman Catholic Church in Africa has given the wider church imaginative liturgy, courageous political engagement with dictators, and heart-rending examples of the church in operation at village levels, as have other Protestant churches, and the Anglican Church in many parts of Africa, such as in Southern Africa. The Nigeria-based vocal faction and their American supporters fail as well to draw on the contributions of the African American religious ethos, and the lively contributions of feminist, Pentecostal, liberation, and other postcolonial theologies, many of them increasingly known to African Christians.

The literature and witness of African Christianity is vast. The perspective of African women is available in the works of Mercy Amba Oduyoyue of Ghana, and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, a Kenyan Lutheran woman theologian. John Mbiti has examined the relationship of traditional African belief and Christianity. Others have written on subjects as different as the communion of saints in ancestor veneration and the unity of all creation in traditional African religion. The book list of a publisher like Orbis Maryknoll is a valuable point of departure for those willing to consider a broader, more comprehensive view of African religious experiences. Andrew F. Walls, a former Methodist lay minister to Sierra Leone, and Professor Emeritus of the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, has framed the challenge:

None of us can read the Scriptures without cultural blinkers of some sort. The great advantage, the crowning excitement which our own era of Church history has over all others, is the possibility that we may be able to read them together. Never before has the Church looked so much like the great multitude whom no man can number out of every nation and tribe and people and tongue. Never before, therefore, has there been so much potential for mutual enrichment and self-criticism, as God causes yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn lived for several years in Africa as an American diplomat and holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a visiting scholar at the African Studies Center. Dr. Quinn, who spent eight weeks in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2000, has written extensively on African affairs, including two books, Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People From the Continent of Africa (Crossroads, 2002) and “In Search of Salt,” Changes in Beti (Cameroon) Society, 1800-1960 (Berghahn Books, 2006) and has published articles in the Journal of African History, Africa, Cahiers d’études africaines, Afrika und Ubersee, Tariqh, Abbia, and the International Journal of African History.

Encountering Akinola, Part one

This is the first of a two-part article.

By Frederick Quinn

Abuja, Nigeria, March 25, 2000

The taxi’s window fell out as we sped down Herbert Macauley Way. Past slower vehicles with window stickers like “Oh, the Saviour,” “God is My Co-Pilot, or “Sharia, Our Pride, Their Fear.” Past the Twins Plus Ice Cream Shoppe and the More Blessings Car Wash, and buildings under construction or left abandoned in Nigeria’s new federal capital.

In 1979 the rulers of Africa’s largest state, seeking to overcome North-South, Muslim-Christian, desert-rain forest differences, began moving the capital from crowded, coastal Lagos to the sparsely settled interior. Oil is king in Nigeria and, although gasoline is cheap, a truckers’ strike had caused forty car lines ups at gas pumps the week I arrived.

Flat and dry, Abuja was “big bush” before government ministries came north. Now it contains the sprawling headquarters of the President, National Assembly, and Judiciary, various ministries, and housing for civil servants. Mansions of the wealthy, topped with razor wire, stand among crowded tin shacks. Decades of military rule have squeezed the middle class badly, contributing to the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism in parts of the country. The Anglican Church of Nigeria created a missionary presence in Abuja in 1979, a new diocese in 1989, then moved its headquarters to the city now spread over a forty square mile grid. Abuja has no center, few distractions, and, unlike Lagos, surprisingly little traffic.

I had come to the wrong cathedral for the Archbishop’s Installation. The taxi driver had arrived at “the church with bumps in front of it,” the former cathedral was now reduced to parish status, since it could only accommodate a thousand persons each at its 8 and 10 am Sunday services. “The feast is not here, I will show you where it is,” a choir member told me, packing his robes into our rattling taxi. We sped in 100-degree heat far beyond the town’s edge to Life Camp, a government housing settlement. On the way to the church we passed a Fulani shepherd, thin and emaciated, with his slowly moving herd, grazing on such grass as the barren soil provided. The image returned to me later during the service as in a lilting voice, an African bishop repeated the passage from John’s Gospel about Jesus telling his followers three times “Feed my sheep”

“Why was the cathedral built out here?” I asked. “Because the government gave us land,” the choir member replied. Would there be African or English-language hymns? The choir member, who repairs Mercedes cars during the week, said, “English, this is a national service, but we will have lots of African music too.” The Cathedral, larger and longer than a football field, was overflowing an hour before the service. A huge but simple wooden cross, made of intersected tree trunks, extended from the plywood-paneled chancel walls. Draped from it were thick streamers of gold, purple, and white metallic cloth. The local architect, with whom I spoke, was faced with the challenge of a large space, a low budget, and local materials. His solution was a rectangular, high-ceilinged building with many windows to break up the surface. A team of young professional church members produced the design fee-free and saw the complex project through to completion. In addition to worship space for over three thousand seated persons, it has an adjoining forty seat meeting room for the Cathedral Standing Committee, a nine-story bell tower with offices, a residential compound, parking lot, and generator house to hold a much-used stand-by generator.

In a country known for corruption and inefficiency, the project “received the contributions of reputable companies who gave out generous discounts in materials purchased,” a church publication explained, adding, “All the provisions for worship, you name them, the doors, down lighters, clerestory windows, Holy Table, the marble floor, the air-conditioned ambient space, etc., all complete the soul-stirring experience and inspire sober reflection in worshipping God in the beauty of His Holiness.” Nigerian English is colorful and focused. A newspaper account said, “The mosque gulped up six million naira.” (Nigerian money) Another noted, “the legislator tramped on the intestines of his opponent” in debate. A roadside painted sign said “Emir’s Palace. Move on.”

