Love came down at Christmas

by Kay Flores

A few weeks before Christmas, my friend Andrew asked what time our Christmas Day service was scheduled. I hated to say we didn’t have one scheduled – but it was true, we didn’t have one scheduled. Our small congregation had decided to focus our efforts on two special services: the Banging-of-the-pans-to-drive-away-the-dragons-of-darkness service (followed by Compline) held on December 21, and our Christmas Eve service, and there wasn’t much energy around another service on Christmas Day.

Andy then had a great idea: Let’s take Eucharist to our new rehabilitation hospital, where our friend Kay Rohde is hospitalized.

Kay, an Episcopal priest, and until recently the Wind and Wings youth coordinator in the Diocese of Wyoming, was told in late November that the numbness in her leg was caused by a tumor on her spinal cord. By early December she had the surgery to remove it. A few days later she was moved to Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Casper, and has been hard at work ever since as her body relearns the physical skills she needs.

I was excited about Andy’s idea, and immediately took it to Kay. She consulted with the administration at Elkhorn Valley. They enthusiastically agreed to host a 10:00 a.m. service, as long as we made it an ecumenical service. As part of her occupational therapy, Kay made and delivered flyers to the other patients. We agreed on a service from the Iona Community, and my friend, Temple, and I prepared the bulletins. Our altar guild packed a to-go box containing a chalice, paten, and wine. A neighboring church shared gluten free wafers.

Kay Rodhe tells the rest of the story.

Folks began to gather in the cafeteria. The altar was a bed side table, set with chalice and paten. St. Stephen’s had prepared the worship leaflets, and the two young people from St. Stephen’s, Elizabeth and Catherine Kerr, handed them to the patients as they began to arrive. The room was full of the Spirit as the 20 patients and 9 members of St. Stephen’s sang O Come All Ye Faithful. We read the Christmas story from Luke and reflected a bit on the wonder of Love coming down at Christmas, and that no matter what is going on in the world, Love always will risk to be present - based on a poem by Madeline L'Engle. I looked out at the congregation, most in wheelchairs, some not able to speak out loud, but God was there - in their eyes, in their smiles, in the Spirit of Love that connected all of us. We blessed the bread and the wine and as communion was distributed, we sang more Christmas carols. We thanked God for the meal and for sending Love down to dwell among us and closed with a rousing verse and chorus of Angels we Have Heard on High. For those of us there, Christmas had come once more - and the feeling spread down the halls as they returned to their rooms to get ready for Christmas Dinner -(served to us by the hospital staff).

The thing about ministry is that when you minister to someone else, you are being ministered to, also. That was certainly true for me today. With the help of St. Stephen’s, we were able to give those here in the hospital a gift - to be able to worship on Christmas, to hear the Gospel, to sing the carols, and for those who wished it, to receive Communion. But I received gifts also. I had been feeling a bit down last night - about the time that midnight services would be starting. I badly wanted to be there, to hear the O Come let us Adore Him, to hear the music and smell the pine boughs and feel that incredible sense of awe at being a part of the Christmas story. Today, celebrating in a rehab hospital cafeteria, no candles, no booming organ, no pine boughs or choirs, just a small group from a little church in Casper who were willing to share their worship with people they didn't even know and a hospital full of people in pain, just recovering from traumatic surgeries, people who are trying to relearn how to walk, people who may never walk again - that same awe was there. Love came down at Christmas and wrapped arms around each one of us - and you could feel it! And for me another gift: One of my rehab goals was to be able to continue to function as a priest - and I am!

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to war.
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
in a land in the crushing grip of Rome:
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth
And by greed and pride the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

~~Madeleine L’Engle

Photos by Elizabeth Kerr, click to enlarge, more photos here

Kay Flores, St. Stephen's, Casper WY, is soon to be ordained transitional deacon in the church she serves. She is a mentor and trainer for EfM both face to face and online and is an unemployment judge for the State of Wyoming.

The Reach of our Comprehensiveness: Certainty, Ambiguity, or Sufficiency?

By Christopher Evans

As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation par excellence, I find myself pondering the sheer wonder of the utterly unutterable: God become human in Jesus Christ. Y’eshua. God Saves!

Love dares speak His Name.

In recent Anglican disagreements, which are in part disagreements about identity, certainty and ambiguity have played off one another in a tug-of-war that to my mind fails this Holy Mystery of the Incarnation: Divine Person become human flesh, who founds and illumines the mystery of our own human personhood by means of Himself.

Awe before, and thus, reverence and respect for what cannot finally be only abstracted and wholly captured in language, that is Persons and persons, God and flesh, go missing in flipside ways. This failure is first Christological, and because Christological, then also anthropological. This failure is rooted in the sparring of two equally erroneous tendencies of present among Episcopalians: Certainty and ambiguity.

On the one hand, in our present disagreements certainty is brought to bear in such a way that all churchly and social traditions are of equal weight and truth without cause for reconsideration or evaluation of any no matter if their fruit bears goodness and mercy and love in the lives of each and all. Or that each word of Holy Writ is meant to bear forth its own truth without definitive reference and responsibility to the Living Truth, Jesus Christ, such that the words of the God become divorced from the Word of God who is Love, becoming a weapon to use against someone else rather than a proclamation of the Living Word by Whom to examine our own self.

The Church cannot err under such propositions of life together and tradition. Or Holy Writ becomes a rule book or a science textbook rather than those living words that point us to and draw us into communion with the Living God. In either case, humility about the things of earth and the ways of God goes absent.

The Personal check on Church and Scripture goes missing. And this, I find especially odd at the season of Advent. External critics, the vocal atheists and secularists, the scientists and those of other religions, then become a last ditch gift to us from God to call us to our senses, to call us to awe again. Which is another way of saying, that we are called again to get clear about language—it’s uses and limitations.

Certainty cannot become an excuse for denying the ongoing discovery of new knowledge of the things of earth, much less for refusing to consider previously unnoticed ways of grace among us. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who becomes not mere letters, but living flesh.

Somehow we have to live with a sense that Another more than ourselves will call us to account.

On the other hand, ambiguity has been used often to suggest that Episcopalians (and other Anglicans) do not have doctrinal claims. This often goes hand in hand with praising our lack of a singular theological voice, not to maintain the richness of our corrective tradition, but to deny that we (pro)claim anything at all. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for suggesting that we have no content at all regarding who God is with us. Thus, by doctrinal claims, I do not mean dry dead letters, but words (and images and means) that as proclaimed point us to and bear us into living relationship with the Living God. This is a liturgical understanding of doctrine, as in the earliest proper prefaces: The angels sing you their theologies: Holy, Holy, Holy, etc. In the proclaiming of this canticle, this psalm, this passage, this creed, we find ourselves upheld and in relationship with the God who is this way with and toward us.

Coupled with this is a sense that warranted or not, anything goes. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for even justification of licentiousness. The ways of grace cannot be discovered or distinguished from the ways of sin and what sin has wrought in us.

Ambiguity cannot become an excuse for denying any content about God at all. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who did not merely empty himself, but revealed himself in human flesh.

Somehow we have to name Him who calls us each to discipleship.

No doubt one of the beauties of Anglican tradition is that we can handle questioning, doubt, disbelief, and even error. Few Christian traditions can make room for the doubter and the agnostic, much less the atheist and the heretic. Yet, some of those with strongest faith have wandered through times of questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error. To make room for these among us is a sign of a mature tradition and of a generous trust. After all, to question and to doubt are very close to the wonder of mystics, to disbelieve and even err are very close to the idol-smashing of prophets.

We dare not cast away even the gift of others’ scorn.

Yet we can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because what we pray in common continues to proclaim what the Church must about God revealed in the Second Person, Jesus Christ. That God became flesh, human being, and dwelt among us. Even so, we know that our poor words, no matter how well composed and beautifully crafted, point to and draw us into communion with this God without pretending that our words are absolute. Nevertheless, our official and public words, while never absolute—as if they could capture the Living God, are never less than enough. We may say more, we dare not say less. We may say it differently, but we dare not say other than that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully human.

Between certainty and ambiguity lays sufficiency. On the level of God, sufficiency allows us to proclaim the God who is with us this way—Jesus Christ. On the level of human beings, sufficiency allows us to discern the work of grace and the work of sin among us.

Sufficiency, then is another option, an option that Episcopalians have used to describe our approach to the core doctrines of our faith: Incarnation and Trinity. Sufficiency does not compel us down the road toward an arrogant defiance of discovery of any new insights or a willful denial of grace at work among us in ways we might have thought impossible. Sufficiency also does not deny claims to any content at all about our proclamation of God through a misuse of apophatic theologizing that finally empties any possibility of our knowing God at all.

Sufficiency respects the Mystery of the Person, Jesus Christ. Sufficiency recognizes that language of our official proclamations can never fully or finally capture wholly this Person, but rather provides gentle bounds within which to name and proclaim this Person, Jesus Christ, fully God fully human. And we dare do so because in the Incarnation, the Second Person has identified Himself with us to the utmost, including speaking to us in a means understanded by us—language.

Indeed, sufficiency is itself respectful of the full weight of God become flesh in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God identifies Himself totally with us, including that means understanded—language. In Christ, such identification is wonderous to behold, ultimately beyond comprehension, because Person in the flesh. Even words finally fail us. Language is broken open before the Living One. So the concept of sufficiency makes it possible for us to risk such naming while recognizing that our words are not ends unto themselves but lead us into communion with the Living God. Before such a One, language will always be but sufficient, and yet, only through language do we find ourselves come to awe by holy silence before God become human flesh. For finally, God in Christ speaks to us not only in words, but by means of Himself incarnate.

This reserve in sufficiency, minding our Scriptures to matters of salvation by means of the Creeds, I would suggest, is the scope of our comprehensiveness, a comprehensiveness that can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because we dare to continue to risk naming and proclaiming God who is with us this way, Jesus Christ, by that means which we share in common: authorized public prayer.

Sufficiency gives us the middle ground between certainty and ambiguity to continue proclaiming nothing less than this God who is this way with us, Jesus Christ, while recognizing the broken-open-ness of our words. Sufficiency gives us the possibility of discovering more about the things of earth and the ways of this God at work in and among us for the healing of that which sin has wrought. Sufficiency gives us together the fortitude to proclaim, the space to discover, the room to err, and the grace to abide.

This same sufficiency in its care in “languaging” Persons and persons, begins with reverence and respect, rather than abstractions, ideologies, or totalizing captions. By Church and Writ, we are brought to encounter with the Living God, Jesus Christ, in common prayer. And just therein, we in turn encounter one another as living flesh, not as mere concepts, abstractions, or identity markers, but as members of Christ’s own Body.

Love dares speak His Name and ours. Amen.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

Holy Innocents

By George Clifford

A decade ago when I lived in England, periodic confrontations between competing groups of contemporary Druids at Stonehenge surprised and then amused me. These modern adherents of the ancient Druid cult would converge on Stonehenge, especially at the summer and winter solstices. There they performed rituals that they believed their spiritual forebears had first performed around the ancient stone plinths.

The confusion that birthed intra-Druidic conflict arose because the early Druids left no written records of their liturgies and rituals. Present day Druid groups each claim that secret oral traditions purportedly passed down through the interceding millennia allow their sect to follow the ancient customs and traditions correctly. At times, verbal confrontations between competing groups of Druids actually became physical altercations, ending only when police imposed a truce on the warring groups. Christians are obviously not the only ones who find agreeing on liturgy and theology impossible.

