Rowan Williams and "the distinctive charism of bishops"

A statement by Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church at Preparing for Lambeth: A Conference for Religion Writers held at Virginia Theological Seminary on May 30, 2008.

There are two dynamics that will significantly affect our bishops at the Lambeth Conference. One is the exploration of the role of bishops and the other is the discussion of the proposed covenant.

Examination of the role of bishops:

At the opening of the Lambeth Conference in a traditional “retreat” style of brief theological reflection by the Archbishop, silence and mediation by the participants, then reflection, our bishops and all invited bishops, will reflect upon the archbishop’s words about “the bishop as a disciple of and leader in God’s mission”.

This event is a conference for bishops and it seems completely right for this topic to kick off this historic event. But I think that this topic also speaks to the Archbishop’s hope to confront what he has identified as a “major ecclesiological issue”. I think that the Archbishop has given up trying to get our bishops to take an independent stand on the future of the moratorium of same sex blessings for instance, and is now moving to “plan B” and turning his attention to encouraging our bishops to understand their “distinctive charism” as bishops, perhaps in a new way. I envision Archbishop Rowan pondering in, to use his word, “puzzlement” why these bishops of the Episcopal church don’t just stand up and exercise their authority as bishops like most of the rest of the bishops in the Communion do. Why would our bishops “bind themselves to future direction for the Convention?” Some of us in TEC in the past have thought that perhaps the Archbishop and others in the Anglican Communion do not understand the baptismal covenant that we hold foundational. Perhaps they just don’t “get” the way we choose to govern ourselves; the ministers of the church as the laity, clergy and the bishops, and that at the very core of our beliefs we believe in the God- given gifts of all God’s people, none more important than the other, just gifts differing. We believe that God speaks uniquely through laity, bishops, priests and deacons. This participatory structure in our church allows a fullness of revelation and insight that must not be lost in this important time of discernment. But I think our governance is clearly understood. I just don’t think the Archbishop has much use for it.

In his Advent, 2007 letter, Archbishop Williams states:

A somewhat complicating factor in the New Orleans statement has been the provision that any kind of moratorium is in place until General Convention provides otherwise. Since the matters at issue are those in which the bishops have a decisive voice as a House of Bishops in General Convention, puzzlement has been expressed as to why the House should apparently bind itself to future direction from the Convention. If that is indeed what this means, it is in itself a decision of some significance. It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic Episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in the Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.

At the Lambeth Conference, I believe that the voice of the conformed bishop will be easily heard and affirmed. The prophetic voice will not be easily heard.

Our bishops will experience a dynamic that will encourage them to guard the unity and to hold the communion together, perhaps even through the vehicle of a covenant.

The Archbishop has made it clear to our bishops that when they accepted the invitation to Lambeth, they have indicated that they are willing to work with implementation of the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a covenant. Again, in the Archbishop’s Advent letter:

I have underlined in my letter of invitation (to the Lambeth Conference) that acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant.

A word here about the process and how the process for receiving comments on the second draft of the covenant underscores the understanding of the role of the bishops by the ABC. The people of the provinces, the clergy and laity have a voice regarding the second draft through their bishop. Unlike comments received on the first draft from all interested members of the communion, with a process for laity and clergy to give direct input, comments on the second draft are made solely, directly by bishops. The Secretary General wrote to all the primates and provincial secretaries with the St. Andrew’s Report and the Joint Standing Committee supporting resolution. There were three specific questions attached and the primate was asked to determine how to address the questions and which body was the most appropriate to answer. The questions are:

1) Is the province able to give "in principle" commitment to the Covenant process at this time (without committing itself to the details of any text)?
2) Is it possible to give some indication of any synodical process which would have to be undertaken in order to adopt the Covenant in the fullness of time?
3) In considering the St. Andrew's Draft for an Anglican Covenant, are there any elements which would need extensive change in order to make the process of synodical adoption viable.

The input of the clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church is especially important as the Anglican Communion considers the development of a covenant. The joint work of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops is the highest institutional expression of our belief that God speaks uniquely through laity, priests and deacons and bishops. It is thus crucially important that our bishops go to Lambeth knowing what we think about the current state of the proposed Anglican covenant.

AD 70 and why it matters

(This is the second in a series “7 Dates and Why They Matter for Anglican Faith.” Read part one.)

By Derek Olsen

The first Temple in Jerusalem—the one built by Solomon, described in the Scriptures—was destroyed by Babylonian forces at the opening of the sixth century before Christ. That event kicked off a identity crisis for the Children of Israel that led to the coalescing of oral traditions and texts into what we now know as the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. An equally momentous event was the destruction of the second Temple—the one built by the exiles returning from Babylon and expanded until a few years of its destruction—at the hands of Roman legions. The date was AD 70—the event is known to history as the Jewish War.

In this conflict four armies sought to destroy the others, then to capture and hold Jerusalem. The name of the war is ironically apt—three of these armies were Jewish. The war was as much internecine as international, a conflict among factions who refused to unite against a common foe. A series of corrupt and incompetent administrators fed a festering resentment of foreign rule that finally flared into open war in AD 66. An initial coalition led by moderate Jewish leaders crushed two Roman legions, buying time for the preparation of the country for war. Instead of consolidating and fortifying their common positions, the coalition collapsed into factional conflict, each fighting for their own aims and causes, and ultimately undermining the defense of the nation.

A determined Roman attack under the ambitious and capable general Vespasian and his son Titus drove through the divided forces, quickly capturing Galilee and penetrating into the Judean heartland. In less than a year, Jerusalem was threatened from several sides. The suicide of Nero saved the capitol temporarily. Titus was sent to pay homage to the new emperor and to receive new orders, but during the journey the imperial seat changed hands again; Titus, uncertain, returned. During the delay, the Jewish forces of Simon son of Gioras took southern Judea and Idumea. His purpose, however, was his own aggrandizement, not the prosecution of war against Rome. Of his own initiative, Vespasian recaptured ground lost during the winter but was halted yet again due to factional politics: Roman politics. He was proclaimed emperor by his legions and did not let the opportunity pass him by. Instead, he traveled to Alexandria to gather forces for an entry into Italy.

Once again, the Judean forces were granted a respite. They had the opportunity to fortify, to plan, and to strike in the absence of the Roman commander; the opportunity, as before, was wasted. In the winter of 69/70, Titus was ordered to complete the capture of Jerusalem. Titus’s four legions faced an entrenched force of some 23,000 troops. Fortunately for Titus, this force was, in truth, three separate armies constantly engaged in fighting one another. During the course of the siege this number was reduced to two after John of Gischala’s consolidation of the Zealot forces but never was it a unified force. After many weeks of siege three sets of walls were breached and the Temple compound itself came under attack. A full-scale assault captured the outer courtyard. Regrouping, on the next day Roman forces set fire to, then sacked, the sanctuary itself. With the fall of the Temple, Jerusalem was symbolically captured and destroyed but rebels continued to hold out for another month before hostilities officially came to an end. The final footnote to the war was the eventual capture of the rebel holdout at Masada in AD 73.

As with the destruction of the First Temple, the destruction of the Second required a radical re-visioning of what it meant to be Jewish from a theological perspective. Second Temple Judaism had many movements—some espousing conflicting or even contradictory beliefs. While the historian Josephus mentions only three “schools” within Judaism, his account—intended entirely for Roman consumption—glossed over nuances and passed in silence over a number of smaller groups. With the destruction of the Temple and no reasonable hope of rebuilding it (since Scripture mandated that the legitimate temple be located in Jerusalem), a theological vacuum loomed large at the center of Israel’s self-identity. From the chaos, two groups emerged—but only one of them emerged as Jewish.

The first group was the Pharisees. In contrast to the Sadducees and other who focused upon the Temple and its sacrifices, the Pharisees focused upon embodying the requirements of Torah in their daily life and work. They reasoned that the holiness enjoined in Temple worship wasn’t simply about a building; it was central to who God was calling the entire land and its people to be. Thus, they sought to answer Scripture’s call to be a holy people and strove to obey the purity laws of the Temple even within their own homes. With the Temple’s destruction, the Pharisees’ way of life was minimally disturbed and they kept alive a theology and practice oriented to the Temple despite its physical absence. Many of the Sadducees converted to this way of life and what started with the Pharisees was codified in the late second century Mishnah and more completely in the 6th century Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today grew from these movement. But normativity isn’t always achieved by describing who you are—it also means describing who you’re not.

The early Christians existed within an odd place. The first followers of Jesus were faithful Jewish people; Acts tells us repeatedly of the apostles and others praying and worshipping in the Temple. One of the reasons so many conflicts with the Pharisees appear in the pages of the New Testament is because they held so much in common (indeed—Paul uses the similarity to great advantage in Acts 23:6-9). With the success of the Pauline mission and the outreach to Gentiles in the years leading up to the Jewish War, however, Christianity grew to have more Gentile than Jewish adherents in its successive generations. The first great theological struggle of the Church (led, Luke tells us, by a sizable body of former Pharisees) revolved around the relationship between Christianity and Jewish identity—did a person have to become Jewish before they could become Christian? The answer that the Church settled upon—as testified by Acts 15 and by Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—was “no”. They became the second group that emerged, but they did not emerge as Jewish.

In their developing self-identities, both Jewish and Christian believers defined themselves as “not them” and the way these decisions were embodied would haunt both groups for millennia to come. Christians were forcibly excised from Jewish communities and kicked out of the synagogues. The hurt and upheaval this caused was captured in the pages of the New Testament as pronouncements and denouncements against “the Jews” and laid the groundwork for theologically based anti-Semitism that would flare into violence repeatedly over the centuries.

For this was the time that much of the New Testament itself was coming into being. By AD 70 the first generation of Christian leaders and eyewitness were dying off—or were killed off—and the tumultuous circumstances in Israel were a considerable factor in these events. Indeed, any New Testament scholars see find in Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Matthew 24|Mark 13|Luke 21) echoes of first- or secondhand accounts of the siege and fall of Jerusalem.

Too, the message was expanding rapidly through the Empire and written documents—letters, treatises, and histories—served a vital role in ensuring that the faith was spreading in a uniform fashion. Furthermore, letters that had been written to individual churches earlier—like the letters of Paul—were gathered into anthologies and circulated widely beyond their original audiences. While the Church’s canon would remain in flux for almost another three centuries, most of the debates were about books at the periphery (Hebrews and Revelation, for example). The four canonical Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the central Catholic Epistles were the normative texts of the emerging Church by the middle of the second century.

AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple thus triggered the formal break—on both sides—between Christianity and Judaism, and was one of the driving forces for the writing of the New Testament. And, in and through that event, in their own grappling with the laws of the Temple and the mysteries of Christ, the authors of the New Testament present their own vision of the Temple—one not built by human hands and impregnable against Roman assault: a temple built of living stones, a community gathered in love, possessed by the Spirit, where Christ is the cornerstone, the head, and the heart.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Blood sacrifice

By Heidi Shott

One recent, magnificent Saturday, the temperature hit 85 degrees here in midcoast Maine. I spent some time fiddling in the garden, admiring the green pea shoots popping up through the dirt. My son Marty and I walked to the neighborhood fish ladder and watched thousands of struggling alewives ascending, in little fits and starts, the tortuous 42 vertical feet from the tidal Damariscotta River to the concrete dam that marks the southernmost shore of Damariscotta Lake, their birthplace. Once over the dam and into the mill pond, these mackerel-like fish spawn and then late in the summer they slip and slide back down the ladder and out to the open sea. Next spring they’re compelled to do it all over again.

At one point I pulled out the hammock, set it up for the season, and just lay there enjoying the welcome warmth and the view of the mill pond and the repeated whoosh of my son Colin whacking the heads off the dandelions with a badminton racquet. The ecstasy lasted about ten seconds before the black flies found me.

The black fly. The bane of what passes for spring in Maine hovered around my hairline and behind my ears with the intention of extracting little droplets of A Positive. I hauled myself out of the hammock with a sigh and walked down to the dock where there was a wisp of breeze. Every few seconds the skin of the mill pond flickered as a newly-arrived alewife struck a black fly on the surface. Down below the dam, where the fish are the thickest, the gulls and cormorants feed from the sidelines on the fish that get waylaid on the rocks. If you’re lucky, once or twice during the alewife season, which runs the month of May, you might look skyward at just the right moment to see one of the neighborhood eagles flying by with a fish clutched in its talon en route to its nest over the far line of pine trees.

Black flies, alewives, and eagles. I stood on my dock looking at the chill, black water thinking how superfluous we humans are to this particular chain of connections. But then a black fly started to suck a bit of blood from the tender flesh at the corner of my right eye. Instinctively I squished it with my index finger and flicked it away to the pond. At that moment it occurred to me that my blood and my family’s blood and the blood of my-until-recently-cooped-up neighbors is what feeds this remarkable system. In May we come out of our homes en masse, feed the black flies who, heavy with our donation, skim the water to be eaten by alewives who are in turn eaten by eagles and osprey eager to feed their young. One sad spring several years ago, the eaglets died of hunger in their nearby nest because the alewives were delayed in making their journey up the river. It’s true. I have neighbors who monitor these things with high-powered binoculars.

Back on the dock, I felt a twinge of guilt for squishing my tiny fly friend. What’s a bit of pain and an unsightly red welt when I could help to feed the eaglets? It’s a small price to pay to live amid this natural wonder and beauty in a setting that would resemble a photo in the L.L. Bean catalogue if only we had nice lawn furniture and professional landscaping. By letting myself be chomped, I can be a living sacrifice – a little of my life given freely will support a little of theirs. Of course the sacrificial life, particularly when it involves blood sacrifice, has fallen a bit out of fashion over the past couple of thousand years. But in this natural setting, it represents a yielding, deferential way of life that does not much diminish me as a giver but rather offers my small oblation up to the world.

Last Tuesday night, after the local school budget passed, my seven years as a school board member ended. Over the years my sons resented my absence on the second Wednesday of each month. I didn't help them with their homework or read to them or put them to bed on many weeknights. But it gave them a little guy time with their dad. They get to break the rules, stay up late, play pinball after 9 p.m. All in all my community service has equaled a very small sacrifice. I can think of dozens of people who give much, much more out of the substance of their lives for the benefit of others, not to mention a lot of black flies and the alewives who, wittingly or not, give up the whole thing.

Still I worry that my modern children won’t learn about sacrifice, blood or otherwise. Come summer I know that Colin will walk around the house with a flyswatter and recite Ogden Nash’s couplet, “God in his wisdom made the fly/but then forgot to tell us why.” Maybe in time he’ll take a larger view, but until then, all I can say is I’m glad Colin isn’t in charge of the universe.

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

Walking humbly on the Camino de Santiago

By Donald Schell

From the bowl filled with large colored I took one that said, ‘Walk Humbly.’ They were like political buttons of various colors. Other buttons in the bowl quoted other bits of the prophet Micah’s saying, ‘Love Mercy,’ and ‘Do Justice.’ The buttons were hospitality gifts from the Crossroads Chaplaincy at the University of Washington, which I was visiting last month as a council member with Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.

Today I’m walking the Camino de Santiago with eleven other pilgrims. It was knowing I’d be back walking the Camino again that made ‘Walk humbly’ speak so compellingly to me. ‘Walk humbly’ was what the Camino taught me the first time I walked it. I took the button expecting Micah’s words were guiding my return and the re-learning that it’s bringing.

On first walking the Camino my mind was filled with expectations, devout imaginings and a huge effort to “ do it right.” Ten years ago my daughter Maria had just graduated from college. When she said she was going to make this month-long pilgrim’s walk after graduation, I asked if I could come. Later she told me that she’d wanted to ask me to walk with her but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to say ‘yes.’

When we walked through the medieval gate of St. Jean Pied de Port in France, and began our first day’s hike over the Pyrenees, I was determined to be an authentic pilgrim. Maria was simply hoping she could go the whole distance. On our first day we got lost, wandered through stinging nettles, and were besieged by swarming insects. I made myself imagine what a medieval pilgrim might have thought of such trials. That day’s walk is the biggest vertical climb and descent of any day on Camino. Maria’s simple focus was finding the path again so we could reach Roncesvalles on the other side of the ridge in time to get beds in the pilgrims’ hostel. It took me some days of walking to catch up with Maria’s simplicity and leave imagining ‘how we should walk’ behind us. As our days unfolded whenever we got discouraged we’d say to each other, ‘Well, we climbed the mountain and made it to Roncesvalles.’ Walk humbly.

A friend on the Associated Parishes Council told me that Louie Crew discovered the 1979 Book of Common Prayer misquoted the Micah passage. Writer or printer error, we don’t know but instead of ‘Love mercy,’ and ‘do justice,’ the Prayer Book Catechism on p. 847 reads, ‘Love justice’ and ‘do mercy.’ Those reversed verses are a serious problem. Louis gives his simple, clear argument for correcting the book on his website ‘Do Justice.’ My own understanding of why we should love mercy and do justice comes from walking the Camino.