The presentation service, which began at 10 am Saturday, March 25, 2000, took six hours, and included twenty-two hymns with no verses omitted. Three processions moved three-hundred and fifty participants into the church, including twenty justices of the Supreme Court and other courts in black robes trimmed in gold, and wigs, bibs, and striped trousers. Vergers in white robes and purple capes trimmed with scarlet, who pointed long verges decisively toward the crowd if the latter impeded the procession’s stately flow, led processions. A large choir, in the robes of many parishes, moved toward the chancel, as did seventy bishops, for whom flamingo pink plastic chairs had been set in place.

Two distinct services flowed into one. The Protestant, evangelical element, part of the old Church Missionary Society (CMS) British heritage was evident in Gospel preaching (all Biblical quotations were followed by a verbal numerical citation) and Victorian call-to-action hymns. Most bishops wore low church clerical garb and some parishioners carried notebooks to record “Sermon points and biblical quotations.” The African element was the service’s growing energy and some of the music. A brass band supported the hymns, and later added drums.

Not for a minute was the service chaotic; it had a carefully planned flow and Archbishop Peter periodically barked out commands from a large, multi-stepped marble throne to red, purple, or black-clad acolytes who went flying. Every ethnic dress of Nigeria was represented, flowing blue northern robes, elaborately folded Yoruba headpieces, floppy colorful Cross River pajama-like outfits, and ladies in resplendent tailored robes and matching wide-brimmed English hats. Members of the Mothers’ Guild wore distinctive headdress and wrap-around skirts. The cloth had a map of Nigeria, with a mother and child superimposed on it, and the caption, “With Love Serve One Another, Mothers Union and Women’s’ Guild, Diocese of Abuja (Anglican Communion) Gal. 5: 13b.”

The Minister of Defense, representing the President, who was out of the country, read the prayers of the people. Archbishop Akinola had met earlier in the week with the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian and the first non-Muslim elected to run the country in a free election. The Archbishop, who had a close relationship with the chief of state, later told me, “For the first time we have a Bible-believing Christian as president. He believes he has a mission to recreate Nigeria, to take it out of the mess it has been left in by Muslim leadership.”

The Presentation Sermon: Archbishop Akinola’s Five Points for the Future of Nigeria

Of medium height, Bishop Peter was a prelate of fierce energy. His presentation sermon on March 25, 2000 at the Cathedral Church of the Advent carefully laid out his future program, although no one listening that Saturday morning would have predicted the controversy he would ignite for his unyielding opposition to homosexuality, his active support for irregularly ordained bishops and breakaway parishes in America, and for his sustained criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury and presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA. Punctuating his carefully organized and vigorously delivered sermon with lively gestures and carefully-drawn word picture, he drew audible responses from the overflow congregation.

“Our church is the fastest growing Anglican Church in the world,” the Archbishop began, “faster growing than Canada, Great Britain, and the United States combined.” Using a text recommended by one of his children, the Prelate spoke on “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” “Nigerians must find a way out of this big jungle of sin, greed, and selfishness,” he began, lamenting “the level of corruption in this country.” Next he presented a five-point vision statement encompassing spirituality, evangelism, institution building, external mission, and finances. “Your destiny is in your hands,” he said, looking at his hands, lifting them up and down quickly, adding, “God is colorless. To answer many of our problems we must have sheer hard work.” As for stewardship, he remarked, “There are bishops who have not been paid for fourteen months. How can we say we are good stewards?” (In Nigeria junior clergy are paid $50 a month, bishops $150, plus housing, and a vehicle if the parish can afford it. Such figures are roughly comparable to low and mid-level government salaries.)

On external missions, the Archbishop said it was time for the church to think of sending missionaries to places like the Sudan, Rwanda, Botswana, and India. He said nothing about America. Adding a note about church quarrels, he remarked, “I do not have time for your quarrels, the church has too much work to do.” Pointing to the robed Supreme Court justices, he told the congregation, “If you say unjust, untrue things about your bishops, you will be in trouble with them.” The remark brought applause and laughter. At the service’s end, the Primate asked bishops and clergy to rise and take an oath they were not now or would not become members of a secret society, a problem in some parts of the country.

Slowly a drumbeat came in under the closing prayers. The choir, having earlier sung Handel’s coronation anthem, “Zadok the Priest,” began gliding to both sides, snapping fingers, and turning. Trumpets and a saxophone picked up the African rhythm. The Primate, resplendent in purple cope and miter with a sun and shooting stars, danced his way down the chancel. The House of Bishops followed, left, left, drop step. Right, right, drop step. Moving forward to meet them was the congregation, and diplomatic corps. A holy hubbub continued for several minutes while the crowd danced toward the third set of offering baskets to appear during the service.

At lunch following the service, three hundred people gathered over jollof rice and okra stew at the Sheraton Hotel. I sat between two bishops from Northern Nigeria, where possibly a thousand persons had been killed in Muslim-Christian riots, caused in part by the introduction of the Sharia, traditional Islamic law. “The big thing now is to restore trust. It will take a long time,” the Bishop of Wusawa, the Rt. Rev. Ali B. Lamido, remarked, noting that during the recent riots several bishops, there for a synod, were stranded at his house for several days, unable to leave the premises.

“Suddenly we saw some fanatics surging towards us. We had to turn back. Some of our colleagues who came by air had to stay in police custody,” the Rt. Rev. Peter Adebiyi, Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Lagos West, recalled. The consensus seemed to be this was a political, not a religiously motivated disturbance, fanned by crowds of unemployed, poorly educated young people. In the South, Muslims and Christians have lived together peacefully for generations. “We have to,” one bishop told me.

In February 2006 Muslim-Christian riots once more broke out in Nigeria. Akinola’s unequivocal response was a widely circulated letter. “May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly on violence in this nation,” he wrote in his role as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, adding if intimidation from Islamic fundamentalists continued, “C.A.N. may no longer be able to contain our restive youths should this ugly trend continue.” In a personal conversation during our March 2000 meeting, I asked him if a Christian-Muslim dialogue was possible. (A local Muslim leader had told me such an encounter with Christians would be welcome.) Akinola replied briskly that such a step would be ill advised, that problems between Christians and Muslims were grossly exaggerated, stirred up by a few militant Muslims. The Nigerian Christian Assembly, in failing to elect him a second term as president in June 2007, pointed to two issues, his insensitive remarks toward Muslims, and his closeness to the outgoing president.