The emergence of Christian (including Episcopalian) “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” has at least two possible meanings. First, these additional Christmas services constitute a helpful pastoral response to people for whom Christmas connotes anything but joy and good will.

Second, the “Longest Night” services perhaps return Christmas to its original date, the winter solstice (Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 85-112). Although the evidence yields no definitive answers, the date of Christmas may have coincided with the solstice based on dating Jesus’ birth by working backwards from the calculated date of his resurrection. Or, Christmas may have turned a pagan feast into a Christian celebration. In either case, Christians over time comfortably identified the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) with their commemoration of Jesus’ birth on the solstice. Discrepancies between the Julian calendar and solar year coupled with the subsequent shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendars explain why we now celebrate Christmas four days after the solstice.

Some fundamentalist Christians cite Christmas’ alleged pagan origins as justification for not celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. That’s not an issue that interests me. Jesus was born. I like to party. Parties are more fun when people party together. December 25 seems like a fine day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Of course, if everyone agreed to move the party to December 21, or another day, I’d have no problems with that. If God can change people, God working through the Church can certainly transform pagan festivities and customs into Christian festivities and customs. Unlike the Druids, we Christians should be known by our love for one another, rather than allowing the trivial to divide us.

Concomitantly, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 receives too little attention. Biblical scholars question the historicity of the visit of the wise men and of the slaughter of all Bethlehem boy toddlers and infants under the age of two (Matthew 2:1-12). No historical evidence exists for either. Instead, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth seems constructed to parallel that of Moses’ birth. Both Moses and Jesus are born when all male Jewish children must die; both live in Egypt; both will deliver their people.

Even as God can transform pagan events, so can God transform probable fiction into myth through which the light of God's love infuses the world. Any historical basis for the wise men visiting or the slaughtering of male children in Bethlehem seems relatively unimportant for twenty-first century Christianity. Children are precious and vulnerable. Too many children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. Children die every day whose lives we could save for just pennies. The powers of this world have become Pharaoh/Herod, tacitly permitting if not indirectly ordering death by myopically focusing on their own interests rather than the well-being of the least among us.

Christmas is not about shopping, presents, or gala festivities. Christmas commemorates the birth of a precious, vulnerable child, a gift of love wrapped in swaddling clothes. To my amazement and profound appreciation, my parishioners have given animals through Episcopal Development and Relief in my honor, gifts of life itself to some of the most vulnerable. In their gifts, my parishioners re-enact Christmas’ real meaning. Their gifts mean more than any other gift could mean.

Thinking back over twenty centuries of Christian history, the majority of ecclesiastical and theological disputes that loomed so large in their own day now appear to be little more than chaff. Structure and organization are important; effectiveness and efficiency are vital attributes of good stewards and faithful servants. Language is important. Words create reality and can give life or bring death. Nevertheless, the heart of Christianity is our love for God and others expressed through the Jesus experience.

Modern Druids fight over who has the truth. I, and many in Great Britain, find ourselves amused. When we Christians fight, I wonder how many non-Christians laugh. Although we, unlike the Druids, have a written record (Scripture), few Christians and even fewer Anglicans contend that the written record is inerrant history. We openly acknowledge supplementing the written record with unfounded tradition, such as most western Christians celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. For the outsider observing Christianity, our fights quite likely seem as petty and childish as do the Druid disputes.

In the meantime, children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. The Feast of the Holy Innocents invites us to enter more fully into Christmas’ meaning, setting aside disagreements in praxis and theology to fully engage in helping all children to know truly that they are precious, secure in God's love manifest in us.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Glad tidings of great joy

Merry Christmas, from all of us at Episcopal Cafe. The Daily Episcopalian will be The Every Other Daily Episcopalian this week.

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Love, the guest is on the way

By Kathleen Staudt

For the past day I’ve been happily preparing for a party we’re giving for my husband’s co-workers, and humming as I go, the Advent hymn:

People look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year Make your house fair, as you are able Trim the hearth and set the table People look east, and sing today Love, the Guest is on the way

With two feet of snow on the ground, and our house on a cul de sac, it is now a little unclear when the party will actually happen – probably we’ll need to postpone it. But with the whole family home to chip in, and the house full of good smells and music, the time of preparation, surrounded by falling snow all day yesterday, has been a time of blessing – whenever the party may be. And out of it has come a Advent poem, which I’ll share here. Some readers of the café already know that my new book of poems, Waving Back: Poems of Mothering Life is now out and available on Amazon. This poem is in the same vein as many of those poems – but it’s brand new (and likely to be revised beyond this version). I offer it to all of you, on this snowy Advent IV in Washington, when we pray “that our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Make Your House Fair

By Kathleen Staudt

Today I will clean clutter out of rooms
Push sofas up against the wall
Begin the preparations for a feast.

The Christmas tree will glow
We will pull out the outgrown toys
To please our youngest guests

And friends from all over the world
Will fill our modest house
Loading the long table
With food that they will bring

Tomorrow, for a time, we will all be in one place
Greeting one another, noticing together
That once again, the festive time has come.

The darkness of the year is not dispelled
It lingers at the windows,
Weighs on hearts
For some there is no consolation here

But for me,
The welcome task today is to create
In this, our house, a place of warmth and light
To grow cramped space into a gathering place
Where for a time
In glow of fellowship, and whatever we believe
Together, we may celebrate
The crowning of another year of life.
Kathleen Henderson Staudt Advent 2009

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Anglicanism gives way to Democratic Centralism

By Adrian Worsfold

Isn't if funny how Anglicanism increasingly mirrors the world of Communism? We know that some of the idealistic Puritans, the first European settlers on America's eastern shores were communists, but now Anglicanism seems to have this in the blood. Well - without the idealism, that is.

Already we have had an example of entryism, the religious Trotskyism of GAFCON and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Back in the 1980s, frustration with the Labour Government being rather more moderate than its credal Clause 4 led a group of Trotskyites to organise within the Labour Party on its own secretive terms, to pre-arrange socialist outcomes, and influence by any planned means available a wider frustrated democratic socialist group of people. We have seen Western Conservative Evangelicals, frustrated with their minority status and little effect, organise themselves and use a new concept of international oversight - bishops from more compatible with them Anglican provinces in Africa - to push Western broader evangelicals and make Anglicanism doctrinally purist. A well funded strategy has been to isolate the most liberal and Western of Anglican Churches, and to pressurise elements in the rest. It took a Neil Kinnock to root out the party within a party, and allow Labour to go on as it was, a moderate party (indeed to later remove Clause 4 altogether).

Unfortunately, Anglicanism is currently headed by someone with his own international outlook: not an extreme evangelical one but rather a dedicated Catholic one, of bishops and himself, using so called Instruments. Instead of rooting out the Anglican equivalent of Militant, and restoring the diverse and culturally responsive nature of the Communion in its localities, Rowan Williams has played their game and fancies his own form of centralisation. He has allowed biblical fundamentalism to be the basis by which one Anglican Church might recognise another as valid or invalid, to then have a system of referrals up regarding complaints. Thus the extreme evangelicals have played a blinder.

And now we have his feature to bring harmony to this stressed and internationalised Communion called a Standing Committee. Doesn't it just look like a Politburo! Democratic centralism is a means by which one layer of a party (which is infused into a bureaucracy) elects the next layer up, but we all know how that conserves a system. It also hands out edicts, from the top down. Properly speaking, democratic centralism is all about power. The only fully worked out, bureaucratic and democratic centralised religious system is in the Baha'i Faith, with its nine male only members in Haifa's Universal House of Justice that determines Baha'i interpretation of the holy writings, produces plans and delivers policies. But whilst the Anglican Standing Committee, the Politburo, will not have power over autonomous Churches, it will have authority.

It works like this. Each Church agrees to sign a document that gives consultation across Churches and upwards the highest priority before it does anything that it suspects will cause controversy. Indeed it can consult to find out if an action will be controversial. The Standing Committee might have something to say on the matter early on too; after a Church acts the Standing Committee will have something to say and do about the matter. The Standing Committee derives from the Primates' Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the latter being the only semi-representative element in all of this. The rest is very hierarchical. The Standing Committee does all the reasoning and recommending around an issue, and then makes a declaration, though action needs the rubber stamping of the Primates and the ACC. Yes, even the Soviet Union had parliaments (as well as committees), in order to rubber stamp party decisions.

Of course an Anglican Church could, with its autonomy, carry on with its own synodical or assembly led action. The result would be 'relational consequences' - that is, removal from one of more of the Instruments, surely the Primates' Meeting and/ or the ACC, and certainly the key Standing Committee itself. On removal, there would then be efforts to bring the Church back in, presumably with pressure to reverse the decision in order to return.

At the moment the Standing Committee is already meeting in secret and passing resolutions, but there is no Covenant. Already the Archbishop talks about 'The Mind of the Communion' from over ten years ago, but a body of bishops at Lambeth every ten years has no actual authoritative constitutional existence. But these bodies would have authority if a Church signed up to the Covenant. Such signing comes with expectations: don't sign something that cannot be met!

So what of the missing elements in the actual workings of the Covenant and the Standing Committee? Let's be clear. The Archbishop will be free to roam around regarding the issues of the Standing Committee and add his weight behind it, and if necessary there will be resolutions passed among the body of bishops at Lambeth to uphold the centralised Anglican structure. Their outsideness yet overlap regarding the Standing Committee and the ACC and Primates Meeting just adds to the authority of centralisation.

So, pass the Covenant and know what to expect. It won't just be the recent experience of entryism and the Archbishop of Canterbury's willingness to roll over that will resemble authoritarian Marxist-Leninism, but there will be a new form of Anglican Soviet Union. There will be a Politburo expecting to have its secretly decided pronouncements met. It will decide from the centre. The Archbishop will have created his Catholic dream, and he will thank the extreme evangelicals for helping him achieve his vision of a worldwide Church, and he can then tell the Holy Father in Rome what it can achieve and what comes next.

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.

An American awakening: Next

This is the third of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

One day in late May 2008, I am straightening some papers in my office and come across a cardboard box in the corner of the room. In it is a curious combination of haphazardly piled documents and artifacts. As I start to dig through them, I have the feeling people must have when they open a time capsule. It is as if, for a minute, I have returned to my old life of poring through musty diaries from the past.

Stacked on top of each other are layers and layers of images and articles from 9/11 and Katrina –now crumpled and yellowed by time –shuffled together in no particular order. In the upper regions of the pile are copies of some of the children’s letters that came to us in the chapel in the fall of 2001. Among them is my favorite –Claudia’s letter to a firefighter listing all the hair-raising catastrophic ways her young imagination can think of dying.

Since I love that letter so much I pause and read it again. Claudia was certain of one thing –that she would not die in a fire, “Because,” she said to the firefighter, “people like you would go into the fire to save an ordinary person like me. And that’s what makes you so great, courageous, brave, terrific, wonderful, special people.”

Underneath that letter is an article by Dr. Stephen Post, Director of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. I see by the date that the piece was written shortly after 9/11. As I glance at the lead for the story I see that Post is relaying an account of a journalist interviewing the famous children’s television personality, mr. Rogers, and asking him on behalf of parents, ‘What should we say to our children when they ask us questions about 9/11?” Mr. Rogers replied simply, “Tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers.”

Digging deeper in the box I find an old color photograph showing one side of the interior of the chapel with thousands of children’s letters taped to the walls and the pews –papering every inch. Suddenly I have a sense of all those impressionable young eyes watching us –watching all the helpers. Putting their crayons and pencils to paper they told us what they saw. They saw what makes human beings great.