Advocacy work tempts us to love justice. My own attachment to ‘doing it right’ and fierce desire to be right make it appealing to love justice. But without mercy toward other people and our own reluctant humility, loving abstract justice turns itself into idolatry. Humble walking and a deep love of mercy slows my eagerness to condemn and marginalize other people for the injustices they do. Humble walking and a deep love of mercy can draw me and the neighbors I’ve judged through and beyond conflict into a partnership to make the world we love more just. Walk humbly.

Checking with Louie Crew to credit him properly for discovering the misquotation he insisted that acknowledgment belonged to fellow Diocese of Newark Convention Deputies Geoff Curtiss and Marge Christie and that Verna Dozier, the lay theologian from the Diocese of Washington, had pointed it out to them. But it was Louie who submitted a resolution to General Convention to fix the Prayer Book’s misquotation. Louie’s simple resolution D007 never made it out of committee to the Convention floor. The error still awaits correction. D007 reminds us that our church has got work to do. Walk Humbly.

I’d like to tell you some fancy things about the spirituality of walking. I enjoy thinking I’ve become an expert in humble walking. I cut several paragraphs where I tried to deliver the thousandth (and best) lecture on the cultural and religious importance of the Camino, the path that made Christians a pilgrim people and taught us to image our faith as a journey. You don’t need the lecture. Walking is simpler and humbler than any fancy spirituality. We do need to walk, daily and literally. For our good and our neighbors good and for the life of the world, we need to get out of our cars and put one foot in front of the other as we move on God’s earth – humbly.

Micah is a powerful book but brief enough to read at one sitting. The prophet’s vision begins with God seated on a heavenly throne looking down on the earth and seeing that things aren’t going well. God angrily leaves the throne and heavenly pomp to set things right, but walking up and down on the earth (startlingly like Satan who walks to and free on the earth in Job), God who came to earth to set things straight changes. It began looking like it might go badly for us humans, but walking turns God’s exasperation to compassion. And it’s God’s compassion and patience that change things. The book that began with a threat divine wrath and retribution takes a different path as God’s own mercy makes turns our judge into our divine companion. The prophetic vision that began in heavenly pomp follows God’s own walking path a journey’s end in the familiar invitation to walk with God and in God’s steps, loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly.

Walking simplifies us. It strips all kinds of things from us. The more days we walk, and the further we walk, the clearer that stripping away becomes. On the Camino our own eager passion for ‘doing it right’ only makes for anxious, competitive walking. But ordinary, humble walking, step by step wears down judgment. Walking quickly reveals that there’s too much in our backpacks. After a week’s walking, Maria and I mailed extra clothes and my two books home. Walking also leads us to mercy for the other person’s blisters, the other person’s hope for a dry bunk at the end of the day, and eventually finds its way to pleasure in other person’s delight in the Spanish countryside, the other person’s tears at a pilgrim mass, the other person’s generous offer of bread or bit of Serrano ham. Each day’s walking leaves less room for judgment of other pilgrims and helps us let go of even the comparative judgments we make of ourselves, perfectionist assessment of how we ‘should be.’

Each step walking takes us further from the hope of walking the pilgrimage ‘right’ or having the ‘right’ pilgrim experience. Each day’s steps are simply themselves, one foot in front of the other – whether it’s painful or exhilarating, full of energy or exhausted or somewhere in the infinite range between. Walking lets the body teach the spirit that joy is joy and discouragement is discouragement and either or both may appear at any time. Elation and blisters come as they will; their order or timing is unpredictable. Walking is inevitably humbling.

Loving justice can be an ego game. But walking strips justice of pretence and vanity saturating it with luscious, delightful mercy. The ordinary humanity of walking quietly teaches us to extend the same forgiving mercy to a fellow pilgrim that we know sustains and blesses us. The mercy of walking gives us enough simplicity to do justice.

So, here I am again, letting walking strip me of credentials, cherished stories of accomplishments, my sense of rank and my own place in some pecking order, even hope of something outstanding I might accomplish. I’m glad to let them go. Day by day the community of pilgrims, companions on the Way matters more. Day by day the community of villagers and townspeople who support the Camino, tend it, and feed and house pilgrims matters more. Day by day, humble walking reveals itself as a holy mercy, simple, and in Micah’s vision, God-like. Only a companion can do justice, and a walking companion will do restorative justice, the justice that makes people whole. Walk humbly.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

At home on the range

By Ann Fontaine

Sundays, I often drive 125 miles or more to church crossing the trails of the great migrations of peoples searching for a better life. In Wyoming towns are distant from one another and mostly small. Churches with over 100 members are considered large. Many counties are larger in area than the state of Massachusetts.

I grew up in a city and love cities but now I live in a town of 6,000 people. This is considered a medium-sized community. One church I serve has 4-7 average attendance. The town is called Eden and the church is Oregon Trail Memorial Church. It is located in an irrigated area of the high plateau of the continental divide. The economy was mainly ranching and hay crops but now it is on the edge of the development of vast gas and oil fields. Newcomers are arriving to work on the rigs and in construction. Long time residents know that this is the usual boom and bust cycle of Wyoming so there is hesitation to involve oneself in the life of the newcomers who will soon move on to new jobs.

There is a sense that what others do is their business. Although watching and discussing “neighbor TV” is the favorite sport, there is quite a bit of space for living as one wishes as long as you don’t tell others how to live their lives. However, when a great need arises all this independence and isolation vanishes.

Recently in Basin, Wyoming, tragedy struck. First there was a terrible car wreck. The mother was killed and the daughter gravely injured. A few months later, their uninsured family home burned to the ground. There were no injuries but everything was lost. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and other members of the community responded to help this family. The Diocese of Wyoming sent out a plea for assistance for the family to all the churches in the state.

The first letter was sent to the members of St. Andrew’s and then forwarded on to the Diocesan listserv:

Please send the prayer chain forward, The Durneys' house burned down today, I don't know how much is left, everyone is okay. Please keep them in you prayers and wishes. Everything is probably gone, anyone willing to help out please do. Clothes are going to be needed for everyone and more importantly just give them your love and prayers. They need it. Thank you and God Bless you.
We know people are wanting to know how they can help the Durney Family:
Their home was completely destroyed as was the motor home beside it. The garage is ok.
No one was hurt, but those at home were checked out and were in shock. There were 4 at home -- Carrie and her little 4-yr. old, Stephen and Matt. Shannon and Alethia were in Powell.
Richard and Beka are in Virginia.
The only clothes and shoes are what they had on
Someone had found them a place to stay for now.
This is the family who lost their mother, Anne, in a car wreck recently - daughter Beka was injured. Now this.

In the letter were ways people could help and where to contribute to a fund for monetary gifts.

As reported in the Casper Star Tribune:

POWELL -- Every family faces trials, but the Durney family seems to have gotten more than its share this year. On Jan. 19, the mother, Anne, was killed in an automobile accident that left one of the daughters, Rebekah, 18, suffering from severe injuries.
With Rebekah still trying to recover, the family home -- on rural property about seven to 10 miles west of Basin -- was destroyed in a fire on Friday. … Anne and her husband, Richard, had several children ranging in age from the late teens to just under 30 -- and at least four of them were living or staying in the home at the time of the fire. Nobody was hurt in the blaze. And two of the Durneys' sons also escaped serious injury in a recent rollover auto accident they were involved in, Alberts said. "You want to talk about bad luck, they've had so much of it this year," he said.

One positive side to the story is the response of the community to the Durneys' needs.

This is the story of one family and tragedy and community response but it is repeated over and over in Wyoming. It is still a place where people will stop and help change your flat tire as well as respond to major events in the lives of friends and strangers.

There are disadvantages to small town life and small churches. Sushi is rarely available and often our organist is a small box called a digital hymnal. People can be mean and terrible just like everywhere. Shopping is not something that can be done on a whim – malls are few and far between. Winter can happen any month of the year. But then something will happen that calls out the best in us, and I know I have a home on the range.

Driving to Rock Springs on a Sunday morning

morning sun
rising above the rim
of hills
catching the red
of a sweater worn by a woman
walking out to feed her horse.
Dry Lake sparkling with water
and bright white of pelicans
antelope racing through the sagebrush
and deer risking death
leaping across the road
bald eagle
surrounded by ravens
feasting on the night's road kill.
briefly rising from their meal
disturbed by my passing car.
the new road
passing the old iron mine
leaping up to the horizon
leading to South Pass and the Continental Divide.
crossing paths with my twelve year old great grandmother and her family
on the Oregon trail
on their way to better days.
driving on to Farson
where travelers could buy huge ice cream cones
but no longer
the old stone building stands desolate

turning towards Eden I pass the church
where soon 2 or 3 will gather
around dry wafers
and make it bread of life
but for now I race past on my way to Rock Springs
where we sing out bravely
a cappella
our organists
traveling on a different journey this morning

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.

No "Ordinary" time

By Melody Wilson Shobe

Well, here we are. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter are all behind us. We’ve walked together from the mountain top of Christ’s birth, to the valley of death, and back up again to the pinnacle of the Resurrection. We have seen the colors of the church change from blue to white to celebration to purple to white to red, a rainbow of color as we pass from one important season to the next. And now all of that is over, and all that we can see stretching ahead of us is a sea of green. Out on the horizon lies week after week of “the Season after Pentecost” coming in an endless succession until we reach the next year in the church and begin the cycle again.

How silly it is that this time in the church doesn’t have its own name; it is merely called “the season after Pentecost.” The time itself is not given the importance of being named, but instead is marked only in relation to Pentecost, a day of actual importance. And this lengthy, unnamed, seemingly unimportant season is often also called “Ordinary Time.” Rather than meaning “common” or “mundane,” this term comes from the word “ordinal,” which simply means “counted time,” because we number the Sundays from here on out in order from the First Sunday after Pentecost, all the way up to the Last Sunday after Pentecost, twenty eight Sundays from now. That’s right; twenty eight weeks of this church year will be spent in Ordinary Time.

And in some ways, it might be right to think of this time as common or mundane. Because this is the usual time in the church, the time that is not marked by a constant stream of high points and low points, ups and downs, but is instead the normal, day-in, day-out life of the church. This time is a time to grapple with the nuts and bolts of our faith, not coasting on the joy and elation of Christmas, or wallowing in the penitential feel of Lent, but instead just being exactly where we are, and trying to live our faith in that moment.

Traditionally the color for this season of “Ordinary Time” has been green, and it is a fitting choice. Green has long been associated with new life and growth. Even in Hebrew in the Old Testament, the same word for the color “green” also means “young.” The green of this season speaks to us as a reminder that it is in the midst of ordinary time that we are given the opportunity to grow. Only when the hustle and bustle of Advent, Easter, and Lent has calmed down can we really focus on what it means to live and grow as Christians in this ordinary time in this ordinary world. It is a time to nurture our faith with opportunities for fellowship and reflection. It is a time to feed and water our faith with chances for education and personal study. It is a time to weed and prune our faith, cutting off the parts that may be dead and leaving them behind. And we have a lot of growing to do, so God has given us most of the church year in which to do it.

The very fact that the church has a time called “Ordinary” is a profound theological statement. It is a reminder of the presence of God in and through the most mundane and ordinary seasons of our lives. God is not only on the mountaintop or in the valley, but walking alongside each of us when the flat road stretches interminably into the horizon. In fact, the gospel reading for one of the first Sundays in ordinary time reminds us of this very fact. In Matthew 6:24-34, Jesus tells us to remember the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They are ordinary and seemingly insignificant parts of the natural world, small and unimportant compared to us. And yet God remembers and cares for each of them. It is a reminder that when God came and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, he experienced the same ordinary reality that we all experience. And that God, in Christ, offered us the opportunity to transform the most ordinary, mundane experiences into extraordinary events infused with the presence of God. God is there, present in the midst of the ordinary, just waiting for us to recognize it.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Reclaiming the Sabbath

By Jane Carol Redmont

A colleague and I met for lunch recently to discuss diocesan business and enjoy conversation with each other. The meeting took weeks to schedule. As we settled into our meal, the topic shifted to Saturday all-day meetings, attendance at evening and weekend programs, and the time crunch in the lives of church members.

The church, we agreed, was one of the culprits.

My colleague is a parish priest. I teach in a small college and do pastoral work “on the side” as well as at my job. Both of us are involved in leadership at the diocesan level. We both have families we love, friends with whom we try to carve out time, a commitment to prayer. She lives with her husband. I live with a cat equally dedicated to sleep and play.

A little over a year ago, a class of mine read The Sabbath, the classic work by Abraham Joshua Heschel. We studied the Jewish meaning and context of Shabbat and made note of the practices associated with it: a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy. I suggested to the students (none of them Jewish) that they try to observe some form of Sabbath time (even one more brief than the traditional 25 hours) and keep a journal about their experience. When the students reported back, many had been unable to find time even for a Sabbath afternoon.

The loss of Sabbath time in our culture is not news. Contemplative spaces are increasingly scarce. The speed of life in the U.S. has been increasing for decades. Cell phones, the internet, and other electronic realities have added to this, although the internet, as this Café attests, can also support the contemplative life. Labor policies and practices have as much to do with our time bind as e-mail and the 24-hour news cycle.

In both the corporate and the nonprofit world, individuals are doing the work that two or three people were doing ten or twenty years ago. Work days and weeks are longer. Arlie Russell Hochschild documented over a decade ago the overlap and blurring of household time and job time. This transformation was taking place long before the World Wide Web threaded its way into our lives. Alone among industrialized nations and unlike more than 130 countries worldwide, the United States has no guaranteed paid holidays mandated by law. Low-wage jobs keep workers under the poverty level and sap their energy, as Barbara Ehrenreich has eloquently reported and David Shipler subsequently noted. The more privileged among us are not exempt from the time crunch. John de Graaf, coordinator of the U.S./Canada Take Back Your Time initiative, has pointed to the yoked phenomena of overwork and “time poverty.”

Is it any wonder we have trouble with attendance at Saturday workshops?

Of course there are other reasons. Sometimes a household member is sick. Sometimes church is a lower priority for people than their children’s soccer games or the NBA playoffs. Sometimes we design our programs poorly. Sometimes our publicity is inadequate. Sometimes the weekday evening or weekend day on which a church program or meeting takes place is the only one on which people can spend time with their families.

My point, though, is the church’s responsibility in the struggle for Sabbath. We contribute to the overscheduling of the culture.

We are between a rock and a hard place: we want our churches to nourish their members, to challenge and educate them, to provide spaces for prayer and opportunities for service and the building of community.

All of this takes time.

To be in the world but not of it has been a challenge for Christian churches since the beginning. For some, being countercultural means not waging war. For others, it means offering a witness on how we live our sexuality. For many, it means both. Both witnesses are based on our discernment of the path to which Christ calls us, but also on an assessment of the signs of the times in the society around us.

On the matter of time, what does it mean for us to be countercultural?

One of the greatest challenges to us as church is to go against the culture’s use of time as a commodity, its business model of program evaluation, and its focus on production and consumption. God loves us. God saves us and makes us whole. God rests on the seventh day. If we decide to embody this as church, what will the shape of our time look like? How will we operate differently from the culture around us?

I am not about to cancel the work of the diocesan anti-racism committee which I chair. I do wonder whether, in addition to an anti-racism audit, we in the churches also need a “Sabbath audit.” The “audit” language is, of course, hardly countercultural. But it helps make my point.

My intuition is that in addressing the problem of overscheduling and the struggle for Sabbath, we will get to the root of our vocation in the world as surely as we do when we address an issue of justice. The lack of time for rest and contemplation is, in fact, a matter of justice – among other things. Protecting Sabbath time may remind us that contemplation and action for justice are neither opposed to one another nor mutually exclusive. Each withers in the other’s absence. Brother Roger, founding prior of the Taizé community, knew this when he spoke of lutte et contemplation, struggle and contemplation, in one breath.

I have no easy response to the Sabbath struggle and the overscheduling of churches. I have only an assessment, some intuitions, and some questions. I also know that the solutions, like the problem, are likely to be systemic and economic as much as “spiritual.”

I also have – it would be more fitting to say “we also have” – the blessed rhythms of the liturgical year, the wisdom and resources of monastic orders, and lessons from sisters and brothers of other traditions, from the Jewish Sabbath to Zen mindfulness practice.
Writers in the Christian tradition have also reflected on the Sabbath from their perspective, with much practical insight. (Dorothy Bass and Tilden Edwards come to mind.)

Read the signs of the times and consider the shape of our time. Think about this one with me. But first, take a deep breath. Take the afternoon off. Then, let’s talk. And listen.