Akinola was also widely criticized abroad for enthusiastically supporting Obasanjo’s proposed legislation making any expression of homosexual activity a crime in Nigeria. The draft law included a five year prison sentence for those who through media or in public demonstrate "amorous same-sex relationships, directly, indirectly, or otherwise." In his “Message to the Nation” dated February 25, 2006, the Archbishop said, “The Church commends the law-makers for their prompt reaction to outlaw same-sex relationships in Nigeria and calls for the bill to be passed since the idea expressed in the bill is the moral position of Nigerians regarding human sexuality.” He had said earlier said “Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.”

Akinola’s comments in this vein directly contradicted Lambeth resolution 1.10 of 1998 that included provisions to encourage greater understanding of various expressions of human sexuality. The Episcopal Bishop of Washington, John Bryson Chane, wrote of the draft Nigerian law, “The archbishop's support for this law violates numerous Anglican Communion documents that call for a ‘listening process’ involving gay Christians and their leaders. But his contempt for international agreements also extends to Articles 18-20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which articulates the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, association and assembly…. Have we become so cowed by the periodic eruptions about the decadent West that Archbishop Akinola and his allies issue that we are no longer willing to name an injustice when we see one?"

Tomorrow: The archbishop's past and future.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn, formerly a Cathedral Chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, has lived for several years in Africa as an American diplomat and holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a visiting scholar at the African Studies Center. Dr. Quinn, who spent eight weeks in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2000, has written extensively on African affairs, including two books, Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People From the Continent of Africa (Crossroads, 2002) and “In Search of Salt,” Changes in Beti (Cameroon) Society, 1800-1960 (Berghahn Books, 2006) and has published articles in the Journal of African History, Africa, Cahiers d’études africaines, Afrika und Ubersee, Tariqh, Abbia, and the International Journal of African History.

No more Homecomings

By Diana Butler Bass

September is my favorite month of the year. In these embracing days, as summer wanes, certain things signal autumn: the shopping trip for new school clothes, the slant of sunlight through the tress, the breeze bearing Canadian coolness. And, perhaps most notably, every Episcopal Church hangs out a banner bearing the words: “Homecoming Sunday.”

Although I have never read a history of this custom, I suspect that Homecoming Sunday began in the early twentieth century as a way of welcoming back parishioners from their summer places after months away from church. At that time, Episcopalians conceived of church as religious “homes,” complete with parish parlors full of extended family, bustling with quotidian chores of flower arranging, ironing, and cooking, all under the care of a priest called “Father.” Homecoming Sunday liturgically marked a return to the regular schedule of work and school, and the family gathered around the table to engage worship and ministry once again. Coming home served as a welcoming metaphor in this domestic spiritual world.

If you grew up in the church, Homecoming Sunday is a lovely custom. And therein lies the problem. We no longer live in a world of Episcopal churchgoers where hanging out a sign announcing “Homecoming Sunday” invites the neighborhood to church. To us theological insiders, “Homecoming Sunday” may be a way of saying “Welcome Home to God,” a sort of subtle Episcopal evangelism. Of course, we would welcome newcomers—not just returnees—on Homecoming Sunday. Good intentions aside, in a society where less than 18% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, Homecoming Sunday seems increasingly irrelevant and even inhospitable. How can a church invite people to homecoming who have never been in the building in the first place? How can anyone understand finding a home in God if they have no spiritual language to express their longings? From the point of view of twenty-first century post-Christian people, the “Homecoming Sunday” banner may as well read “Members Only Club.”

With so much groaning about numerical decline and awkward evangelism, Homecoming Sunday is a good opportunity to rethink the messages we send to our neighbors. Therein, I have a modest proposal. Can Homecoming Sunday in favor of Open House Sunday. Instead of welcoming members back, invite everybody to church. Open God’s house to complete strangers, seekers, the curious, and the noisy. Not just Episcopal alumni.

Although church folk never consider it, the very act of walking on church property—much less through church doors—is a completely terrifying prospect for most people. Take away their fear. Give them a reason to visit. Offer tours. Let the neighbors roam through your building, trample your carpets, and ask impertinent questions about your furniture and decorations. Explain to them the meanings of Christian architecture, the stories depicted in the windows. Feed them. Have a party. Do not recruit for committee slots or solicit money for any purpose. Expect nothing in return.

Finally, measure the custom of Homecoming Sunday by the words of Jesus regarding hospitality, words that depict the church as an open community: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Luke 14: 12-13). We may well discover that “Open House,” describes both the ancient Christian practice of hospitality and the contemporary Episcopal Church far better than any old-fashioned homecoming.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of the award-winning Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One, 2006). She is a member of Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.

Baptisms, aisle 5

By Richard Helmer

“What do I need to do to get my child baptized?”

I’ve fielded this question, by phone, from people I have never met several times over the past year. The conversation has inevitably followed a somewhat vexing, but now familiar pattern:

It begins with the caller pulling out the “I’m an Episcopalian” card. The implication is clear enough: while perhaps I have not darkened the door of a church community for quite sometime, the fact that I was raised in the Episcopal Church means I have a claim on her sacramental rites, customs, and clergy. Then the claim gets pushed a bit further. Would a private baptism therefore be possible? Family are coming to visit on such and such a holiday, and wouldn’t it be nice to do it while everyone was in town?

I’m initially stymied by the request. I hear an almost subconscious cultural assumption being made about baptism: a church, like a grocery or convenience store, stocks certain products, and not least among them is baptism. Or a more apt analogy is that well-meaning parents who truly love their children want the best for them, so there’s a checklist of goods and services to procure: diapers, formula, toys, crib, health insurance, life insurance, and – oh, yes, coming sometimes almost as an afterthought – salvation or at least spiritual “insurance” . . . also known as baptism.