Beneath those pictures are several more photographs from New Orleans. These are of young ladies in their late teens and early twenties straining to lift crates of debris as they gut a flooded home. What strikes me immediately is how vulnerable the girls look against the backdrop of grim destruction. I think to myself, “Why are so many kids who at their age should be having fun, choosing to shoulder such a heavy responsibility?” I sit for a moment looking at the two images side by side. Then suddenly my mind produces an answer: “These youth in New Orleans are the generation of children who wrote the letters papering the chapel’s walls. It is an “Oh my God!” kind of moment.

After that day my curiosity is piqued, and I begin to do some research. I discover that statistics gathered over the past few years reinforce the observation that an unusually strong altruistic streak is being exhibited by youth who gre up in the shadow of 9/11. It happens that these young people comprise the largest generation in our nation’s history.

The Claudias of our country – a whole generation – are coming of age right now. Something of the relentless love exhibited in their heroes who gave their lives at the time of 9/11 has seemingly come alive in them. Now my ears are alert to listening to what they say about their motivations. Every day I hear statements like Katie Mears’s, describing why she takes on the most difficult Katrina cases when she could be living a conventional twenty-something life: “To me giving up anybody is not an option.” That is exactly what I heard the first-responders say inside the pile.

This is the ethic that is saving New Orleans and may save our country as well. It is incredibly hopeful to realize that 50 million young Americans of this generation will be eligible to vote in 2008, and that the vast majority of them completely reject the notion that any human life is dispensable. How could they accept such an ethic? This is the 9/11 generation.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

An American Awakening: Katrina

This is the second of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

Before the storm John Mac, as everyone calls the high school, was considered the lowest ranked public school in America. Louisiana ranked last in the nation. New Orleans parish ranked last in Louisiana. And John Mac was ranked last in New Orleans.

“It was bad then,” Principal Jackson tells us, “but it is worse now. We have eight hundred students attending, fifteen teachers, and twenty-six security guards. Forty percent of our students are back in the city without either parent. They are squatting in gutted houses, living with boyfriends, sleeping on different sofas night to night. And when they come to school we have no textbooks, not one book in our library, no doors on the bathroom stalls, frozen-solid meals are handed out at lunchtime.”

I talk to Shedrick White, a teacher at John Mac, about all of this because he is in the classroom with the kids every day. Shed puts it this way, “You see New Orleans is like an American refugee camp. This city, to be honest with you, is where you spend the least amount of money on the school system, and where you spend the most in the prison system.”

“That’s why I started the poetry to provide that outlet for the kids and even more to teach them about coping. I think they need to write. They need to write to get some of it out.”

The church begins to work with Shed on realizing his dream, which he was close to achieving at the time Katrina hit.

“What I’d love to see is a weekly venue with the kids expressin’ themselves.
We have a fearless, courageous generation of youth out there. They just need to be pointed in the right direction and be part of some kind of movement. They’ll join. People just waitin’. Just waitin’ for a call. In the community with the kids this poem is the signature piece. This is how it goes.”

Suddenly Shedrick White assumes his persona as the bard of the black youth of the city, and begins to tell their story in rhyme.

The black struggle is not over so for me it’s still crunch time, Was the thought that ran through my mind as I passed the school during lunchtime. And it was ghetto-fab y’all. Instead of jumpin’ rope, the girls were backin’ it up. And instead of playin’ ball, the boys were on the hood of the car, Because the truancy hackin’ ‘em up. Now you woulda really thought they was grown if you’d a heard these children conversin’. I mean you woulds really thought they was grown if you coulda heard How these kids was cursin’. On this particular day in my life, I really must make mention. It was a conversation between two boys that really caught My attention. I know I shouldn’t be nosey –or maybe I should ‘cause The topic of the conversation was how hard each other’s hood was. Now the first one had to be from the project or at least that’s what I assumed, Because he said, “To live in my court I either gotta pick up a gun or pick out a tomb.”

Then he talked about how he hit the block and helped his uncle
Sell rock.
Or how they beat up people with G-Nikes because him and their
click only wear Reeboks.
Then he talked about how they be hittin’ hustles and pullin’ capers.
He said, “Man my hood’s so notorious they don’t even deliver
the mornin’ papers.
Said, ‘It’s rough like that when you’re livin’ in the ‘jects.
The only reason the mailman comes through is because he gotta
deliver them checks.
He said, ‘The weak ones we punk’em, the cowards we
scare ‘em.
They be so petrified they buy brand new Jordans and don’t even
wear ‘em.
He said, ‘I was thirteen years old when I drunk my first Forty.
And fourteen years old when I stayed out all night at my first party.
And fiftenn years old when I sold my first dime.
And sixteen years old when I snorted my first line.
We bought it like that in my hood and we ain’t never gonna
stop that.
I know my hood’s the hardest. Let me see you try to top that?

And the second boy replied by saying:
When I said my hood was hard I wasn’t talkin’ about thuggin’.
I was talkin’ hard from ahrd times, that come from hard core strugglin’.
You see its hard for us to eat at Houston’s and Copeland’s,
‘Cause all we can afford is Church’s.
And it’s hard for us to get a Visa or Mastercard because all we
have is the Louisiana Purchase
Hard is how my daddy works, but he ain’t make much cash.
The closest he came to pullin out a credit card is when he pulled
out his bus pass.
And it’s hard for us to live in peace, ‘cause people gossip and keep mess.
And it’s hard to get to the next grade ‘cause they done made it
hard to pass the Leap Test.
Uh-oh, look it. The bell ringin. Said bro’ I gotta go.
But we can talk after school if you want to discuss this some mo’.
But I’m gonna leave you with this, ‘cause I don’t think I’ve said
You see, I’m talkin’ about life bein’ hard
While you talkin’ about a hood bein’ rough.
After talkin’ with with my Pops I know this for a fact.
We wouldn’t be talkin’ about whose hood is the hardest
If we both wasn’t black.
And once we realize this we should study to be the smartest.
Because life for black people in any ghetto is always going to
be the hardest.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

An American Awakening:
Ground zero

This is the first of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

The sheer cliffs of the pile rise to the east of where we are standing. These are the sliced corpses of buildings. Their bones are fractured. Their guts are spilling out. Sinews of tangled cable snake through eviscerated black tissue matted in clumps. “Where are we going?” I ask. Lyndon answers, “In there.”

We start to walk a slope. I feel extremely weak and horribly insignificant. The bewildering scale and uncountable number of shards, billions of gargantuan matchsticks dropped like giant pick-up sticks pointing in every direction make me feel like a speck. The thought of any team tackling this is irrational – absurd, pointless, impossible. This is a lost world. I hear the voice of one of the workers, “I looked at it and thought ten years it will take to do this. Ten years! Where do we even begin?”

I’ve never stood directly on ground where people came seeking to obliterate life. Most terrifying is the fact that you can still feel that intention to take, to sever, to confuse, to quell. There is an overwhelming feeling of subtraction. I feel it like hunger in my stomach, a great gnawing acid emptiness that makes me slightly sick.

All this tempts me to think, “Forget this you fool. Get out of here now. It is not too late to run.”

But this dissipates once we are with the workers. In contrast to the problem: death, destruction, fear, all the lost lives laced through this mind-boggling heap, and the horrible toll working in here must take on any human, are the acts I am about to see.

The man in the hazmat suit, who looks like a yellow astronaut, directs us to where they are digging. In the intense heat radiating through our clothes the workers gently rake the ash. The smell of decay is strong, but the seekers do not notice. They commune so intently with the one who is lost. I can almost hear them praying, “I will dig on my knees to find you. I will scoop you into my hand. I will carry you out and take you where we can name you. We will find the ones who love you and know that you belong. We did not leave you. We would never leave you in Hell.”

I am spellbound. Despite the hideous strength that is palpable, this contrasting commitment is total. It began the morning of the attack. It persisted through the early days and hours of search and rescue. Now it continues as the firefighters I see reach for those they failed to save on 9/11. These are human beings bound to the lost by one absolute and undeterred purpose: to protect, to serve and to rescue lives – no matter the cost, no matter the grave.

I think of what a firefighter said to me. “See this?” he asked, pointing to the shield in the shape of a Maltese cross stitched on his uniform. “It means that the person who wears this is willing to lay down his life for you.” I have never been completely surrounded by the presence of people like this.

The searchers speak in low voices. One of the ones who laid down his life has been found. We gather the person’s remains from the ash, immediately encircling the container in a blanket of prayer. One extraordinary life to thank the Creator for making. One life given for this world. One death that makes us incomplete forever. One of us.

I hear the voice of Tony, a sanitation worker and volunteer fireman.

“I really believe in my heart they knew they weren’t coming out. Everybody obviously gave up their life, but the firemen actually gave up their life to save somebody else’s, going in knowing full well they weren’t coming out. So that is why I don’t care what we have to do. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if they ask me to get down on one of those streets and lick it with my tongue. It won’t bother me. Because you can’t put any price on that there – what they did. So whatever it takes…”

Thank God that seeing humanity loved like this renews the passion to give all you can. Being in the presence of these men I begin to believe just maybe, if something of their commitment to life rubs off on the rest of us, many will be activated to give their all, and we will actually do this. If anything can tap into wells of passion and kindle the “whatever it takes” so that it catches, leaps from person to person, causes a chain reaction, seeing the sacrifices of these responders and remembering how they behaved in the moment of trial – that has the power to do it.

How many of us, I wonder, are having this experience in some way, in some measure? If thousands (maybe millions) this must be the most remarkable feature of the days we are living through. I don’t know if this is the case, but I feel as though I might be in the grip of a larger initiation.

I catch the parable of the firefighters’ task inside this giant wreck. If they represent how far our human hearts can go, our enormous capacity to care, to give, to sacrifice for each other, maybe the pile shows the time has come to unleash this power in all of us.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

Looking toward Christmas

By Bill Carroll

Babies change us. The birth of a child brings with it the possibility of new life and new directions. In families, birth is one of the chief occasions, the others being marriage and death, when relationships can change in a fundamental way. When a child is born, the ties that bind us to other people become more fluid. We glimpse and sometimes choose new possibilities for life together.

Of course, we do not always seize the opportunity. We all know families that seem hell-bent on living out the biblical saying that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. By nature or nurture, we seem scripted to play certain roles in our significant relationships. Not all of these roles are destructive or sinful, though some clearly are. In either case, it can be disconcerting to be caught doing something in the same way that our parent or another relative did. Pagan writers, the Greeks in particular, displayed similar insight in their appeals to necessity and fate. Along with Paul, Augustine, and Luther, the tradition of tragedy from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and beyond forms an important counterpoint to the humanistic confidence of the West. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his critique of “American exceptionalism,” the doctrine of original sin is not only “empirically verifiable” but especially important for a young nation that tends to ignore the lessons of history through naïve faith in its own goodness that remains blind to the ambiguities and pitfalls of power.

As Christians, we tend also to believe in the reality of human freedom, though not all of us have stressed this equally. Historically, Anglicans have placed a premium on human potential and achievement. Indeed, our tradition has been described as a form of Christian humanism, a phrase that might seem self-contradictory to some of our brothers and sisters, for whom “humanism” is the great enemy of the Gospel. We believe in human dignity and freedom, since we are made in the image and likeness of God. This is damaged (not destroyed) by the fall. We still choose freely and sometimes rightly, even though we confront forces more powerful than we. The script may already be written. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, however, we are free to improvise (perhaps even rewrite) our lines.