Jane Redmont chairs the Anti-Racism Committee of the Diocese of North Carolina and teaches at Guilford College. A new edition of her book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life will come out in October. She blogs at Acts of Hope.

Religious freedom in a diverse, secular society

By Luiz Coelho

It took several hours and the hardwork of many skilled professionals to install the huge Vermont-granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. The sculpture, which was donated by benefactors, weighed more than five thousand pounds, and the process of installing the monument was so arduous and impressive that it was filmed by professional cameramen. However, despite the difficulties, Chief Justice Roy Stewart Moore was proud to announce to the media on the morning of August 1, 2001, the successful installation of the monument.

This story might sound like an ordinary episode in the history of public administration in the United States. It was not, though. The monument also portrayed, alongside the Judeo-Christian foundations of moral living, quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ National Anthem, and various sayings of the Founding Fathers. Many were in favor of the creation of the monument; however, many were also opposed to its installation in the Supreme Court rotunda, because they felt it overstepped the bounds of separation of Church and State. Several organizations filed suit in the United States District Court, asking for the removal of such a monument. Moore, who was already known for trying to implement prayer before trials and for taking his own portable Ten Commandments tablets to court, used the powers of his Office to resist the removal of the sculpture as long as he could. However, eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court intervened, unanimously overruled Moore, and ordered the removal of the monument. In the end, both the monument and Judge Moore were removed from the building.

Moore's story is not an isolated case. In several other instances of American public life, the Courts have removed religious symbols, such as crosses, crèches, and ten commandment tablets, from the public square in the last fifty years at least. Prayers in such environments are also heard less frequently. It can be said that in the United States, religion has been playing a less and less important role in public affairs altogether, even though conservative Christians are still seen in prominent circles both in society and the government.

Some see this trend as a direct attack against “traditional American values”, and – at least their perception of – the society that the forefathers of the United States worked to create. They often cite how peaceful and prosperous life was in the past, when “the Christian God” had a place of public honor among Americans. Many would argue, also, that freedom of religion has always been guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, and that religious minorities have always had the right to build houses of worship. Are these views and arguments valid? Was religious freedom so evident in the past? Or, was it plainly masqueraded by a certain majority who belonged to one kind of faith only, and who created a set of structures to secure it? How worse, or better, are we now?

Like many people of faith, I dearly welcome the advent of real religious freedom, especially because it frees us to deal with symbols related to the religious life. It might be interesting, then, to see some examples of how public expressions of religion actually have changed in the last fifty years, and if they really helped us achieve more tolerance and full separation between church and state.

It would be inconceivable nowadays to demand anyone to hold to a particular religious viewpoint or to express a belief in God in order to hold a public office. Yet, fifty years ago, it was possible for public organizations to have prerequisites that would limit access to such jobs to people of faith only. For example, in the early sixties, Roy Torcaso was denied his appointment as a Notary Public in Maryland because he refused to declare a belief in God. Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated that a declaration of belief in the existence of God was necessary for any office, profit or trust in that state. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1961, and the Justices unanimously found Maryland's requirement a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. That decision established a legal precedent which created a paradigm shift in the role of faith in the public square. From then on, an acknowledgement of a given religious belief ceased to be a prerequisite for public jobs in every part of the country.

Another example of changing attitudes toward the place of religion in the public square during the last fifty years can be seen in the public schools. The elderly can still recall that it was not uncommon to say prayers, sing religious hymns or even have obligatory religious services in public schools. A series of court rulings, however, has changed the possibility of such practices today. These rulings were the results of complaints by citizens, such as a group of parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained in 1966 that a public prayer to “Almighty God” was against their beliefs. The case, which became known as Engel v. Vitale, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that government-directed prayers in public schools are a violation of the Establishment cause. Since that ruling, it has become more and more difficult to hear prayers said in public schools, and subsequent attempts to allow them have been defeated in court. Prayers in educational institutions are confined nowadays, to chaplaincies, religious clubs or associations of common-minded people. But, in no case may a person be obliged to participate in public prayers in school.

Such lawsuits and governmental measures have not appeared out of nowhere. They reflect, in fact, a very noticeable paradigm shift on the American religious scene. When the British allowed European settlers to establish colonies in these lands, most of them belonged to Christian religious groups, often Protestant denominations, although some Jewish settlers found a home here as well. With an increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this profile changed to include more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Judeo-Christian religious ideology was still the norm, however, and it is reasonable to say that fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, or believers in God. This pattern started to change when immigration from non-Christian countries began to increase.

In their American Religious Identification Survey, researchers at the City University of New York discovered that from 1990 to 2001, the number of people in the United States ,who have a religion other than Christianity increased from 5.8 million to 8.7 million. Such a number, albeit still small, reflects a sizeable minority, which practically did not exist years ago.

Much more significant than the increase in non-Christians is the increase of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Non-religious people were usually a very small and intellectual minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, they compose about fourteen percent of the American population, as pointed out in the aforementioned study, after having more than doubled in size from fourteen million people to practically thirty million people between 1990 and 2001. Together with non-Christians, they compose practically twenty percent of the American population – a percentage that is growing, according to the study.

The gradual secularization of the public square is merely a response to a more religiously diverse society. It is now impossible to ignore non-Christians and those who profess no faith at all. The removal of religious symbols, sometimes under serious protest, is the most neutral answer to a truly pluralistic society, rooted in the freedom of religion articulated in the United States Constitution and several other historical documents of this country.

It has to be said, though, that not only has the percentage of those who identify with a specific religion changed, but the profile of the typical religious American has also changed. In The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict, Robert Ellwood argues that religious traditions in the 1950s were largely intensified by socio-political conditions. He believes that religious organizations used to provide a very important framework upon which families built their lives in the postwar period. Routine religion was part of what was perceived as normalcy, and after all the chaos of previous decades, people needed normalcy. Religion was also seen as the amalgama of American families – especially at a time many families were marked by the loss of beloved relatives. Finally, being religious was a sign of anti-communism; and, the cold war, with all of its implications, was often portrayed as a kind of Armageddon in many households. Back then, religion was completely intertwined with the way society was organized.

However, throughout the last fifty years, a series of movements in American society, such as the sexual revolution, women empowerment, the end of the cold war and fast communications, have drastically changed what Americans might call “family”. What is perceived as a familial arrangement in today’s society does not always correspond to the vision our grandparents shared. There are manifold types of families in our times and a direct genetic link between relatives does not exist in all of them. Families now include both heterosexual and homosexual partners, stepchildren, adopted children, remarried spouses, half-siblings, close friends and a myriad of other groups of people which would take pages to define. Religion, under this new context, is not necessaily the glue that holds families together. Common Sunday after-church luncheons have given way to cell phone calls or even e-mails. And with the rise of the so-called “religious right” in the government, the merger between religion and politics à la the cold war is not viewed favorably in more liberal circles.

Such conclusions are often misinterpreted as the final defeat of religion in the United States. Yet, it can be said that religious freedom was probably never more celebrated and protected in U. S. History as it is in our contemporary, pluralistic society today. The largely-Christian/largely-familial religious environment of the fifties posed a much greater threat to freedom of faith. People were often forced, by social conventions, to follow the same religion (and in many cases, the same denomination) as their parents and grandparents. Marriages often took place within such religious circles, regardles of the true beliefs of the participants. The scenario, nowadays, is markedly different. The latest survey by the Pew Forum of Religious and Public Life reveals an astonishing piece of information: nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing, either to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether. Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches have lost members to newer Christian groups. Those who lack faith, are increasingly comfortable in leaving religious organizations they once belonged to for primarily social reasons. Yet once people find a religion that fulfills their needs, they are moe likely to adhere to it faithfully, and to try to engage in all the possibilities that it provides. Religion is to our generation, therefore, is much more a matter of personal choice than it was fifty years ago.

When the religious spectrum was monolithic, public manifestations of the majority faith were not bothersome to most people. Now, in a much more varied religious climate, it seems logical not to encourage any particular brand of faith in a public space. Thus, the much-criticized secularization of public places is actually an important step toward protecting religious freedom, and creating a more diverse and equaitalbe society. It helps reinforce the values enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and respects people's rights to choose whether to have a faith or be part of a religious institution. It also protects newer churches and religious groups from state-sponsored propaganda of older ones. And, as long as religions have the right to worship in their houses of prayer and act according to their beliefs, their rights are protected. The ongoing changes are definitely for the common good.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Torture: evil and ineffective

By George Clifford

Why write about torture?

After all, only a sadist, or perhaps a masochist hoping to be tortured, would attempt to argue that torture, per se, is moral. Although some form of the word “torture” appears in the Bible 87 times, not once does Scripture explicitly and directly classify torture as wrong or prohibit Christians from torturing others. Scripture consistently portrays those who torture others as bad and the recipients of torture as good. For example, the Romans tortured Jesus, flogging him, mocking him, shoving a crown of thorns upon his head. Their motivation for torturing him was partially to deter others from committing capital offenses and, probably, an expression of sadism that emerged through years of service in the very harsh and unforgiving context of the Roman army. Remember, the Romans crucified tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Similarly, in the Apocrypha we read a narrative that dramatically emphasizes the evil of torture, the story of Hannah and her seven sons, viciously tortured one at a time and then killed in sight of the those still alive as each refused to compromise their Jewish faith by eating the flesh of swine.

Torture is inimical with belief in a loving God who cares for all people. Indeed, the Bible exhorts the Church to remember prisoners subject to torture (Hebrews 13:3); the context suggests that the text is referring to Christians tortured for their faith, but might mean anyone subject to torture. Remembering those subject to torture certainly entails praying for the tortured; additionally, remembering almost certainly involves caring for the families of those tortured, advocating justice, and campaigning to abolish torture.

The United States government maintains that torture is, on certain occasions, morally imperative. The government’s argument is strictly consequentialist: Only by torturing terrorists, forcing them to divulge operations and plans that threaten others, can the U.S. avoid great harm. For example, if authorities believe terrorists have planted a dirty bomb that will expose thousands to radiation, cause an indeterminate number of deaths, and very likely spread widespread panic, then torturing suspected terrorists to obtain timely, essential information is morally justifiable. Conversely, not torturing the suspects in that case, according to the government’s position, would be morally wrong, allowing great harm at the cost of protecting the well-being of one just person, and an evil person at that.

In response, a Christian might contend that viewing torture as an expression of love for one’s neighbor is impossible. A terrorist, no matter how evil, whether or not we like it, remains a person, a fellow child of God. Terrorists, in other words, are neighbors. Sadly, reliance on God's command to love our neighbors fails in the eyes of many to rebut the consequentialist argument. Advocates of using torture in interrogations simply respond that we must love all of our neighbors; Christians cannot truthfully construe allowing our neighbors to suffer grievous harm from terrorists as expressing love.

A Christian might also object to torture as an act incompatible with Jesus’ character. As people called to pattern themselves after the Prince of Peace, how can Christians endorse anyone abusing and dehumanizing others by torturing them? Again, the advocates of torture will simply respond that terrorists seek to abuse and dehumanize larger numbers of people; the information obtained through torture will potentially avoid much harm and suffering that are incompatible with Christianity. These advocates choose the lesser evil to attain the greater good.

As that hypothetical dialogue suggests, meaningful debate between consequentialists and those who stand on either moral principles or virtue rarely occurs. People who abandon a morality founded upon firm principles or unwavering virtue for consequentialism lack a moral floor below which they are unwilling to proceed. No act is too bad to contemplate if the potential benefits are of sufficient magnitude. Torture involves acts that should lie beyond the bounds of acceptable morality – always. Fortunately, debates about torture do not have to end with neither side speaking in terms the other cannot really understand. Not only is torture antithetical to Christian principles and incompatible with Christian virtue, torture is also ineffective. In other words, the evil of torture very rarely if ever results in a greater good.

Consider torture’s efficacy at obtaining critical information from a non-cooperative person in two types of situations, those with and without imminent, avoidable danger. First, imagine a crisis when time is short, e.g., authorities know a bomb is about to explode that will kill hundreds or thousands of innocents. Obviously, the alleged perpetrators have a strong commitment to their cause and its success or they would not have become part a terrorist conspiracy.

Under the best of circumstances, torture rarely produces immediate results. Suspects will think that enduring a few moments of pain from torture to allow the mission to succeed is a small price to pay. Torture reinforces rather than erodes a suspect’s commitment to the cause. Under torture, even a dim-witted suspect will divulge false information, hoping to gain temporary relief from torture. Determining that information’s veracity requires sending the forces of good on a potential wild goose chase, wasting precious time and resources better spent searching for the bomb.

Continuing to torture the suspect in the interim between the suspect divulging information and security forces proving that information false constitutes self-defeating behavior by the torturers. Without hope that information will end the torture, the suspect has no incentive to cooperate. Torture itself provides the suspect no reason to tell the truth; the imminent nature of the threat provides the terrorist with an incentive to provide disinformation. The terrorist must only stave off telling the truth long enough for the bomb to explode. This analysis relies upon several dubious assumptions: (1) that the apprehended suspect(s) knows the information necessary to prevent the catastrophe; (2) that the interrogators know how to torture without killing (e.g., the suspect dying of a heart attack before divulging the critical information); and (3) that interrogators, suspects, and any necessary equipment are all in the same room. Bottom line: the consequentialist argument fails. Torture in the face of imminent danger is unlikely to yield information that will save the day and justify the evil employed. Yet proponents of preserving torture as an optional interrogation technique most often cite exactly this type of scenario to make their case.

Second, consider the category of scenarios in which the danger is not imminent, e.g., a terrorist group has obtained radioactive material to use in a dirty bomb against an unspecified target at an unknown date. Again, the consequentialist argument fails. This time the problem is that professional interrogators have learned through experience that torture produces inferior results. Time-tested, psychologically-informed interrogation techniques that avoid abuse and torture consistently produce better results. In the words of one senior U.S. Army interrogator, now retired: “In my two decades of experience as an interrogator, I know of no competent interrogator that would resort to torture. Not one.” (Ray Bennett (pseudonym), interviews with J. M. Arrigo of November 13, 2006 and August 18, 2007, in “Having a conscience and going to Gitmo—Oral history of an interrogator,” J.M. Arrigo, Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.) Throughout WWII, the U.S. avoided the use of torture, successfully obtaining vital information from German and Japanese prisoners through morally sound interrogation methods. Psychological research supports the anecdotal evidence that coercive interrogation methods yield less useful, less significant information than do morally acceptable methods. Furthermore, many U.S. military personnel believe the adverse international consequences of the U.S. using torture more than offsets any tactical advantage from information gained through torture.

Whether or not an immediate threat exists, the consequentialist argument fails on its own terms. The harm inflicted through torture to the suspect, interrogator, and society outweighs any potential benefit because torture is an inferior interrogation technique. Those who use consequentialist arguments to support interrogation through torture have simply failed to do adequate homework before staking out their position.

Christians should not feel too smug. To its shame, in prior centuries the Church developed and used some of the most notorious current torture techniques, e.g., waterboarding – simulating the feeling of drowning by laying a person on his/her back on an incline, covering the face with cloth, and then pouring water on the cloth. Nor have Christians always remembered those tortured and sought to end torture. Now is the time to atone for that tragic history.

First, we Episcopalians should encourage General Convention in 2009 to pass a resolution calling upon all nations, including the United States, to prohibit the use of torture – abusive, coercive interrogation methods – under all circumstances. The resolution should address policymakers and call for them to adhere to existing international law that forbids torturing captives. The resolution should also ban rendition, the U.S. turning suspects over to another nation for interrogation, presumably through torture. No sound moral argument, not even a consequentialist argument, exists that justifies the use of torture under any circumstance. This resolution will provide the Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Public Policy Network, and others the basis for vocally and assertively opposing the use of torture.

Second, the Church should remember those tortured. Pray for them regularly. Insist that all captives receive their rights to legal counsel, due process, and a fair and speedy trial. Support their families pastorally and with humanitarian aid. I may detest a terrorist group’s ideology and find its methods morally repugnant, but terrorists and their families remain human beings.

Third, Christians must fight the good fight. We must get actively involved in campaigns for justice. In the struggle with terrorism, winning at too high a cost is really losing. Jesus knew this, choosing to die out of love rather than succumb to the temptation to organize an army and lead a revolt against Rome. Only by adhering to the standards of justice do we resist evil; when we adopt immoral tactics in the fight against evil, it signals that we have failed to overcome evil and that evil has overcome us.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

The spiritual life of Grades 3 thru 6

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

What percent of your happiness comes from your spiritual life? Three percent, would you say? Or is the percentage closer to 6.5?