It’s hard not to sympathize. I can imagine in some cases the rumblings of a grandparent or an aunt and uncle or two behind the scenes. By pushing the importance of baptism, anxious relatives might somehow hook the next generation back into the church community. Then there is the natural inclination of a family scattered over many states to gather and engage in a customary ritual that has multi-generational roots. We have so few of these customs left as a society, it seems, and the church is one of the few institutions remaining with an understanding of them and their practice.

But baptism, of course, is not just a ritual. Nor is it simply an opportunity to touch base with family tradition or custom. And, for sure, it is not as everyday as taking out a life insurance policy for a family member. Parents who have their children baptized are making serious counter-cultural promises on their behalf:

• putting Christ at the center of their lives and household
• renouncing evil – which means evil is real and sometimes near at hand
• upholding the dignity of every human being – which means actively resisting the easy polemic, demonization, and protectionism of our society
• embracing a life of true obedience – which means so much more than the one-dimensional complicity that gives us cause to dismiss it in the name of freedom
• proclaiming the Gospel – which implies we need to know at least a little bit about it, and better yet endeavor to live into it!

The conversation begins to turn south the moment I express my desire to meet with the family at least four times before the baptism. I figure if I’m not doing at least as much consultation as I would before marrying a couple, I’m not encouraging the level of commitment baptism demands. Christian life-long union, after all, has its foundations ultimately in baptism, as are all our sacraments. I live in earthquake country. Foundations are profoundly important.

But beyond all this is among the most compelling moments of the baptismal rite for me personally, especially when it involves a young child or infant. Immediately after the baptism and chrismation, the child is often carried by the priest into the midst of the congregation, away from the parents. It’s too often done almost without a second thought, but the action itself says something profound about what has just happened: The parents have offered their child to God, and to the community – the Body of Christ. It’s a kind of offering that might well give most parents of small children pause for thought. It certainly does for me.

Moreover, the language of baptism is significant. The parents brought in a biological child. They go home with more than that: a little Christian, died and raised with God in Christ. This means things from then on will be different, or ought to be at least, for everyone. Parents need time and space to reflect on what this might mean.

My spiritual director is fond of pointing out that for the Christian community, water runs thicker than blood. Baptism trumps blood ties. Godparents, in some mysterious way, are considered to be even closer to their charge than biological parents. We rarely see that played out in practical ways these days, but at least there should come a recognition that the biological or adoptive parents are at most stewards of this new life, no longer owners. The newly baptized child is a living revelation that this precious, tender humanity belongs ultimately and completely to God. And baptism turns responsibility from the parents outward and into the community of the Body of Christ. This is one reason Jesus talks about potential division when it comes to choosing between loyalties to the Gospel and to blood ties. It’s dangerous, countercultural stuff. It’s about joining a new family that is not entirely recognized by even contemporary legal and secular laws and customs.

And here’s the final rub: we promise as part of the baptismal covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. In short, an important step in engaging in our baptismal covenant means being active in Christian community. This is where these phone conversations too often end. I gently remind our inquirers that baptism is about being part of community, and that in the baptismal rite the community pledges to uphold the child in a life-long journey, demanding a life-long relationship with the Body of Christ. The community has to be present to make this pledge!

So for the heart of this priest, at least, a private, convenient, impromptu baptism really won’t cut it. While pastoral exceptions might be made in extreme cases, most of us who have participated in a baptism with little catechetical foundation know the end result: we never see the children or their families again. We deserve no better.

God’s grace is indeed free, but how we respond to it surely matters if our relationship with God is real. Love requires more of us than just pulling a sacrament down off the shelf and moving into the checkout line. And our beloved children simply need and deserve more than that from a transformative spiritual tradition and a truly loving community.

So I don’t stock salvation insurance.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly at Caught by the Light.

What on earth is holiness?

By Martin L. Smith

I was in the presence of a holy man last month, and the evening I spent with him has set me thinking about holiness, that core concept most of us find so puzzling. Let’s admit it. The word holiness is infested with all sorts of unattractive connotations: otherworldliness, intense piety, life on a plane much higher than our own mundane existence. What on earth is holiness?

The man I am referring to is a Roman Catholic layman with a ministry of spiritual healing, and we met with him in a friend’s home, a typical domestic setting for the sessions of prayer and laying on of hands that he conducts up and down the country and abroad. There were remarkable healings that a number of us received and yet, quite apart from these experiences, I am just as grateful to God for refreshing my own faith in the reality of holiness. We were in direct contact with genuine holiness, the real thing, and it bears no resemblance to stereotypes at all. He was about as grounded a man as you could ever find. An unremarkable everyman, as my friend put it, who spoke about the work of God in plain, workmanlike terms. There was no drama, no manipulation, no ‘charisma’, no religiosity, just straightforward teaching and witness, and a kind of steady detachment salted with gentle humor. He had simply accepted this rarest of vocations as the agent of miracles, while continuing his regular life as a working man and volunteer in a soup kitchen, and undergoing the spiritual purging that kept ego out of the way.

Meeting Paul has sent me back to a quotation I once jotted down a few weeks after my ordination from Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. “When in the course of my life I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for example, saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which we can discern no commiseration, no tenderness in the sight of suffering humanity and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.”

Proust has put his finger on another of our stereotypes about holiness. We tend to think that a really holy person would be a paragon of meekness and gentleness who would never dream of doing anything to make us feel uncomfortable in any way. On the contrary, one of the manifestations of holiness is a kind of detachment, a non-dependency, that lets a person get on with the work of God, even though that might be a somewhat painful to everyone involved. And Paul was prepared to say some very direct things about the vocation of suffering and the meaning of pain that we never hear from the pulpit where preachers need to court popularity.