It is for this reason that the Christian year begins with Advent promises of new beginnings. We ask Almighty God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” because we know how we resist God’s grace in our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. We still bear a family resemblance to Adam that we find disturbing. The love of God does not come first for us, and we tend to see our brothers, sisters, and neighbors as hindrances to what we want rather than living, breathing sacraments of Christ. We need a season of prayer, preparation, and repentance to get ready for the coming Son of God.

At the end of the season, we meet the Christ Child. Tiny, vulnerable, and poor, he reaches out to us. In the baby Jesus, we come face to face with God. We do not feel worthy, nor are we. We seem to know from the moment we meet Jesus that we will let him down. And yet, in him, the rod of our oppressor has been broken. In him, our humanity is restored. In him, the mighty are brought low, and the humble raised up. And the Word of God becomes silent, as he gazes upon us in love.

Christmas is a time for new beginnings. Come, Lord Jesus, and make it so.

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

The Ugandan repression in historical context

By Louie Crew

Anglicans in Uganda are currently encouraging passage of a harsh new law that would institute the death penalty for some homosexual acts and would punish with severe prison sentences those who fail to report the homosexuality of those whom they counsel or even just know. The legislation will encourage the most vicious kinds of witch hunts. One Anglican priest in Uganda has likened lesbians and gays to "cockroaches." International human rights organizations are alarmed that this legislation may actually pass.

This violence has a long history, especially among the British and those whom the British have influenced.

The Napoleonic Code (1804) led to radical reform of almost all law in most of Europe. One of its effects was the decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts throughout most of Europe, except in England.

That was no accident, and the Church of England was one of the main obstacles to reform of Britain's sodomy laws.

Britain continued to execute homosexuals for five more decades. England's last execution for sodomy occurred in 1857.

While the death penalty was still on the books, many visitors from the Continent wrote of their horror at the flagrant public pillorying of homosexuals in Britain. (See a brief account of the Vere Street Coterie,1810.)

The British obsession led Lord Byron to spend most of his adult life on the Continent. He and his homosexual friends called themselves "Methodists" as code for "homosexuals" in their private correspondence. (See extensive accounts in Louis Crompton's Byron and Greek Love, University of California Press, 1985; see also Crompton's Homosexuality and Civilization, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003)

Even after the death penalty was removed, the British fervor against gays continued little abated. Witness the conviction with jail and hard labor sentence for Oscar Wilde in 1895.

Wilde died only five years later, in 1900, a completely broken man, and it took more than six decades thereafter before Britain decriminalized consensual homosexuality (1967), almost a decade after decriminalizing heterosexual prostitution.

Britain's decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts would likely have been delayed further had not the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, supported the reform.

There is much LGBT blood on the hands of the Church of England. Uganda is merely keeping alive those ancient uncouths, with help from the silence of Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams is no Michael Ramsey.

In the early 1971 one of the bishops from Florida shocked the Episcopal House of Bishops by asking on the floor of the house how he was to handle a priest whom he had discovered to be "queer." His raw candor shocked the House, which immediately established the House of Bishops Task Force on Homophiles and the Ministry (1971-76) so that such discussions could go underground. (Only Episcopalians could have come up with such a prissy name as "the House of Bishops Task Force on Homophiles and the Ministry"!)

In October 1974 I took out ads for a new publication, Integrity: Gay Episcopal Forum in The Episcopalian, The Advocate and The Living Church. Immediately I received a letter from Bishop John Walker, a member of this Task Force, asking me to meet with the Task Force in Washington as soon as possible. We met at Epiphany in Washington, DC, and to that meeting I brought with me copies fresh off the Xerox, of the first issue of the Forum, in which I called for chapters to be formed.

A priest named Tyndale and a layman named Wycliffe (who says the Holy Spirit does not have a sense of history?!), both from Chicago, but neither knowing the other, called me wanting to start a chapter. I put them in touch. They met in December and the following summer (1975) hosted the first national convention of Integrity at St. James Cathedral in Chicago.

In my papers stored in archives of the University of Michigan is a thick binder labeled "Episcopal Snide," a collection of hostile mail that I frequently received from bishops. Long ago I decided not to keep that collection near me. From the day I took out the ads, I understood that we all have much better news to tell to absolutely everybody. It is not ourselves whom we proclaim but Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake.

Louie Crew, professor emeritus of English at Rutgers University, is the founder of Integrity, and a longtime deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Newark.

Room by room

By Heidi Shott

After dropping my son off at school this morning, I stop for coffee at the bookstore in downtown Damariscotta. Sometimes I see friends or acquaintances there and stop for a bit to catch up, sometimes I splurge on a double latte, but today, with just a dollar in my pocket, I get a to-go cup and am out the door in a minute. As I stop to turn right on Main Street and head home, I look to my left and see a woman coming out of the Waltz’s Drugstore. She’s someone I worked with at the local newspaper years ago, and I know a small portion of her story: she wanted a baby but never got one, she stops each morning at a half dozen different places around town to buy lottery tickets. She often drinks coffee with the local guys at the soda fountain at Waltz’s.

“How are those boys?” she’ll call out when she sees me come in for a prescription or a greeting card.

“Great!” I chime. “How’re you doing?”

“Great!” she replies.

It’s easier now, but years ago when I’d be out and about with our twin boys, she would make a big deal of them. And I felt bad for the heartache seeing those boys must have caused her. I got two and she got zero, as though God cared which way our names are spelled, as people say around here.

With no cars barring my way, I turn right and see a man walking down the opposite sidewalk, head down, hands in coat pockets. My husband knows him better than I do, but I know him well enough to make small talk at parties. I know that last year he lost a wonderful and promising son in a car accident, and I can’t imagine such a loss.

As I make my turn and cross the bridge from Damariscotta into Newcastle, I pass a gas station and see a man at the pump. I remember ten years ago or so when his free-spirited wife left him and their young children for a biker. “You gotta be kidding me?” was the general response around town to that development. I remember getting my car inspected at the garage not long after and seeing his daughter sitting in the garage office watching a small TV with a powdered donut in hand. She smiled at me with her white mustache.

If I were to drive around town or go into Reny’s (small town Maine’s answer to Walmart) or stop at Yellowfront Market, I would no doubt see, in a matter of minutes, a dozen other people whose stories I know in part either first-hand or second. But there are many more people I pass around town whose faces I may recognize but whose stories I don’t know at all. How full God’s heart must be with all of our stories.

Each afternoon my favorite thing to do is to switch on the little lights we put in each window at this time of year. In our little part of town there are many 18th century colonials and capes clustered together and most of us do the “lights in the window” thing in December. It’s very lovely to look out and see the old houses twinkle. Our neighbors must be less cheap than I am because they’ve obviously invested in the lights that turn on automatically at dusk. Our little lights with the rotary switches that slide with a snap between your thumb and forefinger refuse to give up, so I can’t justify buying the new and improved variety.

But I like going from room to room and turning on the lights in this one season of the year where light is imbued with wonder and meaning.

As I move from room to room I sometimes imagine what it must look like to someone walking along the road toward our house. First the lower right comes on, then the lower left, then a pause before the upstairs bedrooms and the little room that connects the house to the upper part of the garage. These little candles don’t shed sufficient light to see everything inside our home but they give the passer-by, or the driver who turns to look, a glimpse into the face of our world.

What these lights don’t show is what’s happening at the back of the house: a disheveled boy grumbling over homework at the kitchen table, a woman unloading the dishwasher and wishing she were the type of person who always knew ahead of time what they were going to have for dinner, a man in an upstairs office playing a few decompressionary games of solitaire while sipping a shot of frozen lemon vodka, a blond-haired boy on the porch off the kitchen cocking his head to a jazz CD and working to match the notes on his saxophone.

The homework boy says, “Would you knock it off, I’m trying to work here!”

The saxophone boy says, “Idiot, I was here first!”

The woman says, “Would you guys please be nice to one another.”

Who would know what is true about the back of this house unless they knocked on the door and asked?

In his song “Laughter” Bruce Cockburn, sings, “I laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. I laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.”

Who can know? Who can know about anyone?

Perhaps this season of light, with its sense of expectation that even the most jaded among us feel, is one of the few times of year we’re granted the warrant to penetrate the darkness of unknowing that surrounds us on every side. Maybe it’s the time to knock on doors and ask, “How are you doing?”



As both an interviewer or a friend, I've found that when asked most people will answer. The desire to be known is so deeply found in each of us, because we know that to be truly known is to be loved. This season of light, this season of Advent, is about God caring about the details of our lives enough to enter into our midst and do something. Now we’re asked to be the face of God to one another: to walk down the road and knock on our neighbor’s door.

And it helps us to be brave when a light is on to greet us.

Heidi Shott is the canon for communications and social justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

The marks of the Church

By Derek Olsen

It’s now the week after the tumultuous weekend when three bishops were elected, one of whom—as we all know by now—is a lesbian with a long-time partner. During the day I’ve been like many, going about my work and, on breaks and lunch, checking the Anglican blogs and news sources to see the on-going reaction. According to my analysis we’ve moved through the “News and Reaction” phase and are now well within the “Retort and Counter-Retort” phase. To read the blogs, it appears that Christianity teeters on the brink—they just can’t agree on which direction lies the clear light of truth and which the fires of hell.

It’s now later and I sit once again at my computer. The official day’s work has been put away and I now work at a different project, coding old documents into XML. Before me on the screen is one similar in nature to the ones before my eyes during the day; it’s a sermon from an English priest to his people.

Before my eyes even light upon the words, the difference is clear, though; no 24-hour news cycle ever produced this. In the enhanced jpeg image of the page, I can see the faint trace of where a leatherworker’s knife slipped in scraping the hair from the leather. A faint shadow betrays a spot where more pumice-rubbing was needed. A line of pricked holes on either side of the written column provide guides where, a thousand years before, a scribe dragged a dry-point to line the parchment page. The scribe is now dust, but his marks remain.

The consents must come—no wait—the consents must *not* come or else the faith will be in peril. Christianity must change or die—no wait—Christianity must not change lest it die. And the shrill blog voices recede as I follow the flowing marks of the scribe’s pen. On a Tuesday afternoon in the early summer ten centuries past, an English abbot reminded his gathered congregation (Was it large? Was it small?) of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer:

And se man ðe gode gecwemð he bið godes bearn. na gecyndelice ac þurh gesceapenysse
And the man who pleases God, he is God’s son—not according to kind but through creation and through good deeds as Christ said in his Gospel: “The one who works the will of my Father in heaven, that one is my brother and my mother and my sister.” Now therefore all Christian men whether high ranking or lowly, nobly-born or not, the lord and the slave: all of them are brothers, and all of them have one Father who is in heaven. The wealthy is not better in this reckoning than the poor. As boldly may the slave call God his Father as the king.

This is a faith I recognize. Is it now in danger of dying away? I think of the many misfortunes this manuscript has seen—viking raids, the Norman conquest, the Black Death, the dissolution of monasteries and dismemberment of books, the Civil War, the Blitz. Each generation may fear the worst. This English preacher himself thought that the viking raids besieging England’s green and pleasant land were the harbingers of the Antichrist. Even then the questions were complicated and not clear cut. Placate the raiders with soft gold, or meet their charge with a sterner metal? Come April 19th we’ll remember an Archbishop of Canterbury—Alphege—who faced the hard questions of this time and wrote an answer for history with his own blood.

Đæt oðer gebed is. Adueniat regnum tuum. þæt is on urum gereorde. cume þin rice; The second prayer is “Adveniat regnum tuum” which is in our tongue “Thy kingdom come.” Ever was God's kingdom, and ever will be: but it is so to be understood, that his kingdom be over us, and he reign in us, and that we with all obedience be subject to him, and that our kingdom be realized and granted to us, as Christ has promised to us, that he would give us an eternal kingdom.