I'm still puzzling over the question. For me the spiritual runs through relationships and moments the way blood circulates around the body, and trying to isolate and measure it as a percentage of happiness sounds as impossible as it would be pointless. But recently two researchers at the University of British Columbia concluded that 6.5 to 16.5 percent of children's happiness can be accounted for by their spirituality. Mark Holder, associate professor of psychology, and Judi Wallace, a graduate student, asked 315 children aged nine to twelve to describe their daily spiritual experiences and private religious practices by rating statements such as “I feel a higher power’s presence,” and answering questions including “How often do you pray or meditate privately outside of church or other places of worship?” Teachers and parents described each student's happiness level and the researchers made the correlations.

Considering that parents' wealth accounts for less than 1 percent of a child's happiness, the 6.5 to 16.5 percent results for spirituality took Wallace and Holder by surprise: “From our perspective, it’s a whopping big effect,” says Holder in a UBC press release. “I expected it to be much less – I thought their spirituality would be too immature to account for their well-being.”
So much for "and a little child shall lead them."

Well, it's easy to poke fun at the percentages. And it's hard for many of us to understand how much statistics like these can possibly mean. The researchers' definition of spirituality as "having an inner belief system" is sadly heady. It seems to ignore the natural, hands-on spiritual connection a child develops through loving relationships, nature, and play. And the scientists' tendency to speak of spirituality as though it were no more than a happiness-enhancement tool is all too familiar these days.

Still, in discussing their research Holder and Wallace zero in on two aspects of children's spirituality. One is a sense of thankfulness. As many parents recognize through table graces and bedtime prayers, in a loving home, the impulse to give thanks is a child's natural spiritual expression. "The prayer of children up to the age of seven or eight is almost exclusively prayer of thanksgiving and praise," noted the Italian Montessori educator Sofia Cavalletti in The Religious Potential of the Child over twenty years ago. "The adult who tries to lead the child to prayers of petition falsifies and distorts the child's religious expression. The child feels no need to ask because he knows himself to be in the peaceful possession of certain goods." When we share our own gratitude and encourage our children to do the same, we help them hold onto it as they grow.

What's even more intriguing is that Wallace and Holder talk about the the anticipation of beauty as an important aspect of children's spiritual lives. In my own workshops on children's spiritual nurture, parents often tell me that their childhood and adolescence experiences of beauty -- in redwood forests, under vast starry skies, at midnight mass -- have been touchstones in their own journeys. Children are far hungrier for these moments than many adults recognize. I still remember how as a ten-year-old I saw Michelangelo's Pieta' under a spotlight in an otherwise dark pavilion at the New York World's Fair. To this day I can picture the gleaming marble and the dramatic beauty of the figures, which took my breath away -- and which had far less impact on me a decade later when I saw the sculpture again in St. Peter's basilica.

Today, with children's lives often structured and scheduled from breakfast till bedtime, many are growing up far removed from nature and immersed in a media culture of banality and violence. The habit of seeking that which is harmonious and inspiring in the world is one that must be nurtured. Children need to move beyond the television, the computer screen, the classroom and the sports field to discover that which is truly awe-inspiring in nature, art, music, dance and literature. Too often we think we need to justify such exposures by claiming they will lead to increased fine-motor development or higher SAT scores. Surely it's enough to know that in sharing these experiences we are helping our children's tender hearts stay open. When we learn to look around us for beauty, we tend to find it in our world, in one another, and in ourselves.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Generals waging peace

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

By Sam Todd

Christ is the Prince of Peace; so you would expect many clergy to be peaceniks. But some generals have been as well.

From Washington to Eisenhower, we have elected nine former generals to be President of the United States. Not one of them then led us into a foreign war. Some other Presidents sort of promised not to. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The next year we entered World War I.

Here is Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning for a third term: “I have said this before, but I will say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars.” (10/30/40) The next year we entered World War II.

Campaigning in 1964 Lyndon Baines Johnson promised not to “send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.” The next year he sent 184,000 of them to Vietnam. By 1969, 537,000 “boys” and girls were there.

Is this remarkable contrast between the former generals and other Presidents happenstance? After his two terms in office, Dwight Eisenhower, who had the most military experience of any of our Presidents, told someone, “The Untied States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened – by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.” (Peter Lyon, Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero. P. 854)

Do generals know something civilians do not? They certainly know who will do the dying. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, famously stingy with his soldiers’ lives, said at West Point: “The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice…the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” (5/12/62)

MacArthur was our most decorated general. He was proudest of his proconsulship of Japan of which he said, “Could I have but a line a century hence crediting a contribution to the advance of peace, I would yield every honor which has been accorded by war.” (New York Times obituary 4/6/64)

Our entry into the War of 1812 was egged on by some congressmen dubbed “the war hawks” who “wished to scuttle diplomacy and economic sanctions and declare war against Great Britain.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, p.380) But they themselves would not be fighting the war.

Ralph Nader has suggested that: “anytime the Congress and White House gets this country into war, there should be a statute that moves immediately to conscript all military-age, able-bodied children of members of Congress, the president and the vice-president.” (Newsweek, 3/24/08, p. 52)

Eisenhower knew the trade-off the arms race entailed. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” (Speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors 4/16/53)

Generals want to be very clear about ends and means. Following the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied to “those who have asked why President Bush did not order our forces on to Baghdad after we had driven the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. …Even if we had been able to capture [Saddam Hussein], what purpose would it have served? And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not. They still do.” (“U.S. Forces: The Challenges Ahead,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992)

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee and pressed to estimate the force required for a successful occupation of Iraq, said, “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers…would be required. We’re talking about post hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.” (2/25/03)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the general’s estimate “far off the mark.” Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, testifying before the same committee two days later said, “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself….” (2/27/03)

Hard for Wolfowitz maybe; the general knew.

Perhaps, above all, generals are keenly aware of their and our finitude. Though our military is the most powerful in the world, it is not all-powerful. Only God is Almighty. The army is breakable. In full combat gear our troops look very formidable and are. But beneath the uniform is frail flesh and blood which, no matter how fit, is easily penetrated by a bullet, torn by shrapnel, blown apart by explosives. Their courage is so important precisely because they are not supermen or women.

Recently “Admiral William Fallon resigned as head of U.S. Central Command, having served less than a year in the post, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ….The administration says that, ‘all options are on the table’ with Iran, but Fallon told the Financial Times that military action was not “in the offing. Another war is not where we want to go.” (National Review 4/7/08 p.6)

So there are peaceniks in the navy too.

The Rev. Sam Todd is dean of the IONA School for Ministry and retired associate rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston. This column originally appeared in the May issue of the Texas Episcopalian.

Dialog of faith can ease tensions between U. S. and Iran

By John Bryson Chane

Politicians in both Iran and the United States have been divisive, disrespectful, and inflammatory in their condemnations of each other, in effect increasing the likelihood of a military confrontation. As the Episcopal Bishop of the Dioceses of Washington, DC, who has travelled twice to Iran and found friendship and shared values with Iranian clerics, I think it's time for religious leaders in both countries to take the initiative to find ways to seek peaceful solutions to the complex problems that have plagued US-Iranian relations for years.

Clerics on both sides believe that reconciliation must come from respectful communication. But such dialogue cannot occur in a vacuum, or in environments where people are demonising each other. The stakes are high in the Middle East, and the shrill and negative discourse of both countries' political administrations will not ease the increasing tensions between our countries. We must embrace tolerance and sincere dialogue to reverse this trend.

I have been to Iran twice, the first time in 2006 at the invitation of former President Khatami. More recently, I spent five days meeting with academic and religious leaders in Iran who are very concerned about the possibility of a US military incursion against their homeland. While in Tehran and Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran, we spent a great deal of time discussing the common religious values and themes shared by both Christianity and Islam. Our commonalities centred on issues of peace as well as the moral prohibition of developing and using weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to agreeing that politicians have been behaving childishly, my Iranian colleagues and I also think that the level of ignorance by Christians and Muslims about each other's religions has been extremely unhelpful in extending positive dialogue between these two great monotheistic religions and our two nations.

A deeper understanding of both nations' cultures, as well as a willingness to face the labyrinth of US-Iranian history, are necessary first steps.

Iran uses the development of nuclear energy and the implied fear of future nuclear weapons as a wedge issue in its relationship with the United States. In its defence, Iran says it is the only Persian, Farsi-speaking country in a region of Arab nations. Once a great power thousands of years ago and now an emerging player in the Middle East in the 21st century, Iran says its future is threatened by nuclear programmes and weapons in the region.

Iran can also look to the history of unwelcome involvement by the United States in its internal affairs. The covert overthrow of popular Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953, the propping up and support of the unpopular Shah, the US government's military support of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq's war with Iran, and the failure of the Clinton Administration to embrace the emerging moderate leadership of President Khatami (eventually leading to Khatami's isolation by hardliners in his government) are all painful failures of US foreign policy.

At the same time, the United States has every right to be deeply concerned about statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust and the eradication of the State of Israel, as well as the verification of anti-personnel weapons manufactured in Iran and their use by Iraqi Shi'a militants against American troops. And the hostage crisis of 1979, when militant Iranian students took over the US Embassy, still exists as an open wound in the American psyche.

Much of Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric can be attributed to deflected anger at the United States for violating known agreements about the parameters of establishing the State of Israel under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and Israel's development of nuclear weapons without the permission of the United States. The perceived bias of the United States in favour of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only exacerbated anti-Israeli feelings. (It must also be noted, however, that the largest concentration of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel can be found living peacefully in Iran.)

It is imperative that religious leaders from both countries, who are respected for their scholarship and "religious diplomacy", continue their closely held and critically focused theological conversations unimpeded by visa restrictions too often imposed by the United States and Iran.

Likewise, members of the diplomatic corps on both sides need to acknowledge that they have been unable to broker a peaceful solution to the current crisis between our two countries and that it is time for some more creative solutions. A new 21st century understanding of Track II diplomacy, initiated through theological diplomacy, must go hand-in-hand with the formal diplomatic search for the peace that has always been at the centre of the Holy Books of both Christianity and Islam.

The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane is the Episcopal Bishop of the Dioceses of Washington, DC. He was named one of the 150 most influential leaders in the District of Columbia by Washingtonian Magazine. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Trinity Sunday reflection

By Greg Jones

What is god but Creator? What is creating but reaching out? What is reaching out but connecting beyond self? What is connecting beyond self but loving others?

Creating, reaching, connecting, loving -- these are what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all about. It's what God is. It's who God is. It's how God is. It's what God does, and why. The three-in-oneness of God is how the followers of Jesus describe what we experience about God - to describe how God creates, reaches, connects and loves us.

What Jesus teaches his followers is that by following Him under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: we will create – within and beyond; we will reach – within and beyond; we will connect – within and beyond; we will love – within and beyond, and that's how we'll follow Him into unity with God.

That's how we become members, joined members, connected parts, of the one being that is God whose will is to be one in all. That's the mystery of the faith expressed by Trinity. We mean that in God's wholeness – in God's own identity and self – there is an aspect of community – an aspect of family – an aspect of loving mutual relationship

Or to put it another way – in the Kingdom of God – where we are joined in loving relationships – where we are joined in gracious, merciful and committed relationships where we quite literally lose ourselves in order to find ourselves – where we become one with our neighbors and the whole world we're living in – that's where we are most like God.

What Jesus Christ said and did – was to say: God is like a family – and it's an open family. God, through Christ by the power of the Spirit, has invited us into himself. Indeed – this is the heart of the Christian message since the birth of the Church.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He blogs at

Celebrating Justice Marshall

Bishop John Bryson Chane writes to his diocese:

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

As you may remember, our diocese is proposing that the Episcopal Church include civil rights leader and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on its liturgical calendar. By resolution of the 2006 Diocesan Convention, we recommended that May 17, the anniversary of Marshall’s victory in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case be observed as his feast day.

The 2006 General Convention referred the resolution to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, which, we hope, will bring it forward at the 2009 General Convention, next summer in Anaheim.

One important criterion that the Commission considers is whether there is widespread local observance of a candidate’s proposed feast day. So to strengthen our presentation at the 2009 General Convention and, more importantly, to hold up before our people the Christian witness of Justice Marshall, please plan to observe Saturday May 17 or Sunday May 18 as Thurgood Marshall Day in your parish.

You can learn more about Justice Marshall at

In Christ’s Peace Power and Love,
Bishop John Bryson Chane

The Washington Window has written numerous stories on the effort to include Marshall's name in the book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. (1, 2, 3, 4.) The mainstream media has also paid some note.

Liturgical resources for the feast of Thurgood Marshall, May 17

Propers suggested by the Diocese of Washington. Music suggested by students at Seabury-Western Seminary and St. Augustine’s Church, Washington, D. C.

Eternal and Ever-Gracious God, you blessed your servant Thurgood with special gifts of grace and courage to understand and speak the truth as it has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Grant that by his example we may also know you and seek to realize that we are all your children, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, whom you sent to teach us to love one another; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Suggested scripture readings
Amos 5:10-15, 21-24
Psalm 34:15-22
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Matthew 23:1-11

Suggested Music
Song of Praise
Christ Has Arisen from Lift Every Voice and Sing (LEVAS) 41

Zimbabwe Alleluia

Offertory Hymn
How Great Thou Art LEVAS 60

Memorial Acclamation Sung to the tune of We Shall Overcome:

Jesus Christ has died.
Jesus Christ is risen.
Jesus Christ will come again.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
Jesus Christ will come again.

Communion Hymn
Just As I Am LEVAS 137

Processional Hymn (and Marshall’s personal favorite)
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory LEVAS 226

What has the Church had to say about the war in Iraq?

By Peter Carey

I was recently at a gathering of church leaders and the question arose, “what has the church had to say about the ongoing Iraq War?” While I realize that there may be churches that have taken on the issue of the war, for the most part, I believe we (and I include myself) have done a poor job to take on the issue of war in any kind of a helpful or constructive way. (If your church has engaged the question that is awesome; let me know what you’re doing!)

Of course, there are a variety of perspectives about war that emerge from the Christian tradition, and preachers and church leaders would do well to recognize that pacifists, veterans, active duty officers, as well as victims of war sit in our pews. But still, couldn’t we have the courage to examine the tradition of just war and the various forms of pacifism and do this in a way that could raise the tenor of discussion? Why haven’t our churches taken up the subject of the war in a more direct way? Are we fearful that any criticism of foreign policy will lead us to an I.R.S. audit (such as happened at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena)? Or, are we worried that if we try to be prophetic someone might post it on Youtube and we would be labeled as “anti-American”?

Fear may be at the root of our reluctance, but there may also be deeper reasons for the church’s reluctance to take on war and violence. I believe that Western Christianity would receive a mixed verdict in terms of how it has addressed global issues of violence. All too often, the Church has become enmeshed in the power structures of society and has not offered alternatives to the dominant world-view.

In studying these questions in seminary last year, my thesis advisor, Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, helped me to see that one area on which to focus attention in order to address global issues of violence is on the virtues within Christian spirituality. Fear often leads to violence. This fear may be loss of possessions, of our way of life, or of our sense of security. If those of us in the church focused on the virtues of the monastic life such as poverty, chastity, obedience, work, study and worship, then a more grounded, nonviolent way of life may result. The bumper sticker, “Live Simply So that Others May Simply Live” is a secular outgrowth of these same virtues.

What if we worked to understand that one’s possessions, one’s family and friends, one’s nation and one’s very self are all gifts from God? If we truly see that this is all gift, that we deserve none of it, would we still be so willing to act violently to cling to it?

As one of my heroes, the preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin said, “People say, ‘I just want what I deserve; what is coming to me!’ but they don’t! We’re all in deep trouble if we were to get what we truly deserve.” Is it our fear of loss, ultimately our fear of death that leads us to choose the wrong path and exclude and dehumanize others rather than embrace and love them?

Ideally, our corporate worship is a corrective to an overly individualized spirituality. Our corporate worship ideally brings us together across those divides of class, of race, of politics, of theology. In Christ we are persons who are tied up with one another as parts of a body, and not as mere individuals. We need our neighbors and our neighbors need us. In thinking we can reach God on our own, without any need for either corporate fellowship, or love for others, we are no longer worshiping the God who calls us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” We become islands unto ourselves, and our own dehumanization and violence runs amok. You may remember those lines of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle who sang of the dehumanizing consequences of a individualized world view:

I am a rock, I am an island.
I’ve built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

A recapturing of the early Western Christian spirituality is needed in order to encourage people to look beyond themselves, to see that who they are is bound up with others.

I began by asking “Why haven’t our churches taken up the subject of the war in a more direct way?” What’s stopping us from even engaging in discourse? Perhaps we are afraid of what might happen to our institution if we took on such a controversial issue. Perhaps people would leave the church. On the other hand, maybe people would see that the church is actually engaging with some of the key ethical and political questions of our time. Perhaps people would begin to see the church actually living out the gospel and come knocking in droves. Who knows?