The more we reflect about this, the more likely we will find holiness closer at hand. We might find it in all sorts of areas, including that very risky one—the ministry of leadership. Just as people have this fantasy of the saint as someone who would never do or say anything that could ever cause us pain, so they imagine that good leaders are those who ooze empathy and concern and lovingly cocoon us with personal affirmation and uplift. In fact authentic leaders—holy leaders—are quite prepared to get on with God’s work fully prepared for that fact that that is bound to be upsetting and sometimes quite painful to us.

Few people have been as fearless as the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman in exposing the dynamics in which religious leaders get caught up, and he was as perceptive in his teaching as Proust was canny as an artist, about the way the ‘real thing’ stands out against counterfeits. Bogus leadership is soggy with dependency, collusion and denial; real leadership draws on inner resources of detachment and invariably draws fire from those who demand to be ‘cared for.’ Friedman didn’t pull his punches: here’s an example from his posthumous A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. “This tendency to adapt to immaturity and to sabotage strength is so often characteristic of chronically anxious systems that a good rule of thumb for leaders who are trying to pull any institution out its regression is that when people start calling you “cruel,” “autocratic,” “heartless,” “unfeeling,” “uncooperative,” and “cold,” there is a good chance you are going in the right direction.” (p. 69) Talk about hitting the nail on the head!

What is holiness? We need to keep probing this mystery in contemporary terms so that we get used to recognizing it. We find it wherever direct reliance on God day by day gives people freedom to act on his behalf without being hampered by the need to feed their own egos—or ours.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Wardrobe malfunctions

By Sara McGinley

Have you ever noticed how baby poo has an uncanny ability to expand and multiply and how that capability is exponentially truer when you’re wearing nice clothing or the child is wearing nice clothing or a lot of people are watching you?

I wasn’t aware of that law of nature until almost exactly 3 years ago when I took my then infant son to church for the first time.

He was the first clergy baby in that church in a very long time and his first visit to church was a highly anticipated event.

That day just as communion was about to start I noticed a little wetness on my arm. When I looked down to investigate I noticed that my wrist and Eliot’s side were covered in some, I’ll call it, stuff.

I raced out of church with my huge, new mommy over-stuffed diaper bag, changed him out of his cute little red outfit I’d spent hours deciding on for his first trip to church and put him in the runner up outfit (a little baseball uniform which included a hat which I didn’t put on my poor pooping baby). I raced back to church and was able to run up to the altar to be the very last person to get communion.

I felt pretty cool.

He was just a few weeks old and I’d managed to get about 15 gallons of poop off of me and him and get his clothes off of him and him back in a new diaper and new clothes and have communion.

On my way back to my seat in the 7th or 8th row of the church three people noticed that Eliot was wearing a different outfit.

Before that day I’d felt like I was living in a fish bowl.

Until that day I didn’t know the full extent of it.

I realized that I was living in a fish bowl where costume changes are noticed.

I can’t say that I thrive in the fish bowl. I mean, truly, there is a reason there are signs on the fish tanks at the pediatricians office. “Please don’t tap the glass I will make the fish sick.”

My husband and kids and I took a whole entire 2 week vacation recently.

On that vacation we were just anonymous humans fishing the lake, just another organism walking through the woods, just another tourist eating the over-priced kids hot-dog on the patio.

We were nobodies.

We were nothing of great interest to anyone.

I didn’t fully realize I was on a break from being noticed until one evening when I took my now 3 year old son out for dinner without a diaper bag or even a diaper stuck in my pocket.

During dinner he filled his pants in one of those amazing multiplying ways.

I decided we could just go in the bathroom, remove the stuff, wipe the stuff and return his pants to his little boy bottom and head back home without much trouble.

I anonymously walked off the full patio at the restaurant. Anonymously walked through the bar and anonymously walked into the bathroom.

Once in the bathroom Eliot wanted to look at stuff.

I wanted to get his pants and shoes and diaper off without laying him down on the insanely wet (yuck) public bathroom floor.

He wanted to run away during the wiping part.

I wanted to get it over with.

At one exasperating moment he ran, I grabbed and slipped everything was just enough stressed and pulled in just the right way that I ripped. Yes. Ripped. The entire front end of my pants wide open.

Don’t imagine that rip as a small tear.

It was a rip. A foot-long tear across the front of my pants.

It ran from near my waste band to pretty close to my knee.

So I was stuck with a stinky, dirty three year old without a diaper and the very front of my pants completely hanging in the breeze.

I couldn’t stay where I was. It was a one-seater with someone knocking on the door behind me.

So I just put things back together as well as I could and walked out of the bathroom and back through the patio to my husband and daughter pretending there was nothing at all smelly or exposed about us.

And no one noticed us at all. We were just another mom and her son. Just another pair with their pants on all wrong.

Sara McGinley, irreverent priest's wife and mother of two, writes the blog subtly named, Sara McGinley. She is a lay person from Minnesota who thinks the term 'lay person' is unnecessarily suggestive.

William Stringfellow reads the Bible

By Greg Jones

William Stringfellow was a gay, chain-smoking, Harvard-trained New York City lawyer, who lived and worked among the poor of East Harlem in the last half of the 20th century.

In the late 60s, he was a radical supporter of the anti-war movement, an extreme critic of the Nixon administration, and a hands-on advocate for the poor and hated. He defended Bishop Pike in 1966 against charges of heresy. He supported and defended the first women to be irregularly ordained. He befriended the Berrigans in their anti-war protests.

To many, one might suppose Stringfellow was the classic 'liberal Episcopalian.' Yet, in much the way that Stanley Hauerwas rejects 'theological liberalism,' Stringfellow was not a theological liberal. Indeed, he was a misfit among liberals who shared much of his social justice vision. Walter Wink has said that Stringfellow, "seems to have come, theologically, out of nowhere." But he didn't come from nowhere. He came from the land of the Bible. It is quite evident that William Stringfellow lived, advocated and worked as he did based on his deep commitment to living under the Word of God in the Bible.