Thy kingdom come. But God’s kingdom is eternal, reminds the preacher—treading the same well-worn path of Origen, Cyprian and Augustine, the path that Luther would follow in another five hundred years—we pray that it may come in us, to us, and through us. An Advent reminder that our lives and choices are bound in the works and will of God should we so offer them. As this Advent wears on and wends its way towards both the Birth and the Last Judgment we wonder which will have the upper hand.

A small hole in the margin alerts me that sometime in these passing centuries some worm has itself read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested these silently witnessing pages.

The sermon ends where it began. Starting with themes of brotherhood and unity, the sermon makes a final return before burning out in a doxological blaze:

Crist gesette þis gebed. and swa beleac mid feawum wordum. þæt ealle ure neoda…
Christ established this prayer and so enclosed it in a few words, that all of our needs—both spiritual and bodily—are included there. This prayer he established for all Christians in common. He does not say in this prayer, “My Father who is in heaven…” but says, “Our Father…” and so forth; all of the words that follow after are spoken in common by all Christians. This shows how much God loves unity and concord among his people. According to the book of God all Christians should be so gathered together that they be as one Man; woe, then, to the man who breaks that unity.

The unity envisioned in this sermon, though, is no uniformity enforced by covenants but a harmony between the rich and poor. What does the rich man do when his servants no longer serve? Let the rich man be warned and remember that he must render an account of the good things given him. True Christian unity is expressed in how the members of the body act on behalf of one another, with diligence and love.

The shrill shortsightedness of partisan conflicts say one thing; the fading letters on parchment remind me of another. Endurance. Fidelity. Loving-kindness. These are the marks of the Church. They have been for a very long time. They will continue to be so for a very long time to come.

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Health care: if you can't save everyone, who do you save?

By Marshall Scott

It will surprise no one that I pay attention to news about health care. And these days there is certainly enough news to pay attention to. There’s the ongoing work in Washington that we hope will result in universal access to health care for all in America (and I say “we” deliberately in that the General Convention has called for universal access for a generation and more). There have been two reports, one on breast cancer and one on uterine cancer, each suggesting that screenings commonly accepted for some time aren’t as helpful as we thought. Finally, all of these have led to discussions of what we might and might not be able to offer and include in health care for all.

The conversations on all these topics have been heated. That’s because, I think, the topics have been in one way or another about limitation, and sometimes explicitly about how limitation might apply to each of us personally. We’re not comfortable talking about limitations, really; but we get even more disturbed, and even frightened, when we realize we might have to face limitations ourselves.

For me, though, this has focused my attention on a very personal question: what is my life worth? Actually, for me the question has been less abstract and more comparative: why is my life worth more than someone else’s?

In a way, that’s a difficult question to face. That’s because the applications of such a question are very specific. They’re also very critical.

Let me give some examples. According to current statistics there are more than 100,000 persons who might benefit from donation of an organ. However, in all of 2008 less than 28,000 organs were transplanted. That’s not the number of donors; it’s the number of organs. The number of persons who die who become donors are perhaps 6,000. Now, if my heart or my liver begins to fail, I might indeed benefit from a transplant, but I would be only one of thousands. If I accept a donor organ, I can be sure another person will die. So, why is my life worth more than someone else’s?

We don’t have to choose an issue as blunt as organ transplant. Consider the announcement from the U. S. Preventive Services Task Force changing the recommendations regarding screening for breast cancer. One way of understanding the findings of the Task Force is to consider that 1,904 women between the ages of 39 and 49 would need to be invited for screening to have one breast cancer death prevented. Many women, and many physicians, have been very critical. They worry that, based on the recommendation, insurance companies will deny payment for screenings for women younger than 50, whether for those with circumstances that might indicate an exception or for those who simply want the screening. They point to women who have benefited from mammograms, and ask why 1903 unnecessary mammograms aren’t worth the saving of the 1904th – especially when we can’t really know which woman in the 1904 is the one who will actually benefit.

However, that sounds like a choice between spending resources for mammograms or not. That’s not really the situation. How we use resources (including but not limited to money) is important because they’re limited, and as I said above, resources used in one place aren’t available for another. So, where might we use these resources? According to the CDC in 2005 more than 40,000 women died of breast cancer. However, in the same year almost 330,000 women – eight times as many – died of heart disease. So, if we committed the same resources of those 1900 plus mammograms to heart disease screening instead? Would we save eight women instead of one? Why is the one woman’s life more important than the eight women’s?

We have known for some time that achieving universal access to health care is really a matter of political will. We can do it, but we can’t do everything. I remember from my youth that wonderful poster, “What if we had all the money we needed for schools and the military had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber?” So, perhaps one thing that gets us closer to universal access is cancellation of the F-22 fighter program.

The same thing is true within health care. Just how great our resources for care will be is largely a matter of political will (and no, I don’t think the market will be more effective in meeting our needs in the future than it has been in the past), but they will certainly not be infinite. We will be able to do much, but we won’t be able to do anything. We can give that a negative focus and speak of “rationing,” or we can give it a positive focus and speak of “comparative effectiveness;” but we won’t be able to do everything, and we will have to set priorities.

And as we participate in setting those priorities, I think this is a relevant if difficult question: “Why is my life more important than someone else’s?” I think it’s especially apt for Christians. We are the community of him who laid down his life for us. We remember in light of his sacrifice that he said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” So, this question is particularly important for us.

Now, I don’t want to claim any particular nobility here. This question may be easy or hard to ask in the abstract, but I have no illusion that it has to be hard to ask in the particular. If the person at the center of the discussion were my wife or one of my children, I don’t know that I could maintain a sense of altruism.

Still, it seems to me the critical question. Whatever our hopes for health care reform, we know we won’t be able to do everything for every person, any more than we are able to now. Within those limitations we are required to set priorities, and in those priorities there will be some who won’t get what they want, or will only get it at great difficulty and expense. We can hold those decisions at arms length, and let politicians and policy makers take the heat and the blame. Or, we can consider what we would forego as individuals, and call on those politicians and policy makers to use wisely the resources we decline. As a people gathered around one who let go of his life that we might have ours, we have a special responsibility for this very question. Why is my life more important than anyone else’s? And, how will I act on the answer I discern?

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.

I believe in the communion of saints

By Bill Carroll

The English word “communion” comes from the Latin word communio, which is often used to translate the Greek word koinonia. English translations of the New Testament also use the word “fellowship” to describe this important reality. In other contexts, the best translation might be “sharing” or “participation.”

Koinonia has to do with what is shared in common. It has roots in shared property, as in a marriage, intimate friendship, or religious community. It also refers to shared life and activity. It connotes the free sharing of gifts, as opposed to barter, the market, and other forms of quid pro quo. The New Testament speaks of the way in which the koinonia of the Church is grounded in the koinonia of the blessed Trinity (see 1John 1:1-4). Because the three persons share equally in the properties that make God divine, God is communion. Indeed, God just is the three persons and the loving relationships among them. Christians also speak of holy communion. In this sacrament, God’s good gifts are freely and abundantly shared in the body and the blood of Jesus. These gifts both reconstitute and strengthen the Church, which God brings to birth in holy baptism.

This is a fundamentally egalitarian vision. It contradicts the rugged individualism and isolation of American culture, even as it calls to mind values of interdependence and community that characterize our nation at its best. But koinonia involves a far more radical vision of community than any society has ever achieved. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read the following:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (en autois hapanta koina). With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Such a vision of shared property led one nineteenth century Anglican, Stewart Headlam, to comment that “These who partake of the Holy Communion therefore are necessarily pledged to be Holy Communists.” That’s not a direction many of us are willing to go (and the Church as a whole has seldom done so), but it accurately reflects New Testament teaching. Religious communities often appeal to this “primitive communism” of the early Church as they seek to live out the implications of the Gospel. Alluding to the same passage from Acts, the great Church Father, John Chrysostom, once lamented in a sermon that "It is not for lack of miracles that the church is stagnant; it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost, and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world without any need of miracles at all."

The communion of saints, sanctorum communio, is a phrase found in the Apostles’ Creed, an ancient baptismal confession of faith. The phrase is ambiguous. Grammatically speaking, the word sanctorum could be either masculine or neuter. It might refer to holy people; it might also refer to holy things. With regard to holy things, we are a people constituted by the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism. We share in the gifts of common prayer around a common table. We share our material resources with one another and with those in need. We also share in a common mission and ministry. With regard to holy people, we are members of a worldwide community made up of “every family, language, people, and nation.” Christian community breaks down barriers of class, race, and gender. It transcends even the distinction between the living and the dead. Whenever we gather in Jesus’ Name, especially when we break the bread and share the cup, all the Holy Ones are present. Prophets, apostles, and martyrs, as well as holy men and women of every generation, are here with us as we gather for the Supper of the Lamb. For Jesus is the “first fruits of those that sleep,” and in him we are all alive. We are bound to each other in the communion of saints. We share in God’s good gifts, in the graces God has given to our brothers and sisters, as the Holy Spirit moves among us and makes us holy, forming us into the image of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Food, namely herbs and stewed rabbit, for the journey

By Adam Thomas

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at

Holding hands at the comma

By Heidi Shott

At the very end of June I sat with my parents on the front porch of the old family farm in rural upstate New York. Three weeks before, my father had been out mowing on the tractor. Three weeks hence, he would be dead.

"Twenty years ago when my brother was at the end," he recalled, "Doc Redding came and gave him a shot." My mother, sitting in dad’s shadow on the porch, caught my eye and shook her head slightly. "No, I was there," her eyes told me. "It wasn't like that."

"You could stop eating and drinking," I offered. "That might be a gentle way for you to go, a way you can control." I paused, despairing over this conversation. "Dad, the Doc Reddings of the world are gone."

My father’s reprieve from the lung cancer that had spread to his brain and other vital body parts was over. He was fading fast, and that’s why my young boys and I had returned. Dad took pleasure in watching the children play on the floor, and he and I critiqued the political ads on television. I drank tea with my mom in the kitchen. My childhood home was transformed into one of those quiet houses I remember from hospice volunteering where death was imminent and everyone was uncharacteristically gentle with one another.

The day after we returned to Maine, a pneumonia crisis scared my parents silly and they hoofed it to the hospital in the middle of the night. He stayed a week, and at the end of that time a decision needed to be made. I drove back to New York alone.

We decided to place him in a Lutheran nursing home for palliative care: no drugs, no forced food, no IV fluids, just morphine and comfy tactics. He was sleeping a lot and, mid-way through his hospital stay, he had stopped making much sense. The Lutheran home seemed like the right move.

While waiting for the ambulance that would take him there, we sat in the hospital room and held hands. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be listening to someone… smiling, nodding, commenting now and again. At one point he scratched his wrist, looked at me with a broad smile and said, "Isn’t this fun?"

"What is it, Dad? Is it like a movie?"

"Yes, sort of," he said, returning to his inside place.

"A movie of your life?" I fished around.

"Yes," he murmured. Gone, but bemused. I hummed the big band tunes of the forties and let what was happening sink in. This was a big life moment here. The dying itself was a journey, a thin period when what we know as life and something else briefly intersect. I was invited to a little moment in his journey toward the something else.