From our biblical and theological tradition, the church has a unique understanding of humanity as being deeply relational. In addition, we have a rich biblical and theological tradition to draw upon when it comes to issues of violence and war. Of course, the church is not blameless or without fault when it comes to violence and war. However, from the prophets to Jesus, and from St. Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Church has had something to say and proclaim about violence and war. What if we were more willing to draw upon this tradition? Cultivating a robust corporate spirituality might give us the courage to lift up helpful and hopeful voices within the church on these important issues of violence and war. Isn’t it time to make our voices heard?

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

We all paid for Polly

Second of two parts

By Andrew Gerns

Recently I presided at the funeral of a woman named Polly, who I had come to know a bit in the months before her death. I was familiar with her medical care, and it struck me that in her last years almost all of her energy she spent on paying for it.

The more I thought about Polly’s situation, the more I realized that we are all at risk of the very same fate. Not just the poor and the working poor, but everyone who stays in a job “for the insurance” or who considers putting off a doctor’s visit or filling a prescription either because of the cost, the hassle of dealing with insurers, or an inability to handle growing “co-pays.”

Other healthcare systems around the world handle sick people the way we handle sick pets. No one is cared for unless they pay the money up front and even then they must bring their own food, bandages and relatives to care for them during recovery. We are in a system that guarantees a minimal level of access but which often saddles a person or family with a mountain of debt and which often does not cover the cost of providing the care in the first place.

The way we structure paying for healthcare poses serious moral questions for all of us. Namely, who pays for Polly? Because of the way the system of reimbursement is structured and because of the way the health care market works, we are all complicit in the health care mess.

Today we work under an operating principle that assumes that I will only pay for the cost of my care, and I want that cost as low as possible. Know it or not, we are all caught up in that game: insurer, employer and consumer. None of us want to pay more than what is supposed to cost to care for me and me alone.

And no one of us wants to pay for overhead.

The choices that are made because we only want to pay for own costs and no one else’s left Polly out in the cold.

When the Great HMO Experiment collapsed in the late 1990's and early 2000's, we were left with a system that contains many elements of everything that came before it. Which brings us back to how providers and insurances negotiate rates.

Each insurer group will go to each hospital or network and say "We will only pay $M". The hospital says well, we want to charge you "$X" because it really costs us "$Z" to provide this service. But at the end of the day, the provider will negotiate a "special rate" of $M and hope they make up for the short-fall on volume. But to justify this, to make "$M" really look like a discount, the published rate for any given service must be somewhere between $X and $Z.

So here's the formula: "$M" = rate paid, "$X" = rate charged and "$Z" = actual cost of care plus overhead. Hospitals and providers that survive and prosper are the ones who can build enough cash reserves to operate and grow based on getting as many people as possible who can, through their insurers, pay somewhere between "$M" and "$X" and enough patients who can actually afford to pay "$Z" when the insurance runs out or won't cover what they need.

The truth of the matter is that most providers have to get by on "$M" and from that pay for staff, supply and overhead. They have to staff and deliver care accordingly. Most of what passes for cost-containment doesn't contain costs at all, but shifts the actual costs someplace else.

And neither your (or your employer's or your government's) insurance premium nor your provider's negotiated rate of "$M" fully takes into account the cost of the competing bureaucracies, the one designed to maximize collections (provider) and the one designed to minimize payments (insurer). Every time you compare an explanation of benefits and a provider bill, you are caught in between the competing bureaucracies.

In truth, a provider in a reasonably busy market will charge a wide variety of rates for a wide variety of contracts looking for that magic balance of volume and reimbursement just to stay in business. If you think that you are only paying what it costs you to get the care you got, think again.

But wait, there's more. This is where we move from craziness to immorality.

If the provider has to post "$X" as their rate, even though most of the insurers that insured patients used has negotiated "$M", does any one pay "$X?" You bet! Polly paid.

Those without the "buying" power of a group pay full freight because they cannot negotiate a “discount.” That means the uninsured. That meant Polly.

When your local hospital, be it tax-exempt or for-profit, publishes it's "charity care" numbers, a large part of what you are seeing is the write-down between what it charges its poorest clients (because those with insurance including Medicare pay at a rate far below cost) and what it can ever possibly hope to collect.

In poor rural or urban areas, the cost of the write-downs can be greater than their collections, even if they are filled to the brim with patients. Without a healthy margin (or profit if the hospital is not tax-exempt), there is not enough cash to go from day to day and that means more debt. Which means that hospitals in poor areas spend much more money managing debt than paying for care.

Of course, the insurers have to make a profit to stay in business or, if they are the government, spend as little as possible for legislative and budgetary reasons. So they will do all they can to cap, limit, direct and ration care while at the same time paying as little as they can to the ones who provide the services.

The system is ripe with immoralities. Of the many immoralities of our "system" of paying for health-care, the biggest one of all is that we have broken the social contract that says that the majority of us who have help pay for the care of those who have not.

We have broken the contract that says that we are who are healthy, or even relatively healthy, and who have resources either in terms of insurance or wealth help pay for the care of those who are sick or poor, or who need extra care. We have devolved a system which will only tolerate what it seems to cost to pay for me alone and the system tries to make up for that fact with decreasing service, increasing overhead, and evermore limited access.

Having entered the system, Polly was all but bankrupted by it. One of the other documents that she never completed was the final order declaring her bankruptcy. She did not have the money to pay the court and lawyer fees to complete the process.

Polly's health suffered because her nutrition was compromised. Her baseline health was in the basement. Her dental care was non-existent, which left her open to all kinds of new health problems. She lived in substandard housing because that was what she could afford. She avoided follow-up care and basic care for things like colds and sore feet for obvious reasons. When she could, she bought her shoes and clothes at the dollar store or the Salvation Army.

On the other hand, she used to tell me or her doctor at the filling station that she had the best exercise program on earth...fifteen blocks each way. Only one way uphill!

We have a system so weighted towards the payers who can obtain the lowest rates, that there are many with no insurance or inadequate insurance who are charged the highest, unnegotiated rates out there. We have a system in which many with insurance are bankrupted because the more specialized care they need, or the longer they are in the system, the less likely it is that they will find providers who will accept only the payment assigned to them.

This is one reason why healthcare causes the most personal bankruptcies, why we have the most expensive health related bureaucracy and why we have the most inefficient and haphazard basic care delivery system of the major industrial economies.

I am not so naive to think that Polly is alone in this. Just look around your parish. There are probably many in her shoes, but perhaps not as obvious. These are the ones who are one serious illness away from disaster.

If we as a society are going to seriously and adequately address the health-care crisis in this nation, we will have to come to terms with the moral question of how we all share in the cost of each other's care. Are we responsible for each other, or not? Do we have obligations to each other, or not? We will bear, even on the most minimal level, each other's burdens, or not?

The sad truth is that one way or the other, we all paid--and will pay-- for Polly. We just didn't help her.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem and keeps the blog Andrewplus.

Who pays for Polly?

First of two parts

By Andrew Gerns

We all paid for Polly.

The other day, I did the funeral for a woman. Let's call her Polly. She lived alone, worked as a cashier in a gas-station/variety store 50 to 60 hours per week saving $5 here and $20 there to "pay off" the bills she carried after a being hospitalized for a seizure. As far as we can tell, her care was very good. Care was not the problem. The problem was that she was never going to pay her bills in anything like a normal lifetime.

She died of a massive stroke. She was able to have some of her organs donated to another. We prayed over her body at her bedside and did a pauper’s ceremony after she was cremated in a cardboard box.

I saw some of Polly's healthcare bills before she died. She was charged the highest possible rates that her hospital and most of her providers could charge. I know because I carefully track my own, everyday costs—and I am reasonably healthy—and I saw the difference that the same hospital charged Polly and what they charged me and my insurance company, and what my insurance company and I actually paid.

Between the two of us, I was the lucky one. Not only do I have insurance, but generally I do not have to pay the difference between what the hospital charges and what the insurance pays, except for a comparatively tiny co-pay. Part of my premium goes to pay for the negotiating power of the plan that my church-employer can pay for. Polly had no one to negotiate for her.

The only provider who cut her a break was her physician who often wrote off his care for her. He would make sure he bought his gas where she worked so he could check on her without her going to the office. On her death, she had mounds of charity care forms that were incomplete and unprocessed because either she did not understand them, was too busy working, or was too darned depressed.

Polly's story is everyone’s story. She is not alone. She was a little luckier because she had a small circle of folks who cared for her. But her story is a story about how astoundingly backwards our so-called health care system is: how fees are structured and how contracts with providers are negotiated.

I'm a priest not an economist, but I have spent nearly half my ministry in healthcare and this is what I have learned about how we pay (or don't pay) for our healthcare and what it meant to Polly and how we all pay in the end.

Most health insurance plans negotiate the rate they will pay with the provider or network of providers they will use. This provider could be a hospital and it might also be a pharmaceutical company.

This is why someone’s insurance will tend to emphasize one or two pharmaceutical companies over another regardless of what medication is needed and why most plans require extensive paperwork and appeals if a patient is prescribed a drug that is "off-list" and why patients are often "encouraged" to use generic or "clinically equivalent" brands through the creative use of co-pays. And why doctors are forced to use a ladder approach moving from the most general drug up to the most specific, in an attempt to keep that drug either generic or on-list, but which many times ends up costing patients lots of money in co-pays both in drugs and repeat visits and in mind-boggling waste because of both the paperwork and the volume of unused prescriptions.

But the thing I want to focus on is how hospitals and other providers have to negotiate rates with insurers and how that affects both the Pollys of this nation as well as the insured. The idea is this: the insurer wants to pay as little as possible for health care services but the provider needs to earn as much as possible through the money it collects.

In the "old days," a hospital had one rate system, usually covering three distinct operational areas: "room" which paid for the care the person received while in hospital, "board" which paid for support services that made the stay possible, and physicians who were paid separately. Often other providers and specialist areas were paid separately, too. In these "old days" there was an old-style Blue Cross, which covered hospitals, and a Blue Shield, which covered physician costs.

The system was simple, but was based on several assumptions that no longer apply about how health care was delivered: longer stays, a building boom in hospitals (that was both government-encouraged and market-driven) and the fact that providers were pretty much in charge of setting the costs.

The big disadvantage was that there was no way to contain costs and no incentive either. When the revolution of medical technology really took hold and every hospital, no matter how big or small, got into a space race of having to provide all the services and technologies that a competitor might provide. Every new technology both drove up costs and increased what hospitals charged. The old system had lots of flaws and it left many people out. It was also based on assumptions about who worked where, for how long and for what kind of company that no longer apply. The whole house o' cards collapsed in the 1980's.

The first attempt to contain this was the invention of DRGs. You know: the idea that the average appendectomy or child birth costs "$X" so that's what insurers would pay. If hospitals could keep costs below "$X" then they kept the difference, and if it cost more, then they'd eat it. The hope was that over the broad average of a typical year there would be more money kept than lost. It looked good on paper but had problems in reality. Still, some version of this tool is still with us today.

The next thing that happened was that it was decided that "cost-shifting" was bad. Very, very bad.

Cost-shifting means that a provider would pay for its poorer or money losing patients (who might not have been poor or uninsured but whose DRG-related insurance did not cover the cost of care) by spreading their costs over the whole pool of all their insured and wealthy patients. In other words, thems that had coverage helped pay for thems that did not.

When looked at micro, it seems unfair that my insurance rates should be higher because somebody else could not pay their bill. Cost-shifting became anathema in the era of the infamous Reagan "welfare queen." It was a rhetorical flourish describing a reality that never really existed but surely won votes! Cost-shifting was deemed to be bad because it seemed to encourage waste, fraud and personal irresponsibility.

But on the macro level, the end of cost-shifting meant the end of an important social contract that all of us together would share our resources to care for those who have fewer resources available to them.

The inability to address that basic social contract is the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about paying for health care today. The question comes down to this, who pays for Polly?

Tomorrow: Confronting the moral questions.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem and keeps the blog Andrewplus.

Culture, tradition and the Anglican Communion

By Lauren R. Stanley

RENK, Sudan – A quick lesson in cultural differences:

In Sudan, a bride price is paid when two people want to get married. No bride price, no marriage.

In the United States, no bride price is paid. People get married for love.

In Sudan, if the families and the community don’t agree to the marriage, it doesn’t take place.

In the United States, if the families don’t agree, too bad. And who asks the entire community for permission to wed?

In Sudan, paying a bride price – in cattle, pigs, beads or money, depending on the tribe – is a given. It is considered by many to be payback for all the investment that went into raising and educating the girl. The more educated she is, the more cows (or pigs or beads or money) is paid to the girl’s family, to recompense them for their investment and for “losing” the girl, who goes over to the man’s family. (And yes, it is normal for a “girl” to marry a man – the men often are much older than the women.)

In the United States, paying back the woman’s family for educating her is not even a consideration.

Why is bride price – or the lack thereof – so important to figuring out how culture affects our understanding of God?

Well, it’s a major portion of our discussions in theology classes at the Renk Theological College, because it’s such a good example of understanding the “tradition” leg of the three-legged stool of Anglicanism.

The first thing the students learn is that “tradition” comes with both a capital “T” and a small “t.” The capital-T Traditions of the Church include the Sacraments, the Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer. Small-t traditions include the cultural ethos of the people in the Church.

To help the students understand these differences, we frequently talk about bride price. About one-third of our students are married; all of them paid the traditional bride price for their tribe and clan. None of them can understand why we in the United States do not do this. When I tell them that paying for a bride in America is not only not part of our tradition, but also could be considered illegal – “We don’t pay for people in America; we outlawed that in the 1860s.” – the students here are appalled.

“How can such a thing happen?” they ask.

I assure them I understand the differences in our small-t traditions, and that since I live in both Sudan and the United States, I pay attention to both. If I were to marry here in Sudan, to a Sudanese man, a bride price would be paid. That’s all there is to it; the local culture has to be honored.

But, I say, if I were to get married in the United States, no such thing would even be considered. We don’t do that; it’s not our tradition, capital “T” or small.

Who would set the bride price, they want to know, if I were to get married here. Oh, I explain, that bride price was set more than two decades ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. An elderly tribal chief decided he had to have me as his fourth wife. In a desperate attempt to help both him and me save face, I wrote to my Pops and asked him to set a ridiculously high bride price – 2,000 cattle, 1,000 goats and 500 chickens. My Pops wrote back a beautiful letter, setting forth the price and explaining that I was his beloved daughter, and that it would break his heart to lose me to Kenya forever.

When the chief received the letter, he was devastated. “Ah,” he said, “I cannot pay that price. But I am glad to know that your father values you so highly. You must be special indeed. But the marriage cannot take place.” (I never did tell the chief that I was not devastated in the least by his decision; that would not have been appropriate.)

Since the going bride price here is 20-30 cows among the Dinka tribe, my bride price is considered ridiculously high and helps keep the conversation light, which is necessary, because then we move to the nitty-gritty of the theological discussion.

Whose tradition is correct? I ask. The adamant reply, from both sides: Ours. How can you be sure? I ask. It’s our tradition, we each say. Who decides? I ask. We do. But what if we can’t agree? And that’s where the conversation stops for a while, every single time.

For what are we do to when two cultures clash? How are we to reconcile ourselves to each other’s traditions? Do we fight over them? Do we simply agree to disagree? Do we disparage each other?

Or, I always ask, can we agree that what is appropriate in one culture – paying bride prices – is not appropriate in another – no bride prices even considered – and still manage to maintain our unity in the body of Christ?

Always, always, the discussion ends the same: Cultural differences must be respected – as long as we remember that we all are members of the same body, and as long as we remember not to make another culture do what we want.

When we’re discussing bride prices, it’s easy to come to this conclusion. This is a cultural difference that in the end is not all that important in the greater scheme of God’s plans for us.

But when we move the discussion to the next level – to other cultural disagreements between one part of the Anglican Communion and another – it becomes a little harder to come to a quick conclusion. Cultural differences over sexuality are huge, particularly between the Sudanese and American churches. It takes a lot of discussion, a lot of prayer, a lot of arguing, before we, a tiny slice of that Anglican Communion, finally can come to an agreement:

As long as you don’t force your culture on us, or make us change our culture to fit yours, we can live with each other.

Every one is a little uncomfortable with this idea of different cultures co-existing in the same body, but in the end, when we keep our focus on Jesus and the love of God for all us, it works out. We rely on Gregory the Great’s instructions to Augustine of Canterbury: If the local tradition is not impeding the faith, let it stand.

We have great disagreements over sexuality in the Communion today. Perhaps if we all stood back a bit, if we all looked at this the way we look at bride price, perhaps, then, we could all remember: We are all members of the same body, even when our local small-t traditions aren’t the same.