As such, alongside his social justice activism, Stringfellow was also a surprisingly bold critic of Mainline Protestantism's "virtual abandonment of the Word of God in the Bible" for a mess of modernistic philosophical porridge. His observation of things inside the establishment-friendly Episcopal Church, and other mainline churches in America, was that folk were neither "intimate with nor reliant upon the Word of God in the Bible, whether in preaching, in services in the sanctuaries, or in education and nurture. Yet it is the Word of God in the Bible that all Christians are particularly called to hear, witness, trust, honor and love."

According to Stringfellow, the curious abandonment of the Bible by the Church began as a Modern Western phenomenon, with the intellectualization and academic specialization of biblical study. In their exceeding zeal to be regarded as intellectual equals by a secular intelligentsia, Mainline Protestant clergy and faculty put 'objective scholarship' ahead of 'faithful engagement' with the Word of God in the Bible. In good modern rationalist fashion, they began to look at the Bible as a container of intellectual or philosophical propositions to be analyzed and understood – as if the Bible were no different than the writings of Marx, Plato or Buddha.

Stringfellow tells a funny story to illustrate how far the elephant of biblical indifference had gone into the Episcopal Church:

[In the early 1960's I served] on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the scope of the total ministry of the Church in modern society. The commission numbered about forty persons, a few laity and the rest professional theologians, ecclesiastical authorities and clergy. The group met, in the course of a year and a half, three times for sessions of more than a week. The first conference, as I recall it, floundered in churchy shoptalk that anyone outside the Church would find exasperatingly irrelevant, largely incoherent or simply dull.

Toward the end of that meeting some of those present proposed it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Word of God in the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was argued, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission and, in any event, would not impede them. The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one Bishop present put it, that "most of us have been to seminary and know what the Bible says: the problem now is to apply it to today's world." The Bishop's view was seconded (with undue enthusiasm, I thought at the time) by the Dean of one of the Episcopal seminaries as well as by the clergy bureaucrats from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.

[To me, the implication of the group's] decision not to engage in Bible study is that the Gospel, in its biblical embodiment, is of an essentially pedantic character – a static body of knowledge which, once systematically organized, taught and learned, has use ceremonially, sentimentally, nostalgically, and as a source from which deductions can be made to guide the religious practice and ethical conduct of contemporary Christians. If that is what the Bible is, then it is generically undistinguished from religious scripture of any sort and, for that matter, is of no more dignity than any secular ideology or philosophy. If that is what the Bible is, then it is a dead word and not the Living Word.

Such a view of the Bible authorizing, evidently, a merely academic use of the Bible, if pressed to its final logic, challenges the versatility and generosity of God's revelation of Himself in history and is a form of doubt deplored in James (Jas 1.5-8; 3.13-4.6) Yet, that very way of regarding the Bible is not only current among ecclesiastical authorities or seminary professionals, it has gained a wide acceptance in the last decade or so in programs of lay theological education in the several denominations and interdenominationally."

Stringfellow argued that Christians ought not primarily to think of the Bible as something to be dissected, figured out, and discussed as if it were a dead frog on a lab table – or an encyclopedia of ancient concepts. Rather, he argued that the Bible should be engaged with by living people in living ways – for in and of itself the Word of God is living and active.

Yes, to Stringfellow, the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is a thing not dead, but a Word militant, free and alive. Christians should be focused on living within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. Our primary vocation as Christians, therefore, regarding that Word of God, is to be open to it, to listen to it, and to live it – to live humanly and biblically as he would say. Yet this kind of open listening to the Word of God in the Bible – is the very thing we modern people are no longer very good at. Stringfellow says we can't listen to the Word of God in the Bible because we are not particularly good at listening to anything outside ourselves.

But this is the key for the faithful Church in Stringfellow's eyes. The single most significant thing a Christian must do is intend to be open to and to listen to the Word of God in the Bible. He says, "for that, a person must not merely desire to hear the Word of God but must also be free to hear the Word of God. This means becoming vulnerable to the Word and to the utterance of the Word in much the same way as one has to become vulnerable to another human being if one truly cares to know that other person and to hear his or her word."

Stringfellow explains that a person must come to the Bible quietly, eagerly, expectantly and ready to listen. "One must (as nearly as one can) confront the Bible naively," without preconceptions or baggage about it. The primary question of the seeker after God looking to encounter the Word of God in the Bible is – "what does this Word say?" "Not, what do I think? Not, do I agree? Not, is this relevant to my life and circumstances? But, straightforwardly, first of all, 'What is this word?'

At the same time, one must "approach the Bible realistically – rather than superstitiously – recognizing that access to the same Word of God that the Bible bespeaks" is given to us also in the event of Jesus Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection – the pivotal event of all human history – and in the incessant agitations of the Holy Spirit – and in the constitution of creation itself.

Stringfellow harshly criticizes Modernist literalism as a tendency which produces either an irrelevant Bible or a fundamentalist Christianity. Stringfellow would argue that the kind of Modern reductionism rampant among incredulous agnostics and credulous fundamentalists alike is false in that does not really engage with the living Word of God in the Bible. Moreover, this kind of biblical literalism is a denigration of the humanity of the reader or listener whose role in engaging the text is reduced to a passive one, and a flattening out of a text which is divinely multidimensional.

It is worth noting that Stringfellow admired Karl Barth, and Barth admired Stringfellow. Barth once said publicly of Stringfellow, "Listen to this man." For Stringfellow and Barth, despite their many differences, they both believed that theology ought to be no different than proclamation and witness to the Word of God. Stringfellow said,

"[This is what makes] Karl Barth such a threatening and unnerving figure among the professional theologians. ... For him to speak theologically is indistinguishable from confessing the Gospel."
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at

Of ordination and spaghetti sauce

By Ann Fontaine

How do you know when God calls? There is no caller i.d. from AT&T – Angelic Telephone and Telegraph? How do you know if it is God or Ego. For the first part of my life I did not think about becoming a priest, as it was not a possibility for women. To me it was like wanting to become a professional football player – something I actually considered until it became clear that I was only going to be 100 pounds and 5’5” – among other disqualifying attributes.