Then suddenly I was disinvited. After he settled into the nursing home, I went to sit with him in the evening. He seemed restless, and when a nurse came in he said to her, "Would you please ask my daughter to leave." Nonplussed, I left the room and leaned against the wall watching the long-term residents cruise the corridors in their wheelchairs. After a few moments the nurse came out and said, "He said he doesn’t want you to see him die, but I told him I didn’t think he was going anywhere tonight and he’s agreed to let you back in."

The next day I returned and was greeted with, "Oh shit. You came back." This wasn’t going at all like I had planned. How was I to be the wonderful, caring daughter when he had an attitude like that? Awhile later some noisy nursing assistants came to take his untouched lunch tray. Dad woke fully, looked away to the window, and said with strained patience, "Would you please go? Would you please get into your car and go back to Maine. I can’t relax with you here."

With a lurch of my heart, I realized my version of his death was about what I had envisioned, not about what he needed. I stood beside his bed and knew what I had to ask.

"Dad, if I leave, will it help you to die?"

"Yes," he said, finally looking up at me, sunken, un-Dad-like, but still recognizable around the eyes. An unanticipated wave of grief thundered over me, and instantly, uncontrollably, I burst into giant sobs. The moment of parting was suddenly upon us, and I was caught by surprise.

After a minute I sat back in my chair. "How ‘bout I make you a deal, Dad," I said, reverting to our old style of talking. "How ‘bout I leave and say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and then I won’t come. How’s that?"

"That’s good," he said, relieved and beginning to get a little fuzzy. I knew I had only a few more moments with my real father before the brain tumor/morphine father politely asked me to put the cheese next to the spare tire. We said our ‘I love yous' and hugged and kissed and then did it again a couple of times. Finally, I moved to the doorway, turned and said, "I’ll see you tomorrow. Good-bye."

He gave me his best, most winsome smile. "I’ll see you," my father said. I smiled back -- my parting gift -- and walked away.

In 1999 a play called Wit by Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s about a John Donne scholar who has terminal cancer, and one line reads, "Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really…death is no longer something to act out on stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause."

Despite my promise, the following week my sons and I returned to New York. Dad had begun to die in earnest… the loud rattle of his breath, his eyes rolled back, his odd smell. As my mom and I sat on either side of his bed holding his hands, I thought about the moment…the pause in the heart-wrenching breathing…the comma, the full-stop. I thought about the journey’s end when we throw the last feeble leg over the fence to the something else. The moment when we see everything clearly in the presence of God, and say to ourselves, "What an idiot I was! Why didn’t I see how things really were?"

The following day, before my "shift" began, I took my woefully bored six year-old sons to a game farm. The best I can figure, we were delighting in the play of a couple of frisky otters when my father passed gently into that good morning.

Although my father was frustrated with the last six weeks of his life and his inability to get up and make coffee in the morning, I don’t think he would have wanted to miss the opportunity to show us how to do one last thing. He taught me that we are stewards of this life that God has entrusted us with and that we are susceptible to grace until the very end.

The day before Dad died, he lifted my hand to his lips…not seeing, not speaking, just doing. And by so doing, he invited me back to his life. It was his family he wanted at the end. He didn't want Doc Redding after all.

Heidi Shott is the canon for communications and social justice in the Diocese of Maine.

Guilty Advent pleasures

By Ann Fontaine

Only one week into Advent and the cry goes out to “keep Advent. ” Don’t let us hear any Christmas carols or start decorating. Don’t be like THOSE people who don’t know their liturgical seasons and have been decorating since the end of summer.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like the idea of the season of Advent. The idea of a quiet withdrawal into meditation on one’s relationship to Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God – to be born again at Christmas and in our lives – is lovely. I am not so fond of the doom and gloom end times pronouncements of some of the readings. The whole idea of quiet and retreat sounds lovely.

But the truth is I love the excitement of Christmas, the gaudy yard displays, the carols on the Musak™. I can’t get enough of it. I want it to last from Halloween/All Saints until Epiphany or maybe even Lent. It is my guilty secret when confronted by all the serious minded church folks admonishing me not to be lured into premature outbursts of song and merriment.

God born into our lives in Jesus is the reason for Christianity. It is the most amazing event in history. God, who could stay at a distance, chooses to enter into the messiness of our lives. Chooses to dance and party, live and die and live again, laugh and cry, heal and suffer just as we do. What could be better than to celebrate that as long as possible?

The mad frenzy of the season is like first love. Eventually it becomes exhausting and we need Lent to recover our balance, but why dampen down the enthusiasm now – as the dark is growing longer in the Northern hemisphere? Why not savor this time?

My favorite example of the season is the lighted yard displays that begin to appear around Thanksgiving. Slowly the neighbors string the lights around the house and all manner of objects appear on the lawn. The current favorites include inflatable Santas, snowmen and women, and huge snow globes with moving objects inside. Every TV special has a place – Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown. Each year brings new ideas of what or who should be added. One year it was The Lion King, another Pokemon and friends. What will it be this year?

In the midst of all the lights and figures, one finds a crèche. The Holy Family (often plastic with lights inside of them), Shepherds, Angels and Magi (oh no not before Epiphany – yes!). gather around the infant. This is so true to life – in the midst of the craziness of life – we find holiness. We shop, trying to find the right gifts for our beloveds – gifts that will show them how much we love them and how deeply we know them --only to fail in the enterprise. But as we shop perhaps someone holds the door for us and our burdens, or a friend offers us a cup of tea to restore us. Right there, that’s it, God is in our midst.

Christmas used to be a terrible time for me. Now I hope I have a more balanced view. I can multi-task – an Advent time of contemplation mixed with the joy of the coming Christmas. I can sing O Come O Come Emmanuel AND Joy To The World on the same day. I can delight in the preparations and music of Christmas while taking time to be still and let the silence calm my days.

Have Yourself a Dismal Little Advent
(An Advent Carol?)

Have yourself a dismal little Advent, Filled with guilt and gloom. You’ve got these four weeks to contemplate your doom. Turn down all those party invitations; Mustn’t celebrate; You should stay home fasting, and self-flagellate. Shun the lure of the shopping mall, Where they’ve decked the hall since May. Just recall it’s the eschaton You must focus on today. It’s no time for singing Christmas carols; That we can’t allow! Chant Psalm 51, if you remember how–
 And have yourself a dismal little Advent now!
Mary W. Cox
December 17, 1992

Hat tip to Scott Gunn

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

Something incredibly wonderful happens Part two

The second of a two-part essay. Read Part One here.

By Donald Schell

In the late 1960’s, Frank Oppenheimer quit university teaching and moved to San Francisco to launch an inter-generational learning community of wonder, trial-and-error, discovery, “kindness,” nurturing others, and celebration: the Exploratorium, the world’s first interactive science museum. Here’s how interactive: K.C. Cole who writes about him in Something Wonderful Happens was a successful young journalist (a New York Times Magazine cover story to her credit) when the Saturday Review sent her to write about Oppenheimer’s offbeat new museum. Oppenheimer’s joy in discovery was a conversion experience for Cole that began her significant career as a science writer.

I understand her response. I took my kids to the Exploratorium starting in 1980. In 1981 when my wife began working night shift at a hospital near us, I spent a lot of Saturdays in the Exploratorium keeping the house quiet so she could sleep. I thought it was a great way to spend time with my two kids. The science learning was fascinating, and we talked about all kinds of other things too. What I see now in Cole’s description of the Exploratorium is work I hope the church could do, not science experiments, but community and compassion experiments, and not teaching science, but open learning and discovery. I’m looking forward to returning on my own this month and spending a day in hands-on meditation.

And this brings me back to Lizzie’s reflection on being in church with people her own age. Until we begin doing Gospel-shaped work with our younger peers, until we share leadership and unadulterated Gospel practice with them, our congregations will continue aging faster than the general population. If we don’t share real leadership with them, those who don’t simply abandon the church will gather apart from us and find their own ways to do what Jesus did (and greater works than he did).

Lizzie is in her thirties. With an American mother and an English father (both devout, committed Anglicans, and open Christian people) Lizzie grew up knowing both the C. of E. and the American Episcopal Church. She’s a regular participant now in a very good congregation near my home. She can describe how she continues to grow as professional actor, a mother of two, and spouse and soul-mate to a visionary Ph.D. candidate who travels to dangerous, burgeoning cities to re-vision city planning for the developing world. I work with Lizzie regularly under All Saints Company’s banner leading readers’ workshops, work-shopping Christmas Pageant direction and production, and trying to make safe, open space for clergy to explore their presence and communication when they’re preaching or presiding.

The amazement Lizzie felt at worshiping with people her own age came from a visit to St. Lydia’s Church in New York City, the year old ‘dinner church’ that Emily Scott and others started to gather young adult professionals and artists who are leery of church. St. Lydia’s meets weekly on Sunday evening for a Eucharist/supper based on the Didache’s early Second Century liturgy.

Emily founded St. Lydia’s after spending her life going to church with people a generation older. In social gatherings with friends doing good work in New York City, Emily kept hearing how amazed those friends were that she even attended church, let alone worked in one. Still something told her some of them would welcome the chance to go to a church that was serious enough about hospitality and community to hear their voice, offer an understanding ear, and put them to work.

With her degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Sacred Music Emily got day jobs as a church musician in big steeple churches. And that work supports her passion, gathering friends to found a church where people her age (and some older too) can welcome strangers on the Lower East Side of New York to share Eucharist within a weekly practice of cooking a meal, learning music and singing it together, reflecting, and sharing the a full, sit-down meal. Out of respect for the Episcopal and Lutheran churches that are fostering this new church, St. Lydia’s brings in ordained clergy to preside at their Eucharist. I know them from praying the Eucharist prayer as their visiting priest.

I just broke from writing this for lunch with James, a friend of Emily’s from Yale Divinity School. In his senior year of seminary, James was back home to the West Coast for Thanksgiving. James is looking for seeking people to help him shape his dream and vision to launch and lead a religious foundation that would train, encourage, and support people starting house churches and meal churches. Emily sent him to talk with me about my experience founding St. Gregory’s thirty years ago and talk together about what All Saints Company is learning now working with churches, church founders, and other clergy and lay leaders. Where is the church ready to embrace ministry innovation and mission?

Starting something new.

Young leaders taking big responsibility.

After lunch with James, I got to thinking about my younger daughter Maria who was four when we moved to San Francisco to help found St. Gregory’s Church in 1980.

When Maria was in high school our diocese tried to launch a deanery-wide youth group. She was initially excited, and kept going to the group until her growing frustration finally moved her to quit. “I was tired of playing games and discussing people’s favorite rappers.” Where church made sense to Maria was at St. Dorothy’s Rest summer camp. At St. Dorothy’s Maria worked a couple of summers as a camp counselor and then in college and for a year after she served as summer camp director. St. Dorothy’s year-round adult staff structured the summer to give huge authority (and necessary support when needed) to their young summer staff, so by her early twenties, Maria held summer-long responsibility for 15 camp staffers and supervised their work with sixty campers a session.

When he’d been Maria’s age her grandfather was flying his B-17 bomber on daylight bombing runs on German munitions factories and serving not only as a pilot for his own plane and crew of eight, but as Wing Commander, making life and death choices for his own and the crews of the cluster of planes he guided in tight formation. Dad returned form the war resolved to use his G.I. bill to pay for medical school so he could spend the rest of his own life healing other people and saving their lives.