Will this discussion, small as it is, solve all the problems the Communion is facing today? No. But it’s a start.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Live the questions now

By Margaret M. Treadwell

During the weeks when high school seniors make their final decisions regarding college versus whether to take a gap year or get a job, I had the opportunity to spend five days at Cornell University talking with students about their hopes, dreams and challenges, especially during freshman year. What was their greatest challenge or surprise? Could they have prepared themselves better before arriving on campus? In retrospect, was there anything they would have done differently during the first semester? When so much is written about sex, drugs and alcohol on college campuses, what keeps them sober and mature in their decisions?

Two women, one enrolled in the famed Hotel School and the second in pre-med, her family’s tradition, said they always had known what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go to do it. So the huge university, a city unto itself, was an easy transition that nevertheless constantly required an attention to “balance” – the greatest challenge for everyone I interviewed.

The majority of students explained how they floundered when they didn’t fit in right away. “If you can’t take a challenge you can’t make it at Cornell or probably any college,” said a second-semester freshman. His method of survival was to take time during the first weeks to determine what he wanted to do with his life at Cornell, all the while forming friendships to decide whom he wanted to be with. Then when he saw an opportunity to get involved, he plunged in with others he respected and liked. Now he’s so busy and committed that it requires organization through a color-coded Microsoft Outlook program to keep his balance.

An articulate young man said he wished he had taken a gap year to grow up and learn about himself before beginning his studies.

“If only I’d known that to be open doesn’t mean to be without a plan,” he said. “Had I created a clearer picture of what I wanted to do with my life, including a goal and direction, I would have been less disoriented. A direction would have allowed me to try things, change my mind and stop making decisions the exact opposite of my parents’ wishes for me. My reactivity to them wasted my time and energy, but I appreciate their letting me make my mistakes because I learned from them.”

Colleges have different personalities and everyone agreed that it’s important to know the “brand” and what suits and encourages you – size, school spirit, quiet or active campuses, the residential situation, social environment and how you want to live and relate to the community.

Kirsten Gabriel, associate director of The Cornell Commitment, says, “The world can be a bubble in college, and service work gives a different perspective about where you are and what you’ve been given. For example, students are inherently joyful, and half an hour talking with a chronically ill elderly person gives insight into their ability to give joy, which is empowering. They tell me that they stay on track, make their best grades, that life is full and rich when they are thinking beyond themselves by committing to the campus and community life.”

On the other hand, Dina Zemke, an assistant professor in the School of Hotel Administration, talked about students who spend class time on their Blackberries or computers. “They are masters at multi-tasking and communicating through technology, but I often wonder about the balance in their lives,” she said. “Something has to suffer, often academics, when a person is Jack of all trades, master of none.”

Differing views raise more questions, the most important being one a human being needs to ask for a lifetime and can only answer for him or herself: “What do you want to do with your life?” Although the question implies a singular answer, in fact late adolescent and early adult years offer a chance to try out many different ideas, interests and disciplines and to learn from mistakes.

Rainer Maria Rilke provides useful advice in his “Letters to a Young Poet (1903):

“...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. She teaches a course on congregational leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary and creates and leads conferences across the country for bishops, clergy and church lay leaders, helping them to apply family systems concepts to their leadership in diocesan and parish ministry.

A disciple-making church?

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Over the altar at Virginia Seminary, where I teach, are the words from Mark 16:15. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (“proclaim the good news to the whole creation” is how the New Revised Standard Version has it.) These words have inspired generations of people called to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament. But as one of the people called to the ministry of teaching in and beyond the church, I find myself drawn, this ascensiontide, to Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, and I wonder what the church would look like if we spent more time reflecting on what Jesus might have meant here. In Matthew 28: 19-20, he says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

A lot of the literature I’ve seen on stewardship and congregational development seems to focus on attracting more members to our congregations, through programs that meet perceived needs: it’s about “marketing” the church. Young adult ministries, I’ve noticed, focus some energy on encouraging vocations, but often that means raising up young people to be the next generation of ordained ministers in the church. But I have been wondering what we would look like as a church, as congregations and schools and communities, if we focused more energy, not so much on selling the church or attracting new members, but on “making disciples” of the people who come in our doors, and the seekers who inquire about us. What might this call to “make disciples of all nations” mean in our time and culture and in the current theological climate?

The term “discipleship” is probably associated, for some of us, with more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions and “making disciples” primarily with overseas mission, often associated with cultural conservatism. But I believe it’s a term that we in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition should be reclaiming, reframing, and considering in light of our tradition and the culture surrounding us. Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, moves in this direction as he seeks a very Anglican-sounding “generous third way” between Evangelicals’ preoccupation with a personal savior and liberals’ with modern culture. He writes of how he muddled for some time over how to describe the mission of the Church, moving from the familiar language of Evangelicals in his description of the church. He tells how he started with formulaic language: the church’s mission is to make “more Christians and better Christians.” But on reflection he tweaked it further, moving to “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ” and then “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in authentic community, for the sake of the world.” I like his movement away from labels to the affirmation of discipleship as part of our communal identity and our work in the world. And I like the language of discipleship better than language about “the ministry of the laity” (much as I revere the work of Verna Dozier and others of her generation) because it gets us out of ecclesiastical categories back into Biblical language that describes the shared mission of everyone in the Church. How do we understand discipleship in our time? That’s the question we should be asking together, regardless of office or vocation within the structure of the Church.

The idea of discipleship also gets us back to the concept of our faith as something we practice – the great insight of Diana Butler Bass’s influential work. Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations – i.e. not only the Jewish community that they know but ALSO all nations: this is for everyone. And it’s about observing what he commanded. Love your neighbor as yourself; pray; teach, heal, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, seek forgiveness and reconciliation; look at the world through the lens of one who can say “blessed are the poor/ blessed are the meek.” This is not about convincing people to be like-minded or to join-up, nor is it a self-help project, about “becoming a better person.” Rather, the idea of discipleship gets to the heart of who Jesus is or wants to be for us. It moves us beyond worrying about the shape of institutions and back to a focus on the mission that Jesus has promised to support, if we try to follow him: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

What would the Church look like if we thought of “disciple-making” as our core purpose, in adult formation programs, in seminary education, in worship? The language of the baptismal covenant and baptism service in the prayer book provides some good language for this, in our tradition – though somehow or other the “ministry of the baptized” has been relegated to a category that goes with “not called to ordained ministry,” in many discussions in seminaries and vocation/formation programs. (Sometimes implying a contrast between the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the baptized, as if the ordained were not baptized!) But discipleship: that’s something we all share, whatever office we’re called to in the church – it’s something we can reflect on within our tradition and also across denominations. How might the vision of a “disciple-making church” transform and refocus our work, worship and teaching? A question to reflect on as we approach the Feast of Pentecost.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Rethinking Ascension

By George Clifford

Luke’s gospel ends with an unidentified force or actor carrying Jesus up into heaven (Luke 24:51); in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending ascension (John 20:17), and the book of Acts begins with a retelling of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Based on those New Testament passages, the Church annually commemorates Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. This year, the feast fell on May 1.

From a scientific perspective, the concept of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as depicted in Scripture is nonsensical. If Jesus ascended into heaven, then given the right information an aerospace engineer could calculate heaven’s direction, but not its distance, from earth. The accurate data needed for that calculation includes the geographic point at which the ascension occurred, the hour and minute, day of the year, and year in which the ascension occurred, Jesus’ trajectory into the sky, and the relative location of the solar system and universe within the cosmos at the time of the ascension.

Some might ridicule a literal reading, contending that heaven – the place where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father – surrounds the cosmos, lying outside space and time. Yet the New Testament ascension narratives presume a flat, three-tiered cosmos consisting of heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Before dismissing my claim that the New Testament presumes a three-story cosmology as wrong, remember the words of the Nicene Creed we Episcopalians (like many other Christians) often say at Holy Eucharist, “he [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those who have personally circumnavigated the world know that the earth is round. For others, video and photographic evidence from outer space provides convincing evidence that the earth is spherical. In other words, a basic presumption of the New Testament versions of the ascension is scientifically wrong.

Presupposing that one rejects a literal interpretation of Jesus’ ascension, what better options do twenty-first century Christians have for understanding Jesus’ ascension?

The first option, already mentioned, consists of spiritualizing the ascension, postulating the existence of a spiritual realm that lies outside the space-time continuum. Increasing numbers of people, however, find the idea of a supernatural deity, a deity who exists not only in but beyond the cosmos, unbelievable. Scholars and spiritual leaders like Bishops John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and John Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) have helpfully articulated why such a belief seems incompatible with other elements of our modern worldview.

A second option is to ignore Jesus’ ascension and hope that others do so as well, an approach that Ascension always falling on Thursday aids. After all, Christianity emphasizes God's presence not absence in the world. Historically, one of the important functions of the ascension was to explain Jesus’ physical absence to people who believed in a physically empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The New Testament specifies that Jesus appeared amongst his disciples for forty days after rising from the dead. When people stopped encountering Jesus, what had happened to him? Novelists and others have imaginatively answered that question, producing a wealth of material. Jesus went to India; he disappeared unknown among peasants elsewhere; etc. Those explanations typically undercut Christianity’s premise that Jesus was not resuscitated but resurrected, receiving a qualitatively new form of life. Thankfully, the feast of Pentecost quickly follows Ascension and ecclesial attention shifts from the absent Jesus to the now present Holy Spirit. This overly facile and dishonest option describes what many contemporary Christians do, especially in Churches without a liturgical calendar or lectionary that forces one to pay at least annual lip service to the ascension.

A third option, my preference, begins by acknowledging the theological difficulties that Jesus’ ascension poses and then re-examines the data. Biblical numerology provides a helpful starting point. The Bible – Old and New Testament alike – associates the number forty with a theologically significant period of extended duration. For example, rain fell for forty days and nights while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:4). The Israelites who fled Egypt ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was forty when he visited his Israelite relatives (Acts 7:23) and then sojourned in the wilderness forty years before his experience of the burning bush (Acts 7:30). Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Deuteronomy 9:11). Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Perhaps the forty days the risen Jesus spent with his disciples points to an indefinite but considerable period of time following Jesus’ crucifixion in which the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence with them. They experienced Jesus in a new, radically different manner, a manner that the disciples did not know how to describe, a manner that transformed their despair over his death into the hope that built the Church. So the disciples grasped the metaphor of resurrection as a way to speak about their new experience of Jesus (see my earlier Episcopal Café essay, “Resurrection, Not Resuscitation”). In time, the disciples’ experiences of Jesus in this new way diminished in frequency and dimmed in intensity. Ascension became the accepted metaphor for explaining why that had happened.

Metaphors and other figures of speech are the only way in which humans can speak of God because our language, by definition, is human language and God is not human. Our perspective as humans is perhaps equally or even more limited than language. Twenty-first century Christians need offer no apologies for finding first century metaphors highly problematic. The first century metaphor of resurrection presumes a worldview in which gods often have or assume human form, an idea common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Similarly, the three-storied cosmos ascension presumes was intrinsic to the dominant first century worldview.

The note that I hear most clearly and loudly in the New Testament ascension narratives is that the disciples, post-resurrection, were utterly convinced that the Jesus story had not yet reached its end. They believed that God would write at least one more chapter in the Jesus story. Our Eucharistic prayers affirm this belief in a story for which the conclusion has yet to be written with some form of the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

587 BC, and why it matters

(This is the first in a series “7 Dates and Why They Matter for Anglican Faith”)

By Derek Olsen

From our current perspective, the politics and history of the Ancient Near East 2500 years ago look like successions of waves on a beach as empires ebb and flow on the world stage. Foreign names and foreign places: The defeat of Sinsharishkun and the fall of Nineveh; containment of the Egyptians at Carcemesh; the fading of the Hittites and the rise of the Neo-Babylonians. And yet, one relatively minor episode in the succession of names and places dotting ancient history had a revolutionary impact on how we think about God and what we believe as Christians.

From what we can tell from primary documents—clay tablets, stone stele, temple carvings, ancient hymns and the like—many of the peoples of the Ancient Near East held a philosophy of religion called henotheism. That is, they had their gods but recognized that other peoples had other gods as well. Gods tended to be thought of in regional terms. To put a finer point on it, clans and tribes told stories about their gods that were intimately tied to their lives and to their geographies. A god wasn’t “just” a god, rather it was god X who made himself known to ancestor X at place Y in such-and-such a way. When cultures clashed the wars were not just occurring on the physical realm, the gods of the peoples were pitting their strength against one another. And the events of which we speak begin with just such a war…

In the waning years of the 7th century BC and the opening years of the 6th, Judah and its capital Jerusalem were still under the reign of kings from the line of David. For a brief time under King Josiah it enjoyed a period of relative independence from the whims of the empires around it. Josiah’s death in battle against Egyptian forces was the beginning of the end, though. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was on the rise with Nebuchadnezzar at its helm. Under threat of invasion, Judah began paying a heavy tribute to Babylon. Chaffing under this burden, King Jehoakim thought the moment opportune to rebel, counting on the Babylonians being distracted by troubles on the other side of the empire. In the year 601 King Jehoakim gambled but it was his son, the new King Jehoachin who had to face the music. In 597, a large Babylonian army surrounded the city which quickly surrendered in the face of the superior force. The Babylonians were lenient; rather than sacking the city, they took the city’s elite—the king and his household, the government, many of the priests (including the priestly prophet Ezekiel)—into exile in Babylon. The king’s uncle Zedekiah was put in charge of what was left.

Ultimately, Zedekiah proved no wiser than his brother Jehoakim; he too revolted against the Babylonians in 589. This time the Babylonian response was not only swift but ruthless. After an eighteen month siege, Jerusalem fell and the Babylonian army descended upon it in fury. The city was pulled to the ground. The Temple built by Solomon was utterly destroyed; the city’s inhabitants killed, sold into slavery, or scattered across the land. Babylonian client states—Edom in particular—savaged anything that was left.

Now—this story in and of itself is not unique. It has played out in hundreds of times and places; only the names change. What makes this case different is not the record of the events themselves. Rather, what is remarkable is the response to it. Ironically—but perhaps not surprisingly—the place where we turn now is the community of exiles in Babylon. With the destruction of their homeland they could have given up. They could have assimilated into the people around them. Instead it prompted them to write, record, and consider who they were. Cut off from the land of their ancestors and the geography of their god, they could easily have turned to the worship of the new gods of their new place. But what happened instead was a revolution.

Although we cannot be certain of times and places, most scholars believe that it was this community displaced in Babylon that was responsible for forming the heart of what we know today as the Old Testament. The great stories of the ancestral patriarchs and matriarchs were collected and woven together. The records of the early years of the kingdom of Israel and its split into Israel and Judah were updated and reworked. The words of the prophets were gathered and formed into stable collections. The songs of the Temple were collected even if there was no place left to sing them. And—we believe—above it and behind it all, the hand of God and the breath of the Spirit were moving, working, and inspiring. What had before been scattered scrolls and remembrances became a coherent collection, a body of writing that recorded the people’s story of themselves and their dealings with their god. And it is one we revere to this day.

Indeed the catastrophe of 587 and the events surrounding it are well represented in our Bibles. The book of Jeremiah records the histories and prophecies of the years before and immediately after the crisis. We have Jeremiah’s own feelings, poetry, and sermons as well as the events that befell him recorded by the hand of his scribe Baruch. Ezekiel balances Jeremiah; while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was taken away in the first group of exiles and proclaimed the Word of God to the exiles in Babylon, and narrated events as the Spirit directed. The book of Lamentations communicates the shock and horror of the sack of Jerusalem. The book of Obadiah too responds not only to the fall of the city but the abominable acts of the Edomites in the tragic aftermath. The two great histories—the political history of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings and the condensed ecclesiastically-focused history of 1 and 2 Chronicles—both tell of the events leading up to the tragedy in their own ways. Psalms 74 and 78 reflect on the destruction of the Temple itself.

Considering the psalms in light of these events, Psalm 137 comes in particular to the fore. Many know this as the beautiful psalm whose end is marred by disagreeable verses unworthy of Scripture. Indeed, our current Daily Office lectionary makes verses 7-9 optional whenever this psalm rolls around. Coming up short at these words is inevitable if our morality is intact. But what these words point to—more basic than morality—is the humanity of those who wrote them. Read Lamentations. Read Obadiah. Then read Psalm 137. These are not simply words of cruelty but of pain, of despair, of wrath coming from the darkest places of human experience. Happy are we who do not understand them—having not seen the bodies of our children in the ruins of our homes. These words put us in touch not with the anonymous ebb and flow of historical tides but of the real people crying to the skies thousands of years ago—the same skies we turn to in pain as well.