After I returned to the church from my non-believer phase, I became more and more active as a layperson. I was happy teaching Sunday School, organizing programs, directing church camp, and serving on various local and national church committees and councils. I was sent to Tanzania and Mexico and Guatemala and all over the U.S. by the church. I felt that I was making a contribution to the life of the church and was I enjoying myself. I had a lay preaching license and served on the worship planning team.

In 1974, women began to be ordained. It was not on my radar as something for me but people would occasionally ask me if I was going to become a “minister” – meaning ordained. I said – not me – I am a minister and contented with my life. The idea began to pop up in my mind. I would say to the idea – “no thanks – I’m happy being a member of the laity.” This idea became more insistent, however, we had three school age children and my husband had a busy medical practice – it would be too inconvenient for all of us.

This recurring thought about ordination appeared off and on for years. Finally, I said, “Fine, if you (whoever “you” are) want me to do this, I want to hear if from Jim (my husband) and I am not telling him.”

I was certain that would never happen so I completely forgot about it.

Two weeks later, Jim was making spaghetti sauce. This a production number at our house, involving his homegrown tomatoes, onions, herbs, etc. He puts on an Italian opera with a tenor, preferably Bjorling or Gigli. Suddenly he looks up from stirring the aromatic sauce and says, “We have to talk.” Startled I say, “Okay.” Putting the sauce on to simmer, we go for a walk in the Wyoming afternoon. He says, “It just came to me – you better go to seminary and you better go soon or you will be dead before you get ordained.” I was stunned.

So the next year I left him at home with our teenage son – the other kids had gone off to college by now – and went to seminary. I still don’t know if it was God or Ego but here I am ordained and loving it.

People ask – how do you know if it is God? I really don’t know, even with this experience. I think the truth is God does not really care about our choices in ministry but about our faithfulness and the outcome of our choices. Regardless of the path one chooses the results show whether the choice is of God or not.

But I do believe God loves opera and the incense of food made for family and friends.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Mental health in our prisons

By George Clifford

Approximately one-third to one-half of the people in prison in the United States are addicts or mentally ill, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. At a meeting that I recently attended, several healthcare advocates remarked that socially conservative Democratic and Republican legislators object to the state providing treatment for criminal wrongdoers who are addicts or mentally ill. These advocates made that observation after presenting the legislators with well-documented evidence showing that treating convicted criminals for addiction and mental illness saves taxpayers substantial sums. Treatment, in other words, costs less than incarceration. Treatment also diminishes recidivism and prevents future crimes associated with addiction, not to mention offering health to the one who receives treatment. Nevertheless, socially conservative legislators have consistently blocked efforts in North Carolina and many other states to provide appropriate treatment to wrongdoers.

As a Christian who has spent most of his working life as a military chaplain, I found the attitude of those legislators surprising and confusing. Some military leaders do not agree with providing help to wrongdoers. However, the military system – a bastion of social conservatives – emphasizes both accountability and help.

Accountability holds people responsible for their actions, a key component of justice. Accountability is also an important element in shattering the wall of denial with which many addicts and mentally ill people seek to insulate themselves from facing the reality of their disease.

Help is providing treatment, whether while the person remains in the military or through the Veterans Administration after the service discharges the person (a possible consequence of accountability).

The military system is far from perfect. Some leaders are too quick to hold people accountable and too slow to offer help. Some personnel refuse the help offered or are treatment failures. Yet the military system retains and values both emphases.

As a chaplain, I spoke with considerable moral and systemic authority when an emphasis on accountability overwhelmed the emphasis on getting a sick person help. Uniformed healthcare providers similarly challenged the system, speaking up to emphasize an individual’s right to treatment and the benefits to the military of providing that treatment. The military’s centrally funded healthcare system ensured that financial costs never entered into a local decision about a particular individual. The military decades ago had recognized that the cost of helping people was less than the cost of recruiting and training replacement personnel.

The military system, at least with respect to this issue, is profoundly Christian. Addiction is not a moral issue. Addiction is a health issue, a reality the medical professions have recognized and taught for more than half a century. Modern medicine defines alcoholism, for example, as a chronic, progressive disease that unless treated is fatal. Continuing to treat addicts as sinners and moral reprobates reinforces the illness rather than helping the addict move towards sobriety and health. Likewise, mental illness is every bit as real as physical illness. Indeed, any dichotomy between the two is probably artificial as brain research increasingly uncovers the physiological basis of mental illness.

Liberal and conservative Christians split over their interpretation of many aspects of Jesus’ message and life. Debates rage over how Jesus healed, what illnesses Jesus healed, who Jesus healed, etc. However, one point on which near unanimity exists among these disparate voices is their agreeing that Jesus did in fact heal the sick.

The Christian tradition also highlights God's justice. Justice without mercy is not Christian because it contradicts God's love manifested in Jesus. Conversely, mercy without justice is not Christian. Mercy without justice would leave the Church with nothing to say to the oppressed, the exploited, and the downtrodden. Jesus rebuked Pharisees who twisted the Torah to their own advantage, warned of a day of judgment, and drove out of the temple those who profited exorbitantly from the devotion of God's people. Addiction and mental illness do not exempt people from constructive accountability for their actions.

The Christian Scriptures make it clear that all are my neighbors. Some early Christians attempted to apply a filter, screening people to determine to whom they should (e.g., Jews) and should not (e.g., non-Jews) communicate the gospel. The New Testament insists that the gospel is for all. Paul identified himself as THE apostle to the Gentiles. Peter has a wonderful vision in which he sees, not once but three times, a cloth lowered from heaven that contains all kinds of animals, clean and unclean. God tells Peter, Do not call unclean anything that I made. When a non-Jew sends for Peter, Peter realizes that God is referring to people, not to food.