Maria’s responsibility for the health and well-being of all those kids all summer long changed her life too. Now a bit older than Emily and a bit younger than Lizzie, she directs program year-round for Project AVARY, a support program for kids who have a parent in prison. In addition its year-round mentorship, adventure days and school enrichment programs, Maria hires and directs AVARY kids as staff and counselors for AVARY’s summer camp program. The younger kids say of Camp AVARY, “When I come to camp I feel like an ordinary person who can talk about my whole life.” And the older kids who have come up through the program and get hired as counselors say, “You’ve trusted me with big responsibility, so I know I CAN live my dreams and have a real future.”

I would love to have introduced Maria, James, Emily, and Lizzie to three young people I met this October traveling with my wife (International Programs Director for Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance) in Malawi. Near Nkhata Bay, we visited Maggy Keets from Connecticut and her husband Andy and good friend Emily from the U.K. to see the massive participation and support they’ve gathered from eighteen Malawian villages to build a birthing clinic, Healthy Mother Project] a shelter where expectant mothers can stay as they await the onset of labor, and staff house in a rural center. The clinic is sorely needed in Malawi, a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Maggy, Andy, and Emily began raising money for the project with bake sales and getting donor sponsors for running marathons. They quickly realized they needed bigger donors and contacted individuals and wrote grants, and when they had raised 2/3 of the needed funds, they contacted GAIA for help.

From its inception the Healthy Mother project has built partnerships and community, and they continued that approach when they were funded and ready to take the work to Malawi too. Villagers molded and fired the thousands of bricks needed for the clinic. Chiefs from the most distant village raised $200 cash that they walked to deliver while we were there. $200 is about three times the average annual income in Malawi. As I write, villagers ten time zones away are volunteering their labor along side the Malawian contractor and his handful of paid workers.

Healthy Mother Project bought the three ton supply truck (which will belong to the Ministry of Health when the clinic is finished), bought whatever building supplies the villagers couldn’t make, and hired the contractor and his laborers with money raised back home in the Connecticut and in the U.K. Maggy, Andy, and Emily work alongside the local crew, but their priority is to keep enough building materials on hand to keep the project moving forward.

Tribal culture in northern Malawi is heavily patriarchal which brings additional challenges and good learning for the villagers working with this woman-led team of three. Drawing on Maggy’s previous building work in Africa and her training in international development, women and men from the villages and these three foreigners work side-by-side from sunrise to sunset, breaking to share lunch and tea together.

At the end of next month when the clinic is completed, Malawi’s Ministry of Health will equip and staff it. Maggy, Andy, Emily and the villagers are proud that they’ve enabled local people to do something many said was impossible, including bring the project in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Frank Oppenheimer’s joy in learning does remind me of church, but too often we see a church cordoned off into age cohorts and not giving real collaborative responsibility to young leaders. They’re ready to make a lasting contribution and along the way to take risks big enough that real failure is possible. Too often all we think about is ‘giving them something to do.’

I’m grateful that there are people like Lizzie and Emily, like James, and like Maggy, Andy, and Emily who have found a way to do their work, but in our church setting they are few. They are so few that I wonder whether our desire to hold on to the church we know, and our fear of our children’s passion has made others of them so impatient with church that they simply took their vision elsewhere. What will it take us to make our church’s story more like the story of Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Something incredibly wonderful happens Part one

By Donald Schell

“It was so amazing being in church with people my own age.”

I’m reading K.C. Cole’s Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up .

Would “something incredibly wonderful happens” be our first description of Sunday gatherings in our church? Not so often, I think. Cole’s heart-breaking, inspiring, book raises questions of how we live into vision, how we work together, who gets to share authority, and how traditions renew themselves in generations learning together side by side, but K.C. Cole isn’t writing about church. Something Incredibly Wonderful is about a young scientist who was denied the opportunity to make his contribution. It’s about his discovering vocation through loss, and it’s about the genesis of a science museum.

Cole’s story of atheist Frank Oppenheimer’s vocation and learning and community in a setting wholly outside the church keeps reminding me of my friend Lizzie’s reflection on her visit to St. Lydia’s, a new church start in Manhattan, “It was so amazing being in church with people my own age.” I’ll come back to Lydia’s and other places where something incredibly wonderful is happening in church, but first Cole’s book.

Frank Oppenheimer was a gifted theoretical physicist. He went directly from graduate school to working in the Manhattan Project alongside his brother Robert Oppenheimer, so as a young scientist Frank helped develop the first atom bomb. Yes, that troubled me too. With all the optimism and idealism of youth Frank was convinced that the bomb’s very existence (not dropping it on a civilian target) would force the end of all war. When President Truman made a different choice and bombed Hiroshima, Frank began arguing publicly (joining other scientists who’d worked making the bomb) that the U.S. should immediately make our nuclear discoveries available to the whole world.

I certainly didn’t know that some of our pioneers in making the first real weapon of mass destruction were advocating for open source technology. What were they thinking?

As a scientist Frank Oppenheimer knew the ‘secrets’ of the atom bomb would fairly quickly be available to patient physics researchers across the globe. So, Frank knew the U.S. would only for a moment in history own the only atom bombs. What would we do with that advantage? Frank believed that by simply sharing everything we’d learned making the first bomb (and our subsequent discoveries in nuclear fusion), we could avert a dangerous arms race and catalyze a global consciousness that war was untenable. He believed that telling the truths all would soon discover would engender the political will to work for peace. Frank said he thought the strength of democracy was precisely that citizens talking openly about what we faced in any situation would prove wiser than experts, if everyone know the facts. The U.S. military and the F.B.I. decided that everything Frank said proved this smart scientist was a dangerous incompetent (or worse) in matters of national security.

For a little while after World War II ended, Frank managed to continue his work as a research physicist, and while keeping his mouth shut about ‘secrets’ but noisily lobbying to share broadly everything the Manhattan project had learned, his new physics research demonstrated that the cosmic radiation bombarding the earth was broken nuclei from what we would learn to call the Big Bang. His peers in physics expected Frank would lead his generation’s discoveries in particle physics and the bridge between particles and astrophysics.

But while he was still in graduate school Frank had joined the Communist Party. As an atheist, somewhere in the progressive to radical range politically, and an inveterate optimist, Frank thought Communism made sense, at least it did until he’d experienced a year of party membership in Pasadena. He found the Party unimaginatively rigid, doctrinaire, and humorless, so he quit. Despite his one time party membership, as long as he was working developing the bomb, our president and military made the F.B.I. leave him alone, but after the war, after we’d defeated fascism, as we embraced our new national identity as the bulwark against Communism, Frank’s brief pre-war Communist Party membership and his noisy advocacy that America share what our politicians imagined were ‘secrets’ with ‘our enemies’ marked him for the dogged FBI scrutiny and investigation.

Eventually (despite a huge outcry from his faculty colleagues and physicists around the country) Frank was fired from his teaching post and blacklisted from any other research or university teaching job. He was too good-natured and optimistic to grasp the full dimensions of what had happened. It only gradually dawned on him as university after university offered him a research post and then mysteriously revoked the offer. Each time the F.B.I. would contact him and ask if he was finally ready to name others who’d been in the party with him. “You know the names as well as I do,” Frank said. “Ask the people themselves what they thought of the party then and now.” When a university in India offered him a research position, our government revoked his passport. When his research earned him a Scandinavian science award and an invitation to lecture to an international gathering of the world’s best physicists, his request to have his passport renewed was turned down. He was judged a security risk.

With the work he loved closed to him wherever he looked, Frank moved his wife and two children to southern Colorado to an old ranch they’d bought a couple of summers earlier, thinking to make it a great summer place for the kids and eventually somewhere the two of them would retire. Now with all other work options closed, Jackie and Frank Oppenheimer became ranchers, sending their children to Pagosa Spring’s rural elementary school. When Frank and Jackie’s children reached high school age, this ex-communist, big-hearted, wildly imaginative, Socratic, curious, compassionate atheist became a high school science teacher teaching ranch kids who (like his own two) traveled long distances to school and could only do homework after dark when their ranch chores were done.

Because Frank believed questions were the heart of good science, he welcomed all questions. Frank’s class students’ experiments were real experiments. When something “didn’t work” Frank and his students were as interested in what actually happened in their “failure” as they were when they could duplicate other scientists’ successful results. The big schools in Denver wondered what was going on when Pagosa Springs students won the state science fair. And then they came to expect it.

Teaching high school science Frank became as passionate about teaching and learning with his students as he’d been passionate about finding the atom’s smallest particles and studying the debris of the Big Bang. Frank Oppenheimer was committed to learning with his students rather than teaching them what he knew. “Invariably, as I build these experiments,” he said, “I observe some phenomena which I have not observed before and which I do not understand, or I find some deviation from the expected result which requires further investigation.” As Cole says, “The attempt to teach something almost always teaches the teacher something new. Sometimes these new things are new not just to the teacher; they have never been thoroughly explored by anyone.”

Reading about Frank Oppenheimer, I’m thinking about the pictures give us of Jesus as a teacher. In the face of later, theologically conceived ‘know-it-all’ interpretations of him, the Gospel writers (particularly the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) offer a Jesus who is intensely curious and full of wonder and sometimes as surprised as he is surprising.

Frank’s students went on to become distinguished scientists, teachers, and artists around the country. A Nobel Laureate in physics credits Frank’s class as the beginning of that lifetime work.

With the waning of McCarthyism, Oppenheimer got a university post, but both the man and academia had changed. As he saw it research physicists had become superstars not collaborators and fellow learners, and the secretiveness of the military had taught them to be proprietary about discoveries. Frank felt crowded and uninspired. Frank felt academia had lost its nerve and killed the joy in learning. He ached for the unfettered curiosity and shared surprise at constant discoveries he’d once known. Missing his high school students fired a new passion to keep learning and to provoke people of all ages to discover and joy in learning.

How would he do it?

(Find out tomorrow.)

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Winning battles but losing the war?

By George Clifford

Is the Episcopal Church (TEC) winning battles and losing the struggle against evil in its efforts to become a Church that truly welcomes everybody?

Recent court decisions in several states have affirmed that assets owned by parishes or dioceses that try to withdraw from TEC remain with TEC or one of its constituent parts. Progress towards reconstituting diocesan structures in Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere continues apace. Conversely, the weight of opinion, even in parishes staunchly loyal to and supportive of TEC, holds that blessing same-sex relationships, ordaining persons who openly live in committed same-sex relationships, and otherwise fully including everyone regardless of sexuality in the Church’s life will cost TEC members, mission momentum, and resources. Is TEC winning battles and losing the struggle against evil in its efforts to become a Church that truly welcomes everybody?

Phrasing that question posed substantial difficulties. No matter how strongly I believe that God desires to welcome every human, regardless of sexuality, fully, I know that this issue is not a litmus test of anyone’s Christian identity.

That said, opposition to the full inclusion of all people is not simply a matter of people of good will having honest differences of opinion. TEC certainly has members who hold a wide variety of opinions with respect to sexuality and sexual ethics. Diversity of opinion is real within most congregations and does not cause hard feelings, let alone collective angst. Diverse opinions, per se, are neither the source of the current conflict nor inherently evil. TEC welcomes and must continue to welcome people of every opinion.

The evil in this conflict has other roots. First, anyone treating views on sexuality or sexual ethics as a litmus test of who is or is not a Christian or of those with whom one can be in the same Church or parish wrongly assigns these issues a centrality unwarranted by either Scripture or tradition. Congregations that strive for uniformity of opinion with respect to sexuality and sexual ethics – whether within the congregation, the diocese, the national Church, or the Anglican Communion – do so because leadership pushes the issue. Such leaders reject the model of a good shepherd who left the 99 to search for the remaining one, a shepherd who strives to keep the flock together without insisting that all of the sheep look alike or behave alike. Good shepherd leadership affirms and honors diverse opinions and freedom of individual conscience, a defining hallmark among Anglicans whose unity results from common prayer rather than common belief. Leadership that intentionally seeks to divide the Church over an important but not ultimate issue is at best misguided and at worst evil.