Before turning aside from this psalm, however, Psalm 137 gives one more clue to understanding the revolution of 587 BC. In verse four the psalmist plaintively asks one of the key theological questions of the day: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” Remember, in the henotheistic thought of the day, they were no longer in the territory of their god. They were no longer in the lands where the god of their ancestors walked but in the fields of Enlil and Marduk. How could they sing the songs of YHWH into the ears of foreign gods? Ezekiel answers at the very head of his prophecies. The vision he receives by the banks of the Chebar is not just a vision of a god in glory, but of a god on the move. The angelic chariot, the mobile throne, is one of the key features of the vision—and for a reason. Casting aside notions of territories and places, Ezekiel sees a god not contained by space and time but free to dwell in the midst of the people whom he had chosen.

At some point in this process, in the reading, the reworking, the meditating, and the writing the people taken out of Jerusalem came to a profound realization. Their god was not “a” god, one among many. Rather, this being who had become personally entwined in their lives and stories was none other than “the” God—not just the god of a region, of a bounded place, of a strip of land along the coast of Palestine, but the very Creator of heaven and earth. Henotheism gave way to monotheism. And the rest—as they say—is history.

The wheel of fortune turned and the Persians overcame the Neo-Babylonians. The Persian Cyrus allowed the exiles to return home, to rebuild their city and its temple. Some of the exiles stayed, but—taking with them the collections of books that told the history of their relationship with God—more left. Ezra and Nehemiah tell their stories. But the events of 587 were forever marked in the Scriptures that they passed down and that, in turn, we have received. As a result of this tragedy, the people of Israel clarified their history and self-identity in a narrative about their on-going covenant relationship with the being who they—and we—believe is none other than the One God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

A dialog with atheism

By Martin L. Smith

What kind of conversation should there be between Christians and atheists? One way of looking at that question is to consider this to be an invitation to a kind of interfaith dialogue, and one that serious Christians should equip themselves to conduct.

Today interfaith dialogue is literally coming home. It isn’t something to be reserved for experts on official commissions. Our daughter might return from college having adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Our brother might marry a keen and eloquent Muslim wife. Hindu neighbors might move in next door. We might become close friends with a new co-worker who is deeply observant Jew. But the chances are just as high we will be spiritually face to face with a humanist agnostic or committed atheist. I am not talking about someone who is merely tone-deaf when it comes to religion. I mean atheism chosen as a moral commitment—and that kind of atheism can be understood as a type of (non-religious) faith, and therefore a world-view and commitment that invites our conversation.

Think of serious agnosticism and atheism as a stance of faith. Its adherents believe human beings can and must create for themselves lives that are worth living, that we must forge values that work now without the claims of a supernatural source. It believes that though human beings enjoy only a few decades of existence and our species is destined for extinction, yet the adventure of human existence is sufficiently glorious to be lived well.

Now, as the late Bishop Krister Stendhal has reminded us, the only kind of interfaith dialogue worthy of the name is a conversation between equals that puts both parties at risk of being drawn to adopt the other person’s belief; so we must mean business and take that risk. If the outcome is that someone comes to know God through our conversation that is great. But even if she doesn’t, it will do us good to discover that atheists have something important to contribute to our religious faith. They can keep us more rigorously honest. Their challenges can have a purging effect and jolt us into more mature belief.

Take ethics and morals. Unfortunately, Christians bear some responsibility for the popular caricature of religion in which choosing good and avoiding evil seems to be governed by fear of divine punishment or expectation of divine favor. Go deep in conversation with our humanist neighbor and we might discover a commitment to justice, decency, compassion, even to virtue, for their own sake. The idea that atheists are intrinsically likely to believe that anything goes morally is a slander. So in dialogue with humanists, Christians may find themselves more in agreement than they imagine. When I talk with an avowed humanist committed to social justice and strong personal ethics of compassion and fidelity, I find myself in hearty agreement that goodness is to be chosen from the heart because it is good, as our mystics have always held. Making a choice from fear of punishment is spiritually infantile.

And what about superstition and religious illusion? In a sense, much of the critique that atheists direct at religion is an offshoot of the biblical critique. If we knew how to read the Bible properly, we would find that a great deal of it is devoted to exposing the elements of illusion and self-deception in so much human religiosity. It isn’t that the prophets merely attacked pagan idolatries as superstitious and toxic. They directed their most devastating analyses to the religion of their own people, all in the name of a very mysterious God who refused to be represented by any image, and who inspired his messengers to vigorously disassociate him from a host of practices performed supposedly in his name. It is out of this prophetic critique that the Jewish saying arose, “The next best thing to believing in the Lord is not to believe in God!”

Another incentive for American Christians to enter into dialogue with atheists, not just intellectual counter-attack, is that they can remind us that God is not obvious. Most Americans claim to believe in God and our cultural climate favors the idea that the existence of God is somehow obvious. But God is far from obvious, and our atheist friends can recall us to that truth. Faith is faith, not taking something for granted. There are millions of intelligent people who aren’t prejudiced against spirituality but who see no signs of the existence of God when they look hard at the same world we live in as people of faith. It is very healthy for Christians to realize how mysteriously hidden God is. We believe that God is hidden intentionally. If God were obvious, our devotion would be coerced. It is because we can say No to the being of God that when we do say Yes we are acting in real freedom.

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.

Sowing, reaping, eating, thinking

By Marshall Scott

It's garden time at our house. My wife loves to garden, while I love to harvest. There is, as I'm sure you know, a price to be paid for the opportunity to harvest. For me, it's the heavy labor. So, some of the tilling is done. The raised bed is built, as is a trellis stout enough to hold butternut squash. There's more to do, of course, but things have started.

It's garden time. Seeds started in peat pots and customized potting soil are thriving on the seed benches. Tomatoes, beans, eggplant, and peppers show their promise. Soon they'll be spending daylight hours hardening off, adapting to the rigors of the world outside.

Last year's blackberry stakes are, starting to leaf out, as the new stakes of the blackberries and raspberries break ground. The blueberries are greening up and blooming. And the peach tree is spectacular this year. Blossoms are as large and as plentiful and as floridly pink as I can remember.

Perhaps that's because they suffered so last year. Last spring, just as the peaches and blueberries bloomed, we were hit by an ice storm. Blossoms were literally frozen on the bough. While the ice covered them, they seemed preserved in glass. When the ice was gone, the blossoms were gone as well, and with them a year's harvest. There were no local peaches or blueberries or apples to be had last year because of that storm.

We do eat from our garden, if as supplement rather than subsistence. We were saddened by the loss of peaches and berries, but nothing like the costly losses to the orchardists in our region and beyond. But we were certainly aware of our loss, and more sensitive to theirs.

We make some effort to “eat local,” from our garden or from local farmers or from the few supermarkets that have discovered that there’s a market for it. While it’s not the only reason for the effort or the expense, we are certainly more aware of where our food comes from and how. A generation ago a large pressure canner or a large dehydrator would have been a remarkably unromantic birthday gifts. Over the last couple of years those are the gifts my wife has cherished most. And I will say as a cook there are a number of pleasures to take in having one’s own canned tomatoes and dried basil. I take a particular pleasure in the dried herbs, perhaps because I don’t have all that good a sense of smell. There is a visceral pleasure when, instead of shaking a small jar, I fill my palm with dried leaves and rub them to powder between my hands, allowing the tiny bits to fall into the hot skillet. When all the spices are in – basil and tarragon and oregano – I can put my face in my hands and breathe deep. The scent fills my nose, and my kitchen; and on my better days, I will smell it for hours, every time I come in from outside.

Long ago, as an undergraduate I participated in a class experiment. We fasted from solid food from the end of the Tuesday class to the beginning of the Thursday class. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that I was never hungry. My routine was somewhat disturbed, but I could always find something else to keep me occupied. I learned much, although not what was originally intended. I had gained no sense of identification with the poor and hungry. I was so well fed that I had not suffered at all. I had learned instead just how blessed I was. I also learned what a false effort it would be, for me at least, to attempt to “show solidarity” by some temporary experiment. It might offer some intellectual stimulation, and even some moral compunction; but it wouldn’t come close to identification. Perhaps it was one of the first times I realized why, later as priest and chaplain, I could never say, “I know how you feel.”

The garden, I think, takes me closer. It’s still not enough for identification. I am not a farmer, much less a subsistence farmer. At the same time, I know what effort I put in. I know how often I bark my knuckles in the process; and so I know some of my sweat and blood feeds the roots of the peppers. I know what it means to put in two hours in the hot sun; and if I don’t know what it means to put in twelve hours, I do know that my life would be very different if I had no choice. I know how I feel about the squirrels in the peach tree and the robins in the blueberries and the rabbits in the beans; and if I can only imagine what it would be like to have my family’s life on that line, I have at least some basis for that imagination.

And so I am more aware of the news about food, at home and abroad. I am aware that rice exporting countries in Asia are withholding exports to protect their own people and their own stability, while rice importing countries scramble. I pay attention to the food riots in Egypt and Haiti. I note the news of cold snaps that damage the fruit crops in California. I realize the increased costs of fuel raise the costs of food around the globe. I am conscious that while these changes are, for me, a matter of what I eat, for many they are matters of whether they eat.

As an Episcopalian, I am conscious that my church has spoken to issues of hunger and food many times. I was struck by this simple resolution, passed in 1976: “that this General Convention encourages simple eating lifestyles for all those scheduled to attend the 66th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Denver, 1979.” (1976:D071( [link:] Still, in all our current troubles, it’s easy to lose our voice on these things. We have passed our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. At the same time, resolutions on food security (2003-A016) [link:] and on eradicating hunger in the United States (2006-D085) [link:] have died for lack of concurrence at the end of General Convention.

Each of us is called, I think, to consider how our lives affect the lives of others. If we watch how this plays out in our eating – whether the cost of oil for transport or fertilizer, or how that affects use of food crops for ethanol, or how industrial agriculture affects issues from the environment to immigration to small farmers – we will recognize the ways, perhaps new ways, to “think globally and act locally;” and to continue to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” however far away they may seem. I’m not sure I would agree with Dorothy Frances Gurney that

“One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”

But if it is true, for me it is not because of pious rapture but because it puts me that little bit closer to those who struggle for their daily bread. And I am certain that God is there.

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.

Episcopalians, Unitarians and Catholics--Free, Liberal and otherwise

By Adrian Worsfold

One wonders if The Episcopal Church as a body is wearied by the constant ideological attacks made upon it by the more conservative of Christians, especially those coming out of its ranks. It and its leadership are commonly accused of Unitarianism. Perhaps this comparison ought to be examined.

The Anglo-American strand of Unitarianism is liberal at every level. It does not have checks and balances via structural overlaps in its liberalism, but rather is independent and liberal at each and every level and it all works by persuasion and goodwill (or doesn't). Thus the model is without creeds and articles, and is congregational and evolutionary. American Unitarianism was always congregational, the English too. The Anglican Church was actually resistant and oppositional to the congregationalists of the East coast of the United States. Although The Episcopal Church has inherited much in the way of American democratic culture, it keeps a qualified episcopal system. It keeps creeds and is somewhat systematic. It has congregations but is not made by congregations.

Now there have always been points of crossing over. King's Chapel was the first Episcopal Church in New England. Loyalists to Britain were forced out in 1776 and it closed. A year later congregationalists displaced by the British effectively opened it up, sharing with Episcopalians until 1783, when their own chapel was refurbished, and James Freeman was selected to be the minister at Kings Chapel among the Episcopalians, and it was agreed that he would not have to read the Athanasian Creed. He read Joseph Priestley's A History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and Theophilus Lindsey's An Historical View of the State of the Unitarian Doctrine and Worship from the Reformation to our own Times (1783) and became Unitarian, and the congregation on hearing some sermons adopted a qualified Unitarian stance. The church nevertheless retains something of an Anglican ethos to this day. Lindsey is important, because he was an Anglican rector in the north of England who resigned his orders when the Feathers Tavern petition against subscription to the Thirty-nine articles failed, and he opened the first named Unitarian Church in 1774, using an Arian liturgy produced by the Anglican Samuel Clarke. The important point often made is that Arianism was more important in the Anglican Church than in English Unitarianism and of course there were Anglican Latitudinarians too, a long word for liberal. After that some Anglicans and some Unitarians co-operated, and there were individuals who crossed over in both directions, and continue to do so to this day. One wonders if the downgrading since Lindsey's day of the Thirty-nine Articles to "historic formularies" receiving a general assent in the Church of England would have satisfied him.

People forget that while John Henry Newman went on his travels from gothic Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, his brother Francis went in the opposite direction from Anglicanism through Unitarianism. Blanco White went from Roman Catholicism via Anglicanism to Unitarianism. I know today of a Unitarian who is now Roman Catholic, and there is a vicar in Essex who was once a Unitarian minister, and indeed an important person in my own religious travels (now deceased) started off as a Anglo-Catholic ordained in St Paul's Cathedral and ended up as a humanist-Buddhist and symbols-using Unitarian minister in London.

Of course there are Unitarian Christians who have an ecumenical outlook and who draw on the theology produced by liberal Anglicans. Many an Anglican has read Unitarian Christian writing with sympathy. The oddity is that Unitarian Christianity is conservative (I never got on with it; I went down more progressive routes) whereas Anglican liberalism is what it indicates. The two Churches are quite different in approach and ethos, and it is why Unitarian Universalism how has humanist, neo-Pagan, Eastern and Christian wings, and an identifiable Christianity is a minor element of that Church. The British Unitarian Church is more liberal Christian, but shares the same constituencies as the American Church.

There is of course the central European Unitarian tradition that has and retains a catechism, that is a Unitarian form of Protestant Christianity, and was Socinian in Poland and Unitarian in Transylvania, and with repression spread itself to the Netherlands to affect other communities.

One wonders whether the critics of The Episcopal Church actually make the best comparison with Unitarians when they want to accuse it of liberalism. Why not instead attempt to compare it with Liberal Catholicism?

Now Liberal Catholicism does retain apostolic succession, and it does retain some creeds (it tends to keep the Apostles Creed and quietly drop the Nicene Creed). It is, however, very theologically diverse - indeed in terms of groups with apostolic succession in goes the full distance, from strict Eastern Orthodoxy and ultra-Romanism right through to anarchy. Rather than have any pretence to centralisation, they all pursue the autocephalous understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy whilst recognising the apostolic orders. Personally I think the autocephalous understanding would be a better model for Anglicanism than the intended centralisation of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems all too often to describe the Anglican Communion as an Anglican Church. He wants to make it recognisable to Roman Catholicism as a body, but to do so would be highly innovative and a Covenant to do this would cause enormous institutional strain and almost certain division by rejection. The cost of the autocephalous route, however, would inevitably be more than one Anglicanism in a geographical area - something that has already happened.

Liberal Catholicism is part of what sometimes is called the phenomenon of Episcopi Vagantes. It is actually misleading, because there should be something like 45,000 Liberal Catholics in the world (still tiny) and some eight million independent Catholics.

There are different lines of apostolic succession and they are quite complex. My interest has been more ideological. Roughly speaking there are two strands. The first might be called Liberal Catholic Theosophical. Arnold Harris Mathew was made a bishop by the Old Catholic Church that has deep origins in the Netherlands and then in the rejection of the 1870 decision by the Pope to regard himself and all successors as infallible. Mathew came back to Britain and gathered around him some priests, most of whom became interested in Theosophy. Tolerant at first, he then dismissed them, and also personally tried to reconcile himself with Rome (he had been Roman and Anglican - and even Unitarian for a moment). His relationship with the Anglican leadership was difficult because he reordain very many Anglo-Catholic priests worried about the validity of their orders. It is from this relationship that English Anglicanism has an ideological chip on its shoulder about Episcopi Vagantes (whereas Roman Catholicism seems more relaxed).

Mathew consecrated his successor, who then consecrated one of the Theosophy interested priests, James Ingall Wedgwood (of the pottery family), in 1916, and he consecrated Charles Webster Leadbeater, also in 1916, who was the real deal when it came to pursuing Theosophy and a magical view of the eucharist. He had also been a Buddhist (which also allows a rather magical interpretation in the richer traditions). The current various descendents of Liberal Catholicism regard Theosophy with variable levels of importance, and Leadbeater himself forsaw a time when it would not be important. Liberal Catholicism has a history of splits and has a number of branches.

A second ideological source comes from the Unitarians. For convenience I call it Free Catholicism (which is how it called itself). Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas took the liturgical and Victorian gothic Free Christian tradition to a Catholic liturgical logic along with ecumenical friends including the congregationalist W. E. Orchard. This is just a few years after the outbreak of Liberal Catholicism. Free Catholicism did become trinitarian, after a fashion, but promoted creedless sacramentalism. Another strand is from Ulric Vernon Herford, who came from a family of Unitarian ministers. He had ordinary ministries in East Anglia and the west of England, but had mixed with the liturgical side of Unitarianism and indeed partly trained with Anglo-Catholics in Oxford. He then moved his Oxford congregation into a semi-monastic and liturgically richer setting and had a grand world-ecumenical vision, being ordained and consecrated in India along the lines of the Syro-Chaldean (Nestorian) Church and Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Chaldean Rite. He did not change his theology - he continued to be in all effect Unitarian. It seems that he assumed a Unitarianism of sorts in his consecrator and his consecrator Luis Mariano Suares, Mar Basilius, assumed a trinitarianism in Herford.