What confuses me about the opposition of socially conservative legislators to providing proper healthcare treatment for wrongdoers who are addicts or mentally ill is that this policy is not only Christian but has also proven financially prudent. In a state like North Carolina, where a large majority of the voters claim to be Christian, what surprises me is that socially conservative legislators are sufficiently numerous to block the establishment of policies and funding for treatment for wrongdoers who are addicts or mentally ill.

This is one of those rare times when doing good saves money. Addicts and the mentally ill frequently make lousy neighbors. That is irrelevant. God made them. They are God's children. That means that addicts and the mentally ill, no matter how unlovable, deserve justice and our best healing efforts. This is not an either or proposition. They deserve both. With the right measures of justice and healing, many addicts and mentally ill will become great neighbors and productive, taxpaying citizens.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Mother Teresa's labors of faith

By Rona R. Harding

Tomorrow we are celebrating Labor Day, a day when we remember all those who labor for us. This past week, we also have remembered Mother Teresa, on the 10th anniversary of her death, who labored for more than 66 years in the slums of Calcutta, showing great love and mercy to the poor. The revelation that this was not always easy work is shown in several dozen recently released letters that she wrote to her confessors and spiritual advisors in the 1950s and ’60s, expressing doubts and struggles with her faith. It has been shocking to some that she sometimes felt far from God as she labored showing Christ’s love to those around her. My 95-year-old father, for example, says she cannot be considered a saint if she ever doubted. But I have a different view.

In 1981, I worked for two months in Calcutta with Mother Teresa’s sisters and brothers of Charity in the Home of the Dying Destitutes. At that time, Mother Teresa was in Rome nursing Pope John Paul II, who had been shot as he mingled in the crowds at the Vatican, so I did not personally work with her, but I participated in her work. To walk into the Home of the Dying Destitutes was like walking into Auschwitz at the end of World War II. All one could see were living skeletons, hollow bodies and pain. For that reason, Mother Teresa had instructed her brothers and sisters and volunteers to turn their backs and look first to a wall that had a crucifix of Christ on it, with the words “I thirst” written beside it. These words reminded us that as we ministered to the dying, we would be ministering to Christ. Then all of us prayed this prayer she had written which was transcribed under the crucifix: Dear Lord, Great Healer, I kneel before you since every good and perfect gift must come from you. I pray, give skill to my hand, clear vision to my mind, kindness and sympathy to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift at least part of the burden of my suffering fellowmen, and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness that with simple faith of a child I may rely on you. Amen.

Then, and only then, we would go to work. The men would go to the male side of the home, while the women would work on the female side. We would bathe, change sheets, rub with ointment the parched itching skin of the starving, cook food and feed them. Usually the dying would revive a bit when they were brought in from the streets, from the comfort and care they were given, before they died. Some would get better and be transferred to one of Mother Teresa’s rehab hostels, where they would be taught a skill as they gained more strength. The sisters and brothers would send for an Imam, or Hindu priest, or priest – whatever the religion the dying was – so that each would have last rites in their own tradition. Comfort and love filled the place. It was quiet and dignified. But the work was hard and thankless. The brothers and sisters worked six days a week, ministering on the streets, running an orphanage, the various hospitals and the leper colonies. They had volunteers who would come in on Sundays so that they could go to church. We started the day with communion at 6:30 a.m. (for me at the Anglican Church across the street and for them in their chapel) and ended the day together at 4 p.m. with an hour of silent worship at Mother Teresa’s Mother House, in the chapel in front of the figure of St. Mary, mother of our Lord.

I personally found the work rewarding, but recognized that I would not have survived three days in Calcutta without a purpose, for the poverty was overwhelming, more than I had ever seen before or since. Lepers without faces, fingerless hands, children with leper spots, continue to haunt me to this day. Although the Missionaries of Charity are doing a great deal to stop the disease from spreading in the body, Calcutta remains a city with more than 100,000 people living on its streets, where disease, hunger, violence and cruelty are rampant. It is not unusual to see a parent starving a child to make her more pitiful in order to beg for money. Nor is it unusual to see a child whose parents have cut off his arms and legs, in order to make him into a beggar for them. Such is the depressing environment of Calcutta. I cannot begin to describe the magnitude of the problems there.

So no wonder Mother Teresa was depressed from time to time and felt dry and thirsty for God. She was constantly ministering not only to the poor, her more than 900 brothers and sisters and volunteers, but also administrating the numerous ministries that her witness founded all over the world. St. James in his Epistle says, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Or to say it another way, our faith must translate into works. There will or have been times in all our lives when we have not felt our faith, not felt the love of God, nor the love of our family members. But at such times we have lived out our faith as duty, believing in the will of God. This I believe Mother Teresa did in those dark times of her life, which all the saints have experienced, and yet remained faithful. St. James goes on to say, “faith without works is dead,” so by her works we can say her faith was alive, for she choose to believe, to love and to work, although she did not always feel it.

And finally, because Calcutta is such an overwhelming place, I believe that Mother Teresa in her love for all those she touched emptied herself completely from time to time. Her humility would not allow her to take credit for the honors she was given, for she was doing it all of God, for Christ Jesus. Her darkness in her letters, which she often called “thirst” to me shows that she entered into the passion of Christ, who thirsted for a better world. Her questioning at times her faith, as a recent Time Magazine article (“Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith,” Aug. 23, 2007) suggested, echo Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me!” And yet, she continued to work and love, finding solace in her work. For remember, these letters are not daily scripts, but only represent occasional periods in her 66 years of work. They say to us that just as Jesus felt thirst and passion, and just as Mother Teresa did, so will we from time to time in our lives, if we have not done so already. The secret is to continue to love, to believe and serve and life will return.

The Rev. Rona Harding is rector of the Church of the Ascension, Lexington Park, Maryland, in the Diocese of Washington.

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