Second, sexuality and sexual ethics galvanize opinion and motivate people to act with an energy that other issues lack. Opponents of full inclusion of all in the Church, if they engaged in open and honest mutual introspection, would find their allies subscribe to diverse opinions about the ordination of women, the authority of Scripture, lay presidency at the Eucharist, and other issues. The one and only issue uniting dissidents is their opposition to the full inclusion of all, regardless of sexuality, in the Church’s life. In other words, sexuality affords an unparalleled opportunity for emotional impact that translates into publicity, prominence, and fundraising. U.S. money raised from non-Episcopalians supports the disruptive pronouncements and divisive proselytizing missions of other Anglicans in the States (at the Episcopal Café cf. this story and this one). At best, such Anglican clerics are unintentional pawns manipulated by forces of evil; at worst, these Anglicans clerics co-conspire with forces of evil.

Lest that assessment seem too harsh, TEC represents less than 1% of the U.S. population. If TEC did not retain sufficient public interest (notoriety?) to attract considerable media attention, these non-Episcopalians would choose to wage their war over sexuality and sexuality on different “terrain.” For example, the United Church of Christ years ago decided to ordain clergy openly living in same-sex, committed relationships and to bless same-sex relationships without the large and continuing furor that TEC’s slow steps have attracted. Similarly, the recent decision by the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with which TEC shares ministry, to allow the ordination of clergy openly living in same-sex, committed relationships sparked a much smaller media barrage.

Concurrently, other Anglican provinces, such as the Anglican Church of Canada, have actually led the vanguard of the movement toward full inclusion of all in the life of the Church. TEC follows in the vanguard’s rear. Yet the preponderance of public attention nationally and internationally has focused on TEC. As with TEC, the U.S. represents the global target of choice. The United States’ status as the world’s lone superpower and the influence that its media, economy, and culture have on the rest of the world guarantee a higher profile controversy than if the fight occurred in another country or province. (For more information on this, cf. Globalizing the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches, & Homophobia by Anglican priest and scholar, the Revd Kapya Kaoma, featured in Pat Ashworth’s report, “Africans suffer from ‘collateral damage’ in U.S. culture clash", The Church Times, 20 November 2009.)

Consider the shibboleths that TEC blessing same-sex relationships will result in African animists choosing Islam over Christianity or the persecution of African Christians by radical Muslims. How many African animists really care, or even follow, U.S. ecclesiastical news? (Similarly, how many American Christians really care, or even follow, religious news from African tribal areas?) How many radical Muslims will cease to persecute Christians simply because TEC decides not to bless same-sex relationships? Those questions point to a third evil: opponents of fully including everyone in the Church’s life lie. Lying requires intent to deceive. Not every Episcopalian who repeats one of those shibboleths lies. However, the opposition’s leaders want victory in their campaign against homosexuality at any cost. They lie. Yet truth, not lying, is indicative of those aligned with God. The truth, not lies, makes us free.

Fourth, debates over sexuality and sexual ethics within parishes, dioceses, the national Church, and the Anglican Communion progress with multiple subtexts designed by and for various audiences. One of those subtexts speaks to the often-cherished, little thought through, possibility of the Anglican Communion reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI contributed to that subtext with his recent establishment of personal ordinariates for Anglicans who wish to affiliate with Rome. A careful reading of the Roman Catholic document emphasizes that Rome offers no compromise or olive branch to its separated siblings. Anglicans are welcome, but only on Rome’s terms, conforming to Rome in all doctrinal matters. These include opposition to the ordination of women, recognition of the Pope as the supreme, earthly source of ecclesial authority, etc. The substantive differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism are so great that welcoming all people, regardless of gender orientation, into the full life of the Church will not measurably broaden the chasm that already separates the two Churches. Pretending otherwise is at least naïve and in some cases a deceptive ploy to prevent TEC from welcoming all, i.e., another lie. For individuals who can no longer remain part of the Anglican Communion in good conscience, I wish them God speed as they move with integrity to the Roman Catholic Church.

Another subtext to the debates about sexuality and sexual ethics is that Episcopalians are not Anglicans. Effective communication requires that words have commonly agreed meanings. Anglicans are by longstanding definition members of those Churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, i.e., TEC members in the United States. Splinter groups intentionally incorporating the word “Anglican” into their group’s name, such as the Anglican Church in North America, therefore constitute a pernicious effort to subvert the popular understanding of who is and who is not an Anglican in the hope of creating a new reality. Comments I hear from lay Episcopalians loyal to TEC suggest this tactic is working. Likewise, the Chair of the Presiding Bishops Council of Advice, the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniels, Bishop of the Diocese of East Carolina, apparently has drawn a similar conclusion. He began a recent letter published in the New York Times by emphasizing that TEC is the sole Anglican presence in the U.S. (“Is This Bishop Catholic?” New York Times, November 17, 2009).

The reading from Baruch for the Second Sunday of Advent (5:1-9) recalls a people led into exile by their enemies who clung to the hope that God will bring them back to Jerusalem in glory with mercy and righteousness.

An older parishioner, now retired and with no family at home in my parish, spends her days and self in caring for others. She has fostered literally hundreds of children, some for a few days and others for months. Race, gender, handicaps, sexual and orientation are all irrelevant to her. Recently, she has daily driven an hour to and from a hospital to hold a shaken baby that is fighting for its life in the hospital’s ICU, selflessly investing love and emotion in this infant. One week she asked me for money from my discretionary fund to help a broken family pay its utility bills. The next week, she solicited Christmas gifts from the parish for four young children who live with their financially strapped grandmother to avoid the state sending them to foster homes. It seems that every time this woman and I chat, she is helping yet another person.

She incarnates the mercy and righteousness of which Baruch speaks. TEC must do the same. TEC could prevail in every court case no pending, and dozens not yet filed, and still be unfaithful. TEC could reconstitute and reorganize every diocese and parish that attempts to withdraw and still be unfaithful. Assets and organizational structures are at best means to an end, not an end in themselves. TEC must focus on ends and not means.

Righteousness necessitates TEC stand firmly for truth. TEC boldly moving ahead in developing rites for blessing same-sex relationships, teaching that permanent monogamy and not a couple’s gender composition exemplifies a wholesome lifestyle, and advocating equal civil rights for all regardless of gender orientation will position TEC squarely in the advent of God's activity in the world.

Mercy demands that TEC embrace and welcome all of God's children. TEC needs to regain its momentum as a Church fully engaged in God's mission: loving the unloved, feeding the hungry, offering the water of life to the thirsty, etc.

Mercy and righteousness are hard tasks, in part because we cannot delegate them to a hireling but must perform them ourselves. Often there are few if any tangible rewards. But in the end God's mercy and righteousness will prevail, God's people shall dwell in life abundant, and I, for one (along with my parishioner) want to be part of that scene.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

The silence of the shepherds

By Adrian Worsfold

The Archbishop of Canterbury's speech on 19 November at the Gregorian Pontifical University offered, even promoted as 'good', a condition of impaired communion as experienced within Anglicanism as a model for Roman Catholic and Anglican relationships. Presumably this was a definition of the Anglican brand, and a rather optimistic one wrapped up in dense theological speak and question after question.

One reason I responded to this only humorously (on my blog) was because this is easy speech. It is easy to construct arguments like this, even if it takes Rowan Williams's own mind to deliver it in the strained manner that he does. It is also easy to talk about the awful violence in the Congo. What is not easy, and where the silence has been deafening, has been to find anything said about Uganda and its proposed laws singling out one group of people for harsh and repressive treatment. We also have an Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a Ugandan himself, who doesn't mind a bit of publicity now and again, in jumping out of aeroplanes and refusing to wear his white collar until Robert Mugabe leaves office - but when it comes to Uganda and gay people, and that Anglican Church's intense homophobia, he suddenly has his mouth all zipped up. So it is easy to talk shop, easy to talk about general situations, and yet when it comes to the minority sheep in the flock in your own back pen, silence is the order of the day. More puzzling, given that Canada has at least said something about this, is the silence of The Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop. What on earth is going on?

To me this is a gigantic ethical failing. I knew already that the whole Covenant business was to build an international institution on the backs of excluding a minority. It will give recognition to processes at the level of international institutions for the first time; these processes will give worldwide Anglicanism a conserving central identity. I maintain the Covenant needs defeating to preserve a diverse and culturally responsive Anglicanism, and clearly the Pontifical speech was about an identifiable Covenanted Anglicanism that deals in processing disagreements - to and from the centre.

My own personal theology is further and further away from the sort of theological clutter lying at the heart of what Rowan Williams presented in Rome. I take the view, almost conclusively now, that this is utter human construction, pure institutionalism, human made and human preserved. Theologically I have become stripped out of even relating to this material because in part it is increasingly morally objectionable, and indeed allows morally objectionable behaviour such as attitudes to consenting minorities. Somehow the heart is dying inside Christianity so that it becomes a pointless hulk, where some of its core messages are tossed aside in order to promote one institutional fantasy or another.

There is another potential explanation to Rowan Williams's dealings, and it is almost Kamikaze. That, in making his 'half full' speech about Anglican incoherence, he knew perfectly well that it would be dismissed in Rome, and it was a kind of raspberry from an incoherent Anglicanism, just as this Covenant business is a non-starter because the Church of England cannot legally adopt a Covenant that even sniffs of control from without. The Church of England would have to only voluntarily abide by something without, which is worthless and constantly open to challenge. So, in the end, the argument goes, despite deliberate appearances to the contrary, there is no end in sight. There is no intended Covenant to process anything, but just an exercise in keeping people on board to a point of exhaustion - it is towards nothing at all.

In the same way, not all appears to be as it seems regarding Rome's latest finger into the Anglican pie. Whilst there might be initial annoyance, the Pope has put a spring into the Anglican step. He has annoyed mostly his own bishops and clergy. The Romanish Anglicans now have their galleon to sail away on, and the some of the most awkward of the Anglican awkward squad will be gone or utterly weakened, allowing for clearer decisions on women in ministry in the Church of England. Plus the Pope could well weaken GAFCON/ FCA significantly given its unprincipled alliance of extreme Protestants and extreme Catholics, as the latter shave off. So this also weakens the extreme Protestants, for whom the Catholics were more ballast along with the Africans. The extreme Protestants want to be both in and out, but in the end will face frustration in this never ending long game that goes nowhere. If they want their idea of renewal, they'll have to become independent. Bye bye to them too.

Do we believe it? Is it as devious as this? It could be that behind all the convoluted intellectualism is a kind of laughter of institutional politics that is the real game, and that the visible game is not the game being played.

I hear this explanation, but I don't believe it. It might be what happens, but it isn't the intention. I really do think Williams wants the Covenant, to impose it; it's just that he won't get it because the mother Church cannot have it legally. I really do think that a minority is being sacrificed for this end. There is no ethical basis to any of this.

More than this, there is no ethical basis up front or devious. If devious, it is too risky for people's lives for them to be included eventually. If not devious, there is the burning smell of sacrifice - not self sacrifice via service, but the sacrifice of others for convenience and for the worst of bureaucratic religious motives.

It is hugely disturbing and wrong. The silence is deafening and these institutional leaders will pay for this error in lost credibility. They are out of touch and colluding in cruelty.

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.

Advertising Space