I would like to think that Free Catholicism adds a rationality to the more magical tradition that is Liberal Catholicism - that would be my own bias I suppose. Free Catholicism did not continue like Liberal Catholicism did, and Unitarianism is biased against it - it regards the founders as unreliable, detached and against the ethos of Unitarianism. I used to think they were missing a trick or three (especially in a more symbolic postmodern age), and it is a principle reason why I moved to the Anglicans for a more liturgical and eucharistic setting, and a faith path or spiritual discipline.

One gets the connection, but I realise that I stretch Anglicanism as far as it can go (and possibly too far). My own religious beginnings were in liberal theological Anglicanism - and I moved to the Unitarians, and from them moved back to the Anglicans. I am one of those who has crossed the borders. I probably live in the borders, a sort of religious Northumberland.

My resistance to Liberal Catholicism is pretty thin, but I am put off by the esoteric and magical. The mainline Christian traditions make a point of distinguishing between the supernatural and the magical. Magic means power invested in the individual, whereas the supernatural is a vertical channel from God and presumably more reliable. However, the whole priestly "ontological difference" and Orders business does come pretty close to magic, and magic can be in the service of people just as kingship can be. My own argument is more about having rationality as an approach: for me mainline Christianity leads to a kind of self-emptying and burial of the supernatural (in the end) and the magical is something else. Incidentally, I was also involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which, as well as stressing its own multiple apostolic succession (!), made a distinction between what is essential and what is culturally added on. I carry some of that, though I think religion is all cultural. My view of apostolic succession is that it is just a point of identity and continuity: I don't give it power. My own view of the eucharist is rather more social anthropological too, at root, as to how it 'works'.

Magic is not compulsory in all Liberal Catholicism, just as Theosophy usually is not, but it gets a friendly press because it offers an explanation for apostolic succession and eucharistic power. Now, if you limit the magic, is there any substantive difference between Liberal Catholicism and some tendencies in Anglicanism? Are they not more similar than liberal Anglicanism and Unitarianism as it has evolved? I simply ask the question. One wonders about the Protestantism in the equation. It could just be that Anglicanism, whilst it has its near neighbours, cannot be compared with anything, and that it is an utterly unique animal. It might regard itself as part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, whatever others may think, but nevertheless it is its own culture as are the other branches of the Pauline derived varieties.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

The plank in Michael Gerson's eye

By Jim Naughton

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson once again takes Sen. Barack Obama to task for his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In breaking with Wright, Gerson writes, Obama has woken from a theological slumber. But contrast Wright’s words and actions with those of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the leader of Gerson’s church, and ask yourself who has been sleeping.

Gerson is a member of the Falls Church in Falls Church, Va. His congregation and the nearby Truro Church, played the key role in leading 11 Virginia parishes out of the Episcopal Church after the Church consecrated Gene Robinson, an openly gay man as bishop in 2003. Most of these parishes joined the Church of Nigeria, which Akinola leads.

The relationship between Akinola, Truro and the Falls Church is a close one. The American churches provide important financial support for Akinola’s ministry, and American clergy frequently write his papers and speeches.

In February 2006, 10 months before Gerson's church made the final decision to affiliate with Akinola, Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (full disclosure, he is my boss) published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post calling attention to proposed Nigerian legislation (here, on page 12) supported by Akinola that –interpreted as narrowly as possible—would have significantly curtailed the rights of gays, lesbians and their supporters to speak about their lives in public, assemble or practice their religion. Interpreted more broadly, language that aimed at stopping any displays of same-sex affection, public or private, direct or indirect, was a prescription for home invasion.

One of the more objectionable clauses in this legislation reads:

Any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment.

Akinola’s supporters argued that Muslims were behind the bill, but human rights activists in Nigeria told a different story. The legislation was advanced by a Christian president, and supported by the Christian Association of Nigeria while Akinola was its president. The bill’s key parliamentary opponent was a Muslim.

The legislation was vigorously criticized by 16 international human rights groups, the European Parliament and the U. S. State Department. It eventually died, but Akinola never backed away from his support, even after human rights groups explained the potentially devastating effect the law could have had on groups working to prevent the speared of AIDS.

In the midst of this legislative struggle, Akinola gave an interview to The New York Times, which appeared on the paper’s front page on Christmas Day, 2006.

The way he tells the story, the first and only time Archbishop Peter J. Akinola knowingly shook a gay person’s hand, he sprang backward the moment he realized what he had done.

Archbishop Akinola, the conservative leader of Nigeria’s Anglican Church who has emerged at the center of a schism over homosexuality in the global Anglican Communion, re-enacted the scene from behind his desk Tuesday, shaking his head in wonder and horror.

“This man came up to me after a service, in New York I think, and said, ‘Oh, good to see you bishop, this is my partner of many years,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh!’ I jumped back.”

Akinola's allies in the United States had worked hard to soften his image and distance him from the bill (very, very hard.) but the published record was against them, and after the Times' interview, Akinola stopped speaking to reporters in the U. S.

If Gerson had any trouble with Akinola's behavior, he did not voice it in a column he wrote five months later. In his first effort as a Post columnist, Gerson described Akinola's decision to consecrate Truro's former rector, the Rev. Martyn Minns, as a bishop in the Church of Nigeria, as an "epoch-dividing event," and praised Akinola's vibrant brand of Christianity.

Gerson may have been referring to the failed Nigerian legislation when he offered these highly-qualified reservations, but they are so vague it is impossible to tell:

This emerging Christianity can be troubling. Church leaders sometimes emphasize communal values more than individual human rights, and they need to understand that strongly held moral beliefs are compatible with a commitment to civil liberties for all. Large Pentecostal churches are often built by domineering personalities promising health and wealth.

(The Post printed my letter responding to Gerson’s piece. However, I was unsuccessful in persuading the paper to acknowledge that Gerson had hidden a conflict of interest from his readers in failing to disclose that his parish was involved in litigation over church property on Archbishop Akinola's behalf. This still seems to me a fairly obvious and signficant violation of journalistic ethics.)

In May, The Atlantic magazine raised new and more troubling concerns about Akinola. In “God’s Country,” the writer Eliza Griswold, daughter of the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, describes a retributive massacre in the Nigerian town of Yelwa carried out in 2004 by a well-organized band of men, wearing clothing and tags that identified them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Akinola was president of CAN during the massacre, which Human Rights Watch reports claimed the lives of approximately 700 Muslims. Dozens of others were kidnapped, raped or maimed. (The relevant sections of the article and the HRW report are excerpted here.)

Eliza Griswold visited Akinola in 2006. She writes:

When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

When these remarks came to light, Akinola’s spokesman released a statement that had nothing to do with the incident at Yelwa, but with later riots over the publication of Danish cartoons, that Muslims viewed as insulting to the prophet Mohammed. Neither the archbishop nor his American followers have offered further elaboration.

Akinola's handling of the massacre in Yelwa and his incendiary comments during the cartoon riots contributed to his defeat when he ran for re-election of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Indeed, members of the Association took the unusual step of denying him the vice presidency, which is usually awarded to the candidate who finishes second in the presidential balloting. His anti-gay crusades, and his efforts to split the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality led to the defeat of Akniola's handpicked successor, in the voting for president of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa. Yet, members of his American flock, which is concentrated in Northern Virginia, but includes a congregation with close ties to the Family Research Council, and other conservative political groups, continues to support him.

These congregations are involved in a high-stakes effort aimed at either driving North American churches out of the Anglican Communion for their acceptance of same-sex relationships, or, failing that, splitting the Communion in two, and claiming leadership of a potentially large faction centered in Africa. This movement is financed by Americans who, with help from British evangelicals, are also its chief strategists. Public fealty to Akinola and one or two other African archbishops is essential, however, or the effort is unmasked as a largely Western enterprise, and loses credibility among Anglicans in the developing world—the very constituency for whom it purports to speak.

As a result, the Nigerian archbishop, whose influence is on the wane among Christian leaders in his own country and among Anglican leaders on his own continent due to his extremism, remains the spiritual leader of Michael Gerson’s parish, and in similarly-minded congregations in Northern Virginia.

Gerson may hold views very different than those of Akinola—just as Barack Obama may hold views very different than those of Jeremiah Wright. But given Gerson’s repeated criticism of Obama over his relationship with Wright, it seems fair to ask whether anything that Wright has said or done is as destructive to the human family or reflects as poorly on the Church as the word and actions of Peter Akinola, and why Gerson is able to pronounce with such supreme condescension on Obama’s failures when his own are so much more damning—and enduring.

Jim Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe.

What happened at Seabury

By Steven Charleston

Have you heard what happened at Seabury? That’s a question some of us have been asked a lot, especially if we are connected to theological education in the church.

But if you are one of the folks who may have missed the story, the question about “Seabury” refers to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, one of the historic Episcopal seminaries, located in Evanston, Illinois. After years of training priests and lay leaders for the church, Seabury has announced drastic changes for the future. Faculty are being let go and programs shut down. In many ways, they are closing up shop under great financial pressure in the hopes of being able to reopen after extensive remodeling.

So what happened at Seabury? That’s the question. Why did this have to happen and is it an omen of dire things to come in the Episcopal Church?

Here is my short answer:

What happened at Seabury was an honest effort to deal with a reality that affects 95% of the seminaries in the United States. If it is a sign of things to come, it is a good omen of long overdue attention to the critical issue of leadership development in our church.

The men and women of the Seabury Board, faculty and staff are facing the harsh truths of trying to sustain our seminaries as “mini-colleges” in an era when the rules of the theological training game have completely changed. This is not a “failure” on their part, but recognition of the future. The truth is, we are in an adapt-or-die evolutionary moment for theological education. It is not necessary for us to wonder what went “wrong” with the past: it simply is the past.

Theological training today can not be sustained by the old models of education. And I am not just talking about the need to adapt to technology. Eventually, in spite of the efforts to pretend that our kind of learning is so special we can not rely on technology, history will force us to keep pace with other educational institutions. The truly more difficult issues will be in our ability to redefine formation itself, and along with it, the meaning of ordination and community. Next to those issues, technology will be a piece of cake. Change is the underground current that has carried Seabury to the place where it finds itself. We are all on that river together.

The deeper question is not what happen at Seabury, but, what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives.

Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

What happened at Seabury? Something sad, yes, but also something good. Something to be proud of. Something hopeful.

Should we mourn the passing of the old Seabury? Yes, of course, but we should also celebrate the doors Seabury has just opened to the future. We may not like what that future requires of us, but change is never the first path we choose to follow. Seabury offers us a reminder that our leadership, identity and vision are not accidents, but the results of what we choose to invest in. For generations, we have invested in education that is the best we can create. It is time to do it again.

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. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

Proof enough

By Heidi Shott

Last Sunday evening my family and three others gathered for a picnic supper at the old farmstead that serves as the headquarters of the Damariscotta River Association, a conservation land trust here on Maine’s midcoast.

The main reason for our gathering, besides sharing a meal and one another’s company, was to search for spring peepers (pseudacris crucifer) and wood frogs (rana sylvatica) in the DRA’s fresh water marsh just below the farmhouse. Our friend Tom, a biologist, had led a walk in search of frogs and salamanders just two nights before that drew 40 people. His friends, we losers, had missed it, so he and his children, Andrew and Jenny, agreed to host a private peeper hunt.

Among our party was Mamiko, a woman in her late fifties who came from Japan to spend this school year teaching Japanese and learning English at our local high school. She lives with our friends Ned and Denise and their sons Abe and Lucas.

By the time we finished our potluck meal, the sun was setting over the tidal river beyond the treeline. As we donned hats and zipped jackets, Tom and Andrew stopped to put on waders. I looked down at my Converse All Stars (white) and my sons’ sneakers and experienced a moment of maternal inadequacy. I looked over at my husband Scott and knew, after almost 23 years of practice, that he was just along for the company… if he didn’t get his feet wet and see the diminutive peeper up close, that was just fine with him.

Mamiko was wrapped in her full length winter jacket but hatless. On my way out of the house, I had grabbed several wool beanies and still had one in the car. It had been a beautiful spring day but now the air chilled to remind us that spring is a fickle friend to Mainers.

“I will get a hat for you, Mamiko,” I gestured the universal sign for hat and ran off. A moment later, with peepers in full voice as dusk dropped quickly upon us, I returned to her. Everyone else had started down the hill to the marsh: Andrew, who is 12, swinging his long-handled net marched ahead and Audrey, who is two, tried to keep up with the big kids despite the uneven grass.

“Not many Americans get to do this kind of thing,” I told Mamiko. “This is special. This is rare.” She turned to me as we walked along.

“I know,” she said, smiling in her shy way. “I am very happy.” And forgetting to be reserved with her, I put my hand on her shoulder.

Earlier Tom had explained that the call of the spring peeper is pitched so high that it makes it almost impossible to identify where the sound is coming from. “They’re only an inch long and you can practically look right at one without seeing it.” Now, down at the marsh’s edge, everyone fanned out with flashlights. After five minutes we’d found a lot of big spiders but no frogs whatsoever. In the dark I’d lost my husband, sons, and Mamiko, but found myself beside my five year-old godson, Lucas, whose responsible and loving mother had supplied him with a headlamp and rubber boots.

“Okay, Lukie, I’m depending on you to find a peeper.”

“I can hear them but I can’t see them,” he said, earnest but exasperated.

“We’re going to have to go closer to the water. Tom said they’d be in the water or on the grass at the edge.” As I stepped closer, a surge of frigid marsh water seeped into my All Stars and socks. I trained my flashlight on the tufts of grass that made cozy little inlets for frogs and searched. After another few minutes in the deafening roar of lovesick frogs, I heard Lucas’s brother call out to him and off he stomped in hope of allying himself with someone with better luck and eyesight.

Alone, I realized that the only way I was going to get close enough was if I knelt down in the water. Another plunge and my left leg, knee to ankle, was soaked. Argh. My flashlight probed every little nook of the brown marsh grass for the evidence of just one of the gajillion tiny amphibians making all this racket. It’s obvious that they’re here, so why do I feel compelled to see one? How uncomfortable must I become before I’m rewarded with the proof.

After another few moments, I decided to try something. I switched off my light and in a few seconds, I heard a call that was just inches away. I hit the button with a “haHA!” but nothing. I tried it again and the little voice returned from a tuft near my left hand. On with the flashlight, a quick grab, a plop. My light picked up a tiny frog doing a froggy kick in the water. Splash as my hand went in and came up with nothing. Well, I saw the critter at least. That would have to do.

Standing up, dripping, cold and happy, I heard a commotion 20 feet away. Andrew had succeeded in catching one in the water. He sloshed over to the edge of the marsh in his waders and we gathered around. “Bring it inland so I can see,” I heard my husband call from higher ground.

There it was, a tiny frog, just as we’d been told.

How powerful is this need to see with our own eyes, to feel, to taste, to hear, to smell. Though the aural evidence of the presence of peepers was overwhelming, a sound I’ve welcomed every spring of my life, the urge to actually see one and – better still – to hold one for a few seconds was strong. It was strong enough to compel me to get my shoes and jeans soaking wet in the chill of a spring evening, to turn off my flashlight and kneel alone in the dark. It’s not a far leap to liken this human requirement for evidence to how we demand such proof from God.

Though when it comes to delivering sensory input, it’s hard to beat the Episcopal Church. The feel of an oil-slickened thumb making the sign of the cross on your forehead; the smell of smoke emanating from the thurible; the sweet taste of the wine; the swell of a well-played organ or a practiced choir; and the sight of the backs and shoulders of your loved-ones – or, better yet, strangers – as they kneel at the rail and wait for their turn or intimate gaze of people’s eyes as you offer the chalice to their lips.

These physical points of confirmation give us license to believe the unbelievable. They embolden us to make choices that the world deems foolish. They feed us enough in the way of faith to last until we become faint and doubting again and then provide the space to return to be replenished, week after week, year after year.

ee cummings had it right:

how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any--lifted from the no of all nothing--human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

Even if Andrew hadn’t caught a peeper to show around, seeing the quick flash of the little frog in the mucky water would have been enough.

I think of my young friend Lucas for whom I couldn’t deliver the goods. Despite my willingness to soak my shoes and pant legs for our efforts, he went over to the big boys who could. But still he’s my friend. In fact, as we climbed back up the hill, he told me and Mamiko all about it. And the warmth of his mittened hand resting securely in mine is proof enough to last awhile.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

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